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Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles is the earliest attempt to provide a narrative account of the birth and expansion of the church in the decades following the appearance of Jesus. It is an extremely valuable source not only for the historical evidence that it may contain, but also for its dramatic portrayal of decisive moments in the story of the earliest church. While Luke's account has been taken from earliest times to be a straightforward narration of the successes and setbacks of the early Christian movement in its formative decades, its real purpose may have been much more closely connected to the hopes and dreams of a particular configuration of Christian believers at the turn of the first century C.E.

Name of the Book.

The first explicit reference to the Acts of the Apostles appears in the writings of the late second-century bishop Irenaeus of Lyons. In his polemical work Adversus haereses, which engages in a detailed critique of various Gnostic systems, Irenaeus finds much material to bolster the credibility of his argument in the work he refers to as the Actus Apostolorum, the Latin translation of the Greek Praxeis Apostolōn. It is uncertain whether Irenaeus inherited this title from the tradition that preceded him or whether he coined it himself. What does seem clear is that the author of Acts not only refused to identify himself but also declined to provide a title for his composition. By Irenaeus's time a line of reasoning had emerged that identified this author with one of the more obscure associates of Paul, namely, Luke. It was also acknowledged that this same individual was the author responsible for the third gospel. The title provided for Luke's second book apparently is intended to denote the “doings” of the apostles subsequent to the activities of Jesus that had been portrayed in the gospel. While this characterization of the book fits well with the use that Irenaeus makes of it in his apologetic writing, it is not particularly illuminating as a guide to the content of Acts itself.

To be sure, the actions and words of Peter are given great attention in the first half of the narrative, occasionally accompanied by the figure of John, who, however, does nothing independent of Peter. But the remaining members of the Twelve are surprisingly inactive, receiving no individualized treatment either with respect to their deeds or their speeches. From Irenaeus's perspective, it perhaps made sense to see the extensive treatment of Paul's activities in the second half of Acts as complementary to the portrayal of Peter in the first half, thereby justifying the title the Acts of the Apostles. But this seemingly balanced coordination in terms of apostolic activities would not do for the author of the work, since this individual does not represent Paul as being one of the apostles. In Acts the designation “apostle” is used in its strictest sense in the New Testament, being limited to a group of no more than twelve men who had accompanied Jesus throughout the time of his activities (see Acts 1:21–22).

Nevertheless, the title Acts of the Apostles can be seen to convey one of the principal messages of the book, insofar as it represents the collective role that the twelve apostles play as guarantors of continuity between the time of Jesus and that of the early church. Indeed, the twelve apostles are singled out in the narrative as the early community's designated witnesses to everything that happened during Jesus' ministry, and especially to his resurrection (Acts 1:21–22; 10:39–41). In this sense, the Acts of the Apostles aims to communicate the significance of these figures in terms of their collective impact and function, even though it is devoid of any accounts (again, with the exception of Peter) of their particular words and deeds. The latter lacuna in the New Testament book of the Acts of the Apostles left a void that began to be filled already in the second century by new, ultimately extracanonical writings, devoted to supplying in detail accounts of the missionary travels, miraculous deeds, and heroic martyrdoms of all the apostolic figures and then some. (See also Andrew, Acts of, PAUL, LETTERS OF.)

Canonical Status.

The Acts of the Apostles appears as the fifth book in the New Testament canon, preceded by the four gospels. Since the Fourth Gospel intervenes between Luke and Acts, the canonical arrangement obscures the fact that Acts was composed by the author of Luke's gospel as a sequel to that particular version of the story of Jesus. It is a commonplace in modern scholarship to refer to Luke-Acts, employing the hyphen to underline the point that a unified literary and narrative conception appears to be operative across the boundaries of the individual works in this couplet. Yet this modern perception of the interrelation of these two books stands over against the ancient material evidence, since Luke and Acts are never found beside one another in the extant ancient manuscript tradition. This state of affairs raises several questions regarding the original context of the two Lukan works and their later appropriation in the history of reception that will be briefly treated below. The canonical positioning of Acts between the gospels and the epistolary writings may perhaps be viewed as a commonsense placement of materials according to their content and genre. Just as Acts communicates within its pages how the transition from Jesus to the early church came about, so the book within the canonical design provides the bridge to move from the teaching of Jesus to that of the apostles, now to be found in the Pauline and other letters.


The Acts of the Apostles originally appeared without any direct authorial attribution as an anonymous document. In this respect it is no different than the four canonical gospels, which also first circulated without indications of their authorship. By the end of the second century, however, all of these documents had come to be associated with the names of figures who could claim either direct (Matthew and John) or secondary (Mark/Peter and Luke/Paul) apostolic status. The preface to Acts (1:1–11) with its mention of Theophilus served as a clear sign that this work was connected with the gospel that had also been addressed to Theophilus (Luke 1:1–4). That these volumes should be credited to Luke was deduced from the appearance of his name in several of the Pauline letters (Phlm 24; Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11) in conjunction with certain passages in Acts in which the shift from third-person to first-person narration implied that the author himself was present with Paul during various of his travels (see Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1—28:16). For Irenaeus, these “we passages” indicated that Luke had been a constant collaborator in Paul's evangelistic and community-building activities (Adversus haereses 3.14.1). The fact that Luke could be identified as holding apostolic credentials owing to his status as a direct associate of Paul firmly substantiated the value of the information found in the book of Acts. Thus confirmed, the records in Acts could serve as fundamental data in Irenaeus's treatment of the transmission of the apostolic tradition over against the contrary contentions of his Gnostic adversaries. The recognition that it was Luke, the companion of Paul, who was the author of both the third gospel and the Acts of the Apostles was thereafter routine over the centuries of church history until the present, where it is by no means unrepresented.

Discrepancies between the portrayal of Paul in Acts and the profile that one may derive of the apostle from Paul's own writings, however, have led many modern scholars to doubt that there was a direct connection between the author of Acts and Paul. While such scholars continue to employ the traditional name “Luke” to designate the author of the third gospel and Acts, they insist that this individual is most properly located in the post-Pauline period. Among the many indications that have been identified to indicate that the author was not personally acquainted with Paul, perhaps the most striking is the author's position that only someone who had been present “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” (1:21) was entitled to the designation “apostle.” Juxtaposed to Paul's frequent declarations of his apostolic status (e.g., Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1), the perspective of Acts, which effectively disqualifies Paul from membership in the ranks of the apostles, would seem to be an inexplicable choice on the part of an actual collaborator of Paul.

Skepticism about the traditional identification of the author as Luke, the sometime companion of Paul, however, cannot obscure the obvious importance that Paul has for the author. Over half of Acts is devoted to portraying Paul's significance as a founder of Christian communities across Asia Minor and Greece. Thus the question becomes one of how to account for the curious blend of the author's evident admiration of Paul with an account that often exhibits biographical and theological inconsistencies in comparison with the undisputed letters of Paul. An answer may be found in a combination of several factors, notably geographical proximity and chronological distance, aided and abetted by the needs of the author's rhetorical presentation. That is to say, a case can be made that the author resided somewhere within the area of the Pauline mission (e.g., in one of the cities around the Aegean Sea such as Ephesus or Philippi), but at a time one or two generations removed from that of Paul's own activities. If such an assessment is near the mark, it would be possible to understand most of the discrepancies between Acts and Paul's letters as resulting from the author's attempt to address his own contemporaries, whose circumstances and concerns were often markedly different from the various groups that Paul had engaged in his writings. Adopting conventional rhetorical practices, Luke adjusted his image of Paul to meet the requirements of his own presentation, and argued in his own way for the continuation of the Pauline tradition in a new age.

Date and Historical Context.

The beginning of Acts refers to the “first book,” indicating that it was composed sometime subsequent to Luke's Gospel, which is commonly placed around 85–95 C.E. While the abundance of narrative interrelations between the two works might indicate that they were produced in quick sequence, certain distinctive generic and thematic elements in Acts vis-à-vis the gospel could suggest that they are separated by an interval of time allowing such developments to take place. The Lukan portrait of Paul, which can be distinguished from the profile culled from Paul's letters, fits well with a late first-century date. From that temporal vantage point, details that an overly pedantic approach might label as contradictions can rather be seen as deliberate rhetorical “adjustments.” The latter seek to further the Lukan author's own narrative objectives, which no doubt include re-presenting Paul for a new time with its own concerns and possibilities. That similar efforts were being carried out by others roughly contemporary with Luke, notably in the Pastoral Epistles, shows the continuing commitment to preserving the Pauline legacy that lived on in the communities established by Paul a generation or two earlier. In Luke's case, this revision of the Paul of history may be seen in his narrative insistence that Paul continues as a faithful adherent of Jewish law. While such a portrayal is in tension with statements Paul makes about his behavior in various places in his letters, Luke's overriding interest is not to provide a documentary account of Paul based on his own writings. Rather, he seeks to employ him as an exemplar who embodies the continuity between Israel and the church that Luke judges to be a crucial theological necessity. Though Luke is clearly an admirer of Paul and very likely wishes to advance the cause of Christian communities that trace their origins to him, he nevertheless goes about his task in a distinctly different manner from the great founder figure. Rather than replicate Paul's rigorous argumentation in favor of the validity of the nonobservance of the Law by gentiles, Luke instead provides a story that serves to document God's acceptance of gentiles with Peter in the main role (Acts 10:1—11:18). This sets up Luke's pivotal scene in Acts 15 in which the final approval of gentile admission to the church is advocated by Peter, before the assembled apostles, under the leadership of James, and with Paul in attendance. In this way Luke is able to formulate the idea of a united Christian community, moving forward by consensus—a depiction likely intended more as a message to his own day than a rehearsal of historical events. Throughout Acts the roles of the characters are more often than not shaped by the requirements of Luke's own theological outlook and the practical and ideological needs of his readers. Because we possess letters of Paul, we can to some degree check on Luke's literary procedures by comparing how the image of Paul that emerges from the letters is refashioned in distinctive ways in Luke's narrative. One can only assume that the characterizations of all the other characters in the narrative as well have been completely shaped to contribute to the larger Lukan literary-theological agenda.

Literary History.

Luke informs us that the process of writing his Gospel was undertaken in the light of previous attempts (Luke 1:1) as well as his own investigation of things (Luke 1:3). There is nothing in this statement of procedures that requires the author's personal involvement in the events that are narrated; the point is rather his rhetorical organization of all the materials and traditions at hand in the best possible arrangement. While we are fortunate to have access to several of the sources employed by Luke in the composition of the Gospel (namely, Mark and the Sayings Source Q), we are unable to identify with any degree of certainty any of the underlying sources that may have been used in the writing of Acts. Given the apparent absence of any real predecessors for the narrative found in Acts, it seems that Luke configured various traditional materials known to him in line with his own conception about how the early community was founded and established in Jerusalem and then spread across the Roman world. One area where Luke's creative contribution comes to the fore is in the extensive speech material found within the narrative of Acts, comprising about one-third of the text. Just as it was incumbent upon Greco-Roman historians to supply the words of key figures at pivotal moments in their accounts, so too Luke, whom many scholars have sought to locate in the camp of the historiographers, gives voice to the range of characters across his narrative. These speeches add variety to the narrative presentation even as they advance its literary, ideological, and theological objectives. In line with the Lukan conception of the essential harmony of the first apostles and Christian preachers, the consistency of the message found across the range of speeches attributed to the various characters admirably makes Luke's point of the fundamental unity of the early church.

Despite the scholarly desire to uncover the sources and isolate the traditions that have gone into the composition of Acts, no consensus on these matters has been reached. The simple explanation for the failure of such endeavors is the thoroughgoing recasting that such traditional oral stories or preexisting written materials have received in the normal course of Luke's compositional practices. The manner in which Luke appropriates sources may mean that the long-standing assumption on the part of most scholars that Luke is unfamiliar with the letters of Paul simply underestimates Luke's procedures. Given Luke's obvious admiration of Paul, his likely presence geographically in a “Pauline” region (rather than the traditional Antioch), and his temporal distance from Paul, Luke's lack of access to letters of Paul would be inexplicable. In possession of various of Paul's letters, it is reasonable to imagine Luke making use of them indirectly to support his narrative presentation of Paul and various momentous events (e.g., the Apostolic Council: Acts 15/Galatians 2).

Structure and Contents.

The Acts of the Apostles portrays the genesis of the church in Jerusalem and the subsequent growth and expansion of the word of God (6:7; 12:24; 19:20) up to the time of Paul's arrival in Rome. After reprising the ascension of Jesus into heaven from the end of the Gospel of Luke (1:1–11), it first describes the gathering of the roughly one hundred twenty community members in Jerusalem and the reconstitution of the apostolic body of twelve (1:12–26). Peter emerges immediately as the chief spokesperson for the apostles and the community as a whole, and delivers the first of the numerous speeches that typify the presentation of Acts. Next the extraordinary events associated with the coming of the Spirit on the day of Pentecost are portrayed (2:1–13), followed by an explanation of their significance in another speech by Peter (2:14–42). After a summary of the characteristic activities of the Jerusalem believers (2:43–47), who now already number over three thousand (2:41), the narrative provides further illustrative examples of the bold behavior of Peter and the apostles in the first community in Jerusalem—healing and preaching in the Temple, imprisonments, testimony before the religious leaders, and so on (3:1—5:42). The appointment of seven men with Greek names to assist the apostles in dealing with the Hellenist component (i.e., Greek-speaking Jews) of the growing community signals the transition from Jerusalem as the focal point of the narrative to the push outward (6:1–7). Stephen, one of the Seven, emerges as a powerful figure who draws the ire of the authorities (6:8–15). After a lengthy speech, which represents a stinging indictment of the religious establishment of Jerusalem, Stephen becomes the first martyr of the young movement (7:1–60).

Saul/Paul is introduced in the context of the severe persecution that ensues upon the death of Stephen against the rest of the church, dispersing it throughout the region of Judea and Samaria (8:1–3). The attempt to quash the movement ironically results in the proclamation of the word in new areas and to new audiences, represented by Philip's activities among the people of Samaria and engagement with an Ethiopian who reads Jewish scripture (8:4–40). Even more dramatic is the miraculous intervention that halts Saul the persecutor and turns him into a bold advocate for Jesus (9:1–30). In the context of ever-increasing church growth (9:31), several miracles of Peter are reported (9:32–43) prior to the ground-breaking conversion of the gentile centurion Cornelius, who comes to the faith through the intervention of Peter in spite of the latter's initial hesitations (10:1–48). Peter's recapitulation of this signal event leads to the recognition that “God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life” (11:1–18). With the paradigmatic conversion of Cornelius serving to establish the validity of the entrance of gentiles into the church, soon numerous Greeks in Antioch become believers. Barnabas and Saul become teachers there and it is in Antioch that the term “Christians” is first used (11:19–30). In an interlude, James the brother of John is killed by Herod, who also throws Peter into prison—but he is supernaturally delivered (ch. 12). Then Barnabas and Saul/Paul are commissioned by the church at Antioch to spread the word in various new territories where, even though they base themselves in the synagogues, they enjoy great success among gentiles (13:1—14:28).

This result stokes controversy among some, necessitating a great council to resolve the matter. In a climactic scene at the center of the book of Acts, all of the luminaries—Peter, James, and Paul, as well as all of the other apostles—reach a common acknowledgment that confirms the status of the gentile converts as members of the church and clarifies their responsibilities vis-à-vis the requirements of Jewish ritual law (15:1–35). Then the narrative recounts Paul's extensive missionary efforts among the Greeks in a series of important geographical centers—Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus—concluding with his journey to Jerusalem by way of Caesarea (15:36—21:26). Throughout this section important narrative portrayals are offered to show how various collective characters (Jews, gentiles, Romans) position themselves in relation to the message preached by Paul. Almost as soon as Paul arrives in Jerusalem he is incarcerated, and, alongside the various intrigues that inject suspense into the narrative, the protracted deliberations concerning his case provide the opportunity in the narrative for a series of speeches that serve to clarify important theological perspectives (21:27—26:32).

The vivid story of the shipwreck (ch. 27) raises the intensity of the action to its highest point and delivers among its various other messages the assurance that Paul's cause is divinely guided. The latter theme continues through the scenes on Malta (28:1–10). Shortly after he arrives in Rome, Paul meets with the local Jewish leaders and the notice of God's salvation for the gentiles is delivered once more in stark fashion (28:11–28). The book concludes with the comforting image of Paul loosely under guard continuing to proclaim to all who would listen his message about the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ (28:30–31).

Throughout the course of this narrative one notes the regular presence of the Spirit whose operation at critical moments in the church's history (e.g., 8:29; 10:19; 16:6–7) serves to ensure the new movement's successful growth. Even so, Acts is theocentric in its outlook, in that everything that unfolds is determined by the plan of God. It was God who anointed Jesus with the Spirit and power (10:38) and legitimated him by mighty works, wonders, and signs (2:22). Though the atoning nature of Jesus' death is mentioned in passing (20:28), it is the resurrection that is emblematic of the arrival of salvation. Luke's attention to the progression of the church's spread through the series of episodes that he joins together with the constant presence of divine guidance provides an uplifting picture of how Christianity became established across the Roman world.


The data laid out in the preceding sections allow us to say something about what the book of Acts meant to its original author and audience. In doing so, it must be recognized that the

Acts of the Apostles

The first (chs. 13–14), second (15–18), and third (18–21) missionary journeys, and Paul's journey to Rome (27–28).


interpretation of the book is a matter of some controversy between those who would identify Luke as an actual participant in the Pauline mission and those who would view him as a later heir of the Pauline tradition. The former naturally tend to date Acts much closer to the time of Paul, or at least insist on the reliability of the author's information should a later date be entertained, while the latter find the perspective of the late first century more conducive to making sense of the narrative's portrayals. The former tend to assess Luke's description of early Christianity as trustworthy in the sense of an accurate documentary account, while the latter are more attuned to Luke's rhetorical interests, which are often seen as determining the course of Luke's outline of events. Both may refer to Luke's similarities to ancient historical writings, but the former will accent the strict procedures of a historian like Polybius, while the latter will emphasize the lax practice of historical standards typical of many other ancient historians, judged from a modern point of view, and find what Luke has produced more akin to a historical novel; still others will hesitate to see any real connection to historiography even in the Greco-Roman sense. Neither of the main camps would object to the view that Luke writes with much more than simple historical interest.

If we may refer to Luke's statement of purpose in the preface to the Gospel as also holding for Acts, we may see that he is fundamentally concerned with asphaleia (Luke 1:4). The NRSV translates this word as “the truth,” but this is an inadequate rendering, since one might be tempted to conclude that Luke has some particular propositional formulation in mind that readers should subscribe to, albeit with special conviction. If we translate this term with the word “assurance,” however, we likely come much closer to the crux of Luke's concern. In general terms, Luke takes up his pen again to compose a “history” of the early church to provide his contemporaries with a model survey of their institutional past to serve as an explanation for their present situation as well as a guide for their future. It is not the elements of a systematic theology that are central to Luke's project. Rather, he seeks to confront social and theological problems engendered by early Christianity's relationship to its Jewish ancestry, on the one hand, and the reality of its day to day existence in the cultural and political realities of the Greco-Roman world, on the other. In particular, it seems that Luke wished to explain with regard to the first issue how the church could be understood to be true to the God of the Jewish scriptures in light of a less than favorable response to the message of the gospel on the part of most Jews. And with regard to the second issue he sought to show that Christianity did not represent a subversive threat to the civic order of the Roman Empire. How Luke goes about executing these interconnected tasks may be seen, among many other examples, in connection with the narrative picture of Paul that he constructs over the course of much of Acts. The way in which the Paul of Acts relates to the collective character of “the Jews” and to things Jewish (e.g., the Law, synagogues, the Temple) in the narrative of Acts as well as to representative figures of Roman officialdom (e.g., centurions, governors) has less to do with the “historical” Paul than it does with the message that Luke wishes to convey to his Christian contemporaries concerning their relationships to these two important groups. This is another way of saying that Luke is principally concerned with legitimating the current situation of the group he is writing for and responding to issues pertinent for its identity formation.

If an assessment such as this is near the mark, then it is clear that by the time of Irenaeus the circumstances that gave rise to Acts had faded into the background and its prosaic account of Christian beginnings was now open to utilization for other purposes. Irenaeus is not interested in the rhetorically engineered account of Christian origins that speaks to the particular circumstances of Luke's audience, nor would one need to assume that he was even aware of it. What attracts Irenaeus to the narrative of Acts is the possibility of employing it as a documentary resource with which he might refute his Gnostic opponents' versions of the earliest developments of doctrine. By the time we reach the church history of Eusebius (d. ca. 339 C.E.), this perspective on the genre of Acts has been solidified. Thus going forward Luke's account could be drawn upon as a repository of basic historical data, examples of the preaching of the apostles, or other information pertinent for addressing later doctrinal/historical issues. Lost in all of this is the recognition of how Acts was formulated to tackle a number of thorny issues closely connected with the circumstances of its author and first readers. This state of affairs is not especially remarkable, requiring only the passage of time and the reasonable desire on the part of later readers to find continuing relevance for a document known to have been of some value in the past. The canonical arrangement of Luke's two books, with the Fourth Gospel intervening between them, further promoted a generalized approach to Acts as a resource for doctrinal and historical information rather than a work addressed to a particular historical situation. In this way Acts could be viewed as following up on each and every one of the four Gospels as the next segment of their common story, rather than being the intentional sequel to Luke's first volume alone.

Luke's concerns, however, were not strictly historical or documentary in a generalized sense, but entered on a difficult theological conundrum. Even if, as many scholars suspect, Luke himself was not born a Jew, it seems clear nevertheless that he recognized the place held by the people of Israel as essential in the scheme of salvation history. It may not be going too far to suggest that Luke attempts to portray in narrative terms the difficult circumstances that Paul discusses in Romans 9–11. Similar interests are visible in the post-Pauline period in the epistle to the Ephesians, where the author underlines the action of Christ in breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between Jews and gentiles (Eph 2:14). The principal issue for Luke appears to be the apparent rupture in salvation history signaled by widespread Jewish rejection or indifference to the gospel message. This unfortunate situation was further exacerbated by the continuing expansion of the gentile component of the early Christian assemblies, which more and more exhibited no connection with Jewish law, rituals, and tradition. All of this raised questions about the continuity of salvation history and how it could be that the promises of salvation made by God to the people of Israel could go unrealized for Jews while being implemented among gentiles.

Like his depiction of the pious representatives of Israel portrayed in the infancy narrative in the Gospel (Luke 1–2), Luke portrays the earliest believers in Jerusalem as centered on the Temple and enjoying great success in spreading the gospel among their fellow Jews. Indeed, in Luke's depiction it is during this period in this fundamentally Jewish environment that the church experiences its “golden age,” which stands as a model for all subsequent Christian communities to emulate (see, e.g., Acts 2:43–47; 4:32–37). The departure of these early Jewish believers from Jerusalem is involuntary, as violence from nonbelieving Jews forces them out. Thus Luke initiates a recurrent pattern that wends its way through the rest of his narrative—missionary successes that provoke a hostile response from “the Jews.” The hostility is portrayed as a flaunting of Jewish customs, beliefs, and traditions on the part of those who would bring gentiles into the membership of a group that ostensibly would represent the people of God. What this might mean in realistic terms for Luke and his group may not best be understood by taking his corporate character “the Jews” as a simple stand-in for actual Jews of Luke's day. While such people might have been concerned with what “the Christians” were doing with the Jewish scriptures and their endeavor to pursue a modified Jewish lifestyle, they might just as easily have ignored such a social experiment as having nothing to do with them. Those who would have a greater stake in opposing the Lukan view of how Jews and gentiles should join together to form a church would be other Christians, that is to say Jewish Christians who took a much more conservative view of how the Christian life was to be practiced with respect to the continuing validity of Jewish law and practices.

Luke does not confront such opposition by repeating the complicated scriptural arguments Paul had earlier marshaled against “the Judaizers” of his own day. Instead, he continues his narrative approach to settling the issues that face him and his community. Accordingly, through his portrayal of key events in the past, Luke provides an explanation for how things came to be as they are in his present. Thus an intervention by the heavenly Christ turns the persecutor Saul from his violent path and charges him with spreading the new gospel among the gentiles (9:1–19). Even so, it must be noted that Paul's initial evangelistic efforts are all focused upon Jewish audiences. The principal breakthrough is reserved for the apostle Peter. The story of the conversion of Cornelius in Acts 10:1–48 allows readers to witness how the Jewish-Christian Peter is persuaded through a series of divinely inspired events to arrive at the insight that God does not distinguish among people along a Jew/gentile divide (Acts 10:34–35). The significance of both of these episodes is underlined by their repeated recurrence in the narrative that follows, with rehearsals of the momentous breakthrough in the Cornelius episode in 11:1–18 and more briefly at 15:7–9, and additional versions of Paul's conversion occurring at Acts 22:4–16 and 26:9–18. In this way Luke achieves his goal by demonstrating that the inclusion of gentiles in the church was a result of divine intervention and therefore cannot be less than fully in accord with salvation history.

Far from representing an illegitimate rupture of this history, the incorporation of gentiles into Israel is in continuity with God's plan for his people. That Luke is sensitive to issues pertinent to a Christian community that includes both Jewish and gentile members is well captured in his depiction of the first gentile convert. Cornelius is a remarkable figure—a Roman military leader who prior to his baptism by Peter is already the devout head of a household that worships the God of Israel and practices Jewish piety (almsgiving and prayer). Cornelius displays the religious sensibilities that Luke associates with the kind of gentiles he imagines being joined to Israel. The Ethiopian eunuch in 8:26–40 had already previewed this type of individual, someone who displays both temple devotion and attachment to the scriptures of Israel.

As the narrative proceeds, it is among the gentile God-fearers (10:2; 13:16, 26) and God-worshippers (16:14; 18:7; cf. 13:43, 50; 17:4, 17), that is, among gentiles who follow in the path of devotion to the Jewish God already blazed by the Ethiopian and Cornelius, who form the basis of the “gentile” church that Luke seeks to situate in the world. In line with this portrayal, the high-level discussions of the Apostolic Council that Luke makes his readers privy to result in an agreement that all parties are able to consent to, a decree setting out basic rules of conduct that seem to be focused on conditions that would allow Jews to associate with gentiles in the context of the church (15:20). In this broad context Paul's constant appearances in synagogues in Acts, a feature of the account usually taken to be in stark contradiction to Paul's representation of his activities in his own letters, begin to make sense. It is yet another element in Luke's presentation that is meant to stress not only the origin of the church out of the midst of Israel but also its persistence in this context—at least to the extent that some ethnic Jews remain within the church and many of the gentiles there maintain an interest in some Jewish practices and connection to the heritage of Israel as part of their Christian identity.

It is clear that, if this construal of Luke's work is on target, his status as a historian must be measured by standards different from those employed in modern times. This is because Luke's historical purposes are always subordinated to his literary and theological objectives. He seeks to compose a persuasive account of Christian origins not chiefly for documentary purposes but as a way to offer confirmation to the readers of his own day that their existence as Christians is a legitimate outgrowth of the ancient plan of the God of Israel. His strategy in the opening chapters of Acts picks up on the technique he used to good effect in the infancy narratives of the Gospel in which the characters as pious representatives of Israel give voice to their expectations of God's salvation, focused on Israel but including Jews and Gentiles. In Acts the opening chapters once again describe a time of beginnings in which the nascent church is immersed in the ultimate Jewish context of Jerusalem centered on the Temple. This period is represented as a golden age during which the early community under the guidance of the apostles grew at an astonishing rate. While Luke's portrayal clearly stresses the continuing involvement of the apostles and the early community in the Jewish life of Jerusalem, these opening chapters also establish a pattern of controversy in which Jewish leaders seek to quell the new movement. This rejection is seemingly democratized in the later chapters of the book when “the Jews” emerge as constant and vocal opponents to the mission led by Paul. The narrative progression shows how a group that originated in Jerusalem with close connection to the institutions of Judaism evolved into a movement that spread across the Greco-Roman world and broadened its base by including gentile members, especially those who already had some familiarity with and appreciation for the synagogue. That these gentiles could participate in this new movement was traced to a divine decision in theological terms and endorsed in practical social terms by the directive to adhere to stipulations such as those advanced in the “apostolic decree” (15:20, 29; 21:25). The importance of the decree in the Lukan representation of early Christianity, in spite of its lack of appearance in the Pauline writings, may indicate that its principal life setting is to be found in Luke's own time as a mechanism to enable table fellowship among all the members of Luke's community, gentiles as well as Jews.

Bound up with Luke's concern to deal in narrative terms with the Jewish aspects of the situation that he addresses during his own day is the desire to formulate a positive relation between his group and the larger Roman society. The accentuation of Christianity's ties with its Jewish origins, which could play on Roman sympathies for the maintenance of ancestral traditions (see 24:14), allows the development of a scenario in which Roman administrators excuse themselves from getting involved in sectarian religious matters (25:19–20). This hopeful portrayal of how Christians might be perceived by Roman officials in potentially difficult legal situations is part of a sustained effort to suggest that representatives of the Roman state find nothing anti-Roman about Christianity (18:15; 19:37; 23:29; 25:25; 26:32; cf. Luke 23:4, 13–16). In fact, it is even possible on several occasions to depict a healthy curiosity about Christianity on the part of some of these figures. That a variety of Roman officials in Luke's account are shown as not perceiving anything subversive in Christianity effectively makes Luke's point that Christianity is not completely out of step with the values of Roman society. That this narrative argument would surely have fallen on deaf ears should it have reached actual Roman officials does not detract from its value as an argument directed to the members of Luke's own group. To the extent that Luke's community included individuals with the benefit of citizenship in the Roman order, the narrative of Acts suggested that their social status was not incompatible with their Christian identity.

Reception History.

As has already been mentioned above, the Acts of the Apostles was taken up by later Christian authors as a resource for a variety of secondary concerns unrelated to the rhetorical situation of Luke's second volume, which dissipated with the passing of his generation. While Eusebius represents the most thorough early reception of Luke's work as a historical account tracing the expansion of nascent Christianity across the Roman world, other early users of Acts accepted its accuracy as a documentary record as a matter of course. Just as Irenaeus recognized the value of the historical record of Acts as evidentiary data for his argument against the Gnostics, so Tertullian found its account of the apostles' doings helpful in his refutation of Marcion, and Origen found in its record of the apostles' teaching a ready resource to counter the criticisms of Celsus.

Apart from its use by various early church fathers in apologetic contexts such as those just indicated, Acts could also be appealed to as a scriptural authority in various doctrinal controversies. Such use takes some time to develop, since initially Acts does not seem to have been accorded the same degree of authority as other scriptural sources, namely, the Old Testament and the four gospels. By the time of Cyprian, however, both sides in the controversy over the efficacy of baptism administered by heretics could appeal to pertinent passages in Acts to bolster their respective cases. In more general terms authors in the third century begin to draw upon the stories in Acts in order to commend the moral and ethical guidance offered by such apostolic examples. Indeed, later authors would find in Acts illustrations of the various virtues that were foundational for the proper practice of the Christian life. In this respect subsequent readers take up one of the original purposes of the stories, which continue to serve as models for the identity formation of later believers even as they did for Luke's initial readers. A particularly potent instance of this may be found in the literary portrait of the unified early Christian community at Jerusalem found in the summary accounts of Acts 2:42–47 and 4:32–37. These passages were notably influential during the formative period of the early monastic communities. References to these texts were incorporated into the Rules of Basil the Great as well as the charters of other great monastic communities.

In comparison with the Gospels, attention to Acts as a text deserving of commentary or homiletical exposition was slow to catch on. With regard to the latter, one must wait for John Chrysostom to find an example of a sustained treatment of Acts from the pulpit. In terms of commentary, Ephrem is one of the earliest figures to engage it, though often the treatment amounts to little more than a paraphrase of the text. This manner of dealing with Luke's “history” seems to result from the common perception of the documentary nature of the information conveyed by Acts, which apparently was thought to signal its more or less self-evident meaning. Didymus the Blind (fourth century) is one of the first authors to depart from this style of paraphrastic appropriation of the narrative, taking Acts seriously as a text deserving of a theological exegesis. Arator (sixth century), too, is an author who purposefully looks beyond the surface narrative of historical details in Acts to probe its spiritual contents. His long poem based on Acts, which unfolds

Acts of the Apostles

Paul Preaching at Athens (17:16–34).

One of a series of seven cartoons by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio) and his studio, 1516–1517. The cartoons, commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, were designs for tapestries.


view larger image

in two books devoted to Peter and Paul, was part and parcel of the reception of Acts among numerous writers in the Middle Ages from Bede on.

Just as the literary reception of Acts seems to follow in the wake of the Gospels, so too does its function as a subject for the visual arts. By the fourth and fifth centuries, scenes drawn from Acts might appear on sarcophagi, church walls, or bishops' palaces. Though much of this early artwork has not survived, documentary evidence indicates, for example, that a representation of Peter's vision of the pure and impure animals from Acts 10 could be found in an episcopal palace in Ravenna in the fifth century. From that point on any number of scenes might be produced in various mediums (manuscript artwork, frescoes and mosaics in churches and other ecclesiastical buildings, paintings, plaques, and sculpture).

Numerous scenes inspired by Acts in European fine arts from before, during, and after the Renaissance period could be listed in which various artists bring the texts to life with their visual imaginations. As a less typical medium one might point to a series of tapestries produced in the early seventeenth century at the Mortlake tapestry works near London. Based on seven of the “Acts of the Apostles cartoons” painted by Raphael in 1516–17 for Pope Leo X, the first set produced from wool and silk enriched with gold was begun in 1625 with the work done by Flemish weavers. Louis XIV had several sets of this series based on the Acts of the Apostles, and some fifteen tapestries remain in the French National Collection.

A different example of the reception of Acts in art is found in the nineteenth-century woodcuts executed by Gustave Doré (1832–83). As has been noted by Felix Just, these illustrations themselves have been influential in the modern period. Just notes that not only have they been reprinted numerous times by publishers seeking to illustrate the biblical period, but they also exerted an influence on the biblical films of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille (see catholic-resources.org/Art/Dore.htm).

In the end the modern imagination, no less than the imaginations of Christians throughout the centuries, has been mesmerized by Luke's prosaic portrait of the growth and development of the early church. Consigning Luke's account to the genre of history, most Christians through the ages have read Acts as a record of what actually happened, while the fascinating rhetorical presentation of an early Christian community's struggle to claim its place in the particularities of its Greco-Roman context has long since faded from view.



Overviews of Research

  • Bovon, François. Luke the Theologian: Fifty-five Years of Research (1950–2005). 2d ed. Waco, Tex.: Baylor University Press, 2006. A thorough discussion of research on Acts that appeared between 1950 and 2005. The material is organized topically under ten major headings. An extensive bibliography is included.
  • Gasque, W. Ward. A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1975. Documents the methodological and theological tendencies at work in nineteenth- and twentieth-century research on Acts.


    Major Technical Commentaries

    • Barrett, C. K. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. 2 vols. International Critical Commentary. London and New York: T&T Clark, 1994–1998. Perhaps the best choice currently among the major critical commentaries for depth of information and balanced treatment.
    • Bock, Darrell L. Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2007. Suitable for students with the ability to work with the Greek text. Bock champions a traditional approach to the interpretation of Acts. The volume also offers extensive interaction with other recent commentaries on Acts.
    • Fitzmyer, Joseph A. The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 31. New York and London: Doubleday, 1998. A solid historical-critical treatment of the text that includes interaction with the scholarly literature.
    • Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971. While in some respects showing its age, this work does a great service in documenting the history of scholarship before it, pericope by pericope, and offers much insightful analysis as well.
    • Parsons, Mikeal C. Acts. Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008. Gives particular attention to how Hellenistic rhetorical conventions illuminate the text of Acts.
    • Pervo, Richard I. Acts: A Commentary. Hermeneia—A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008. Gives particular attention to the textual tradition and interprets Acts as an early second-century document.

    General Commentaries

    • Barrett, C. K. Acts of the Apostles: A Shorter Commentary. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2002. Condensed version (minus the Greek, Hebrew, Latin, German and much of the technical discussion) of the two-volume critical commentary listed in the previous section, making this significant work accessible to most students.
    • Chance, J. Bradley. Acts of the Apostles. Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary. Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys, 2007. Issued with a CD-ROM containing the full text of the volume as well as illustrative material along with searching and research tools.
    • Gaventa, Beverly Roberts. The Acts of the Apostles. Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. Nashville: Abingdon, 2003. An excellent mid-level choice for students not equipped to work with the Greek text. The issues raised by each section of the text are clearly outlined and sensible decisions are presented in non-technical prose. The volume shows that what Luke seeks to present is much more of a theological story than a historical chronicle.
    • Johnson, Luke T. The Acts of the Apostles. Sacra Pagina 5. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1992, 2006. A very readable literary approach to the book of Acts. The paperback edition of 2006 includes a two-page supplementary bibliography.
    • Spencer, F. Scott. Journeying through Acts: A Literary-Cultural Reading. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2004. Advocates Acts as worthy of investigation for literary and cultural reasons.

    Specialized Commentaries

    • Lüdemann, Gerd. The Acts of the Apostles: What Really Happened in the Earliest Days of the Church. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 2005. Distinctive for its meticulous attempt to sort through the various levels of Acts in an effort to identify what is historical as opposed to information based on intermediary traditions or the author's own contribution.
    • Tannehill, Robert C. The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts: A Literary Interpretation. Vol. 2, The Acts of the Apostles. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990. Essentially a commentary on Acts that approaches the text from the perspective of narrative criticism and highlights its interconnections with the Lukan Gospel. An excellent guide that will enable general readers and students to see the literary interconnections between and within Luke's two volumes.

Essay Collections

  • Alexander, Loveday C. A. Acts in Its Ancient Literary Context: A Classicist Looks at the Acts of the Apostles. Early Christianity in Context/Library of New Testament Studies 298. London and New York: T&T Clark, 2006. Gathers together Alexander's many significant contributions to the study of Luke's second book. Many of these essays are useful for introducing advanced students to readable and balanced discussions of important topics in Luke-Acts scholarship.
  • Keck, Leander E., and J. Louis Martyn, eds. Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays Presented in Honor of Paul Schubert. Nashville: Abingdon, 1966; [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980]. Foundational studies for the modern study of Luke and Acts.
  • Marguerat, Daniel. The First Christian Historian: Writing the “Acts of the Apostles.” Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Makes available in English important studies that combine historical criticism with a narrative reading of Luke's “historiographic work.” Suitable for advanced students.
  • Moessner, David P., ed. Jesus and the Heritage of Israel: Luke's Narrative Claim upon Israel's Legacy. Luke the Interpreter of Israel. Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press International, 1999. The series title highlights the interest of the authors of the essays in this volume, who assert the “rediscovery” of Luke's concern with Israel's history. The discussion is technical at times and often requires knowledge of Greek.
  • Neyrey, Jerome H., ed. The Social World of Luke-Acts: Models for Interpretation. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1991. These essays are particularly useful for demonstrating to students how cross-disciplinary work can enrich the investigation and interpretation of New Testament texts.
  • Penner, Todd, and Caroline Vander Stichele, eds. Contextualizing Acts: Lukan Narrative and Greco-Roman Discourse. SBL Symposium 20. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003. For scholars and advanced students, the contributions offer sophisticated analyses of the Greco-Roman context of Acts and in some cases assume knowledge of Greek.

Date and Purpose

  • Esler, Philip F. Community and Gospel in Luke–Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 57. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Introduces the notion of “socio-redaction criticism” and offers insightful perspectives for taking account of Luke's audience in terms of the contrasts between Jew and gentile, rich and poor, male and female, Christian and Roman. An excellent text for introducing serious students to the multifaceted nature of the Lukan agenda.
  • Jervell, Jacob. Luke and the People of God: A New Look at Luke-Acts. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1972. Challenges the view that Luke's work was intended primarily for a gentile readership.
  • Pervo, Richard I. Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists. Santa Rosa, Cal.: Polebridge, 2006. Presents a sustained argument for dating Acts in the early part of the second century. The case laid out in chapter four (pp. 51–147) that the author knows the letters of Paulis particularly worthy of note.
  • Tyson, Joseph B. Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006. Contends that Acts was composed in large part as a response to the threat posed by Marcion and his followers.

Acts and History

  • Dupont, Jacques. The Sources of the Acts: The Present Position. Translated by Kathleen Pond. London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1964. The now classic discussion of the basic failure of scholarly attempts to distinguish sources behind Luke's finished narrative.
  • Frey, Jörg, Clare K. Rothschild, and Jens Schröter, eds. Die Apostelgeschichte im Kontext antiker und frühchristlicher Historiographie. Beihefte zur Zeitschrift für die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft und die Kunde der älteren Kirche 162. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2009. These essays offer an excellent entrée into the most up-to-date assessments of the issue of Acts and history with particular attention to the Israelite and early Jewish, Greco-Roman, and early Christian contexts, respectively, as well as questions surrounding the genre and conception of Acts.
  • Hemer, Colin J. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 49. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1989. Champions a conservative view of the reliability of Acts as dependable history; assumes that Luke was a historical companion of Paul.
  • Rothschild, Clare K. Luke-Acts and the Rhetoric of History: An Investigation of Early Christian Historiography. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament, 2. Reihe 175. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004. Investigates the relation of the Lukan works to Hellenistic and early Roman historiography. For scholars and advanced students.
  • Soards, Marion L. The Speeches in Acts: Their Content, Context, and Concerns. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster/Knox, 1994. An important study of the speech material that comprises one-third of the content of Acts.

Genre and Acts

  • Phillips, Thomas E. “The Genre of Acts: Moving toward a Consensus?” Currents in Biblical Research 4 (2006): 365–396. A concise survey of the major proposals since about 1970. The best way for students to gain an understanding of the various proposals and discussions about them.

Unity of Luke-Acts

  • Bird, Michael F. “The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (2007): 425–448. Treats deliberations on the unity of Luke-Acts since the publication of Mikeal C. Parsons and Richard I. Pervo, Rethinking the Unity of Luke and Acts (1993). A convenient way for students and others to gain perspective on the issues.


  • Bird, Michael F. “Literary Unity and Reception History: Reading Luke-Acts as Luke and Acts.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (2007): 449–457. Suggests that the reception history of Luke and Acts poses a challenge to the contemporary historical-critical presumption of the unity of Luke-Acts.
  • Bovon, François. “The Reception of the Book of Acts in Late Antiquity.” In Contemporary Studies in Acts, edited by Thomas E. Phillips, pp. 66–92. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2009. The essay seeks to spark further research on the reception of Acts in the early period, from the second to the sixth century.
  • Gregory, Andrew. “The Reception of Luke and Acts and the Unity of Luke-Acts.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 29 (2007): 459–472. Notes that while reception history shows us how different people have approached Luke and Acts, it does not tell us how we should read them.
  • Martin, F., ed. Acts, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: New Testament 5. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2006. After a short introduction to Acts and the patristic commentaries on it, this volume presents excerpts from patristic writers on most segments of the text.


  • Conzelmann, Hans. The Theology of St. Luke. New York: Harper & Row, 1960. Though the work is sophisticated, advanced students can still learn a great deal by direct exposure to this master interpreter. The book was first published in German in 1953 under the title Die Mitte der Zeit (or The Middle of Time), which refers to Conzelmann's identification of the Lukan concept of the history of salvation with the appearance of Jesus at its center.
  • Jervell, Jacob. The Theology of the Acts of the Apostles. New Testament Theology. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Valuable for its insistence on “Jewish” aspects of Luke-Acts, but Jervell's view of Luke as an actual companion of Paul and other historicist assumptions necessitate using this volume with care. Jervell is also the author of a major German-language commentary on Acts.

Luke and Paul

  • Lentz, John Clayton. Luke's Portrait of Paul. Society for New Testament Studies Monograph Series 77. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993. This study of Luke's characterization of Paul in Acts, which is suitable for students, explores how and why Luke creates a portrait of Paul that departs from what we know about the historical figure.

Luke and Judaism

  • Tyson, Joseph B. Luke, Judaism, and the Scholars: Critical Approaches to Luke-Acts. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. Contextualizes the topic of anti-Judaism and New Testament study in general, profiles nine major scholars of Luke-Acts, and considers what remains unresolved in the interpretation of Luke's view of Jews. Suitable for advanced students.
  • Tyson, Joseph B., ed. Luke-Acts and the Jewish People: Eight Critical Perspectives. Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1988. An essential collection of essays treating this crucial topic; an excellent resource for provoking serious discussion among students.

Christopher R. Matthews

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