Introduction to Acts

This introduction makes no claim to be comprehensive. It introduces the discussion of issues associated with Acts that the commentary will treat in more detail. It thus helps these general issues not to get lost in the details that will often emerge later. At the same time, it points the way to more comprehensive examination of the issues.

Genre and Overview

The Title of the Book, Relationship to Luke’s Gospel, and Genre

The title “Acts of the Apostles” (ΠΡΑΞΕΙΣ ΑΠΟΣΤΟΛΩΝ, Praxeis Apostolōn) appears in 74 (the title here is at the end of the book, not the beginning), , B, D (with the singular “Act,” likely due to itacism), and Ψ. These are MSS from the fourth to ninth centuries. Manuscript 1175 has only “Acts” as the title. Other MSS, such as 33, 189, 1891, and 2344, mention Luke the evangelist in a longer version of the title (“Luke the evangelist’s Acts of the Holy Apostles”). Latin versions possess similar titles. Most likely none of these titles was originally part of the book; they probably emerged in the late first or early second century. The fathers and lists of the second and third centuries confirm the use of such titles. In addition, Tertullian also called the book a “commentary of Luke” (On Fasting 10), and Irenaeus (Ag. Her. 3.13.3) speaks of the “testimony of Luke regarding the apostles.” The variations show that by the end of the second century there were many ways to identify this book of Luke.

In Hellenistic writing, the genre of “acts” normally recounts the deeds of a single great individual, such as Alexander the Great (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 17.15; 18.1.6) or Augustus (Res gestae divi Augusti), but sometimes it covers a group, such as “Acts of the Early Kings” (Diodorus Siculus, Library of History 3.1.1; Wikenhauser 1921: 94-104; Talbert 1997: 7; Fitzmyer 1998: 47-48). Such “acts” often were designed to present the hero as a kind of divine man or at least a man sent from God. This genre normally details the hero’s acts, including miracles and anecdotes. It is likely that the title “Acts of the Apostles” was intended to highlight that the characters God uses in Acts are to be seen as sent from God. Acts, however, is less focused on individuals than it is on the selective presentation of the growth of the community and its message. The book moves from locale to locale as God directs, starting in Jerusalem and culminating in the travels of Paul to Rome. In fact, the key character in Acts is God, his activity, and his plan.

The work does follow many of the basic rules of Hellenistic histories. Van Unnik (1979: 37-60) identifies two key characteristics of such histories: political understanding and power of expression, and he lists ten rules of such writing, most of which Luke follows.

The title highlights the role of witnesses in the book, but the apostolic band is not the central character of Acts. Rather, God’s activity stands at the core of the account. Acts narrates God’s work in establishing the church through Jesus’s activity. Both Jews and Gentiles make up the church, the new people and community of Jesus. The work of Jesus and the establishment of this community of the Spirit represent the initial fulfillment of God’s promises (Schneider 1980: 73; Roloff 1988: 2). Furthermore, only some of the Twelve are highlighted: Peter and John are prominent in this group, but other key players in Acts are not part of the Twelve. These include Stephen, Philip, Paul, and James. Paul is called apostle in only one scene in Acts (14:4, 14) and this is when he appears with Barnabas. Others wish to highlight the Holy Spirit as key, but the Spirit’s work is under God’s sovereign direction and that of Jesus, the one mediating the Spirit’s distribution (Acts 2:32-36; discussed in Gaebelein 1912: 8; Ehrhardt 1958: 67, “gospel of the Holy Spirit”; Bruce 1990: 21-22).

In sum, Acts is a sociological, historical, and theological work explaining the roots of this new community, as a sequel to Luke’s story of Jesus portrayed in his Gospel. It is not part of the genre of “acts” in the Greco-Roman sense; it is, rather, a “historical monograph” in the ancient sense of the term (Hengel 1979: 13-14, 36; Sterling 1992; Witherington 1998: 2-39). This classification also rejects the idea that the appropriate genre for this material is ancient epic (pace Bonz 2000). Acts lacks the poetic nature of such works, is concerned with the church’s relationship to Israel more than to Rome, and gives evidence, where we can check Luke’s work, of being in touch with historical detail rather than being as creative with such detail as the epic classification suggests (Hemer 1989; see the introduction to 16:11-40 and comments on 16:16-40 where Paul’s trials are discussed).

Our careful attention to such background will reveal that Luke is a historian in the ancient mold, whose historiography is rooted more in Jewish models than in Greco-Roman ones. Acts is, however, not a full treatment of origins but quite a selective one, highlighting themes and parallels Luke wants the reader to appreciate. That it does not fill in the gaps distinguishes it from later apocryphal “Acts” and speaks to its authenticity (Hengel and Schwemer 1997: 106, 385n554). Luke reveals the selective nature of his treatment as he tells his story. For example, he does not give us the origin of every community he treats, even important ones such as Antioch and Rome. As I noted in the commentary on Luke’s Gospel (Bock 1994a: 52), precedents for such a story of God’s work among his people are the various works about the Maccabean period (1-2 Maccabees). Acts, however, is a unique account of the origins of God’s new community and is best understood as a part of the two volumes Luke composed. Luke was innovative in creating this account of how God worked to bring about a new era and community (Roloff 1988: 1). Nothing indicates the sequel nature of the work more clearly than the reference to “the first account” in Acts 1:1, looking back to Luke’s Gospel. The linkage between the works is further reinforced by the overlapping accounts of Jesus’s ascension at the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts.

An Aside on Philosophy of History and Recent Study of Acts

It has become popular in our postmodern age to define history itself as a construct and a type of fictive act. Marguerat (2002: 5-7) says that “historiography should not be regarded as descriptive, but rather (re)constructive.” By this he means that histories are facts interpreted. Marguerat (2002: 8-13) utilizes Ricoeur’s distinctions between documentary history, which looks at facts; explicative history, which looks at events from a social, economic, and political viewpoint; and poetic history, which is rooted in founding myths and interprets the past to give a community its sense of identity. For Marguerat, the fact that God is so active in the account makes Acts “poetic history” in many of its sections, rather than reflecting the other two categories. He observes that although Acts includes all the types of history, God’s activity makes key sections “poetic” in thrust. There is a major worldview and definitional problem here. How does one treat Jesus’s appearance to Paul—as metaphorical and poetic or as a real documentary event? If it is a documentary event, then why are other similar events in Acts moved into this poetic category? What is one to do with the myriad scenes in Acts where God is the reason events take place? Does the description “poetic” really suffice? Such a move risks becoming a worldview, a metaphorical catchall category to rule out God’s activity as historically out of bounds in terms of explicative social history. Acts becomes secularized before a page is read or an event is narrated. A key call is being made before the game even begins.

The plurality of interpretations one can give to events affects the way history is viewed. One should be careful, however, not to go too far in making this point. The recent work of Shauf (2005: 66-84) goes in an exaggerated direction. Shauf sidesteps the historicity question by defining historiography as “imaginative narration” simply because the historian assembles a narrative from already limited resources, which themselves are socially constructed as well as tied to what the author himself may see (2005: 66-75). This type of philosophical reading of history is becoming popular in our postmodern world. It gives history and historiography a “linguistic” spin (Clark 2005).

Clark’s work, which is an excellent historical-philosophical overview of historiographic discussion, endorses this tendency and is quite skeptical about the historical accuracy of ancient works. She says of the historical critic, “The critic’s task, then, is to show how ‘seemingly politically innocent objects, forms of subjectivity, actions, and events’ are the effects of power and authority, that is, the task to denaturalize and rehistoricize what ideology has produced. By an Althusserian symptomatic reading, the critic looks at gaps and absences in the text, reads what in effect is ‘illegible,’ and notes how the answers given by a writer do not answer the questions posed” (Clark 2005: 176). This type of ideological deconstruction also itself needs deconstructing, since it often fails to show that the author does not, in fact, answer the question raised. Often an ancient author gives an answer that deftly moves from the initial question to a more comprehensive but appropriate response. The reading of the deconstructionist turns out to be culturally superficial and illiterate. We shall have occasion to see this move missed regularly in the skepticism with which Haenchen and others read Acts. They argue that Luke fails to address either the questions or the charges the text raises. We shall see just as often that this skeptical reading of Luke often badly misreads the text, undercutting the method’s claim to credibility. Even more, Luke does not write from a position of power and authority, since the church of the first century did not have a powerful social position in the ancient world. Luke’s appeal to God makes a claim of power but only because Luke was convinced God had really acted in history. It seems clear that Luke’s view of Paul’s experience and the autobiographical claims of Paul overlap here. Some concrete act transformed Saul into Paul, just as another concrete act provided justification for proclaiming a dead Galilean teacher, crucified for claiming to be a king, as Savior and Lord.

Such a philosophical and skeptical reading of history ignores the fact that certain events are intrinsically significant or may acquire multiple significances as they are tied to or properly associated with later events, so that this significance can be drawn in a variety of ways. That certain events are significant and transforming can be seen by the effects they generated, the expectations they created, or even the impression they initially conveyed. It is possible for ideology and historical data to be combined in a way that reflects an appropriate historical perspective. For example, was D-day merely a social construct, or was it not an inherently significant World War II event that generated initial impressions, expectations, and results? It is true that it could be viewed as a victory or as a defeat, depending on what side one was on, but no one can deny that it was a key event seen as potentially significant from its inception. One need only examine General Rommel’s initial reaction to the event to realize that events can and do have an inherent quality to them, especially when they are key events, and that aspects of those events can be read symbolically as reflecting an ultimate significance of such an event. In other words, it is a case not of poetry or history exclusively but of poetry plus history. Nor is the mere collection of events into a sequence that notes the events’ relationship and significance to other (often later) events a distortion of history if such connections exist or can be reasonably established. To see the founding of the United Nations as a product, among others, of events in World War II does not distort history.

Thus, although one should not deny that a historian can and does create relationships and can be creative (insightful?) in connecting events, this does not mean that such constructs misrepresent history. This historian’s perceptions are very much a part of what history is and how it works itself out. Historical insights can be particularly useful in showing us where history has gone or what might have driven it. One must distinguish between the idea that there is one interpretation of a given set of events (for there are surely more) and the idea that particular interpretations are very useful in pointing to what was hoped for or what resulted from a set of events. History may entail more than digging up brute facts, as recent historiography loves to point out, since these facts are interpreted, but some interpretations and points of view often do mirror what the events produced, enlightening and/or revealing the events’ later historical significance and role.

Nor should one read Acts and rule the role of its key player (God) out of bounds before Luke starts to string together the events and their circumstances in ways that point to God’s or Jesus’s presence and action. It is interesting to note that (1) classical historians respect Luke as a historian as they use him (Nobbs 2006) and that (2) a careful look at the details of Acts shows that, where we can check him, Luke is a credible historian (see the discussion of this theme in the introduction to Acts 16:11-40 as it relates to Paul’s trials). Here the work of Sherwin-White 1963; Hemer 1989; and the six-volume series launched by Winter and Clarke (1993) suggest that we should not be so skeptical about Luke. This also shows the crucial importance of doing careful work in backgrounds, especially Jewish and Greco-Roman sources. More NT scholars need to be better equipped in Second Temple Jewish study and classical literature. One must read Acts open to such a balanced view of its historical approach—in terms of its poetry, history, and cultural setting—as well as to the option of divine activity.

Overview of Acts

Acts is one of the longest books of the NT and contains 1,003 verses as compared to 1,151 in Luke and 1,071 in Matthew. It covers eighty-eight pages of the Nestle-Aland text, in comparison to Luke’s ninety-six pages and Matthew’s eighty-seven pages. Witherington (1998: 6) notes that Acts has 18,374 words as compared with Luke’s 19,404 words. Of the 5,436 hapax terms in the NT, 2,038 occur in Acts (Culy and Parsons 2003: xiii).

We have already noted that this work is the sequel to Luke’s Gospel. The Acts of the Apostles highlights God’s plan of salvation and how God established the new era that resulted from Jesus’s ministry, death, and resurrection. It explains how a seemingly new movement is actually rooted in ancient promises associated with Judaism and yet includes Gentiles.

As I noted in the Luke commentary (Bock 1994a: 1-4), four issues dominate these two volumes. (1) The issue of how salvation could claim to be related to the God of Israel and include Gentiles is a major burden of this second volume. How did this happen? What did God do to bring it about? This question is largely answered in Acts 2-11. (2) How could this movement claim to be the promise of God when the Jewish people remained so unresponsive? The Gospel is more concerned with this question than Acts is. In the sequel, this theme emerges as most Jews continue to reject the message, even as many Jews do come to faith. Another major subtheme here is how what started out as the natural extension and realization of Judaism came to develop its own structure, the church. (3) Key to all of this is Jesus’s role and function. Whereas Luke’s Gospel outlines his ministry, the book of Acts shows how the risen Lord continued to be active and how the new community preached Jesus as central to God’s plan. Whether we are looking at what Jesus realized in his ministry and resurrection (Acts 2:16-36) or what he will do when he returns (Acts 3:19-23), he is the Lord, who is seated at God’s right hand and appointed to be the judge of the living and the dead (Acts 10:40-42). (4) Finally, there is the story of various faithful witnesses who respond to Jesus in the face of opposition. Whether this theme concerns Peter and John, Stephen, Philip, Paul, or Barnabas, the book is filled with those sharing in the calling to take the message of fulfillment to the end of the earth. They serve as examples for those who carry out the mission of God.

The real center of the book, however, is God. At key junctures God enables, directs, protects, and orchestrates. Nothing shows this as much as the story of Paul, who comes to faith by Jesus’s direct intervention and is protected as he travels to Rome, despite shipwreck. It is no accident that in discussing God, we also cover the activity of Jesus and the Spirit he sends. Jesus mediates the Spirit, who in turn enables. The Spirit is sent as “power from on high” to lead the new community (Luke 24:49) and to empower its members as powerful witnesses to the events that eyewitnesses around Jesus saw and experienced (Acts 1:8; Bauckham 2006, esp. p. 390 with discussion of αὐτόπται [autoptai, eyewitnesses] in Luke 1:1). This sending of the Spirit is another link between the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts. The Spirit in particular is the spirit of enablement and testimony in Acts.

Most of the book is told from the perspective of certain locales and key figures. As Acts 1:8 suggests, it proceeds from Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth. Peter dominates early as the new community gathers and grows in Jerusalem (Acts 1-5). The theological burden of the book is carried in this section by key speeches that dominate this unit. But others of Hellenistic Jewish background are also active, moving out from Jerusalem as the result of persecution. Stephen gives his life by testifying in Jerusalem, and Philip takes the gospel to Samaria in a prelude to the spread of the gospel to all people (Acts 7-8). Meanwhile, God is preparing another vessel to take God’s word out, as Saul is called to faith (Acts 9). A return of the focus to Peter allows him to bring the gospel to Gentiles at Caesarea (Acts 10:1-11:18). During that time, Acts also introduces more detail about an important community in Antioch (Acts 11:19-30). The pressure in Jerusalem is shown to be great when James, not the Lord’s brother, is slain and Peter is imprisoned (Acts 12). Still, God protects Peter there.

The scene then shifts to Antioch, a major community that launches the missionary travels of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 13-14). The issue of exactly how Gentiles should be included brings all the key players to Jerusalem for a council to decide the matter (Acts 15). More missionary travel for Paul follows, beginning from Antioch, with several of the famous churches being established or strengthened during this time. So we hear of communities in Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth as well as work in Athens (Acts 16:1-18:23). Paul’s third journey focuses on Ephesus, but then he returns to Jerusalem and is making a vow in the temple when he is arrested (Acts 18:24-21:36). Paul’s ministry in each case has a great impact, even though it also meets with stern opposition. The rest of the book is taken up with Paul’s journey to Rome (Acts 22-28). The major elements of this unit are Paul’s defense speeches, in which the position of the church relative to God’s promise again shows forth. The theme of divine protection closes the book: Paul experiences a shipwreck on the way to Rome, but he arrives safely and awaits his trial, eagerly sharing Jesus as Lord with all who will visit him.

Acts as Ancient Rhetorical History

We consider the literary genre of Acts before we turn to the question of authorship. As already suggested, Acts is a sociological, historical, and theological monograph with parallels in works such as the Maccabees. Jervell (1998: 76-79) calls it a history of God’s people. Comparisons to other ancient works must be made with qualifications, as we shall see. First, the nature of the work and its tradition base indicate that this is not an ancient novel or romance. Pervo’s claim (1987) that Acts is more like a novel represents a skeptical handling of the book at one end of the spectrum in the discussion of the work as history. In varying degrees, writers such as Dibelius, Conzelmann, Haenchen, and others treat Acts as having little historical value. The roots of this view go back to the old Tübingen school and F. C. Baur in the nineteenth century, with its portrait of Christianity in conflict and Luke as the mediator of the tension in Acts, trying to smooth over real differences between Peter and Paul. According to this view, Luke tries to present a more idealized picture of the church than what really existed. Even though the later date for Acts that this view implies has been abandoned, some of what this perspective argues for in terms of church tension is still retained by those who doubt the credibility of Acts. Through Dibelius (1956) this approach came to appeal also to form criticism (on the problems with form criticism, see Bauckham 2006: 241-52). In this view, Luke was more about theology than history, and the two were almost competing concerns (Marshall 1980: 34-36). Nothing exemplifies this approach more than the commentary by Haenchen (1987), who at almost every turn sees historical problems and regards Luke as more concerned to edify than to inform.

Another group of scholars, however, dating back to Ramsey and extending to Bruce, Gasque, Hemer, Hengel, Marshall, Sherwin-White, and Witherington, have high regard for Luke as an ancient historian. Ramsey, in particular, in a careful study of Acts found that many of its details are more trustworthy than he thought before he began his study. To argue this is not to deny that Luke writes a theology and has a perspective that he brings to the account. There is not the disjunction, however, between history and theology that the other approach to Acts often brings. Since, in many ways, a consideration of historicity in detail requires going through the data of the book unit by unit, only some general remarks are made here, noting that the conservative and more moderate approaches to Acts often speak with respect for Luke’s approach as a historian.

For some scholars, the most troubling aspect of the book is the range of miracles and the direct invoking of divine involvement. For those who question such categories, Acts is automatically suspect because of the way God functions as the central, and even most active, character. Luke’s perspective and testimony are that God has acted in such a manner, representing proof that God was at work. This is a worldview issue when it comes to Acts. If one doubts God’s activity in things such as miracles, then Acts instantly becomes suspect historically, and interpretation quickly moves in a more “poetic” direction.

When we move to events that have documentary or historical corroboration, then Luke fares well. Fitzmyer (1998: 126-27) notes nine elements of the account that have external attestation, either through the Pauline Epistles or through outside historical sources. These are Paul’s escape from Damascus, Paul’s trip to Rome, the earning of Paul’s livelihood, Herod Agrippa’s sudden death, Gallio as proconsul of Achaia, Felix and Festus as procurators in Judea, Drusilla as wife of Felix, Bernice as wife of Herod Agrippa II, and Ananias as high priest. He also notes minor details that are correct, such as proper descriptions of cities (Philippi as a “colony”) and officials (politarchs in Thessalonica). Much of what we can test shows that Acts is a credible historical source. The work of Hemer (1989) has shown how careful Luke is in Acts in numerous details. Hengel (1979: 60) affirms that Luke is no less trustworthy than other historians of antiquity, an assessment that might seem like faint praise, but in the environment of extreme skepticism, this is saying a great deal. Hengel says that comparisons to largely fictitious, romance-like writings are a disservice.

The treatment of the individual units will also show that trustworthiness is a prominent feature in Acts. We shall sort out the places where some scholars are most suspicious of Luke as a historian, namely, the Jerusalem Council and other points related to Paul, especially his effort to gather a collection for Jerusalem. For example, Barrett (1998: xxxvi-xlii) focuses on the council passage as a historical problem and argues that Baur was right about the tension between Peter and Paul, so that such an event could scarcely have occurred. Indeed, Paul’s relationship to Jerusalem and the Jews of that city is where the issue of Luke’s history versus his theology is most often questioned. We shall pay careful attention to such questions in the commentary as they arise.