A little background: Acts clearly depended on Josephus for historical details. Virtually every historical detail in Acts appears in Josephus. At points where Josephus has mistakes or inaccurate order, Acts follows, also using the same vocabulary. An example is the listing of rebels. Josephus mentions Judas the Galilean, Theudas, and The Egyptian. Acts lists them in the same order. However, Josephus had them out of order. Theudas preceded Judas chronologically by 10 years. Did both coincidentally make the same mistake, or was Luke using Josephus for the outline and details of his epic?
The writer of Acts also felt free to borrow from famous epics, specifically the Odyssey. In two accounts, the Shipwreck and the Death of Eutychus, the details and order are too close to be coincidence.
ODYSSEUS AKA PAUL
Ancient Greek fiction frequently followed patterns which we see in Acts. This is a tipoff that Acts is a novella, not an actual history. What are common elements in the Greek novels?
They are always religious in nature and evangelize on behalf of particular god.
They are travel accounts (epics), frequently involving sea travel… Just as in Mark, Acts is built on a travel motif.
They incorporate miraculous or wondrous happenings.
They involve meeting foreign people.
They frequently incorporate couples who don’t have sex. example Paul and Lydia.
They usually incorporate captivity and escape motifs. Prison escapes via earthquakes.
There are always enthusiastic or excited crowds.
Visions or revelations from supernatural origins help move the plot.
Persecution and rescue are common motifs, especially with divine assistance.
One can hardly fail to notice that Acts falls into this category of literature.
When it can be shown that an account appears to be unusually similar to scenes in famous literature, it bears closer examination. This is especially so when some of the events seem unusual when compared with real life. When many elements, words, and order of events are paralleled, the likelihood that the new account is being inspired or rewritten/transposed from the original become probable.
Let’s look at two events in Acts of the Apostles as examples.
Odysseus plied the same waters as did Paul in Acts, and he endured a shipwreck with many and unusual parallels:
Both experienced a shipwreck with similar images and vocabulary.
Both were assured of ultimate safety by a supernatural being.
Both held on to planks and floated in the sea.
Both make landfall on the same island, MALTA (What a coincidence! Out of1000’s of islands!)
Both encounter friendly and helpful people.
Both protagonists are mistaken for being a god.
Both continue their journey on a new ship.
This kind of similarity probably indicates dependence of Acts upon the Odyssey; the parallels look more than coincidental. It isn’t every day that one has an encounter with a supernatural being. This is a marker of fiction. Being mistaken for a god is also not an everyday thing.
In the Odyssey, “ A goddess appeared. She took pity on wandering Odysseus with such woes; sat on the firmly bound boat and spoke ‘Surely Poseidon will not utterly destroy you, even though he is bent on doing so’”.
In Acts, Paul states, “Last night there appeared to me an angel of the god to whom I belong and who I serve saying "Do not be afraid Paul’, saying 'You must appear before Caesar. God has given you all those who are making the voyage with you. Cheer up for I trust God and that all things will turn out as I was told.”
This sequence is unique in ancient tales of shipwrecks, especially the visitation by a supernatural being. In both cases a supernatural being offers pity and guarantees safety for the travelers. Both accounts then go on to say that while the people will survive, they will lose their ship and have to travel on another. In both the Odyssey and Acts, the doomed ship is called a naus , a less common word for a ship, further tying the narratives together. The rewrite of the Odyssey by Acts is more than suspiciously apparent.
It is also that the writer of Acts borrowed details of the events prior and after the shipwreck scene from Josephus’ account of his own shipwreck as described in his “Vita”, his autobiography.
A Roman procurator is involved in both accounts (cf Acts 24.1-27)
Jewish religious leaders are involved in both accounts (priests in Vita and Paul in Acts)
The procurator causes Jewish religious leaders to be imprisoned (cf Acts 24.1-27)
The procurator's actions result in prisoners going to Rome (cf Acts 25.10-11)
The accused in both cases appealed to Caesar.
The religious leaders in both cases are deemed to be unjustly accused (cf Acts 24-26)
Journey to Rome is by ship (cf Acts 27.1-44)
The sea journey to Rome seeks to effect justice at the imperial level to undo injustice done at the provincial level (cf Acts 24-27)
The ship not only sinks (cf Acts 27.41-44)
But chooses to sink in the Adriatic Sea (cf Acts 27.27)
The heroes, Josephus or Paul, act with courage and provide leadership (cf Acts 27.31-38)
All passengers survive (presumably in Josephus’s account) (cf Acts 27.44)
Both heroes pass through Puteoli (cf Acts 28.13-14)
THE DEATH OF EUTYCHUS, a reversal
In the Odyssey 10-12 Compared to Acts 20
Odysseus and followers sail from Troy to Achaea
Acts: Paul leaves Achaea and goes to Troy (Troas)
Odyssey: The story is told from the perspective of “We”
Acts: The story is told from the perspective of “We”.
Odyssey: After a trip they have a meal
Acts: After a trip they have a meal
Odyssey: Discusses light level inside
Acts: Discusses light level in a room
Odyssey: A deep sleep
Acts: A deep sleep
Odyssey: There is a sudden change to third person narration perspective; “they”
Acts: Sudden change to third person narration perspective; “they”
Odyssey: Elpenor, a young man in a high spot in a building
Acts: Eutychus, a young man in a high spot in a building
Odyssey: Elpenor falls down to the ground
Acts: Eutychus falls to the ground
Odyssey: Elpenor dies
Acts: Eutychus dies
Odyssey: They wait to bury Elpenor until dawn next day
Acts: They wait to deal with Eutychus’ body until dawn the next day
Odyssey: Associates retrieve Elpenor’s body
Acts: Associates revive Eutychus
The main difference is that Elpenor died and stayed dead. At the beginning of the episode, there is a reversal of travel direction between the same places. At the end the Acts rewritten episode results in Eutychus being resurrected. The reversal is complete. Paul is greater than Odysseus. Are the similarities too similar to be coincidental? If so, what does this tell us about the composition of Acts as a whole? The principle of contamination shows that when a piece of literature includes transposed episodes from earlier writings and/or improbable/impossible magical details, that it is not to be considered as trustworthy history as a whole. This is just a quick example of source criticism applied to Acts. There is more…and one cannot miss the similarities between this genre and the Gospel of Mark.
Other apparent borrowings are also to be seen in Acts. For instance Euripides in the Bacchae (440-9) experiences a miraculous unlocking of chains and an escape due to an earthquake. Similarly, Acts shows a miraculous unlocking of chains and escape due to an earthquake, twice! Acts 12, 16.