The First History of the Church – the Acts of the Apostles

The Acts of the Apostles


  • A Sequel to the Gospel of Luke:  “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning” (Acts 1:1).  Scholars have questioned what genre to categorize the two-volume work:  historiography, biography (of the church as an institution?), epic (e.g., Homer, Virgil’s Aeneid) or historical novel?
  • The Traditional Position:  “But that this Luke was inseparable from Paul, and his fellow-labourer in the Gospel, he himself clearly evinces, not as a matter of boasting, but as bound to do so by the truth itself.  For he says that when Barnabas, and John who was called Mark, had parted company from Paul, and sailed to Cyprus, we came to Troas; and when Paul had beheld in a dream a man of Macedonia, saying, Come into Macedonia, Paul, and help us, immediately, he says, we endeavoured to go into Macedonia, understanding that the Lord had called us to preach the Gospel unto them. Therefore, sailing from Troas, we directed our ship’s course towards Samothracia. And then he carefully indicates all the rest of their journey as far as Philippi, and how they delivered their first address: for, sitting down, he says, we spoke unto the women who had assembled; and certain believed, even a great many. And again does he say, But we sailed from Philippi after the days of unleavened bread, and came to Troas, where we abode seven days. And all the remaining [details] of his course with Paul he recounts, indicating with all diligence both places, and cities, and number of days, until they went up to Jerusalem; and what befell Paul there, how he was sent to Rome in bonds; the name of the centurion who took him in charge; and the signs of the ships, and how they made shipwreck; and the island upon which they escaped, and how they received kindness there, Paul healing the chief man of that island; and how they sailed from thence to Puteoli, and from that arrived at Rome; and for what period they sojourned at Rome. As Luke was present at all these occurrences, he carefully noted them down in writing, so that he cannot be convicted of falsehood or boastfulness, because all these [particulars] proved both that he was senior to all those who now teach otherwise, and that he was not ignorant of the truth. That he was not merely a follower, but also a fellow-labourer of the apostles, but especially of Paul, Paul has himself declared also in the Epistles, saying: Demas has forsaken me, … and is departed unto Thessalonica; Crescens to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me [2 Tim 4:10-11]. From this he shows that he was always attached to and inseparable from him. And again he says, in the Epistle to the Colossians: Luke, the beloved physician, greets you [Col 4:14]. But surely if Luke, who always preached in company with Paul, and is called by him the beloved, and with him performed the work of an evangelist, and was entrusted to hand down to us a Gospel, learned nothing different from him (Paul), as has been pointed out from his words, how can these men, who were never attached to Paul, boast that they have learned hidden and unspeakable mysteries?” (Irenaeus, Adversus Haeresis 3.14.1)
  • The (in)famous “we” (Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-16; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16):
  1. the author was a firsthand participant in the narrated events
  2. a dramatic narrative device (cf. Vernon Robbins, “By Land and By Sea:  the We-Passages and Ancient Sea Voyages“)
  3. a sign of an earlier source (e.g., a travel diary) (cf. Stanley Porter, The Paul of Acts, chapter 2 The ‘We’ Passages in Acts as a Source regarding Paul)
  4. a pseudonymous fiction (cf. Bart Ehrman, Forgery and Counter-Forgery)


  • Dates range from the early 60s to 150 CE.  The majority of scholars date it to the last quarter of the first century, though one can find good scholarship dating it to the 60s (cf. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History) and between 110-130 CE (cf. Richard Pervo, Dating Acts; Joseph B. Tyson, Marcion and Luke Acts:  A Defining Struggle?)
  • Why does Acts end before narrating the deaths of Peter, Paul or James?  Is it because the book was written before their deaths or is it because the book is more concerned with getting the proclamation of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 28)?
  • Why does the book close before narrating the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE?  Or does Luke 19:43-4 and 21:20-4 exhibit knowledge of the destruction of the Temple?
  • Why does Acts never mention that Paul wrote letters?  Was it written before a major publication of a collection of Pauline Letters or has the text been influenced by the Letters (see below)?
  • Does Acts reflect knowledge of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (ca 93-94 CE)?  Compare Acts 5:36-37 with Ant. 20.97-102, Luke 2:1-3 with War. 2.117-18; Ant. 18.1-5 or Acts 12:20-23 with Ant. 19.343-50.
  • Does Acts envision a situation where the church is composed of a mixture of Jews and Gentiles (especially Gentile “Godfearers” who had a previous relationship with the synagogue rather than ex-Pagans)?  Or does Acts envision a self-consciously distinct “Christian” group (11:26; 26:28) with a developed leadership structure of “elders” (Acts 21:18-25)?


  • Hans Conzelmann (The Theology of St. Luke) argues that the book of Acts divides history into the epoch of Israel, the time of Jesus and the age of the church.  The fervent expectation for the return of Jesus has settled down so the church can witness the gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:6-8).
  • The church is governed by the Twelve Apostles (see the replacement of Judas with Matthias to restore the number “twelve” in Acts 1:15-26).  Paul is excluded from the title “apostle” (exception: Acts 14:4)
  • The church is completely united by glossing over the occasional cracks that appear beneath the surface such as the division between the Hebrews and the Hellenists (Acts 6:1-15), the issues debated at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15; cf. Acts 21:17-25) or the separation of Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:36-41)
  • The church has solid roots in antiquity as Luke-Acts emphasizes the fulfillment of scripture (cf. Luke 1-2) and the Jewish piety of the Apostles.  Before Acts 7 the Jerusalem Church wins over thousands of their Jewish compatriots and Paul primarily missionary field is in the synagogue among Jews and Gentile God-fearers (compare the account of Paul’s target audience in Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-9 with Paul’s own account in 1 Thess 1:9-10).  However, the book of Acts hints that the majority of Jews increasingly rejected the new Christian movement (Acts 13:46-47; 18:6; 28:25-28), though it concludes open-ended (Acts 28:3o-31).

A Specific Example

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.` After Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders…  But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses’… After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us;and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.Now therefore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear? On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.’ The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favourably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name.This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written, “After this I will return, and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen; from its ruins I will rebuild it, and I will set it up, so that all other peoples may seek the Lord— even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called. Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.”  Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God,but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. For in every city, for generations past, Moses has had those who proclaim him, for he has been read aloud every sabbath in the synagogues.’ (Acts 15:1-22; Paul, Barnabas, Silas, Judas deliver letter to Antioch, Syria and Cilicia)

Study Questions:

  1. What social problems might arise between law-observant Jewish and non-observant Gentile Christ followers (circumcision, Sabbath, food, etc.)?
  2. What solution was reached in Acts?  How does the Apostolic Decree compare to the laws enjoined on foreigners in Lev 17-18?
  3.  Is this the same conference in Galatians 2?  What are the similarities and differences?
  4. Would the historical Paul have agreed to the solution as presented in Acts 15 (see 1 Cor 8)?
  1. And they shall no longer offer their sacrifices to vain gods after which they go a whoring; it shall be a perpetual statute to you for your generations… Whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the sons of the proselytes abiding among you, shall offer a whole-burnt-offering or a sacrifice, and shall not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of witness to sacrifice it to the Lord, that man shall be destroyed from among his people.  And whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers abiding among you, shall eat any blood, I will even set my face against that soul that eats blood, and will destroy it from its people.  For the life of flesh is its blood, and I have given it to you on the altar to make atonement for your souls… whatever man of the children of Israel, or of the strangers abiding among you shall take any animal in hunting, beast, or bird, which is eaten, then shall he pour out the blood, and cover it in the dust.  For the blood of all flesh is its life; and I said to the children of Israel, Ye shall not eat the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood: every one that eats it shall be destroyed.  And every soul which eats that which has died of itself, or is taken of beasts, either among the natives or among the strangers, shall wash his garments, and bathe himself in water, and shall be unclean until evening: then shall he be clean. (Leviticus 17:7-15 taken from the Septuagint) [Lev 18 has list of prohibitions against uncovering the nakedness of family members, neighbour’s wife, a woman in her period, etc]
  2. Then after 14 years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.  But even Titus, who was with me, was not compelled to be circumcised, though he was a Greek.But because of false believers secretly brought in, who slipped in to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might enslave us…And from those who were supposed to be acknowledged leaders (what they actually were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those leaders contributed nothing to me.On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised… and when James and Cephas and John, acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.They asked only one thing, that we remember the poor… But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned;for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction.  And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?’ (Galatians 2:1-14)
  3. Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘no idol in the world really exists’, and that ‘there is no God but one’… It is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge. Since some have become so accustomed to idols until now, they still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled… We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do.But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling-block to the weak.For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols?So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.  Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (1 Corinthians 8:4, 7-13)

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