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Acts of the Apostles

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

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1. Summary of contents . The fifth book of our NT gives the history of the Church from the Ascension till c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 61. It may be divided into two parts, one of which describes the early history (‘Acts of Peter’ and ‘Acts of the Hellenists’), and the other the life of St. Paul (‘Acts of Paul’) from his conversion to his imprisonment at Rome. The two parts overlap each other; yet a clear division occurs at Acts 13:1 , from which point forwards the Pauline journeys are described by one who for a considerable part of them was a fellow-traveller. The parallelism between Peter and Paul is very striking, corresponding deeds and events being related of each; and this peculiarity was thought by the Tübingen school to betray a fictitious author, who composed his narrative so as to show the equality of Peter and Paul. Though this conclusion is arbitrary, the parallelism shows us that the author, whoever he was, selected his facts with great care and with a set purpose.

2. Unity of authorship . From Acts 16:10 onwards, the writer, who never names himself, frequently betrays his presence as a fellow-traveller by using the pronoun ‘we.’ It is generally conceded that these ‘we’ sections are genuine notes of a companion of St. Paul. But some assert that the author of Acts was a later writer who incorporated in his work extracts from a diary contemporary with the events described. These critics see in the book traces of four strata, and assert that it is a compilation of the same nature as the Pentateuch, the Book of Enoch , and the Apostolic Constitutions . Now no doubt our author used sources, in some parts of his book written sources. But if he were a 2nd cent. compiler, we ought to be able to detect interpolations from differences of style (as we do in Apost. Const .), and often from anachronisms. Moreover, seeing that he was at least a man of great literary ability, it is remarkable that he was so clumsy as to retain the pronoun ‘we’ if he was a late writer copying a 1st cent. source. His style is the same throughout, and no anachronisms have been really brought home to him; his interests are those of the 1st, not of the 2nd century (§ 8 ). Further, the Third Gospel is clearly, from identity of style and the express claim in Acts 1:1 (cf. Luke 1:3 ), by our author, and yet the Gospel is now generally admitted to have been written by c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 80. Thus we may, with Harnack, dismiss the compilation theory.

3. The author . Internal evidence, if the unity of authorship be admitted, shows that the writer was a close companion of St. Paul. Now, if we take the names of the Apostle’s companions given in the Epistles, we shall find that all but four must be excluded, whether as having joined him after his arrival at Rome (for the author made the voyage with him, Acts 27:1 ), or as being mentioned in Acts in a manner inconsistent with authorship (so, e.g. , Timothy, Tychicus, Aristarchus, Mark, Prisca, Aquila, Trophimus must be excluded), or as having deserted him, or as being Roman Christians and recent friends. Two of the four (Crescens and Jesus Justus) are insignificant, and had no specially intimate connexion with the Apostle. We have only Titus and Luke left. Neither is mentioned in Acts; both were important persons. But for 2 Timothy 4:10 f. we must have conjectured that these were two names for the same person. We have then to choose between them, and Patristic evidence (§ 4 ) leads us to choose Luke. But why is Titus not mentioned in Acts? It cannot be (as Lightfoot suggests) that he was unimportant (cf. 2 Co. passim ), but perhaps Luke’s silence is due to Titus being his near relation (Ramsay); cf. Exp. T. XVIII. [1907] 285, 335, 380.

The author was a Gentile, not a Jew (Colossians 4:10 f., Colossians 4:14 ), a conclusion to which a consideration of his interests would lead us (§ 8; see also Acts 1:19 ‘in their language’). He was a physician ( Colossians 4:14 ), and had quite probably studied at the University of Athens, where he seems quite at home though not present at the Athenian scenes he describes ( Acts 17:16 ff.). His native country is disputed. A Preface to Luke , thought to be not later than the 3rd cent., says that he was ‘by nation a Syrian of Antioch’; and Eusebius ( HE iii. 4), using a vague phrase, says that he was, ‘according to birth, of those from Antioch’; while later writers like Jerome follow Eusebius. Certainly we should never have guessed this from the cold way in which the Syrian Antioch is mentioned in Acts. Some (Rackham, Rendall) conjecture that Pisidian Antioch is really meant, as the scenes in the neighbourhood of that city are so vivid that the description might well be by an eye-witness. But the ‘we’ sections had not yet begun, and this seems decisive against the writer having been present. Others (Ramsay, Renan) believe the writer to have been a Macedonian of Philippi, since he took so great an interest in the claims of that colony ( Acts 16:12 ). Indeed, Ramsay ( St. Paul , p. 202 ff.) propounds the ingenious conjecture that Luke, having met Paul at Troas accidentally ( Acts 16:10; it could not have been by appointment, as Paul had not meant to go there), was the ‘certain man of Macedonia’ who appeared in the vision ( Acts 16:9 ); it must have been some one whom the Apostle knew by sight, for otherwise he could not have told that he was a Macedonian. This is a very tempting conjecture. Luke need not have been a new convert at that time. On the other hand, it must be said that against his having been a native of Philippi are the facts that he had no home there, but went to lodge with Lydia ( Acts 16:15 ), and that he only supposed that there was a Jewish place of prayer at Philippi ( Acts 16:13 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ). His interest in Philippi may rather be accounted for by his having been left in charge of the Church there ( Acts 17:1 , Acts 20:5; in the interval between St. Paul’s leaving Philippi and his return there the pronoun ‘they’ is used). Yet he was quite probably a Macedonian [ Acts 27:2 is not against this], of a Greek family once settled at Antioch; he was a Gentile not without some contempt for the Jews, and certainly not a Roman citizen like St. Paul. His Greek nationality shows itself in his calling the Maltese ‘barbarians’ ( Acts 28:2 ), i.e. non-Greek speaking, and in many other ways.

4. Patristic testimony . There are probable references to Acts in Clement of Rome (c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 95), who seems to refer to Acts 13:22 , Acts 20:35 etc.; and in Ignatius ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 110), who apparently refers to 4:41; also in Poly carp ( c [Note: circa, about.] . 111); almost certainly in the Martyrdom of Polycarp ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 155); and full quotations are found at the end of the 2nd cent. in Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Irenæus, all of whom ascribe the book to Luke. So also the Muratorian Fragment ( c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 200). Moreover, the apocryphal Acts, some of them of the 2nd cent., are built on our canonical Acts, and their authors must have known the latter.

5. Style . The book is not a chronological biography; there are few indications of time ( Acts 11:28 , Acts 24:27; cf. Luke 3:1 ), yet the writer often uses vague phrases like ‘after some days,’ which may indicate intervals of days, months, or years. He seizes critical features, and passes over unessential details. Thus he does not relate the events of the years spent by St. Paul in Tarsus ( Acts 9:30 ), probably as being years of education in which no striking event occurred. So he tells us practically nothing of the missionary journey through Cyprus ( Acts 13:6 ), though much work must have been done among the Jews then; while great space is given to the epoch-making interview with Sergius Paulus. The writer leaves a good deal to be understood; he states facts, and leaves the reader to deduce the causes or inferences; he reports directions or intentions, and leaves it to be inferred that they were carried into effect, e.g. Acts 13:8 (no reason given for Elymas’ opposition, it is not explicitly said that Paul preached to the proconsul), Acts 13:13 (the reason for Mark’s departure not stated, nor yet for Paul and Barnabas going to Pisidian Antioch), Acts 16:35 (no reason given for the Philippi prætors’ change of attitude), Acts 17:15 (not said that the injunction was obeyed, but from 1 Thessalonians 3:1 we see that Timothy had rejoined Paul at Athens and was sent away again to Macedonia, whence he came in Acts 18:5 to Corinth), Acts 20:16 (not stated that they arrived in time for Pentecost, but it must be understood), Acts 27:43 (it must be inferred that the injunction was obeyed).

6. Crises in the history . These may be briefly indicated. They include the Day of Pentecost (the birthday of the Church); the appointment of the Seven (among them Nicholas, a ‘proselyte of righteousness, i.e. a Gentile who had become a circumcised Jew); the conversion of St. Paul; the episode of Cornelius (who was only a ‘proselyte of the gate,’ or ‘God-fearing,’ one who was brought into relation with the Jews by obeying certain elementary rules, such, probably, as those of Acts 15:29 , but not circumcised [this is disputed; see Nicolas]; this means, therefore, a further step towards Pauline Christianity); the first meeting of Paul and Barnabas with a Roman official in the person of Sergius Paulus in Cyprus, the initial step in the great plan of St. Paul to make Christianity the religion of the Roman Empire (see § 7; henceforward the author calls Saul of Tarsus by his Roman name, one which he must have borne all along, for the purposes of his Roman citizenship); the Council of Jerusalem, the vindication of Pauline teaching by the Church; the call to Macedonia, not as being a passing from one continent to another, for the Romans had not this geographical idea, nor yet as a passing over to a strange people, but partly as a step forwards in the great plan, the entering into a new Roman province, and especially the association for the first time with the author (§ 3 ); the residence at Corinth, the great city on the Roman highway to the East, where Gallio’s action paved the way for the appeal to Cæsar; and the apprehension at Jerusalem. These are related at length. Another crisis is probably hinted at, the acquittal of St. Paul; for even if the book were written before that took place (§ 9 ), the release must have become fairly obvious to all towards the end of the two years’ sojourn at Rome (cf. Philippians 2:24 ).

7. Missionary plan of St. Paul . ( a ) The author describes the Apostle as beginning new missionary work by seeking out the Jews first; only when they would not listen he turned to the Gentiles, Acts 13:5; Acts 13:14 , Acts 14:1 , Acts 16:13 (no synagogue at Philippi, only a ‘place of prayer’) Acts 17:1 f. (the words ‘as his custom was’ are decisive) Acts 17:10; Acts 17:16 f., Acts 18:4; Acts 18:8; Acts 18:19 , Acts 19:8 f., Acts 28:17; we may perhaps understand the same at places where it is not expressly mentioned, Acts 14:7; Acts 14:21; Acts 14:25 , or the Jews may have been weak and without a synagogue in those places. ( b ) St. Paul utilizes the Roman Empire to spread the gospel along its lines of communication. He was justifiably proud of his Roman citizenship ( Acts 16:37 , Acts 22:25 ff. etc.; cf. Philippians 1:27 [RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ] Acts 3:20 , Ephesians 2:19 ). He seems to have formed the great idea of Christianity being the religion of the Roman Empire, though not confined to it. Hence may be understood his zeal for Gentile liberty, and his breaking away from the idea of Jewish exclusiveness. In his missionary journeys he confines himself (if the South Galatian theory be accepted; see art. Galatians [Epistles to the]) to the great roads of traffic in the Empire. He utilizes the Greek language to spread Christian influence, just as the Roman Empire used it to spread its civilization in the far East, where it never attempted to force Latin (for even the Roman colonies in the East spoke Greek, keeping Latin for state occasions). Paul and Barnabas, then, preached in Greek; they clearly did not know Lycaonian (cf. Acts 14:11 with Acts 14:14 ). The Scriptures were not translated into the languages of Asia Minor, which were probably not written languages, nor even into Latin till a later age.

Following the same idea, the author represents the Roman officials in the colonies as more favourable to St. Paul than the magistrates of the ordinary Greek cities. Contrast the account of the conduct of the Greek magistrates at Iconium and Thessalonica who were active against him, or of the Court of the Areopagus at Athens who were contemptuous, with the silence about the action of the Roman magistrates of Pisidian Antioch and Lystra, or the explicit statements about Sergius Paulus, Gallio, Felix, Festus, Claudius Lysias and Julius the centurion, who were more or less fair or friendly. Even the prætors at Philippi ended by apologizing profusely when they discovered Paul’s status.

8. The writer’s interests . It is interesting to observe these, as they will lead us to an approximate date for the work. There is no better test than such an inquiry for the detection of a forgery or of a compilation. The principal interest is obviously St. Paul and his mission. To this the preliminary history of the Twelve and of the beginnings of Christianity leads up. The writer emphasizes especially St. Paul’s dealings with Roman officials. Of minor interests we notice medicine, as we should expect from ‘the beloved physician’; and the rival science of sorcery; the position and influence of women ( Acts 1:14 , Acts 8:3; Acts 8:12 , Acts 9:2 , Acts 13:50 , Acts 16:14 , Acts 17:4; Acts 17:12; Acts 17:34 , Acts 21:5; Acts 21:9 , Acts 22:4 etc.; in Asia Minor women had a much more prominent position than in Greece proper); the organization of the Church ( Acts 2:41 ff., Acts 4:31 ff., Acts 6:1 ff., Acts 8:5 ff., Acts 15:2 ff., Acts 19:1 ff. etc.); Divine intervention to overrule human projects (note especially the remarkable way in which St. Paul was led to Troas, Acts 16:6-8 ); and navigation. This last interest cannot but strike the most cursory reader. The voyages and harbours are described minutely and vividly, while the land journeys are only just mentioned. Yet the writer was clearly no professional sailor. He describes the drifting in Acts 27:27 as a zigzag course when it must have been straight; he is surprised at their passing Cyprus on a different side when going westward from that on which they had passed it going eastward ( Acts 27:4 , Acts 21:3 ), though that was, and is, the normal course in autumn for sailing vessels (Ramsay, St. Paul , p. 317). It has been truly remarked by Ramsay ( ib. p. 22) that the writer’s interests and views are incompatible with the idea of a 2nd cent. compiler; e.g. the view of the Roman officials, and the optimistic tone, would be impossible after the persecution of Domitian or even (we may add) after that of Nero.

9. Date . From the reasoning of §§ 2, 8 (see also § 12 ) we must reject the idea of a 2nd cent. compiler, and decide between a date at the end of the two years at Rome, Acts 28:30 f. (Blass, Salmon, Headlam, Rackham), and a later date 70 80 a.d. (Ramsay, Sanday, Harnack, and most of those who ascribe the book to Luke). ( a ) For the former date we note that there is no reference to anything after the Roman imprisonment, to the martyrdom of James the Lord’s brother in a.d. 62, or to the Neronian persecution in a.d. 64, or to the death of Peter and Paul (contrast the allusion to Peter’s death in John 21:19 ), or to the Fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. Also there is good reason to believe from the Pastoral Epistles, from Ecclesiastical history, and from a priori reasons, that St. Paul was released soon after the two years; but we should gather that our author did not know for certain the result of the appeal to Cæsar. He could hardly have known that the Apostle’s expectation that he would not again see the Ephesian elders was falsified, or he would not have left Acts 20:38 without remark [but see Paul, i. 4 ( d )]. The optimistic tone (§ 8 ), contrasting so greatly with that of the Apocalypse, points in the same direction; as also does the absence of any reference to the Pauline Epistles, which we should expect if 15 or 20 years had elapsed since they were written; and of any explanation of the apparent contradiction between Galatians and Acts (see art. Galatians [Epistle to the]). On the other hand, it is quite likely that a close companion of St. Paul would be the last to have, as long as he was with him, a copy of his correspondence. ( b ) For the later date, a.d. 70 80, it is suggested that Luke contemplated a third volume, and so ended his second abruptly (cf. Acts 1:1 , properly ‘first treatise,’ not ‘former’; but in late Greek comparatives and superlatives were frequently confused, cf. 1 Corinthians 13:13 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). It is also thought that Luke 21:20 must have been written after the taking of Jerusalem, and that a fortiori Acts must be later; and that the atmosphere of the Flavian period may be detected in it. For an alleged borrowing of Acts from Josephus, and for further remarks on the date, see artt. Luke [Gospel acc. to] and Theudas. To the present writer the earlier date given above seems the more probable.

10. Sources . The author had exceptional opportunities of getting information. For the last part of the book he was his own informant, or he had access to St. Paul. John Mark would tell him of the deliverance of St. Peter and of the mission to Cyprus ( Acts 12:1 to Acts 13:13 ). For the ‘Acts of the Hellenists’ (chs. 6 8) and for the Cornelius episode he would have Philip the Evangelist as an authority, for he spent two years at Cæsarea; and perhaps also Cornelius himself. He had perhaps visited the Syrian Antioch, and could get from the leaders of the Church there ( e.g. Manaen) information about the events which happened there. The first five chapters remain. Here he had to depend entirely on others; he may have used written documents similar to those mentioned in Luke 1:1 , though he may also have questioned those at Jerusalem who had witnessed the events. Dr. Blass thinks that Luke here used an Aramaic document by Mark; this is pure conjecture, and it is quite uncertain if Luke knew Aramaic.

11. The Bezan codex . This great Uncial MS (D [Note: Deuteronomist.] , now at Cambridge), supported by some MSS of the Old Latin Version, presents a strikingly different text from that of the other great Greek MSS, and has also many additions, especially in Acts. Dr. Blass’ theory is that the variations in Acts come from Luke’s having made two drafts of the book, though he would admit that some of the readings of D [Note: Deuteronomist.] are interpolations. He thinks that the ‘Bezan’ Acts represents the first draft, the ‘Bezan’ Luke the second draft. But the Bezan text of Acts is too smooth, and its readings are too often obviously added to ease a rough phrase, for it to be original. It is more probable that it represents a revision made in Asia Minor in the 2nd cent. by one who was very familiar with the localities described. Many scholars, however, think that it preserves a large number of true and authentic readings which have been lost in the other great MSS; but this seems doubtful. In Acts 11:28 this MS (supported by Augustine), by inserting ‘we,’ makes the writer to have been present at Syrian Antioch when Agabus prophesied.

12. Accuracy of Acts . This is most important, as it would be almost impossible for a late writer to avoid pitfalls when covering so large a ground. Instances of remarkable accuracy are: ( a ) the proconsul in Cyprus ( Acts 13:7 ), which had only been under the rule of the Senate for a short time when St. Paul came there, and afterwards ceased to be so governed otherwise the governor would have been a ‘proprætor.’ An inscription in Cyprus is dated ‘in the proconsulship of Paulus.’ ( b ) So the proconsul in Achaia ( Acts 18:12 ); this province had been off and on united to Macedonia. At one time separated and governed by a proprætor and then united, a few years before St. Paul’s visit it had been again separated and governed by a proconsul. ( c ) The ‘first men’ at Pisidian Antioch ( Acts 13:50 ), i.e. the Duumviri and the ‘First Ten.’ This last title was only given (as here) to a board of magistrates in Greek cities of the East; in Roman colonies in Italy the name was given to those who stood first on the Senate roll. ( d ) The ‘first man’ in Malta ( Acts 28:7 ) and ( e ) the ‘politarchs’ (‘rulers of the city’) at Thessalonica ( Acts 17:6; probably a local Macedonian title), are both attested by inscriptions. ( f ) The old Court of the Areopagus at Athens ( Acts 17:19 ), which really ruled the city, though it was a ‘free city,’ as the demos or popular assembly had lost its authority. ( g ) The ‘Asiarchs’ at Ephesus ( Acts 19:31 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ), the presidents of the ‘Common Council’ of the province in cities where there was a temple of Rome and the Emperor; they superintended the worship of the Emperor. Their friendliness to St. Paul is a sure sign of an early date, for the book could only have been written while the Imperial policy was still neutral to Christianity, or at least while the memory of that time was still green. Contrast the enmity between Christianity and this Rome worship depicted in Revelation 2:13; Revelation 13:15 etc. No 2nd cent. author could have written thus. ( h ) The details of the last voyage, thoroughly tested by Mr. Smith of Jordanhill, who sailed over the whole course. Against all this it is alleged that there are contradictions between Acts and Galatians (see art. on that Epistle); but these vanish on examination, especially if we accept the ‘South Galatian’ theory. Instances of minute accuracy such as those given above show that we have in Acts a history of great importance and one that is most trustworthy. The accuracy can only come from the book being a genuine contemporary record.

A. J. Maclean.

Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Acts of the Apostles'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​hdb/​a/acts-of-the-apostles.html. 1909.
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