The ending of Acts (28:16–31) is abrupt and surprising to say the least. The fate of Paul, his trial before Caesar, and whether he was able to continue travels westward are questions that Luke does not answer. As John Chrysostom noted, “The author brings his narrative to this point, and leaves the hearer thirsty for more” (Hom. Act. 55). The problem of the ending of Acts has led to numerous proposals: Luke had no more reliable information about Paul; he ran out of papyrus; he did write a third volume, but it has been lost; or Luke did not want to end with the unedifying details of Paul’s death. Troy Troftgruben’s revised dissertation completed at Princeton Theological Seminary suggests, however, that what is missing in these discussions is an analysis of how Acts concludes (instead of why it concludes as it does). The conclusion of Acts does provide closure, but a lack of understanding of how ancient writings conclude has prevented scholars from seeing how Luke gives closure to his second volume. What is needed is a comparative study of the many ways in which ancient writings provide closure.
In ch. 2 Troftgruben argues that while all writings end, not all of them conclude. To conclude is to provide closure to a book and to justify the end of the narrative, and there are numerous ways authors do this. Closure is accomplished in three ways. First, the most common endings are those which provide resolution of tension and complication. Whether it is the end of a war, the defeat of the villain, or the reunification of lovers, resolution provides a solution to the conflict in the narrative. The second means for providing closure is completion. This is often accomplished when the ending alludes to earlier portions of the narrative. This may take place through circularity where the final scene corresponds to the beginning scene, through parallelism where a final scene mirrors scenes that occur throughout the narrative or simply summarizes preceding events. The third way a narrative may conclude is through “terminal markers” such as closing scenes (e.g., a funeral), a closing comment from the author, or a summary of past events. But endings do not always provide closure. An open ending produces the sense that the ending is unjustified and that there is more to the story. In addition to irresolution and incompletion, a narrative’s ending may remain open through “tangents”—where an ending contains topics unrelated to the rest of the narrative—and “linkage”—where the story refers to components of a narrative laying outside the boundaries of the current narrative. Given these ways of providing closure or openness, the interpreter of Acts needs to ask, “What kind of closure/openness is provided by the ending?”
In ch. 3 Troftgruben presents a study of endings and closure in ancient literature. Prose fiction tends to end with closure. For example, all of the extant Greek novels end with resolution—specifically, the reunification of separated lovers. Many of them also conclude with terminal markers such as “so concludes the story of . . .” or “I think that this final chapter will be most pleasurable to my readers.” Similarly, with ancient biography one finds numerous techniques for closure. Terminal markers such as a list of descendants, funerary events, and explicit summarizing words from the narrator end many of Plutarch’s Lives. Or in Cato Minor narrative expectations are fulfilled as Cato’s prophecy regarding the rise of Caesar is fulfilled later in the biography. Further, the death of Cato functions as a representative scene (“completion”) as his death scene portrays him doing things that summarize his entire life. Ancient epics, however, have more complicated endings. On the one hand, the Iliad generates closure through circularity as both the first and the final books have scenes on Mt. Olympus regarding Zeus’s will and conversations regarding Achilles’s fate. Closure is also enabled by a focus on Achilles’s wrath and Zeus’s will. On the other hand, the epic ends without narration of the end of the Trojan War. Both the Troy’s fall and Achilles’s death are alluded to but never narrated. So in this way the ending contains aspects of closure and openness.
In chs. 4–5 Troftgruben applies his discoveries of closure and openness to the ending of Acts and suggests that the ending of Acts contains both features. Troftgruben notes numerous instances whereby the ending alludes to earlier scenes and motifs within Acts as well as the Gospel. For example, Acts 28:17–20 provides a clear summary of Paul’s previous trials (chs. 22–26). In addition, it recalls Paul’s typical practice of first seeking out local Jews. His claim that he is on trial for “the hope of Israel” (28:20) summarizes one of the main emphases of his defense speeches (cf. 23:6; 24:15). Further, Paul’s speech to the Jews in Acts 28:23–28 concludes numerous proclamations throughout Luke-Acts, including Jesus in Nazareth (Luke 4:16–30), Peter at Pentecost (2:14–40), and Paul in the synagogue (13:45–52). His speech recalls major motifs occurring throughout Luke-Acts (e.g., the importance of the OT scriptures and salvation to the Gentiles). There are, then, numerous indicators of narratival closure. However, there are also some surprising features of the conclusion that do not terminate the story. Troftgruben suggests that Paul’s final words to the Roman Jews (quoting Isa 6:9–10) function less as a final write-off or curse and more as a warning intended to bring about repentance. The reader is left wondering about Israel’s acceptance of God’s salvation. Further, the final summary of Paul’s apostolic witness is one of ongoing activity; thus, while the narrative is terminated, Paul’s witness continues. According to Troftgruben, “Unfulfilled expectations signify incompletion, and they hinder closure because they cause the reader to consider events beyond the end of the narrative” (p. 161).
Troftgruben rejects, however, the proposal of Daniel Marguerat, who argues that the ending of Acts imitates a rhetoric of silence thereby nudging the reader to actively end the story. In this case, the ending’s silence encourages the reader to continue Paul’s legacy in giving witness unto the ends of the earth. Marguerat points to Chrysostom, who claimed that Luke “brings his narrative to this point, and leaves the hearer thirsty so that he fills up the lack by himself through reflection.” Troftgruben contests Marguerat’s proposal, claiming that Acts is fundamentally negative about humanity’s ability to carry out God’s purposes. God’s purpose is accomplished in spite of humanity, not as a result of it. Further, Marguerat’s use of the Chrysostom quote stems from a less authentic manuscript and probably did not contain the italicized phrase. Additionally, Marguerat and others misinterpret the final scene (28:30–31) by focusing on Paul’s legacy when in reality the scene is merely “representative of the larger movement of apostolic witness” and “the fact that Paul is the particular apostle in 28:30–31 seems to have limited significance” (p. 166). The closing verses highlight God, Jesus, and the Spirit—not Paul. Instead, Troftgruben argues that the openness should be understood as a narratival means of “linkage”—that is “a form of openness that connects the story of the narrative . . . to another, subsequent story” (p. 169). This story is not a written text but is rather God’s continued saga of witness to the whole inhabited world. As was the case with the epics that made links to stories outside their own narrative, so the ending of Acts implies a design whereby God continues to bring forth salvation to the ends of the earth. Thus, the ending of Acts brings completion to the narrative while at the same time suggesting that God’s mission in the world continues throughout history.
This book fulfills the task that it sets out to accomplish. Troftgruben’s study of narrative closure and openness truly clarifies how Acts ends, and the reader is better able to discern how both aspects are present in the ending. His treatment of the endings of other ancient writings is enlightening, making comparisons with Acts 28 quite easy for the reader. In lieu of his recognition of the openness of the ending of Acts, especially intriguing is his proposal that the end makes a linkage to an ongoing divine saga. I found, however, his criticism of Marguerat’s important proposal unconvincing. Whether the ending of Acts intends a “linkage” to the narrative of God’s continuing work in the world (Troftgruben) or whether it encourages the reader to continue Paul’s witness-bearing legacy (Marguerat), both proposals rightly identify the openness of the conclusion of Acts. Troftgruben’s rejection of Marguerat’s proposal results in some odd claims. That Luke is entirely pessimistic about humanity’s ability to continue God’s work in the world and God’s work continues in spite of humanity is overstated given that Luke’s favorite term for Christ-followers is “witness.” And that Acts 28:30–31 is simply representative of the movement’s apostolic witness and has little to do with Paul himself cannot be justified. Finally, I was disappointed that Troftgruben devoted only one page to Acts 27:1–28:15 given that scholars (e.g., Daniel Marguerat and Loveday Alexander) have rightly noted that this text functions as part of the epilogue of Acts and is crucial for understanding the conclusion. Despite these criticisms, Troftgruben’s book is a valuable resource for understanding Acts 28:16–31 and one to which I will return.