1. Reading Acts

Narrative, History, and Canon

The Acts of the Apostles tells the story of how God transformed a small group of Jewish followers of Jesus of Nazareth into a worldwide, multiethnic, geographically diverse community of people who confessed this Jesus as the once crucified but now resurrected and enthroned king of the universe. The author gives us no explicit statement concerning the purpose or purposes of Acts such as we find in the Fourth Gospel for example (John 20:30–31), but at its most basic level the story provides, as it were, the foundational story for the identity of the church. It describes, in other words, how God brought the movement into existence, the central characters and agents upon whom the church was built (esp. Peter and Paul), the gift of the Spirit, the foundational practices and virtues of the church, and the church’s apostolic foundation of Jesus the Messiah.

The book of Acts is technically anonymous. The author addresses the work to someone named Theophilus and refers to his “first volume”—the book known as the Gospel of Luke (Acts 1:1; cf. Luke 1:1–4). Therefore, most agree that there is at minimum a unity of authorship between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles.

But who wrote our text? Church tradition, since at least the time of Irenaeus, is in agreement that the author is Luke, the companion of Paul in his missionary travels, who is referred to as “the beloved physician” (Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:10–11). This tradition, to my knowledge, is unanimous that this Luke penned our text, and it has usually drawn attention to the notorious “we” passages in Acts, which, on their surface, seem to indicate the author of Acts was an eyewitness travelling companion of the Apostle Paul (Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–15; 21:1–18; 27:1—28:16). There are reasonable arguments, however, against the traditional view of authorship: Luke’s Paul makes no mention of traditional Pauline themes such as justification by faith or the Pauline collection (Rom 15; 1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 8–9); the work could reflect an early second century dating based on similarities with other early second century Christian writings; surprisingly, Acts makes no mention of Paul as a letter-writer; and, of course, the work is technically anonymous. Nevertheless, while Lukan authorship of our text is not certain, it remains the most likely and plausible suggestion. Not much will hinge on our identification of the historical author, as what we need to know will emerge as we explore how the author writes and what he says. As a result, I will refer to our author as Luke.

This companion is no substitute for the entertainment, edification, and sense of adventure offered by simply reading Acts for oneself. My hope is that this little book will provide an easily accessible guide to help you get as much as you possibly can out of your own reading experience. While the bulk of the rest of the book will consist in setting forth some of the primary themes and motifs of Acts, we should first ask the question, “What kind of book is the Acts of the Apostles?” Let me give us a few points of orientation to Acts before we delve into the major themes and movements of the book.

(1) Acts Is a Narrative

Whenever we read a text we bring certain expectations to our reading practices depending upon the kind of text it is that we’re reading. A screenplay for a feature film, a newspaper article from the Chicago Tribune, and a novel by Philip Roth all share common features by being texts, and yet we recognize that all of them produce within us different expectations for how to read and interpret these writings. Biblical scholars have offered many proposals for the specific genre of the Acts of the Apostles, but these proposals have not led to anything close to a consensus. Luke does not use the technical terminology of “history,” “biography,” or “apology” to describe his work. But he does speak of his “first volume” (Acts 1:1; i.e., the Gospel of Luke) as a “narrative of all the things that have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1b).

While Luke is certainly not claiming to write a narrative in the full sense in which contemporary literary theorists speak, the book is certainly a story or narrative account with all of the expected literary features such as plot, characters, setting, tension, and narrative resolution. The characters of Acts—Peter, Barnabas, Paul, antagonists to the church, and others—move the plot forward. The numerous speeches by these characters provide important interpretation of the events and the unfolding of the plot. The setting often dictates the behavior of the characters’ actions and the particular idiom in which they speak. Repeated patterns, themes, literary fulfillments, and summary statements draw the reader’s attention to Luke’s particular concerns and agendas. Let’s look at just a few of these narrative/literary techniques.

  1. Setting refers to the locale where the action is situated. Luke indicates the importance of setting in the very beginning of his narrative when he tells the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit, which will empower their testimony “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8). Interpretation of the speeches in Acts must attend to setting; for example, Paul’s speech in a synagogue dictates a message rooted explicitly in Israel’s history (13:16–41), whereas his speech before Stoics and Epicurean philosophers leads to proclamation more attuned to ancient philosophical themes (17:16–34).
  2. Characterization is how the narrator represents the persons in the narrative. For example, Luke’s antagonists are frequently characterized as greedy (e.g., 1:18; 5:1–11; 8:18–25). The apostles are often spoken of as having “boldness of speech” (4:13) and “grace and wisdom” (6:8–15).
  3. The repetition of literary motifs gives the reader consistent reminders of how to interpret the plot. Thus, Luke provides repetitive statements at key junctures in the narrative to tell the reader that “the word of God increased and multiplied” (6:7; 12:24; 19:20). The ability to perform “signs and wonders” demonstrates the power of the Spirit (5:12; 6:8; 8:6).
  4. Literary fulfillment takes place when an event is predicted and its fulfillment is narrated within the narrative. The most obvious case of literary fulfillment occurs when the Spirit is poured out upon the believers in Jerusalem just as the risen Jesus had said (Acts 1:8 with 2:1–13). But this also takes place when Paul says “he must see Rome as well” and, of course, the book concludes with Paul’s appearance before the synagogue in Rome (19:20 with 28:16–31). Subtler, but no less an indication of literary fulfillment, is Gamaliel’s advice to leave the apostles alone lest “we be found to be fighting against God” (5:39); throughout Acts those who persecute the apostles frequently find their plans brought to futility or meet a gruesome death (e.g., 5:19–20; 12:20–23; 16:25–34).
  5. Luke employs summary statements to help the reader interpret the plot. In Acts 1–5 he pens three important summary statements that give the reader a window into the common life of the church (2:42–47; 4:32–35; 5:12–16).
  6. Luke also uses simple repetition, especially threefold repetition, to remind his reader of the climactic moments in the foundation of the early church. For example, the Peter-Cornelius story—the event that shows the church how non-Jews can become part of God’s family—is narrated three times (10:1–48; 11:1–18; 15:6–11). Luke also repeats three times the conversion of Saul (Acts 9, 22, 26) as well as the sad statement in response to the synagogue’s unbelief in Jesus as Messiah—“we are turning to the Gentiles” (13:47; 18:6; 28:28).

Attention to these literary features will, I trust, enable the reader to appreciate the joy of reading Acts as a story. And we will have the occasion to expand on these literary features and add more as our study continues. Some have even proposed that the book of Acts should be thought of as a novel or a historical romance based on its sense of adventure, surprise, and entertaining stories. One thinks of the literarily ornate story of God supernaturally bringing Peter and Cornelius the Gentile together in order to divinely sanction non-Jews as part of God’s people (10:1—11:18), or of the showdown between Peter and Simon Magus (8:4–25), or the near-death prison escapes of the apostles (5:19–20; 12:1–17; 16:25–34), or Paul’s sea-voyage ending in his shipwreck on Malta (27:1—28:16). Good readings of Acts, then, will not only analyze the text for theological themes but will enjoy and appreciate how Luke tells stories as a means of proclaiming the overarching story of the foundation of the church. Our study, then, will pay close attention to the literary elements of Acts with a goal of ascertaining how Acts works as a unified story about God’s founding of the church.

(2) Acts Narrates Historical Events

Various proposals for the genre of Acts have been offered. Some, rightly impressed with its similarities to Greek and Latin novels, have suggested that Acts is a “historical romance.” Others have suggested that Acts should be classified as something of an “epic,” along the lines of Vergil’s Aeneid. And still others have argued that Acts is comparable to ancient biography.

But most have argued, and I think rightly so, that Acts is some version of ancient historiography. There are a variety of specific proposals for what kind of history Acts is, but there is nothing close to a consensus here. For our purposes, we should recognize that Luke almost certainly had access to a variety of sources (written and oral), traditions, and some eyewitness testimony about the events he describes. However, unlike his Gospel where we can examine his handling of sources (e.g., the Gospel of Mark and probably “Q”), we have no direct access to any of his sources for writing Acts. Nevertheless, it is clear that Luke has shaped his sources and traditions into a clear, coherent, and entertaining historical account of the creation and expansion of the early church.

Luke draws upon a host of techniques as a means of shaping this material into a coherent account that bears clear resemblances to both biblical and Greco-Roman historiography. A few of the most impressive include:

  1. The major characters give speeches that function to articulate the preaching and teaching of the Christian message and interpret the plot/action of the narrative (e.g., 1:15–26; 2:14–41; 17:22–31). Luke’s speeches, in fact, take up close to 25 percent of the entire volume.
  2. Showing causal connections between historical events. For example, the persecution of the Jerusalem believers leads to their dispersal and missionary activity in the cities of Samaria (8:1–4).
  3. Some level of concern with chronological detail. A well-known example here is Luke’s indication that Paul’s appearance before the tribunal in Corinth took place when “Gallio was proconsul of Achaia” (18:12–13).
  4. Luke’s imitation of Septuagintal (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) phrasing and wording, along with his plethora of quotations from the OT (found especially in the first half of Acts). This “biblicizing” style can be seen in small details such as Luke’s penchant for “and so it came to pass” and in larger patterns such as his patterning Peter’s character after Israel’s prophets (especially Moses).
  5. Themes that pervade ancient historiographical writing, such as the theme of providence or divine sovereignty and divine retribution.
  6. Luke’s prefaces to his Gospel (Luke 1:1–4) and his second volume (Acts 1:1), which indicate his intention to write an orderly, coherent account of the recent events that have taken place.

While these are only a sampling of some of the historiographical features of Acts, they indicate, I believe, that Luke intended his account to function as history and he intended it to be an account of what he thought actually happened. He speaks of real people, places, cities, events, religions, and philosophies. His consistent concern with historical verisimilitude indicates his desire to accurately report the events he claims to describe. If Luke’s historical reporting is demonstrably false, this would not sit well with his stated purpose for his Gospel, namely, to “write an orderly and careful account . . . so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed” (Luke 1:3b–4). Luke’s stated purpose, then, is that his audience would have some level of certainty and confidence in the truth of what he narrates. This by no means should cause us to uncritically underestimate Luke’s creative shaping of the events and speeches he passes on. The ability to discern Luke’s theological agendas, literary patterns, or uses of rhetoric neither invalidate nor confirm the historical reliability of the events Luke narrates. But where Luke’s historical information can be verified or tested, his description of purported events comes out looking reliably accurate. The focus of our study, however, will not be to either prove or to discount Luke’s historical reliability, but rather to enter into the story world of his account of the creation and growth of the church.

(3) Acts Unifies the Christian Canon

The book of Acts has served a variety of purposes as sacred Scripture within the church’s canon. One of the most significant purposes has been the way in which Acts has functioned as a bridge between “Gospel” and “Apostle.” Stated differently, the book of Acts has provided a connecting link or bridge between the stories of Jesus (in the Fourfold Gospel) and the letters of the Apostle Paul, in the first instance, as well as the so-called Catholic Epistles of Peter, James, and others. Acts can function as the continuation of the accounts of Jesus in the Fourfold Gospel. The book of Acts clearly served the church father Irenaeus well, for example, in his opposition to Marcion. Acts portrays Paul and the Jerusalem apostles as unified in theology and mission, depicts Paul and the earliest church as deeply rooted in God’s covenant dealings with Israel, speaks of Paul repeatedly as Torah observant (chs. 21–26), and contains a speech of Paul warning against false teachers making their way into the church (Acts 20:18–35)—an event that for Irenaeus was being fulfilled in Marcion’s heretical teaching.

For many contemporary Christian readers, the book of Acts has continued to function as the canonical glue that holds together the Old Testament and the New Testament, Jesus and his apostles, Paul and Peter, and the Gospels with the Apostolic Letters. It is through the book of Acts that the reader has access to narrative accounts of Paul’s travels and missionary endeavors in locations to which Paul’s canonical letters are addressed (e.g., Thessalonica, Corinth, Philippi, Ephesus). Thus, for the canonical reader there is a continuity of identity between the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the Epistles. Many of the earliest Greek codices actually preserve an order that places Acts before the Catholic Epistles with Paul’s Epistles coming next. Thus, the canonical placement of Acts in these codices would seem to follow the order of Acts (first the Jerusalem apostles in Acts 1–12 and then the Apostle Paul in Acts 13–28).

For our purposes, however, I think it is worth exploring in more detail the relationship between Acts and the Gospel of Luke. It is true that there are no ancient manuscripts where the Gospel of Luke and Acts appear placed together “ready for reading as a continuous whole.” Some have used this argument, then, to suggest that we cannot verify that Luke and Acts were published together or that Luke intended for the two texts to be read with one another. And those responsible for our Christian canon must have felt it perfectly justifiable to maintain an order that did not place Luke and Acts with one another. Those who have argued against the literary unity of Luke-Acts have raised important questions and have rightly called attention to the multiplicity of ways in which Acts can justifiably be read. However, without denying other legitimate readings, I suggest that the book of Acts is illuminated most powerfully when it is read as Luke’s second volume or sequel to his Gospel.

There are a variety of ways in which Acts is presented as continuing the story of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. For example, the apostles are characterized according to the pattern of Jesus in that they share the same Spirit, perform signs and wonders, proclaim the gospel with authority, and are rejected by the people. Acts often narrates the fulfillment of something that was predicted in the Gospel. For example, John the Baptist prophesies that a coming one will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16), and this is fulfilled in Acts when the Spirit is poured out upon the disciples with flames of fire (Acts 2:1–4). Simeon proclaims that the coming of Jesus will be of saving significance for both Israel and the nations (Luke 2:30–32), but this promise is not made good until Peter’s encounter with Cornelius in Acts 10, which initiates the mission to the Gentiles.

When we turn to the introduction of Acts in 1:1–11 we see good reasons for the view that Acts is continuing the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. As we have seen, the opening words of Acts 1:1–2 make direct reference to Luke’s “first account” written to Theophilus and serve to create some level of continuity between Acts and his Gospel. Luke immediately draws the reader’s attention to some form of continuity between the Gospel and Acts through his concise but effective use of the rhetorical technique of recapitulation. In brief summarizing form, Luke reminds the reader of some of the most important aspects of Jesus’s ministry and teaching. The reader of Acts, for example, is already familiar, by way of the Gospel, with Jesus’s heavenly ascension (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:2, 9–11), Jesus’s election of the apostles (Luke 6:12–16; Acts 1:2), Jesus’s dining practices (Luke 24:28–35; Acts 1:4), the kingdom of God as the content of Jesus’s proclamation (Acts 1:3, 6), the death and resurrection of Jesus (Luke 23–24; Acts 1:3), John’s ministry of water baptism and anticipation of a greater one to come (Luke 3:16; Acts 1:5), and the promise of the outpouring of the powerful Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Luke 3:16; 24:49; Acts 1:4–5b, 8). The frequency of the allusions to Luke 24:36–53 direct the reader to the ending of Luke’s Gospel and thereby indicate that with Acts 1:1–11 Luke is transitioning to a development of a new stage within the same story begun by the Gospel. And this is even hinted at with the precise language of Acts 1:1, which speaks of Luke’s first account as narrating everything that “Jesus began to do and to teach.” The implication, then, is that Acts will go on to describe how Jesus continues to act, teach, and accomplish his purposes in this new stage of his ministry.

Reflections

  1. Does Acts strike you as having the typical features of a narrative or story? Have you read Acts before with attention to its literary, narrative dynamics?
  2. What would be missing from the Christian canon if Acts was absent? How would this influence our reading of Paul’s Epistles? Or our reading of the Synoptic Gospels?