Biblical Research

New Testament
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The Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles, usually referred to simply as Acts, is the fifth book of the New Testament; Acts outlines the history of the Apostolic Age. The author is traditionally identified as Luke the Evangelist.

While the precise identity of the author is debated, the consensus is that this work was composed by a (Koine) Greek speaking Gentile writing for an audience of Gentile Christians. The Early Church Fathers wrote that Luke was a physician in Antioch and an adherent of the Apostle Paul. It is said to be that the author of the Gospel of Luke is the same as the author of the Acts of the Apostles. Tradition holds that the text was written by Luke the companion of Paul (named in Colossians 4:14) and this traditional view of Lukan authorship is “widely held as the view which most satisfactorily explains all the data.” The list of scholars maintaining authorship by Luke the physician is lengthy, and represents scholars from a wide range of theological opinion. However, there is no consensus, and according to Raymond E. Brown, the current opinion concerning Lukan authorship is ‘about evenly divided’.

The title "Acts of the Apostles" was not part of the original text. It was first used by Irenaeus late in the 2nd century. Some have suggested that the title "Acts" be interpreted as "The Acts of the Holy Spirit" or even "The Acts of Jesus," since 1:1 gives the impression that these acts were set forth as an account of what Jesus continued to do and teach, Jesus himself being the principal actor.

The word "Acts" denoted a recognized genre in the ancient world, "characterizing books that described great deeds of people or of cities." There are several such books in the New Testament apocrypha, including the Acts of Thomas, the Acts of Andrew, and the Acts of John. Initially the Gospel according to Luke and the book of the acts of the apostles formed a unique work; it was only when the gospels began to be compiled together that the initial work was split into two volumes with the aforementioned titles.

Modern scholars assign a wide range of genres to the Acts of the Apostles, including biography, novel and history. Most, however, interpret the genre as epic stories of early Christian miracles and conversions.

The author of Acts likely relied upon oral tradition, as well as other sources, in constructing his account of the early church and Paul's ministry. Evidence for this is found in the prologue to the Gospel of Luke, wherein the author alludes to his sources by writing, "Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word." Some scholars theorize that the "we" passages in Acts are just such "handed down" quotations from some earlier source who accompanied Paul on his travels.

Historians believe that the author of Acts did not have access to a collection of Paul's letters. One piece of evidence suggesting this is that, although half of Acts centers on Paul, Acts never directly quotes from the Pauline epistles nor does it even mention Paul writing letters. Discrepancies between the Pauline epistles and Acts would further support the conclusion that the author of Acts did not have access to those epistles when composing Acts.

Other theories about Acts' sources are more controversial. Some historians believe that Acts borrows phraseology and plot elements from Euripides' play The Bacchae. Some feel that the text of Acts shows evidence of having used the Jewish historian Josephus as a source (in which case it would have to have been written sometime after 94 AD). For example, R. I. Pervo dates Acts to the first quarter of the 2nd century.

Historical accuracy:
The question of authorship is largely bound up with the one of the historical value of the contents. A key contested issue is the historicity of Luke's depiction of Paul. According to the majority viewpoint, Acts describes Paul differently from how he describes himself, both factually and theologically. Acts differs with Paul's letters on important issues, such as the Law, Paul's own apostleship, and his relation to the Jerusalem church. Scholars generally prefer Paul's account over that in Acts. Representing a traditional view, however, some prominent scholars and historians view the book of Acts as being quite accurate and corroborated by archaeology, while agreeing with the Pauline epistles.

The book of Acts has been most commonly dated to the second half of the 1st century. Norman Geisler dates it as early as between 60-62. Donald Guthrie, who dates the book between 62-64, notes that the absence of any mention of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 would be unlikely if the book were written afterward. He also suggested that since the book does not mention the death of Paul, a central character in the final chapters, it was likely penned before his death. Guthrie also saw traces of Acts in Polycarp's letter to the Philippians (written between 110-140) and one letter by Ignatius (about 117) and thought that Acts probably was current in Antioch and Smyrna not later than c. 115, and perhaps in Rome as early as c. 96.

A small indicator about the earliest possible date may be in Acts 6:9 which mentions the Province of Cilicia. The Roman province by that name had been on hiatus from 27 BC and re-established by Emperor Vespasian only in 72 AD. However, since Paul was from Cilicia and refers to himself using this name (see Acts 21:39, 22:3), it seems very natural that the name Cilicia would have continued to be in colloquial use among its residents despite its hiatus in official Roman nomenclature.

Parallels between Acts and Josephus' The Wars of the Jews (written in 75-80) and Antiquities of the Jews (c. 94) have long been argued. Several scholars have argued that Acts used material of both of Josephus' works, rather than the other way around, which would indicate that Acts was written around the year 100 or later. Three points of contact with Josephus in particular are cited: (1) The circumstances attending the death of Agrippa I in 44. Here Acts 12:21-23 is largely parallel to Antiquities 19.8.2; (2) the cause of the Egyptian pseudo-prophet in Acts 21:37f and in Josephus (War 2.13.5; Antiquities 20.8.6); (3) the curious resemblance as to the order in which Theudas and Judas of Galilee are referred to in both (Acts 5:36f; Antiquities 20.5.1).

According to John T. Townsend, "it is not before the last decades of the second century that one finds undisputed traces of the work." Townsend, turning to the sources behind the pseudo-Clementine writings, argues that the middle of the 2nd century is the terminus ad quem for the final composition. According to Richard I. Pervo, "Townsend's methodologically adventurous but ultimately cautious essay is another valuable lesson in the danger of establishing the date of Acts–or any work–by arguing for the earliest possible time of origin."

The place of composition is still an open question. For some time Rome and Antioch have been in favor, and Blass combined both views in his theory of two editions. But internal evidence points strongly to the Roman province of Asia, particularly the neighborhood of Ephesus. Note the confident local allusion in 19:9 to "the school of Tyrannus" and in 19:33 to "Alexander"; also the very minute topography in 20:13–15. At any rate affairs in that region, including the future of the church of Ephesus (20:28–30), are treated as though they would specially interest "Theophilus" and his circle; also an early tradition has Luke die in the adjacent Bithynia. Finally it was in this region that there arose certain early glosses (e.g., 19:9; 20:15), probably the earliest of those referred to below. How fully in correspondence with such an environment the work would be, as apologia for the Church against the Synagogue's attempts to influence Roman policy to its harm, must be clear to all familiar with the strength of Judaism in Asia (cf. Rev 2:9, 3:9; and see Sir W. M. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches, ch. xii.).

Like most biblical books, there are differences between the earliest surviving manuscripts of Acts. This is because there are three different families of Biblical texts, Byzantine, Western, or Alexandrian. Many believers in the Bible hold that only one of these families is trustworthy as transmitting the Word of God. Within a family, manuscripts may have very minor differences in grammatical marks, spelling, and tenses that do not affect the sense. Within the Byzantine text family, a clear genuine reading emerges throughout the New Testament by comparing different manuscripts. When one manuscript has a difference compared to 99% of the others, it is understood to be a copyist's mistake. The manuscripts from the Western text-type (as represented by the Codex Bezae) and the Alexandrian text-type (as represented by the Codex Sinaiticus) are the earliest survivors. The version of Acts preserved in the Western manuscripts contains about 10% more content than the Alexandrian version of Acts. Some scholars have struggled to determine if either of these two versions is closer to the original text composed by the original author. Others favor the Byzantine text as transmitting the true Word of God from its reception.

An early theory, suggested by Swiss theologian Jean LeClerc in the 17th century, posits that the longer Western version was a first draft, while the Alexandrian version represents a more polished revision by the same author. Adherents of this theory argue that even when the two versions diverge, they both have similarities in vocabulary and writing style—suggesting that the two shared a common author. However, it has been argued that if both texts were written by the same individual, they should have exactly identical theologies and they should agree on historical questions. Since some modern scholars do detect subtle theological and historical differences between the texts, such scholars do not subscribe to the rough-draft/polished-draft theory.

A second theory deals with the Byzantine text-type. This family includes extant manuscripts dating from the 5th century or later; however, papyrus fragments may be used to show that this text-type dates as early as the Alexandrian or Western text-types. Many believe this group of texts comes from the original Book of Acts by looking at the Byzantine text for the whole of the New Testament. They argue that the oldest copies of this text family are likely to have been lost or destroyed over time with use, and therefore extant manuscripts cannot accurately date a text family. The great majority of Biblical manuscripts support the Byzantine family, from which a single reading for the New Testament is established. The Byzantine text-type was used for the 16th century Textus Receptus, the first Greek-language version of the New Testament to be printed by the printing press. The Textus Receptus, in turn, was used for the New Testament found in the English-language King James Bible. Today, the Byzantine text-type is the subject of renewed interest as the original form of the text from which the Western and Alexandrian text-types were derived. Those that side with the Byzantine text believe it is authentic and correctly transmits the genuine Word of God, preserved by the Lord himself.

A third theory assumes common authorship of the Western and Alexandrian texts, but claims the Alexandrian text is the short first draft, and the Western text is a longer polished draft.

A fourth theory is that the longer Western text came first, but that later, some other redactor abbreviated some of the material, resulting in the shorter Alexandrian text.

In modern times, there is another theory that some have come to believe. According to this new theory, the shorter Alexandrian text is closer to the original, and the longer Western text is the result of later insertion of additional material into the text. In 1893, Sir W. M. Ramsay in The Church in the Roman Empire held that the Codex Bezae (the Western text) rested on a recension made in Asia Minor (somewhere between Ephesus and southern Galatia), not later than about the middle of the 2nd century. Some believe the revision in question was the work of a single reviser, who in his changes and additions expressed the local interpretation put upon Acts in his own time. His aim, in suiting the text to the views of his day, was partly to make it more intelligible to the public, and partly to make it more complete. To this end he "added some touches where surviving tradition seemed to contain trustworthy additional particulars," such as the statement that Paul taught in the lecture-room of Tyrannus "from the fifth to the tenth hour" (added to Acts 19:9). In his later work, St Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen (1895), Ramsay's views gain both in precision and in breadth. The gain lies chiefly in seeing beyond the Bezan text to the "Western" text as a whole.

General presentation:
Acts tells the story of the Apostolic Age of the Early Christian church, with particular emphasis on the ministry of the Twelve Apostles and of Paul of Tarsus. The early chapters, set in Jerusalem, discuss Jesus' Resurrection and Great Commission, his Ascension with a prophecy to return, the start of the Twelve Apostles' ministry, and the Day of Pentecost. The later chapters discuss Paul's conversion, his ministry, and finally his arrest and imprisonment and trip to Rome.

The structure of the book of Luke is closely tied with the structure of Acts. Both books are most easily tied to the geography of the book. Luke begins with a global perspective, dating the birth of Jesus to the reign of the Roman emperors in Luke 2:1 and 3:1. From there we see Jesus' ministry move from Galilee (chapters 4–9), through Samaria and Judea (chs. 10–19), to Jerusalem where he is crucified, raised and ascended into heaven (chs. 19–24). The book of Acts follows just the opposite motion, taking the scene from Jerusalem (chs. 1–5), to Judea and Samaria (chs. 6–9), then traveling through Syria, Asia Minor, and Europe towards Rome (chs. 9–28). This chiastic structure emphasizes the centrality of the resurrection and ascension to Luke's message, while emphasizing the universal nature of the gospel.

This geographic structure is foreshadowed in Acts 1:8, where Jesus says "You shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem (chs. 1–5), and in all Judea and Samaria (chs. 6–9), and even to the remotest part of the earth (chs. 10–28)." The first two sections (chs. 1–9) represent the witness of the apostles to the Jews, while the last section (chs. 10–28) represent the witness of the apostles to the Gentiles.

The book of Acts can also be broken down by the major characters of the book. While the complete title of the book is the Acts of the Apostles, really the book focuses on only two men: The Apostle Peter (chs. 1–12) and St. Paul (chs. 13–28).

Within this structure, the sub-points of the book are marked by a series of summary statements, or what one commentary calls a "progress report". Just before the geography of the scene shifts to a new location, Luke summarizes how the gospel has impacted that location. The standard for these progress reports is in 2:46–47, where Luke describes the impact of the gospel on the new church in Jerusalem. The remaining progress reports are located:

Acts 6:7 Impact of the gospel in Jerusalem.
9:31 Impact of the gospel in Judea and Samaria.
12:24 Impact of the gospel in Syria.
16:5 Impact of the gospel in Asia Minor.
19:20 Impact of the gospel in Europe.
28:31 Impact of the gospel on Rome.
This structure can be also seen as a series of concentric circles, where the gospel begins in the center, Jerusalem, and is expanding ever outward to Judea & Samaria, Syria, Asia Minor, Europe, and eventually to Rome.

Dedication to Theophilus (1:1-2)
Resurrection appearances (1:3)
Great Commission (1:4-8)
Ascension (1:9)
Second Coming Prophecy (1:10-11)
Matthias replaced Judas (1:12-26)
the Upper Room (1:13)
Holy Spirit came at Pentecost (2), see also Paraclete
Peter healed a crippled beggar (3:1-10)
Peter's speech at the Temple (3:11-26)
Peter and John before the Sanhedrin (4:1-22)
Resurrection of the dead (4:2)
Believers' Prayer (4:23-31)
Everything is shared (4:32-37)
Ananias and Sapphira (5:1-11)
Signs and Wonders (5:12-16)
Apostles before the Sanhedrin (5:17-42)
Seven Greeks appointed (6:1-7)
Saint Stephen before the Sanhedrin (6:8-7:60)
First mentioning of Saul (St.Paul) in the Bible (7:58)
Saul persecuted the Church of Jerusalem (8:1-3)
Philip the Evangelist (8:4-40)
Simon Magus (8:9-24)
Ethiopian eunuch (8:26-39)
Conversion of Saul (9:1-31, 22:1-22, 26:9-24)
Peter healed Aeneas and raised Tabitha from the dead (9:32-43)
Conversion of Cornelius (10:1-8, 24-48)
Peter's vision of a sheet with animals (10:9-23, 11:1-18)
Church of Antioch founded (11:19-30)
term "Christian" first used 11:26
Saint James the Great executed (12:1-2)
Peter's rescue from prison (12:3-19)
Death of Herod Agrippa I [in 44] (12:20-25)
"the voice of a god" 12:22
Mission of Barnabas and Saul (13-14)
"Saul, who was also known as Paul" 13:9
called "gods ... in human form" 14:11
Council of Jerusalem (15:1-35)
Paul separated from Barnabas (15:36-41)
2nd and 3rd missions (16-20)
Areopagus sermon (17)
"God...has set a day" 17:30-31
Trip to Jerusalem (21)
Before the people and the Sanhedrin (22-23)
Before Felix-Festus-Agrippa II (24-26)
Trip to Rome (27-28)
called a god on Malta 28:6

Bargil Pixner claims the original Church of the Apostles is located under the current structure. The author opens with a prologue, usually taken to be addressed to an individual by the name of Theophilus (though this name, which translates literally as "God-lover", may be a nickname rather than a personal appellation) and references "my earlier book"—almost certainly the Gospel of Luke. This is immediately followed by a narrative which is set in Jerusalem.

Peter and the apostles:
The apostles, along with other followers of Jesus, meet and elect Matthias to replace Judas as a member of The Twelve. On Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descends on them. The apostles hear a great wind and witness "tongues of flames" descending on them, paralleling Luke 3:16-17. Thereafter, the apostles have the miraculous power to "speak in tongues" and when they address a crowd, each member of the crowd hears their speech in his own native language.

Peter, along with John, preaches to many in Jerusalem, and performs many miracles such as healings, the casting out of evil spirits, and the raising of the dead. As a result, thousands convert to Early Christianity and are baptized.

As their numbers increase, the Christians begin to be increasingly persecuted. Some of the apostles are arrested and flogged, but ultimately freed. Stephen, one of the first deacons, is arrested for blasphemy, and after a trial, is found guilty and executed by stoning by the Jews, thereby becoming the first known Christian martyr.

Peter and the apostles continue to preach, and Christianity continues to grow, and begins to spread to Gentiles. Peter has a vision in which a voice commands him to eat a variety of impure animals. When Peter objects, the voice replies, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." When Peter awakes from his vision, he meets with Cornelius the Centurion, who converts. Peter baptizes the centurion, and later has to justify this decision to the other Christians.

Paul's ministry:
Paul of Tarsus, also known as Saul, is the main character of the second half of Acts. He is introduced as a persecutor of the Christian church (8:1:3), until his conversion to Christianity later in the chapter when he encounters the resurrected Christ. His own account of his conversion, Gal 1:11-24, is not detailed. The conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus is told three times. While Paul was on the road to Damascus, near Damascus, "suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground" (Acts 9:3-4), the light was "brighter than the sun" (26:13) and he was subsequently blinded for three days (9:9). He heard a voice in the Hebrew language (probably Aramaic): "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? ... I am Jesus" (26:14-15). In Damascus, St. Ananias cured his blindness, "something like scales" fell from his eyes, and baptized him (9:17-19). It is commonly believed that Saul changes his name to Paul at this time, but the source of this claim is unknown, the first mention of another name is later (13:9), during his first missionary journey.

Several years later, Barnabas and Paul set out on a mission (13-14) to further spread Christianity, particularly among the Gentiles. Paul travels through Asia Minor, preaching and visiting churches throughout the region.

Council of Jerusalem:
Paul travels to Jerusalem where he meets with the apostles — a meeting known as the Council of Jerusalem. Paul's own record of the meeting appears to be Galatians 2, however, due to the differences, some argue Gal 2 is a different meeting. Members of the Jerusalem church have been preaching that circumcision is required for salvation. Paul and his associates strongly disagree. After much discussion, James the Just, leader of the Jerusalem church, decrees that Gentile Christian converts need not follow all of the Mosaic Law, and in particular, they do not need to be circumcised.

The decision of the Council came to be called the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:19-21) and was that most Mosaic law, including the requirement for circumcision of males, was not obligatory for Gentile converts, possibly in order to make it easier for them to join the movement. However, the Council did retain the prohibitions against eating meat containing blood, or meat of animals not properly slain, and against "fornication" and idol worship. Beginning with Augustine of Hippo, many have seen a connection to Noahide Law, while some modern scholars reject the connection to Noahide Law (Genesis 9) and instead see Lev 17-18 as the basis. In effect, however, the Jerusalem Church created a double standard: one for Jewish Christians and one for Gentile converts.

Paul spends the next few years traveling through western Asia Minor and (some believe) founds his first Christian church in Philippi. Paul then travels to Thessalonica, where he stays for some time before departing for southern Greece. In Athens, Paul visits an altar with an inscription dedicated to an unknown god, so when he gives his speech on the Areopagos, he proclaims to worship that same unknown god whom he identifies as the Christian God.

Upon Paul's arrival in Jerusalem, he was confronted with the rumor of teaching against the Law of Moses (21:21). Perhaps to show that he was "living in obedience to the law", Paul took a biblical vow along with some others (21:26). Near the end of the days of the vow, Paul was recognized outside Herod's Temple and was nearly beaten to death by a mob, "shouting, 'Men of Israel, help us! This is the man who teaches all men everywhere against our people and our law and this place. And besides, he has brought Greeks into the temple area and defiled this holy place'" (21:28). Paul is rescued from the mob by a Roman commander (21:31-40) and accused of being a revolutionary, "ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes", teaching resurrection of the dead, and thus imprisoned in Caesarea (23–26). Paul asserts his right, as a Roman citizen, to be tried in Rome. Paul is sent by sea to Rome, where he spends another two years under house arrest, proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching the "Lord Jesus Christ" (28:30-31). Surprisingly, Acts does not record the outcome of Paul's legal troubles — some traditions hold that Paul was ultimately executed in Rome, while other traditions have him surviving the encounter and later traveling to Spain.

Universality of Christianity:
One of the central themes of Acts, indeed of the New Testament (see also Great Commission) is the universality of Christianity—the idea that Jesus's teachings were for all humanity—Jews and Gentiles alike. In this view, Christianity is seen as a religion in its own right, rather than a subset of Judaism, if one makes the common assumption that Judaism is not universal. Whereas the members of Jewish Christianity were circumcised and adhered to dietary laws, the Pauline Christianity featured in Acts did not require Gentiles to be circumcised or to obey all of the Mosaic laws, which is consistent with Noahide Law. The final chapter of Acts ends with Paul condemning non-Christian Jews and saying "Therefore I want you to know that God's salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!" (28:28).

Holy Spirit:
As in the Gospel of Luke, there are numerous references to the Holy Spirit throughout Acts. Acts features the "baptism in the Holy Spirit" on Pentecost and the subsequent spirit-inspired speaking in tongues. The Holy Spirit is shown guiding the decisions and actions of Christian leaders, and the Holy Spirit is said to "fill" the apostles, especially when they preach. As a result, Acts is particularly influential among branches of Christianity which place particular emphasis in the Holy Spirit, such as Pentecostalism and the Charismatic movement.

Attention to the oppressed and persecuted:
The Gospel of Luke and Acts both devote a great deal of attention to the oppressed and downtrodden. The impoverished are generally honored. A great deal of attention is devoted to women in general, and to widows in particular. The Samaritans of Samaria, had their temple on Mount Gerizim, and along with some other differences, see Samaritanism, were in conflict with Jews of Judea and Galilee and other regions who had their Temple in Jerusalem and practiced Judaism. Unexpectedly, since Jesus was a Jewish Galilean, the Samaritans are shown favorably in Luke-Acts. In Acts, attention is given to the religious persecution of the early Christians, as in the case of Stephen's martyrdom and the numerous examples are Paul's persecution for his preaching of Christianity.

Prayer is a major motif in both the Gospel of Luke and Acts. Both books have a more prominent attention to prayer than is found in the other gospels. The Gospel of Luke depicts prayer as a certain feature in Jesus's life. Examples of prayer which are unique to Luke include Jesus's prayers at the time of his baptism (Luke 3:21), his praying all night before choosing the twelve (Luke 6:12), and praying for the transfiguration (Luke 9:28). Acts also features an emphasis on prayer and includes a number of notable prayers such as the Believers' Prayer (4:23-31), Stephen's death prayer (7:59-60), and Simon Magus' prayer (8:24).

Acts features twenty-four extended speeches or sermons from Peter, Paul, and others. The speeches comprise about 30% of the total verses. These speeches, which are given in full, have been the source of debates over the historical accuracy of Acts. Some scholars have objected to the language of the speeches as too Lukan in style to reflect anyone else's words. George Shillington writes that the author of Acts most likely created the speeches accordingly and they bear his literary and theological marks. Conversely, Howard Marshall writes that the speeches were not entirely the inventions of the author and while they may not be verbatim, nevertheless records the general idea. He compares this to the work of the historian Thucydides who found it difficult recording speeches verbatim but instead made the speakers say what he felt was appropriate for them to say on the occasion while adhering as much as possible to the general sense.