The Glossary of Terms

Acts of the Apostles



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

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The Acts of the Apostles, the fifth book in the nt. The book of Acts deals with the history of the earliest Christian church and includes a major section on the career of Paul.

Authorship and Date: There are certain indications that the author of Acts was a companion of Paul, who traveled with him on some occasions. These indications are found in the ‘we’ sections, i.e., those places in Acts in which the author writes in the first person plural instead of the usual third person. These sections are found in Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; and 27:1-28:16. The author may, in these sections, be using a travel diary that he himself wrote at an earlier time, drawing on a diary written by a companion of Paul, or using the first-person pronoun as a subtle way to add verisimilitude to the narrative by identifying himself as a participant. Scholars evaluate the ‘we’ passages differently. Some think that the author was indeed a companion of Paul, while others are more cautious about such claims. The major point of agreement among nt scholars is that the book of Acts and the Gospel According to Luke were written by the same person, whom we call Luke. Most would tend to date the two books ca. a.d. 80-85.

Contents: The book of Acts begins precisely at the point where the Gospel of Luke left off, with the ascension of Jesus. The author then describes the history of Christianity in general conformity with the geographical outline given in Acts 1:8. According to this verse, the Christian movement begins in Jerusalem, then spreads into Judea and Samaria, and then to ‘the end of the earth.’ Thus, Luke begins his narrative by describing the situation of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4-8:3). In Acts 8:4-12:25, the movement begins to spread into other parts of Judea and Samaria. Then, in Acts 13:1-21:16, the author concentrates almost exclusively on Paul, whose missionary activity takes him into Asia Minor and Greece. In Acts 21:17-22:30, Paul is back in Jerusalem, and he undergoes four trials there and in Caesarea (Acts 23:1-26:32). In the final section, Acts 27:1-28:31, Paul is on his way to Rome as a prisoner, preparing to face his final trial before the Roman emperor. The voyage to Rome is described in the first person and in great detail.

Main Themes: One of the notable themes in Acts is the relationship of Christianity to Judaism. Luke makes it clear that the Christian movement began in Jerusalem among the Jewish followers of Jesus. After a period of amazing growth among Jews, the Christian message came to Gentiles. Peter baptized the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, but it was through the efforts of Paul that large numbers of Gentiles were brought into the movement. Luke also is aware that there were some problems with the incorporation of Gentiles into the Christian movement. In his story, the conversion of Cornelius was made possible only after Peter had received a vision in which a voice from heaven declared all foods clean, i.e., dietary regulations that Jews had heretofore been bound to observe were abolished (Acts 10:1-11:18). Later in Acts, we read that some Jewish Christians wanted to require circumcision for Gentile converts but that Paul and the apostles agreed that no such requirements were to be imposed (Acts 15:1-29). As Luke describes the missionary activity of Paul, he stresses Paul’s habit of going first to Jewish synagogues to present the Christian message. Almost invariably, Paul has little success among Jews and is forced to preach to Gentiles, who respond favorably and in large numbers (e.g., Acts 14:1-7; 17:1-9, 10-15; 18:1-17; 19:8-20). On three occasions, Paul announces his intention not to preach to Jews any longer but rather to go only to Gentiles (Acts 13:46-47; 18:6; 28:28). Here, there is a parallel between the geographical structure of Acts and a fundamental theological theme: geographically, Christianity, which started in Jerusalem among Jews, moved out into the wider world among Gentiles; theologically, Christianity increasingly grew distinct from and independent of Judaism.

Other themes that have been detected in the book of Acts include: Christianity as the legitimate fulfillment of Judaism; the nonrevolutionary and nonsubversive nature of the Christian movement in relation to Roman authority; and the divine impetus and legitimation of the Christian movement in the form of the Holy Spirit.

Estimates differ regarding the essential historical reliability of Acts. Most scholars agree, however, that, whatever the source materials available to the author, the narrative has been shaped in a deliberate manner to express the author’s own particular concerns and purposes. The various speeches in the book (e.g., 2:14-36; 3:12-26; 7:2-53; 13:16-41), at least in their present form, appear to be compositions of the author. As a source for the career of Paul, it is generally recognized that Acts must be subordinated to the statements in Paul’s own Letters.

Bibliography Haenchen, Ernst. The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971. Hengel, Martin. Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1980. Jervell, Jacob. Luke and the People of God. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1972.


The Book of Acts

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