Monday, July 6, 2015

Book Write-Up: After Acts, by Bryan Litfin

Bryan Litfin.  After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

Bryan Litfin teaches theology at Moody Bible Institute, and he has a Ph.D. in ancient church history from the University of Virginia.  In After Acts, Litfin sifts through traditions about significant figures in the New Testament: Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mary, Thomas, James, Peter, Paul, and other apostles.  These traditions concern what they did after the time that the New Testament narrates (e.g., Did Thomas go to India?  Did Paul finally reach Spain?  Did Mary accompany John to Ephesus?), how they died (i.e., through martyrdom, and, if so, what kind?), and where they were buried.  Litfin at the end of the chapters gives various traditions grades regarding their historical plausibility.  Usually, Litfin seems to regard earlier traditions and widely-attested traditions to be more reliable.

The book’s chief strength, in my opinion, is that it is a helpful reference for people who want to know about the ancient traditions regarding the apostles: what the traditions are, and where one can find them.  Litfin’s analysis of the traditions is all right, overall.  His analysis of the alleged burial sites was strong, for example.  At the same time, Litfin did seem to regard Papias as authoritative, without really engaging arguments to the contrary (i.e., Papias was cited in one ancient source as saying that Judas survived his attempt to hang himself).  Moreover, there were times when Litfin gave a tradition a high grade, and I was not entirely sure if that tradition deserved so high of a grade.  For example, Litfin often responded to liberal scholarship by showing that the traditional ascription of Gospel authorship was possible, but possibility and plausibility are two separate things.  Litfin may have believed that he was showing that the traditional ascriptions were plausible, but, often, it seemed to me that his arguments were showing that they were possible.

Litfin did do well to engage liberal scholarship, but I have my doubts that his arguments overthrew it.  In responding to liberal questions about traditional views on New Testament authorship, Litfin often said that certain traditional authors could use scribes, and that would explain how, say, a Galilean fisherman like John could produce a Gospel of such beautiful prose, and a Book of Revelation that had completely different prose.  But liberal scholars do not just look at writing style when evaluating who wrote New Testament documents.  In questioning Petrine authorship of II Peter, for example, they contend that there are things that the book itself says that indicate a late date.

Litfin seemed to adhere to the scholarly view that Matthew and Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a source, and he did try to address the question of why Matthew would use Mark’s Gospel, when Matthew was an actual eyewitness to Jesus.  Whether or not Litfin did so adequately is up to the reader to decide, but I did appreciate his attempt.  Litfin also sought to account for Matthew’s Hebrew Gospel that Papias mentions, when Litfin, like many scholars, maintains that the Gospel of Matthew was originally in Greek.  Litfin concludes that Matthew may have composed a document of Jesus’ sayings in Aramaic, like Q, and that Matthew may have used that document in composing his own Gospel.

The book should have had an index—-both topical, and an index of the ancient sources that Litfin cites in the book.  This would not only help scholars, but also laypeople interested in further study.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from Moody Press, in exchange for an honest review.

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