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THE CHRISTIAN SCRIPTURES:

THE BOOK OF ACTS

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The book of "Acts" is sometimes called the "Acts of the Apostles."

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Author:

A consensus exists that the author of the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Book of Acts. This is one of those rare instances where conservative and liberal Christians agree. Both books were written  to Theophilus, an otherwise unknown Roman convert to Christianity. The two books have the same writing style and use similar terminology. The author "is very fond of using rare, very often classical and poetical words. In fact, we can hardly take a single paragraph without coming across some striking or peculiar word." 1

The author was commonly believed to have been a physician. But recent analysis indicates that the writer's knowledge of medicine was no greater than that of a typical well educated person from the first century CE. One interesting feature in the Gospel of Luke is the use of duplicate parables: one involving a man and another a woman. This, along with the emphasis on Mary in the first two chapters of the gospel, and other internal evidence, has led one theologian to suggest that the author of Luke (and thus also of Acts) was a woman.

The author implies that he had first-hand knowledge of some of the events that he/she recorded. "Luke" switches from "they" to "we" in Acts 16:10, 20:5 and 27:1. Some theologians have suggested an alternative explanation: that the "'we sections' are a stylistic device ...to give his narrative vitality." Or, perhaps the material was copied from the diary of someone who accompanied Paul. One source demonstrates a number of discrepancies between accounts of  the same events as they are described both in Acts and in the Epistles of Paul. 5 This would indicate that the author of Acts (and thus of the Gospel of Luke) was not a traveling companion of Paul, and had no first-hand knowledge of Paul's missionary journeys.

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Date of Writing:

Estimates of the date of writing range from the late 50's to 100 CE. Most theologians assume that Acts was written shortly after the Gospel of Luke was finished.

bulletConservative Christians typically believe that Acts was written by Luke, a doctor who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys. This is the Luke that Paul refers to as "the beloved physician" in Colossians 4:14 and a co-worker in 2 Timothy 4:11. Some theologians promote a date of about 61 CE, on the basis that the book ends before Paul's release from prison in 62. Also, it does not mention the extreme persecution that began under Emperor Nero in 64 CE. 3
bulletMany Liberal Christians believe that the author of Luke and Acts was a "competent historian of broad learning and profound faith" whose identity is unknown. 5 He was not a traveling companion of Paul. His knowledge of the events were thus at least second hand.  The discrepancies between Acts and the writings of Paul would indicated that the former was written before about 100 CE when Paul's epistles were first widely circulated among Christians. Yet it was most likely written after the Gospel of Luke, which was presumably written in the 90's. It seems to have been written after the death of Paul; two passages (20:25 and 21:10-14) seem to point to his death. A date of 90 to 100 CE is probable. The book of Acts was written to describe the spreading of the gospel throughout the known world. This was achieved after Paul's three missionary journeys, with his arrival Paul in Rome. And so, the book concludes at that point.

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Available Versions of Acts:

Two copies of Acts have been preserved. Most ancient manuscripts are of the shorter version, which is apparently close to the original writings of "Luke." At some later date, an unknown writer modified the text in a number of places. They made changes and additions to the original, in order to match the then current beliefs of the mainline Christians. For example, Acts 15:20 originally referred only to Jewish ritual demands concerning allowable foods. It was later changed to refer also to sexual immorality - an increasing concern of mainline Christians. The longer, adulterated version appears in modern-day western Bibles.

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Purpose of Acts:

The book was written to record the development of two groups within the early Christian community after the execution of Jesus. It is an extremely valuable document, because it gives a glimpse into early Christian history. Unfortunately it was apparently written many decades after the events, so much may have been forgotten.

bulletThe Jewish Christian movement, also known as "The Way," was headed by James. John and Peter were very influential in the group. It initially included the eleven surviving disciples and many of Jesus' other followers. This group was centered in Jerusalem and viewed itself as a reform movement within Judaism. They required their members to follow Jewish dietary laws, arrange for ritual killing of animals as sacrifices in the temple and to have their male children circumcised. In Acts, 1 to 12, "Luke" describes a number of events covering the time interval from the execution of Jesus (circa 30 CE) to the death of Herod (44 CE):
bulletselection of by lot Matthias to replace Judas and restore the total number of disciples to 12
bulletarrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, and Peter's impassioned sermon
bulletregular meetings of the 12 apostles in the Temple court at Jerusalem, and the forming of a tightly knit, mutually supportive community of Jewish Christians.
bulleta number of miraculous healings of the sick from Jerusalem and surrounding towns
bulletinterrogation of Peter and John by the Sanhedrin (Jewish ruling council)
bulletthe curse of Ananias and Sapphira and their subsequent death by Peter's use of sorcery
bulletArrest, jailing, and sentencing of apostles by the Sanhedrin
bulletselection of 7 assistants to oversee administrative matters
bulletarrest, trial and execution of Stephen
bulletthe systematic persecution of the church by Saul
bulletspreading of the gospel beyond Jerusalem, into the rest of Judea and Samaria.
bulletbaptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Philip
bulletSaul, a main Jewish persecutor of the Jewish Christians, experiences an overwhelming religious conversion on the road to Damascus
bulletTo this point, the gospel has been preached only to Jews, proselytes (converts to Judaism) and Samaritans (quasi-Jews who lived north of Judea, observed the Law of Moses, but which were isolated from and despised by the regular Jews.) Peter and Cornelius (a Gentile) meet and a second Pentecost experience occurs. This time, Gentiles are also filled with the Holy Spirit. Peter realizes that God's intent is that the gospel is to be spread to both Jew and Gentile alike. Peter convinced at least some of the Jewish Christians to accept this new development. (This passage may be out of place, because a Roman garrison was not established in Caesarea until after the death of Herod Agrippa I.)
bulletSome Jewish Christians who were scattered as a result of Stephen's persecution traveled to Antioch, Cyprus, and Phoenicia. At first, they preached only to Jews. Later, some spread the gospel to some Greeks at Antioch, and a number were converted.
bulletJames, one of the inner circle of apostles, and leader of the Jewish Christians is executed.
bulletPeter is thrown in prison, but escapes with the help of an angel.
bulletHerod dies in 44 CE.
bulletActs is essentially silent about the activities of the Jewish Christians after this time. They were scattered when Jerusalem is destroyed. They and many other Jews left Palestine by the Roman army circa 70 CE. The movement eventually disappeared from the pages of history.
bulletThe Gentile Christians were led by Paul who went on three missionary journeys, founded many churches, and preached the gospel throughout much of  the Roman Empire. "Luke" describes Paul's conversion to Christianity in Acts 9. Throughout his career, Paul experiences a great deal of conflict with the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Paul was spreading the gospel to Gentiles, but without requiring that they be circumcised or follow the dietary and behavioral rules of the Mosaic law. "Luke" covers Paul's missionary activities in Acts 13 to 28 over the time period circa 35 to 63 CE.and describes:
bulletSaul (now called Paul) and Barbabas start the first missionary journey to the island of Cyprus, and to Pisidia and Pamphylia (in modern-day Turkey).
bulletPaul, Timothy and Silas start the second missionary journey throughout parts of present-day Turkey and Greece, including Athens and Corinth.
bulletPaul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem for a heated discussion with the Jewish Christians, led by James. They discussed whether male Gentile converts to Christianity should be required to be circumcised. They decided that the circumcision was not necessary, but that they had to obey certain dietary laws. A unknown writer later added a phrase to the original version of Acts, saying that they have to abstain from sexual immorality as well.
bulletPaul returns to Antioch, and starts the third missionary journey. He probably founded the 7 churches mentioned in Revelation 1:11 during this trip. He also visited Ephesus and other centers in what is now Turkey and Greece.
bulletFriction is experienced with the Jewish Christians, who believe that Paul is teaching Christians of Jewish origin to abandon the Mosaic law and circumcision.
bulletPaul returns to Jerusalem and is almost killed by a mob. He is arrested by the Roman garrison. He spends two years in custody in Caesarea, and is finally shipped to Rome. He survives a ship wreck.
bulletPaul is put under house arrest, with a soldier to guard him.
bulletThe book ends with Paul still under arrest, and actively preaching the gospel.

Acts describes only two groups within the Christian movement:

bulletJewish Christians: the Jewish reform group organized by Jesus' disciples (only during its first 15 years). They followed the traditions of circumcision and the Law.
bulletPauline Christians: an independent religious movement made up of the membership of the mainly Gentile churches founded by Paul and co-workers during three missionary journeys

There were other groups within the Christian movement that Acts does not describe. Probably the most important of these were the Gnostic Christians. One of their leaders, Simon Magus, may have been Simon the sorcerer mentioned in Acts 8:9-24. (Simon believed in Jesus and was baptized with a group of other believers. But none had received the Holy Spirit until Peter and John placed their hands on the new converts. Simon asked for the laying on of the apostles' hands and even offered money. Peter refused, because he judged that Simon's heart was not right with God.) This passage might have been a disguised criticism of the Gnostic Christians.

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References:

  1. Rackman, "The Acts of the Apostles," Baker, Grand Rapids, MI, (1964), Page xix.
  2. J.D. Douglas, Gen. Ed., "New Commentary on the Whole Bible: New Testament Volume.", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1990)
  3. H.R. Willmington, "Bible Handbook", Tyndale, Wheaton IL, (1997)
  4. P.N. Benware, "Survey of the New Testament," Moody Press, Chicago IL (1990)
  5. W. Baird, "The Acts of the Apostles", essay in C.M. Laymon: "The Interpreter's One-Volume Commentary on the Bible," Abingdon Press, Nashville, TN (1991).

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Copyright © 1997, 1999 & 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2001-MAY-28
Author: B.A. Robinson

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