Wednesday, July 21, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Matthew Sleeman, Geography and the Ascension Narrative in Acts. Society for New Testament Studies, Monograph Series 146. Cambridge/New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Pp. xi, 300. ISBN 9780521509626. $99.00.
Reviewed by Jennifer Eyl, Brown University


Matthew Sleeman's study strives to link "three poles of scholarly inquiry, namely, Christ's ascension, narrative-critical reading of Acts, and the role of geography in constructing and communicating that narrative's theological message" (3). His central argument is that the ascension of Jesus in Acts 1:9-10, as well as subsequent references to heaven, determine the organization and representation of space throughout the narrative as a whole. The book includes eight chapters, divided into two larger Parts whose organization is clear: Part I, consisting of Chapters One and Two, "unpacks the theory" underpinning his argument, while Part II "applies the theory in a 'spatialised reading of Acts 1:1-11:18'" (3).

Chapter One, which is relatively short, serves as an introduction and provides a review of ascension literature in the twentieth century. Here, Sleeman credits Mikeal Parsons' 1987 monograph1 as the precursor to the present study, and draws on Matthew Skinner's work on place and narrative setting2 to point out that setting provides not only "backdrop" for a narrative but also evokes "a host of descriptive associations which inform narrative action" (9). Thus, for example, while Acts lacks a description of ouranos, such absence "does not preclude it [heaven] from functioning as a significant setting within the narrative" (9). Indeed, Jesus' location, according to Sleeman, orders the space of Acts. Sleeman's general critique of ascension literature is that it has not sufficiently considered the ascension "within Acts as a narrative whole" (6), an oversight which he works to correct.

Chapter Two continues Sleeman's review and critique of scholarship, with a dexterous treatment of theoretical advances made in the field of human geography. Drawing on such advances, Sleeman warns of reducing Acts' geography to historicism or incidental backdrop. Here, he points to Conzelmann, whose "foundational question [as it relates to Luke-Acts] is 'In what sense. . .can Luke be described as a 'historian'?" Rather than pointing to geography "as merely locational markers" (32), Sleeman prods the reader to think about how geography operates narratively; rather than understanding Jesus' ascension as an "isolated pericope", it should be read as "an integrated narrative event generating geographical restructuring" (39). In this chapter he also introduces the concept of thirdspace. Developed by geographer Edward Soja, the notion of thirdspace is best understood by contrasting it to firstspace (external, material spatiality), and secondspace (mental projections into the material world of imagined spaces). Thirdspace, then, is "politically charged space that resists the power plays and closure of materialist firstspace and ideational secondspace, being space wherein alternative territorialities and worldviews are explored" (45). For Sleeman, Sojan thirdspace becomes useful in understanding "the ascended Christ's impact on earthly spaces within Acts" and how that impact "challenges and reshapes both (firstspace) material locations and (secondspace) ideational projections" (46).

Part II ('Exegesis'), which includes Chapter Three through Chapter Eight, examines Acts 1:1-11:18 and works to demonstrate that Jesus' ascension and subsequent location in heaven are determinative in ordering space within Acts. Given that Acts is a sequel of sorts to Luke's gospel, Sleeman asserts "Acts does not begin as a spatial tabula rasa" (64). Chapter Three focuses on Acts 1:1-26, and asserts that the 'heavenly thirdspace' (78) established in Acts 1:9-10 "presents a comprehensive spatial vision" (93) which is demonstrated repeatedly throughout the narrative. He reasserts this in Chapter Four ("Acts 2:1--6:7"), for example, when he examines the reference in Acts 2:5 to bystanders "from every nation under heaven", and later in 2:9-11 and 2:30-33 Luke's near cataloguing of so many peoples gathered in Jerusalem is, for Sleeman, organized under this heavenly thirdspace. Sleeman extends this analysis to other spaces in Acts such as "Temple-space" (104), "Sanhedrin-space" (111), and "ekklesia-space" (116). Chapter Five ("Acts 6:8-8:3") focuses this spatialized, theoretical approach primarily on Stephen. Sleeman argues persuasively that Stephen's speech extends to, and climaxes at 7:56, when the heavens open up and he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Chapter Five then continues to examine firstspace, secondspace, and thirdspace as such spatiality occurs in narrative sections concerning Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. As Acts progresses, the narrative expands out of Jerusalem. Thus, in Chapters Six ("Acts 8:4-9:31") and Seven ("Acts 9:32-11:18") Sleeman extends his analysis of the text's geographical structure to Samaria and Damascus. In addition to geographical places, he looks at the "space" associated with key figures in the text such as Saul/Paul, Ananias, Peter, Tabitha, and Cornelius. Key to understanding Sleeman's spatial exegesis in Part II is understanding his explication of Sojan thirdspace--a task which becomes tricky at times. Even in his Concluding Reflections (Chapter Eight) he acknowledges Soja is "sometimes conceptually obtuse" (256). The reader may find it challenging to discern the boundary between secondspace and thirdspace.

Sleeman is correct to provide a consistent critique of simple historicism found in traditional studies of Acts. Hopefully, scholars no longer generally assume a direct correlation between events as described in Acts and actual historical events. He is also correct to argue that "any reading for the spatiality of Acts cannot ignore the heavenly dimension of the narrative" (257). Indeed, ouranos appears almost thirty times in the text. Yet, Acts does have an historical context which ought not be ignored, even in literary analysis. While Sleeman's thoughtful study applies to Acts his extensive knowledge of geography theory (his first dissertation, in 1996, also pertained to geography), there are significant "context" shortcomings which compromise its usefulness to the historian of early Christianity. For example, an assumption of Christian uniqueness and profundity is persistent throughout the book. Jesus' ascension and arrival into heaven is referred to as "this profound relocation" (74) and Sleeman argues that "Within Acts, Jesus' ascension decentres believer-space, provoking. . .'the radical challenge to think differently, to expand your geographical imagination beyond its current limits'" (75). It is unclear whose geographical imagination is being expanded; while the (re)location may be 'profound' it was certainly not unusual in ancient Mediterranean narratives regarding gods and demi-gods. In fact, Jesus' ascension drew from a recognizable trope the purpose of which was to demonstrate the significance and authority of a dead figure. This deification/ascension image is particularly exploited in the Imperial era, beginning with the death of Julius Caesar. Luke offers nothing new, nothing radical, except perhaps to assert that an executed criminal from a provincial backwater like Galilee could also ascend to heaven. Even if ascension had not been an increasingly Imperial image, the fact is that divine figures go somewherein Greek and Roman narratives--and that somewhere is often up.

Another shortcoming of the study is that Sleeman concludes his analysis at 11:18 (which he explains on p. 60), yet there are 28 chapters in Acts. It is in these latter chapters that Acts comes to resemble very closely the style, drama, and frequent geographical relocations found in the Greek and Roman novels. Richard Pervo3 has argued persuasively that Acts and the novels are quite similar and that, rather than being a theological text exclusively, Acts is very much a text of entertainment--replete with frequent travel, shipwreck, imprisonments, snake bites, miracles, persecutions, etc. One could easily argue that geography is as central in the novels as it is in Acts, and indeed geography may be central in precisely the same way. If this is the case, the larger question might be 'how does Sojan thirdspace operate in Imperial era Mediterranean narratives (including Christian ones)?' Difference is as significant as similarity, and it is in the comparative enterprise that we find those differences and similarities. And if geography operates differently in Acts than it does in other Imperial era novels, due to an ascended Jesus, the differences need to be demonstrated and not assumed. Sleeman makes occasional reference to intertextuality, but he never considers Greek or Roman sources outside the LXX or NT.

Sleeman does not intend his project to be comparative, of course. But because he does not take into account ancient notions of geography or other examples of thirdspace in ancient narratives similar to Acts, Sleeman leaves the reader with the impression that Acts was written in a cultural vacuum dominated exclusively by Jewish and Christian images, references, influences, and notions of geography. Ultimately, this study is an example of Christian 'academic theology' (37) rather than historical scholarship. To use a geographical metaphor, the advances made by Sleeman's analysis are lateral rather than forward or upward. That is to say, he casts Acts in different terms (geographical terms), but such terms do not enrich the historian's understanding of Acts or its author in their early second-century context.


1.   Mikeal Parsons, The Departure of Jesus in Luke-Acts: The Ascension Narratives in Context. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1987.
2.   Matthew L. Skinner. Locating Paul: Places of Custody as Narrative Setting in Acts 21-28. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003.
3.   Richard Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

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