The Acts of the Apostles - Introduction
The book of Acts tells a dramatic story of the birth and expansion of the church from the time of the ascension of Jesus until the arrival of Paul in Rome. Written from the perspective of the late first century CE, Acts alone among the documents of the earliest Christian period offers a narrative sequel to the accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds found in the Gospels. Its author, identified by tradition as Luke, had already produced the Gospel ( 1.1–2 ). His purpose in writing again was more than a matter of antiquarian interest, although Acts can be appropriately compared with other Hellenistic historical monographs. The account was intended to imbue Christians of his day with an unshakable confidence in their future through a didactic survey of their past. In carrying out that overarching purpose, it addresses social and theological problems brought about by the church's relationship to its Jewish heritage and its Greco‐Roman cultural and political environment. Luke sought to clarify both how the church was faithful to the God of the Jewish scriptures and how Christianity was not incompatible with civic order and moral probity in cities of the Roman Empire. Luke devotes half of the narrative to Paul, constructing for Christians of a post‐Pauline era an image of this important figure consistent with the stance taken on Jewish and Roman concerns in the book.
As a title, Acts of the Apostles is a misnomer, since Peter is the only one of the twelve apostles who receives individualized portrayal. Nevertheless, it does capture one of the key concepts of the book, namely, that the apostles guarantee continuity with Jesus as witnesses to everything that happened during his ministry ( 1.21–22 ); this testimony includes his resurrection ( 10.39–41 ). The plot line of Acts begins with the ascension of Jesus to heaven. The narrative first portrays the life and dynamic growth of the primitive community in Jerusalem, energized by the Spirit and led by Peter and the apostles up through the martyrdom of Stephen (chs 1–7 ). The persecution initiated with Stephen's death results in mission activity outside Jerusalem highlighted by approaches to non/Jews (ch 8 ). After narrating the conversion of Saul/Paul (ch 9 ), Peter is represented as the individual through whom God establishes the inclusion of the Gentiles ( 10.1–11.18 ). Next, the early missionary tour of Barnabas and Paul on behalf of Antioch is narrated ( 11.19–14.28 ), along with a story about Peter's miraculous escape from death (ch 12 ). The center of the book recounts the apostolic council's vindication of the efforts to free the Gentile mission from the requirements of Jewish ritual law (ch 15 ). Then Paul's further missionary travels are depicted ( 15.36–21.26 ) in Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Miletus, Caesarea, and Jerusalem. Finally, the book recounts Paul's arrest, imprisonment, and trials in Jerusalem and Caesarea, and his transfer to Rome ( 21.27–28.31 ), closing with the uplifting image of Paul, while under house arrest, preaching and teaching without hindrance in the capital city of the empire.
For Luke, who himself was likely a Gentile Christian, the fact that God's promises in scripture had been made to the ancient people of God required that the church stand in continuity with Israel. But the experience of unbelief among Jews and the abandonment of ritual observance in the mission to the Gentiles threatened to compromise the integrity of this history. Luke responds by depicting the earliest Christians as faithful Jews in Jerusalem until persecution pushes them out. Then, by means of multiple elaborations of the Cornelius episode ( 10.1–48; 11.1–18; 15.7–9 ) and of the story of Paul's conversion ( 9.1–19; 22.4–16; 26.9–18 ), he stresses that the entrance of Gentiles into the church is nothing less than an act of God, and so by definition in continuity with Israel's history. Luke's ideal Gentile convert is one who continues to practice Jewish piety ( 10.2 ), and Gentile Christians are urged to adhere to behavior that would permit association with Jews ( 15.20 ). Luke's portrayal of Paul's visits to synagogues and his Jewish lifestyle serve to reinforce this maintenance of continuity with Jewish roots.
One consequence of Luke's larger narrative goals is that his presentation of Paul stands in considerable tension with biographical and theological details in Paul's own letters. This raises doubts about the traditional identification of Luke as a companion of Paul. That connection was based on the appearance of Luke's name in Philem 24 and other letters attributed to Paul (Col 4.14; 2 Tim 4.11 ), in combination with details found in the text of Acts. Irenaeus (ca. 130–200 CE) pointed to the so‐called “we” passages ( 16.10–17; 20.5–15; 21.1–18; 27.1–28.16 ) as proof that Luke had been Paul's inseparable collaborator. But it is far from clear that these first‐person plural passages demonstrate personal familiarity with Paul on the part of the author. Indeed, to raise only one of the numerous difficulties, Luke's denial of the status “apostle” to Paul in Acts is a bit of literary license almost unimaginable for an actual companion of Paul himself, who in his letters repeatedly calls himself an apostle (e.g., Rom 1.1; 1 Cor 1.1; Gal 1.1 ).
Discrepancies between the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the epistles have long been recognized. Paul's image had already undergone revision by Luke's day (as shown in the Pastoral Epistles; see p. 349 NT), and Luke did not hesitate to portray Paul as subject to Jewish law in line with his understanding of the continuity of the history of Israel and the church. Moreover, according to Luke it is not Paul's theological argument but the conversion of Cornelius through Peter, ratified by the apostolic council, that established the freedom of Gentile Christians from the law. Such contradictions arise because Acts preserves an image of Paul from a period several decades after his death. Paul's role in Acts is thus dictated not only by biographical details but also by the needs of Luke's theology.
It is reasonable to date Acts sometime after Luke's Gospel, which may be placed around 85–95 CE. Luke's geographical location is uncertain. Ancient tradition placed him in Antioch, but his obvious attachment to Paul and the Pauline tradition could indicate his connection to one of the cities of the Pauline mission around the Aegean.
Luke offers no comment about the information upon which the narrative presented in Acts is based. He appears to have relied on a mixture of traditional information uncovered by his own investigation (see Lk 1.3 ) and his imagination of how the founding events unfolded in Jerusalem. In line with the general practice of Hellenistic historians, Luke filled his narrative with speeches appropriate to significant occasions. These speeches, which amount to nearly one‐third of the total text, are properly regarded as Luke's literary creations, inserted into the narrative to instruct and please the reader. They serve a subsidiary goal of demonstrating the substantial unity of the earliest Christian preaching, even as they embody Luke's own interpretation of the “events” (Lk 1.1 ) surrounding the emergence of the church.
Apart from any value Acts has as a work of history, it is an important example of early Christian theology. Luke develops the idea of the church as a historical entity with its own distinctive era. Moreover, the earliest church, by being confined to Jerusalem, is set apart from the church of Luke's day. The ideal and unrepeatable structures of the early community result from the presence of the apostles and eyewitnesses. Luke's concern to highlight the continuity between Israel and the church is expressed by the continued observance of Jewish practices in the early period, implicitly in contrast to Luke's later situation. The gap between Luke's generation and the primitive time is bridged by the endorsement of the Gentile mission in the deliberations of the apostolic council and the promulgation of the apostolic decree ( 15.20,29; 21.25 ). The latter pronouncement may have been of practical value for Luke's community in particular, creating the conditions necessary to allow table fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Luke's portrayal of Christianity's close ties to Judaism also bolsters his appeal to Roman officials not to concern themselves with internal religious disputes ( 25.19,20 ). Acts portrays influential Romans expressing interest in Christianity ( 13.12; 19.31 ), or at least concluding that it poses no threat to the state ( 18.15; 19.37; 23.29; 25.25; 26.32 ). In this way Luke demonstrates the nonsubversive nature of the church, possibly in an effort to convince the citizen elites of his own day that nothing stood in the way of their membership in the Christian community.
Key among the factors promoting continuity within the church itself throughout the narrative are the descriptions of the church's proclamation and teaching about Jesus and the constancy of the presence of the Spirit as the prime mover at the crucial junctures of early Christian history (e.g., 8.29; 10.19; 16.6–7 ). Yet in Acts it is God who occupies the dominant place. Jesus is described as a man whom God legitimated by mighty works, wonders, and signs ( 2.22 ). The view of Christ's death as atoning occurs only once in an expression taken over from the tradition ( 20.28 ). The focal point of salvation is the resurrection, which is marked as the turning point of history. The combination of all of these forces allows Luke to portray the successful expansion of the early Christian mission throughout the Roman Empire under the direction of the Spirit according to the purpose of God.