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Acts of the Apostles

The second of two volumes which continues the story of the rise and spread of Christianity begun in the gospel of Luke. Its textual history poses peculiar interpretative problems as it is extant in two versions, the longer in Codex Bezae. Its narrative starts with Jesus' ascension in Jerusalem and ends with Paul preaching in Rome, where he had been taken after his appeal to Caesar (i.e. the emperor). The focus of the material on the earliest Jerusalem church around Peter and, later in the book, on the Christian career of Paul shows the concern of the author to relate the Jewish and Gentile missions and to demonstrate their basic unity. Only occasional glimpses are offered of the conflict in early Christianity which is evident in the Pauline corpus (e.g. Acts 6: 1 and 15). Acts has for a long time been a cause of great controversy between those who maintain the substantial authenticity of its historical account (while allowing for its apologetic interests) and those who see the document as a work of skilful narrative propaganda whose historical value is negligible. Knowledge of contemporary Graeco-Roman institutions should not mask the difficulties in accepting the historicity of Acts, a particular problem being the reconciliation of the accounts of Paul's career in Acts, Galatians 1 & 2, and the Corinthian correspondence. The references to Paul's theology indicate a markedly different set of ideas from what we find in the letters to the Romans and Galatians. For this and other reasons Acts has proved to be disappointing to the historian of Christian origins as a source for early Christian history. The history of the Jerusalem church after the start of the Pauline mission is only touched on in so far as it helps the author explain Paul's career as apostle to the Gentiles. Whereas Luke's gospel portrays Jesus as a Palestinian prophet with a controversial, indeed subversive, message for Jewish society, there is little in Acts (apart from the idealized accounts of the common life of the Jerusalem church) of that radicalism. The antagonism to Jews and the sympathetic account of Roman officials evident in the gospel of Luke is continued in Acts, and a conciliatory attitude towards Rome has been suggested. Jews in Acts are regarded as responsible for the harassment of nascent Christianity, though there are occasional glimpses of more openness to Judaism elsewhere in the book than the concluding verses would indicate.

Various suggestions have been made with regard to its (and the related gospel of Luke's) purpose. These have included an apologia for Christianity to the Roman state, an explanation for the delay of the Parousia (Second Coming) by stressing the role of the church in the divine purpose, an essay in anti-Jewish polemic, and a defence of Paul when his case was heard in Rome. Like his contemporary Josephus the author of Acts seeks to demonstrate that divine providence is at work, though for the latter there is nothing in the emergence of a strange Jewish messianic movement to contradict the Jewish tradition, since it is rather the inevitable continuation of it.


H. Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles (1987).Find this resource:

    P. Esler, Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts (1987).Find this resource:

      W. Gasque, A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles (1975).Find this resource:

        E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (1971).Find this resource:

          M. Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (1979).Find this resource:

            F. J. Foakes Jackson and K. Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity (on the text of Acts) (1926).Find this resource:

              G. Ludemann, Early Christianity according to the Traditions in Acts (1989). L. Alexander, The Preface to Luke's Gospel: Literary Convention and Social Context in Luke 1.1–4 and Acts 1.1 (1993).

              H.-J. Klauck, Magic and Paganism in Early Christianity: The World of the Acts of the Apostles (2003).Find this resource:

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