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A little Colin Hemer to brighten your day

Just today I ran across this wonderful quotation from Colin Hemer in his discussion of the "we" passages in Acts:

Further, it would seem Luke's experience [of the voyage] was not that of expert nautical knowledge. The documents confirm the impression of a careful observer recording what happened, describing in layman's terms the measures taken by the crew for the ship's safety, without necessarily understanding the rationale of theif actions, except as he made it his business to ask for information. He appreciated their obsessive fear of the Syrtes, the obvious peril of being driven on a rocky lee-shore. He is not explicit about the peril of the ship breaking up at sea before they could reach the neighbourhood of land at all, but this fear is evident in the undergirding at the earliest possibility at Cauda and probably implicit in the unspecified desperation of Acts 27:20, when their ignorance of their position combined with the realization that the ship was at the point of breaking and foundering at sea. They were probably well enough able to estimate their likely line of drift, to conclude that they had already missed their only likely salvation in a landfall on Sicily. But matters like these are not stressed interpretively by Luke. They are implicit in his account of the scene, and yet also fruitful in the light they shed on the explanation of other details. In a similar way, the cumulative indications of the use of Latin or hybrid nautical terms corroborate the likelihood, at first unexpected in a ship of Greek Alexandria, that the seamen's speech was mainly Latin, and that Luke had a Latin-speaking informant or informants. Yet this in turn is the more easily explicable in a ship of the imperial service which may have numbered many Italians, and some Romans on official business, among its ship's company. The actual soundings, too, of the course of a ship approaching St. Paul's Bay in Malta from the east suit the precise locations where, according to Smith, they must first have become aware of the coastal surf and then of the rocks ahead.

The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, p. 332.

The "Smith" to whom Hemer alludes is James Smith of Jordanhill, whose The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul provide astonishingly detailed corroboration of the accuracy of Acts.

Having already heard of Smith's work, I was to some degree familiar with the evidence in the early part of this paragraph, but the bit about Latin or hybrid (presumably hybrid Latin-Greek) nautical terms was new to me. It was when I reached that point in the paragraph that I decided to copy it out and draw attention to it. Of course, the very terms of the passage imply that Luke and Paul would have had Italian soldiers with them, since Paul was a prisoner and was being taken to Rome.

This sort of evidence needs to be widely disseminated. When one begins to realize the massive evidence supporting the conclusion that the author of Acts was a personal companion of the Apostle Paul, the wheels should start to turn. The same person who wrote Acts is acknowledged even by liberal New Testament scholars to have written Luke. But if it turns out that that person was a careful historian and a companion of the Apostle Paul, what does that tell us about Luke? And what does it tell us about the early chapters of Acts itself, which support and indeed presuppose the resurrection of Jesus and which tell us what the disciples preached within two months of Jesus' crucifixion? At a minimum, it supports the conclusion that they are not a "late source." Indeed, if the creed in I Corinthians 15 can be regarded as an "early source" because it was plausibly taught to the Apostle Paul shortly after his conversion, even though the epistle itself was not written until approximately a couple of decades later, then the speech of Peter reported in Acts 2 could on somewhat similar grounds be regarded as the earliest apostolic teaching about Jesus' resurrection, even though the Book of Acts was not written until about three decades later.

This passage from Hemer, with its piling of detail upon detail, builds up a cumulative case that should give any skeptic pause.

The Book of Acts is an historical rock upon which the ship of skepticism founders.


Comments (5)

That's comforting to read, as I had always regarded Luke as the most unreliable of the New Testament authors, due to his fairly obvious embellishment of the birth of Christ (his Roman audience expected this) and a portrait of Paul that is not at all consistent with the man we see in Paul's own letters.

Wrong on both counts. In fact, the dovetailing with the letters of Paul is detailed, subtle, and multifaceted. The birth narrative shows some signs of having been translated from a Semitic original. Its Jewish stamp is manifest and striking, and the switch to Luke's more usual manner at Luke 3:1 is almost abrupt. So strong and, in a sense, narrow is the preoccupation of the early chapters of Luke with pre-Christian Jewish themes that they actually attest to Luke's *reliability* in that he refused to embellish or alter his source. If you want to accuse someone of "embellishing," perhaps you should accuse Mary or her relatives, who were probably Luke's source for the conception and birth portions of his gospel. (Not that I would recommend that, either.)

That's fascinating Lydia, these details in the birth narratives. What is you're source for these findings?

The linguistic question of translation is contested both ways, Joost. A.T. Robertson discusses the matter here on p. 65.


Donald Guthrie, _The Gospels and ACts_, surveys the literature on the question on pp. 164ff.

The "archaic style" of the passages appears to be sufficiently widely acknowledged that those who deny a Semitic source sometimes actually hypothesize that Luke feigned an archaic style for literary reasons.

Aside from the strictly linguistic question of a semitic source that Luke translated, the pre-Christian Hebrew preoccupations and atmosphere (and to some extent the style) are evident in any good English translation, either KJV or modern. For example, notice that the angel prophesies to Mary that her coming child will be great and that the Lord will give to him the throne of David and that he will reign. Any Christian writer (including the author of the gospel!) knew that no earthly kingdom was established and that the apostles were using Isaiah 53 and the suffering Messiah as an argument that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of David. But nothing of this is put into the mouth of the angel. It would have been so easy to have the angel say something about the baby as the suffering Messiah, but Luke does not. The same earthly Messianic emphasis is evident in the Song of Zechariah. As it is, Luke risks a loss to Jewish evangelism from those who argue that even the prophecies the Christians themselves attribute to the angel at Jesus' conception (of his reigning, etc.) were not fulfilled and hence that Jesus is not the true Messiah. This argues strongly his care in using his source (whether oral or written) for his information about the prophecies and songs surrounding Jesus' birth and his unwillingness to alter it.

These early chapters are also strongly preoccupied with pre-70 Judaic activities and concerns--the rotation of the priests, the hope of the Messiah, the sacrifice system in the Temple and the rituals for purification, including the prescribed sacrifice for Joseph and Mary, holy people living in the Temple (Anna and Simeon), the teachers of the Law of Moses meeting and debating in the Temple, the trips of the family to Jerusalem for the feasts. All of this is, as it were, crammed into these early chapters in a way that is highly realistic in relation to the question, "What would it really have been like to be Joseph and Mary?"

For those interested in connections between Acts and the Pauline epistles, I highly recommend Paley's Horae Paulinae. I have a post here about just one of the connections between the epistles and Acts, and there I also link to a series of posts by my husband on the same topic.


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