Some facts about Acts
The Acts of the Apostles
All we can say for certain is that it was the same man (the forms of some of the Greek words indicate this) who wrote our third gospel. This gospel has, from the late second century, been attributed to Luke, an otherwise obscure person mentioned in Philemon 24, Colossians 4:14 and II Timothy 4:11; only the first of these is unarguably by Paul himself.
As you may know, small parts of Acts are written in the first person plural (“we” did this or that); starting abruptly and briefly (16:10-17) reappearing equally shortly (20:5-15 and 21:1-18) and ending at more length (27:1-28:16). There are three possible explanations for this: they are expanded eyewitness notes originally made by the author, or they are taken from similar reports by a person or persons other than the author, or they are a purely literary device to add an air of authenticity to the narrative. My own view is that these passages are now so well integrated into the narrative that their main function is the literary one. If they are originally eyewitness reports they are at best from someone who was only an occasional travelling companion of Paul and not intimate with him personally or theologically. For convenience I shall call our author “Luke”.
Date and place
If we assume that Acts follows the writing of Luke’s gospel we may be talking of a date of 85-90 (C.E.), but it could be rather later. Rome, the traditional place of composition, is no more than a guess but there is a hint (Luke 5:18, compare Mark 2:4) that we are dealing with an area where tiled roofs are common rather than thatch and mud.
Luke the writer
Luke writes for a patron called Theophilus (Luke 1:3, Acts 1:1) which may give him the support and leisure to write at length; Luke is the longest gospel, Luke-Acts make up 28% of the New Testament.
He writes an educated Greek style with a profound knowledge of the early Christian Bible, i.e. the Greek form of the Old Testament, which he allows to influence his style at certain times. Not only does Luke (to use the jargon word) share this intertextuality with the Old Testament, with other New Testament writings, but there is a similar relationship between Acts and Luke’s gospel. In part these are parallels, e.g. the trials in Acts follow the pattern of the trials of Jesus; the falling of the Spirit on Jesus in the gospel (Luke 3:21-22) relates to similar occurrences throughout Acts. But there are points omitted in the gospel (when compared with Mark) which are given fuller rein in Acts. Jesus is not accused of conspiring against the Temple, which enables Luke to use this theme fully in the case of Stephen (chaps 6-7); there is no real equivalent in Luke to Mark’s having Jesus declare all foods “clean” (Mark 7); so we have the full impact in Acts 10:9-16.
Other characteristics of Luke’s style are the use of parallelism, repetition and direct speech. The parallels between Peter and Paul help to consolidate Luke’s view of unity within the Church; more of this later. Repetition – Paul’s commissioning by the exalted Jesus is told three times with variations and also in brief summary (Acts 9:27); the Peter and Cornelius episode (chap. 10-11:18) contains frequent repetition – helps reinforce Luke’s message. Similarly the speeches, which are Luke’s composition, drive home throughout the narrative, the core of Luke’s theology in summary form. All in all Luke’s style makes for a lively narrative incorporating imaginative teaching skills.
Luke the historian
If the gospels present a biographical form of teaching then Acts uses history in the same way. But what kind of history is Luke writing? It is popular history, full of hairsbreadth escapes, heavenly interventions, upstanding and outspoken heroes, devious and rabble-rousing villains, lynchings, conspiracies, dramatic set-pieces, earthquake, shipwreck and sudden death. Luke’s history is partial; Acts of the Apostles (not his title) is a misnomer. In the first half we have largely the acts of Peter, with John as a silent partner, and of Stephen and Philip who are not apostles (6:5); Paul dominates the second half. This history is programmatic, even deterministic. The programme is laid out in1:8 by the risen Jesus; and the gospel is taken from Jerusalem to Rome, from where it can go anywhere, by the witness of the apostles (Luke’s “eyewitnesses”—Luke 1:2) and those who followed them. Luke’s primary purpose is to convey theological significance through an account of past events, not precision in that account.
This does not mean that Luke is inaccurate; some of his details can be checked through archaeology and history. He can be faulted, notably at 5:36-37 where the revolts referred to are in the wrong order, and one has not even happened yet! More importantly, Luke’s account of the earliest Church is idealised. The early church is a place of peace community and consensus. This is radically different from the picture we gain from Paul’s writings, notably in Galatians 1-2. His own practice clearly goes against the practices worked out at Jerusalem in Acts 15 which imposes Jewish practices on the Gentiles—compare also Gal. 2:3 with Acts 16:3. In fact there is little to show that Luke, though Paul is obviously his hero, knew anything of Paul’s own thought through his letters. Indeed if we had only Paul’s first hand account in Galatians 1, we might conclude that Paul operated from Damascus before his Christian call. It seems unlikely that Paul would be unknown to Judeans and Christians (Gal. 1:22) if as Acts says his centre of operations was Jerusalem. But for Acts Jerusalem is where the gospel, and Paul its carrier, starts out.
Luke the theologian
William Temple remarked that the great new fact of the twentieth century was the emergence of Christianity as a world-wide faith. The nineteenth century missionary endeavour, which Temple had in mind, was at least partly inspired by Luke’s portrait of the “young Church in action” (J. B. Philips). Luke may see Judaism very much through Christian eyes, but his insistence on Christianity’s Jewish roots in Jesus and the apostles, “beginning from Jerusalem”, is still valid. Equally pertinent to us is his picture of a Church getting on with things in the obvious absence of its Lord (Acts 1:11). The chief actor in Acts is God rather than the apostles; often as Holy Spirit, through the recalled memory of Jesus, or by angelic or visionary intervention, he prompts and devises the spread of the gospel. Can we develop a modern discourse of Divine Providence that is not either naïve or selective? The picture of Jesus in Acts as a man mighty in word and deed, put to death by wicked men but vindicated by God through resurrection and now Lord of all may be simple and inadequate but it is where many start, and if they are stuck there the inadequacy is all ours.
At least Acts is an exciting story excitingly told. Read the whole book as we hear selections in Church over the Easter season. What could the “Old Church in action” be?