Chapter12: The Study of the Acts of the Apostles

An Introduction to the New Testament
by Richard Heard

Chapter12: The Study of the Acts of the Apostles

Acts is a beautifully told narrative of great and exciting events in far-off days, and its fascination as a story never fails. It is also our most important historical source for the earliest development of Christianity, and as such of immediate relevance for present-day Christians. The different views, for example, held by Christians as to the right forms of church government and the right meaning to attach to Baptism are ultimately dependent on the interpretation of New Testament texts, among which passages in Acts are of special significance.

Acts is essentially a book to be studied in connection with the epistles, which help to illuminate both the narrative and the teaching which it contains. The problems of Acts are many and of great importance. In the first place the question of its authorship is not a merely academic one, for much hangs on its attribution to Luke the companion of Paul and the eye witness of many of the events which he describes. The difficulties of the early chapters, where Acts is often our sole source of information, have to be faced if we wish to gain a coherent and intelligible picture of the nature of the Church in its very first days. Of particular importance are the questions that arise as to the historical value of the speeches. How far do they enable us to reconstruct the faith of the earlier disciples ?

On all these questions, as on those of the interpretation of particular passages, e.g. the Apostolic Decree (15:20), Paul’s baptism of twelve men at Ephesus (19:1-7), Acts must be read with continual reference to the epistles. Sometimes it is Acts that throws new light on Paul’s movements and preaching, but the comparison of the different documents is essential for gaining a true picture of Paul himself or of the apostolic church.

Books For Reading

A brief but excellent introductory commentary on Acts is that of A. W. F. Blunt (Clarendon Bible). Those of Foakes Jackson (Moffatt) and Rackham (Westminster) are also useful. W. L. Knox, The Acts of the Apostles (Cambridge), is a short up-to-date Introduction of great value. The fullest treatment of Acts is to be found in Foakes Jackson and Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity (Macmillan): Vol. I, on ‘The Jewish and Gentile Backgrounds ‘; Vol. II, on ‘Prolegomena to Acts ‘; Vol. IV, ‘Commentary and Translation’; and Vol. V, ‘Appended Notes,’ are a mine of information, and can be used with profit even by those who know no Greek. C. H. Dodd, The Apostolic Preaching and its Developments (Hodder and Stoughton), is of particular value for the study of the speeches in Acts.

For the history and development of the New Testament Church the following books will be found useful:

T. G. Jalland, The Origin and Development of the Christian Church


E. F. Scott, The Beginnings of the Church (Scribner).

J. Weiss, History of Primitive Christianity (Macmillan -- 2 volumes).

H. Lietzmann, The Beginnings of the Christian Church (Nicholson and Watson)