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The First History of the Church (The Acts of the Apostles)

Authorship:

  • A Sequel to Luke’s Gospel:  “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning” (Acts 1:1; see Luke 1:1-4).
  • Scholars debate the genre of Luke-Acts: historiography, biography (of subjects like Jesus, Peter and Paul or the Christian movement as an institution?), epic (e.g. Homer, Virgil), or historical novel?
  • The Traditional Position: the “we” demonstrates that the “beloved physician” Luke was inseparable from Paul as his fellow-labourer (cf. Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:10-11) and present on the occasions recounted in Acts (Irenaeus, Adversus Haeresis 3.14.1)
  • Explanations for the (in)famous “we” (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16):
  1. the author was a firsthand participant in the narrated events
  2. a dramatic narrative device that places the reader into the action (cf. Vernon Robbins, “By Land and By Sea:  the We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages“)
  3. a sign of an earlier source or travel diary (cf. Stanley Porter, The Paul of Acts, chapter 2 The ‘We’ Passages in Acts as a Source regarding Paul)
  4. a pseudonymous fiction (cf. Bart Ehrman, Forgery and Counter-Forgery)

Date

  • Dates range from the early 60s to 130 CE. Most scholars date it between 75-100 CE, though a minority dates it either on the early (cf. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History) or late end of the spectrum (cf. Richard Pervo, Dating Acts; Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke Acts: A Defining Struggle)
  • Why does Acts end before narrating the martyrdom of Peter, Paul, and James?  Was the book written before their deaths or did the author know of their deaths yet was more concerned with how the gospel was proclaimed from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 28)?
  • Why does the book close before narrating the destruction of the temple in 70 CE? Or does Luke 19:43-44 and 21:20-24 exhibit knowledge of the temple’s destruction?
  • Why does Acts never mention that Paul wrote letters?  Was it written before a collection of Pauline Epistles was published or does the book of Acts show other signs of influence from Paul’s letters?
  • Does Acts reflect knowledge of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (ca 93-94 CE)?  Compare Acts 5:36-37 with Ant. 20.97-102, Luke 2:1-3 with War 2.117-18; Ant. 18.1-5, or Acts 12:20-23 with Ant. 19.343-50.
  • Why does Acts portray the church as composed of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, mainly Gentile “God-fearers” who had a prior relationship with the synagogue rather than ex-Pagans?  Or is the author aware that “Christians” (11:26; 26:28) are a distinct group  with a developed leadership structure of “elders” (21:18-25)?

Ideology and Theology

  • Hans Conzelmann (The Theology of St. Luke) argues that Acts divides history into the epochs of Israel, Jesus, and the church. The fervent expectation for Jesus’ return has settled down so the church can witness the gospel from Jerusalem to all the earth (Acts 1:6-8).
  • The church is governed by Twelve Apostles (see the replacement of Judas with Matthias to restore the number “twelve” in Acts 1:15-26). Paul is generally excluded from the title “apostle” (exception: Acts 14:4)
  • The church is united, glossing over occasional cracks that appear beneath the surface such as the division between the Hebrews and Hellenists (Acts 6:1-15), the debate at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; cf. 21:17-25), and the separation of Paul and Barnabas (15:36-41)
  • Acts emphasizes the continuity of the church with the scriptural heritage of Israel. Before Acts 7, the Jerusalem Church wins over thousands of their Jewish compatriots and the Apostles exhibit their Jewish piety. Paul’s primarily missionary field is in the synagogue among Jews and Gentile God-fearers (compare the account of Paul’s target audience in Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-9 with 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10).  However, Acts hints that a majority of Jews increasingly rejected the Christian movement (Acts 13:46-47; 18:6; 28:25-28), though it concludes on an open-ended note (Acts 28:3o-31).

A Specific Case Study

  • Check out the official Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15:1-22
  • What sort of social issues might arise with Jews and non-Jews were trying to worship or sharing a meal together?
  • What was the heart of the debate in Acts 15? Is this the same conference as presented in Galatians 2:1-14 or does the passage in Galatians better parallel the earlier meeting in Acts 11:28-30?
  • Why are four rules issued regarding food offered to idols, sexual immorality, meat from strangled animals, and blood? How does it compare to the laws about foreigners in Leviticus 17-18?
  • Would Paul have agreed with the Apostolic Decree as presented in Acts 15 (see 1 Corinthians 8:1-13)?
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