The Acts of the Apostles

De heilige Lucas schildert de Madonna - St. Luke Painting the Virgin—Maarten van Heemskerck, Oil on Panel, 1532


The Acts of the Apostles is the second book in a two-volume work comprising of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles. Acts begins with the words “In my earlier work Theophilus, I dealt with everything Jesus had done and taught from the beginning, until the day he gave his instructions to the apostles he had chosen through the Holy Spirit, and was taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:1) which implies that it is a continuation of the Gospel. Brown notes in An Introduction to the New Testament that the unity of the two volumes is “maintained by the overwhelming majority of scholars, based on the continuity of style, thought and plan.” (p.225).

The title in Greek is Acts of Apostles and it falls into a genre of Hellenistic writing called Praxeis, that is “deeds”, which often recounted histories of great men like Hannibal or Alexander. It is broadly agreed that both works come from the same author, although (like the Gospels) Acts is anonymous. 

As far as external evidence for the author, no one ascribes any other author than the beloved physician and companion of Paul called Luke (Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 24). Internal evidence is not particularly clear on the matter either. It has been suggested that medical language used in the text confirms that it was written by a physician, but the author uses some words that are found in Greek doctor’s books and has this in common with other, non-medical books. There are also several passages which contain the narrative written in the first person plural (commonly referred to as the “we” passages, These are: 16:10—(14)—17; 20:5-8, 13-15; 21:1-8, 11, 12, 14-18; 27:1-8, 15, 16, 18, 20, 27, 29, 37; 28:1,2,3,7,10-16.). The evidence of ancient literary practice in general would lead to a conclusion that the author was thus an eyewitness to the events he is writing about. However, Barrett suggests that it is unlikely that Luke wrote the entire work himself, as there are various discrepancies, most notably Luke’s account of the Council in Acts 15:
Would one who was on intimate terms with Paul have believed that he approved of the Decree promulgated in 15:29 and delivered it to the Gentile churches for them to observe (16:4)? In his extant epistles Paul never mentions the Decree and gives advice which seems to contradict it. —Barret, C. K., Acts a Shorter Commentary (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2002), p. xxiv.
This makes it difficult to ascribe the whole work to a single author who was on close terms with Paul. An alternative hypothesis could be that such a person—who could well have been the physician Luke—provided the material turned into Acts by the author. 

There are other possibilities however; Richard Bauckham, in his work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, looks at the narrative of the Scriptures and asks what relevance some elements of detail have in achieving any purported theological goals. Extrapolating this theory and applying it to Acts, it seems particularly pertinent when one considers the physicians language and details such as we see in Acts 21. Even Barrett comments on the extraordinary level of detail used by the author here, who notes a departure from the leeward side of the island and a straight course to Cos which `’…implies a north-east wind”. (Barrett, q.v. p.323)

Objectively, it would not seem unreasonable to ask what the point of including such details are if the point of Acts is as contrived and manufactured as some suggest? It seems much more reasonable to assert that these details are the observations of one who was present and experiencing these events first hand. We can also glean from the narrative’s abrupt end, some sense of completion—the story brought up to date. Luke was writing at the time to which the verses refer; he wrote no more, because nothing more had happened.

This evidence takes on further weight when considered in the context of certain historical omissions. The fact that Luke does not mention the Great Fire of Rome and the savage persecution of Christians that followed in 64 A.D. There is no mention of Peter & Paul’s martyrdom in the mid 60’s and no reference to the military conquest of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D. The fact that Luke is silent on these matters speaks volumes, especially considering the stress in Luke’s work of the relationship between Christianity and Imperial Rome.

The text itself comes to us from a large number of Greek MSS of various ages, written at different times in Christian history; from various ancient versions; as well as from quotations made by ancient writers. Brown dates the work around 85 A.D., give or take five to ten years. According to Barrett, external evidence would dictate a date not much earlier than 150 A.D. given that Acts is the second volume of a work that included details taken from Mark’s Gospel, commonly dated at around 70 A.D.

Barrett does concede however, internal evidence yields a much earlier date. Whatever the answers to these questions, Acts is written in a bright and interesting style, in the manner of a popular historian, descriptively and with a well-formed narrative. The work denotes education and the author commands a thorough knowledge of Greek and utilises various styles; a business-like style, an ‘OT’ style, and a finer style used for special occasions and important characters.

Investigating the Purpose of Acts

For Raymond Brown, Lucan writing is unique in that more than any other book of the New Testament, the story is intrinsic to the theology. As we have already noted, the author of Luke-Acts was a skilled writer and has been considered a theologian, but also a consummate literary artist with a mind that is tuned to the aesthetic. His intentions are declared unambiguously in Luke 1:1-4: 
In as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theoph’ilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:1-4) 
Acts contains a similar, if shorter dedication (Acts 1:1-5) that links his efforts in the first volume with those in this volume. In other words, he has gone to the same painstaking lengths to separate fact from fiction in preserving the historical memory of the early Christians. This is a historical work, prefaced in the manner of contemporary historical works. Luke offers an evangelistic presentation of Jesus’ life and mission (in the Gospel of Luke), and here in Acts, this work continues. Luke tells us how Jesus the LORD is still with us; His Holy Spirit has communicated His commandment to the Apostles “whom He had chosen” (Acts 1:2). This is important. Acts is the story of the expansion of the Church under the impulse of the Holy Spirit and has been described as the Gospel of the Spirit. Luke expresses this in 1:8, which sums up the plan of the book: the story of the choice of the disciples by the divine authority of the Holy Spirit, and their inspiration and animation to spread the Gospel message to the ends of the earth.

There has been some speculation that Luke wrote from secular motivation. His evident skill perhaps belies his enjoyment in telling a good story and perhaps Luke wrote for pleasure, with some measure of fraternity with his Christian contemporaries. This theory blatantly ignores a plethora of theological considerations, not least the exhortative and inspirational speeches of the Apostles, which demonstrate a deep understanding of the Old Testament, linking them to Luke 24 and the account of Jesus explaining Scripture to His Apostles on the road to Emmaus. Further, the book repeatedly asserts that the crucified Jesus has been raised by God from the dead; a statement of fact that cannot be accepted without immense spiritual ramifications. Considering the consummate skill of the author in imitating a wide range of postclassical literary conventions, there has been a plethora of theories which generalise recurrent partial comparisons to define the genre of Acts as a whole. The historical-critical method of biblical exegesis provides us with an essential starting point when considering these theories. The interplay of theology and history was unfolded in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, and then further by two documents of the Pontifical Biblical Commission: The Interpretation of the Bible in the Church (Vatican City, 1993) and The Jewish People and Their Sacred Scriptures in the Christian Bible (Vatican City, 2001). The methodology which matured in the course of debates among exegetes in the production of these documents has led to key understandings regarding the essentially historical nature of Sacred Scripture; “For it is the very essence of biblical faith to be about real events.” ( Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth (London: Bloomsbury, 2007), p. xv.).

This is an important historical assertion made by Pope Benedict XVI because it addresses, and dismisses the Bultmanian dichotomy that has haunted exegesis over recent decades; that idea of the historical fact as “an interchangeable symbolic cipher for biblical faith.” (Ibid). Acts then, as asserted by Dillon in the NJBC, constitutes a history. Luke and Acts together constitute a historical and literary unity.

History, Apologia, Theology?

As we have seen, scholars attempting to fit Luke-Acts into specific modern literary genres find themselves in some difficulties. Certainly, from a modern perspective, Acts’ lack of historical reliability has been questioned. It is asserted that Luke’s historical accuracy is comprised by his theological agenda, which led him to shape and even create material. However, is the expectation that the author of Acts should have accurately remembered every word, every deed, as if he had recorded it all on video a realistic one? When one compares Luke-Acts to contemporary works, one can see how it is demonstrably within the limits of what was considered reliable by comparative standards; in short, the author of Luke-Acts is every bit as trustworthy as other historians of his time.

J. B. Chance makes a compelling argument for this by comparing the author of Luke-Acts to Lucian’s How to Write History. (cf. Chance, J.B., Acts (Georgia: Smyth & Helwyn Publishing, 2007), p. 16.). Here Chance demonstrates how the evangelist compares favourably with other authors of the Hellenistic tradition as exemplified by Herodotus and Thucydides. Luke's well-written prose also adds an air of seriousness of intent to his writing and lends a scholarly polish, which adds to its air of authenticity. In studying such authors, it is well known and accepted that the speeches recorded were not verbatim representations of what was said, but shaped by the author, retaining as closely as possible the overall message of the speech. The evangelist’s writing, therefore, would seem to be typical of ancient Hellenistic historiography which used the genre of general history, adapting it as appropriate in order that it might provide a suitable literary vehicle for depicting the origins and development of Christianity. It seems obvious then, that Luke wrote in history, in order that Theophilus might “know the truth” (Luke 1:4). Still, the construction of his work fails to fit into the merely historical, if it was an attempt at a history, it would be a poor one that would contradict the author’s evident acumen. 

Perhaps, if the focus of Acts is not history, it has been suggested that it is a Christian apologia which was aimed at vindicating Paul’s memory against attacks by Jewish detractors. Alternatively he could have been attempting to soften the stance of Roman officialdom to Christianity, or even evangelise the Roman intelligentsia. The evidence for Acts as an apologia is substantiated by tracing a vein of political and religious arguing through the whole text. These strands of polemic are seen by Bruce as being prototypical of second century apologia.

Defenses against Judaism are conveyed in the reports of Paul’s stance. His belief in Christ does not nullify his loyal and devout Judaism but rather accentuates the deepest hopeful aspirations of all Israel (Acts 23:6; 24:15; 26:7 f; 28:20). In Paul’s speech at the Areopagus (Acts 17:22-31) we find an affirmation of Christian truth over Pagan ignorance. The third apologetic strand can be witnessed in the proclamations of Christian innocence voiced by Roman officials throughout his work. Jesus’ triple acquittal by Pilate (Luke 23:4, 14, 22), episodes at Corinth, Thessalonica, Ephesus and Philippi, where Roman authorities attest to Christianity’s innocence of any offense against Roman law, also Paul’s acquittal by Felix, Festus and Agrippa (Acts 24:22-23; 25:25; 26:30-32). All these things are self evident in the text, but considering Brown’s comment regarding readership (q.v.) and adding to Bruce’s opinion that of Maddox who asserts that, rather than an apologia, Acts is “a book dedicated to Christian self-understanding” (NJBC 44:5) and the opinion of Johnson that Acts is in fact a theodicy, we can begin to see that Luke’s purpose is broader than any one definition and rather sets out to “defend God’s activity in the world”. (Johnson, L. T., The Acts of the Apostles (Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1992), p. 8). For Johnson, the historical verisimilitude in Acts is not as impressive as the very way it is utilised by the author in order to shape his theological vision. The text demonstrates the way in which God’s plan of salvation was actualised in the person of Jesus Christ. This had become necessary because of the diaspora of Christian beliefs away from just Jews and toward the Gentiles. The question Luke addresses is how Gentiles can legitimately claim the promises made by God to Israel as their own inheritance. How could Gentiles accept this story of Judaism which flowed from Jewish belief, and yet was rejected by many Jews?

This led to the formulation of an essential question, can God be trusted to keep His promises? Luke then sets out to demonstrate God’s fidelity, poignantly alluding to Israel’s rejection of God’s offer of salvation through parables like that of the good father in Luke 15:28-31. In Acts, he uses the principle argument of the intersection which the Incarnation constitutes to demonstrate how salvation history continues through this event and the birth of the Church in order to vindicate the expansion of Christianity to the Gentiles as the legitimate fulfillment of the mission of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit.
Luke-Acts, demonstrates that the life, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and His sending of the Holy Spirit impacted so powerfully on the world that it brought forth a powerful response; 
...the Spirit-guided expression of the early Christian community’s experience of the in- breaking of absolute love into the world in the event of Jesus Christ (Lk 24: 13-35; Jn 20:31). —Norris, T. J., A Fractured Relationship (Dublin: Veritas, 2007), p. 136.
It is this continuity of salvation history which is understood with increasing consensus as the principle argument of Luke-Acts.

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