Paul as Jesus: Luke’s Use of Recursion in Luke-Acts

My paper argues that through the literary technique of recursion, the key stories and major characters in the depiction of Paul in Acts 9-28, were strategically arranged by the author to parallel the key stories and major characters in the portrait of Jesus in the Third Gospel. Recursion is a literary device that has wide currency in the Hebrew Bible, is common to the Hellenistic literature of the day, and is part and parcel of Luke’s literary strategy. The narrative technique of recursion is the author’s conscious shaping of narrative events so that key elements of one narrative are repeated with variation in others.

I show that Luke concentrates on Paul in Acts 9-28, because to some Jewish and Gentile readers, such as described in his correspondence in 1 and 2 Corinthians and Galatians, his apostleship was suspect, handicapped by an unknown association with Jesus, an adversary of Jesus, persecuting and attempting to wipe out the church.

As part of his strategy to sanction Paul as a legitimate apostle of Christ, the author shapes selected narrative portions, beginning with Acts 9, to parallel the narratives of the Third Gospel. The major characters and key events of Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles are aligned by recursion to remind readers of the major characters and key events of Jesus’ ministry in the Third Gospel. If Jesus experienced a birth (a major event) in the Third Gospel, Paul also experienced a parallel birth in Acts. If there was a Joseph, a key figure in Jesus’ early life, there was also a Joseph in Paul’s early ministry. If Jesus experienced a major event like temptation, Gethsemane, death, and resurrection, so did Paul.

As the Acts narrative unfolds, readers are made increasingly aware of Luke’s argument: the extended depiction of Paul is a recursion of the portrait of Jesus in the Third Gospel. The more Paul looks like Jesus the founder, the more persuasive the argument.

Presented with this comprehensive and compelling series of strategically arranged recursions, a repeated imitation of Jesus, Luke’s readers could overcome suspicion and doubt about Paul and become certain (Luke 1:4) that he was a true apostle of Jesus, who guarantees the authenticity and continuity of the Christian proclamation. Luke’s legitimizing of Paul via recursion, then, is one key to understanding the content of Acts 9-28.

Tim Cole
St. Petersburg, FL
March 1, 2023

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