Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Introduction to Acts

Tonight I am starting a class on the Book of Acts. Here are some introductory notes.

I. The Genre of the Book of Acts

A. The last several years have seen a scholarly consensus that Acts falls somewhere in the continuum of ancient historiography, particularly Hellenistic history (Witherington 39-51).

B. Greco-Roman historians had three goals: to be truthful, useful, and entertaining (Aune 95).

C. Ancient historians had a point of view, but were careful to present accurate history.

D. Literary forms of Greco-Roman history (Aune 89-95):

1. Prefaces (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1), which secured the good will of the audience while gaining their attention and disposing them to receive instruction. Hellenistic histories often contained:

a. Requests and dedications

b. Comments on the value of history

c. Mention of predecessors (often critical)

d. Assurance of impartiality

e. Methodology

f. Reasons for the choice of subjects

2. Episodes connected to form a unified composition.

3. Speeches, which often explained motives. Speeches comprise approximately 30% of Acts.

4. Digressions, many times explanatory in nature (as in Acts 23:8).

II. The Characteristics of Narrative Literature

A. Recent scholarship has paid greater attention to the literary features of the narrative sections of the Bible.

B. Typical ingredients of narrative (Osborne 153-173):

1. A narrator (in the case of Acts sometimes in the first person).

2. Narrative time (not necessarily chronological).

3. Plot, usually centered around conflict of some kind (in Acts, it is the opposition to the spread of the gospel).

4. Characters (in Acts, secondarily Peter and Paul, primarily the Holy Spirit).

5. Setting (particularly in Acts this is geographical).

6. Literary techniques such as irony, comedy, repetition (two conversion stories are told three times: Cornelius and Paul; and three times Paul says he is going to the Gentiles – 13:46; 18:6; 28:28).

III. The Structure of the Book of Acts

A. Many ways to analyze the structure

1. By geography (Jerusalem – Judea and Samaria – End of the earth)

2. By evangelism (Jews, transitional, Gentile)

3. By evangelists (Peter, Philip and Barnabas, Paul)

B. Key to structure: Luke’s summaries (6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20).

C. On this basis, here is a suggested structure:

1. Peter, Apostle to the Jews (Acts 1:1-12:24)

a. The gospel in Jerusalem (1:1-6:7)

b. The gospel in Judea, Galilee and Samaria (6:8-9:31)

c. The gospel begins to reach Gentiles (9:32-12:24)

2. Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles (12:25-28:31)

a. The gospel in eastern Asia Minor (12:25-16:5)

b. The gospel in western Asia Minor and Europe (16:6-19:20)

c. The gospel in Rome (19:21-28:31)

IV. Narrative Parallels in Acts

A. Parallels between Luke and Acts. Remember that Acts is volume two of a two-part work. As Luke weaves his narrative, there are many parallels between the gospel and Acts:

1. Both have a preface dedicated to Theophilus (1:1-4; 1:1-5).

2. Both mention the coming of the Spirit at the beginning (3:22; 2:1-13). Luke mentions the Spirit more than all other gospel writers, and Acts could rightly be called the “Acts of the Holy Spirit.”

3. Both contain an opening sermon which sets the tone for the rest of the book – particularly the theme of rejection by Jews and the acceptance of Gentiles (4:16-30; 2:14-40).

4. Both mention a lame man healed by the authority of Jesus (5:17-26; 3:1-10).

5. Both mention conflicts with leaders of the Jews (5:29-6:11; 4:1-8:3).

6. Both mention a centurion who was well regarded by the Jews sending men to ask for help (7:1-10; 10:1-34).

7. Both mention a resurrection in connection with a widow (7:11-17; 9:36-43).

8. Both conclude with proclaiming the gospel to the nations (24:47; 28:29-30).

B. Parallels between Peter and Paul. There are many parallels in the narrative of Peter’s work and Paul’s work:

1. Both sections record a special manifestation of the Spirit (2:1-4; 13:1-3).

2. Both sections contain a major sermon after the manifestation of the Spirit (2:14-40; 13:16-40).

3. Both sections describe the healing of a man lame from birth (3:1-10; 14:8-13).

4. Both contain a stoning instigated by the Jews (6:8-8:4; 14:19-23).

5. Both describe a mission to Gentiles (10-11; 13-21), which some Jews found controversial.

6. Both sections describe imprisonment around the time of a feast (12:4; 21:16); a Herod (12:5-6; 25:13); an escape (12:6-11; 23:12-35); an abrupt conclusion with little information about the fate of the apostle (12:17; 28:30-31); a final statement about the success of the word of God (12:24; 28:30-31).

C. Parallels between Jesus and Paul. Luke seems to make a special effort to parallel the experiences of Jesus and Paul.

1. Both set their face to go to Jerusalem, where suffering awaits them.

a. Seven references in Luke (9:51-53; 13:22; 13:33; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11; 19:28).

b. Seven references in Acts (19:21; 20:22; 21:4; 21:11-12; 21:13; 21:15; 21:17).

2. Both face similar experiences once in Jerusalem:

a. Initially a good reception (19:37; 21:17-20a).

b. Visit to the Temple (19:45-48; 21:26).

c. Opposition from Sadducees, support from scribes (20:27-39; 23:6-9).

d. Seized by a mob (22:54; 21:30).

e. Slapped (22:63-64; 23:2).

3. Both faced four trials, before the Sanhedrin (22:66; 23:1); a governor (23:1; 24:1); a Herod (23:8; 25:23); and a governor (23:13; 25:6).

4. Both were declared innocent three times by Gentiles (23:4, 14, 22; 23:9; 25:25; 26:31).

5. A centurion has a favorable opinion or relationship with both (23:47; 27:3, 43).

D. Some conclusions we can draw about the purposes of Acts. Based on the narrative devices Luke uses, here are some key themes in Acts:

1. The apostles were continuing the work initiated by Jesus to bring the gospel to all, including the Gentiles (Luke 2:29-32; Acts 28:28).

2. The work of the apostle Paul in taking the gospel to the Gentiles was as legitimate as Peter’s work in taking the gospel to the Jews.

3. “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).


Aune, David E. The New Testament and Its Literary Environment. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987

Kurz, William S. Reading Luke-Acts: Dynamics of Biblical Narrative. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993

Mattill, A.J. “The Jesus-Paul Parallels and the Purpose of Luke-Acts: H.H. Evans Reconsidered.” Novum Testamentum 1995: 15-45

Osborne, Grant R. The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation. Downers Grove: IVP, 1991

Talbert, Charles H. Literary Patterns, Theological Themes, and the Genre of Luke-Acts. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press, 1974

Witherington, Ben III. The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998