Introduction to Acts
Blaine Robison, M.A.
Published 2 January 2012; Revised 9 August 2021
Sources: Bibliographic data for sources cited may be found at the end of the article. Click here for Abbreviations of Bible Versions.
Syntax: The meaning of Greek words is from F.W. Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (2009).
Terminology: In order to emphasize the Jewish nature of the apostolic canon and its central figure I use the terms Tanakh (Old Testament), Besekh (New Testament), Yeshua (Jesus), Messiah (Christ) and Besorah/Besorot (gospel/apostolic narratives).
Greek MSS bear the title Praxeis Apostolōn. The word praxeis is the accusative case of praxis, which may mean (1) engagement in performance; function; or (2) as a figure of speech of something performed for the function producing it; action, deed, practice. The second meaning applies to its use in the title. Apostolōn is the plural accusative case of apostolos, which means one who is sent on a mission or assignment with full authority of the sender; messenger, apostle. So, according to the title Luke's second narrative is devoted to the ministry of the apostles of Yeshua, especially Peter and Paul.
The author of the Acts of the Apostles was identified early by Irenaeus (120-202 A.D.) as Luke (Eusebius, Church History, Book V, §8:3). The canon of Muratori, which contains the canon of Scriptures of the Church of Rome in the second century, declares:
"2. Moreover, the Acts of all the Apostles are comprised by Luke in one book, and addressed to the most excellent Theophilus, because these different events took place when he was present himself; and he shows this clearly-i.e., that the principle on which he wrote was, to give only what fell under his own notice-by the omission of the passion of Peter, and also of the journey of Paul, when he went from the city-Rome-to Spain."
The author's name in Greek is Loukas, which Delitzsch transliterates into Hebrew as Luqas. Loukas is a contracted form of Loukanos (Latin Lucanus), since it was not uncommon in Hellenistic culture to abbreviate proper names ("Luke," ISBE).
Little is said of Luke in the Besekh and his name appears only three times. He was a physician (Col 4:14) and he was a companion and fellow worker of Paul (2Tim 4:11; Phm 1:24). While Luke does not mention himself by name in either of his works, his presence with Paul on missionary journeys is indicated by various "we" passages (Acts 16:10-13, 16; 20:5-7, 13-15; 21:1-7 etc.). Although referred to as an apostle by patristic writers, the Besekh does not accord him that honor. Eusebius said that Luke was from Antioch (Church History, Book III, §4:7), presumptively Syrian Antioch, as does Jerome (Lives of Illustrious Men, Chap. 7).
Some have suggested that Luke and Titus were brothers (cf. 2Cor 8:18; 12:18), but this is only a guess. On Paul's second missionary journey, Luke accompanied him on the short voyage from Troas to Philippi (Acts 16:10-17). On the third journey, Luke was present on the voyage from Philippi to Jerusalem (Acts 20:5−21:18). Luke apparently spent the intervening time in Philippi. Luke remained close to Paul during his imprisonment in Caesarea. A third "we" section in Acts gives a dramatic narrative of the voyage across the Mediterranean Sea and shipwreck at Malta (Acts 27). Paul indicates in his letters to Philemon and Colossae that Luke was with him while under house arrest in Rome.
Based on the patristic sources Christian scholars generally identify Luke as a Gentile, possibly Greek (ISBE, HBD, NIBD). This conclusion is based on a faulty premise that the first disciples in Antioch were Gentiles. Luke's first appearance with Paul at Troas (Acts 16:8-10) is seen as supporting this supposed Gentile ethnicity, even though Luke himself makes no such connection.
Messianic Jewish writers are likewise not convinced of the Jewishness of Luke. Stern seems to include Luke when he says that "the New Testament is a Jewish book, written by Jews" (ix), but says that some think Luke was a proselyte (xi). The introduction to the book "Luke" in the TLV by Dr. Jeffrey and Pat Feinberg has this note: "The Gospel of Luke was written by a doctor, but possibly not a Jewish one! Luke may have been one of the "God-fearers, a large group of Gentiles who frequented the synagogue and observed some Jewish customs" (1111). Shulam says, "Colossians 4:12-14 indicates that Luke is not Jewish (xxx).
When we consider the historical record it's noteworthy that Eusebius and Jerome do not say that Luke was a Gentile, only that he came from Antioch. Antioch had a large Jewish population and the first disciples there were in fact Jewish. See my article The First Christians and my commentary on Acts 11:20. Let's consider Paul's reference to Luke in the description of his ministry team in his letter to the congregation in Colossae.
"My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings; as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You received instructions about him - if he comes your way, welcome him.) 11 Yeshua who is called Justus also sends his greetings. These are the only fellow workers for the kingdom of God that are from among the circumcision - they have been a comfort to me. 12 Epaphras, who is one of your own, a slave of Messiah Yeshua, greets you. He is always laboring in prayer on your behalf, so you may stand complete and fully assured about everything that is God's will. 13 For I testify that he has gone to much trouble for you and for those in Laodicea and Hierapolis. 14 Luke, the dearly loved physician, sends you greetings, and so does Demas." (Col 4:10-14 TLV)
Luke seems to be distinguished by Paul from those of "the circumcision" (Aristarchus, Mark, and Justus, verses 10-11). Epaphras, Luke, and Demas supposedly form the Gentile group (verse 12-14). Against the assumption of Gentile ethnicity there are four important factors to consider.
● First, Paul used the label "the circumcision" (Col 4:11) to identify the radical Circumcision Party (Rom 4:12; 15:8; Gal 2:12; Titus 1:10; cf. Acts 10:45; 11:2; 15:1). This zealous group had insisted that Gentile converts complete Brit Milah to be considered a part of the Messianic Kingdom (Acts 15:1). The membership of the Circumcision Party consisted of legalistic Torah-observant Jews, a sub-group of the Pharisees (Acts 15:5). In Colossians 4 Paul simply illustrates the diversity of his ministry team. The point about mentioning "the Circumcision" is that those who had once been his opponents in the circumcision controversy were now his devoted fellow workers. In the Diaspora many Hellenistic Jews had ceased performing circumcision (Tarn & Griffith 224). However, not being a member of the Circumcision Party does not mean that Luke had not been circumcised any more than Paul who did not belong to this party.
● Second, Luke begins his Yeshua biography with this declaration, "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us" (Luke 1:1). While Luke does not say "among the Jews" or "in Israel," he clearly means "us" as including himself as among those with whom Yeshua conducted his ministry. Luke's emphasis on research is to provide a more complete story of Yeshua than what might have been told from just his own personal experience. This is also true of Matthew who could not have been present for the nativity, but we know was a Jewish disciple and apostle.
● Third, according to patristic tradition Luke was one of the Seventy apostles sent out by Yeshua (Luke 10:1; Hippolytus, 170-235, On the Seventy Apostles). Origen (184-253), Dorotheus (255-362) and Epiphanius (310-403) also include Luke in the same list. As for the mission of the seventy it is highly unlikely that Yeshua would have chosen any Gentiles for this early mission, since the charge to the Seventy was patterned after the mission of the Twelve (Matt 10). The mission was expressly directed to the lost house of Israel (Matt 10:5-6) and the Seventy were sent to cities in which Yeshua planned to minister (Luke 10:1). There is no record of Yeshua going into any Gentile city. It is noteworthy that Luke is the only one to mention the mission of the Seventy.
Luke provides no information on the recruitment of the Seventy. Many of them may have already been disciples since Yeshua had many followers besides the Twelve from the earliest days of his Galilean ministry (Matt 5:1; Mark 2:15; 3:7). While Luke emphasizes his research for the narrative of Yeshua's life (Luke 1:3) he also includes himself among those who experienced Yeshua's ministry (Luke 1:1). It is very possible that Luke was an eyewitness of many of the events that only he records (Luke 9:52-56; 10:1-20; 12:1−18:14; 19:1-27, 39-44).
● Fourth, Luke coined the term for Greek-speaking Jews, Hellēnistēs, which occurs in Acts 6:1; 9:29 and 11:20. David Flusser (1917-2000), professor of Early Christianity and Judaism of the Second Temple Period at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, used the term "Hellenized" to describe these Greek-speaking Jews. The "Hellenized Jews" were zealous for the Temple and Torah and certain circles of them were greatly influenced by the Essenes (Flusser 75). The Hellenized Jews preferred Greek as their primary language and the Greek translation of the Torah (Septuagint) for synagogue services. In contrast, "Hellenistic Jews" practiced or held to the principles of Greek culture and philosophy.
(NOTE: Epaphras and Demas would also have been Hellenized Jews. Nothing is said of their of their background and merely having Greek names does not mean they were Gentiles. Only consider that Peter, Andrew and Philip were all Hebraic Jews with Greek names. Demas is also included in the list of the Seventy by Hippolytus with the added note that he became a priest of idols.)
See also the section below on the literary character of the book. Could a Gentile, even a proselyte, produce a thoroughly Jewish work? Not likely.
The book of Acts is actually the continuation of Luke's narrative began in the "first book" (Acts 1:1).
The writing of Acts would have begun within the same timeframe of the writing of the narrative of Yeshua or within a few years afterward. The date is indicated by these facts:
• The presence of Sadducees (23:8).
• There is no reference to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The many mentions of Jerusalem (58 times) indicates the continued presence of the city.
• Jewish believers are Torah-observant (Acts 21:20), including going to the Temple, offering sacrifices, and making Nazirite vows.
• There is no mention of the martyrdom in 62-63 of Jacob, Yeshua's half-brother and leader of the Jerusalem congregation.
• Paul is still awaiting trial at the end of the book (28:30-31). From the point of Paul's introduction the book may have been written as a journal.
• The theological controversies in the book clearly fit within the Jewish cultural context.
A likely date for completion and publication would be about A.D. 62 (Robinson 108).
The narrative of Acts occurs at a momentous time in history and covers at least thirty years. The assignment of dates by scholars to events recorded in Acts is largely guesswork. Luke does not assign dates, other than references to the reign of a ruler (e.g., Luke 2:1-2; 3:1; Acts 11:28; 12:1; 23:24; 24:27), or mention of a notable events, such as a famine in Judaea (11:28), expulsion of Jews from Rome by Caesar Claudius (18:2) and Yom Kippur (27:9). Luke interrupts his narrative with a brief reports of progress that summarize activity for an indefinite period of time and move the narrative forward (2:42-47; 4:32-35; 5:12-16, 42; 6:7-8; 8:1-4; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31).
Unfortunately, these reports do not help to fix dates for events. Luke occasionally mention durations of time from one event to another, e.g., "two years" (Acts 19:10; 24:27; 28:30), "three years" (Acts 20:31), and "several years" (Acts 24:17). The timeline of apostolic activity is typically computed from the year assumed for Yeshua's death. While some scholars date Yeshua's death in AD 33, the evidence is strong for Yeshua's death in AD 30, which is the starting point for my timeline. See a suggested chronology of Acts at BibleHub.com, as well as the dating chart of George Edmundson.
As in his history of Yeshua's life, Luke addresses his Acts narrative to an individual named Theophilus (Grk. Theophilos, "friend of God"). The name occurs also in Luke 1:3, where Luke applies to him the title "most excellent" (Grk. kratistos). The honorary title would indicate that Theophilus was of some prominence. Many scholars believe Theophilus was a Greek or Gentile in high social and/or political standing, perhaps a patron of the Yeshua movement (Levine 97). Gilbert suggests that Theophilus might have been Luke's benefactor (199). Stern suggests that Theophilus was probably an upper-class Greek (103). However, Theophilus could easily have been a Jew, since many Jews had Greek names (e.g., Peter, Philip, Andrew, Thomas and the Jewish friends and family of Paul listed in Romans 16).
Scholars ignore the fact that there was a famous Jew by the name of Theophilus who served as high priest AD 37-41 and is mentioned by Josephus (Ant. XVII, 4:2; XVIII, 5:3; XIX, 6:2; XX, 9:7) (Jeremias 194, 378). It's not impossible that the Theophilus to whom Luke wrote was a relative of the high priest. Also, including Theophilus in the use of "us" in Luke 1:1-2 would support Theophilus being Jewish. The verb "having been taught" (Grk. katēcheō, 'to instruct orally') in Luke 1:4 implies that Theophilus had been introduced to the Messianic proclamation on a prior occasion. There is no reason to assume that Theophilus was unsaved. This same verb is used of Apollos who had some teaching about the Messiah before he went to Ephesus, but Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and explain the truth more accurately (Acts 18:24-26). Luke's task was to explain the truth about Yeshua and the ministry of the apostles more accurately to Theophilus.
Most Christian interpreters treat Acts as if it recorded "The Birth of the Church," as Bruce titles his commentary on the first chapter (28). A better description of the community of believers and disciples in Acts is "Yeshua Movement" (Gager viii). Among Jews in Acts the movement is called "The Way" (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 24:14, 22), shorthand for The Way of Salvation or The Way of Yeshua. Unfortunately, the church fathers endeavored to separate the Yeshua Movement from its Jewish roots, as evidenced by decisions made by the seven ecumenical councils, beginning with the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325.
The use of ekklēsia beginning in Acts 5:11 (+ 22t), represents followers of Yeshua formed into congregations that met in a specific location, the polity of which mirrored the Jewish synagogue. Luke's use of the term ekklēsia did not mean anything comparable to the Gentile Church of today, with its multiplied denominations and divisions, many of which espouse unbiblical doctrines and/or unbiblical practices.
Christian scholars have also generally assumed that the recipients of apostolic ministry and the membership of the congregations formed in Acts were mostly Gentile. However, the linguistic evidence supports the thesis that the congregations of believers had a mostly Jewish constituency. In fact, the apostles in their writings describe five major categories of Jews: traditional Jews, Hellenized Jews, Hellenistic Jews, Samaritan Jews and Ascetic Jews. In addition, there were Gentile proselytes and God-fearing Gentiles. Jews were given the priority in hearing the Good News (Acts 1:6-8; 2:1-11; 9:20; 13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:1, 10; 18:4, 19; 19:8).
An intriguing piece of evidence, not considered by modern scholars, is that the early church historian Eusebius (c. 260-341 AD) said that Peter's first letter, addressed to disciples in Asia, Cappadocia, Galatia, Pontus and Bithynia (1Pet 1:1), was written to "the Hebrews of the dispersion" (Church History, Book III, 4:2). For more information on the ethnic representatives in the Yeshua Movement see my article The Apostolic Community.
All the apostles, prophets, and evangelists who proclaimed the Good News in Acts were Jews. The church father Hippolytus (170-236) in his writing On the Seventy Apostles, identifies the seventy disciples that Yeshua sent out in Luke 10:1. These men eventually became congregational overseers ("bishops") in major cities scattered throughout the Roman Empire. The seventy men Yeshua chose were JEWS, not Gentiles. Fourteen of those names appear in Acts.
The narrative of Acts is an illuminating witness to the ministry of the apostles in spreading the Good News of Messiah Yeshua. As indicated in the first chapter Luke's purpose is to tell the "rest of the story" of how the Great Commission was fulfilled through Spirit-empowered emissaries of the Messiah. He is a reliable historian in part because he was an eyewitness of many of the events he records. The fast moving story covers three decades of history. The Hebraic character is evident in it purpose and content.
With few exceptions the narrative takes place among Jews both in the land of Israel and in the Diaspora. Luke also seems to act as an apologist for Paul, demonstrating his faithfulness to the Torah and the Prophets. Luke does not portray Paul as an apostle to the Gentiles, but as a faithful Jew suffering for the resurrection of the dead, a "patriot" seeking to bring both Jews and Gentiles to repentance and good works.
Acts is the third longest narrative in the Besekh with 28 chapters and 1007 verses. The Greek of the Luke's narrative is a polished Jewish Greek, containing many Hebrew idioms. He often follows rules of Hebrew grammar, such as beginning many verses with either a conjunction or a verb or both. Acts is noted for a significant number of words (336 to be exact) that are not found in any other apostolic writing (Barnes). These are called hapax legomena, a Latin expression meaning words that occur only once in a given literary work. The unique words are found in other Jewish literature, such as the LXX, Josephus, Philo and the Apocrypha, which indicates Luke's facility with the Greek language and knowledge of ancient literature.
Acts is constructed logically around the outline of the geographical commission of Yeshua given in Acts 1:8. There also is a logical flow in the record of the growth of the Yeshua Movement (2:47; 5:14; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 19:20; 21:20). Another organizational feature is the progressive introduction of important personalities (Peter, Stephen, Barnabas, Philip, and Saul of Tarsus). A broad outline is that Acts 1−12 pertains primarily to Peter whereas Acts 13−28 concerns primarily Paul. Luke is a logical thinker and he presents his historical record in an easy-to-read and sequential format.
Table of Contents
· Ascension of Yeshua & waiting for Spirit empowerment, Chapter 1.
· Shavuot (Pentecost) and outpouring of the Holy Spirit, Chapter 2.
· Witness to Jews in Jerusalem, Chapters 2–7.
· Witness to Jews in Judea & Samaria, Chapter 8.
· Witness to Jews in Syria and Judea, Chapter 9.
· Witness to the Gentile Cornelius, Chapter 10.
· Witness to Jews in Cyprus and Cyrene, Chapter 11.
Paul's Diaspora Journeys
· First journey, Chapters 13–14.
· Second journey, Chapter 15–18.
· Third journey, Chapters 18–21.
· Paul's Trip to Rome, Chapters 21–28.
Watershed Events in Acts
· Ascension of Yeshua to heaven, Chapter 1.
· Outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Shavuot (Pentecost), Chapter 2.
· Deaths of Ananias and Sapphira, Chapter 5.
· Call and commissioning of Paul, Chapters 9 & 11.
· Peter's mission to Cornelius., Chapter 10.
· Apostolic ruling, Chapter 15.
· Arrest of Paul, Chapter 21.
Unique Elements in Acts
· Addressed to an individual, Theophilus (1:1).
· Mention of the Holy Spirit: 55 times. As a result some scholars consider the book the "Acts of the Holy Spirit."
· A variety of titles used to describe Yeshua: Messiah, Lord, Nazarene, Servant of the Lord, the Holy One, the Righteous One, the Prince of Life, Savior, Prophet (like Moses), the Stone, Judge, Son of Man and Son of God.
· Significant sermons and speeches by Peter, Stephen and Paul comprise 20% of the book.
· Notations of numerical growth: 2:47; 5:14; 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20 and 21:20.
· The first mention of Christianos or "Christian" (=Messianic; Acts 11:26; 26:28), a label probably coined by Barnabas for Messianic Jewish disciples. See my web article The First Christians.
· The meeting of the apostles and elders to discuss circumcision of Gentile believers and issue the first guidelines for new followers of Yeshua (Chapter 15).
· Wide circle of contacts: Luke mentions 95 different persons from 32 countries, 54 cities and 9 Mediterranean islands.
· At three places in Acts the narrative changes to the first person ("we") to indicate Luke's presence (16:10-17; 20:5—21:18; and 27:1—28:16).
· Widespread opposition and persecution: in Jerusalem (Acts 4:1-3; 5:18, 26, 40; 6:9-15; 7:57-58; 9:29; 12:2-3; 21:27; 22:22; 23:1-22), in Damascus (Acts 9:23), in Paphos (Acts 13:6-8), in Antioch (Acts 13:45), in Iconium (Acts 14:2,5), in Lystra (Acts 14:19), in Thessalonica (Acts 17:5), in Berea (Acts 17:13), in Corinth (Acts 18:5-6), in Macedonia (Acts 20:3, 19), and in Caesarea (Acts 24:9; 25:2, 7).
Acts contains the portraits of many outstanding personalities, primarily Messianic Jewish disciples:
· Peter, who gave leadership to the Yeshua movement and was the first to proclaim the good news of Yeshua to a Jewish audience and to a Gentile audience (1:15; 2:10, 14).
· Barnabas, who exemplified sacrificial generosity (4:36-37).
· Stephen, who confronted Jewish leaders over their mistreatment of Yeshua and demonstrated readiness to forgive his persecutors (7:60).
· Philip, who demonstrated eagerness to follow the Spirit's leading (8:26).
· Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who manifested godly piety (10:2).
· Paul, who radically changed his life ambition to serve Yeshua (26:19).
· Timothy, who devoted himself to Paul as a faithful associate (16:1-3).
· Aquila and Priscilla, who were ministry partners with Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:2; Rom 16:3) and provided a meeting place for the congregation (1Cor 16:19).
· Apollos, who demonstrated a willingness to learn and sowed seeds of salvation (Acts 18:24-26).
The Apostolic Proclamation
An important feature of Acts is the announcement of good news by various apostles, beginning with Peter. The content of apostolic sermons centers on Yeshua and his work of providing salvation. Many scholars have endeavored to summarize the basic elements of the apostolic message or "kerygma" (Grk. kērugma, Rom 16:25). The content of the apostolic proclamation of the good news in Acts was determined according to the context of three different audiences. See my article The Original Gospel.
Ten Major Sermons in Acts
Peter's Messages of the Messiah
· Acts 2 – to Jewish pilgrims on Shavuot (Pentecost)
· Acts 3 – to Jews in the Jerusalem temple
· Acts 10 – to Gentile Cornelius in Caesarea
Stephen's Defense Sermon
· Acts 7 – Before the Sanhedrin
Paul's Messages of the Messiah
· Acts 13 – to Jews in Pisidian Antioch
· Acts 17 – to pagan Greeks in Athens
· Acts 20 – to Jewish leaders of the Ephesian congregation
· Acts 28 – to Jews in Rome
Paul's Defense Speeches
· Acts 22 – to Jews in the Jerusalem temple
· Acts 23 – Before the Jerusalem council
· Acts 24 – Before the Roman Governor Felix
· Acts 25 – Before the Roman Governor Festus
· Acts 26 – Before the Jewish King Agrippa II
This brief survey of Acts is intended to introduce the Bible reader to a different perspective than commonly found in Christian commentaries. The Acts of the Apostles is a Jewish book, written by a Jew for a Jew, telling the story of the Jewish apostles. Only by allowing this book to be what the Luke intended in his own culture first can the reader properly interpret and apply this Scripture in our lives and in our culture.
Barnes: Mark Barnes, List of New Testament Hapax Legomena. Logos Bible Software Forum, 2013.
Bruce: F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts. William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1954.
Danker: Frederick William Danker, The Concise Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. The University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Delitzsch: Franz Delitzsch (1813-1890), Hebrew New Testament. Leipzig, 1877. Online. (Translation into biblical Hebrew.)
Eusebius: Eusebius (c. AD 263 – 339), Church History
Flusser: David Flusser, Jewish Sources in Early Christianity, Adama Books, 1987.
Gager: John G. Gager, Reinventing Paul. Oxford University Press, 2000.
HBD: Holman Bible Dictionary. Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1991.
ISBE: International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Edited by James Orr, published in 1939 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. Website HTML, 2011.
Josephus: Yosef ben Matityahu, The Works of Flavius Josephus (c. 75–99 A.D.), trans. William Whiston (1737). Online. [Jewish historian]
NIBD: Nelson's Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible. Herbert Lockyer, ed. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1986.
Philo: Philo Judaeus (c. 25 B.C.–A.D. 50), The Works of Philo. Online. [Jewish philosopher]
Robinson: John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament. SCM Press, 1976. Online.
Shulam: Joseph Shulam and Hilary Le Cornu, The Jewish Roots of Acts. 2 vols. Netivyah Bible Instruction Ministry, 2011.
Stern: David Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary, Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996.
Tarn & Griffith: Sir William Tarn and G.T. Griffith, Hellenistic Civilization. 3rd Edition. Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1952.
TLV: Messianic Jewish Family Bible: Tree of Life Version. Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society, 2014.
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