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The Life and Times of the Apostles

Timothy P. Gannon
Cardinal Spellman High School
Brockton, MA

Course: Religion 2 – Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament
Syllabus Selection: Early Christianity
Audience: High school level

Learning Outcomes

  • 1. Students will learn the stories of the triumphs and hardships faced by the apostles during the early days of developing Christianity.
  • 2. Students will learn about the intended audience, cultural context, and major themes of Acts.
  • 3. Students will demonstrate technology research skills by working in the library.
  • 4. Students will be able to apply the facts they have worked with and turn them into something for practical application.
  • 5. Students will demonstrate team and work group skills.
  • 6. Students will be able to write a reflection essay.

Acts of the Apostles recounts the early days of the spread of Christianity. One area that tends to be overlooked is the immeasurable hardships the apostles endured during these times. The purpose of this lesson is for students to understand how the apostles built and spread the early church effectively.

Before students begin the lesson, assign as reading the Introduction from The New Oxford Annotated Bible and Acts of the Apostles for homework. Based on teacher discretion, students may use one of the various text selections from OBSO or their own Bible. Be prepared to discuss different interpretations of the text if the students are not all using the same translation of the Bible. After the students have read the introduction, a discussion and note session may be held discussing the audience (Gentile Christians), cultural context (Greco-Roman government with Jewish populations of varying sizes in different communities), and major themes (the New Testament's relation to the Hebrew Scriptures, salvation for social outcasts, salvation through faith in Christ) of Acts. It may also be prudent to hold a discussion on the narrative goal of Acts as well as its mixture of theology and history. Relevant discussion questions could include:

  • 1. Is Acts meant to be more theology or history?
  • 2. What did the writer of Acts set out to do?
  • 3. What do we do when there are factual inconsistencies between Acts and other texts?

The most effective way to assign Acts of the Apostles is to split the book into four sections while giving notes. The reading can be split up as follows:

See An Outline of Acts for a full breakdown of Acts. Another good source is Things We Have Learned from Acts before you begin your notes.

The notes should cover these fields:

  • 1. The Ascension of Jesus
  • 2. Pentecost
  • 3. The countries and places the apostles and other followers visited
  • 4. The Council of Jerusalem
  • 5. The apostles' and Paul's deaths
    • --Acts does not mention all of the apostles' deaths, so an outside source for this information is necessary. One of the more complete discussions can be found at the Christian Classics Ethereal Library website. The map on this webpage is meant for the teacher's use only. There is an activity for the students to work on a map later in the lesson.
    • --As absurd as it may seem, stick figure diagrams of the apostles' deaths help students remember them. These are more effective than pictures of the statues from St. John Lateran in Rome or simple notes on the board.

    Discussion Questions:


    • 1. Why could the Acts of the Apostles also be called "The Acts of the Holy Spirit"? What is the role of God's Spirit in Acts? Cite and discuss specific verses.
    • 2. What role does the body play in Acts? What is Paul attempting to do with the symbol of the body?
    • 3. How does the persecution Jesus suffered relate to the persecution faced in the early church?

    Give special focus to Saul of Tarsus and his conversion on the road to Damascus. For homework (before beginning the section on Paul), have this students read Paul's Conversion for discussion and notes. When discussing Paul with your students, be sure to emphasize the cultural context ; differences between Acts and the Epistles on the details of Paul's biography; Paul's conversion ("abandonment" of Judaism?); Paul's relationship with the Jews and Gentiles; and Jewish concepts of the Messiah and salvation.

    Research Activities

    Assign students the map The Background of the New Testament Rome and the East to trace the route of Paul's travels based on their notes. After the students have drawn out the correct route of Paul, have the students pair off and use geocoding to view all the locations they plotted out on the map. Have the students use the coordinates given by Google Earth to give time estimations for how long it would take to travel to each place.

    Once each pair has finished the Paul section, assign each pair another apostle and have them repeat the exercise. You may use the Christian Classics Ethereal Library map as a reference tool for your students. You may wish to white out all the locations on the map and have your students fill in the blank spots.

    To finish your notes, be sure to include a section on Christian persecution. Have the students read Times of Terror: The Reign of Nero and The Triumph of Christianity. To make things simple, your notes may be drawn from these selections.

    Group Activities

    Once your notes are completed, put students into groups of four to six (depending on class size) to craft Acts of the Apostles board games. The game can be based on a pre-existing game (e.g., Monopoly, Life, Sorry!, Risk) or can be invented by the students. With student-invented games can often lead the class to put more thought and creativity into the assignment, creating a better learning experience and group dynamic. But adapted board games can also produce good results; this will have to be at the teacher's discretion. The game must include the following:

    • 1. The places the apostles visited
    • 2. Events in the lives of the apostles after Jesus (miracles performed, Pentecost, etc.)
    • 3. Where and how the apostles died
    • 4. Reference to Christian persecution (Nero, etc.)

After the board games have been completed, have students play and grade another group's game. Give the students a grading rubric of your own design for them to follow. Below is a sample rubric. You may assign points to each section based on your own grading system. Students should ignore "cooperative work", as the teacher will grade that section.

Game Design Project: ___________________

Teacher name: ___________________

Student Name(s): ___________________

CATEGORY Excellent Good Satisfactory Needs Improvement
Knowledge Gained All students in the group could easily and correctly state several facts about the topic used for the game without looking at the game. All students in the group could easily and correctly state 1-2 facts about the topic used for the game without looking at the game. Most students in the group could easily and correctly state 1-2 facts about the topic used for the game without looking at the game. Several students in the group could NOT correctly state facts about the topic used for the game without looking at the game.
Accuracy of Content All information cards made for the game are correct. All but one of the information cards made for the game are correct. All but two of the information cards made for the game are correct. Several information cards made for the game are not accurate.
Attractiveness Contrasting colors and at least 3 original graphics were used to give the cards and the game board visual appeal. Contrasting colors and at least 1 original graphic were used to give the cards and the game board visual appeal. Contrasting colors and "borrowed" graphics were used to give the cards and the game board visual appeal. Little or no color or fewer than 3 graphics were included.
Rules Rules were written clearly enough that all could easily participate. Rules were written, but one part of the game needed slightly more explanation. Rules were written, but students had some difficulty figuring out the game. The rules were not written.
Creativity The group put a lot of thought into making the game interesting and fun to play, as shown by creative questions, game pieces, and/or game board. The group put some thought into making the game interesting and fun to play by using textures, fancy writing, and/or interesting characters. The group tried to make the game interesting and fun, but some of the game's elements made it hard to understand or enjoy. Little thought was put into making the game interesting or fun.
Cooperative Work The group worked well together with all members contributing significant amounts of quality work. The group generally worked well together with all members contributing some quality work. The group worked fairly well together with all members contributing some work. The group often did not work well together, and the game appeared to be the work of only 1-2 students in the group.

© Copyright 2004 by Classbrain.com

Once the board game section has been completed, pair off the students and head to the library. Have your paired students research modern-day (late 20th–21st century) religious persecution (e.g., persecution of Christians in Niger, the controversy surrounding the so-called Ground Zero mosque, etc.). Each pair is to pick a country and find three articles about persecution from their chosen country.

Take-Home Assignment

To complete the assignment, have each student write a one-page reflection on these articles. These are not to be summaries but a self-examination about what it means to be persecuted for one's beliefs. Ask the question, "Have you ever been persecuted or hated for believing in something?" Have the students tie a scripture passage on persecution from Acts or the Epistles into their assignment. Their essays can be incorporated into a class discussion the following day.

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