Or — How the Holy Spirit Led Peter and Paul
to Conquer the Eastern Roman Empire for Christ.
The Revised Common Lectionary calls the churches to read Acts instead of the Old Testament during Easter season of each year. This is the season of the Witnesses to the Resurrection.
Thus the First Readings for seven consecutive Sundays (as well as on Ascension Day) are from Acts 1-2, 7, 10, and 17 (and other chapters in other years). (Acts has 28 chapters.) These are only little samplers and do not give us the full sweep of this amazing and unique composition of the early Christian movement. Thus I offer this overview of the complete work called in our Bibles, The Acts of the Apostles.
The World of Acts. Major cities with episodes in Acts are underlined in Red.
Beginning from the lower right:
Jerusalem Caesarea, ,
Antioch , Ephesus
( Corinth ), Greece Philippi
and Macedonia . Rome
Contents of Acts.
There are different ways to analyze the scroll.
For starters, there is a division of Acts into two.
- Part One, chapters 1-12, is about Peter and the spread of the Movement from
to Jerusalem . (This part does include the conversion of Paul, and Peter’s baptism of the first non-Judean congregation, both of which anticipate the main themes of the second part.) Antioch
- Part Two, chapters 13-28, is about Paul and the spread of the Movement from
to Antioch , bringing in mainly non-Judean peoples of the Greek and Roman world. (Peter, and the Rome church, are still present here, chapter 15, wrapping up topics from Part One.) Jerusalem
One can also divide the scroll into four parts:
- Chapters 1-5 are about the beginnings in Jerusalem, with Peter interpreting the Movement in several speeches, starting at Pentecost.
- Chapters 6-12 are about the Movement's inclusion of "hellenists" (6:1), its first martyrdom, and its spread to Samaria (the Evangelist Philip), to non-Judean Roman citizens (Peter at Caesarea), and to Antioch in Syria (Barnabas).
- Chapters 13-20 are about Paul's missionary work, establishing mostly non-Judean assemblies ("churches") in cities throughout Galatia, Macedonia, Greece, and Asia (Roman provinces).
- Chapters 21-28 are about Paul's testimonies (many speeches) in Jerusalem, in Caesarea (capital of the Roman province of Judea), and finally in Rome, where he resided for two years, speaking "about the Lord Jesus with boldness and without hindrance" (Acts 28:31).
There is also a widely used division of Acts into six “panels.” Here is this approach in a hand-out I used to use in classes on Acts, slightly revised here.
Overview of Acts – Summary Statements
N translation) RSV
(Reference: B.M. Newman and E.A. Nida, A Handbook on The Acts of the Apostles, United Bible Societies, 1972, pp. 2-3. The original source, widely used in the 20th century, was C.H. Turner, “Acts,” in
Dictionary of the Bible, Scribner’s, 1900, Vol. I. ) Hastings
Key to this approach: There is a series of summary statements throughout the book that mark the conclusion of each of six stages in the spread of the Word from Jerusalem to Rome. [Section titles are from Newman and Nida, occasionally modified by JW.]
The Word preached by Peter in
Acts 6:7 “The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in
and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Jerusalem
The Word preached by Greek Judeans in
and Samaria ,
Acts “Meanwhile the church throughout
Judea, Galilee, and
had peace and was built up. Living in
the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it increased in
The Word preached to the Nations (Gentiles) from
Caesarea to ,
Acts “But the word of God continued to advance and gain adherents.”
The Word, rejected by Judeans, is accepted by the Nations, confirmed by
Jerusalem leaders, 13:1-16:5
Acts 16:5 “So the churches were strengthened in the faith and increased in numbers daily.”
The Word is preached through the cities of
, Macedonia , and Greece Asia, 16:6-19:20
Acts “So the word of the Lord grew mightily and prevailed.”
Paul, rejected by Judeans, witnesses in Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Rome, -28:31
Acts 28:30-31 “He lived there [in
two whole years …31proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about
the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.” Rome
The Origin and Character of Acts.
Like the other canonical Gospels, Luke, as well as Acts, is anonymous. Though the reciter comes out on stage to speak to his sponsor, Theophilus, the reciter does not tell us his name, Luke 1:1-4 and Acts 1:1-2.
The ancients called this person “Luke”; modern scholars have no other name for him, so we also will call him “Luke.” While later times (often many centuries later) report legendary things about Luke, what we really know about him is learned from his two-scroll work itself, which scholars call Luke-Acts.
NOTE. I do not speak of “authors,” “writing,” and “books”; I speak of “reciters” and “scrolls.” It was an
ORAL world; people did not
read and write; they spoke – and listened.
The codex (“book”) was not in common use until the second century of the Christian Era. Reciters in different metropolitan centers had eventually dictated their full repertoires to (professional) scribes who produced the four separate scrolls (Gospels). As the codex, essentially a Christian innovation, was further developed, it could hold much more text in a convenient form than the scroll, which got very cumbersome when it reached the size of Luke or Acts. Sometime around the middle of the second century, those scrolls were combined by Christians into a single codex, which was named “the Gospel.” The four scrolls needed to be distinguished from each other and the scrolls within a single codex were labeled “according to Matthew,” “according to Mark,” etc.
Luke-Acts is a second generation work of the Jesus Movement. The mere fact that Acts carries the story to approximately 62 CE demonstrates that. (Jesus died around the year 30 CE.)
Luke’s Gospel preserves (from Mark) the apocalyptic orientation of the original Jesus Movement, but much of Jesus’ teaching in Luke tells the followers how to live and act during the “Meantime,” the time between the Ascension and Jesus’ Return on the cloud (see Acts 1:9-11 and Luke 21:27). That’s the Gospel.
Acts demonstrates how that life in the “Meantime” unfolded for those followers, once the Holy Spirit had taken Jesus’ place. During that Meantime the Jesus communities followed his directions on how to live apocalyptically (as in Luke 12, preparing for Acts -45 and -37). What emerged by the second generation (when the original apostles were gone and kids had grown up and become leaders in the communities) were the chains of charismatic churches, that were now spread from
to Jerusalem . Rome
Luke-Acts is a homogenous literary work. While a multitude of topics is covered within the Gospel and Acts, and the reciter often speaks with appropriate local coloring, scholars have demonstrated again and again that the language, style, and general perspective of the whole two-scroll work is unified and consistent. (See especially, Henry J. Cadbury, The Making of Luke-Acts, Macmillan, 1927, and Robert C. Tannehill, The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation, 2 vols., Fortress, 1986 [Luke] and 1990 [Acts].)
Luke-Acts is good Greek. Scholars are clear that the reciter knew very well the Israelite scriptures in Greek (the Septuagint, LXX), which often influenced his diction and style. Septuagint style is detected especially in the infancy stories of Luke 1-2 and perhaps in the early
1-5. church of Acts
Early in the twentieth century a few scholars thought Acts showed signs of having been translated from an Aramaic original – in chapters 1-15. We now have many Aramaic documents from
contemporary with Acts, and they do not support the old arguments for
translation Aramaic in Acts.
4. “We” passages.
6 They went through the region of
Phrygia and ,
having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Galatia Asia…
9 During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of
pleading with him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia
and help us.” 10 When he had
seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia ,
being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them. (Acts 16:6, 9-10, NRSV.) Macedonia
This passage shows two things: (1) how the spread of the gospel to
Europe was a divine action – the Holy Spirit limiting
their movements and visions giving them their assignments; and (2) how the
narrator shifts from the third person, which has been maintained up to this
point, and begins to speak in the first person plural. “We” immediately tried to cross over…
There are several stretches of Acts in which this first-person narration appears, the “we passages”: (1) 16:10-17; (2) 20:5-15; (3) 21:1-18; and (4) 27:1-28:16.
In the first two passages the ”we” is connected with
Philippi, the Roman colony in . In all cases the “we” is connected with sea
travel, with precise details about seaports, distances, weather. The “we” passages accompany Paul to Macedonia ,
giving details of places and people he visited and stayed with. After Paul is arrested in Jerusalem
the “we” passages cease, until Paul is to travel again (27:1), this time on the
hazardous journey, narrated at length, which takes Paul to be tried by Caesar
in Jerusalem . Rome
The obvious face-value reading of these passages is that the reciter modestly and unobtrusively says, “I was present for these things.”
However, many modern scholars have been unwilling to accept this obvious conclusion. They have sought (desperately) to deny that we can be dealing with an actual eyewitness presentation. They propose theories about an early written “itinerary,” used by later “authors” with no particular relation to the main point of Acts. Or the “we” passages are viewed as deliberate imitations of Greek adventure novels, to add excitement to the last part of the scroll.
These theories are mostly just scholarly busy-work. Hans Conzelmann (one of the more “critical” scholars), having reviewed such theories, concludes his discussion this way: “thus the riddle of the ‘we’ passages remains unsolved. The only certainty is that by using ‘we’ the author attempts to convey the impression of an eyewitness account” (Acts of the Apostles, Fortress Press, 1987 [German 2nd ed., 1972], p. xl).
If the narrative is taken at face value, the reciter was a companion of Paul in the late stages of Paul’s work. He accompanied Paul on his last trip to
and was in the
neighborhood while Paul was under house arrest for two years in Jerusalem Caesarea
and similarly for two years in
(chapters 21 and 28). (In recent
scholars’ “new Paul” reading of his authentic letters, all of them were written
before the period covered in Acts 21-28.) Rome
Critical scholars, especially in
have denied that this was possible, mainly because the Luke who describes Paul in Acts does not
understand Paul’s main theological positions as seen in Paul’s letters. It is true that from Acts you would learn
little or nothing about Justification by Faith or Paul’s dire view of Sin. However, this hyper-critical view does not do
justice to the clear and uncomplicated way in which Acts pursues its limited
and controlled purpose: to get the
gospel from Jerusalem to Rome by means of those chosen servants. Germany
Luke is presenting the movement of the “gospel” from
to Jerusalem . That gospel is the same, whether preached by
Peter, Stephen, Barnabas, or Paul. Their
several speeches in Acts reflect that common gospel. The preaching differs with different
audiences (Judean or non-Judean), but
Luke’s point is that it is the same basic gospel that is sweeping across the Rome Roman
empire. Whether Luke knew more about Paul's preaching and distinctive theology is simply unknown.
A difference from Paul. One of the topics on which Acts and the Paul of the letters differ is table fellowship of believers. Acts assumes that Peter (and later Paul and Barnabas) convinced the Jerusalem leadership that circumcision was not required of non-Judean believers. However, Paul also fought to eliminate such Judean food laws as prevented common meals with believers, both Judean and non-Judean. Eventually, Paul broke over this issue with Barnabas as well as Peter and the Antiochian church. (Galatians 2:10-14; Paul doesn't say so, but he clearly lost this argument in Antioch, though he applied his view in the churches he subsequently founded in Macedonia, Greece. and Asia.)
The Paul of Romans 14 held that observance of food laws was optional -- personal preferences by "strong" or "weak." In Acts 15, however, the Jerusalem council issued a Decree, quoted in Acts, stating the minimal requirements of non-Judean believers: "that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication" (Acts 15:29, NRSV). The "blood" and "strangled" restrictions here would require non-Judean believers to get their meat from Judean butchers only. That's the only way they could be sure the restrictions would be met. Thus there must be restrictions on food at the common tables.
Luke probably knew this Decree as a document in the Pauline churches of his own time. It embodied a compromise arranged later to ease conflicts in Pauline churches. He must have known that not all of this was true of Paul's time, but it was what was working now in Paul's churches.
Until recently there were two main possibilities for the date of the composition of Acts, an early date (around 62 CE) and a late date (around 85 CE). (A third, very late date, 115 CE, has also been revived recently from the 19th century.)
The main decision depends on how one takes the ending of Acts. Acts ends with Paul under loose house arrest in
waiting for the Emperor’s judgment of his case.
Did Luke know how that case turned out? If Luke knew what happened to Paul, would
he not have told this to complete his story of Paul’s service to his Lord? If Luke did not know how the case came
out, he must have finished dictating his second scroll before the verdict was
known (that is, before 62 CE)! Rome
Critical scholars mostly take the late-date alternative, arguing that Luke-Acts was composed around 85 to 95 CE. In their view, Luke knew many things, including Nero’s persecution of the Christians in 64 CE, Paul’s and Peter’s deaths in Rome around that time, the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE – things he did not include in his work because that work had its own scope and purpose, and Luke was a disciplined and far-sighted narrator.
By far the strongest argument in favor of this later date of Luke-Acts is that Luke’s Gospel uses the Gospel of Mark as its basic framework, with lots of verbatim quotations. Tradition, as well as critical scholarship on “the Synoptic Problem,” understands that Mark was written after Peter’s death. Furthermore, Mark’s Gospel had been around a while before it was used, in verbatim quotes, by both Matthew and Luke. Thus, neither Matthew nor Luke can have been composed before about 75 CE. This was the consensus view of critical scholarship throughout the 20th century. Thus Luke-Acts was finished around 85 CE, give or take ten years.
The other view, the early dating of Luke-Acts, is preferred by Evangelical scholars and conservative Protestants in general, who like to keep the Gospel tradition as close to the time of Jesus as possible.
The early date has had defenders among critical scholars, however. The renowned German scholar Adolph von Harnack worked for a couple of decades on the common assumption that Luke wrote in the 80’s. Then between 1906 and 1911 he wrote four monographs about Luke and Acts. In the first three works he stayed with the late date of Acts. However, in the fourth monograph, The Date of Acts, he changed his mind. Harnack finally could not escape the conclusion that Luke did not know how Paul’s trial had come out! Therefore, Acts was finished before Paul’s death, before 62 CE. In that last monograph Harnack argued for that early date and tried to work out the consequences for the related dating of the Gospel of Luke and of Mark as well. Critical scholars have not followed Harnack in this. The development of early Christian literature and thought does not allow for such an early date as 62 for Luke-Acts.
Recently a third alternative for the date of Acts has been advanced (or retrieved from the 19th century). Richard Pervo (Dating Acts, Polebridge Press, 2006; Acts, Hermeneia, Fortress Press, 2009) argues that Acts was a separate work from the Gospel of Luke, written around 115 CE in
, by an early apologist for
the (now) Christian religion. Pervo
supports his views by modern literary theories that distinguish between the
“implied author” and the “actual author,” a distinction he applies to Acts. The Implied Author is the speaker in the
scroll – the companion of Paul. The
Actual Author was an apologist working in Ephesus
two full generations after Paul’s time. Pervo
thus unleashed an opportunity for much new scholarly publication – but probably
not much actual history about the scroll of Acts. Ephesus
6. The Hearers (Readers).
The Reciter (“Luke”) addresses both scrolls of his anonymous work to an important person (“most excellent,” Luke 1:3) named Theophilus. Theophilus was certainly not his whole intended audience. He was probably Luke’s sponsor, who would pay for multiple copies of the work to be produced for distribution to churches.
Without laboring the point, I think the hearers Luke mainly had in mind were the churches founded by Paul, according to Acts. Acts is the foundation story for those churches, telling them where, in the big picture, they came from. This part of Acts is the most detailed, and most reliable historically. If Luke’s own base was
Philippi, where he appears
in the “we” passages, he would have been best acquainted with the churches and
peoples of the Roman provinces of ,
Achaia ( Macedonia ),
and the western coast of Greece Asia. Two or three decades after Paul’s death, Luke
featured those early churches in his second scroll.
How gullible was “Luke”? (Here we will speak only of things in Acts.)
Fabulous events. He recites many episodes that are pretty fabulous. For starters, Jesus’ ascension on a cloud (1:9-11); then the mass hysteria of Pentecost (2:2-4); and later the Evangelist Philip is whisked to a distant city by the Spirit (-40). He tells about Peter curing the disabled (3:1-8) – and raising the dead (-42). Both Peter and Paul are delivered from prisons by divine actions (12:6-11 and -34). When he is himself an eyewitness he says Paul was unaffected by a viper bite (28:3-6).
In the “we passages,” however, there are no real miracles; just pretty ordinary events.
It is certain that Luke believed that (other) people had visions. Stephan had a dying vision of the heavenly Lord (-56); Paul had a life-changing vision on the
road (9:3-9); Peter had a long and detailed vision in which God abolished the
Judean food laws (10:9-16); and Paul had a vision that sent their mission to Damascus
(16:9). These are narrated in the same
matter-of-fact manner as the rest of the story. Macedonia
It is equally certain that Luke believed that (other) people had charismatic experiences – that they went into seizures of ecstasy from the holy spirit. He relates such experiences not only at Pentecost but at the conversion of Cornelius’ household (-46), and when Paul (re-)baptized the former disciples of John the Baptist (19:1-7). Here also no such experiences are reported in the “we passages.”
It seems pretty clear that Luke reports what people believed had happened to them. If it was an important story to the people of Joppa, Luke retold their story in his language, even if it was about raising the dead (Acts 9:36-42). They believed it; he re-told it.
Informants. This leads to the question of “sources,” or more properly of “informants.” From whom did Luke get his stories?
There have been theories of written sources Luke used, especially in chapters 1-5, or even in 1-15. However, these are speculations by scholars who learned from their European culture to look for written sources. The letter to the churches in chapter 15 was undoubtedly a written source, perhaps also the Roman commander’s letter in chapter 23, but beyond that there is not much. The “we passages” were not a written source.
[Later addition, Sept. 2020: In the mid-to-late twentieth century, the French Roman Catholic scholars, Pierre Benoit and M.-E. Boismard and A. Lamouille produced massive studies of supposed "sources" of Acts. These are discussed and to some extent followed by Joseph Fitzmyer in The Acts of the Apostles, (Anchor-Yale Bible, 1998) pp. 80-89. Fitzmyer lists every passage in Acts, giving its origin as Luke's composition or some other "source," pp.85-88. All this after opening his discussion of "sources" in Acts by saying, "Nowhere in Acts does the author say or even hint at sources that he might have used...", p. 80.]
Informants is another matter. If we follow the “we passages,” Luke was around Paul’s churches in
for some years, probably after Paul’s death as well as earlier. He would have gathered names and incidents
from people in those other churches which he used in his narratives. Macedonia
Luke was also with Paul for two years in
Caesarea in Judea
(when Paul was under house arrest in the Judean capital city). During those two years in Caesarea
they were acquainted with Philip the Evangelist, who had four daughters
who were “prophetesses,” that is, who had charismatic gifts (21:8-9).
Many scholars have recognized that the people in
Caesarea were probably main informants for
Luke’s work, not only in Acts but also for the Gospel. (One may think of Philip’s daughters as
informants about the virgin Mary and the infancy of Jesus, as these stories
were retailed in Caesarea.) Caesarea was probably
Luke’s main source of stories about the beginnings in . (The dominant language in Jerusalem Caesarea
was Greek; in it was
(Acts is NOT an accurate story of
. James the brother of Jesus had brought
the family to Jerusalem and had become
the authoritative head of the Jerusalem
assembly. Luke ignores the James-the-Brother
story, which would have been Jerusalem ’s
main story after about 44 CE. Luke
follows the Caesarean story, in which Peter is the major figure, delivering the
main speeches, escaping miraculously from prison, and receiving direct
instructions from God (for Caesarea!) to cross the boundary between Judean and non-Judean
people accepted by God.) Jerusalem
8. Historicity. (This is a silly term, but it is short-hand for “Is the history true?” )
Modern commentators labor this issue, in general and in individual episodes, endlessly. Conservative Christians believe most of it is defensible; critical scholars know a lot of it is legend and retails what early believers wanted to believe. Acts is unique, in a class by itself, unlike the Gospels. Mostly the only criteria for “true or false” are internal consistency, consistency with other New Testament writings, and what modern persons believe is possible or probable.
I have been reading critical scholars about Acts since my senior year in college (1955) and have labored over pretty much every approach to the writing. Again, without laboring the point, I long ago came to the following general view:
Chapters 1-5 are fiction (from Caesarean piety about the
Chapters 6-12 are legend (real people, fabulous activities).
Chapters 13-15 are tradition (mainly
’s story, Barnabas and
Chapters 16-28 are historical writing (ancient style; Paul as Luke knew him).
9. Conclusion about Luke.
I think Luke was a significant but modest figure in the Paul churches in the two decades or so after Paul’s death in
(probably 64 CE). Over the years he became a recognized source (a Reciter) for the Jesus story and continued conversant with the churches of Rome ,
Macedonia , and the
western coast of Greece Asia Minor. As the second generation of the Movement
advanced and written Gospels began to appear, he included what was circulating
from other locales (Mark and Q) in his recitations among the churches, added to
it lots of Jesus lore he had collected from informants, and produced a really
amazing composition, the Gospel according to Luke.
By that time – well after the destruction of Jerusalem in the Roman war of 66-73 CE – informed observers could see that (1) the return of Jesus in power would not happen until the Movement had incorporated, by God’s command, many non-Judean people, and (2) the Movement was taking on a significance of its own across many provinces of the Roman empire. A very work of God in the world, after Jesus, was going on.
With the sponsorship of a well-to-do and sympathetic figure (Theophilus) Luke proceeded to relate with great skill and generosity all the local lore and personal history he knew about that Movement – and gave us (and Theophilus) the Acts of the Apostles.