Sunday, October 12, 2014

This is the first entry in the Bible Junkies Online Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. This will be a challenging commentary to take on in an online format because there are numerous technical issues associated with the text of the Acts of the Apostles which are not at the heart of this online commentary project and its goals, but which must be considered or at least noted for those who are interested in further and deeper study. There is another matter of some importance which must be dealt with first, however, and that is why write a commentary on Acts of the Apostles prior to a commentary on the Gospel of Luke. Acts of the Apostles is widely considered to be the second volume in a two volume set with the Gospel of Luke being the first volume, a consideration I share, so why do it out of order? 

Apart from the fact that I am able to do online what I choose to do, there is more significantly a desire to let Acts speak for itself. This does not mean that I will not be examining Acts in light of Luke, in fact I will begin to do so from the beginning, but the Luke-Acts model sometimes gives less attention to Acts as an independent text than is proper. This commentary will be an exploration of Acts as the first and earliest attempt to write a history of earliest Christianity and how well it succeeds as a historical overview of the nascent Jesus movement on these terms. The theological and literary themes which tie Acts to Luke will also be explored, but this will done primarily in the context of Acts itself and, as a secondary consideration, how this links Acts to the Gospel of Luke. 

One technical issue which I must mention and then put aside has to do with the actual Greek text of the Acts of the Apostles. More than other New Testament documents the variations between manuscript schools of Acts reveal a great number of differences. These manuscript schools are known as the “Alexandrian tradition,” which represents the majority textual tradition, and the “Western text tradition,” “represented most fully by Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis,” which offers “a rather consistent alternative version of Acts and “as a group it contains a version of Luke’s story up to ten percent longer than that found in the majority textual tradition” (Luke Timothy Johnson, Sacra Pagina: Acts of the Apostles, 2).  A close study of these variations is beyond the technical tasks I have set for the online commentaries and they will only be mentioned on occasion. I will, as with previous online commentaries, work from the New Revised Standard Version while constantly consulting the Greek text to give insight into translation choices and the complex meaning of Greek words. And with that, the commentary proper begins!

1.  Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke:

As mentioned above, Acts is the second volume of a two volume set. This is seen most clearly in the preface to Acts: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:1-2). This clear connection also describes the basic content of the Gospel; in the same way, Luke describes a few verses later the purpose and content of the Acts of the Apostles. After telling them that he will remain with them for a period of 40 days before he ascends to heaven, Jesus gives the Apostles their mission: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Acts, therefore, tells the story of the Apostles, first in Jerusalem, then in the regions around Jerusalem, and finally throughout the Roman Empire. Although called Acts of the Apostles, implying all twelve of them, it actually focuses first on Peter and then on Paul. Indeed Paul, who was not one of the twelve, is the great Apostle of Acts, and the second half of Acts is focused on Paul.

All of the issues regarding authorship, date, and location are the same as for the Gospel of Luke, and I believe that the author was Luke the physician, the one mentioned as a companion of the Apostle Paul in Colossians 4:14, Philemon 24, and 2 Timothy 4:11. To my mind, the focus on Paul in Acts lends credence to the identification of the author as Luke the companion of the Apostle Paul. For those who do not accept this identification, the text is, naturally, considered to be written anonymously. The Muratorian Fragment (c. 170 C.E.; this list was rediscovered in 1740 and contains the earliest known list of New Testament books) states that “the third book of the Gospel, that according to Luke, was compiled in his own name on Paul’s authority by Luke the physician, when after Christ’s ascension Paul had taken him to be with him like a legal expert. Yet neither did he see the Lord in the flesh; and he too, as he was able to ascertain events, begins his story from the birth of John”. 

In this case of authorial identification, an Apostle who actually traveled and studied with Jesus is not the source for this document, but someone who is learned and carries out historical research into Jesus and the early Church. For some parts of the Acts of the Apostles, notably the “we” sections in Acts, Luke himself might be the actual source. The “we” sections are places where Luke begins to speak in the first person plural about travels with Paul (see Acts 16:10-16 for an example) and they probably came from the author’s travels with Paul. Most evidence points in the direction of Luke as the author, though some scholars argue the author is ignorant of Paul’s theology and is not clear on Paul’s chronology so the author could not have been a companion of Paul.

Most scholars place the time of composition for the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke around the 80's of the first century because Luke used Mark as a template for his Gospel as did Matthew. A minority of scholars have dated Acts to the early 60’s because Luke does not narrate the martyrdom of Paul after his arrest in Rome (circa 64-67 C.E.) nor hint at Nero’s persecution (64 C.E.). I think there are better explanations for these omissions, which I will discuss in some depth later in the commentary: Luke does not want to create a parallel between Jesus’ death at the end of the Gospel and Paul’s death at the end of Acts. Paul is simply a missionary for Jesus; his death is not sacrificial and not atoning; it is not the equivalent of Jesus’ death. I believe that Luke omits it in order not to create theological parallel between the two deaths. The message of Acts is not that Paul has died, but that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has reached the center of the Roman Empire. 

The place of composition is, unlike Mark (Rome) or Matthew (Antioch), basically anyone’s guess, but tradition says it was written in Achaia, the Greek province where Corinth was located.

2.  Acts and Modern Criticism:

Acts has been a center of modern critical debate. Here are some of the major issues involving Acts of the Apostles. 

A) The Speeches.  You will note that Acts contains numerous speeches attributed to various figures (esp. Peter, Stephen, Paul, and James).  These speeches make up about 25% of the entire book of Acts.  Numerous scholars have discussed the question of whether these speeches are based on a direct record or report of such a speech actually given by these figures, or whether the speeches may have been simply composed by the author of Acts.  Most scholars today incline to the view that these speeches were composed by the author (in accordance with common practice among ancient historical writers, as seen in historians such as Lucian of Samosota, How to Write History, 23; and Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 1:1-17).  The author may, however, have had reports of the things attributed to the various figures in his narrative.  The speeches do seem to reflect certain variations and are not all simply different versions of the same speech.  

Paul repeats a number of his speeches in chapters 21-28 (see e.g., the differences in the narration of Paul’s conversion accounts in chapters 22 and 26). Why would Luke not simply condense these similar speeches for the sake of reader interest and perhaps even for cost? The interesting thing is not the repetitiveness, but instead that each time Luke records Paul’s speeches there are variations, such as “all” for “some”, or some things are simply omitted from one speech that are found in another. Paul probably did retell his story in every place he went on his long journey to Rome and Luke tried to get the basic summary in each place that it was told with differences intact. 

There is another factor, if Luke and Paul traveled together would not the ideas in the speeches represent both Paul and Luke? In fact, we can extend this argument to other Apostles and to other speeches: would not the speeches of various figures represent the teaching of the Apostles and the Church as a whole? There ought, as a result, to be similarities amongst speakers and themes. On the other hand, some scholars have noted that Peter’s speeches may be based on Peter’s words because they do not actually reflect Luke’s greater thematic purposes in Acts of the Apostles. As you can see, there are a number of factors at play here and it is simplistic to say either that Luke created the speeches or that they have been transcribed exactly as they were spoken.

B) Paul in Acts.  Another major issue in the study of Acts is how to deal with the differences between the ways the Apostle Paul is portrayed here in comparison to his own letters in the NT.  The theological terms and emphases of Paul’s own letters are not fully paralleled in the contents of the speeches attributed to him in Acts, though certainly some parallels are found between Paul’s teaching in Acts and in his own letters.  Also, it is hard to fit some of the particulars of Paul's travels in Acts with information from his letters.  The biggest issue is generally how to reconcile the description of the Council of Jerusalem meeting in Acts 15 with Paul’s own descriptions of his contacts with the Jerusalem church in Galatians 2.  Is the Acts information basically accurate and complementary, or is it somewhat erroneous and skewed?  

This is only one small historical event, however, and what scholars sometimes overlook is how complementary the historical information in Acts is with the general information we get in Paul’s letters. I will give two examples. In Acts 17:1-10, Luke outlines the disturbances caused by Paul’s preaching in Thessalonica; this agrees very closely with Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians about what took place there (see chapters 1 and 2). Second, Acts 16:11-15 tells us that Paul first went to preach to women in Philippi; in Philippians 4:2-3 he discusses problems between two of his co-workers in Philippi, both of whom are women. You would have to immerse yourself in the sources and in modern scholarly literature to deal with this question properly, but you should note this as a relevant question in the study of Acts.

C) Acts and Ancient History.  To the modern reader, Acts probably resembles historical narrative most closely.  Modern scholars want to know, however, whether (and how much) the author consciously modeled his work according to the standards and conventions of Greco-Roman era historians.  To deal with this issue requires a thorough study of Acts and some familiarity with the practices of ancient historical writers, but I would like, nevertheless, to make a couple of comments about the historical value of Luke’s writing in Acts and Luke as a historian.[1]
The question of historicity arises with relation to the author Luke for two reasons.  The first is that it is a unique account of the growth of the early church and as such our only source for this development.  The second reason is Luke’s claim, in the prologue of his gospel, and then again in Acts, to give us an accurate and orderly account of the things accomplished among the early Christians. He, more than any other early Christian author, asks to be judged as an historian.

Yet, whether we, as 21st century historians and readers, are to take heed of Luke’s claim to be an historian cannot be answered simply.  The question is two pronged.  On the one hand, we may ask if Luke is an historian rather than a theological writer. If he is concerned with theology, does this mean he cannot be an historian? This in turn raises the question of whether it is just to judge Luke by the contemporary standards of a historian. Modern historians today might not inject theology into their history, but they do tend to explain events using political, military or economic reasons. Perhaps, Luke should be compared to his contemporaries, who also judged events in light of divine influences or fate.  On the other hand, we may ask what value does Luke’s work hold for the modern historian on its own; how reliable is Luke-Acts as a historical source, or how can it be used as a historical source?

In response to the first question, it seems self-evident that Luke should be judged by his contemporaries, in which case he stacks up quite well.  His initial claims, the historical preface, the praise of history, the claim of the importance of the value of his subject indicate that he intends to be ranked as a historian.  The questions that Luke asks are the questions of an historian.  Who are the Christians?  Where do they come from, historically and culturally speaking?  What is their vocation?  And what justification do they have for their existence as a self-consciously distinct group?

Luke is not less trustworthy than other historians of antiquity.  They all elaborate for stress, combine separate historical traditions, and omit things that do not fit into narrative purposes.  (So do modern historians by the way.) Their speeches are based on the principle that the words of the person should match his concern.  Thucydides stated that “my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion adhering as much as possible to the general sense of what they really said.”  So if Peter’s speeches on occasion resemble Paul’s speeches, Luke does not depart from ancient methods of historiography.  Charles H. Talbert compares Luke’s work to Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers, which relate the lives of founders of philosophical or religious communities, and a list or narrative of successes and a summary of teachings.[2]  Luke shows the same tendency to follow one source at a time as many other ancient historians such as Josephus. 
Luke may be judged by the care he takes to anchor the growth of the church to the events of human history. Here is a partial list of examples of Luke’s attention to historical detail:

i)  Acts 5.36-37;
ii)  Acts 10.1;
iii)  Acts 11.28;
iv) Acts 12.1-2;
v)  Acts 18.2;
vi) Acts 18.12.

To this list we may add William Ramsay’s observation that “every person is found just where he ought to be, proconsuls in senatorial provinces, asiarchs in Ephesus, strategoi, in Philippi, politarchs in Thessalonica”, all of which have been substantiated by inscriptional evidence.[3]  The instance of Luke referring to the politarch in Thessalonica is perhaps the most remarkable instance for until recently the fact that the chief men of Thessalonica were called politarchs was not verified. A recent inscriptional find has confirmed Luke’s historical accuracy. Luke is not an untrustworthy historian, we might conclude, but like every historian we have to check his data.

3.  Contents:

The first twelve chapters of Acts describe the spread of the Christian message from Jerusalem through the rest of Palestine and some nearby areas (e.g., Damascus, Antioch). This is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecy in Acts 1:8 that the Apostles will be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria. Chapters 13-28 are devoted to the ministry of the Apostle Paul, although not exclusively, and this fulfills the second half of Jesus’ prophecy that the Apostles will be his witnesses to the end of the earth.  

In geographical terms, the contents are guided by the proclamation of the Christian message that begins in Jerusalem and moves onward to Rome. Rome was the center of the known world in Luke’s life  and the arrival of the Gospel in Rome is a driving force throughout the second half of Acts  The original literary connection of Acts with the Gospel of Luke also means that the figures and events in Acts are to be seen as the divinely-directed continuation of the ministry begun by Jesus; this is why the Holy Spirit, which attended Jesus even prior to his birth (see Luke 1-2), is active at the beginning of the Church (Acts 2:1-13) all the way until the end of Acts (28:25). Also, of course, from the beginning of the Church’s ministry in Acts (2:22-36), throughout the narrative (19:5 and numerous other locations), until the very end (28:31), the message is about salvation in Jesus Christ.

Here is a ten part breakdown of the contents of Acts which I will follow along with a basic outline and some critical questions which will be considered throughout the commentary:

A) Prolog and Account of Jesus Ascension (1:1-11):
The mission which Jesus outlines for his Apostles is prominent here.

B)  Founding of the Jerusalem Church (1:12-2:47):
Matthias is chosen as Judas Iscariot’s replacement. The Holy Spirit is given to the Church on Pentecost (see Leviticus 23:15-21; Pentecost is based on the Festival of Weeks, a harvest festival, which later came to celebrate the giving of the Law (Torah) to the Jewish people), which is seen to fulfill the  prophecy of Joel 2:28-32. Glossalalia is given to the Believers – what does this indicate? What is it? The early Christians live communally in Jerusalem (2:43-45; cf. 4:32-35). Does this reflect historical reality or Luke’s concern for the poor?

C) Work of Peter and the Apostles (3:1-5:42):
The Church does work in Jerusalem with great success according to Luke, with large numbers of converts listed. The Apostles have conflicts with the Jewish leaders, generally the Sadducees. The Christians are supported by the Pharisees on occasion and even by Rabbi Gamaliel (5:34-40).

D)  Persecutions of the “Hellenist” Jewish Christians and the First Mission outside of Jerusalem (6:1-8:40):
The division between Hellenists and Hebraioi is narrated (6:1-6). These are both groups of Jewish Christians, but one group speaks Greek and the other Hebrew. It represents a conflict amongst Christians in Acts, which runs counter to the ideal picture of the early Church that Luke often presents. This leads to what has traditionally been understood to be the choosing of the first seven deacons, all of whom have Greek names. Stephen, one of the seven deacons, is presented as the Church’s first martyr (6:8-7:60).  The “Way,” the name by which the first Christians designated themselves, begins to spread outside of Jeruslaem and conversions are made (Simon, 8:9-13; and the Ethiopian eunuch, 8:26-40).

E) Preparation for the Gentile Mission: the Conversions of Paul and Cornelius (9:1-12:25):
Saul, who has been a ferocious persecutor of the Church, and was present as a formal witness at Stephen’s death, is converted (9:1-19). Tabitha is located in Acts 9:36-43, an example of an early Jewish Christian who engages in good works for people; it also demonstrates in Luke’s narrative the spiritual power of the Apostles. Chapters 10-11 focus on Peter’s conversion of Cornelius, a Roman centurion, and Peter’s vision that Gentiles are now welcome in the Church (10:9-16). If the Gentiles can receive the Holy Spirit and be baptized also, a significant move has been made toward bringing the Gospel to the Roman world and not just the Jews (11:19-21). We also see the outreach to Gentiles taking place concurrently with Paul and Barnabas teaching the Church in Antioch (11:19-30). Are the other Apostles and disciples on board with the inclusion of Gentiles in the “Way”?

F)  First Missionary Journey of Barnabas and Paul: The Jerusalem Conference (13:1-15:35):
The issue in this section is whether a Gentile must first follow the Jewish law before becoming a Christian; Peter has already made a de facto decision, but now the Church must agree and ratify the decision. This section also clearly indicates that Paul has also been active amongst Gentiles in Antioch and has traveled elsewhere in the Roman world. This becomes known as Paul’s first Missionary journey. The difficulty with the account of the Council of Jerusalem here and that of Paul’s in Galatians 2 is that according to Acts, the Church accepts a number of regulations governing gentile Christian which are not mentioned in Galatians (Acts 15:20).  The whole Church, however, does ultimately side with the actions of Peter and Paul.

G) Paul’s Second Missionary Journey: Evangelizing Greece (16:1-18:21):
Paul and Barnabas split up after this Council (15:36-41), which indicates another “contention” in Acts amongst Christians. The reason they split up is not stated in Acts, but it is said to be over whether Christians should follow the Law (Torah) in Gal. 2:13.  Paul chooses Silas as his partner and then begins to move throughout the Greek world on his second Missionary journey. The speech on the Aeropagus in Athens is a high point (17:16-34), but also indicates that Paul does not always meet with success. It is on these journeys that Paul founds some of the Churches to whom he will later write, such as those at Corinth, Thessalonica and Philippi.

H) Paul’s Third Missionary Journey: Revisiting Asia Minor and Greece (18:22-20:38):
Paul goes to Ephesus and spends almost three years there preaching. This is his longest stay in any city on his mission journeys and he has great success and much opposition there. The account regarding the silversmiths of Artemis and their attempt to bring Paul up on charges indicate some of the opposition Paul faced in his missionary activity. Paul then indicates he is heading to Rome (19:21-22) and possible martyrdom (20:17-38).

I) Paul’s Arrest in Jerusalem and Imprisonment in Caesarea (21:1-26:32):
Paul returns to Jerusalem and he meets with the Jerusalem Apostles, the leaders of the Church, again (21:17-26) and there is some conflict regarding whether Paul is a loyal Jew and what he is teaching the Gentiles. They also indicate that information regarding regulations for the Gentile converts was sent by letter. Paul is then arrested and succeeds in dividing the Council (21:27-23:10).  When Paul is taken to the Roman tribune they discern that Paul is a Roman citizen (22:22-29), which means he will have to be taken to Rome to be tried. Until that time, there is a plot to kill Paul, various hearings before rulers, and an attempt to convert the Jewish ruler Agrippa.
J) Paul’s Journey to Rome and his preaching to Roman Jews (27:1-28:31):
Paul finally is put on a ship to Rome, but only arrives in Rome’s port of Puteoli after a shipwreck and a beaching at Malta. Paul was initially blamed for the shipwreck and considered a murderer, but after a snake bites his hand and he has no ill effects, the people change their minds about him. Paul uses this occasion to preach about Jesus. When Paul finally reaches Rome he is placed under house arrest and allowed to see emissaries from the Jewish community. They seem to reject the message, so Paul states that he knows the Gentiles will accept it.

Next entry, we begin with the prologue.
John W. Martens
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This entry is cross-posted at America Magazine The GoodWord

     [1]  For a discussion of the relationship of the NT writings to other literature of the Greco-Roman era, see D. E. Aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia:  Westminster Press, 1987).
[2] Charles H. Talbert, Literary Patterns, Theological Themes, and the Genre of Luke-Acts (SBL Dissertation Series), 125-29.

[3] Sir William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 96-97. This is an old book, but the archaeological findings remain evidence for the historicity of Luke’s attributions, if not evidence for the overall historicity of Luke’s work. The book can be found at googlebooks.


  1. I found the section on the speeches very interesting as it relates to what I have learned in my theology class. Ultimately, there is no way to prove who wrote the speeches. We also learned that the Old Testament and the New Testament were written long after the events they describe occurred, so it is possible that the authors of the Bible may have missed small details. We did an activity in class relating to this. One boy in our class told a story about his grandfather, who was a soldier, to four other students in the class. These four students each retold the story to a different group of students, who retold the story to an assigned writer. No one but the writer was allowed to document any of the story-it had to be remembered and retold orally. At the end, each of the writers had slightly different stories, and none of those stories were the same as the original. This showed how it was possible for the authors of the Bible to miss small details.