- Language and Identity in Ancient Narratives: The Relationship between Speech Patterns and Social Context in the Acts of the Apostles, Acts of John, and Acts of Philip by Julia A. Snyder
Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014
Pp. xvi + 329. €84,00.
This monograph is a revised version of the author’s doctoral thesis, submitted to the University of Edinburgh in 2013. The stated objective of the book is to demonstrate that “social factors must be considered whenever the significance of expressions in ancient texts is discussed . . .” (2). Snyder’s approach draws on sociolinguistic work on the variation of an individual’s way of speaking depending on his or her “addressees, bystanders, target, topic, setting, genre, motives, emotions, attitudes, purposes, key, voicing, and stance” (9). The book examines such intra-speaker variation in ancient Christian narratives, addressing the connection between speech patterns attributed to the characters, on the one hand, and the identities of the respective authors and their addressees, on the other. The study takes substantive references to Jesus and the apostles’ God as the linguistic variables and “Christian status” as well as “gentile-Jewish identity” (26) as sociological variables and asks about the correlation between the two types of variables.
After explaining her theoretical background and method in Chapter One, Snyder presents a series of case studies in Chapters Two to Four, analyzing single manuscripts of the Acts of the Apostles, the Acts of John, and the Acts of Philip, and offering conclusions in Chapter Five. Without discussing the details of each chapter, we can mention some of their main findings. In Acts, Christians speak differently to other Christians, non-Christian Jews, and non-Christian gentiles, respectively. In the Acts of John, the apostle uses different references to God and Jesus when addressing non-Christian or unestablished Christian characters than he does when talking to established Christians. Based on linguistic analysis, Snyder suggests that the Acts of John was written for established Christians rather than for evangelistic purposes. Finally, the Acts of Philip displays great variation when it comes to sociolinguistic characteristics, which supports the suggestion of previous scholarship that the compilers of this writing did not harmonize their sources.
The main strength of this book lies in the lucid treatment of linguistic theory and the piecemeal analysis of the sources. Although most scholars of biblical [End Page 659] literature would agree with the overall thesis that social factors must be considered when discussing the significance of expressions in ancient texts, how one undertakes such analysis methodically is far from evident. As the author indicates, the study is meant above all as a demonstration of principle, inviting future work to broaden its scope. Therefore, it should not count against the book that the results mostly confirm what interpreters of the respective texts already suggested by using other methods. It is a good sign if a new method replicates some established results. But when applied to the Acts of John, Snyder’s conclusions in fact weigh in convincingly against a widely supported hypothesis about the intended audience of the book.
The choice to analyze single manuscripts (18–21) is logical but not without problems. The approach is relatively easy to justify in the case of the Apocryphal Acts, which have been transmitted in fragments that modern scholars are trying to stitch together with varying success. Things get more complicated when working on canonical texts, of which we have a much richer manuscript tradition. In either case, working with a single manuscript rather than with a reconstructed “original” text raises the question of what we should consider as the sociological context. When using a text-critical reconstruction of a writing, the linguistic evidence is certainly “contaminated” to some degree, but one is justified in connecting the text to a certain time and place. When working with a single manuscript, in contrast, the entire history of the manuscript becomes the context. For example, speaking of the two manuscripts of the Acts of John used in Chapter Three...