Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Acts of the Apostles

This is a unique book in the New Testament. It is a sequel to the Gospel of Luke, written by the same hand and for the same audiences.

The composer/author’s voice is present from the very beginning, just as it was there at the beginning of volume 1 “The Gospel According to Luke”. You hear him give some reason for writing and the name of a person to whom he is writing. Sometimes scholars and writers will refer to this combined work as Luke-Acts. This combined work covers 27.5% of the New Testament, making Luke the New Testament’s most prolific author.

So what do we know of the author and his context? Tradition identifies the author as a companion of Paul (Philemon 24, II Timothy 4:11, Colossians 4:14), but there is no way to validate such a claim. By the author’s own admission, he was not an eyewitness to the life and ministry of Jesus. How much of what he writes about here he witnessed is also unknown. The language of the book is an excellent Greek, of fine literary quality (or so I am told!). This seems to indicate that the writer was a Gentile Christian, and there are other clues which also support this. Given what the author, who we will continue to call “Luke,” says in the beginning of both parts of his work, the gospel and Acts appear to be written for a wider public that has had some brush with Christian faith, either as persons newer to the faith or as outsiders. It may be somewhat less grounded in a particular Christian community than Matthew, Mark, or John but its purpose would have been, in part, to strengthen the Christian movement in the face of opposition. Luke is writing/composing theological history both for those within the Christian movement and for those outside of it. He expects his audience to be a bit more learned and cultured. It was probably written from 80-100 CE in an unknown location. Again, there is a bit less of a link to a more specific Christian community here than with the other gospels.

The story of Acts continues the story of the Christian movement from the ascension of Jesus in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish faith and life, to Rome, the capital of the empire and center of the Gentile world. By the time Luke writes, the Christian movement or Jesus movement has become more Gentile than Jewish, and we will see in this work some of the tensions that created. This is the only New Testament work that portrays “the history” of the early church, though it is not written primarily as a history but as a way to both strengthen the faith of those already Christian and to invite those not yet Christian to consider the faith. In some ways, this work is reminiscent of Old Testament works that record God’s continuing relationship with and work through God’s people.

About a third of the work is speeches. While some of the content of these speeches may have come from those who uttered them, as they were retold over time, in their final form, these speeches are Lukan compositions. This was common practice of the time, a time when there were no quotes or footnotes. Luke intends some of these speeches to be a summary of the Christian message as shared with those outside the faith.

The comparison of the Acts narrative both with Paul’s letters and with secular historical sources shows that Luke sometimes transmits accurate historical data and sometimes adapts historical reports or composes his own scenes to communicate theological truth in a narrative form. (People’s New Testament Commentary). “He intends to provide an edifying narrative that will inspire and build up the faith of the community” (New Interpreters Study Bible). As we read this work, we will encounter themes that are familiar from Luke’s Gospel: the importance of the Spirit and prayer, inclusive table fellowship, care for the poor and proper use of riches. Luke sees the activity of the Spirit in the Church to be a continuation of the activity of the Spirit in Jesus. In Luke we will also see how the early Christians worked in a culture that was non-Christian. In the Western world where once the Christian language was familiar, but is now becoming much less so, we may be able to learn some things as we read this work.

Here are some words offered by mystery writer P.D. James about the Book of Acts (from Revelations). To read Acts is to be drawn into a world of dramatic incident thronged with characters from all walks of life, a world of many nations and tongues…. She refers to the work as an “extraordinary, richly-populated and complex mixture of religious apologia, adventure story and travelogue.” Luke observes the dramatic events with the eye of a physician and describes them with the discriminating skill of a novelist, providing the human details which add verisimilitude and reinforce the story’s humanity and universality.

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