From my bookshelf. Gasque, A History of the Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles

I’ve decided to highlight books I’ve read or am reading that should be of interest to students of the New Testament. These books range from conservative, to skeptical, to radical, or may be neutral with respect to the New Testament but relevant to it (i.e., classical and post-classical history, language resources, works of philosophy, etc.).

W. Ward Gasque, A History of the Interpretation of The Acts of the Apostles. Wipf & Stock, 1989.

This book is a second, updated, edition of W. Ward Gasque’s published PhD dissertation under F. F. Bruce at the University of Manchester. That study was completed in 1969, and the first edition was published with Mohr Siebeck in 1975 as A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles. The updates include sections on more recent research, updated notes, and an appendix republishing a literature survey that Gasque had published in 1988 (entitled “A Fruitful Field: Recent Study of the Acts of the Apostles,” in Interpretation issue 42). Gasque—who died in 2020—was an interesting New Testament scholar because his academic theses (MA and PhD) were both works of intellectual history (one on Sir William Ramsay, one on the history of Acts research); he did publish and edit other works and had a teaching career, but I find this interesting.

Gasque is on the maximalist side of the spectrum in terms of the quantity and quality of the historical data that he thinks can be gleaned from the New Testament concerning not only the persons it presents but the world of the time (the latter, in particular with the Acts of the Apostles).[1] In the history of criticism, this position is usually (but not always) the one that enjoys the most exacting historical research, as Gasque shows; the point is fairly easy to make.This does not mean it is the most important research, however, as most modern disciplines formed out of modern philosophical concerns, and philosophical questions continue to shape and determine the field in ways perhaps unappreciated at times.


Gasque’s work covers 1. so-called pre-critical study of Acts (this is a misnomer, it is pre-modern, but not pre-critical); 2. Baur and the Tübingen school; 3. Critics of Tübingen; 4. The radical critics (including the Dutch Radicals); 5. German criticism in the late 19th century (a generation or more after Baur, then); 6. British criticism at the same time; 7. German and British work defending Luke as historian (still a forceful presentation); 8. The American scene (Cadbury looms large); 9. A chapter devoted to Martin Dibelius and his legacy (one of the Formgeschichte three,—including Bultmann and Schmidt), and 10. A final chapter on recent (at the time) scholarship (including people like Mattill Jr., Bruce, O’Neill, and others).

Points of Interest

Below are a number of things that stuck out to me when I read this book. Some are trivial (i.e., trivia), some are academic, some are tips for students, etc. In no particular order:

German: the book incidentally serves as an excellent little German reader for those interested in Acts studies and who are studying German. Gasque lived in Germany for a time during his PhD study and has a commendable and inspiring autobiographical statement about the lengths he went to in order to treat the German sources with the proper respect they were due:

My task would have been much easier had I been content to depend, at least to some degree, on secondary sources of information; this, however, I have not done. My method has always been to go to the original sources–to read, and to ponder what I have read. This approach has been extremely time-consuming, as one can imagine; and it has been discouraging to work through several hundred pages of German, time and again, only to discover that nothing new has been said, and then to summarize one’s efforts in a sentence or a footnote, or to leave the book unmentioned! Nevertheless, it has seemed to me that this has been the necessary manner in which to conduct the present investigation.

Gasque, History, 2.

The upshot is that the book has 171 foreign language quotations (ranging from single lines, to half pages) the vast majority of which are German. Each of these is numbered, and an English translation is provided in the back of the book.

A commentary? Gasque mentioned a forthcoming commentary on the Greek text of Acts from his own pen (“to come in 1991” or something like that). That commentary never came. It is unfortunate, because Gasque’s work in the survey makes one wonder what kind of commentary he would have produced, and if or why he thought it would be worth producing after F. F. Bruce’s second edition of his Acts Greek text commentary (which is still an excellent work). Perhaps it was because Bruce produced a third edition of that work in 1990, and the wind (or publishing desire) was taken out of Gasque’s sails? Gasque was one of the original editors of the NIGTC series (a well-known Greek-text commentary series on the New Testament), but no Acts volume has appeared there. While a handbook on the Greek text of Acts has been published (the Baylor handbook), and while there is an exegetical commentary on the Greek text in the EGGNT series, as well as one by Eckhard Schnabel in the Zondervan exegetical series, no major commentary strictly on the Greek text at the level of Bruce’s has been produced. An NIGTC volume could presumably do this, and one wonders if that was Gasque’s own ambition at one time, given his editorship there.

Pre-modern times: Gasque’s chapter on pre-modern criticism is interesting, and gives some insight into the fact that so-called critical historical questions which seem to be present issues have been discussed for centuries (for those still interested in such things—did Luke use Josephus? Is Luke’s picture of Paul accurate? What is the purpose of Acts?). For those interested in the critical study of Acts, the key takeaway is that critical study did not begin with Baur.

William Paley. William Paley, the English philosopher is mentioned in the first chapter, and at a number of paces throughout. This is interesting. Paley’s book, Horae Paulinae, may well be one of the first critical studies of Acts (treating it as the modernist thinkers did: a historical text to be investigated purely as such). The noteworthy thing here is that Paley is channelled in later generations not only by the likes of conservative Brits, but also people like Adolf von Harnack. It raises the question: can a Christian philosopher contribute to critical biblical studies? A diverse selection of scholars seem to have thought so. There may be questions or concerns about this (i.e., what is the discipline of Biblical studies and what is it not? How does this modulate who says what? etc.). I have written brief thoughts myself. What is instructive is that, at times, a diverse collection of people have discussed these ancient texts and those seeking to understand them have looked wherever they can.

Not all higher critics were skeptical of Acts. Maximalists are warm to Acts by induction, or by definition, but sometimes older critical scholars of a German persuasion are assumed to have universally rejected the book as historically wanting; this is not true. As one example, Gasque points out that Matthias Schneckenburger—a student of Baur and of Hegel, and teacher in Tübingen— who shared many of Baur and Hegel’s views but saw Acts as generally reliable (pp. 32–40; Schneckenburger’s work on the purpose of Acts was arrived at independent of Baur, and Baur references this in his own work; Baur, Paulus, Hodgson/Brown eds., xxx). It is historical amnesia to think that with higher criticism came the end of history for Acts. It is simply not the case (at least one Dutch Radical thought the same as Schneckenburger).

Acts and history. Gasque is strongest in his chapter surveying the defense of Luke as a historian, where his maximalist colours fly free (this is no neutral survey of scholarship–Gasque hardly presents it as such). This chapter is still worth reading and still compelling in many places. One offhand comment worth making is that in this chapter (p. 161 n. 83) Gasque recommends an essay by A. T. Olmstead (a leading 20th century historian of antiquity), on the study of ancient history and the study of the Bible. It was only a generation ago that a number of classical scholars who studied Acts, and a number of Acts scholars educated in classics, took a positive view of the work. And only a few generations before that, that most didn’t! Relations between the fields are complex, but this essay was so highly valued by Gasque that he suggests it to be necessary reading for any aspiring New Testament scholar. I’ve attached it here; decide for yourselves its relevance and importance.

Galatians 2.  The relationship between Galatians 2 and Acts 15 has been one of the most significant points in the history of critical interpretation of Acts. Scholars on the skeptical and conservative side of Acts’s historicity have variously agreed and disagreed with each other as to how Galatians 2 should be related to Acts (Acts 11, Acts 15; literary borrowing? Common source? Independent attestation?).

The problems of Tendenzkritik. Baur’s tendency-criticism passed away even while some of his conclusions live on—for various reasons—in some contemporary critical scholarship. One amusing account of the cavalier and speculative attitude such criticism as Tendenzkritik can engender is offered by Gasque:

The danger of this method is illustrated by the story told by C. R. Gregory of Baur’s discussion of a book by Bernard Weiss which appeared in 1855. ‘the most striking thing in the review’ writes Gregory, ‘was the light it threw upon Baur’s way of thinking.’ He applied the method of Tendenzkritik to Weiss’s book and discovered a plan of operation in it. The matter grew more interesting when a view was attributed to Weiss, on the basis of the same principle, which he did not hold. When Weiss replied that he did not subscribe to that particular view, Baur insisted that he did. If Baur was so unable to determine the purpose in the mind of a scholar of his own day, concludes Gregory, he must have been much less able to tell what the writers of the New Testament thought.

Gasque, History, 53

Germany, Britain, America. Someone once said of scholarship (either of theology, or philosophy, or the humanities in general) that an idea is conceived in Germany, corrected in Britain, and corrupted in America. It might be true, but Gasque’s work is a corrective to simple identifications in the history of ideas. While he points out tendencies (Brits tended to be historians and philologists, Germans tended to do philosophy and theology—obviously this is not helpful when encountering people like Harnack and others), he otherwise shows that there were Brits who sided with the literary, philosophical, and skeptical views of Germans, and Germans who sided with the historical-philological and conservative views of many Brits. He also makes the interesting case that folks like Cadbury, and the major American publications (Lake-Jackson, Beginnings of Christianity [Gasque has a good summary of all volumes of this publication in his eighth chapter]) in the 20th century, presented something of a synthesis of German and British views; what remains of their legacy in comparison with the likes of German and British critics is up to the modern reader to decide, but it seems the American critical enterprise has imbibed the spirit of German criticism over its own fore-bearers.

What about other regions? While Gasque makes efforts to not be provincial, he is really only concerned with Western critical interpretation. This is understandable and a natural demarcation (the work is supposed to be a history of the criticism of Acts, as was its original title). Today, there are resources which consider other interpretations from other places in the world, scholars should make attempts to familiarize themselves with these resources—even while there remain a number of natural, interesting, and acceptable sub-demarcations (i.e., history of German criticism, American criticism, etc.).

 A “fruitful field” indeed. The book of Acts is one of the more exciting areas to research in New Testament studies; it is a unique document, it is connected to the Synoptics and to Paul, and it has been very diversely understood by a diverse array of scholars. Gasque’s book is dated as any history necessarily is/will eventually seem to be (it’s about 50 years old for most of its content), but it covers many more areas of interest I did not mention here, and many figures who are important but otherwise forgotten (like Schneckenburger).

More reading? There’s no real update to Gasque yet, but Francois Bovon’s Luke the Theologian (recently released in an updated edition) is probably the best alternative up-to-date resource. There is also the recently released Luke-Acts in Modern Interpretation, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Ron C. Fay. I have this book, and have read a number of the essays; it is excellent and these two resources together with Gasque give a strong guide to research in the last two-hundred years.

[1] Being a student of F. F. Bruce, this is expected of Gasque.

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