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Miraculous Conversions in the Book of Acts

This new box in my New Testament Introduction deals with one of the fascinating and best documented phenomena from early Christianity — that the earliest followers of Jesus were believed to be able to do great miracles, leading to the conversion of outsiders to the new faith.  This notion is recorded already in our earliest sources.  Here is what I say about it from the book of Acts, our first account of the spread of Christianity.


Another Glimpse Into the Past

Box. 17.6  Miraculous Conversions in Acts

We have seen that the earliest Christians spread their faith by telling tales of the great miracles done by both Jesus and his apostles (see Box xxx). We find such miracle stories in our earliest account of the first conversions to the Christian faith, in the book of Acts.  The first episode occurs already in chapter 2, where the Holy Spirit comes upon the apostles on the Day of Pentecost, less than two months after Jesus’ death.

When the Jewish crowds hear the Spirit-filled apostles preach in foreign languages they do not know, they are “amazed and perplexed.”  The miracle is followed by …

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  1. Avatar
    HenriettePeterson  November 2, 2018

    Is there any clear historical context for what Jesus meant by “shake the dust off your feet when you leave that city” passages?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      It’s usually thought that this refers to Christian missionaries (obviously after Jesus’ day) who have no success (but quite the opposite) in spreading the gospel in one town or the next. If you have no success — move on!

      • Avatar
        HenriettePeterson  November 5, 2018

        1. “It’s usually thought that” means it is just an interpretation, right? No evidence for such phrase outside of biblical texts?
        2. Do I understand your hint correctly – you think this phrase was put on Jesus’ lips by later followers?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 5, 2018

          1. I’m not sure what you mean by “just an interpretation.” There is no way to understand what words mean without interpreting them. 2. Yup.

          • Avatar
            HenriettePeterson  November 8, 2018

            If the idiom “shake the dust off your feet” is found only in the Gospels, then we’re left only with that context to interpret. So I’m asking if it was a common idiom (perhaps found in other written sources as well) or if it’s specific only to Jesus – (or those who put it on his lips) therefore there was no common meaning to it and all we have left to interpret it are the situations recorded in the Gospels.

          • Bart
            Bart  November 9, 2018

            I believe it was a common idiom. (Do you have reason for thinking it didn’t occur anywhere else in ancient literature? I haven’t looked into it)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 4, 2018

      It’s a common Semitic idiom (cf. Heb. “tizraq et ha’afar mehareglayyim!” — lit. “Throw the dust from the [i.e.your] feet!”) meaning to utterly reject or ignore. A comparable expression in English might be: “Blow them off!”

  2. NulliusInVerba
    NulliusInVerba  November 2, 2018

    Are there any independent historical attestations of such miracles? That is, by sources other than what would become Christian scripture and other Christian writings? Thank you.

  3. Avatar
    jhague  November 2, 2018

    We know that the miracles did not happen but as you state, some peopledid believe that they happened. And many people today still believe that the miracles happened. What do most Christians today attribute to these type of miracles not occuring any more? That Jesus and the Holy Spirit passed the power down to the apostles, the apostles could pass the power on also but then the power to do miracles could no longer be passed on?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      Lots of CHristians think that miracles continue to happen, all the time.

      • Avatar
        jhague  November 5, 2018

        Right. I am referring to the people today who believe that the miracles of the Bible happened exactly as written but do not believe that these type of miracles happen now. A dead person raised made alive after several days, water turned to wine, the blind can see, the deaf can hear, etc.
        Do these people believe that Jesus and the Holy Spirit passed the power down to the apostles, the apostles could pass the power on also but then the power to do miracles could no longer be passed on?
        If these people today believe that miracles against nature occurred during Biblical times but not now…why not now?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 5, 2018

          Yes, that kind of Christian typically believes something like that.

  4. Avatar
    godspell  November 2, 2018

    But to me, what is important about this is that it demonstrates that everyone believed, or at least wanted to believe, what Jesus had reportedly preached–that faith alone gave one miraculous powers. The disciples believed this because Jesus had said it, and had (at least as they saw it) worked wonders through faith. They then tried to emulate him, and were to some extent able to convince themselves they had performed miracles as well. As is the case with Jesus (and to some extent even more), their deeds were magnified in the retelling, and in many cases simply confabulated to make theological points and win converts.

    It seems most unlikely to me that there would be such an emphasis on performing miracles through faith–without any implication that a virgin birth or some other godlike property needed to be present in someone for this to happen–would have been so evident in early Christianity if Jesus had not, in fact, developed a reputation as a miracle worker. And of course he could have developed such a reputation without actually performing any miracles in the literal sense of the word.

    In other senses, definitely.

  5. Avatar
    Stephen  November 2, 2018

    I will assume that the critical scholarly view is that the accounts in Acts of the number of early converts are somewhat exaggerated! However James at least was sufficiently well known by the early 60s to get the attention of Josephus. I realize there is a great deal we’ll never know but I’m curious about the historical situation of the pre-first revolt Jerusalem community of believers. Obscure, marginalized sect, huddling together in an alley somewhere? Or perhaps a group finding its place within a larger ex-pat Galilean community? How well known would you have to be to get on Josephus’ radar?


    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      Well, Josephus mentions lots of Jews from the time, many of them probably not well known generally. James is mentioned more or less by happenstance: what matters to Josephus is not James himself, but the fact that hte Sanhedrin acted illegally in having him murdered. This, for Josephus, shows how bad the times had been getting — which is his point (not that James himself was important)

  6. Avatar
    fishician  November 2, 2018

    Is there any outside evidence for ANYTHING that is said to happen in the book of Acts? Obviously Acts mentions real places and people, but I’m not aware of any other evidence that things happened as portrayed in Acts. Is there any evidence of 1000s of Christian living in Jerusalem in the 1st few decades of Christianity?

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      Yes, a the Roman rulers mentioned (apart from THeophilus) are known from secular history, and in broad outlines Paul can confirm many of the aspects of the book (he did make converts in Thessalonica and Corinth, he did travel to Rome, etc.)

  7. Avatar
    Rita Gomes  November 2, 2018

    Não seria exagerado dizer em 8000 conversões em menos de dois meses?
    Já que os cristãos judeus eram poucos e isolados até a metade do I seculo?
    Não houve um exagero na transcrição dos textos? Ou na hora de traduzi-los?
    Assim como no sermão da montanha, por mais que se tente imaginar, não caberiam 5000 pessoas em cima de um monte, até porque as principais montanhas da região não são grandes.
    Da onde vem esses números grandiosos.

    • Rick
      Rick  November 5, 2018

      Eu acho que os autores do evangelho inventaram tudo para impressionar seus leitores.

      de nada

  8. Avatar
    gavriel  November 2, 2018

    Doesn’t Acts 4:4 say that the accumulated number is 5000 and not “another 5000”? Various translations seem to differ on this point.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      THe Greek grammar strongly suggests that these are 5000 *additional* believers. It is those who “heard the message” that the apostles were speaking in ch. 3.

  9. Avatar
    Bartleby  November 3, 2018

    If Jesus said that we would do even greater things, how are we going to do them if we don’t know how; was there a method? If a miracle is a supernatural act of God, is God so weak today that he doesn’t do supernatural acts anymore? Is there a problem with the words “miracle” and “supernatural” that throws us off? IMO, nature doesn’t have a line anywhere drawn where on one side there are natural laws and on the other side there are supernatural laws. But we’ve been taught to believe there is a division. Are the number of conversions propaganda to get later readers to sign up for Christianity? I have so many questions.

    • Bart
      Bart  November 4, 2018

      Those are good theological questions. I”m afraid as a historian I have no way of answering them!

      • Avatar
        Silver  November 5, 2018

        Did you, in fact, see yourself as a theologian when you were a Christian minister? Did your early training for that role include education in theology? If so, do you only say now that you are not a theologian because you have not kept abreast of developments? Do you have to have a faith to be a theologian?

        • Bart
          Bart  November 5, 2018

          Yes indeed, my earliest degree was in theology and I thought of myself as a theologian. I suppose I was probably wrong about that!

    • talmoore
      talmoore  November 4, 2018

      “was there a method”

      The way someone would perform miracles, or “work wonders” back then was by invoking the name of a supernatural being, such as a god or, if illicit magic, a demon, and if that supernatural being found favor with the invoker it would perform the “miracle” for them. For instance, when the Israelites wanted God to do a miracle for them they would invoke his name — bashem YHWH, “In the name of the Lord” — and if God was favorably inclined towards the invoker (i.e. the invoker had God’s chen or “grace”) then God would work the wonder. In the NT, Jesus’s disciples and apostles would perform miracles “in the name of Jesus”. That is, they would invoke Jesus by name, and Jesus, in his new supernatural capacity as the right-hand man of God, would perform said miracle, but only for those who were true followers of Jesus (cf. Acts 4:30).

      “nature doesn’t have a line anywhere drawn where on one side there are natural laws and on the other side there are supernatural laws”

      This is the most significant flaw in the concept of the supernatural. No two people can agree on what “nature” is or what “natural” means, and until the idea of nature can be unambiguously and unequivocally defined, the concept of the supernatural or “beyond” nature is essentially meaningless.

  10. Avatar
    Hormiga  November 3, 2018

    If only the Apostles had had Facebook available to them…

    • Avatar
      Sixtus  November 8, 2018

      I’d have preferred Instagram — more pictures and far less verbiage to slog through and argue over.

  11. Avatar
    dankoh  November 3, 2018

    Since the population of Jerusalem in those days was perhaps 25,000, conversion of 1/3 of the people would not have gone unnoticed by writers of the time nor of the authorities. If the authorities were so opposed to Jesus as the NT says, why didn’t they take any action against these converts? Also,Josephus spends a lot of time discussing various sects which number 4,000 (Essenes) to 6,000 (Pharisees) – his numbers – but never mentions the Jesus followers except in passing, in a possible interpolation, and also calls them Christians, a late first century term, suggesting that the group he is talking about became noticeable only around that time.

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