Acts of the Apostles

  1. Author
  2. Structure
  3. Sources
  4. Text
  5. Style
  6. Historical Significance
  7. Theology
  8. Apostolic Council

1. Author

Acts is the second part of the Lukan document, with the Gospel of John separating the two in the canon. According to ancient Christian tradition, the author is the physician Luke, a coworker of → Paul ( Col. 4:14). The author’s interest focuses on Paul, his mission, and his fate ( Acts 9; 11; 13–28). Arguments against authorship by a coworker are the biographical defects and the lack of specific features of Pauline theology. Nevertheless, the author shows a good knowledge of the nonpolemical, “catholic” Paul whom we know from marginal observations in the Epistles. Hence he might very well have come from the Pauline circle.

2. Structure

The structure follows the geographic theme of 1:8. The first part of the book ( 1:1–8:4) deals with the → primitive Christian community in Jerusalem. The second part ( 8:5–15:35) treats the mission to Samaria, the beginnings of the Gentile mission, the first work of Paul, and the apostolic council. The third part ( 15:36–19:20) covers Paul’s mission to Asia Minor and Europe. The final part ( 19:21–28:31) deals with the prosecution of Paul in Jerusalem and Rome.

3. Sources

The author had extensive but disparate sources at his disposal. First, he had oral information, reports, and traditions. These account for the fact that he includes stories of the reception of the message as well as its proclamation. Then he had some written materials ( esp. in the first parts) that we can no longer reconstruct because they have been worked over so much both linguistically and theologically. Finally, he had the “we source,” which in the later parts describes the routes and sites of some of Paul’s missionary work.

4. Text

We have two sharply divergent versions of the text, the Egyptian (Alexandrian) and the Western. The latter, represented especially by Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis (→ Biblical Manuscripts), is a deliberate editing of the original, dating from the second century. A distinctive feature is its attempt to soften the Jewish-Christian character and to make the work more Gentile Christian and catholic by stressing Jewish guilt. Especially important is the ethical reworking of the cultic decree of the apostolic council ( 15:20, 29; 21:25).

5. Style

The style gives evidence of great linguistic and narrative skill. Using variety and vividness, the author tells his story in lively incidents and details instead of settling for mere reports and abstract theological expositions ( Acts 2:10–11; 17; 20). He uses the Greek of the → Greek Language).

6. Historical Significance

Acts is a unique source for information about the beginnings of Christianity. Although fragmentary, it gives us information about the primitive community, the first mission outside Jerusalem in various parts of the world, the work of Paul, and the church situation in the author’s day. The author is well informed about the political, religious, and social conditions in → Palestine and is acquainted with legal procedure, for example, in the case brought against Paul (chaps. 21–28). As a historian, he works theologically and sees events in terms of God’s direction of history. He works over his traditions conservatively, especially the “liberal” ones involving criticism of the law, the temple, and Israel. He has been unjustifiably disparaged, especially for his depiction of Paul, which in many features is correct, if selective.

7. Theology

The author’s theology is expressed in the form of charismatic-prophetic interpretations of Scripture ( 2:16–21, 25–36; 3:13–16, 22–26; 4:25–28; 5:30–31; 7; 13:17–22; 15:15–18). It comes to expression in the preaching of the apostles, especially Peter and Paul. Manifestations of the Spirit such as → miracles confirm this preaching ( 2:43; 3:1–8; 5:12; 6:8; 9:32–42; 13:4–12; 15:12; 16:16–26; 19:11–12; 20:7–12; 28:9). The main theme is the restoration of God’s people by the Messiah Jesus ( 2:22–24, 27–33, 38–39; 3:13–21; 15:15–17). The promises come to fulfillment above all in the church as the true and → penitent Israel.

The church as the people of the Spirit consists primarily of converted Jews who accept the Messiah of Israel (see again 2:22–24, 27–33, 38–39; 3:13–21; 15:15–17). The rise of the true eschatological Israel is depicted in terms of mass conversions of the Jews ( 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; 6:1, 7; 9:42; 12:24; 13:43; 14:1; etc. ). To this Israel of the Spirit ( 2:17–21) the → Gentiles are added, which the author regards as a fulfillment of the divine promises ( Luke 24:44–47; Acts 1:6, 8; 2:39; 3:25; 10–11; 13:42–48; 15:7–8, 14–17). As a fulfillment of Scripture, the Gentile mission can be seen to be God’s work and initiative ( 10–11; 15:7–8). Impenitent Israel—the synagogue—is cut off from God’s people because it rejects the Messiah Jesus ( 13:46).

The church is the direct continuation of the history of God’s people that begins with → Abraham ( Luke 1:67–75; Acts 7). The promised → salvation comes through the work of the God of the patriarchs ( 3:13–15; 5:30; 7:32, 46; 13:17) and through the Messiah Jesus. The death of Jesus by itself does not have → atoning significance. Reconciliation means that God turns in → love to his people and restores them in grace. Salvation comes only through God’s → grace, with forgiveness of sins through Christ’s → resurrection ( 2:38; 3:19–26; 4:12; 13:39; 15:11).

Because the → law is a mark of the people of God, the → church sees to its observance. The primitive community is faithful to the law ( 6:11, 13–14; 10:14, 28; 11:3, 8; 21:21). So too is Paul ( 18:18; 21:24; 22:3; 23:5; 24:14–16; 25:8; 28:17). Fixed cultic traditions are adopted, but the law is expounded in terms of the first commandment—namely, obedience to the one God of Israel ( 7:38–43). → Jewish Christians keep the whole law, but only parts of the law are made binding on Gentile Christians ( 15:20, 29; 21:25). The sayings criticizing the → temple, Israel, and the law, which the author knows from the tradition, he repudiates as false accusations ( 6:11–14; 21:21, 28; 22:3).

A widespread theory is that Luke could have written Acts to solve the problem of the delay in the → parousia, with the help of the idea of epochs in salvation history. The history of Jesus is the middle of time, and the end will come in a → future that cannot be calculated. The author is aware of the delay, but it is indeed not theologically decisive for him. The events of the resurrection and ascension of the Messiah Jesus, along with the outpouring of the Spirit, mean that the last days have dawned ( 2:17; 17:31). The events of the end time involve a historical process in which the promises come to successive fulfillment, ending with the return of the Messiah Jesus. Already the promises have been fulfilled in part ( 2:17, 33; 13:32–33; 15:16–18). In a future that is probably near, they will come to complete fulfillment with the → apocatastasis ( 1:11; 3:19–21; 17:30–31; 23:6; 24:15, 21; 26:6–8; 28:20). The author regards history as a long period of time on which one can look back ( 15:7, 9, 14, 19; 3:21; cf. chap. 7 and 13:16–23). In contrast, now that the end time has begun, one is not to expect any very prolonged future ( 2:17–21).

8. Apostolic Council

At the heart of Acts stands the apostolic council of 15:1–29. Having accepted for some time a Gentile mission that was not under the law ( 10:34–35; 11:1–18; 13–14; Galatians 1–2), the church faced demands that Gentile Christians should receive → circumcision and observe the law ( 15:1, 5). The issue is that of the place of the law in the church, which was resolved with the apostolic decree ( 15:1, 29; 21:25). A fundamental part of the law is laid on the Gentiles, but they are free regarding the rest. Paul maintains ( Galatians 2) that the council recognized that the Gentile mission was not under the law and that no obligations were put upon Gentiles. He neither mentions the decree nor takes it as a guide. It is undoubtedly historical, but perhaps it belongs to some other occasion than that of Acts 15 and Galatians 2. For Luke the council and the decree support the idea that the church is the end-time Israel. What influences Paul, however, is the battle for his independent apostolate.

Bibliography: F. Bovon , Luke the Theologian (Allison Park, Pa. , 1987) ∙ C. Burchard , Der dreizehnte Zeuge (Göttingen, 1970) ∙ H. Conzelmann , The Theology of St. Luke (New York, 1960) ∙ M. Dibelius , Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (London, 1956) ∙ E. J. Epp , The Theological Tendency of Codex Bezae Cantabrigiensis in Acts (Cambridge, 1966) ∙ E. Haenchen , The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia, 1971) ∙ M. Hengel , Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia, 1979) ∙ J. Jervell , Luke and the People of God (Minneapolis, 1972) ∙ G. Lohfink , Die Sammlung Israels. Eine Untersuchung zur Lukanischen Ekklesiologie (Munich, 1975) ∙ R. Maddox , The Purpose of Luke-Acts (Göttingen, 1982) ∙ E. Plümacher , Lukas als hellenistischer Schriftsteller (Göttingen, 1972) ∙ P. Vielhauer , “On the ‘Paulinism’ of Acts,” Studies in Luke-Acts ( ed. L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn; Nashville, 1966) 33–50 ∙ U. Wilckens , Die Missionsreden der Apostelgeschichte (Neukirchen, 1961; 3d ed. , 1974).

Jacob Jervell