Review of Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity

January 16, 2005
More Than Didactic History—An Actual Legal Brief?

I. Mauck’s “Brief” Hypothesis

In his recent book[1], John W. Mauck, a lawyer, rejects the categorization of Acts as a historical monograph. He finds the classification insufficient to define Luke’s agenda: “it does not tell us why Luke selected the portions of history he included in Acts or the occasion for his work” (46). Instead, insisting on pinpointing Luke’s specific intent in writing, Mauck argues with all of his persuasive skill (and adversarial sleight of hand?) as a trial lawyer, that “Luke-Acts is a legal brief, an extraordinary brief” (4). Essentially, Mauck’s thesis is that Luke is Paul’s lawyer literally writing Acts as a legal brief under Roman criminal trial procedure in 61-62 A.D. to the non-Christian Theophilus, a Roman official, probably either in the “office of a cognitionibus (investigator)” (26)—responsible for “pretrial judicial investigation” (27)—or “a member of Nero’s consilium” (26)—his personal “cabinet” (10)—together with Burrus and Seneca, also likely “within the circle of intended readers of Acts” (11).

Mauck asserts that everything included in Acts is either background information—everything before Acts 7:58 (81)—in the sense of the Statement of Facts in a modern appellate legal brief in the U.S. adversarial system (20), or goes to defending against either one or the other of two overarching legal charges against Paul, or both: that by spreading Christianity he is “inciting riots, civil unrest,” and “preaching an illegal new religion” (34). Although this book makes a valuable contribution and argues persuasively on some points, Mauck overall fails to clear a hurdle he sets for himself: “A written submission to the court such as a pretrial ‘brief,’ giving background, exculpatory explanations, and legal arguments, logically would be prepared in a major case such as Paul’s; however, no parallel examples of ‘pretrial briefs’ have survived, if any did exist” (14). Why should Acts be a legal brief rather than a historical monograph focused on legal proceedings if Mauck himself questions whether such formal briefs ever even existed at all? This question shifts the burden of proof to Mauck (as the defendant?), who must now counter the historical lack of any other such brief in order to show such specific authorial intent and other information—largely arrived at through pure deductive logic from the written word—about this ancient text.

II. Two Major Contributions of Mauck’s Work

Mauck accepts his burden of proof wholeheartedly as he proceeds to explain his position. In fact, one of the two most valuable contributions of this book is Mauck’s overt lawyer approach and consequent presentation style: he literally presents his thesis as his own defense attorney at the trial of his theory, complete with opening and closing statements to the jury and calling witnesses to the stand in the form of the chapters of Acts themselves, which Mauck treats either individually or in related groups depending on the content of the chapters. For example, Mauck presents a litigious opening statement on the very first page of his “Introduction,” in which he promises that “the evidence will show” that his straightforward thesis will stand (ix).[2] A professional in his field, he proceeds to follow the roadmap he lays out for himself in the opening statement with precision. And the “lawyer’s approach” (xi) which he takes in addressing the content of Acts provides valuable insights into the rich legal substance of Acts. Of particular interest is Mauck’s tendency to ferret out policy issues behind legal situations that the apostles face as he makes his case for Acts as a legal brief specifically for Paul’s trial defense.

After 228 more pages of presenting evidence friendly to his case and touching on damaging counter-arguments, he makes a closing statement to the jury in his “Summation” section. This is the part of the trial where Mauck reminds the jury of why that which they have heard from him as evidence proves his case. He first addresses the “most excellent” reader—just as Luke addresses Theophilus (perhaps if the book is found in two thousand years the imputed reader will be logically deduced to have been a top Roman official[3])—and then after a succinct list of “the undisputed facts” (the first of which is the disputable claim that “Luke-Acts is one book”[4]), informs the “jury”/readers that on the basis of those facts, “we can see that the evangelistic legal brief hypothesis is not only plausible but fully consistent with the evidence,” and that if the juror/reader wishes to apply a standard of proof of clear and convincing evidence, he or she may stop right there (222). However, the reader should proceed to the next thirty-two points supporting Mauck’s thesis if applying a standard of beyond a reasonable doubt (222-26).

Next, in an interesting and amusing change of roles, Mauck plays the judge in this trial and issues the jury instructions in the penultimate paragraph of the book, the “Charge to the Jury.” “Your charge,” proclaims Mauck, “is to decide the truth of the allegation: ‘Luke-Acts was written as a legal defense of Paul as he awaited trial before Nero and was intended to bring the gospel to Theophilus even as he gathered facts concerning the charges against Paul’” (226). The charge is not made without words of advice and instruction:

As you weigh [the evidence] you may rely on your general experience and knowledge of history, religion, and human behavior. However, you are requested to set aside, so far as is reasonably possible, your preconceptions about this particular controversy and focus upon the evidence before you, principally the text of Luke-Acts proper.

Without a doubt, Mauck’s lawyer approach, evidence, and presentation reveal that he himself sincerely seeks truth in this trial. In the last paragraph of the book, Mauck states as much in a friendly appeal directly to the reader to try to be an unbiased juror in this deliberation. Additionally, his genuine evangelical enthusiasm for “the Way,” as he often terms Christianity throughout the book, also shines clearly through and adds to his already fascinating legal approach to Luke’s “purpose” in writing Acts.

The second of Mauck’s two most valuable contributions is his persuasive argument for an early dating of Acts. Whereas “according to the great majority of contemporary scholarship, Luke’s work is to be dated after the Jewish revolt of 66-74 CE,”[5] Mauck dates the writing of Acts before 64 A.D. Mauck’s high level of interest in when Acts was written stems from the fact that “[a]ny date later than A.D. 63 means that Acts could not have been used to help Paul at his trial” (41), presumably on the assumption that Paul died in 64 A.D. during Nero’s persecutions. In order to justify his finding of an early date for Acts, which is central to his thesis, Mauck employs “three primarily deductive approaches” focusing on “1. Internal evidence other than readership. 2. Readership. 3. Correlation with a principal source for the Gospel of Luke: the Gospel of Mark.” Under the first head Mauck presents his four most convincing arguments for an early date of Acts. First, the Jewish Revolt began in 66 A.D. and the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. Mauck approaches this point from two angles. The first is less persuasive because it depends on Mauck’s assumption that Luke is Paul’s lawyer: it would have been malpractice for Luke not to raise the subject of the Jewish Revolt as a counter-claim against Paul’s Jewish accusers if it had already happened by the time he wrote the legal brief of Acts (42). But the second point raises a more convincing independent issue: “why would Luke spend all of Acts 7 arguing that Jesus rather than the temple is now the focus of Judaism if one need only point to its physical destruction in 70 A.D.?” Mauck might have also asked persuasively why Luke would put so much emphasis on showing Christianity as a continuation of Judaism—indeed as its legitimate successor—if the Jewish Revolt had already happened by the time of writing Acts instead of seeking to distance Christianity from the insurrectionists. Second, the fire of 19 July 64 A.D. in Rome signaled the beginning of Nero’s widespread persecution of Christians. Acts seems to demonstrate an internal confidence in the Caesar and an expectation that an appeal to him would bring justice. This would not be the case if the persecutions had already occurred. Third, the narrative ends with Paul in prison. “If, by the time Luke writes Acts, Paul has had the opportunity to speak before an imperial tribunal or Nero, Luke, as author, to whatever audience, for whatever purpose he is writing, has no reason after pointing and leading his readership to a climactic trial to blithely omit the culminating event of the book.” He might have added that if Paul had been executed already by the time of writing Acts, “[t]he martyrdom of Stephen and of James would have been crowned with that of Paul.”[6] Finally, based on when Festus began his procuratorship, either in 59 A.D.[7] or in 60 A.D.,[8] Paul’s two years of imprisonment must have fallen in 61-62 A.D. Thus, if Paul had been in prison for longer than two years, as might have been the case if Acts were written at a later date, then Luke would not have mentioned just two years in Acts 28:30. It is unclear, however, why Mauck does not consider a date of 63 A.D. for the writing of Acts.

The second head under which Mauck argues for the earlier date of Acts tends towards a circular argument since it depends on the purpose of Acts being a legal brief to Theophilus. If the reader of Acts is a Roman special investigator gathering facts for Paul’s upcoming trial before Nero, then it must have been written before Paul’s trial, which presumably took place between 63-64 A.D (43). Finally, Mauck analyzes the dating of Acts under the head of Luke’s dependence on Mark as a source. Mauck points out that the reference in Mark 15:21 to Simon of Cyrene’s children is inconclusive evidence for a late date of Luke-Acts since Simon’s age at the time he carried Jesus’s cross was uncertain; he may have already had children as old as ten years old by that time (44). Moreover, he argues that the interpretation of what “dependence” on Mark really means is actually quite flexible. Perhaps Luke relied on some pre-final written version of Mark (44-45). Thus, Mauck’s fascinating and straightforward lawyer approach and his arguments for the early date of Acts are two significant contributions of his book. Unfortunately, they are not enough to overcome the doubt cast by the book’s weaknesses.

III. Two Major Weaknesses of Mauck’s Work

A. Defining (and Disclaiming) the Problems

Mauck simply claims too much: the evidence does not seem to warrant Mauck’s conclusions without an extreme amount of deductive reasoning, which rather than meticulous research is Mauck’s key tool in this investigation. Through the deductive method, Mauck arrives at highly specified statements about Luke’s authorial intent from general information found in the text of Acts itself on the one hand; and on the other, he derives a whole theory of the nature of Acts from a series of debatable premises. The nature and soundness of Mauck’s premises render Mauck’s reliance on the deductive method one of the major weaknesses of his book. That is, in embarking on this process of inference, Mauck takes his own assumptions for granted as fundamental premises of his argument, thus begging the question without satisfactorily proving the premises before proceeding. This tendency lends the entire thesis a continual feeling of circular argumentation and constitutes the first major weakness of the book. The second major weakness relates to the first: by relying on deductive reasoning, Mauck’s work also suffers from a penchant for historical anachronism resulting from the use of modern logical assumptions to fill the gaps in an ancient legal situation. Thus, reliance on questionable premises and use of anachronistic logical assumptions prevent Mauck from fulfilling his burden of proof in showing that Acts is literally a legal brief rather than a historical monograph focused on the importance of legal proceedings in the spread of the church.

Admittedly, this book comes with a powerful disclaimer that perhaps lessens the scrutiny to be given Mauck’s thesis. Professor Donald A. Hagner writes in the “Foreword” that the book “is a model of the insight that a layperson can bring through study and application of his or her own specialized knowledge to the understanding of scripture” (vi). To that extent the book is valuable and makes a genuine contribution: “[r]egardless of whether one finally agrees with [Mauck’s] bold conclusion, no one can doubt that the Acts of the Apostles is filled with material that is fruitful for the study of legal process in the ancient world.” And Mauck himself provides a disclaimer: his knowledge of “irrefutable Old Syriac,” footnotes about which “are reserved for special academic heresies,” is “rusty” (xii); he is humbled by a realization of his “deficient expertise in such areas as theology, ancient literature, and sociology” and by “ignorance of Greek, Hebrew, and German” (xi); and his “theological goggles don’t fit so comfortably over [his] bifocals” (xii). These disclaimers certainly explain a few oddities in the text.

B. Before the weaknesses: some oddities in the text

First, although the boldness of Mauck’s thesis in identifying the genre of Acts specifically as a “legal brief” appears new, as is his “lawyer’s approach” of “assertiveness” in presenting his “client’s case vigorously” (xi), Mauck fails to address past scholars who also argue both from a macro view, hailing from 1720, that Luke wrote Acts for Theophilus, a Roman magistrate, to defend Christianity against false accusations in Rome[9] and on a smaller scale that Acts was prepared specifically for Paul’s trial defense in Rome.[10] In fact, even Mauck’s surprising assertion that Luke was Paul’s “lawyer” (3) echoes past academic treatment: in his Expositor articles of 1914 and 1917, Plooij argues “that Luke wrote the Acts, specifically as an apology for Paul and for Christianity before the Roman council” and “goes so far as to call Luke juris studiosus.”[11] Perhaps the fact that many of these sources are nineteenth-century German treatments of Acts prevented Mauck from addressing them (although he does list two German sources in his bibliography[12]). But since Mauck admits knowledge and use of Latin in preparing his book (xviii, note 2), it seems that he should have noted Heumann’s Latin dissertation of 1720.

Second, a few errors in Mauck’s analysis, perhaps also arising out of his lack of foreign language knowledge, cause confusion when they first appear. One striking example of this surfaces at the beginning of the book in Mauck’s foundational argument for Luke as Paul’s lawyer. Mauck states that “Luke’s use of the third person plural in Acts 16:10 and subsequent passages gives presumptive evidence” that Luke was “part of Paul’s missionary team” and thus “an eyewitness to much of what he wrote” (3, emphasis added).[13] Surely Mauck means Luke’s use of the first person plural “we,” because “they” does not appear in Acts 16:10 and if it did, then that would prove the opposite.

Finally, Mauck occasionally offers some confusing parallels in presenting evidence supporting his thesis. One perplexing example of this is found in Mauck’s discussion of how Stephen’s “trial” and stoning fit into his thesis. Other larger problems arise in this context that conform to the two overarching weaknesses of Mauck’s work. But little details matter too; in discussing the importance of Stephen’s speech for the “internal controversy” in which Luke is arguing that Christianity is a continuation of Judaism and thus not an illegal religion, Mauck claims that the Jews are “a people generally disliked, or at least not admired by the majority of Roman officialdom” (79) with an attached endnote purporting to substantiate this claim by referring the reader to 2 Kings 5:11-12 (86, note 23)! Using Naaman’s disdain for the waters of Israel in comparison to the rivers of Damascus as support for the proposition that at the time of Acts, the Jews were a disliked people to the majority of Roman officialdom seems tenuous at best. Highlighting a few of these representative oddities may be tedious, but they are distracting, even if they are excusable on the grounds that Mauck is expressly not writing to an academic audience (cf. xi-xii).

C. The two major weaknesses

1. Debatable premises, circular argumentation.

Mauck is doing what he does best as a trial lawyer: he is deducing the “questions” from the “answers” found in the substance from Acts. Perhaps Mauck is correct when he asserts that “[o]ne approach never previously undertaken in an analysis of Acts and which is essential to discerning whether a ‘judicial’ readership . . . is intended is to put oneself in the place of a putative judicial reader examining Acts as written to Theophilus” (28). In order to take this approach, which Mauck does, he must make some initial assumptions upon which to base this exercise. Unfortunately, he only briefly discusses his assumptions and then takes them for granted for much of the rest of the book rather than first providing strong evidence for their validity. His framework assumptions are that Luke is Paul’s lawyer (3-4), Paul is “an ideal [legal] client” (4-5), and Theophilus is a non-Christian Roman official who has the responsibility of investigating the case for the court (21-28). His treatment of Theophilus is the most academic and, not surprisingly, the most convincing, with the exception of his argument for Theophilus’s non-Christian status, which again takes assumptions for granted. As to the charges against Paul, “[w]e know that under Roman law a petition or complaint would have to initiate the proceedings against Paul. Thus, the response on Paul’s behalf would certainly address the particular charges against him” (21). In other words, Mauck also uses the deductive method to identify the charges against Paul: inciting revolt and spreading an illegal religion. He does this by boiling fourteen charges against Paul (6-7) and fifty-nine defenses of Paul (35-40) as stated in Acts down into these two overarching legal charges, as Mauck interprets them, in two well organized charts. Because of the lack of substantiating evidence for all of these assumptions, particularly regarding Luke’s identity, and also because of reliance on possibly false premises in the case of the charges against Paul, the effect of this deductive approach is circular reasoning. If the assumptions are true, then Acts is a legal brief and if Acts is a legal brief, then the assumptions are true.

a. Assumptions about Luke, Paul, and Theophilus. The circular effect of Mauck’s approach is most striking in his treatment of Luke as Paul’s lawyer. Not only is this speculative—Mauck admits that “we have no evidence that Luke ever argued before a tribunal, collected a fee, or wrote a will” (4)—but it is also circular on its face in the form that Mauck presents it. First he states, “Luke-Acts appears to have been written to defend Paul from charges pending against him as he awaited trial before the Roman Emperor Nero. I will argue that Luke-Acts is a legal brief, an extraordinary legal brief.” Then on this basis, he begs the question and concludes that Luke must have been Paul’s lawyer: “Thus, because he has written a defense for Paul’s trial, Luke not only qualifies as a ‘lawyer,’ but also as the first lawyer/evangelist.” This construction—Luke wrote Acts, Acts appears to be a legal brief [thesis to be proven], therefore, Luke must be a lawyer, and if Luke is a lawyer, then Acts is a legal brief—is a text-book example of the fallacy of begging the question or circular argumentation because it takes the thesis to be proven as a constituting premise of the argument. And from this point on (pg. 4) Mauck takes it for granted and builds the rest of his book on it.

Undoubtedly, the content of Acts shows that Luke was familiar with both Jewish and Roman legal and procedural issues. But the premise that Luke is Paul’s lawyer suffers from other criticism than just the circular approach taken to arrive at it. Little is known about Luke’s identity. “The facts of his life that are universally acknowledged by conservative scholars,” constitute merely a few phrases: He was a Physician (Col. 4:14) of Gentile origin (Col. 4:11), who addressed two writings to Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) that were carefully researched (Luke 1:1-4), and who was with Paul on his second missionary journey (Acts 16:10-40), during the third missionary journey (Acts 20:5-21:18), on his way to Rome during his Roman imprisonment (Acts 27:1-28:16), perhaps when he wrote Colossians (Col. 4:14) and Philemon (Phlm. 24), and during Paul’s second Roman imprisonment (2 Tim. 4:11).[14] The writings of the Christian apologists abound in other information about Luke, but “[t]here can be no doubt that the non-Biblical notices about Luke are in the main, if not altogether, the product of a lively imagination.”[15] Nevertheless, a safe non-biblical assumption seems to be that “Luke died a martyr’s death with Paul in the horrible persecution of 64.”[16] Unfortunately, without inference from more concrete information or previous studies, Mauck’s assertion that Luke is Paul’s lawyer could also be labeled the product of a lively imagination.

Additionally, Mauck underestimates Paul’s own identity in his examination. He acknowledges Paul’s stringent Pharisaical education under Gamaliel, the leading teacher of Jewish law at the time, but utilizes the information to further his thesis by identifying Paul as the ideal client and not as a lawyer in his own right. Of course, such a bold statement would be speculation as well, but Paul does defend himself before numerous tribunals throughout the course of Acts. Mauck admits, “The familiarity of Paul with the intricacies and vagaries of Roman jurisprudence will be apparent as the reader’s perusal or re-perusal of Acts proceeds” (5). But he does not do justice to Paul’s Greek—albeit Jewish—education,[17] or his unique position of belonging to three cultural worlds: Jewish, Greek, and Roman.[18] Perhaps putting these into the right perspective may have lessened Mauck’s need to portray Luke as Paul’s lawyer.

Finally, Mauck argues more convincingly that Theophilus was a Roman official with some influence. Numerous others have also suggested this idea, and Mauck notes a few of them.[19] But his argument that Theophilus was not a Christian suffers from the same weakness as the assertion that Luke was Paul’s lawyer: he begs the question of his own thesis in order to establish it; that is, Acts focuses on legal issues to the apparent exclusion of theological issues, so therefore, Theophilus must have been a non-believer. Not only is this a classical non sequitur, but it is also circular. And to come to this conclusion, Mauck must take issue with the same scholars he quotes as support for Theophilus’s status as a Roman official of some kind (24), which further raises his burden of proof on whether Theophilus believed in the Gospel or not. An alternative view with more evidentiary support is that Theophilus was a believing Roman official—a God-fearer like Cornelius—or perhaps already a Christian. Luke-Acts is “not an introduction for outsiders.”[20] Furthermore, Theophilus may have even been a patron to a local congregation because “the early urban Christians mostly if not universally will have included in their number relatively prosperous fellow-townspeople, able to act as patrons to local congregations, at least to the extent of affording hospitality for meetings (and perhaps bed and board for visiting missionaries).”[21] At least there is as much if not more evidence to substantiate this view as that Theophilus is a non-believer in charge of investigating the case against Paul.

b. Assumptions about the charges against Paul. The problem with Mauck’s identification of the two overarching charges against Paul does not so much stem from a circular argument as from fundamentally debatable—and even largely discredited—premises. Certainly Paul was charged numerous times with inciting a riot, and the charges were always brought in vain. But as to the charge of spreading an illegal religion, a religio illicita, Mauck confronts a substantial obstacle. In short, Mauck simply takes for granted that there was a religio licita status at the time Acts was written, without citing to any particular authority on the matter. Once he has stated his assumption, he builds upon it even though he has not proved it: “The litigation strategy of Paul’s accusers was to charge that he was creating an illegal religion thereby disrupting society” (13). True, past scholars starting in the late nineteenth century, and even some today other than Mauck,[22] “assumed that there was in Roman law of the first century a technical category of ‘permitted’ religions, with the corollary that all other religions were ‘non-permitted’,”[23] and thus saw Acts as a defense against such a charge. But “recent research has thrown serious doubts on the premise that the category religio licita even existed at the time of Luke’s writing.”[24] The term religio licita “only occurs once in ancient literature, in Tertullian’s Apologia, 21:1,” and even in this instance, “it does not seem to be meant as technical terminology.”[25] Judaism did enjoy certain privileges and protections, “but there is no evidence that this was done in the framework of a doctrine of ‘permission’, or that there were other religions treated similarly to Judaism, over against others that were not; there is, however, much evidence to the contrary.”[26]

Furthermore, recent research has also cast doubt on the idea that Luke envisioned a broader political apologia for Christianity to the Romans as his specific purpose. In his assessment of the contents of Acts from the standpoint of the judicial reader, Mauck skillfully constructs a list of forty interrogatories based on the assumption that Acts in an answer to a complaint made against Paul. These interrogatories imply that Christianity is under legal attack by the Roman state and that Luke needs to justify the religion in a formal legal argument. Curiously, Mauck only once briefly mentions a passage in Acts that would lend central support to this idea (125). In Philippi, the crowd brings Paul before the Roman magistrate with the charge “These men, being Jews, do exceedingly trouble our city, And teach customs, which are not lawful for us to receive, neither to observe, being Romans” (Acts 16:20-21). These two verses show the perception in Philippi that Paul was teaching disorderly doctrines that were subversive of Roman society. Nevertheless, C.K. Barrett has discredited the concept of Acts as a broader political apologia for Christianity’s commendableness in civil society in his famous statement: “No Roman official would ever have filtered out so much of what to him would be theological and ecclesiastical rubbish in order to reach so tiny a grain of relevant apology.”[27] Mauck counters this concern by explaining that all of the “theological and ecclesiastical rubbish” Barrett refers to is background information as found in any decent legal brief. Again, this response assumes too much to be really convincing—and it tends towards anachronism.

2. Distracting anachronism arising from modern logical/legal assumptions.

The other major weakness in Mauck’s work can be dealt with more succinctly. He approaches the question of Paul’s trial and Acts as a legal brief in his defense from a decidedly modern legal standpoint. Two examples show this tendency nicely: first, Mauck’s treatment of Gamaliel’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 5:34-42, and second, Mauck’s examination of the role played by the trial of Stephen in Luke’s ostensible defense of Paul.

a. Gamaliel and the Apostles’ free speech rights? Mauck believes that Luke included the episode with Gamaliel in his defense of Paul because it strengthened the Apostle’s position to have a non-adherent of the Christian faith—even a member of the accusing party, the Jewish Sanhedrin—advocate allowing the hand of God, or the course of nature, deal with the progress of their sect (73). Gamaliel states, “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:38-39). In interpreting the significance of Gamaliel’s position for Acts, the legal brief, Mauck leans on a distracting anachronism: “As a non-follower of Jesus, Gamaliel has greater credibility when he essentially sides with what Americans would call the free speech position of the apostles. Establishing free speech as a defense to the charges against Paul and the believers is a major objective in Luke’s legal agenda” (73). This claim weakens Mauck’s position considerably because of its anachronistic employment of a concept that was decidedly not part of the ancient world: free speech. This defense would not have impressed a Roman criminal investigator. In the criminal law of ancient Rome, “it was accepted jurisprudence that nobody ought to be criminally liable for his thoughts,” but “words were undoubtedly sufficient to constitute an actus reus, and thus preaching could be covered.”[28] Words could do harm in the ancient world, and the state had an interest in disallowing harmful speech, such as curses or subversive preaching.

b. Stephen before the Sanhedrin: “Let’s go to court”? When Al Gore and Joseph Liebermann lost the 2000 election recount in Florida, Liebermann gave a speech in which he told the country that naturally he would do what the normal American would do in that situation: go to court. It is not so clear that going to court would have been such an immediate recourse in the ancient world, especially under Hebrew law relating to charges of blasphemy. Stephen’s stoning is a focal point of Mauck’s discussion of Acts as a legal brief in Paul’s defense. He posits that it was a show trial, as evidenced by the false witnesses (Acts 6:13), and that Acts 7 is “most helpfully understood as a legal argument within a legal argument” (77). By defending himself against the Sanhedrin’s false charges against him, Stephen is also defending Paul through his argument. But in the end, the Sanhedrin stones Stephen for blasphemy when he tells them of his vision of Jesus on the right hand of God (Acts 7:54-60). Of this episode, Mauck writes, “Luke had to include this stoning to complete the story of the speech but in so doing he is also able to insinuate that the very opposition which is seeking Paul’s execution by Rome had no regard for Roman order when it was itself confronted with the serious charge of murdering Jesus” (81). In other words, when Stephen accused the Sanhedrin in Acts 7:52 of murdering Jesus, the Sanhedrin should have “gone to [Roman] court” over it rather than stoning Stephen with “no regard for Roman order.” But this is a very modern, American, perspective of the rule of law: groups of people do not simply take the law into their own hands and stone someone—they go to court over it and let the state administer justice.

This anachronism damages Mauck’s overall argument for several reasons. First, the assertion that the Sanhedrin killed Jesus is not the reason that they stoned Stephen. That is clear even to a reader with no concept of the Hebrew law governing, and consequences for, blasphemy as found in Lev. 24:10-16. Stephen had said “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). By any objective measure, this constituted blasphemy under Hebrew law, and the Sanhedrin reacted accordingly: “Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord, and cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet whose name was Saul” (Acts 7:57-58). They flawlessly conformed to Hebrew legal procedure for stoning in these verses. Second, Mauck’s assertion implies that the Sanhedrin needed Roman approval in order to execute justice under their own law. But the prospective stoning of the suspected adulteress in John 8 indicates otherwise, as does the original precedent for capital punishment by stoning in the case of the blasphemer in Lev. 24:10-16: those who heard the blasphemer speak were required to carry out the stoning themselves as a type of purification of themselves for being exposed to the crime. And finally, if the Sanhedrin had “gone to court,” the Roman magistrate undoubtedly would have dismissed the issue for lack of jurisdiction as Festus was disposed to do when he perceived that the Sanhedrin “had certain questions against [Paul] of their own superstition, and of one Jesus, which was dead, whom Paul affirmed to be alive” (Acts 25:19), but he could not because of the procedural technicality that Paul had appealed to Caesar during his hearing before Felix, even though Felix had found no charges against him, in order to avoid Felix’s corrupt decision to deliver him to the Sanhedrin as a favor to the Jews (Acts 25:9-12). Thus, the Sanhedrin conformed to prescribed procedure in stoning Stephen under Hebrew law and were under no obligation to turn to Roman courts for relief in a case of blasphemy.

IV. The Verdict

The jury has returned a verdict on Mauck’s thesis that Luke was Paul’s lawyer and wrote Luke-Acts as a legal brief for the purpose of defending Paul before Nero against two charges: inciting revolt and preaching a religio illicita. First, without a doubt, Mauck’s study is fascinating, even in some of its weaknesses. For example, in a chart portraying the sixteen trials in Acts, when Herod imprisoned Peter in Acts 12:6, Mauck relates the result of the imprisonment as “divine habeas corpus successful” (85). True, in one sense this participates in one of the major weaknesses of the text—the anachronistic use of modern legal concepts to describe the situation in Acts. But aside from that, it is amusing to encounter these types of comparisons in the book. Second, although his work contains various valuable contributions to the study of Acts, particularly his unique lawyer approach and his argument for an early date of Acts, Mauck has not filled his burden of proving this bold assertion. Instead, his case proved to be centered on circular argumentation and built on untenable premises. Finally, his tendency towards distracting anachronism in applying modern lawyerly logic to Paul’s situation detracts from his credibility in making his case. “Acts is not a brief with a lot of fluff” (81), writes Mauck after suggesting that everything before Acts 7:58, where Saul is first introduced, was background or a “Statement of Facts” for the coming political apologia for Christianity in the rest of Acts. Perhaps he should have simply said “Acts is not a brief.”

[1] Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001). Further references to this book are given parenthetically in the text.

[2] The entire delightful opening statement, fit for a trial in its truly clear and direct encapsulation of the entire scope of the book, reads as follows:

I contend that Luke investigated, gathered facts, borrowed from other sources, and edited them for a different and definite purpose: He wrote a legal ‘brief’ to defend Paul against charges of fomenting civil insurrection and, by extension, to defend all of Christianity against the charge that it was an illegal religion. His original reader, Theophilus, was, the evidence will show, the Roman official responsible for the judicial investigation of trials to be conducted before the Emperor Nero. Luke, true to his reputation as an evangelist, crafted his brief to present the gospel so that even the very investigator would come to believe in Jesus. (ix)

[3] Mauck argues, not unpersuasively, for Theophilus’s identity as a Roman official involved in the trial on the basis of this salutation (vii, 22).

[4] It is generally agreed that the author of the two books is the same but scholars differ on whether the two are literally “one book” in this sense or if they are two volumes of a larger historical work with slightly different, yet generally continuous, focuses. Those who take the view that Acts is a historical monograph tend to favor the idea that “Luke and Acts are themselves different in type, even when we grant their essential unity and continuity” (C.J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History [Tübingen: Mohr/Siebeck, 1989], 33).

[5] Alexandru Neagoe, The Trial of the Gospel: An Apologetic Reading of Luke’s Trial Narratives (Cambridge: CUP, 2002), 10. The consensus on the late date arises largely out of the belief that Luke’s Gospel, which must have been written before Acts, depends on Mark as a main source, which “is definitely a second generation Christian work” on the basis of Mark 15:21 in which Simon of Cyrene who carried Jesus’s cross is by the time of the writing of Mark better known through his children (Robert Maddox, The Purpose of Luke-Acts [Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982], 7).

[6] A.T. Robertson, Luke the Historian in the Light of Research (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1977), 35.

[7] F.F. Bruce, New Testament History (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1971), 346.

[8] Unger’s Bible Dictionary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1983), 383.

[9] As sampled from Neagoe’s meticulous research survey in his own treatment of Luke-Acts as a defense of the Gospel (The Trial of the Gospel 4-24): C.A. Heumann, “Dissertatio de Theophilo cui Lucas Historiam Sacram Inscripsit,” Bibliotheca historico-philologico-theologica, classis IV (Bremen, 1720), pp. 483-505 (arguing that Luke wrote to the Roman magistrate Theophilus to defend against false accusations against Christianity); E. Zeller, The Contents and Origin of the Acts of the Apostles Critically Investigated by Dr. Edward Zeller (London: Williams and Norgate, 1876 [German original, 1854])(suggesting that Luke intended to defend Christianity against Pagan charges and to show Christians how they might defend themselves); J. Weiss, Über die Absicht und den literarischen Charakter der Apostelgeschichte (Marburg and Göttingen, 1897) (arguing that Luke addressed the apologia to Pagans to defend Christians against Jewish accusations).

[10] M.V. Aberle, “Exegetische Studien. Über den Zweck der Apostelgeschichte,” Teleogische Quartalschrift 37 (1855), 173-236; G.S. Duncan, St. Paul’s Ephesian Ministry: A Reconstruction (With Special Reference to the Ephesian Origin of the Imprisonment Epistles) (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1930), 96-100; D. Plooij, “The Work of St Luke,” The Expositor 8:8 (1914), 511-23; and “Again: The Work of St Luke,” The Expositor 8:13 (1917), 108-24.

[11] A.T. Robertson, 190, fn. 1.

[12] A closer look shows that Mauck quotes these sources from Maddox, The Purpose of Luke-Acts: Ernst Haenchen, “Judentum und Christentum in der Apostelgeschichte,” Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft 54 (1963); G. Lohfink, “Die Sammlung Israels: eine Untersuchung zur lukanischen Ekklesiologie,” Studien zum Alten und Neuen Testament 39 (1975).

[13] Luke’s reliability in Luke-Acts has many influential supporters. See, for example, Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul, transl. by John Bowen (London: SCM, 1991), 7-8 (defending Luke’s reliability by calling on those who question it finally to “come clean and regard the whole of Acts as romantic fiction” [8]).

[14] William F. Arndt, Bible Commentary: The Gospel According to St. Luke (St. Louis: Concordia, 1956), 1.

[15] Ibid., 6.

[16] Ibid.

[17] See Hengel, 54-62 on Paul’s Greek-speaking Jerusalem and Paul’s Greek-synagogue education.

[18] John W. Welch and John Hall, Charting the World of the New Testament (FARMS 2001).

[19] On Theophilus’s identity, Mauck cites to Joseph Tyson, Images of Judaism in Luke-Acts (Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1992); Philip E. Satterthwaite, “The Background of Classical Rhetoric,” in The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting, BAFCS 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994) [Mauck calls Philip Satterthwaite “William” in his bibliography]; and Bruce W. Winter, “Official Proceedings and Forensic Speeches,” in The Book of Acts in Its Ancient Literary Setting, BAFCS 1 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994).

[20] Loveday Alexander, The Preface to Luke’s Gospel (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), 142.

[21] F. Gerald Downing, “Theophilus’s First Reading of Luke-Acts,” in Luke’s Literary Achievement, Collected Essays, ed. by C.M. Tuckett, Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 116 (Sheffield: JSOT, 1995), 93.

[22] See, for example, Ernst Haenchen, “Judentum und Christentum in der Apostelgeschichte,” para. 24.

[23] Maddox, 91.

[24] Neagoe, 10.

[25] Maddox, 92.

[26] Ibid. For example, it is true that Rome suppressed the Druid religion, but this was because of its practice of human sacrifice (O.F. Robertson, The Criminal Law of Ancient Rome [London: Duckworth, 1995], 95). But generally

The Roman state religion (like most polytheisms) was tolerant of people’s private worship and, normally, of other public worship. The Romans needed, for the health of their society, the Roman gods worshipped in the traditional way in the temples of Rome but, beyond that, religious practice was normally a matter of indifference.

[27] C.K. Barrett, Luke the Historian in Recent Study (London: Epworth, 1961), 63. Despite this convincing observation, Barrett’s own counter-conclusion may be as debatable as Mauck’s thesis: “So far as Acts was an apology, it was an apology addressed to the Church, demonstrating Paul’s anti-gnostic orthodoxy, and his practical and doctrinal solidarity with the church at Jerusalem.”

[28] O.F. Robertson, 96.