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Acts as a Source (1)

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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 plausibility:

bulletActs is the only continuous narrative of the early church in the New Testament;
bulletIt includes the work of the church’s apostolic “superstars,” Peter and Paul;
bulletIt claims to be the result of careful investigation by the author (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1);
bulletIt is compatible with certain information in the letters; and
bulletIts 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 source.

Acts 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.

How 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.

In particular:

     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.

bulletActs brings Paul to Jerusalem some three years too early on the first visit after his “conversion” (Acts 9:23-30).
bulletActs inserts a famine relief visit (Acts 11:29-30), and, according to some manuscripts, inserts another, unexplained visit (Acts 12:25).
bulletActs 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.
bulletActs brings Paul back from the Aegean area for the unmotivated visit of Acts 18:22—if one takes this text as a Jerusalem visit.
bulletActs 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.
bulletActs 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:

bulletThe 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.
bulletThe 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).
bulletThe author’s unwillingness to acknowledge that the Damascus experience was a resurrection appearance (see fuller discussion below).
bulletRelated 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; 14:14-28).
bulletThe substantially different account of the Jerusalem conference (see fuller discussion below).
bulletThe 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 oral tradition.

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 disposal.

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:

bulletThe 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).
bulletThe author places the cure of the blind beggar on entering (Luke 18:35) rather than on leaving Jericho (Mark 10:46).
bulletThe author places the rending of the Temple curtain before rather than after Jesus expires. Click on curtain.
bulletThe 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 into Acts.

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 Chronology

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