The Acts of the Apostles (Greek Praxeis Apostolon) is a book of the Bible, which now stands fifth in the New Testament. Abbreviated in Bible citation: Act.
The author names it "treatise" (1:1). It was early called "The Acts", "The Gospel of the Holy Ghost", and "The Gospel of the Resurrection". It contains properly no account of any of the apostles except Peter and Paul. John the Apostle is mentioned only three times (3:1-4, 11; 4:1f, 13); and all that is recorded of his brother James is his execution by Herod (properly known as Agrippa I).
Internal evidence shows that it was the companion and sequel of the Gospel of Luke; its separation from that gospel occurred prior to any surviving manuscript. Historically it is of unique interest and value: there is no other book like it within the New Testament or outside it. The so-called Apocryphal Acts of certain apostles, while witnessing to the impression produced by our Acts as a type of edifying literature, only emphasize this fact. It is the one really primitive Church history, primitive in spirit as in substance; apart from it a connected picture of the Apostolic Age would be impossible. With it, the Pauline Epistles are of priceless historical value; without it, they would remain bafflingly fragmentary and incomplete, often even misleading.
Plan and Purpose
All agree that the Acts of the Apostles is the work of an author of no mean skill, and that he has exercised careful selection in the use of his materials, in keeping with a definite purpose and plan. It is of moment, then, to discover from his emphasis, whether by iteration or by fullness of scale, what objects he had in mind in writing. Here it is not needful to go farther back than FC Baur and the Tübingen school, with its theory of sharp antitheses between Judaic and Gentile Christianity, of which they took the original apostles and Paul respectively as typical. Gradually their statement of this position underwent serious modifications, as it became realized that neither Jewish nor Gentile Christianity was a uniform genus, but included several species, and that the apostolic leaders from the first stood for mutual understanding and unity.
Hence the Tübingen school did its chief work in putting the needful question, not in returning the correct answer. Their answer could not be correct, because, as Ritschl showed (in his Altkath. Kirche, 2nd ed., 1857), their premises were inadequate. Still the attitude created by the Tübingen theory largely persists as a biassing element in much that is written about Acts. On the whole, however, there is a disposition to look at the book more objectively and to follow up the hints as to its aim given by the author in his opening verses.
- His second narrative is the natural sequel to his first. As the earlier one set forth in orderly sequence (kathexes) the providential stages by which Jesus was led, "in the power of the Spirit," to begin the establishment of the consummated Kingdom of God, so the later work aims at setting forth on similar principles its extension by means of His chosen representatives or apostles. This involves emphasis on the identity of the power, Divine and not merely human, expressed in the great series of facts from first to last.
- The Holy Spirit appears as directing and energizing throughout the whole struggle with the powers of evil to be overcome in either ministry, of Master or disciples. But
- the continuity is more than similarity of activity resting on the same Divine energy. The working of the energy in the disciples is conditioned by the continued life and volition of their Master at His Father's right hand in heaven. The Holy Spirit, "the Spirit of Jesus," is the living link between Master and disciples. Hence the pains taken to exhibit (1:2, 4f, 8, 2:1ff; cf. Luke 24:49) the fact of such spiritual solidarity, whereby their activity means His continued action in the world. And
- the scope of this action is nothing less than humanity (2:5ff.), especially within the Roman Empire. It was foreordained that Messiah's witnesses should be borne by Divine power through all obstacles and to ever-widening circles, until they reached and occupied Rome itself for the God of Israel--now manifest (as foretold by Israel's own prophets) as the one God of the one race of mankind.
- Finally, as we gather from the parallel account in Luke 24:46-48, the divinely appointed method of victory is through suffering (Acts 14:22).
This explains the large space devoted to the tribulations of the witnesses, and their constancy amid them, after the type of their Lord Himself. It forms one side of the virtual apologia for the absence of that earthly prosperity in which the pagan mind was apt to see the token of Divine approval.
Another side is the recurring exhibition of the fact that these witnesses were persecuted only by those whose action should create no bias against the persecuted. Their foes were chiefly Jews, whose opposition was due partly to a stiff-necked disinclination to bow to the wider reading of their own religion --to which the Holy Spirit had from of old been pointing (cf. the prominence given to this idea in Stephen's long speech)--and partly to jealousy of those who, by preaching the wider Evangelical Mission, were winning over the Gentiles, and particularly proselytes, in such great numbers.
Such, then, seem to be the author's main motifs. They make up an account fairly adequate to the manifoldness of the book; yet they may be summed up in three ideas, together constituting the moral which this history of the expansion of Christianity aims at bringing home to its readers. These are the universality of the Gospel, the jealousy of national Judaism, and the Divine initiative manifest in the gradual stages by which men of Jewish birth were led to recognize the Divine will in the setting aside of national restrictions, alien to the universal destiny of the Church. The practical moral is the Divine character of the Christian religion, as evinced by the manner of its extension in the empire, no less than by its original embodiment in the Founder's life and death. Thus both parts of the author's work alike tend to produce assured conviction of Christianity as of Divine origin (Luke 1:1, 4; Acts 1:1f.).
This view has the merit of giving the book a practical religious aim -- a sine qua non to any theory of an early Christian writing. Though meant for men of pagan birth in the first instance, it is to them as inquirers or even converts, such as "Theophilus," that the argument is addressed. In spite of all difficulties, this religion is worthy of personal belief, even though it mean opposition and suffering. Among the features of the occasion which suggested the need of such an appeal was doubtless the existence of persecution by the Roman authorites, perhaps largely at the instigation of local Judaism. To meet this special perplexity, the author holds up the picture of early days, when the great protagonist of the Gospel constantly enjoyed protection at the hands of Roman justice. It is implied that the present distress is but a passing phase, resting on some misunderstanding; meantime, the example of apostolic constancy should yield strong reassurance. The Acts of the Apostles is in fact an Apology for the Church as distinct from Judaism, the breach with which is accordingly traced with great fulness and care.
From this standpoint Acts no longer seems to end abruptly. Whether as exhibiting the Divine leading and aid, or as recording the impartial and even kindly attitude of the Roman State towards the Christians, the writer has reached a climax. "He wished," as Harnack well remarks, "to point out the might of the Holy Spirit in the apostles, Christ's witnesses; and to show how this might carried the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome and gained for it entrance into the pagan world, whilst the Jews in growing degree incurred rejection. In keeping with this, verses 26-28 of chapter 28 are the solemn closing verses of the work. But verses 30, 31 are an appended observation."
Yet the writer is, in fact, ending up most fitly on one of his keynotes, in that he leaves Paul preaching in Rome itself, "unmolested." Paulus Romae, apex Evangelii.
The full force of this is missed by those who, while rejecting the idea that the author had in reserve enough Pauline history to furnish another work, yet hold that Paul was freed from the imprisonment amid which Acts leaves him. But for those, on the other hand, who see in the writer's own words in 20:38, uncontradicted by anything in the sequel, a broad hint that Paul never saw his Ephesian friends again, the natural view is open that the sequel to the two years' preaching was too well known to call for explicit record. Nor would such silence touching Paul's speedy martyrdom be disingenuous, any more than on the theory that martyrdom overtook him several years later. The writer views Paul's death (like the horrors of Nero's Vatican Gardens in 64) as a mere exception to the rule of Roman policy heretofore illustrated. Not even by the Roman authorities were some of Nero's acts regarded as precedents.
External evidence, which is relatively early and widespread (e.g. Muratorian fragment, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement and Origen), all points to Luke, the companion and fellow-worker of Paul (Philemon 24), who probably accompanied him as physician also (Colossians 4:14). If, as some scholars believe, 2 Timothy was written during Paul's imprisonment at Rome, Luke was with him then as his faithful companion to the last (2 Tim. 4:11). It must be noted too that evidence for his authorship of the third Gospel counts also for Acts (compare Luke 1:1-4 with Acts 1:1). Although the writer nowhere mentions himself by name, the tradition of Luke's authorship of these works stretches back at least to the second quarter of the 2nd century to (Justin, Dial. 103, and most probably Marcion), when Luke no doubt stood at the head of the Gospel. Even Eusebius, who knew the earliest Christian literature intimately, is unaware of any other tradition of authorship.
If, then, the traditional Lucan authorship is to be doubted, it must be on internal evidence only. The form of the book, however, in all respects favors Luke, who was of non-Jewish birth (see Col. 4:12-14 compared with 10f), and as a physician presumably a man of culture. The medical cast of much of its language, which is often of a highly technical nature, points strongly the same way; while the early tradition that Luke was born in Antioch admirably suits the fulness with which the origin of the Antiochene Church and its place in the further extension of the Gospel are described. Again, the attitude of Acts towards the Roman Empire is just what would be expected from a close comrade of Paul (compare Sir W.M. Ramsay , St Paul the Traveller and Roman Citizen, 1895), but was hardly likely to be shared by one of the next generation, reared in an atmosphere of resentment, first at Nero's conduct and then at the persecuting policy of the Flavian emperors.
Finally, the book itself seems to claim to be written by a companion of Paul. In 16:10 the writer, without any previous warning, passes from the third person to the first. Paul had reached Troas. There he saw a vision inviting him to go to Macedonia. "But when he saw the vision, straightway we sought to go forth into Macedonia." Thenceforth "we" re-emerges three moretimes in the narrative (20:5-22; 21:12-18;27:1-28:16) until Rome is reached. (The Western text of Acts, discussed more fully below, attests to the first person plural being used at 11:28, a variant that has attracted the speculation of many scholars.) Irenaeus (iii. 14. 1) quotes these passages as proof that Luke, the author, was a companion of the apostle. The minute character of the narrative, the accurate description of the various journeyings, the unimportance of some of the details, especially some of the incidents of the shipwreck, are strong reasons for believing that the narrative is that of an eyewitness. If so, we can scarcely help coming to the conclusion that this eye-witness was the author of the work; for the style of this eye-witness is exactly the style of the writer who composed the previous portions (see Harnack, Lukas der Arzt, reinforcing the argument as already worked out by B. Weiss, 1893, and especially by Sir J. C. Hawkins in Horae Synopticae, 1899, pp. 143-147).
So far from the recognition of a plan in Acts being inimical to a quest after the materials used in its composition, one may say that it points the way thereto, while it keeps the literary analysis within scientific limits. The more one realizes the standpoint of the mind pervading the book as a whole, the more one feels that the speeches in the first part of Acts (e.g. that of Stephen) -- and indeed elsewhere, too -- are not "free compositions" of our author, the mere outcome of dramatic idealization such as ancient historians like Thucydides or Polybius allowed themselves. The Christology, for instance of the early Petrine speeches is such as a Gentile Christian writing c. 80 simply could not have imagined. Thus we are forced to assume the use of a certain amount of early Judaeo-Christian material, in the manner in which he used the Gospel of Mark and the Q source in compiling his own Gospel.
C.C. Torrey expressed these suspicions in his thesis (The Composition and the Dates of Acts, 1916) that an Aramaic source underlay the text of Acts 1-15, arguing from (1) the preoccupation of this section on the church at Jerusalem, and on the church's Judaic background, and (2) a Semitic coloring of the language, which he argued was "distinctly translation-Greek" with a number of peculiarities in the language that he claimed were "Semiticisms". While the recovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls have provided us with an irrefutable sample of the language of Palestine in the 1st century AD, severely undermining Torrey's lingusitic arguments, study of the content has led to a general consensus that the author drew from a set of sources associated with Peter that originated in Jerusalem, and a set of sources associated with Paul that, at least in part, originated in Antioch.
In the second half which focuses almost exclusively on Paul's activities, we are confronted by the so-called "we" passages. Their explanation have led to several theories: (1) they are traces of an earlier document -- whether entries in a travel-diary, or a more or less consecutive narrative written later; (2) the use of "we" was due to the author's lapsing unconsciously into the first person plural at certain points where he felt specially identified with the history; (3) or this use of "we" was a feature of an ancient convention when talking about sea-travel (a thesis proposed by V.K. Robbins in 1975, and embraced by such scholars as Helmut Koester). The first hypothesis raises the issue whether the "we" document does or does not lie behind more of the narrative than is definitely indicated by the formula in question (e.g. 13-15, 21:19-16). The second likewise leads to the question whether the presence or absence of "we" may be due to the writer's absorption in his narrative causes, rather than to the writer's mere presence or absence. However, this alternation from third person to first person plural may be due to emphasis, as M. Hengel explains:
- "We therefore appears in travel accounts because Luke simple wanted to indicate that he was there. However, his personal experiences are uninteresting. Paul remains the sole focal point.
- (Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983)
Robbins' suggestion has been treated with a certain amount of scepticism based on the examples he has produced for this genre; his examples are drawn from ancient Egyptian, as well as from Mesopotamian, literature, and even his Greek examples are fraught with problems that include the fact many of the examples come from narratives told in the first person. As Joseph A. Fitzmyer notes in his commentary to the Anchor Bible translation of Acts, "this 'conventional' literary device is more alleged than demonstrated."
In both parts, it is very likely that the author collected materials from oral tradition, if not directly from different witnesses. He would have the opportunity to collect materials, varying no doubt in accuracy, but all relatively primitive, whether in Antioch or in Caesarea Palaestina, where he probably resided for some two years in contact with men like Philip the Evangelist (21:8). There and elsewhere he might also learn a good deal from John, surnamed Mark, Peter's friend (1 Peter 5:13; Acts 12:12).
The question of authorship is largely bound up with that as to the quality of the contents as history. Acts is divided into two distinct parts. The first (chapters 1 - 12) deals with the church in Jerusalem and Judaea, and with Peter as central figure -- at any rate in the first five chapters. "Yet in cc. vi.-xii.," as Harnack observes,
- the author pursues several lines at once. (1) He has still in view the history of the Jerusalem community and the original apostles (especially of Peter and his missionary labours); (2) he inserts in vi. 1 ff. a history of the Hellenistic Christians in Jerusalem and of the Seven Men, which from the first tends towards the Gentile Mission and the founding of the Antiochene community; (3) he pursues the activity of Philip in Samaria and on the coast...; (4) lastly, he relates the history of Paul up to his entrance on the service of the young Antiochene church. In the small space of seven chapters he pursues all these lines and tries also to connect them together, at the same time preparing and sketching the great transition of the Gospel from Judaism to the Greek world. As historian, he has here set himself the greatest task.
No doubt gaps abound in these seven chapters. "But the inquiry as to whether what is narrated does not even in these parts still contain the main facts, and is not substantially trustworthy, is not yet concluded." The difficulty is that we have but few external means of testing this portion of the narrative. Some of it may well have suffered partial transformation in oral tradition belore reaching our author; e.g. the nature of Speaking the Tongues at Pentecost does not accord with what we know of the gift of "tongues" generally. The second part pursues the history of the apostle Paul; and here we can compare the statements made in the Acts with the Epistles. The result is a general harmony, without any trace of direct use of these letters; and there are many minute coincidences. But attention has been drawn to two remarkable exceptions: the account given by Paul of his visits to Jerusalem in Galatians as compared with Acts; and the character and mission of the apostle Paul, as they appear in his letters and in Acts.
In regard to the first point, the differences as to Paul's movements until he returns to his native province of Syria-Cilicia do not really amount to more than can be explained by the different interests of Paul and our author respectively. But it is otherwise as regards the visits of Gal. 2:1-10 and Acts 15. If they are meant to refer to the same occasion, as is usually assumed, it is hard to see why Paul should omit reference to the public occasion of the visit, as also to the public vindication of his policy. But in fact the issues of the two visits, as given in Gal. 2:9f and Acts 15:20f, are not at all the same. Nay more, if Gal. 2:1-10 = Acts 15, the historicity of the "Relief visit" of Acts 11:30, 12:25, seems definitely excluded by Paul's narrative of events before the visit of Gal. 2:1ff. Accordingly, Sir W. M. Ramsay and others argue that the latter visit itself coincided with the Relief visit, and even see in Gal. 2:10 witness thereto.
But why, then, does not Paul refer to the public charitable object of his visit? It seems easier therefore to admit that the visit of Galatians 2:1ff is one altogether unrecorded in Acts, owing to its private nature as preparing the way for public developments -- with which Acts is mainly concerned. In that case it would fall shortly before the Relief visit, to which there may be tacit explanatory allusion, in Gal. 2:10; and it will be shown below that such a conference of leaders in Gal.2:1ff leads up excellently both to the First Mission Journey and to Acts 15.
We pass next to the Paul of Acts. Paul insists that he was appointed the apostle to the Gentiles, as Peter was to the Circumcision; and that circumcision and the observance of the Jewish law were of no importance to the Christian as such. His words on these points in all his letters are strong and decided. But in Acts it is Peter who first opens up the way for the Gentiles. It is Peter who uses the strongest language in regard to the intolerable burden of the Law as a means of salvation (15:10f, cf. 1). Not a word is said of any difference of opinion between Peter and Paul at Antioch (Gal. 2:11 ff). The brethren in Antioch send Paul and Barnabas up to Jerusalem to ask the opinion of the apostles and elders: they state their case, and carry back the decision to Antioch. Throughout the whole of Acts Paul never stands forth as the unbending champion of the Gentiles. He seems continually anxious to reconcile the Jewish Christians to himself by personally observing the law of Moses. He circumcises the semi-Jew, Timothy; and he performs his vows in the temple. He is particularly careful in his speeches to show how deep is his respect for the law of Moses. In all this the letters of Paul are very different from Acts. In Galatians he claims perfect freedom in principle, for himself as for the Gentiles, from the obligatory observance of the law; and neither in it nor in Corinthians does he take any notice of a decision to which the apostles had come in their meeting at Jerusalem. The narrative of Acts, too, itself implies something other than what it sets in relief; for why should the Jews hate Paul so much, if he was not in some sense disloyal to their Law?
There is, nevertheless, no essential contradiction here, only such a difference of emphasis as belongs to the standpoints and aims of the two writers amid their respective historical conditions. Peter's function in relation to the Gentiles belongs to the early Palestinian conditions, before Paul's distinctive mission had taken shape. Once Paul's apostolate -- a personal one, parallel with the more collective apostolate of "the Twelve" -- has proved itself by tokens of Divine approval, Peter and his colleagues frankly recognize the distinction of the two missions, and are anxious only to arrange that the two shall not fall apart by religiously and morally incompatible usages (Acts 15). Paul, on his side, clearly implies that Peter felt with him that the Law could not justify (Gal. 2:15 ff), and argues that it could not now be made obligatory in principle (cf. "a yoke," Acts 15:10); yet for Jews it might continue for the time (pending the Parousia) to be seemly and expedient, especially for the sake of non-believing Judaism. To this he conformed his own conduct as a Jew, so far as his Gentile apostolate was not involved (1 Cor. 9:19 ff). There is no reason to doubt that Peter largely agreed with him, since he acted in this spirit in Gal. 2:11f, until coerced by Jerusalem sentiment to draw back for expediency's sake. This incident it simply did not fall within the scope of Acts to narrate, since it had no abiding effect on the Church's extension. As to Paul's submission of the issue in Acts 15 to the Jerusalem conference, Acts does not imply that Paul would have accepted a decision in favour of the Judaizers, though he saw the value of getting a decision for his own policy in the quarter to which they were most likely to defer. If the view that he already had an understanding with the "Pillar" Apostles, as recorded in Gal. ii. 1-10, be correct, it gives the best of reasons why he was ready to enter the later public Conference of Acts 15. Paul's own "free" attitude to the Law, when on Gentile soil, is just what is implied by the hostile rumors as to his conduct in Acts 21:21, which he would be glad to disprove as at least exaggerated (verses 24 and 26).
The speeches in Acts deserve special notice. Did its author follow the plan adopted by all historians of his age, or is he an exception? Ancient historians (like many of modern times) used the liberty of working up in their own language the speeches recorded by them. They did not dream of verbal fidelity; even when they had more exact reports before them, they preferred to mould a speaker's thoughts to their own methods of presentation. Besides this, some did not hesitate to give to the characters of their history speeches which were never uttered. The method of direct speech, so useful in producing a vivid idea of what is supposed to have passed through the mind of the speaker, was used to give force to the narrative. Now how far has the author of Acts followed the practice of his contemporaries? Some of his speeches are evidently but summaries of thoughts which occurred to individuals or multitudes. Others claim to be reports of speeches really delivered. But all these speeches have to a large extent the same style, the style also of the narrative. They have been passed though one editorial mind, and some mutual assimilation in phraseology and idea may well have resulted. They are, moreover, all of them, the merest abstracts. The speech of Paul at Athens, as given by Luke, would not occupy more than a minute or two in delivery. But these circumstances, while inconsistent with verbal accuracy, do not destroy authenticity; and in most of the speeches (e.g. 14:15-17) there is a varied appropriateness as well as an allusiveness, pointing to good information. There is no evidence that any speech in Acts is the free composition of its author, without either written or oral basis; and in general he seems more conscientious than most ancient historians touching the essentials of historical accuracy, even as now understood.
Objections to the trustworthiness of Acts on the ground of its miracles require to be stated more discriminately than has sometimes been the case. Particularly is this so as regards the question of authorship. As Harnack observes (Lukas der Arzt, p. 24), the "miraculous" or supernormal element is hardly, if at all, less marked in the "we" sections, which are substantially the witness of a companion of Paul (and where efforts to dissect out the miracles are fruitless), than in the rest of the work. The scientific method, then, is to consider each "miracle" on its own merits, according as we find reason to suppose that it has reached our author more or less directly. But the record of miracle as such cannot prejudice the question of authorship. Even the form in which the gift of Tongues at Pentecost is conceived does not tell against a companion of Paul, since it may have stood in his source, and the first outpouring of the Messianic Spirit may soon have come to be thought of as unique in some respects, parallel in fact to the Rabbinic tradition as to the inauguration of the Covenant at Sinai (cf. Philo, De decem oraculis, 9, 11, and the Midrash on Psalms 68:11).
Finally as to such historical difficulties in Acts as still perplex the student of the Apostolic age, one must remember the possibilities of mistake intervening between the facts and the accounts reaching its author, at second or even third hand. Yet it must be strongly emphasized, that recent historical research at the hands of experts in classical antiquity has tended steadily to verify such parts of the narrative as it can test, especially those connected with Paul's missions in the Roman Empire. That is no new result; but it has come to light in greater degree of recent years, notably through Sir W. M. Ramsay's researches. The proofs of trustworthiness extend also to the theological sphere. What was said above of the Christology of the Petrine speeches applies to the whole conception of Messianic salvation, the eschatology, the idea of Jesus as equipped by the Holy Spirit for His Messianic work, found in these speeches, as also to titles like "Jesus the Nazarene" and "the Righteous One" both in and beyond the Petrine speeches. These and other cases in which we are led to discern very primitive witness behind Acts, do not indeed give to such witness the value of shorthand notes or even of abstracts based thereon. But they do support the theory that our author meant to give an unvarnished account of such words and deeds as had come to his knowledge. The perspective of the whole is no doubt his own; and as his witnesses probably furnished but few hints for a continuous narrative, this perspective, especially in things chronological, may sometimes be faulty. Yet when one remembers that by AD 70-80 it must have been a matter of small interest by what tentative stages the Messianic salvation first extended to the Gentiles, it is surely surprising that Acts enters into such detail on the subject, and is not content with a summary account of the matter such as the mere logic of the subject would naturally suggest. In any case, the very difference of the perspective of Acts and of Galatians, in recording the same epochs in Paul's history, argues such an independence in the former as is compatible only with an early date.
Quellenkritik , then, a distinctive feature of recent research upon Acts, solves many difficulties in the way of treating it as an honest narrative by a companion of Paul. In addition, we may also count among recent gains a juster method of judging such a book. For among the results of the Tubingen criticism was what Dr W. Sanday calls "an unreal and artificial standard, the standard of the 19th century rather than the 1st, of Germany rather than Palestine, of the lamp and the study rather than of active life." This has a bearing, for instance, on the differences between the three accounts of Paul's conversion in Acts. In the recovery of a more real standard, we owe much to men like Mommsen, Ramsay, Blass and Harnack, trained amid other methods and traditions than those which had brought the constructive study of Acts almost to a deadlock.
The structure of the book of Luke is closely tied with the structure of Acts. Both books are most easily tied to the geography of the book. Luke begins with a global perspective, dating the birth of Christ to the reign of the Roman emperors in Luke 2:1 and 3:1. From there we see Jesus’ ministry move from Galilee (chapters 4-9), through Samaria and Judea (chapters 10-19), to Jerusalem where he is crucified, raised and ascended into heaven (chapters 19-24). The book of Acts follows just the opposite motion, taking the scene from Jerusalem (chapters 1-5), to Judea and Samaria (chapters 6-9), then traveling through Syria, Asia Minor, and Europe towards Rome (chapters 9-28). This chiastic structure emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection and ascension to Luke’s message, while emphasizing the universal nature of the gospel.
This geographic structure is foreshadowed in Acts 1:8, where Jesus says “you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem (chapters 1-5), and in all Judea and Samaria (chapters 6-9), and even to the remotest part of the earth (chapters 10-28).” The first two sections (chapters 1-9) represent the witness of the apostles to the Jews, while the last section (chapters 10-28) represent the witness of the apostles to the Gentiles.
The book of Acts can also be broken down by the major characters of the book. While the complete title of the book is the Acts of the Apostles, really the book focuses on only two of the apostles: Peter (chapters 1-12) and Paul (chapters 13-28).
Within this structure, the sub-points of the book are marked by a series of summary statements, or what one commentary calls a “progress report.” Just before the geography of the scene shifts to a new location, Luke summarizes how the gospel has impacted that location. The standard for these progress reports is in 2:46-47, where Luke describes the impact of the gospel on the new church in Jerusalem. The remaining progress reports are located:
Acts 6:7 – Impact of the gospel in Jerusalem. 9:31 – Impact of the gospel in Judea and Samaria. 12:24 – Impact of the gospel in Syria. 16:5 – Impact of the gospel in Asia Minor. 19:20 – Impact of the gospel in Europe. 28:31 – Impact of the gospel on Rome
This structure can be also seen as a series of concentric circles, where the gospel begins in the center, Jerusalem, and is expanding ever outward to Judea & Samaria, Syria, Asia Minor, Europe, and eventually to Rome.
External evidence now points to the existence of Acts at least as early as the opening years of the 2nd century. As evidence for the Third Gospel holds equally for Acts, its existence in Marcion's day (120 - 140) is now assured. Further, the traces of it in Polycarp 6 and Ignatius 7 when taken together, are highly probable; and it is even widely admitted that the resemblance of Acts 13:22, and 1 Corinthians 18:1, in features not found in Psalms 89:20 quoted by each, can hardly be accidental. That is, Acts was probably current in Antioch and Smyrna not later than c. 115, and perhaps in Rome as early as c. 96.
With this view internal evidence agrees. In spite of some advocacy of a date prior to AD 70, the bulk of critical opinion is decidedly against it. The prologue to Luke's Gospel itself implies the dying out of the generation of eye-witnesses as a class. A strong consensus of opinion supports a date about AD 80; some prefer 75 to 80; while a date between 70 and 75 seems no less possible. Of the reasons for a date in one of the earlier decades of the 2nd century, as argued by the Tubingen school and its heirs, several are now untenable. Among these are the supposed traces of 2nd-century Gnosticism and "hierarchical" ideas of organization; but especially the argument from the relation of the Roman state to the Christians, which Ramsay has reversed and turned into proof of an origin prior to Pliny's correspondence with Trajan on the subject. Another fact, now generally admitted, renders a 2nd-century date yet more incredible; and that is the failure of a writer devoted to Paul's memory to make palpable use of his Epistles. Instead of this he writes in a fashion that seems to traverse certain things recorded in them. If, indeed, it were proved that Acts uses the later works of Josephus, we should have to place the book about AD 100. But this is far from being the case.
Three points of contact with Josephus in particular are cited. (1) The circumstances attending the death of Agrippa I in AD 44. Here Acts 12:21-23 is largely parallel to his Antiquities 19. 8. 2; but the latter adds an omen of coming doom, while Acts alone gives a circumstantial account of the occasion of Herod's public appearance. Hence the parallel, when analysed, tells against dependence on Josephus. So also with (2) the cause of the Egyptian pseudo-prophet in Acts 21:37f, and in Josephius (Jewish War, 2. 13. 5, Antiquites. 20. 8. 6) for the numbers of his followers do not agree with either of Josephus's rather divergent accounts, while Acts alone calls them Sicarii. With these instances in mind, it is natural to regard (3) the curious resemblance as to the (non-historical) order in which Theudas and Judas of Galilee are referred to in both (Acts 5:36f; Antiquities 20.5.1) as accidental.
The place of composition is still an open question. For some time Rome and Antioch have been in favor; and Blass combined both views in his theory of two editions). But internal evidence points strongly to the Roman province of Asia, particularly the neighbourhood of Ephesus. Note the confident local allusion in 19:9 to "the school of Tyrannus" and in 19:33 to "Alexander"; also the very minute topography in 20:13-15. At any rate affairs in that region, including the future of the church of Ephesus (20:28-30), are treated as though they would specially interest "Theophilus" and his circle; also an early tradition makes Luke die in the adjacent Bithynia. Finally it was in this region that there arose certain early glosses (e.g. 19:9, 20:15), probably the earliest of those referred to below. How fully in correspondence with such an environment the work would be, as apologia for the Church against the Synagogue's attempts to influence Roman policy to its harm, must be clear to all familiar with the strength of Judaism in Asia (cf. Revelation 2:9, 3:9, and see Sir W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches, ch. xii.).
Of the many problems with Acts, perhaps the most complex is that of its text. As with the other books of the New Testament, Acts exists in several text types; however, unlike with the other books, the difference between the Alexandrian text-type and the Western text-type is very great; the size of the Western text of Acts (as represented by the Codex Bezae) is 10% larger than the Alexandrian (as represented by the Codex Sinaiticus). Although this issue was first observed in the 17th century, explanations for this difference remain little more than conjectures. Any explanation that reduces the Western text to the product of generations of scribes who showed little care for fidelity to their exemplar ignores the evidence that the Western text's additions and omissions has the same stylistic characteristics as the Alexandrian; that Western text readings in Acts date from early Latin authors like Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine.
The earliest theory, first espoused by Leclerc in 1684, but restated by Blass in 1895 and others since, explains the Western text as a first draft by the author, while the Alexandrian was a more polished version he subsequently published. The French scholars Boismard and Lamouille, in their extensive study of the text of Acts, have embraced this theory.
In 1914, A.C. Clark espousing the principle lectio longior potior (which is the opposite of the normal principle used in textual criticism) has argued that the shorter text was a modfication of the original text. The opposite direction, that the Western text of Acts was expanded, was first proposed by G. Salmon in 1897, and recently revised by E. Delebecque who believes the expansion of the text was performed by Luke at Ephesus after Paul's death.
Despite this ongoing debate, the majority of biblical scholars believe the text of Acts as witnessed in the Alexandrian tradition is the closest to the original, although accepting various isolated readings from the Western text families at different points. This was the conclusion of the text of Acts as printed by B.F. Westcott and F.J.A. Hort, as well as the most recent edition of Nestle and Aland's authoritative Novum Testamentum graece (1993).
Online translations of the Acts of the Apostles:
Last updated: 10-24-2005 03:01:44