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The Book of Acts

External Evidence

“But that this Luke was inseparable from Paul, and his fellow-labourer in the Gospel, he himself clearly evinces, not as a matter of boasting, but as bound to do so by the truth itself. For he says that when Barnabas, and John was called Mark, had parted company from Paul, and sailed to Cyprus, we came to Troas [Acts 16:8]… As Luke was present at all these occurrences, he carefully noted them down in writing, so that he cannot be convicted of falsehood or boastfulness, because all these [particulars] proved both that he was senior to all those who now teach otherwise, and that he was not ignorant of the truth. That he was not merely a follower, but also a fellow-labourer of the apostles, but especially of Paul, Paul has himself declared also in the Epistles, saying: ‘Demas has forsaken me, and is departed unto Thessalonica, Crescens to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me’ [2 Timothy 4:10-11]” (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.14.1)

“Moreover, the acts of all the apostles were written in one book. For ‘most excellent Theophilus’ Luke compiled the individual events that took place in his presence — as he plainly shows by omitting the martyrdom of Peter as well as the departure of Paul from the city [of Rome] when he journeyed to Spain.” (The Muratorian Canon, 34-39)

Now, since the Acts of the Apostles thus agree with Paul, it becomes apparent why you reject them. It is because they declare no other God than the Creator, and prove Christ to belong to no other God than the Creator; while the promise of the Holy Ghost is shown to have been fulfilled in no other document than the Acts of the Apostles” (Tertullian, Against Marcion 5.2)

“First then must be put the holy quaternion of the Gospels; following them the Acts of the Apostles.” (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 3.25.1)

“And indeed afterward this same Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles.” (Anti-Marcionite Prologue to Luke’s Gospel)

Authorship: Internal Evidence

The book of Acts is the sequel of Luke’s Gospel: “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 NRSV)

Explanations for the “we” in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-37; 28:1-16.

  • The author was a firsthand participant in the narrated events. Irenaeus correlated the last time the “we” is used in Acts 28:16 with the statement that “Luke alone is with me” in 2 Timothy 4:10-11. See also Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History.
  • This was some sort of dramatic literary device that placed the reader in the middle of the action. For instance, see Vernon Robbins’s “By Land and By Sea: the We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages.”
  • This was a residue on an earlier source or a travel diary. For instance, see Stanley Porter’s chapter “The We Passages in Acts as a Source regarding Paul” in The Paul of Acts.
  • The “we” was a “pseudonymous” or fictional claim to be by a firsthand participant of Paul’s missionary activities. For instance, see Bart Ehrman’s Forgery and Counter-Forgery.

Audience: Theophilus and the other readers

  • The Gospel may have been dedicated to a wealthy patron who sponsored the writer’s literary project.
  • “Theophilus” may be symbolic for the church as it means “friend of God.”
  • There is debate about whether the initial readership was predominantly Christians from non-Jewish backgrounds or a mixed Christian audience composed of Jews and non-Jewish “God-fearers” who had attended the synagogue.
  • The provenance could be Antioch (church tradition, the Western text that has the first person plural in Acts 11:28), Ephesus (cf. a mirror to the author’s situation in Acts 20:17-38), Rome (the ultimate destination in Acts 28:16-31), or an unknown location.

Date

  • Dates range from the early 60s to 130 CE. Most scholars date the book of Acts between 75-100 CE, though a minority date it on the earlier (cf. Hemer) or later (cf. Richard Pervo, Joseph B. Tyson) end of the spectrum.
  • Since Luke 19:41-44 and 21:20 seems to reflect knowledge of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, its sequel in the book of Acts must post-date 70 CE.
  • Acts ends with Paul awaiting trial in Rome, without narrating his execution around 64 CE. However, the curtain may close as its central focus was how the gospel spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth via arriving at the heart of the Empire (Acts 1:8; 28:30-31).
  • There is debate over whether or not Acts was influenced by a collection of Pauline Epistles. On the one hand, there are interesting differences between Acts and Paul’s firsthand testimony about his own apostleship, biography, travels, and theology. On the other hand, there are striking overlaps between Acts and Paul’s epistles (e.g. compare Acts 15:1-21, 35-41 with Galatians 2:1-14; Acts 9:23-25 with 1 Corinthians 11:32-33).
  • There is debate over whether Josephus’s Antiquities, published around 93-94 CE, was a source for Acts. Compare the accounts of the rebels Judas of Galilee and Theudas in Acts 5:36-37 with Antiquities 20.97-102 or the death of Herod Agrippa I in Acts 12:20-23 with Antiquities 19.343-50.
  • The “Christians” are known to political authorities as a distinct entity (Acts 11:26; 26:28; cf. 1 Peter 4:16) and there may be a level of ecclesiastical organization in the governance of churches by “elders” (presbyteroi) and “overseers” (episkopoi) (cf. Acts 20:17-38).

Key Themes in the Acts of the Apostles

  • When the disciples ask whether or not Jesus was about to restore the kingdom to Israel (cf. Luke 21:24), the risen one responds that this will happen at an unknown date fixed by the Father and that they are to be his witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth (Acts 1:6-8). The evangelist Philip inaugurates the mission in Samaria (8:5-25) and Peter ministered to the non-Jewish centurion Cornelius (10:1-11:18; cf. Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in 8:26-39).
  • The twelve apostles governed the mother church in Jerusalem (cf. replacing Judas by Matthias to restore the number “twelve” in 1:15-26) and other missionaries like Paul and Barnabas are generally subservient to rather than identified as “apostles” or “sent ones” (exception: 14:4).
  • The church is completely harmonious, though occasional cracks appear beneath the surface like the division between the Hebrews and the Hellenists (6:1-15), the debate at the Jerusalem Council (15:1-21; cf. 21:17-25), and the split of Paul from Barnabas (15:36-41).
  • The Christians message is in continuity with the scriptural heritage of Israel. The Jerusalem church wins over thousands of their Jewish compatriots and the apostles as well as Paul exemplify their Jewish piety (e.g. the apostles attend the temple, Peter’s obeys a kosher diet, Paul circumcises Timothy and participates in a Nazarite vow). Acts seems to portray the church as primarily drawn from the ranks of the Jews and non-Jewish “God-fearers” who attended synagogues (compare Paul’s target audience in Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-9 and 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10); this can be compared with the poor reception of Paul among the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:1-34).
  • Stephen’s speech, including his denunciation of the temple as an idol built with hands (7:48-50), and the scattering of all but the apostles in Jerusalem (8:1) marks a turning point. There are signs that the majority of adherents joining the Jesus movement were non-Jewish (cf. Acts 13:46-48; 18:6; 28:26-28). Nevertheless, the future is open-ended and Paul continues to evangelize Jews and non-Jews (28:30-31).
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