Fortress Press

The Book of Acts: Form, Style, and Theology

The Book of Acts

Form, Style, and Theology

Martin Dibelius (Author), K. C. Hanson (Editor)

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This volume brings together some of Dibelius's most important work. While he is especially renowned for his commentaries, Dibelius was on the forefront of literary analysis, the relationship of theology to literary artistry, and the importance of contemporary Greco-Roman history for the analysis of the book of Acts. As an aid to students, each essay has been supplemented with additional notes and bibliography to show where the discussion has continued since Dibelius. This will provide an excellent supplementary textbook for courses on the New Testament or the Bible.

  • Publisher Fortress Press
  • ISBN 9780800636449
  • Format Paperback
  • Pages 256
  • Dimensions 6 x 9
  • Publication Date November 18, 2004


This review was published by RBL ©2005 by the Society of Biblical Literature

— Reviewd by Renate Viveen Hood, LeTourneau University, Longview, TX 75604

Standing on the shoulders of German giants of biblical and theological studies from the beginning of the twentieth century—Hermann Gunkel, Adolf von Harnack, and Johannes Weiss—Martin Dibelius and Rudolph Bultmann adapted the form-critical method to the study of the Gospels. Dibelius published his Die Formgeschichte des Evangeliums in 1919. Eventually, from work in the Synoptics and the Paulines, he ventured into formcritical studies of the Acts of the Apostles. It is of the latter endeavors that this eighth volume of the Fortress Classics in Biblical Studies is representative.

Dibelius was Professor of New Testament at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, well-known for his work in the religionsgeschichtliche Schule. At the height of formcritical thinking, Dibelius wrote the essays published in this book. In these essays, he evaluates the content of Acts literarily rather than historically and as such offered groundbreaking work in New Testament studies. His work in ancient speeches in particular, proposing that Luke could have taken literary liberty for the sake of content delivery, still forms the impetus for ample contemporary scholarly research.

The Book of Acts: Form, Style, and Theology is a compilation of eleven essays arranged into three parts by editor K. C. Hanson. In part 1, "History and Style in Acts," essays are presented in which Dibelius discussed matters of style and content. In addressing Lukan authorship Dibelius focused on the author's literary intention. With a strong affinity for oral tradition and already foreshadowing redaction critical thinking, he discussed the content of Acts in light of the setting of the history of early Christian literature and ancient historiography.

In part 2, "Paul and Peter in the Book of Acts," essays discussing literary turning points in Acts further show Dibelius's masterful form-critical approach to the text. In focusing on literary intent he takes away historical debate regarding narrative foci such as Paul's speech in Athens, the report on the Apostolic Council, and the conversion of Cornelius. Dibelius labeled this a "reverse method; we shall look first at its meaning and then at its historicity and its importance in the book of Acts" (95).

Part 3 consists of one likewise-named essay, "The Text of Acts." Eclectic in his methodologies as Dibelius was, he included a text-critical discussion of manuscripts that, although insipid, was informative and revolutionary for its time. In this essay, Dibelius proposed that Acts is a special kind of text, unlike the Synoptics or the Paulines. However, his work in this essay is fully reliant upon Dibelius's bias, "Acts, however, at that time, existed in only one form — in the 'book trade.' Its text, unlike that of the Gospels, was not read to a community that would have been interested in the preservation of the authentic text" (157—58).

This collection of essays was published in 1956 in a prior edition by SCM Press. This new edition, edited by K. C. Hanson, contains up-to-date notes pertaining to each essay. These notes contain updated footnotes and resourceful and pertinent bibliographies. Some of the essays are somewhat redundant in their content, and hence the editing job is in that regard disappointing, However, the wonderful appendices with bibliographies and listings of German and translated works of Dibelius, along with lists of abbreviations and the like, are the work of an accomplished editor. This volume holds a proud place among the classics and is a must read for the student of Acts and the student of the history of New Testament interpretation.

This review was published by RBL ©2005 by the Society of Biblical Literature

— Reviewed by Craig L. Blomberg, Denver Seminary, Denver, CO 80250

This is the eighth volume to appear to date in the Fortress Classics in Biblical Studies series. The previous seven volumes have edited and brought back into print noteworthy contributions of such leading lights of past generations as A. Schweitzer, H. Gunkel, J. Jeremias, and S. Mowinckel. Dibelius certainly merits inclusion among such "all stars" in the history of modern biblical scholarship.

In his editor's foreword, Hanson gives a brief sketch of Dibelius' life (1883-1947) and significance. He notes that he has edited these excerpts, originally gathered together and translated as Studies in the Acts of the Apostles and published by SCM and Scribner's in 1956, by updating various footnotes and the entire bibliography, using the RSV, clarifying some of Dibelius' ambiguities, adding English translations for Latin and Greek quotes, and rearranging the essays in topical rather than chronological order. They span 1923 to 1951, when the German collection of his works on Acts was posthumously published.

Hanson divides the eleven essays into three main parts. He entitles part 1. "History and Style in Acts." The first three chapters all come from the end of Dibelius' life and substantially overlap with each other in contents. All reflect the heyday of form criticism, analyzing Luke as an editor of bare travel itineraries and brief cores of speeches and other episodes, woven together with rough, visible seams, considerable Lukan expansion, and occasional full-fledged creation. As if few people had ever heard of the notion, Dibelius keeps hammering away at the idea that theological meaning not historical accuracy represented Luke's foremost objective. Before his student Hans Conzelmann made the label of "first Christian historian" popular for Luke, Dibelius had used it, even anticipating some of Conzelmann's redaction-critical overtures. Of course, source criticism was far from jettisoned; Dibelius still speculated about all kinds of possible underlying documents, while "literary criticism" still meant the kind of combination of source, form, and redactional analysis that Dibelius was advocating.

Chapter 4 reverts back to the early 1920s, when Dibelius had not yet decided to support Lukan authorship, and when "Style Criticism of the Book of Acts" primarily involved classifying the literary forms of individual pericopae. Dibelius takes numerous representative episodes from Acts, including a number involving miracles, brackets questions of historicity, and separates "tradition and composition" in hopes of better understanding the purpose of each passage. In the last chapter of part 1 we jump back to 1949 with excerpts from an entire book on the speeches in Acts, again published posthumously. Here we read with a fresh vigor the now commonplace theories of Lukan composition rather than historical reminiscence or extensive use of source material, to bring out what Luke thought speakers should have said in various situations for the sake of the theology he wanted to stress to his audiences as he penned the Acts. The main speeches are analyzed, one by one, with attempts to demonstrate various incongruities for the putative historical situations but excellent theological applications for the latter stages of the first century.

Part 2 turns to Paul and Peter, with three and one-half chapters on the former and one and one-half on the latter. Two very brief offerings on "Paul in the Book of Acts" and "Paul in Athens" sandwich the lengthy "Paul on the Areopagus." Once again the main themes remain very familiar today, even if they were much more pioneering half a century (and more) ago: Paul presents identical defenses irrespective of the audience in his trial speeches, but other addresses differ so much one from another that they can scarcely have all come from the same person, that is, the historical Paul. Acts 17 in particular with its "Mars Hill address" is almost entirely the product of Lukan composition. It is paradigmatic Christian preaching for a Hellenistic audience near the end of the first century, not an authentic utterance, however stylized or abbreviated, of one who focused on the cross to the extent that the Paul of the epistles did (1 Cor 2:2). The distinctions between the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters that Philipp Vielhauer would make famous in the 1950s were stressed by Dibelius as early as 1939; Vielhauer's. "On the Paulinism of Acts," often referred to but not nearly as often read, actually acknowledges its deep indebtedness to Dibelius.

The main point of the short piece on the Apostolic Council is to defend again a literary rather than a historical origin. The references in Acts 15 back to the story of the conversion of Cornelius in chapter 10 could not have been understood by the audience Luke depicts gathered in Jerusalem, only by readers of Acts, or so Dibelius alleges. The "contradictions" with Gal 2 further privilege Paul's autobiographical remarks over against Luke's tendentious history writing. The final, longer chapter on the conversion of Cornelius adopts a similar either-or approach to interpretation. Either the story is about God declaring all foods clean (the underlying source) or about God declaring all people clean (Luke's emphasis). One wonders if it ever occurred to Dibelius that these might be false dichotomies.

The final, third "part" consists of only one chapter. Both part and chapter are identically entitled, "The Text of Acts." This section's three main points involve an appeal to deal with more than just the obvious anomalies of the Western text, a proposal to employ conjectural emendations rather than convoluted exegesis where the text remains insecure, and a rationale for the latter based on the confused state of the existing texts that suggests quite different exemplars going back much earlier than any of the extant texts. Of course, today, only the first of these three points would be widely accepted.

It is hard to know what a reviewer should evaluate when assessing the reprint and slight revision of a fifty-year-old "classic." Obviously, many of Dibelius' methods have been supplanted by other scholarly fashions, just as today's "cutting edge" disciplines will be viewed as outmoded in another half century. The evidence amassed in favor of the historicity of Acts in works such as Colin J. Hemer's magisterial The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (WUNT 49; Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1988), or the five volume anthology edited by Bruce Winter on The Book of Acts in Its First-Century Setting (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993-96) in no way slight or deny the immense theological interest of the author of Acts or the literary artistry that allows for much insight into the final form of the text without even asking historical or theological questions. In other circles, Dibelius' views on authorship, source, and tradition leave him looking far too conservative! One is certainly struck, despite the detailed endnotes, how small a body of secondary literature had to be assessed, most of it in German, in Dibelius' prime, compared with the explosion of information and hypotheses the researcher must wade through today.

Without knowing how many other volumes, and which ones, are slated for this series, one can always ask the question of whether this collection of essays was the best selection possible. With so much repetition from chapter to chapter, one wonders if a well-chosen anthology of Dibelius' entire scholarly output might have proved more valuable. There is also the unfortunate error that jumps out of the second line of the foreword for the scholar old enough to remember where he or she was when the news shot "round the world that Rudolf Bultmann had died" Hanson places his death in 1969; the correct date should be 1976. I was, in fact, an undergraduate religion major taking classes from a staunch Bultmannian New Testament professor. Reading this selection of pieces from Dibelius, therefore, gave me a strong sense of deja vu, since my professor had not advanced much beyond what he had learned in the 1940s and 1950s! One wonders which writings of today's Neutestamentlern will still generate interest in the 2050s. Perhaps those that, like Dibelius' studies in Acts, combine in healthy doses the learning of past eras with fresh methods and analyses, neither too encumbered by the rest of scholarship nor too dismissive of it, with the right blend of humility and dogmatism that will keep people reading but also convinced they have something to learn?

Table of Contents

Editor's Foreword

  1. Acts in the Setting of the History of Early Christian Literature
  2. The First Christian Historian
  3. The Book of Acts as an Historical Source
  4. Style Criticism of the Book of Acts
  5. The Speeches in Acts and Ancient Historiography


  6. Paul in the Book of Acts
  7. Paul on the Areopagus
  8. Paul in Athens
  9. The Apostolic Council
  10. The Conversion of Cornelius


  11. The Text of Acts
Select Bibliography on the Book of Acts
Index of Authors
Index of Ancient Sources