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ISSN 0045-0308

BOOK REVIEW  Published in Volume 51, 2003

M. P. Bonz, The Past as Legacy. Luke-Acts and Ancient Epic (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000). Pp. x + 230. Paper. $US 19.00

Marianne Palmer Bonz rightly recognizes that “genre is fundamental to interpretation” (p. 183). Rather than classifying Luke and Acts as “historiography, biography, or romance”, she proposes that “Luke-Acts was composed as a foundational epic for the newly emerging Christian communities of the Greco-Roman world” (p. 29). And she prefers to think of Luke-Acts as “originally a unity, which very early in its transmission was split in half” (p. 153).

Within the introductory first chapter, the purpose both of ancient epic in general and of Luke-Acts in particular is characterized as “the divinely initiated and directed fulfillment of a universal human destiny” (p. 17). Ch. 2 briefly surveys Hellenistic epic before giving “an extensive analysis of the Aeneid” of Vergil (d. 19 BCE), with special emphasis on the programmatic Book 1. Latin epics of the first century CE, written in the shadow of the Aeneid, are treated in ch. 3. This chapter ends by suggesting that an urban Graeco-Roman Christian might have been provoked by Domitian’s propaganda to compose a Christian salvation history in competition with recent Roman epics (p. 86). The core of ch. 4 focuses on Acts 2 as the “narrative center” of Luke-Acts. Bonz sees intentional ambiguity in biblical motifs which Luke uses in Acts 2:1–13, a technique “typical of Greco-Roman epic” (p. 104). The function of the catalogue of nations in Acts 2:9–11 is compared to that of Aen. 8.722-728 (pp. 108–9). Peter’s speech (see Acts 2:14–41) is concerned with “the reconstitution of the people as the eschatological fulfillment of the divine plan” and “affords the most significant agreement between Virgil’s presentation and Luke’s” (pp. 110–111). The creation of this new people is compared to the Trojan “remnant” from which, according to the Aeneid, the new Roman community was formed (p. 128).

The last and longest chapter surveys Luke-Acts in the light of the discussion so far. After the prologue (Luke 1:1–4) and “extended prologue” (Luke 1–2), Bonz divides Luke-Acts into four main parts: Luke 3–12 (“Inauguration of the Mission and Initial Opposition”), Luke 13–24 (“The Judgment of Jerusalem”), Acts 1–15 (“Continuation of the Mission by the Twelve” and Acts 16–28 (“The Witnessing of Paul and the Successful Advancement of the Mission”). After emphasizing “the importance of genre to interpretation”, the chapter finally outlines the themes and techniques of Luke-Acts which are seen as comparable to those of Graeco-Roman epic in general and the Aeneid in particular.

As Bonz is aware, there is a range of scholarly views both concerning Roman epic and concerning Luke and Acts. In view of this variety, her separate discussions of the Aeneid and of Luke-Acts are reasonable. But the fundamental issue of the book is the comparative treatment of genre. The genre of the Aeneid is uncontested. Opinions differ concerning Luke, or Acts, or Luke-Acts. Bonz claims epic characteristics for Luke-Acts. But the Aeneid is not an account of “a divinely willed mission to proclaim the kingdom of God”, even if it is partly concerned “to establish the composition of its chosen people” (p. 190). The “extensive use of parallelism” and “a programmatic reliance on … ambiguity and reversal” may be less prominent in the Aeneid and Luke-Acts than Bonz suggests (p. 190; cf. Bonz’s own criticism, that “many of Talbert’s parallelisms are rather forced”(p. 7, n. 28). The alternative “bipartite or tripartite” division of the twelve Books of the Aeneid is a commonplace of Vergilian scholarship. But an alternative tripartite division of Luke-Acts (Luke 1–19A, Luke 19B–Acts 7, Acts 8–28) is inappropriate.

Bonz finds an analogous “prelude to calamity” in the plague of Iliad 1, the storm of Aeneid 1, and the rejection of Jesus at Nazareth in Luke 4. But the Lucan event is quite different to the natural disasters of Iliad and Aeneid. And an opening “prelude to calamity” is not limited to epic. The prologue of many a tragedy provides just such a prelude. And in historiography, the first episode of the “narrative proper” (Bonz’s term, p. 190) in Thucydides’s history has this function (Th. 1.24–30; cf. the end of the introductory survey, Th. 1.23). Even if it is acknowledged that Luke created “vivid narrative tableaux that serve as dramatic preludes to the enactment of future events”, it is a further question whether Luke was “inspired by” Vergil (p. 191). Bonz sees Luke’s “allusions to the Septuagint” as similar to Vergil’s Homeric allusions. But literary allusion occurs in ancient genres other than epic. And it is too much to claim that Luke aims to “appropriate the authority of Israel’s scriptures for the Christian church and for it alone” (p. 191). The “fulfillment of divine prophecy and the accomplishment of a divine plan” may be common components of Luke-Acts and “heroic epic” (p. 191; cf. ch. 1). But that need not mean that Luke drew his “inspiration” from epic, rather than from the Septuagint and its contemporary interpretation. Acknowledging a negative strand in the prophecies of the Aeneid, Bonz suggests that early prophecies in Luke concerning “the true identity and composition of the eschatological Israel” are “misleadingly” expressed and will be “illusory” for many Jews (p. 192). Elsewhere Bonz also places too much emphasis on rejection of the Jews and a turn to the Gentiles in Luke-Acts; the term “misleading(ly)” recurs (pp. 156, 180), “Acts begins on a falsely encouraging note” (p. 156), and Paul uses “dismissive words” concerning non-Christian Jews (p. 157). But if Luke is maintaining a missionary approach to (diaspora) Jews, this alleged negativity evaporates. Besides prophecy, other forms of divine guidance in the Aeneid and Luke-Acts include supernatural beings, visions, omens and oracles (p. 192). However, such elements are reported not only in epic but in Greek and Roman tragedy, comedy, lyric and elegiac poetry, and historiography. The Trojan remnant and the Jewish nucleus of Christianity (pp. 192–193, cf. 128) do not form a close parallel; there is nothing like the prominent issue of mission to Jews and Gentiles in the Aeneid.

Bonz herself acknowledges some respects in which Luke-Acts is not comparable with the Aeneid. Luke-Acts lacks “poetic form” and includes “minor literary elements primarily characteristic of other literary genres”, especially “the genealogy of Luke 3 and the healing miracles throughout” (p. 190). (Healings actually are narrated at Iliad 4.188–219; 11.804–849.) And, although Bonz compares the “catalogue of heroes” in Aen. 6.756–886 with the “catalogue of nations” in Acts 2:9–11, she acknowledges that there is “little resemblance … in scale or in content” (p. 107). Indeed, in Luke’s time the form of a Greek or Roman epic was a lengthy poem in dactylic hexameter verse, comprising multiple Books of several hundred lines each. Bonz’s terminology for Luke-Acts gradually changes: “foundational epic” (p. 29), “prose epic” (pp. 39, 130), “prose adaptation of heroic epic” (p. 190). She assumes that the Aeneid would be well known among “moderately cultivated inhabitants of the empire” (p. 64); and that Greek speakers, including Luke, would probably know the Aeneid through the lost Greek translation (presumably in prose) made by Polybius in the reign of Claudius (pp. 24–25, 29, 39, 64, 190).

In view of the range of views on the genre of Luke and Acts, it is worth investigating the possible influence of epic. But too much hangs on the term “adaptation” (p. 190). Any influence of the Aeneid on Luke seems not to have been “profound” (p. 39). The gospel of Luke looks more like an ancient biography. And the Acts of the Apostles looks more like an ancient historical monograph.

There are a few misprints in English, Greek and German. There is no topical index and no index of modern authors. The bibliography could have included C. J. Mackie’s The Characterisation of Aeneas (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1988).

Review by
Darryl W. Palmer
Centre for Archaeology & Classics
The University of Melbourne