Facts and summary
Acts is the fifth book of the Christian New Testament. The author of the book is traditionally understood to be Luke, the Gentile physician and companion of Paul who is also the author of the Gospel of Luke. At 28 chapters in length, Acts is one of the longest books of the New Testament. Acts was probably written around 63 A.D., shortly after the last event recorded in the book, since it does not record the outcome of Paul's trial, the Roman persecutions (64 AD), the martyrdom of Peter or Paul (c. 67), or the destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD). If the book ends where it does only because of Luke's purpose (1:8), it could have been written later.
Luke probably wrote Acts from Rome and the original recipient (like his Gospel) is Theophilus. The purpose of the book is to present a history, to provide a guide for the future church, to show the triumph of Christianity. Acts us of high literary quality, characterized by accurate historical detail, literary excellence, dramatic descriptions, objective accounts of failures and successes. Its teaching emphasis is on the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Paul's missionary journeys, the drawing away from Jewish traditions.
The style confirms the identity of authorship; also the address to the same person, Theophilus, probably a man of rank, judging from the title "most excellent." The Gospel was the life of Jesus in the flesh, the Acts record His life in the Spirit; John Chrysostom calls it "The Gospel of the Holy Spirit."
Hence Luke says: "The former treatise I made of all that Jesus began to do and teach;" therefore the Acts give a summary of what Jesus continued to do and teach by His Spirit in His disciples after He was taken up. The book breaks off at the close of Paul's imprisonment, A.D. 63, without recording his release; hence it is likely Luke completed it at this date, just before tidings of the apostle's release reached him. There is a progressive development and unity of plan throughout.
The key is Acts 1:8: "Ye shall be witnesses unto Me in (1) Jerusalem, and (2) in all Judaea, and (8) in Samaria, and (4) unto the uttermost part of the earth." It begins with Jerusalem, the metropolis of the Jewish dispensation, and ends with Rome, the metropolis of the whole Gentile world. It is divisible into three portions: I. From the ascension to the close of Acts 11, which describes the rise of the first purely Gentile church, at Antioch, where the disciples consequently were first called CHRISTIANS (see); II. Thence down to the special vision at Troas (Acts 16), which carried the gospel, through Paul, to Europe; III. Thence onward, until it reached Rome.
In each of the three periods the church has a distinct aspect: in the first, Jewish; in the second, Gentile with a strong Jewish admixture; in the third, after the council at Jerusalem (Acts 15), Gentile in a preponderating degree. At first the gospel was preached to the Jews only; then to the Samaritans (Acts 8:1-5); then to the Ethiopian eunuch, a proselyte of righteousness (Acts 8:27)
Then, after a special revelation as Peter's warrant, to Cornelius, a proselyte of the gate; then to Gentile Greeks (not Grecians, i.e. Greek speaking Jews, but pagan Greeks, on the whole the best supported reading, Acts 11:20); then Peter, who, as "the apostle of the circumcision," had been in the first period the foremost preacher, gives place from Acts 13 to Paul, "the apostle of the uncircumcision," who successively proclaimed the word in Asia Minor, Macedonia, Greece, and Rome. Luke joined Paul at Troas (about A.D. 53), as appears from the "we" taking the place of "they" at that point in his history (Acts 16:8-10). The repetition of the account of the ascension in Acts 1 shows that an interval of some time had elapsed since writing the more summary account of it at the end of Luke 24; for repetition would have been superfluous unless some time had intervened.
Matthew's Gospel, as adapted to Jewish readers, answers to the first period ending about A.D. 40, and was written probably in and for Jerusalem and Judaea; Mark answers to the second or Judaeo-Gentile period, A.D. 40-50, as his Gospel abounds in Latinisms, and is suited to Gentile converts, such as were the Roman soldiers concentrated at Caesarea, their head quarters in Palestine, the second great center of gospel preaching, the scene of Cornelius' conversion by Mark's father in the faith, Peter.
Luke's Gospel has a Greek tinge, and answers to the third period, A.D. 50-63, being suited to Greeks unfamiliar with Palestinian geography; written perhaps at Antioch, the third great center of gospel diffusion. Antioch is assigned by tradition as his residence (A.D. 52) before joining Paul when entering Europe. Beginning it there, he probably completed it under Paul's guidance, and circulated it from Philippi, where he was left behind, among the Greek churches. Probably Paul (A.D. 57) alludes to his Gospel in 2 Cor. 8:18: "the brother whose praise is in the gospel throughout all the churches."
Certainly he quotes his Gospel as Scripture, and by inspiration stamps it as such in 1 Tim. 5:18. His having been chosen by the Macedonian churches joint trustee with Paul of their contributions to Jerusalem implies a long residence, during which he completed and circulated his work. As Acts was the fruit of his second connection with Paul, whose labors down to his imprisonment in Rome form the chief part of the book, so he wrote the Gospel through the help he got in his first connection with him, from Troas down to Philippi. (See Birks' Horse Evarig., 192, etc., for the probability that Theophilus lived at Antioch.) Jerome says Luke published his Gospel "in the parts of Achaia and Baeotia."
The Book of Acts links itself with the Gospels, by describing the foundation and extension of the church, which Christ in the Gospels promised; and with the Pauline epistles by undesigned, because not obvious, coincidences. It forms with the Gospels a historical Pentateuch, on which the Epistles are the inspired commentary, as the Psalms and Prophets are on the Old Testament historical books. Tertullian De Bapt., 17, and Jerome, Vir. Illustr., Luc., 7, mention that John pronounced spurious the Acts of Paul and Thecla, published at Ephesus. As Luke's Acts of the Apostles was then current, John's condemnation of the spurious Acts is a virtual sanction of ours as genuine; especially as Rev. 3:2 assigns this office of testing the true and the false to John's own church' of Ephesus.
The epistle of the churches of Lyons and Vienna to those of Asia and Phrygia (A.D. 177) quotes it. Irenseus, Adv. Hser., 1:31, Clemens Alexandrinus, Strom., 5, and Origen, in Euseb. H. E., 6:23, attest the book. Eusebius, H.E., 3:25, ranks it among "the universally recognized Scriptures." Its rejection by the Manicheans on purely doctrinal grounds implies its acceptance by the early church catholic. Luke never names himself. But the identity of the writer with the writer of the Gospel (Luke 1:3) is plain, and that the first person plural (Acts 16:10,17; 21:1,18; 27:1; 28:16) includes the writer in the first person singular (Acts 1:1).
Paul's other companions are distinguished from the writer (Acts 20:4,5,6,15). The sacred writers keep themselves in the background, so as to put forward their grand subject. The first person gives place to the third at Acts 17:1, as Paul and Silas left Luke behind at Philippi. The nonmention of Luke in Paul's epistles is due to his not having been with him at Corinth (Acts 18), whence the two epistles to the Thessalonians were written; nor at Ephesus (Acts 19), whence he wrote to the Romans; nor at Corinth again, whence he wrote to the Galatians. The first person is not resumed until Acts 20:5,6, at Philippi, the very place where the first person implies he was with Paul two years before (Acts 16); in this interval Luke probably made Philippi his head quarters.
Thenceforward to the close, which leaves Paul at Rome, the first person shows Luke was his companion. Col. 4:14; Philem. 1:24, written there and then, declare his presence with Paul in Rome. The undesigned coincidence remarkably confirms the truth of his authorship and of the history. Just in those epistles written from places where in Acts the first person is dropped, Luke is not mentioned, but Silas and Timothy are; 1 Thes. 1:1; 2 Thes. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:19 compared with Acts 18:5.
But in the epistles written where we know, from Acts 28, the writer was with Paul we find Luke mentioned. Alford conjectures that as, just before Luke's joining Paul at Troas (Acts 16:10), Paul had passed through Galatia, where he was detained by sickness (Gal. 4:13, Greek "Ye know that because of an infirmity of my flesh I preached the gospel unto you at the first"), and Phrygia, and as the epistle to Colossae in Phrygia terms Luke "the beloved physician," Luke became Paul's companion owing to the weak state of the apostle's health, and left him at Philippi when he was recovered, which would account for the warm epithet "beloved."
In Acts 21:10 Agabus is introduced as if he had never been mentioned before, which he was in Acts 11:28. Probably Luke used different written sources of information, guided in the selection by the Holy spirit. This view accounts for the Hebraistic style of the earlier parts (drawn from Hebrew sources), and the Grecian style of the latter (from Luke himself). The speeches remarkably and undesignedly accord with all that is known of the speakers from other sources. Compare Peter's speeches, Acts 2:23; 4:11; 10:34, with 1 Pet. 1:17,19; 2:7; Paul's, Acts 14:15-17; 17:24-31, with Rom. 1:19-25; 2:5; 3:25 (Greek "the pretermission," or passing over of sins, "winking" at them), Col. 1:17; 2 Thes. 2:4 (margin of Acts 17:23 "gods worshipped," the same Greek); Acts 20:19,31 with Phil. 3:18; Acts 20:32 with Eph. 2:20; Acts 20:24 with 2 Tim. 4:7; "seed according to the promise," Acts 13:23, with Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:16.
The Hebraisms mostly found in the speeches, and not in the narrative, prove that the speakers' very words are essentially though summarily given. Providence so ordered it that during Paul's two years' imprisonment in Jerusalem and Caesarea, Luke his companion had the best opportunities for ascertaining the facts of the early part of his work from the brethren on the spot.
At Caesarea dwelt Philip the evangelist, one of the Seven (Acts 21:8), the best authority for Acts 6; 7; 8; also Cornelius the centurion, or at least some witnesses of the events (Acts 10) which initiated the preaching of the gospel to the Gentiles. Probably the portion Acts 17:15--18:5 was inserted by Paul himself, for he was then alone, and none but he could have supplied the facts. Moreover, in Acts 17:16-21 eleven expressions foreign to Luke's style occur, and in the speech 20 besides, some of which are found nowhere else but in Paul's epistles.
Peter, to whom the keys of the kingdom of heaven were given (Mt. 16:19), opens it as the central figure of the first part, both to the Jews (Acts 3) and to the Gentiles (Acts 10). Another instrument was needed for evangelizing the world, combining the learning of both Hebrew and Greek, which the twelve had not, with the citizenship of Rome, the political mistress of the Gentile world; Paul possessed all these qualifications.
A Jew by birth; educated in Hebrew divine truth at the feet of Gamaliel in Jerusalem; in Greek literature at Tarsus, one of its most eminent schools (whence he derived his acquaintance with the writings of Aratus, a Cilician poet, his own countryman, Acts 17:28, and Epimenides, Titus 1:12, and Menander, 1 Cor. 15:33); and a Roman citizen, a privilege which would gain him influence and protect him from lawless and fanatical violence everywhere. Hence Paul by his catholicity of qualifications and spirit (when his old pharisaism was completely eradicated by the revulsion of feeling attendant on his miraculous conversion) occupies the central place in which records the extension of the gospel to the metropolis of the world.
Baumgarten remarks: "the twelve did not enter so fully into the catholic spirit of the new dispensation; a new intervention of the Lord was needed to create a new apostolate, not resting on the Israelite organization." Three civilizations meet in the introduction of the gospel to the world: the polity of Rome, binding all nations together, securing peace, and facilitating the circulation of the gospel of peace; the intellectual and aesthetic culture of Greece, revealing man's impotence by his own reasoning to find out God's law, and yet preparing him for it when divinely revealed in the gospel; and the Judaic law, divinely perfect, but impotent to justify through man's inability to keep it.
Alford rightly reasons that the date of composition must have been before the fulfillment of the prophecy, Acts 27:24, "thou must be brought before Ceasar"; else Luke would have recorded it, as he does Paul's trials before Felix and Festus. The most certain date from the New Testament, Josephus, and Tacitus, is that of Porcius Festus arriving in Palestine in Felix' room, A.D. 60. Paul therefore went to Rome A.D. 61, when Burrbus, a humane man, was captain of the guard. His successor, the cruel Tigellinus, would not have been likely to have left him "in free custody." Herod Agrippa's death was A.D. 44.
Therefore Paul's second visit to Jerusalem with the contributions was about A.D. 42 (Acts 11:30). 2 Cor. 12:2 (written about A.D. 55-57) refers to this visit. "Fourteen years before" will bring us to about A.D. 41-42. The visit to Antioch, and Agabus' prophecy fulfilled in Claudius' reign (A.D. 41) preceded Acts 11:28, namely, A.D. 40. The silence as to Paul, Acts 12:1-19, shows he was not at Jerusalem then, A.D. 43-44, but just before it, A.D. 41-42. The stoning of Stephen was probably A.D. 33, Saul's conversion A.D. 37, his first visit to Jerusalem A.D. 40, his third visit (Acts 15) fourteen years subsequently to his conversion, A.D. 51 (Gal. 2:1).
After his conversion he went to Arabia, then back to Damascus, whence he escaped under Aretas (2 Cor. 11:32); then to Jerusalem, after three years. His first visit was then A.D. 40 or 41, being succeeded by a cessation of persecution, owing to Caligula's attempt to set up his statue in the temple. Next he was brought to Tarsus, to escape from Grecian conspirators in Jerusalem (Acts 9:30; Gal. 1:21). Thus only the period from A.D. 30 to A.D. 32-33 elapses between Christ's ascension and the stoning of Stephen. All the hints in the first six chapters imply a miraculously rapid growth of Christianity, and an immediate antagonism on the part of the Jews. The only other cardinal point of time specified is in Acts 18:2, the expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius Ceasar, A.D. 52.