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The Ambiguous Oracle: Narrative Configuration in Acts

  • Alan Bale (a1)

This paper outlines the way in which a plot-device, which for the sake of convenience we shall call the ‘ambiguous oracle’ in Acts 1.6–8, controls and influences the narrative, creating coherence and enabling interpretation. The paper begins by looking at the current interpretation of the verses, and argues that it is not sufficient to explain the narrative configuration at various points, before going on to suggest an alternative interpretation, in which the misinterpretation of the oracle by the Apostles leads to the fulfillment of the Divine will. This interpretation finds strong support in literature contemporary to Acts.

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1 See, for example, Parsons Mikeal Carl, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008) 20.

2 Tannehill Robert C., The Narrative Unity of Luke–Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Vol. 2. The Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994) 15.

3 Tannehill, Narrative Unity, 2.3.

4 Pervo Richard I., Acts: A Commentary (ed. Attridge Harold W.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2009) 41.

5 1.6. This translation: Longus and Xenophon of Ephesus, Daphnis and Chloe, Anthia and Habrocomes (ed. and trans. Henderson Jeffrey; LCL 69; London: Harvard University, 2009) 227.

6 Chance J. Bradley, ‘Divine Prognostications and the Movement of Story: An Intertextual Exploration of Xenophon's Ephesian Tale and the Acts of the Apostles’, Ancient Fiction and Early Christian Narrative (ed. Hock Ronald F., Chance J. Bradley, and Perkins Judith; SBLSymS; Atlanta: Scholars, 1998) 222.

7 Chance, ‘Divine Prognostications’, 234.

8 The issue is vastly complicated, and has vexed literary theorists for some time. Walsh Richard, The Rhetoric of Fictionality: Narrative Theory and the Idea of Fiction (Columbus: Ohio State University, 2007), represents a recent and very solid approach to the problem; Sternberg Meir, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University, 1985) 2335, provides a very fruitful discussion focusing on the specifically biblical elements; Pihlainen Kalle, ‘The Moral of the Historical Story: Textual Differences in Fact and Fiction’, New Literary History 33.1 (2002) 3960, makes some important general observations but admits they would not suffice for a strict distinction; Bonz Marianne Palmer, The Past as Legacy: Luke–Acts and Ancient Epic (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000) 1525, underlines the importance of truth claims made by the Epic genre; Rothschild Clare K., Luke–Acts and the Rhetoric of History: An Investigation of Early Christian Historiography (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2004) 123, argues for an understanding that allows Acts to be classified among the Greek historians.

9 Aune David Edward, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983) 52.

10 Fontenrose Joseph Eddy, The Delphic Oracle, its Responses and Operations, with a Catalogue of Responses (Berkeley: University of California, 1978).

11 Over 130 uses in the LXX and BGT, of which about 17 are imperfect, 60 aorist, and the rest are participles or simple future.

12 13 uses: Matt 15.23; 16.13; Mark 4.10; 7.26; 8.5; Luke 7.3; John 4.31, 40, 47; 9.15; 12.21; Acts 1.6; 3.3; 16.39. Of which only two are arguably better translated in the simple sense—Matt 16.13 and Mark 8.5. Of these two, only the latter seems to have an insuperable case for being translated in a manner that does not imply the iterative sense.

13 Luke: 4.38; 5.3; 7.3; 8.37; 9.45; 11.37; 14.18, 19, 32; 16.27; 19.31; 20.3; 22.68; 23.3; Acts 1.6; 3.3; 10.48; 16.39; 18.20; 23.18, 20.

14 Tannehill, Narrative Unity, 2.11.

15 Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, 28; Haenchen Ernst, The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971) 144; Parsons, Acts, 28.

16 Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, 269.

17 Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle, 437–8, lists more than 60 out of about 425. There are no ambiguous responses in historical oracles (75 according to his criteria, which we will discuss later).

18 See, for example, Rabinowitz Peter J., Before Reading: Narrative Conventions and the Politics of Interpretation (Columbus: Ohio State University, 1998) 116–17.

19 While I do not wish to go into speculative arguments on whether the Samarians were considered to be Gentiles or not, Montgomery James Alan, The Samaritans: The Earliest Jewish Sect—Their History, Theology, and Literature (New York: Ktav, 1968) 154–64, especially 156–7, provides an interesting survey of the evidence. Reading between the lines of Josephus, he argues persuasively that the relationship was unique.

20 Krodel Gerhard A˙., Acts (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1986) 77; Gilbert Gary, ‘The List of Nations in Acts 2: Roman Propaganda and the Lukan Response’, JBL 121.3 (2002) 507.

21 Wills Lawrence M., ‘The Depiction of the Jews in Acts’, JBL 110.4 (1991) 639.

22 Wills, ‘The Depiction of the Jews in Acts’, 643–4.

23 Wills, ‘The Depiction of the Jews in Acts’, 649.

24 Wills, ‘The Depiction of the Jews in Acts’, 640–3.

25 Moessner , ‘“The Christ Must Suffer”: New Light on the Jesus–Peter, Stephen, Paul Parallels in Luke–Acts’, NovT 28.3 (1986) 225–6, citing Steck O. H., Israel und das gewaltsame Geschick der Propheten (WMANT 23; Neukirchen–Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1967) 6080.

26 A technique that is employed in the OT, and which Robert Alter calls ‘the art of reticence’. See Alter Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981) 114–30.

27 See for example, Bonz, The Past as Legacy, 21, 190.

28 Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, 680.

29 Dibelius Martin, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (ed. Greeven H.; London: SCM, 1956) 150.

30 Tannehill, Narrative Unity, 2.350.

31 Tannehill, Narrative Unity, 2.350.

32 1.53.

33 Laius is punished for the rape of Chrysippus, while Croesus is being punished on behalf of Gyges, his ancestor, for stealing the Lydian throne.

34 Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle, 68; Thomas Rosalind, Oral Tradition and Written Record in Classical Athens (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1991) 272–81.

35 Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle, 68. Apollodorus 2.8.2.

36 Fontenrose, The Delphic Oracle, 67, 337. Diodorus Siculus 16.91.2.

37 See Niehoff Maren R., ‘Two Examples of Josephus' Narrative Technique in His “Rewritten Bible”’, JSJ 27.1 (1996) 35, for other examples of this in Josephus. Niehoff argues that Josephus alleviates tension surrounding God's action as part of a rhetoric that depicts God as consistently righteous.

38 1.18–19. This translation: Heliodorus of Emesa, Ethiopian Story (trans. Lamb Walter; New York: Dutton, 1961) 1920.

39 1.3. This translation: Tatius Achilles, Leucippe and Clitophon (trans. Whitmarsh Tim.; Oxford: Oxford University, 2003) 6.

40 Morales Helen, Vision and Narrative in Achilles Tatius' Leucippe and Clitophon (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 2004) 37–8.

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New Testament Studies
  • ISSN: 0028-6885
  • EISSN: 1469-8145
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