One of the hallmarks of our study has been the use of comparison to help us better account for the sitz im leben of the New Testament. So when we thought about analogs to the gospels, we looked at the Res Gestae Divi Augusti along with Greek biographies to get a sense of the social expectations that come with the genre. Put differently, to think about the reading the good news in the first century, we needed to look at other comparable, contemporaneous presentations of the good news.
We’ve talked about Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke as a sort of cosmic history, but what other histories might we look to in order to better understand the Acts of the Apostles?
We’re going to take a look at the Acts of the Arval Brethren.
The Acts of the Arval Brethren is a chronicle of the works carried out by a collective known as the Brothrers (cf. Brethren) of the Fields (Latin arval, field) during the Early Roman Period. The brothers were a collective of 12 priests who were dedicated to maintaining sacrifice and customs to the deities in charge of agriculture and fertility. This brotherhood was in practice during the time of the Roman Republic–the socio-political state in power on the Italian Peninsula from the 5th c. BCE to the 1st c. BCE (prior to the rise of Augustus and his empire).
The fraternity fell out of use toward the end of the Republic but was one of many local cults that was rehabilitated by Augustus, who used these collectives to solidify his own base. He–and his successors–were happy to welcome any group whose customs could help maintain the social order. In this case, the Arval Brethren’s customs seemed to maintain life and vitality in accordance with the will of the gods. And as long as such acts helped people associate that will to the will of the ruling Caesar, it was good.
The Acts of the Arval Brethren detail the good things done by this particular collective as well as for whom they are good. We read about particular customs carried out (sacrifices, prayers, offerings, etc.), who was ruling at the time, and the occasion on which these acts should be seen as good in the eyes of Caesar and anyone reading the Acts.
Take a look at The Acts of the Arval. And jot down the ways in which you see see the Acts of the Apostles acting in a similar vein for early Jesus followers given what you know about the early Jesus collectives as well as the aforementioned genre of acts. Use our specific Bible passages as moments to make these connections.