Chapter 13: The Acts Of The Apostles

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter 13: The Acts Of The Apostles

It is stated in the first verse of Acts that the book is a continuation of our third gospel, and the common authorship of both books is confirmed by innumerable points of detail and the general uniformity of the vocabulary. That Luke, the physician and companion of Paul (Col. 4:14, II Tim. 4:11), is the author of both volumes is now generally accepted (cf. Chap. 9.) although a few critics maintain that the attribution is due to the use by the unknown author of Luke’s diary for certain parts of the narrative in Acts. This latter view is largely based on an exaggerated view of the historical difficulties raised by the early chapters of Acts; the great majority of scholars, however, prefer to explain the admitted historical deficiencies of Acts and the differences between the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the epistles as due to Luke’s special objects in writing and to the limitations of his sources of information.

The Purpose of Acts and its Limitations

The main purpose of Acts is sufficiently indicated in the preface to the gospel of which Acts is confessedly a continuation (The title ‘ Acts of the Apostles’ was almost certainly prefixed later, when Acts often circulated separately from the gospel). In Luke 1: 3-4 the author proclaims his intention of writing to Theophilus that ‘ thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed’. After describing in the gospel ‘all that Jesus began both to do and to teach, until the day in which he was received up’ (Acts 1:1) Luke proceeds in his second volume to trace for Theophilus the stages by which the Christian message had spread from Jerusalem in A.D. 29 to a time and place where Theophilus’ own knowledge could continue the story. We know nothing of Theophilus, not even whether his name (= friend of God) is the real name of an individual, but, if Luke was writing in Greece c. A.D. 80 (cf. chap. 9), the narrative of Acts gives a remarkably good account of how Christianity had spread to that region and most Greek Christians would be able from their own knowledge to complete the story as it affected their own church.

This overriding purpose accounts for the general plan of Acts, which does not profess to be in any sense a complete account of the early rise of Christianity. Nothing is said of the expansion of Christianity in other directions, and the early history of the Jerusalem, Palestinian, and Antioch churches is only sketched in sufficient detail to illustrate the successive steps by which the gospel came closer to Theophilus; it is significant that the two main actors in the narrative are Peter and Paul, who played such leading parts in the development of the Gentile mission to Antioch and beyond.

Within this general plan lie other subsidiary ones, indicative of Luke’s special interests. Thus Acts has been described as the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, and as an Apology for Christianity to the Roman Imperial authorities, and Luke’s narrative has clearly been influenced by his desire to bring out the working of the Spirit in Christian history and his anxiety to present the movement as law-abiding, but it may be questioned how far the story has been consciously shaped along these lines. It does, however, seem probable that Luke has to some extent glozed over the asperity of the controversies within the Church, notably the opposition to Paul and his views as described by Paul himself in Galatians and II Corinthians, in his attempt to emphasise the fundamental unity of the early Church.

More serious are the limitations imposed upon Luke by the comparative scantiness of the material available to him, and by the nature of much of this material. Whether he was able to use written sources is discussed below, but such sources, if he did use them, seem to have been of only small extent. Luke appears to have been a pioneer in writing an extended narrative of the Church’s growth, and for the most part he probably relied on his own recollections of events long past. It is unlikely that there would have been many Christians in Greece c. A.D. 80 who could have given him much information of value about the earliest Palestinian church, and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to fill up the lacunae of his notebooks and memory. There is nothing surprising, therefore, in the variations between Paul’s clearly accurate record of his visits to Jerusalem (in Gal. chapters 1 and 2) and Luke’s version of Paul’s movements; they are reasonably to be ascribed, at least in large part, to Luke’s failure to remember the exact sequence of events and their significance. It is noteworthy that the later chapters of Acts, in which Luke himself was closely concerned, are generally agreed to preserve a high standard of accuracy, while most of the difficulties of Acts 1-15 are connected with events which happened at Jerusalem, a place where Luke does not seem to have spent more than a few weeks.

The Sources of Acts

This difference in the value of the two halves of Acts as history is linked with the nature of the sources available to Luke. For the later journeys of Paul he was able to depend not only on his own acquaintance with Paul, but on what he had learnt from many of Paul’s other companions, amongst these Silas (Acts 16:16-19), Timothy, Galus, and Aristarchus (Acts 20: 4; Col. 1:1, 4:10, 14). For the early period, too, Luke had a number of acquaintances from whom he must have learnt much, e.g. Philip, during his time in Caesarea (Acts 20:8-10, 27:1), John Mark (Col. 4: 10), Silas, and Paul himself. But it remains doubtful whether Luke had yet formed his plan of writing Acts when he was in contact with these men, and in his narrative in the early part of Acts he seems to be stringing together, as best he may, a number of different stories and narratives, some of which appear, by the time they reached him, to have been seriously distorted in the telling. A number of historical problems confront the reader. How is the story of Judas’ death in Acts 1 to be reconciled with that in Mt. 27 ? How far is the account of Pentecost, as it stands, of historical value ? Was Peter really imprisoned three times, and miraculously released twice ? Did Paul’s call to the Gentiles really antedate Peter’s reception of Cornelius ?

Many attempts have been made to show that Luke is dependent in the first half of Acts on one or more written sources, and some scholars think it possible that an Aramaic document of early date underlies at least 1:1-5 16, 9:31 -11:18. Others think it more likely that Luke relied throughout on material which he had collected from oral tradition. It may be doubted whether these controversies are in the last resort of great importance. Luke must have been dependent on sources, whether oral or written, and as his informants included such men as Philip, Silas, Mark, and Paul, some of his material at least came to him upon good authority. It is, however, clear from the difficulties of the early chapters of Acts, that, even if he had written sources available to him, they must have been of limited extent and not altogether free from confusions and errors.

The Speeches in Acts

The narrative of Acts is interlarded with a number of ‘skeleton’ speeches, mostly put into the mouth of Peter or Paul. While the insertion of such speeches, to enliven the action, was a recognised convention of ancient historians, and their contents often bore little relation to what had actually been said on the occasion, there are good grounds for regarding the speeches in Acts as providing precious evidence for the way in which the Christian message was proclaimed by the apostles. This is especially true of the speeches of Peter, some of which may perhaps be drawn by Luke from an early Palestinian source. They contain what appear to be primitive titles of Jesus, e.g. ‘Servant’ of God (Acts 3:13, 26), and avoid the title ‘Son of God’, nor do they explicitly connect forgiveness, as Paul does, with the death of Jesus. It is possible, moreover, to trace a common pattern of preaching in these speeches, which recurs in Paul’s speech at Pisidian Antioch (13: 17-41), and can be occasionally glimpsed in Paul’s epistles side by side with Paul’s own more developed message.

This pattern consists of a number of connected statements about Jesus and a call to conversion:

Jesus of Nazareth did mighty works and wonders, was crucified by God’s will, and raised up by God. God has now exalted him, and he is both Lord and Christ, and will come again to judge the world. All this has been foretold by the prophets, and the apostles are witnesses to his resurrection. Men must therefore repent and be baptised to obtain forgiveness of their sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit.

There are good grounds for thinking that such a pattern represents the main lines of the apostolic preaching from early times, although there must have been many individual variations and a continual process of development, such as finds later expression in I Peter and in the Pauline epistles. The speeches in the first half of Acts may therefore be regarded not as a resume of the actual words spoken on various occasions, but as a series of brief summaries which give a generally accurate picture of the main points of the apostolic preaching at an early stage; these summaries have been suitably varied by an editorial hand, whether Luke himself or the original compiler of a source used by Luke, to fit in with the particular situation in which they are placed.

The importance of this view of the speeches in the first half of Acts lies in the fact that with such evidence for the pre-Pauline preaching of the Church a juster estimate is possible of the process of development that took place in the Church’s message between the early days of the Jerusalem church and the close of the first century.

The speeches put into the mouth of Paul in the second half of Acts are also of considerable importance. At first sight they are strangely different from the teaching of Paul in the epistles; the Paul of Acts has little to say about the great ‘ Pauline’ doctrines of Faith and Works and of Union with Christ which are so prominent in the epistles (yet cf. Acts 13:39, 20:21, 24), and he uses many expressions which do not recur in the epistles (e.g. Acts 20:28, 26:23). This divergence indeed has furnished one of the grounds on which a few scholars have refused to accept the Lucan authorship of Acts. It must be remembered, however, that Paul’s epistles were written to Christians who accepted his main teaching, and that Paul’s theological instruction is for the most part to deal with difficulties of interpretation that have arisen or to develop the deeper implications of his teaching. In Acts, on the other hand, Luke seems concerned to give summaries of Paul’s speeches to illustrate his variety of approach to different audiences, and those for the most part composed of men who were hearing Paul, or even the Christian message itself, for the first time.

The Text of Acts

The problem of the original text of Acts is of great interest and some importance. The text has survived in two main forms, which show such considerable variations from each other as to suggest that there once existed two different editions of the book, and raise the question, ‘ Which of these two editions is the original one ?’

The English Authorised and Revised Versions for the most part follow the text which from the fourth century A.D. onwards has the support of the great majority of the best manuscripts. On the other hand there is enough manuscript evidence to prove the existence as early as the second century A.D. of a type of text which contains a great number of variations, additions, and omissions. This latter text is often called the Western text, although it was known very early in the East as well, and sometimes from the name of the manuscript which is one of the chief witnesses to its existence, Codex Bezae (now in the University Library at Cambridge), the Bezan text.

The variants of this text often have a specially graphic interest; thus Peter, escaping from prison, ‘went down the seven steps’ (12:10), Paul lectured in the school of Tyrannus ‘from the fifth to the tenth hour’, i.e. from 11 to 4 (19:9), and Mnason’s house is described as being not in Jerusalem, but in ‘a certain village’ (21:16). While most of the variants are only changes of minor interest and significance, two are of considerable importance. In 11:28 the Bezan text reads ‘and when we were assembled together’, introducing Luke into the narrative at Antioch before the first missionary journey, whereas in the usual text he does not appear until Paul reaches Troas on the second missionary journey; in 15:20, 29 the Decree of the Council of Jerusalem, as given in the Bezan text, omits ‘and from what is strangled’ thus making it possible to interpret the decision of the Council as a series of injunctions to avoid murder, idolatry, and fornication in place of the ‘ritual’ demands of the usual text, abstinence from ‘pollutions of idols, and from fornication and from what is strangled, and from blood’.

Scholars are not agreed as to how these variations arose. Various theories have been put forward to explain one type of text as a later revision of the other, and it has even been suggested that Luke himself wrote two drafts of Acts. This is improbable, however, and it is perhaps best to accept the Bezan text as an early revision of the original text, which was more akin to that followed in most English translations, or to assume that both types of text are in fact revisions, each of which has preserved original readings. There is good reason for thinking that in the first century or so of its existence the text of Acts was treated by the scribes who copied it with some freedom, especially as Acts seems to have circulated for the most part separately from the Gospel of Luke.