Composition and setting
The title "Acts of the Apostles" (Greek Πράξεις ἀποστόλων Praxeis Apostolon) was first used by Irenaeus in the late 2nd century. It is not known whether this was an existing title or one invented by Irenaeus; it does seem clear, however, that it was not given by the author.
The Gospel of Luke and Acts make up a two-volume work which scholars call Luke–Acts. Together they account for 27.5% of the New Testament, the largest contribution attributed to a single author, providing the framework for both the Church's liturgical calendar and the historical outline into which later generations have fitted their idea of the story of Jesus and the early church.
An edition of the Acts of the Apostles dated 1644
The author is not named in either volume. According to Church tradition dating from the 2nd century, he was the "Luke" named as a companion of the apostle Paul in three of the letters attributed to Paul himself; this view is still sometimes advanced, but "a critical consensus emphasizes the countless contradictions between the account in Acts and the authentic Pauline letters.") (An example can be seen by comparing Acts's accounts of Paul's conversion (Acts 9:1–31, 22:6–21, and 26:9–23) with Paul's own statement that he remained unknown to Christians in Judea after that event (Galatians 1:17–24).) The author "is an admirer of Paul, but does not share Paul's own view of himself as an apostle; his own theology is considerably different from Paul's on key points and does not represent Paul's own views accurately." He was educated, a man of means, probably urban, and someone who respected manual work, although not a worker himself; this is significant, because more high-brow writers of the time looked down on the artisans and small business people who made up the early church of Paul and were presumably Luke's audience.
While no proposed date for the composition of Acts is universally accepted, the most common scholarly position is to date Luke–Acts to 80-90 AD, on the grounds that it uses Mark as a source, looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem, and does not show any awareness of the letters of Paul (which began circulating late in the first century). The earliest possible date for the composition of Acts is set by the events with which it ends, Paul's imprisonment in Rome c.63 AD, but such an early dating is a minority position. The last possible date would be set by its first definite citation by another author, but there is no unanimity on this; some scholars find echoes of Acts in a work from c. 95 AD called I Clement, while others see no indisputable citation until the middle of the 2nd century. A minority of scholars, necessarily in the latter camp, conclude that Acts dates to the 2nd century, believing that it shows awareness of the letters of Paul, the works of Josephus, or the writings of Marcion.
There are two major textual variants of Acts, the Western text-type and the Alexandrian. The oldest complete Alexandrian manuscripts date from the 4th century and the oldest Western ones from the 6th, with fragments and citations going back to the 3rd. Western texts of Acts are 6.2–8.4% longer than Alexandrian texts, the additions tending to enhance the Jewish rejection of the Messiah and the role of the Holy Spirit, in ways that are stylistically different from the rest of Acts. The majority of scholars prefer the Alexandrian (shorter) text-type over the Western as the more authentic, but this same argument would favour the Western over the Alexandrian for the Gospel of Luke, as in that case the Western version is the shorter; the debate therefore continues.
Genre, sources and historicity of Acts
The title "Acts of the Apostles" (Praxeis Apostolon) would seem to identify it with the genre telling of the deeds and achievements of great men (praxeis), but it was not the title given by the author. The anonymous author aligned Luke–Acts to the "narratives" (διήγησις, diēgēsis) which many others had written, and described his own work as an "orderly account" (ἀκριβῶς καθεξῆς). Thus while Acts is widely thought of as a history, it lacks exact analogies in Hellenistic or Jewish literature.
The author of Acts may have taken as his model the works of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, who wrote a well-known history of Rome, or the Jewish historian Josephus, author of a history of the Jews. Like them, he anchors his history by dating the birth of the founder (Romulus for Dionysius, Moses for Josephus, Jesus for Luke) and like them he tells how the founder is born from God, taught authoritatively, and appeared to witnesses after death before ascending to heaven. By and large the sources for Acts can only be guessed at, but the author would have had access to the Septuagint (a Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures), the Gospel of Mark, and either the hypothetical collection of "sayings of Jesus" called the Q source or the Gospel of Matthew. He transposed a few incidents from Mark's gospel to the time of the Apostles—for example, the material about "clean" and "unclean" foods in Mark 7 is used in Acts 10, and Mark's account of the accusation that Jesus has attacked the Temple (Mark 14:58) is used in a story about Stephen (Acts 6:14).) There are also points of contacts (meaning suggestive parallels but something less than clear evidence) with 1 Peter, the Letter to the Hebrews, and 1 Clement. Other sources can only be inferred from internal evidence—the traditional explanation of the three "we" passages, for example, is that they represent eye-witness accounts. The search for such inferred sources was popular in the 19th century, but by the mid-20th it had largely been abandoned.
Acts was read as a reliable history of the early church well into the post-Reformation era. By the 17th century, however, biblical scholars began to notice that it was incomplete and tendentious—its picture of a harmonious church is quite at odds with that given by Paul's letters, and it omits important events such as the deaths of both Peter and Paul. The mid-19th-century scholar Ferdinand Baur suggested that the author of Acts had re-written history to present a united Peter and Paul and advance a single orthodoxy against the Marcionites. (Marcion was a 2nd-century heretic who wished to cut Christianity off entirely from the Jews). Baur continues to have enormous influence, but today there is less interest in determining the author of Acts' historical accuracy (although this has never died out) than in understanding his theological program.
Luke was written to be read aloud to a group of Jesus-followers gathered in a house to share the Lord's supper. The author assumes an educated Greek-speaking audience, but directs his attention to specifically Christian concerns rather than to the Greco-Roman world at large. He begins his gospel with a preface addressed to Theophilus, informing him of his intention to provide an "ordered account" of events which will lead his reader to "certainty". He did not write in order to provide Theophilus with historical justification—"did it happen?"—but to encourage faith—"what happened, and what does it all mean?"
Acts (or Luke–Acts) is intended as a work of "edification." Edification means "the empirical demonstration that virtue is superior to vice," but is not all of Luke's purpose. He also engages with the question of a Christian's proper relationship with the Roman Empire, the civil power of the day: could a Christian obey God and also Caesar? The answer is ambiguous. The Romans never move against Jesus or his followers unless provoked by the Jews, in the trial scenes the Christian missionaries are always cleared of charges of violating Roman laws, and Acts ends with Paul in Rome proclaiming the Christian message under Roman protection; at the same time, Luke makes clear that the Romans, like all earthly rulers, receive their authority from Satan, while Christ is ruler of the kingdom of God.