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The Literary Artistry of the Book of Acts

I am in the middle of a thread dealing with the New Testament book of Acts, the first account that we have of the history of the Christian church at its very beginnings – starting with the events happening right after the resurrection of Jesus and covering the spread of the Christian faith through the Roman world up until the time Paul reached the city of Rome, presumably in the early 60s CE.   And so this is an account of the first three decades of Christianity.   It’s the only one we have of this period.   That’s one reason it is so important to know if it’s historically reliable or not – if it’s not, we have very restricted access to what was happening in these most critical years of the early Christian movement.

Before I discuss the issue of Acts’ historically reliability (the subject of my debate with myself in front of my class two weeks ago), I need to provide a bit more background.   In my textbook on the New Testament I provide two brief discussions of the literary artistry of Luke, the alleged author of Acts; these discussions are relevant to the question of whether he means to present (a) a disinterested historical account of what happened in early Christianity or, instead, (b) a more artistic literary representation in which historical information has been shaped for literary (or theological) reasons, or, possibly, (c) some kind of combination of the two, both a historical and a literary account.

First it is important to see how Luke makes certain events in the book of Acts parallel events that he earlier described in vol. 1, the Gospel of Luke, in the life of Jesus; then one should see how he establishes parallel events within Acts itself (say, between Peter in the first part and Paul in the second).


Readers of the New Testament have long noticed …

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Major Themes in the Book of Acts
The Book of Acts: An Overview



  1. Avatar
    john76  March 22, 2016

    A fascinating story from Acts is Simon Peter’s famous “tablecloth vision” from Chapter 10 [It will be recalled that “Peter” (i.e., “Rocky”) is a nickname that Simon has acquired, presumably because his support of Jesus was “solid as a rock”.] Peter is going to be invited to dinner by a centurion, Cornelius from the Italica regiment in Caesarea, who is improbably described as “fearing God”, “giving many gifts to the poor”, and “supplicating God continuously” (Acts 10:1-2). Peter has a vision in which a heavenly tablecloth descends, covered with various animals, which he is instructed by a voice to “kill and eat. ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ ” (Acts 10:13-15). Later, Peter summarizes his visit: “You are well aware that it is against our law for a Jew to associate with a Gentile or visit him. But God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean.” (Acts 10:28). The fact that Jesus has to instruct Peter in this through a vision after Jesus’ death makes me think maybe the historical Jesus didn’t teach inclusivism to Peter while he was alive. May the gospels got the inclusivistic message wrong.

  2. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 22, 2016

    OT: I just saw an interesting article on the NBC News website. A new study shows that more Americans (especially young ones) are rejecting belief in God, but – here’s the surprise – more are coming to *believe in* some kind of afterlife!

    I was amused by NBC’s putting this in the “Mental Health” category:

    • Avatar
      Pattycake1974  March 24, 2016

      I went to the link you posted. Interesting! One of the Pew Surveys (if you hold any stock in their surveys) states that atheists and agnostics, on the whole, will be on a decline. However, the U.S. and France will make up the declining share. Christianity is projected to fall from 3/4 of the population to 2/3 by the year 2050.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  March 28, 2016

        You’re saying that Pew Surveys is predicting–i.e. that “atheists and agnostics, on the whole, will be on a decline”? They’ve been showing in recent years how much atheists, agnostics, and “Nones” (those who prefer to not identify themselves with any religious group, religion or sect) have grown from about 15% of the U.S. population to over 22% or so. Now they’re predicting this will turn around?

        • Avatar
          Pattycake1974  March 29, 2016

          If I’m understanding the survey correctly, it’s saying that atheism will grow in the U.S., but the rest of the world will decrease in atheism by the year 2050.

  3. talmoore
    talmoore  March 22, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, is it telling that the author of Acts devotes almost twice as much space talking about Paul — a Johnny-come-lately — than he does about Peter, not to mention any of the other disciples?

  4. Avatar
    JR  March 22, 2016

    The parallels you mention are striking. Do you think that Luke’s emphasis on the Disciples staying in the city until the spirit comes is serving a thematic purpose?
    I assume it is emphasising gospel going from out from Jerusalem – judea – sumaria – ends of earth.

    If Luke had Mark’s gospel why doesn’t he mention the ‘ going ahead of you to galilee’? Even if it doesn’t serve his purpose would it not have been a prevalent tradition?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2016

      Yes, you’re on to it. The Gospel of Luke focuses on Jerusalem as the place to which salvation has to come (it does this in numerous and sometimes subtle ways) and Acts focuses on jerusalem as the place from which salvation has to go.

  5. Avatar
    gavriel  March 22, 2016

    Do you think there is anything of real historical value in Acts which cannot be deduced from Paul’s authentic letters?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2016

      I think there are certainly some things, but Acts has to be treated very critically (as do all historical sources)

  6. Avatar
    Cristian  March 22, 2016

    Could artistry and history work together?

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 23, 2016

    The “parallels” are interesting. Thanks.

  8. Avatar
    Benevolent  September 27, 2017

    The Ethiopian Eunuch story always bothers me. It reads almost without any trace of doubt as propaganda. It makes me think of old 1950s film strips. And….it doesn’t even make sense what the Eunuch asks. If he’s able to even read the book of Isaiah enough to ask a literary question, he certainly would not confuse Isaiah to be self-reflecting. Seriously, that passage gives me the creeps.

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