Devotional language in the Acts of Paul and the Canonical Acts

Schneemelcher (NTA rev. ed, 2. ) and Rordorf have suggested that edificatory or devotional language explains many of the verbal commonalities between the canonical Acts and the ActPl.  Julian Hill’s takes that to task in his article, “The Acts of Paul And the Legacy of the Lukan Acts”, in Semeia 80 (1997):

So where does this liturgical language come from? And herein lies the trap I spoke of. If I judge that it comes from Acts, by the standard set in Rordorf’s remarks quoted above I might be guilty of relying too much on the accident of manuscript survival (see further on “Rare expression” below). But if I conclude that it comes from a more general devotional tradition, even from actual liturgies or catechetical materials, then I have to imagine that every example quoted here must be explained by this chain of events: first, that some prior tradition (exemplified in what we may call text or tradition “A,” no longer extant) had already brought together the word(s) that appear in Acts (=text “B”); second, that this new text (=Luke’s Acts) simply copied (rather than newly created) exactly (or almost so) this combination of words, which thus became part of the text of the NT only incidentally-by direct borrowing from the earlier text or tradition “A”; and third, that yet another work or tradition (=text “C”: here, the quoted liturgies; later in this essay, the Acts of Paul) owes its language not to Luke’s Acts but to that earlier text or tradition “A.”

All of this is of course historically possible. But methodologically it is prejudicial—perhaps little more than an assertion so framed as to be invulnerable to critique.

Hills goes on to suggest that language  such θεὲ καρδιογνῶστα (ActPl III, 24; Acts 1.24), τὰ μεγαλεῖα τοῦ θεοῦ (ActPl III, 18; Acts 2.11), and ἐκ καρποῦ τῆς ὀσφύος (ActPl XIII, 5; Acts 20.30), must be explained by literary borrowing and not oral dependence on a common stock of devotional language.  His analysis is problematic; I would almost suggest that his view is post-Gutenberg, practically assuming that all the early Christians must have a NT sitting in front of them.

The sources for “devotional language”, catechesis, preaching, hymns, liturgy, and the Greek scriptures (LXX) must be taken very seriously. While few hymns from the ancient church are available, they probably exerted an enormous influence on the language of Christians.  Perhaps today, studies of mother-tongue hymnology and its affect on the indigenous churches of Africa, for example, the church in Sudan or among the Bayaka (see Dan Duke, “Aka Tape Impact“), would be more illustrative of the profound affect that hymns would have had in the early church.  Exact phrases and sentences would have been easily committed to memory and could be repeated in conversation or in a writing like the ActPl.

I would like to draw an analogy from my own early Christian experience with Pentecostals.  It is no exagerration to say that Pentecostals have a peculiar way of speaking, a “devotional” language.  The sources of this language are the Bible, hymns, liturgy (though they admit to none), and preaching–it is remarkable how much in the 1970-80s pentecostal preachers sounded the same; they used the same catch phrases and elocution; it was an affectation that I found embarrassing at first.  But in America, the way that most people learned to speak this devotional language was through church services and contacts with Christian people, not through the reading and imitation of literary documents (with the possible exception of the Bible).  But then, amongst such Christians, there are phrases, no less impressive than Hill’s examples in Acts and the ActPl, and these are borne from church to church through oral means.  This is true of evangelical piety in general:  Consider:  “Get right or get left.”  It means that you must become a Christian (“get right”) or that you or be left behind at the Rapture.  “A personal relationship with Jesus Christ” is a phrase not found in the Bible, but all Pentecostals and Evangelicals in English-speaking world have heard it thousands of times.  In such a milieu, it would be difficult to assign dependence on a literary text when an isolated phrase is used like the example that Hills provides:  “in whom it is necessary to be saved”.  Speaking of “The Special Language of Pentecostalism”, Elaine J. Lawless writes:

Folk groups and subcultures often develop a specialized language understood only by the members of the group, a language that must be learned as a new member becomes assimilated into the group and that, when artfully and correctly employed, will signify membership to others in the group. Specialized language serves further to mark the group to outsiders, to delineate boundaries that keep groups distinct, and to intensify group cohesion and solidarity.  A special language must be close enough to the mother language to make sense to the members of the group and simple enough for the novice to pick up fairly quickly.  No tome is set aside for the teaching of this specialized language, but its constant and repetitive use in the verbal messages of the group members serves to teach the newcomer what the words mean and where and how it is appropriate to employ them. Converts to Pentecostalism are expected to participate fully in church services immediately upon their conversion and tongue-speaking experience; hence, acquisition of the language quickly follows initiation.

The community of the ActPl, like 20 and 21th century Pentecostalism, was a subculture.  But the effect of orality, a special language of the early Christians, would have been far more profound in the pre-Guttenberg galaxy.  It would not be unusual for teachings like the beatitudes to be committed to memory, and for Christians to cite it not as from the Gospel of Matthew but as from oral tradition.  Thus, it is with due caution that I would conclude that Matthew was probably known, as also a certain Pauline corpus of letters.  But mere snippets or phrases are no proof whatsoever of an intertextual relationship, particularly in a culture which depended so heavily on orality.  Pre-Guttenberg also means that books generally were costly and it is not certain that a parish priest like the alleged writer of the AP, would have every book of the New Testament, which was still in formation, or even a copy of the entire Old Testament (cf. Gounelle).  These are assumptions that just can’t be made for this period.  But we can be sure, that through common liturgies, preaching, catechesis, hymns, and everyday Christian conversation, the early Christians spoke a language which was common to them and unique to the rest of the world.  Such common phrases, such as can be found between the canonical Acts, ActPl, 1-2 Clement, epistles of Ignatius and Polycarp, Shepherd of Hermas and others should probably be attributed to this common devotional language and not to literary borrowing.


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