Oral tradition units and the Acts of Paul

I am currently writing an article on the New Testament in the Acts of Paul. Therefore, I’ve been thinking about the nature of the traditions that are found in the AP.  Several scholars have assumed that the author AP knew and adapted the canonical Acts (e.g., R. Pervo [JHC 2 (1995) 3-32], R. Bauckham [“The Acts of Paul as a Sequel to Acts”] , later D. R. MacDonald [Legend and Apostle argued for oral tradition], D. Marguerat; see Semeia 80; 1994 SBL Seminar Papers). I am formulating a view that oral tradition is a better way of explaining the relation between Acts and the AP. But it is also necessary to take a stance on oral tradition in coming to grips with the nature of the composition of the AP generally. That is, if it is primarily an ancient novel, oral tradition would play a secondary role to literary considerations. Thus, J. Barrier is able to doubt the historical existence of Thecla (perhaps this point is unfair and Jeremy would care to correct it).

F. Bovon, followed by Barrier, have suggested that the closest parallel generically to the AP are the gospels. If this is the case, then we have a possibility of explaining not only its composition, but also the historiographical principles brought to bear in its composition.  What is the nature of the composition of the AP? Papias, who was likely a contemporary of the author of the AP, describes what may have been a common view of the gospels in his time (Lightfoot-Harmer, frag. 3.10):

Mark, having become the interpreter of Peter, wrote down accurately everything that he remembered, without however recording in order what was either said or done by Christ. For neither did he hear the Lord, nor did he follow Him; but afterwards, as I said, (attended) Peter, who adapted his instructions to the needs (of his hearers) but had no design of giving a connected account of the Lord’s oracles. So then Mark made no mistake, while he thus wrote down some things as he remembered them; for he made it his one care not to omit anything that he heard, or to set down any false statement therein.

I assume and Papias supports that the gospels were a selection, an arrangement, and an adaptation of Jesus tradition units which circulated orally, serving the catechesis of the primitive church. The tradition units appear within a basic chronology–Jesus’ birth, baptism, mission, passion, resurrection–but the gospel writers had freedom to arrange them without strict regard to chronology, geography or other historical details. In the AP, this basic chronology becomes Paul’s conversion and first Communion (told in a restrospective narrative), call to mission (AP I), his mission and voyages , his martyrdom and post-mortem appearance.  Apart from this basic chronology, the author of the AP appears to have selected, arranged and adapted Pauline traditional material which was available to him in oral and written form (e.g., 3 Cor, certain other pauline epistles, AP III, 5-6 (possibly) and probably not the canonical Acts).

In the case of the gospels, there is sufficient traditional stuff in our four gospels and some apocryphal gospels to support the above scenario.  By comparison, the AP has less material, but I think sufficient to formulate a premise, if the reader will permit me to use the principle of working from the known to the unknown.  For within the AP, there is evidence of oral tradition in the doublet in the Thecla tradition (AP III, IV):  in the two stories Thecla rejects a male suitor who consequently denounces her, she is condemned by a governor but saved miraculously by divine intervention; the two stories are so much alike that it is possible to consider it a doublet.  I hypothesize that the author found these two traditions, one associated with the city of Iconium and the other with Antioch of Pisidia–local legends about Thecla and her bravery in the face of persecution for her Christian faith.  He then recorded both in his narrative.  This would be analogous to the doublet of the feeding of the 5000 (4000) in Mark 6.35-44 and 8.1-9; and reaching further back, the “triplet” of Abraham and Sarah/Isaac and Rebekah (Gen. 12.10-13; 20:1-18; 26:6-10).

Based on this analogy, we can see different kinds of variation in an oral tradition unit, while the main story remains the same:

(1) A change of geography:  where the story takes place (AP III = Iconium; AP IV = Antioch)

(2) A change of chronology:  when the story happens in relation to other events:  AP III happens immediately following Thecla’s conversion.

(3) Changes in the related characters:  e.g., Thamyris, Theocleia (AP III); Alexander, Tryphaena (AP IV).

(4) Changes in events and details (AP III, Thecla is burnt at the stake; IV she is thrown to the beasts)

If we apply this same criticism to the story of Eutychus (Acts 20) and Patroclus (AP XIV) we are confronted with a similar kind of tradition unit:  the story in its main points is the same:  Paul is teaching and a young man sitting at a window falls to his death.  Paul prayers for him and he is healed.  The same kind of variation takes place:

(1) Geographical: Acts (Troas); AP (Rome)

(2) Chronological:  Acts (during Paul’s travels associated with his mission); AP (at the time of his passion)

(3) Changes in related characters: Acts (Eutychus); AP (Patroclus)

(4) Changes in events and details:  Acts (Eutychus falls asleep); AP (Patroclus falls by instigation of the devil).

These are classic variations in traditions units caused by the fluidity of oral tradition.

But I want to make one more point which would explain the composition of the AP in terms familiar to gospel criticism.  In the creation of coherent narrative, the author of the AP brings together tradition units which were not necessarily otherwise related.  So for example, there are a number of persons besides Paul whose existence is known outside of the AP:  e.g., Tryphaena, known to be a kinswoman of Caesar Claudius and a Queen of Pontus; and Justus Barsabbas.  Also, it was probably historically true that Paul died by beheading under Nero–at least it was an oral tradition that the author received that can be elsewhere verified.  Now, the interesting thing is that the Thecla unit comes together with the Tryphaena tradition.  The Eutychus/Patroclus tradition comes together with martyrdom of Paul, as well as the historical personage of Justus Barsabas.  This to me shows a kind of conflation of tradition units which would have been transmitted for a time before being brought together with other traditions.  Conflation of traditions like this indicates a later date.  The Book of Acts relays the tradition of Eutychus unrelated to any other significant event in Paul’s life.  It must therefore be an earlier account than the AP’s Patroclus story which is conflated with the story of Paul’s martyrdom–it is a more complex and secondary accretion in the tradition.  Whether this conflation occurs at the time of writing or in the oral tradition, I am unable to tell.

Another observation regarding oral tradition is that in the manner of Jewish haggadah, exegetical narratives could arise which explained obscure details in Scripture.  So I agree with Bauckham’s suggestion that some of the stories in the AP could be narrative explanations of tantalizing passages in the Pauline epistles; for example, as the story of the lion arose in the oral tradition to explain 2 Tim 4.17.

Finally, I want just to draw some conclusions to which I think that these observations could lead:  (1) Many other stories in the AP could also be understood as transmitting oral tradition, e.g., the Ephesian episode (AP IX); (2) as a writer in antiquity with the model of the gospels, the author committed no obvious historiographical sin (at least by the standards of his age, cf. Papias frag. 3.10) in composing a story in this manner of weaving together oral traditions into a coherent narative.  (3) The way in which 3 Cor is weaved into his narrative is also analogous to what I am suggesting about oral traditions; this is an example of a written source being used, and it is possible to argue that other pre-existing written sources also make an appearance elsewhere, such as AP III, 5-6.


2 Responses to Oral tradition units and the Acts of Paul

  1. […] the Bible and the Inerrancy Debate In Acta Pauli, I have written a post called “Oral tradition units and the Acts of Paul“.  We have not yet discussed the question of biblical inerrancy on this blog, but I have now […]

  2. […] the Acts of Paul and other apocryphal acts and the Acts of the Apostles is, in my view, evidence of oral tradition units that the author used to create his narrative, not from thin air or from the pillaging other acts, […]

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