The reader will probably not have missed the fact that the New
Testament book of Acts has not been used in As Paul tells it ...
to reconstruct the story of Paul and something of his thought. This
procedure was not chosen arbitrarily. On the one hand, Paul
deserves to be heard directly, on his own terms. On the other
hand, for all of its powerful effect in forming people’s views of
Paul, the book of Acts, considered as a source, poses problems for
the careful student of Paul.
The “Success” of Acts
How can it be
that a biographer tells a story so successfully that the subject’s
own version of the story is overlooked? Such is the case with the
author of Acts. A third generation Christian working from his
perspective at the end of the first century, and an ardent admirer
of the apostle, he crafted an eloquent, dramatic, and edifying
portrait which has easily “stolen the scene” from Paul himself.
The author was a master of vivid and circumstantial narrative, so
much so that every one knows about Saul’s falling to the ground
when a blinding light flashes about him on the road to Damascus, but
few pay much attention to, “. . . and last of all
. . . [Christ] appeared also to me”
(1 Corinthians 15:8).
The reputation of Acts also rests upon its prima facie
is the only continuous narrative of the early church in the
includes the work of the church’s apostolic
“superstars,” Peter and Paul;|
claims to be the result of careful investigation by the author
(Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1);|
is compatible with certain information in the letters; and|
|Its authorship is traditionally attributed to a companion of Paul (i.e., to
“Luke, the beloved physician,” supposedly the one who
joins Paul in Troas, for the Macedonian mission; and, as the
one supposedly composing the “we-passages” in Acts, his companion
elsewhere in the story).|
We may justifiably appreciate and enjoy Acts for what it is, a
great work of Christian edification, but, as the following
discussion will show, there are problems with using Acts as a
as a Secondary Source
The letters of Paul, as primary sources, enjoy greater authority
than Acts, which is a secondary source. This is a matter of
historical methodology and not a question of the inspiration of the
Bible (see Perspective).
Practically speaking, if one were to use Acts it would be necessary to verify Acts against the
letters to get reliable results.
the Author of Acts Worked
The character and extent of his (or her) sources is still being
discussed. The (anonymous) author evidently had better sources for
the latter half than for the former half of his work. By the time he
was writing, Jerusalem was in ruins (destroyed in the year 70 by the
Roman legions), and the Christian community in Jerusalem had probably
fled the city before its fall. Thus it would be problematical for a reliable oral tradition about
the earliest days of the church to have survived. As for the latter
part of Acts, some interpreters are
convinced that the author made use of an already existing itinerary
for the missionary journeys.
It is not easy to find evidence to support
a proposal of this sort. The argument for the use of such a log of
stopping places may take the form of a question, “Well, the
author did not invent these narratives out of whole cloth, did
he?” Of course, we do not know the answer to this question: Yes?
partly? not at all? We cannot say.
Into these travel sequences the author has inserted speeches and episodes,
as seemed appropriate for his purposes.
The speeches in Acts are carefully crafted orations, composed by
the author, in keeping with the practice of ancient historians. It
would be difficult to argue that they are contemporary reports by
auditors of what Paul actually said. If the author is largely
responsible for the contents of the speeches, then it is
intelligible why sometimes a speech of Peter turns out sounding like
Paul (e.g., Acts 15:6-11). Further, the author represents Paul as the
great orator, with no mention of his letter writing, whereas in the
letters Paul acknowledges that he is not much of a speaker but
writes impressive letters (2 Corinthians 10:9-11)!
The episodes appear to be based in part upon traditional
material, which would have circulated in particular congregations.
But in Acts it is not always easy to distinguish traditional
material from the author’s editorial work, and even if we were able
to identify traditional material we could not be sure where in
the sequential framework it was to be located.
The case of the Gallio hearing in Corinth
(Acts 18:12-17) is of special interest, because it is perhaps the
most crucial synchronism on which an Acts chronology might be based.
After a number of misses or near misses, did the author score a
direct hit amidships? We would feel more secure in validating this
datum, if (a) we could
trust Acts where it is not confirmed by the letters, and if (b) we were
sure during which of Paul’s visits to Corinth the event occurred.
Regrettably, we can not be certain of either condition. (a) When
the author has cried “Wolf!” so many times, to change the figure
of speech, it is difficult to know whether there really is a wolf
this time. (b) G. Luedemann has suggested the
possibility that the author of Acts (for convenience, called Luke)
“had a tradition in which one of Paul’s visits to Corinth was
connected with the person of Gallio and that Luke then developed
this tradition—in accord with his theology—into the episode of a
nontrial of Paul before Gallio.” But it still remains uncertain,
as Luedemann also observes, during which of Paul’s three visits to
Corinth the Gallio episode took place (Luedemann 1984,17-18,
158-61). This uncertainty is increased by the fact that the author
of Acts, when recounting episodes in a particular city, tends to
insert all the episodes he knows of during the first visit, leaving
little or nothing to be described during subsequent visits (see Hurd
1965, 28-31). Beyond these
considerations, we need to add that uncertainty remains whether the
Gallio hearing is even traditional material, as Luedemann believes
it to be.
Sometimes there is
significant agreement of Acts with the letters, evident for example
in the general progress of Paul from Philippi to Thessalonica, and
thence to Athens and Corinth (Acts 16:11–18:18). However, we note
very little correlation between the episodes in these chapters and
what we find in the letters. In any case, where Acts correctly gives
the order of events, it is the letters as primary sources that
warrant the correctness of Acts, a secondary source.
Reasons for Caution in Using Acts
It is not recklessness but caution that prompts us to leave Acts
to one side and to depend exclusively upon the letters as we
reconstruct Paul’s story. We offer the following reasons.
1. Acts is flawed by internal inconsistencies and
anachronisms, especially in the earlier part.
We call attention to the Chart of an Acts
Chronology, which shows something of the framework and data
offered by the author, without their being assimilated to the data of the
letters. One example of an anachronism is the
reference to Annas as high priest (Acts 4:6), during the 30’s;
Annas was actually high priest 6-15 A.D. Another example is the
dating of the Judean famine (Acts 11:27-30) before the death of
Herod Agrippa I (44 A.D.) instead of after his death.
We also take note of the fact that in the
first volume of his two-volume work, Luke-Acts, there is a well
known anachronism in his placing the birth of Jesus in the time of
the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-3). The
date of the census under Quirinius is A.D. 6, when Jesus would have
been about ten years old. In the same connection, there is no
evidence that the census was world-wide, or that citizens were
obliged to register in their ancestral towns.
2. Acts is unacquainted with (or has suppressed) the main
outlines of Paul’s career as known from the letters.
a. Acts knows nothing of the three
years or fourteen years sequences, nor of the collection, as these
are known to us from Galatians 1–2.
Acts does not offer a comprehensive time span for Paul’s work.
According to one estimate, the events chronicled in Acts, if
calculated without reference to the letters, would not fill even
fourteen years (Hurd 1965/1983, 23).
b. Acts almost certainly got the
Jerusalem visits wrong.
|Acts brings Paul to Jerusalem some three years too early on
the first visit after his “conversion” (Acts 9:23-30).|
|Acts inserts a famine relief visit (Acts 11:29-30), and,
according to some manuscripts, inserts another, unexplained
visit (Acts 12:25).|
|Acts connects the apostolic decree with the conference
visit (Acts 15:1-30), contrary to Galatians 2:1-10. The
apostolic decree refers to the stipulations which would be
required of gentile converts. The stipulations are partly
religious (abstaining from idolatry), partly moral (abstaining
from fornication), and partly dietary (abstaining from what is
strangled, and from blood), Acts 15:20.|
|Acts brings Paul back from the Aegean area for the unmotivated
visit of Acts 18:22—if one takes this text as a Jerusalem
|Acts mostly misses the point of the final visit, which was to
deliver the collection. Acts 24:17-19 refers only to alms
brought by Paul to his nation.|
|Acts knows nothing of a Paul champing at the bit to be on his
way to Spain, via Rome.|
c. We have to reckon with other
discrepancies between Acts and the data of the letters, on certain
more or less important details.
The list might include:
|The reference to Paul’s involvement in persecuting the
church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-3), contrary to Galatians 1:22,
where Paul remained unknown to believers in Judea.|
|The fact that the three accounts in Acts of Paul’s
conversion (Acts 9:1-9; 22:4-11; 26:9-18) are
inconsistent with each other
(see fuller discussion below).|
|The author’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the Damascus experience
was a resurrection appearance
(see fuller discussion below).|
|Related to the foregoing, the author’s reluctance to
acknowledge Paul as an apostle (he functions as a missionary, sent out by
and reporting back to the Antioch church, Acts 13:1-3;
|The substantially different account of the Jerusalem
conference (see fuller discussion below).|
|The brevity of Paul’s stay in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-10;
one may refer to Paul’s version in Founding Missions (2).|
3. It is doubtful whether a general chronology of Paul’s
career was available to the author, whether in written source or
The author had to put together the sequential framework of Acts
as best he could. This inference seems to be confirmed by an
analysis of the transitional formulas and summaries which the author
used to provide continuity between episodes and to give shape to his
narrative. It is in these editorial transitions and summaries that
we usually find the time references, but these references are often vague and arguably
stylized (6:1; 9:23, 43; 11:27; 12:1; 16:12; 19:23; 21:10, 15; 27:7,
9, 14, 20). In this connection, we should keep in mind how little
was available to any author in the way of handbooks on chronology,
geography, or contemporary government, even if one had been inclined
to check allusions made to public officials (see Cadbury 1927, 327).
This point requires special emphasis, inasmuch as there are
worthy scholars who implicitly bestow a default position upon the
sequential framework of Acts, as if its three missionary journeys
and five Jerusalem visits were self-evident postulates of the
historical universe and did not first have to be demonstrated.
4. The author’s sequential framework was likely shaped by
his particular interests and purposes.
If this sequential framework was the work of the author himself,
we would not be surprised if it was shaped by the needs of Christian
communities which he was seeking to serve, toward the end of the
first century. He was not interested in writing objective history as
we know it, but in nurturing and building up the church. It seems
that the author had a special interest in demonstrating that the
church was the true Israel, and as such was exempt from Roman
persecution. (We remind ourselves that during the previous century
and a half Judaism had been an officially tolerated religion.)
Throughout the course of Paul’s missionary journeys, the Romans
are generally represented in a favorable light, while the Jews often
appear as opposing him.
5. There is evidence that the author of Acts felt free to “improve upon” his
sources, even where he might have had good chronological information at his
In the case of the Gospel of Luke, of which Acts is the companion
work, we have an opportunity to see the author at work,
especially in his use of the Gospel of Mark, one of his two major
sources for the gospel. We refer to the following examples:
|The author of Luke-Acts dates the transfiguration of Jesus
after an interval of eight days (Luke 9:28), rather than six
days (Mark 9:2).|
|The author places the cure of the blind beggar on entering
(Luke 18:35) rather than on leaving Jericho (Mark 10:46).|
|The author places the rending of the Temple curtain before
rather than after Jesus expires. Click on curtain.|
|The author adroitly rewrites Mark 16:7 so that all the
resurrection appearances are set in Jerusalem (Luke 24:6).|
Mark 16:7 But
go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to
Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.
Luke 24:6 Remember how he told you, while he was
still in Galilee . . . .
6. We have to reckon with the possibility that rumors or
allegations originating from Paul’s opponents may have been worked
Such rumors or allegations may have circulated as traditional
material, along with material which was accurate and even
complimentary. (See Linton 1950.) By the time the author gained access to the
unfavorable material, it may have been difficult for him to
know—or for us now to know—what was truth and what was
fabrication. (See the comparison of the resurrection appearance to
Paul in the letters and in Acts, below.)
We have been referring thus far to “the author” of
Acts. Our reason is that the work circulated anonymously. The
same is true of the companion work, the Gospel of Luke, which
eventually came to circulate with a traditional title. Though Acts
is traditionally attributed to Luke the beloved physician and
companion of Paul, in recent years the book has been increasingly
regarded as composed by an unknown author. It is likely that the
author lived in the generation after Paul. We can assume that he did
his best with the sources available to him, at a distance of two to
three decades from the death of Paul (A.D. 64?) and from the
destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.
It is ironic that the more one insists upon the author’s being
a contemporary and companion of the apostle, the more difficult it
is to believe in the author’s due diligence and good faith. If he
is allowed to be a late first century author, his lack of
information or his misinformation is understandable, and his good
efforts are laudable.
Click on Next, for Acts as a Source (2): Chart of an Acts