The fifth book of the New Testament in the common arrangement, Acts records certain phases of the progress of Christianity for a period of some thirty years after Jesus' death and resurrection. Acts was originally written as a sequel to the gospel of Luke; both are clearly from the same author, who apparently planned the complete work from the outset.
Seven main divisions may be discerned in Acts: the formation and development of the church of Jerusalem (1.1–5.42); the rise and activity of the Hellenists in the church, which led to their persecution and expulsion from Jerusalem (6.1–8.3); the dissemination of the gospel by these Hellenists, culminating in the evangelizing of gentiles in the Syrian city of Antioch (8.4–12.25); the extension of gentile Christianity from Antioch into Cyprus and Asia Minor (13.1–14.28); the decision reached by the Jerusalem church on problems raised by the influx of gentile converts (15.1–16.5); the carrying of the gospel by Paul and his colleagues to the provinces bordering on the Aegean Sea (16.6–19.20); Paul's last journey to Jerusalem, his arrest there, and his journey to Rome under armed guard to have his case heard before the emperor (19.21–28.31).
Acts, in short, is concerned with the advance of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome; its simultaneous advance in other directions is ignored. The narrative reaches its goal when Paul arrives in Rome and, while under house arrest, preaches the gospel there without interference to all who came to visit him (28.30–31).
Authorship and Sources.
For Acts, as for the gospel of Luke, the author was dependent on the information handed down by others (see Luke 1.2). But he probably made further inquiry on his own account (Luke 1.3), and he may have been present at some of the events recorded in the later part of the book of Acts. This is the prima facie inference to be drawn from the “we” sections—those sections in which the third‐person pronouns “they” and “them” give way to the first‐person “we” and “us.” There are three such sections: Acts 16.10–17; 20.5–21.18; 27.1–28.16. All three are largely devoted to journeys by sea—from Troas to Neapolis, and then by road to Philippi; from Philippi (Neapolis) to Caesarea, and then by road to Jerusalem; from Caesarea to Puteoli, and then by road to Rome—and may have been extracted from a travel diary. The traditional view, which still has much to commend it, is that the “we” of those sections includes the “I” of Acts 1.1—that the transition from “they” to “we” is the author's unobtrusive way of indicating that he himself was a participant in the events he narrates.
Ever since the second century CE the author has been traditionally identified with the Luke mentioned in Colossians 4.14 as “Luke the beloved physician.” The attribution of the twofold work to such an obscure New Testament character has been thought to speak for the genuineness of the tradition. The only question of consequence to be considered is the degree of likelihood that the author of Acts was personally acquainted with Paul, whose missionary activity forms the main subject of the second half of the book. The critical judgment of several scholars is that such personal acquaintance is highly unlikely—that the “Paulinism” of Acts is too dissimilar to the teaching of Paul's letters for the idea to be entertained that the author of Acts knew Paul or spent any time in his company. On the other hand, many authorities maintain that, when account is taken of the difference between the picture of him as seen through the eyes of an admirer and, indeed, hero‐worshiper, the Paul of Acts is identical with the real Paul.
The identification of other sources than the “we” narrative is precarious. A new source is sometimes indicated by such transitional formulas as “now during these days” (6.1), “after some days” (15.36), “about that time” (19.23), or by the sudden introduction of terms or names for which no advance explanation has been given, such as Hellenists and Hebrews in 6.1 or King Herod in 12.1. The abruptness of a transition from one source to another may be made smoother by an editorial paragraph, for example, 15.1–5. Occasionally the author follows one source for some time, then breaks off to follow another, and turns back later to resume the earlier one. Thus a source relating the early Hellenistic mission is followed by 8.4–40, a section beginning: “Now those who were scattered went from place to place preaching the word.” The author then leaves it to relate the conversion of Paul and Peter's evangelistic ministry (9.1–11.18); he returns to it in 11.19, “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that took place over Stephen,” and goes on to tell of the founding of the church of Antioch.
From 15.35L on there is a continuous narrative of Paul's missionary work, broken only by occasional speeches (notably, to the Athenians, 17.22–31, and to the elders of the Ephesian church, 20.18–35). A new departure is marked in 19.21, at which Paul's plan to visit Rome is first announced; the remainder of the work tells how that plan was fulfilled in unforeseen ways.
Speeches and Letters.
Luke does not appear to have been dependent on written sources for the speeches that play an important part in his work. These conform to the policy inherited by Greek historians from Thucydides (ca. 400 BCE), who explains that he has “put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments appropriate for the occasion, expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them, while at the same time I endeavored, as nearly as I could, to give the general purport of what was actually said” (History, 1.20.1). Following this principle, Luke introduces speeches with proper regard for the speakers and the setting. Stephen's defense in Acts 7.2–53, for example, presents a wholly negative appraisal of the Jerusalem Temple, whereas Luke himself, for the greater part of his narrative, treats it with respect. It is not by accident that Paul is the only speaker in Acts to call Jesus “the Son of God” (Acts 9.20) or to mention justification by faith (13.38, 39) or redemption by the blood of Christ (20.28). It is widely maintained that Paul's speech to the court of the Areopagus at Athens (Acts 17.22–31) cannot in any sense be credited to Paul. But, if the author of Romans 1–3 were brought to Athens and invited to expound the basis of the gospel to its cultured and sophisticated members in terms that they might in some degree understand, it can be argued that he was bound to say something not wholly different from what Luke represents Paul as saying on that occasion. Both here and elsewhere in Acts the speeches are appropriate to the occasion, to the speaker, and to the audience.
What is true of speeches is true also of the letters cited by Luke—the letter from the leaders of the Jerusalem church to the gentile Christians of Antioch and other places in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15.23–29; See Apostolic Council) and the letter from the commanding officer of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem to the procurator of Judea explaining the circumstances of Paul's arrest (23.26–30). Even if Luke is the composer of those letters as we have them, their contents fit the settings in which they are placed.
The latest event to be recorded in Acts is Paul's spending two years under house arrest in Rome (28.30). This period begins with his arrival in the city, probably in the early spring of 60 CE. Most of the book deals with the twenty years preceding that date, and the book as a whole is true to its “dramatic” date, that is, it reflects the situation of the middle of the first century CE, especially with regard to the administration of the Roman empire. But the date of writing is not the same as the “dramatic” date. Some scholars have argued that it was written very shortly after that event, possibly even before Paul's appeal came up for hearing in the imperial court. Paul's death is not recorded: would it not have been mentioned (it is asked) if in fact it had taken place?
But the goal of Luke's narrative is not the outcome of Paul's appeal, whether favorable or otherwise, or the end of Paul's life: it is Paul's unmolested preaching of the gospel at the heart of the empire (Acts 28.30–31). In fact Paul's death is alluded to, by implication, in his speech to the elders of the Ephesian church (Acts 20.24, 25), in a manner that suggests that Luke knew of it. And in general Luke appears to record the apostolic history from a perspective of one or two decades after the events. By the time he wrote, Paul, Peter, and James had all died; and the controversies in which they were involved, while important enough at the time (as Paul's letters bear witness), had lost much of their relevance for Luke's purpose, so he ignored them.
The date of Acts cannot be considered in isolation from that of the gospel of Luke. A date later rather than earlier than 70 CE is probable for the gospel. If we date the composition of the twofold work toward the end of Vespasian's rule (69–79 CE), most of the evidence will be satisfied.
The one recipient of Acts named explicitly is Theophilus, to whom Luke's gospel also was dedicated (Luke 1.3). We know virtually nothing about him. His designation “most excellent” may mark him as a member of the equestrian order (the second‐highest order in Roman society), or it may simply be a courtesy title.
One could regard him as a representative of the intelligent middle‐class public of Rome, to whom Luke wished to present a reliable account of the rise and progress of Christianity. As late as the time when Tacitus, Suetonius, and Pliny were writing (ca. 110 CE), Christians enjoyed no good repute in Roman society; writing some decades earlier, Luke hoped to bring his readers to a less prejudiced judgment. There is much to be said for the view of Martin Dibelius that, unlike the other New Testament books, Luke and Acts were written for the book market. Perhaps there was already a positive interest in Christianity in the class of readers Luke had in mind; this could account for the substantial theological content of the work, especially its emphasis on the Holy Spirit.
Rome is the most likely place for the first publication of the work. Not only is Rome the goal toward which it moves, but with Paul's arrival there, Rome implicitly replaces Jerusalem as the center from which the faith is to spread.
Whereas the gospel of Luke has at least partial parallels in the other Gospels, all of which are concerned with Jesus' activity from his baptism to his death and resurrection, Acts is unparalleled as a record of events. Its only parallels are occasional passages in the letters of Paul (notably Gal. 1.13–2.14), in which the apostle reviews phases of his career or mentions his travel plans. Apart from Acts, we have no other continuous record of the expansion of Christianity during the thirty years after Jesus' death and resurrection. It is necessary to wait two and a half centuries for the next Christian historian—Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea in Palestine.
Even in his gospel, Luke indicates his interest in relating the gospel to world history when he introduces the ministry of John the Baptist with an elaborate synchronism (Luke 3.1, 2). This interest becomes more evident in Acts, when the gospel moves into the gentile world. Luke is the only New Testament writer who so much as names a Roman emperor; in addition to emperors, he introduces provincial governors, client kings, civic magistrates, and other local officials. Scholars have drawn attention to the accuracy with which these officials are designated by their correct titles—an accuracy the more noteworthy because some of those titles changed from time to time. Provinces under the nominal control of the Roman senate, for example, are governed by proconsuls, like Sergius Paulus in Cyprus and Gallio in Achaia; Philippi has praetors or duumvirs as its chief magistrates, because it is a Roman colony; Thessalonica is administered by politarchs, a title attested on a number of inscriptions as borne by the chief magistrates of Macedonian cities.
The record of Acts is interrelated with contemporary world history in a way that entitles it to be cited as an authority in its own right. Its authority has also been acknowledged in the matter of travel conditions, on land and sea, in the Roman empire in the period that it covers. Its reports of Paul's journeys in Asia Minor provide unrivaled evidence for lines of communication in that area and for the comparative ease with which they could be used. The “ease” was enjoyed more along the main roads, which were well policed; travel along other roads exposed one to hazards from robbers and others. As for travel by sea, the account of Paul's stormy voyage to Italy and shipwreck at Malta has long been recognized as a valuable document for our knowledge of seafaring in the Greco‐Roman world (See Ships and Sailing).
Luke is no mere chronicler: he envisages a pattern in the events he records. His interest is concentrated on the advance of the gospel: it has been launched into the world by the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit, and nothing can stop it. Paul and others may plan their journeys, but they would achieve little without the guidance of the Spirit of God, directing the course of events by occasionally diverting the missionaries from the path they intend to take and leading them into another (e.g., 16.6–10). Luke has been called the theologian of “salvation history”; Peter and Paul are the principal human agents, but the dominant part is played by the Spirit.
In commending Christianity to the good will of his readers, Luke insists that it presents no threat to imperial law and order. He adduces in evidence the judgments expressed by officials of higher and lower degree throughout the empire. Already in the Third Gospel Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who hears the charges against Jesus, finds him not guilty of any capital offense (Luke 23.13–17); he sentences him to death because he gives in weakly to the chief priests and their colleagues. In the early chapters of Acts the apostles are flogged by order of the supreme court of Israel (5.40), a body dominated by the chief‐priestly families; and Stephen, leader of the Hellenists, is stoned to death after their rejection of his defense (Acts 7.58). But when the heralds of Christianity move out into the gentile world, they receive fairer treatment.
Sergius Paulus, proconsul of Cyprus, gives Paul and Barnabas a courteous hearing and is impressed by their teaching (Acts 13.7, 12). The praetors of Philippi sentence Paul and Silas to be beaten and locked up overnight, but on learning that the two men are Roman citizens they apologize for their illegal conduct (16.22–24, 35–39). The politarchs of Thessalonica respond to the serious charge of high treason brought against Paul and his companions by making Paul's friends in the city guarantee his peaceful departure (17.6–9). At Corinth Paul is accused before Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, of propagating an illegal form of religion, but Gallio, seeing the issue as a dispute between the local Jews and a Jewish visitor, refuses to take up the matter: so far as he is concerned, Paul must be tolerated as long as no breach of law or public morals is committed (18.12–16). In Ephesus some leading citizens of the province of Asia befriend Paul, and when an unruly assembly demonstrates against him, the town clerk, the chief executive officer of the city, absolves him of any offense against the cult of Ephesian Artemis (19.23–41).
All this builds up a case in favor of Paul, who at the end of Acts, charged with offenses against public order, is about to have his appeal heard by the emperor; it also builds up a case for Christians throughout the empire, who will still be around when Paul is no longer alive.
Early in the second century CE, when the four Gospels began to circulate as one collection, Acts was detached from Luke's gospel. But when, about the middle of that century, decisions were made about the New Testament canon, Acts came into its own as the “hinge” that joined the gospel collection to the collection of Pauline letters. Those like Marcion, who ascribed apostolic authority to Paul alone, had no use for Acts. Acts, while not giving Paul the title apostle in a distinctive sense, provided ample evidence that he was all that his letters claimed him to be; at the same time, it gave Peter and his colleagues full apostolic status. There is an impressive series of parallels in Acts between Paul and Peter, as though Luke planned to show that the status and ministry of both had equal divine attestation. James of Jerusalem, whose claims were exalted above those of Peter and Paul in at least one branch of second‐century Christianity, plays a minor part in Acts (15.13–21).
Acts, in short, is a thoroughly catholic work, catering to all legitimate viewpoints in the church. Perhaps it was this aspect of Acts that stimulated the inclusion in the canon, alongside the Pauline collection, of another collection of letters, the catholic letters as they are traditionally called, bearing the names of James, Peter, John, and Jude. It is a matter of further interest that Acts was closely associated with these catholic letters in the copying and transmission of the New Testament, regularly sharing one codex with them or, in a more comprehensive codex, being followed immediately by them.
F. F. Bruce