Speeches in Ancient History and Acts

One of the more difficult issues faced when reading Acts is the speeches. Unlike today, speeches in the ancient world are generally not word for word transcripts of what actually happened. In the modern age we have recorders, videos, and typists who can provide an exact account of the content of speeches. In the ancient world this was not so and it was not necessarily the goal. The writers did not feel burdened by the lack of exactness because speeches needed to be shaped and molded to fit the narrative context of the writing where the speech occurs.

Martin Dibelius in his classic collection of essays, Studies in Acts, includes an essay titled, The Speeches in Acts and Ancient Historiography.”[1] In this work he argues that analyzing speeches in the ancient world (including Acts) that one must not analyze the referent but how it fits within the narrative it is located (139). In other words, we should not be concerned about what actually happened in history but rather how it shapes the narrative where the speech is included. He makes a sharp distinction between the truthfulness of the speech and how the speech shapes the narrative. These are polar opposites and are not compatible in the writing of Luke.

Conrad Gempf in his essay, Public Speaking and Published Accounts”, argues that we should not judge a speech on its accuracy but rather we should use the categories faithful” or unfaithful” to the historical referent.[2] He finds that these categories are more helpful and takes into account what is actually happening when writers of the ancient world include speeches. This allows one to say on the one hand the writer has liberty to shape and summarize a speech for the narrative while still being faithful to the content of the speech itself. Unlike Dibelius, who argues that if one shapes the speech for the narrative then it is untrue”, Gempf argues that these are the wrong categories. Gempf goes on to argue that speeches generally reflect the style and vocabulary of the orator and not necessarily that of the historian but we should not say that we do not hear the historians voice in the speech as well. Speeches need to fit within the narrative and ancient historians have the freedom to shape the speech to do so.

He concludes that we can take into account two clues about the faithfulness or unfaithfulness of a particular account (1301):

  1. Traces of the alleged situation into which it was purported to be delivered.
  2. Traces of the personality and traits of the alleged speaker.

In the book of Acts, just because several of the speeches use David as part of their argumentation does not negate the faithfulness of the speech itself. We should not necessarily see this as a Lucan invention but rather need to examine each speech and judge its apparent faithfulness or unfaithfulness. It is not surprising that these Jewish speakers include the story of David in their account, which gives credence to the faithfulness of the speech.

I find Grempf’s categories of faithfulness and unfaithfulness helpful when examining the historicity of the speeches in Acts. We should not judge ancient writers based on modern standards. It is clear that there is some type of summarizing and/or adding to the speeches in light of subsequent events when Luke is composing his narrative for a particular purpose. It is also not surprising that the speeches give insight into the narrative arc that Luke is writing so to help develop his story. Recording history comprises of selection and deselection and forming a coherent story from the individual acts of history. Therefore, we should not be surprised when speech fits well into a narrative and helps shape and develop the story.

  1. Dibelius, Martin. Studies in the Acts of the Apostles. Mifflintown, Pa: Sigler Press, 1999.  ↩︎

  2. Conrad Gempf, Public Speaking and Published Accounts,” in The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting: The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting (ed. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke; vol. 1; Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle, Cumbria: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company; The Paternoster Press, 1993), 1259–1303.  ↩︎

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