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Major Themes in the Book of Acts

The debate over the historical accuracy of the book of Acts is important, in no small measure because – as I have pointed out already – it provides us our one and only narrative of what was happening among the followers of Jesus in the years immediately after his death.  This is the key, formative period in the formation of Christianity.  How did it start as a religion?  Acts is our only surviving historical account.  But is it an accurate history?

The first thing to stress is that Acts – like all histories – is highly restrictive in what it talks about.   It is not a comprehensive history and makes no pretense of being a comprehensive history.   The title “The Acts of the Apostles” was given it by later readers and scribes.   The author himself (whoever he was) does not give it a title.   And this particular title is not particularly apt, for one very important reason: most of the apostles do not figure in the account at all.   This is a narrative of some (very few) of the activities of Peter (and to a lesser extent John), the main character of chapters 1-12, and of Paul, the main character of chapters 13-28.

The other apostles figure in on the margins and usually only as a group.  Most of them are not even named, let alone discussed.  What were Bartholomew or Jude or Matthew …

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Is Acts Historically Reliable? The Affirmative Argument
The Literary Artistry of the Book of Acts



  1. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 23, 2016

    Does the fact that James the brother of Jesus, not one of the Twelve, became the leader of the Jerusalem church, suggest that the Twelve might not have been a recognized entity in Jesus’s lifetime? How might the Twelve have evolved over time, if Jesus never actually designated them as a group?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2016

      I think the twelve must have existed during Jesus’ lifetime; James became the leader because of his blood relationship with Jesus.

      • Avatar
        JakSiemasz  March 28, 2016

        Why did James replace Peter as the leader of the church when Jesus said he was building his church upon Peter, the Rock?

        • Bart
          Bart  March 29, 2016

          Maybe James didn’t know that verse. 🙂 (Seriously, though, the verse is in Matthew, and it’s not the view that Luke himself has)

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  March 23, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, you say that Acts portrays harmony between the Apostles, but there is one incident that sticks out to me: namely, the falling out of Paul and Barnabas at the end of chapter 15. Indeed, the Greek word used there is paroxysmos — from which we get our word paroxysm, suggesting a rather heated exchange. And yet their disagreement appears almost petty in light of the ostensibly successful mission narrative that surrounds it. I would imagine that the author of Acts would have prefered to leave that part out of the narrative flow if it were not necessary to include it for some reason. What do you make of it?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2016

      Yes, I think the author of Acts is downplaying the tension and struggle, which are more evident in Paul’s own account in Gal. 2.

  3. Avatar
    jhague  March 23, 2016

    Do you think that Paul never stopped being Jewish? It seems to me from his own writings that he may have been Jewish from birth but by the time of his death, he had stopped following Jewish laws and traditions.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2016

      Hard to say. In 1 Corinthians he says he was “a Jew to the Jews and a gentile to the gentiles.” So sometimes he must have started behaving in non-Jewish ways to win converts.

  4. Avatar
    jhague  March 23, 2016

    What do you think historically happened to Jesus’ disciples that we do not read about in the Bible? Maybe went back to fishing, etc? And simply following Jewish law as they could?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2016

      I think they got caught up in the early Christian movement probably.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 28, 2016

        They eventually went to graduate school and became agnostics.

  5. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 23, 2016

    For some reason, it had never occurred to me that this book might not have been given its title by the original author!

  6. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 23, 2016

    Let’s see, I have to think about these points made:
    1. God spread Christianity? Can’t prove that one way or the other.
    2. Nothing can stop the Christian mission.–I would say that’s true. Hasn’t stopped yet and still going strong.
    3. Conversions happen because of miracles and *tongues*. –I would throw in there that Jesus made appearances as well. Miracles–Paul mentioned miracles but he didn’t say what specifically, so I would say some people believed they did experience a miracle of some sort that led to conversion experiences.
    Tongues/The Day of Pentecost–I think that actually happened as I have witnessed plenty of people convert over experiences like this. Paul wrote about tongues and interpretation which I have also witnessed many times. Luke stating that people understood those speaking in tongues as their own language….mmmm no. Never heard of any verifiable case that someone spoke in this manner. Luke was either confused about how tongues works or exaggerated the truth to prove a point.
    4. Everyone was in harmony with one another. –Paul argued with others, so no I don’t believe they were in harmony.
    5 & 6…I don’t know for sure.
    7. Nothing contradicted Judaism. –Paul seemed to be Jewish when convenient.

    Acts seems to be on shaky ground right now.

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  March 24, 2016

      Acts does record Barnabas and Paul having a disagreement. Luke mentioned that it was Paul who was the disagreeable one and that they parted company over it. Luke was aware of Paul’s personality traits more than I realized.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 28, 2016

      I imagine that then, as now, there were intra-Jewish arguments as to how bad a Jew you can be before you become a non-Jew. Not sure about how much Paul or Christianity “contradicted” Judaism but there was much that was inconsistent with the various first century Judaisms. Human sacrifice was a no-no. The idea that the messiah would be crucified was crazy. That the messiah–or rather the belief in him–would be the means to salvation (i.e. that he would be the Savior rather than God alone) was close to blasphemy. That a Jew believed in God was taken for granted. The commandment was not to believe in God but to love the Lord. So too all the “laws” of the Torah: they regarded behavior, not beliefs. Now comes a so-called sect of Judaism saying it was necessary to believe something in order to be saved. Not too Jewish. And saved from what? It was not a normative Jewish belief that humankind was fallen as per Adam and Eve’s so-called sin. For me, there’s much that’s not Jewish.

  7. Avatar
    rivercrowman  March 23, 2016

    Bart, thanks very much for this excellent “book review” of the book of The Acts of the Apostles. … Now, I’m not in as big a rush to read that entire book in the NT. Your single post here is certainly worth more than another blog renewal! … On the web I found a collection of brief bios for ALL the apostles, including the “traditions” of how and where they were martyred (for any readers who may be interested). http://www.bibleinfo.com/en/questions/who-were-twelve-disciples

  8. Avatar
    Jim  March 23, 2016

    Does it seem strange that the writer of Luke/Acts does not mention anything about a Matthew writing/has written a gospel or even that Mark (who this writer directly plagiarized in places) has? Especially since the direction of the gospel’s journey to Rome seems to be one of the themes in Acts. I realize that it’s impossible to guess why an author from antiquity would or wouldn’t have included certain info in their work, but would knowing these kinds of omissions give some clue as to where the author was likely “not from” (i.e. maybe he didn’t know about gMatt but did know about gMark). In addition, Marcion seems to use something that resembles Luke, so could that give a regional clue?

    I just find it strange that if Luke was the “historian” that apologists claim he was, his writings seem to lack a complete “references” section, but maybe it’s just me.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2016

      Luke does indeed mention predecessors who have written Gospels before him (Luke 1:1-4)

  9. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  March 23, 2016

    In this post you shortly mention Ananias en Sapphira. Assuming this story really happened. I always wondered. How did the early church explain this death to the authorities? If reporting such an event was necessary in the first place of course. I mean, an assumable healthy married couple die a few hours apart? Would no one ask some questions? It seems to me this story is made up for obvious reasons: “Great fear seized the whole church.”

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2016

      Ha! Great question. I don’t know!

    • Avatar
      BrianUlrich  March 24, 2016

      I always suggest it to priests and pastors as something that should play a more prominent role in pledge drives.

  10. Avatar
    living42day  March 23, 2016

    What do you think of the arguments that support a later date for Acts (such as Pervo’s suggested date of ca. 115)?

  11. Avatar
    Stephen  March 23, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    Not germane to the topic really but in my reading I’ve stumbled once or twice on the idea that Josephus might have known Luke or vice versa. I suppose it would depend on when you would date Luke and of course you would have to account for their access whichever way the influence went.

    What is your opinion?


    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2016

      I’ve never been convinced, but I’m open to it (that Luke knew Josephus; not the other way around)

  12. Avatar
    prairieian  March 23, 2016

    The first objects of charity after early converts gave everything they had to the apostles would have been the aforementioned converts who now had nothing. Awkward.

  13. Avatar
    godspell  March 24, 2016

    The idea that seems to be developing is that the Jews who followed Jesus are just the core founding group of what is becoming a much bigger thing. Paul was a visionary in this regard–Jesus may have vaguely sensed this potential for expansion outside his community, but he did little more than occasionally acknowledge it when approached by a non-Jew. Because God will decide who is in the Kingdom or not, based on their faith. It’s above his pay grade to make decisions like that.

    But Paul has the zeal of the convert–he wants everybody to know what he knows, see what he’s seen. He knows very well that most Jews will hold to their old beliefs, as he did, until (as he sees it) the risen Christ hit him with that vision. A small subsection of Judaism (probably most of the Jewish converts to the new cult were made relatively early) isn’t enough for his evangelical zeal. He needs new worlds to conquer.

    He wants converted Jews to remain Jews, always. To remain true to the traditions of their ancestors, while embracing the new revelation. But aside from the fact that he’s inclined to see Jewishness as a state one is born into–a tribe, an identity, much more than a belief system, and not something you can join simply by wishing it–he also knows that these gentiles have their own cultures and identities, and it won’t be possible to reach very many of them if the Jewish dietary codes and other aspects of Jewish culture are made a requirement for being Christian.

    This is almost certainly not what Jesus wanted–he didn’t think in those terms. You have faith or you don’t. The Jews have been the most faithful (though their leaders have often been too mired in ritual and status to see what truly matters), but that doesn’t mean individuals who are not Jews can’t also share in that faith. God is God over all, and all things are possible with God. But he was not trying to form a new religion–such structures would be irrelevant in the Kingdom. Paul was compelled to do so, even though he also believed the Kingdom was coming.

    It’s a matter of personality. Personality shapes belief, much more than belief shapes personality. Jesus was a big picture guy. Paul was a systematizer.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 28, 2016

      RE your last paragraph, well said. Bruce Bawer in his Book, Stealing Jesus, said much the same. He said fundamentalism is not so much a function of content of belief but of temperament. In this sense, he wrote, a liberal Jew and a liberal Christian have more in common than a liberal Jew and an Orthodox Jew do.

  14. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 26, 2016

    A very helpful summary. Thanks. So how accurate is Acts????

  15. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 26, 2016

    Books of acts Paul was in Athens? Zeus and staying in shape? Was Paul in shape? Heading to NPC ( national physique competition in Denver ) fittnes goes back all the way to Zeus ? Before Atlantis ? Baalbek ? Did Bacchus work out ? Maybe the aged priest that told Solon who passed to Plato and his teacher about Athens 9600bc and Atlantis would know ? The age priest got it from writings on wall? Did Plato teach fittnes at his university ( the academy ?) lol just blogging is all

  16. Avatar
    SteveWalach  March 27, 2016

    “James the brother of Jesus (not one of the original twelve) is portrayed as the head of the church in Jerusalem.”

    In Luke-Acts, James is also the authority figure Paul must beg for permission to extend his mission among the Gentiles.

    If we can believe Josephus, in 62 CE James was executed by the Jewish high priest Ananus, who was then removed from his position by Roman authorities who had been lobbied hard by prosperous, influential, loyal adherents of James who were seeking retribution, and got it.

    Even if we suppose Luke-Acts has a PR bent favoring Paul, it is surprising that Luke-Acts does not mention James’ execution or Rome’s retaliation against the high priest who had him killed.

    Later Church historians recognize James as the leader of the Jerusalem Church. Why do you suppose James is treated so tangentially in Luke-Acts and basically ignored in subsequent Christian traditions?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2016

      I wouldn’t say he’s ignored at all in later traditions. He was widely recognized as the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Luke-Acts portrays him that way, but doesn’t say lots about him because it is more interested in the spread of Xty among the gentiles (by Paul).

  17. Avatar
    jrhislb  March 27, 2016

    Re point 7: The author does suggest that the laws of Judaism no longer holds, surely? I guess most Jews at the time would see that as a contradiction with Judaism.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2016

      No, I don’t think Acts argues that Jews should stop living like Jews.

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