Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Sceva Episode (Part 1)

Like so many others, I have been puzzled about the rhetoric of Acts 19.13-16, the story of the seven sons of Sceva casting out evil spirits. I believe that Luke may have 1 Samuel 2 inmind as a subnarrative for this story. (See also my posts:;

Recall that in Acts 19, there are seven (hepta) sons, yet Luke says that the evil spirit takes down "both" (amphoteron). Here are some comments from Lucan scholars on the reconciling "seven" with "both":

Barrett (ICC, 911): 'amphoteron would normally mean both, which is inconsistent with hepta in v. 14. ...There are a few somewhat later papyrus examples of the use of amphoteroi in the sense of all and it is probably best to suppose that Luke here gives us the earliest known occurrence.'

Fitzmyer (AB, 650): '[Of v. 16] overpowerd them all. Lit., "overpowering both of them." The pron. amphoteron, "both of them", is strange, implying that the sons were two. This reading of the Alexandrian text is in conflict with hepta, "seven (sons)" of c. 14. Some MSS read simply auton, "them", thus eliminating the problem. For a farfetched attempt to explain amphoteron as referring to the two names just mentioned, Jesus and Paul, see Lattey..." Regarding v. 14, "seven", Fitzmyer says, 'For a farfetched suggestion that the text read 'two sons', thus making the word amphoteron in v. 16 unintelligiable, instead of "seven sons", see Torrey.... Torrey maintains that the cipher for 2 was confused with one for 7.'

L. T. Johnson (SP, 340, 341): 'The Western Text tries to correct the apparent disconnectedness of this verse: "amond them also were the [seven] sons...". The textual evidence for "seven" is uncertain, possibly because of the inconsistency that Luke introduces with the use of amphoteros ("both") in v. 16. ...There is an obvious tension between the "seven sons" in v. 14 and the "both" who are overwhelmed here, unless we take amphoteroi in the broad Hellenistic sense of "all".'

Conzelmann (Herm, 164): 'either [Luke's] source spoke of two exorcists, in which case amphoteron has the sense of "both", or Luke uses the word with its loose Hellenistic sense, "all" (RSV).'

Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament: 'Some have felt a difficulty that hepta in ver. 14 changes ver. 16 to "two" (amphoteroi, though occasionally in substandard Greek amphoteroi has the meaning of "all"). [Metzger then mentions several different suggestions from the likes of Moulton, Clark, Torrey, Overbeck, and Naber.] ...The difficulty of reconciling hepta with amphoteroi, however, is not so great as to render the text that includes both an impossible text. On the other hand, however, the difficulty is so troublesome that it is hard to explain how hepta came into the text, and was perpetuated, if it were not original, whereas, in view of amphoteroi, it is easy to see how it might have been omitted.'

Also, there is that funny reference to "that house" (oikou ekeinou) at the close of the story. Here are some commentators on "that house":

Barrett (ICC, 911): 'This [oikou ekeinou] should refer back to a previously mentioned house; there is none. ...Rooff concludes from the unexplained reference to a house that Luke is abbreviating tradition. But the whole of vv. 14-16 creates a somewhat unsatisfactory impression, which probably accounts for the rewriting in D. One is inclined to suppose that a fragmentary and unsatisfactory tradition narrative has been incorporated here; its unsatisfactory state might be held to speak well for Luke's faithfulness to tradition. But he could have tidied it up without unfaithfulness, and it is hard to know why he did not' [italics mine].

L. T. Johnson (SP, 341): 'There is also the unexpected appearance of "that house" which had not previously been mentioned. In general, this is not the most carefully crafted of Luke's vignettes.'

I also noted before that Luke moves from "spirits" (pl.) to "spirit" (sg.) seemingly arbitrarily. Conzelmann on this (Herm., 163): 'humas, "you," is plural in agreement with the plural pneumata, "spirits"; this is redactional - the original version knew only of one demon.'

On the overall awkwardness of the passage, Conzelmann (164): 'The incorporation of the individual story into the context has resulted in some confusion. At this point more descriptive material should have been given (and originally was included) in which the encounter with the demon and the speaking of the formula of exorcism were described. But Luke has already anticipated that and immediately moves beyond it; he goes abruptly into the midst of the action. No setting is introduced until vs 16. The demon is not driven out, but begins to debate; with that it has already won the contest.'

I agree with Conzelmann on one thig: 'The high priest Sceva is a purely legendary figure' (164). I believe Luke is mocking Theophilus and his family, thus not meaning to refer to any historical figure named "Sceva".

My Conclusion

My suggestion that Luke has written this portion sloppily because he has an undernarrative in mind makes good sense of the data, and of the many questions involving the text, as demonstrated by first-rate scholars above. Luke has used the subnarrative of 1 Samuel 2 before in implicating the priesthood (cf. In Acts, he has unusually harkened back to Samuel's testimony to Jesus and the new age (Ac3.24; cf. 13.20). (Samuel is only mentioned elsewhere in the NT at Heb11.32). In 1 Samuel 2, we read of the corruption and fate of Eli's two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, and how their house will be desolate, in the wake of a new house built by the faithful priest promised of God. Luke has this story, the epitome of examples regarding the corruption of the priesthood, in mind while writing Luke-Acts. By the time he comes to the later chapters in Acts, when Theophilus and his family had no longer run the Temple or been involved in the events Luke describes, and Luke did not have grounds for criticizing him any longer, Luke employed this Sceva character, who supposedly had seven sons (Theophilus, his father Annas, his four brothers, and his brother-in-law Caiaphas) who could not do what Paul & co. were able to do in Jesus' name and for God's kingdom. Therefore, Luke can slip in a comment of "both of them", referring to the sons of Sceva, though he had previously mentioned "seven" sons. He has Hophni and Phinehas in mind. This is further confirmed by the puzzling reference to "that house" at the close of the pericope where there is no antecedent "house" present.

There is also the possibility of writer fatigue in Luke's mind and hand. He has Hophni and Phinehas in mind, but in his fatigue allows them to get into his fingers as he writes, so as to be "confusing", according to scholars.

This suggestion is consistent with Luke's use of 1 Samuel 2 in GLuke to show that Jesus is the faithful priest foretold by God to Eli. Thus, Luke is using the story to criticize the priesthood of his day, of which Theophilus and his family were members.

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