The fifth book of the NT and from the same hand as the third gospel: Luke and Acts are two volumes of one work and much of Acts parallels the course of the gospel. Thus, Jesus’ baptism and descent of the spirit (Luke 3: 21–2) followed by Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth (4: 18), is paralleled in Acts by the descent of the spirit at Pentecost and Peter’s speech (2: 14). The importance of Jerusalem in Luke is followed in Acts as the progress of the gospel is described from Jerusalem to the end of the earth (1: 8). It is Jerusalem from where Paul repeatedly travels (9: 26 etc.). These are the ideals of the imitation of Jesus (20: 35) and steadfastness under persecution—the theme of Luke 9: 23.
Without the Acts it would be impossible to write an account of the Christian Church of the first generation. With it, historians have interesting problems on their hands because of the apparent discrepancies both with the theology of Paul and with facts mentioned by Paul in his extant correspondence. And Paul is the central character in the second part of the book, as Peter is of the first. In fact, the title, used first in the 2nd cent., does not accurately indicate its contents. What of the rest of the apostles?
Acts charts the course of events which took the gospel from Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish world, and in the scriptures the place of revelation, to Rome, the capital of the Empire. After a successful start with preaching to Jews (Acts 6: 7), the gospel moves out under the guidance of the Spirit, ever wider, first to heterodox Judaism (Samaria, Acts 8: 5), to proselytes (an Ethiopian eunuch, 8: 27), God-fearing Gentiles (a centurion, 10: 2), and finally Gentile pagans (13: 46). From then on, the Christian mission goes on by land and by sea to Rome, not without internal dissent and external opposition; but, when Paul and his companions do finally reach Rome, the book surprisingly comes to an end (28: 16 ff.).
References to the Acts in early Christian literature regard it as the work of Luke, author also of the third gospel. This tradition is unanimous from Irenaeus (180 CE) onwards, and it is confirmed by evidence in the NT itself. Not only do both gospel and Acts share the same Greek style, they also share the dedication to Theophilus (Luke 1: 3; Acts 1: 1). It also seems that the author slips into the first person plural (‘we’ and ‘us’) in four sections of Acts (16: 10–17; 20: 5–15; 21: 1–18; 27: 1–28: 16), which on the face of it looks as though he was himself present at those stages of the narrative, and this could fit in with the references to Luke by Paul himself (Col. 4: 14, Philem. 23–4; and cf. 2 Tim. 4: 11). If the writer was indeed recalling his own experiences in much of Acts, the book enjoys extra historical credibility.
But was he? The same hand that wrote the ‘we-sections’ seems to have been responsible for the remainder of the work, which is where the problems lie; for example, the Paul of Acts speaks much like Peter; the speeches are artificial compositions (like those of the Greek historian Thucydides (400 BCE), on his own admission); then, if the author of Acts was a companion of Paul, how strange that he seems unaware that Paul was a great writer of letters. He seems ignorant of Paul’s characteristic doctrines—only one brief (and inaccurate) allusion to justification. The settlement agreed at Jerusalem, according to Acts 15, on the terms by which Gentiles might be admitted to the Church, is never quoted by Paul and the picture of harmony between Peter and Paul is different from the bitterness against Peter in Gal. 2: 11; there is also a savage invective possibly against the Pharisees (Phil. 3: 2 followed by 3: 5) which strangely contrasts with Paul’s claim to be a Pharisee in Acts 23: 6. If Paul’s account of the Jerusalem conversations in Gal. 2 refers to the conference described in Acts 15, then the latter must be a fabrication by the author of Acts, since the differences are obvious, and it is implausible that the Jewish Christian James should have misquoted the Hebrew of Amos 9: 11 in order to favour the mission to the Gentiles. The case against the author being a companion of Paul is formidable, and is all the greater if any weight is given to inconsistencies in the narrative of Acts (e.g. as between the three accounts of Paul’s experience on the road to Damascus) and neither the gospel of Luke nor the Acts contain any medical vocabulary that might have been expected from a physician (Col. 4: 14). Nevertheless, these arguments are not totally persuasive, provided that the different purposes of each author are taken into account. Paul was an evangelist writing in the white heat of controversy and using autobiographical details to support his conviction, whereas Acts comes from a later generation (perhaps about 80 CE) when the conflict is largely resolved; the author wishes to emphasize the unity of the Church and the evil of schism.
Now, given that the external evidence is unanimous for Luke as the author, can the book itself support this view?
- 1. Certainly if there was nothing in the tradition it is unlikely that the name of Luke would ever have come up. Titus as a trusted spokesman for Paul (2 Cor. 12: 18) would have been a more likely choice.
- 2. Then the speeches; it is possible, as it was for Thucydides (he himself said so), that when he had reliable reports he used them.
- 3. As to Paul’s claim to Jewishness in Acts, such as boasting of his Pharisaic upbringing and his support for men taking a Jewish vow (Acts 21: 24), this could be justified by his principle of becoming ‘all things to all people’ (1 Cor. 9: 22) and is not necessarily fictitious.
- 4. It is also held by some scholars that the visit to Jerusalem described by Paul as his second (Gal. 2) is also that mentioned in the Acts (9: 26) and that the visits of Acts 11: 30 and 15: 4 describe the same event, which took place after the epistle to the Galatians was written. At the conference of Acts 15 Paul was willing to accept Jewish food regulations for the sake of preserving the unity of the Church provided that he was authorized to continue his mission to the Gentiles. Doubtless Luke has made the most of this occasion in order to enhance the importance of Church unity, just as he records the apostles’ laying on of hands to mark other great turning points in the expansion of the Church.
- 5. By ch. 15 the Church is theologically complete because all four types of mankind (Jews, Samaritans, proselytes, Gentiles) are within it, and now comes the geographical extension. Jerusalem, the place of revelation, is where Paul starts and finishes his long journey (15: 30–21: 15), all told in Acts with remarkable accuracy about the titles of officials and the perils of a shipwreck, and enlivened for readers of the age with graphic stories of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison and Paul’s from the shipwreck.
While the main purpose of the Acts is to describe the triumphant (but not unmolested) progress of the gospel, there is a secondary motive in that Paul is presented as no less an apostle than Peter, though only in Acts 14 is Paul explicitly called an apostle. The author is motivated by trying to fasten opposition to Christians on the Jews rather than the Romans, whose authorities are described as friendly or helpful (e.g. Acts 18: 15; 22: 29). The book may even have been published in Rome, where Greek-educated readers might have recognized its similarity to a newly emerging category of biographies. A few might have noticed a resemblance to the life and death of Socrates. But all the readers, then and now, are engaged by the sheer excitement of the narrative of failures and success, quarrels and reconciliation, riots and earthquakes—all spiced with the wonder of Peter’s shadow (5: 15) and Paul’s handkerchief (19: 12).