Lecture 1: Acts - Author
Lecture: Acts: Author
If you look at your syllabus, you will note that we begin with, in the history of the early church, the sources available for learning about the history of the church. Now I left out one that I want to comment about first: we talk about the Book of Acts. Everybody usually says that the Book of Acts is the history of the early church, but we learn a lot of history from Paul’s epistles. And what we call the Catholic Epistles (that doesn’t mean Roman Catholic epistles, but “catholic” means “universal”), and these are these letters like 1 and 2 Peter, 1, 2, and 3 John, that are written to the whole church, not to specific churches like Colossi, or Rome, or the like. So “catholic” epistles are simply letters written to the church in general – the broader church, and the book of Revelation.
But there is another source from which we can learn a great deal about the early church that I want to call your attention to. And that source is the Gospels. In our Gospels class we talked about reading the Gospels to learn about the first, second, and third “sitz im leben”, which means the first, second, and third situation about the early church. One of the things that we learn from the Gospels is about Jesus – the first situation. Another thing that we can study in the Gospels about is to learn about the individual evangelists – they have editorial comments, and they make in their selection of things, materials – helpful advice and information to help us understand what are they trying to emphasize. But also, in between, we can study the second “sitz im leben”, or the second situation in life and we can read the Gospels to learn about the early church.
I’ve just listed a few things that we learn about the early church from the gospels. For instance, we learn that the Bible of the early church was the Old Testament. Matthew writes of the church, and he keeps saying “This was written”, and “Thus was fulfilled what was written by the prophet …”, and he quotes the Old Testament, and does this time and time again. This indicates that this was the Bible of the church, and they wanted to show that what happened in the life of Jesus and what was taking place in the early church was in fulfillment of the sacred scriptures. This was in the Old Testament. We read about baptism, and the importance of baptism as the entrance rite in the early church. We learn about the Lord’s Supper being continually repeated, and that was a rite of the early church. We learn that from the Gospels. We learn about the Lord’s Prayer as being an identifying prayer of the early church, which showed that those who prayed this prayer were followers of Jesus, who through faith in Jesus now could call God “Abba”, and therefore could pray to “Abba” in heaven.
We learn about there being a change in the clean / unclean regulation. Thus Jesus declared all foods clean, because it’s not what goes into man’s stomach that defiles him, but what comes out of his heart, and so forth. So we know that in the early church this was an issue that was going to be important. We learned about various ethical teachings of Jesus – the importance of prayer in the life of the individual; that divorce was prohibited; that there was a non-retaliatory attitude of the early church (turning the other cheek); concern for the poor, the widows, the downtrodden; they were to be obedient to the state as far as possible (give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s and to God that which is God’s); sometimes Caesar might demand that which is God’s and had to be disobeyed, but otherwise we are to be good citizens of the state and so forth. And so we learn a number of things about the early church from the Gospels in that regard.
We learn furthermore that the main language of the church happened to be the Greek language. Even though Jesus’ native language was not Greek, it must have been the language that the church spoke, because all the four gospels are written in Greek. You don’t write in a language that no-one understands in the church, and so this was the language of the church. We noted that in the Gospels the Holy Spirit plays an important role, especially in certain of them. And the promise of the coming Spirit is made very clear, especially in Luke and in the Book of John.
We realize that the early church lived in the realization that the Kingdom of God had in some way come, that it was already now, and yet they awaited the future. It was not completely realized and fulfilled. And so there was the tension of the now/already of the kingdom having come, and the Spirit being given, and yet we pray “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”, so there’s the anticipation of the “parousia” or the “coming”. “Parousia” is a Greek word that refers to the coming of the Lord and has become a technical term in biblical studies. And we also learned that there was a leadership in the church, and that leadership involved the twelve apostles.
So we learn a great deal about the early church in the Gospels. However, if you really want to know about the early church, the main areas are the epistles of the New Testament and the Book of Acts. And what we’re going to do is follow the scheme of Acts, looking at it as a reliable historical source, and then see what was going on according to Luke’s account, and fit the letters of Paul and the other letters as well, into that particular framework.
With regard to the Book of Acts, which is our main source of a kind of a continual history, there are people who have very negative views as to the Book of Acts. Critical scholars will minimize the Book of Acts as a historical source. I’ll give you reasons why we will not do that, and look at it objectively.
The author of the Book of Acts is the same author as the one who wrote the Gospel of Luke. This becomes rather clear when we look at the opening of the Book of Acts: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up, after He had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his Passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking of the Kingdom of God. And while staying with them he charged them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which he said ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”
It’s very much like the prologue of the Gospel of Luke: “For as much as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of things that have been accomplished among us … it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account to you, most excellent Theophilus.” Theophilus is named there. And, Acts 1:1 refers to the Gospel of Luke. It actually begins where Luke ends. The Gospel of Luke ends with Jesus telling the disciples to stay in Jerusalem until the Spirit comes upon them. The Book of Acts picks it up at that point, and it begins with the Spirit coming upon them in Chapter 2. All is set up for that. So you look furthermore at the style, the vocabulary, the theology – they’re all the same. And Acts 4:27 refers to Jesus’ trial before Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee. (And by the way, that’s the only other place you read of that. It’s not in any other Gospel, but in the book of Acts.) So they’re written by the same person. There have been some that have argued that it wasn’t Luke who wrote the Book of Acts but a follower of Luke. And the follower of Luke becomes so much like Luke that he actually is Luke after a while. So you’d have to be very skeptical to argue that these are written by two different authors.
So we have the same author. The writer of the Gospel of Luke by tradition says that he’s Luke the Physician. But let’s look at what we can learn from the Book of Acts and the Book of Luke with regard to the author itself. In the Book of Acts, we have three sections here which are known as “we” sections. And here, the author switches from the third person to the first person plural as he gives his historical account. Let me read 16:9-10: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia was standing beseeching him and saying ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” Everything is in third person, but look at v.10: “And when he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go unto Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.” So all the sudden, in 16:10-17, instead of having third person material, we have first person plural, and the switch from the third person to the first is rather clear.
In Chapter 20, in the opening five verses, we have the same kind of thing: “After the uproar ceased, Paul sent for the disciples and, having exhorted them, took leave and departed for Macedonia. When he had gone through these parts and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews when he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. Sopater of Berea, the son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus. These went on and were waiting for us at Troas, but we sailed away from Philippi after the days of Unleavened Bread and in five days we came to them at Troas, where we stayed for seven days.” And now we have the second “we” section from 20:5-21:18, and then after that it goes into third person again until we get to Chapter 27. Here you have Chapter 26 all being in third person, and 27:1: “And when it was decided that we should sail for Italy, they delivered Paul and some of the prisoners of the Augustine cohort named Julius.” So here again we have the third “we” section.
Now what does that suggest? A simple reading of the Book of Acts suggests what: that all of a sudden the author now is part of the group. And therefore if you’re looking as to who this author is, well he has to be a companion of Paul. And furthermore, you cannot if you take Luke seriously, look at those people mentioned in the “we” sections as being separate from the author. For instance if you say “We came there and saw Sopater” or Silas, or Timothy, well the author can’t be Silas, Sopater, or Timothy. And these various people, for instance Silas, Timothy, Sopater, Aristarchus, Secundus, Gaius, Tychicus, Trophimus, are all mentioned as distinct from the author – he’s not in the “we” group, he’s someone else. And so the author cannot be these characters mentioned in the account.
During the third “we” section, this is during the time of what we call “Paul’s Imprisonment”, and he writes what we call the Prison Epistles. And in the Prison Epistles, Paul mentions as “with him” as companions various people, such as Tychicus, Mark, Justus, Epaphras, Demas, Luke. Well, Tichycus can’t be the author of Acts because he’s mentioned in a “we” section as separate; and some of these can be eliminated. But here we have a small group, and of that group, Luke is one of the possibilities.
A man by the name of W.K. Hobart in 1882 wrote a book called The Medical Language of St. Luke. In Paul’s letter to the Colossians, Luke is mentioned as a physician. “Aristarchus, my fellow prisoner greets you … (v.14) Luke the beloved physician and Demas greet you.” So here Luke is described as a physician, and what Hobart tried to do was to look at the language of Luke/Acts, and see if it has an unusual amount of medical kinds of terminology. And he found lots of language that had to do with healings, and so forth, and descriptions of healings, and concluded that this fit very well, that Luke wrote this, because Luke was a physician, and it looks like a physician wrote these books.
In the 1920’s, a man by the name of H.J. Cadbury did his doctoral work at Harvard University on the language and style of Luke/Acts. Later it was published into a book: The Style and Literary Method of Luke. And what he did in his doctoral dissertation was to show that other people who were not doctors but were learned people often wrote using the same kind of language and care to describe medical things that the Book of Luke and Book of Acts have, so that non-doctors could also write in this way. And there’s a sense in which he proved that a physician didn’t have to have written Luke/Acts, and some say that he got his doctorate at Harvard by stealing away the doctorate of Luke/Acts.
There is a sense in which, I think it’s a supporting argument that the language is the kind of language a doctor could use. It’s not a proof like Hobart thought but I think it is a support.
And then we have church tradition – how people view church tradition depends a great deal. Some are extremely skeptical of church tradition. But this church tradition seems to be good church tradition. First of all, it mentions that the author of a Gospel is not an apostle, which is contrary to the tendency in the early church to attribute all Gospel-like works to apostles. Later on we’ll have what we call the apocryphal gospels – the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Paul, the Gospel of Bartholomew, the Gospel of the Twelve. Now have you noticed anything here? They’re all apostles – all part of the twelve. So the tendency of the church is to name as the authors of Gospel books or Gospel-like books, apostles. Here is a Gospel written, and I think church tradition is unanimous in saying an apostle didn’t write it. This goes contrary to what the tendency would predict, and therefore it’s pretty solid tradition. And as I say, there’s no reason to deny that Luke wrote Luke/Acts. The main argument against the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts having been written by Luke is one based far more on an anti-supernaturalism. In other words, if you were an eye-witness, you would know these miracles being described here could not have happened. And we know that the author of Luke/Acts is not an outright liar, so therefore it must have been somebody removed from the events who could have thought miracles like this could have happened and report them. But an eye-witness could never do that. But once you eliminate this anti-supernatural bias, I don’t see there’s any problem in arguing why Luke could not have been the author of this material.