Lesson 3 of5
In Progress

Background of Acts

We do not know what sources went into the writing of this book, nor where, when, or exactly by whom it was written. The writer of Luke’s Gospel also wrote Acts, and so both books are often referred to as Luke-Acts, reflecting their relationship as a two-volume literary piece. The common authorship of the two books suggests that Acts was written after Luke, probably between 75 and 95 C.E., during the time when Christians were beginning to distinguish themselves from their Jewish roots. Acts looks back, seeking to lay out how Jesus’ first followers–that small group in the relatively small city of Jerusalem–spread and grew to the widespread and largely Gentile church that the author and his audience knew.

Acts itself establishes the time frame in which its events occur. The story extends from the forty days between the resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to the end of Paul’s two years in Rome, a relatively short period of around thirty years. Acts offers few temporal reference points in the history it spans, such as the reference to Gallio’s proconsulship (18:12-17). If the author knew of Paul’s death or the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., he does not mention these things.

In terms of geography and culture, Acts locates readers firmly yet selectively in the world of the eastern and northern Mediterranean during the early Roman Empire. Major cities of that time and place, such as Ephesus, Damascus, Antioch, Corinth, Philippi, and Rome, are visited by Christian witnesses. Some aspects of life in those cities are described realistically, including descriptions of governing authorities, interest in magic, work, and common behaviors and attitudes.

Acts is “historical” within the ancient understanding of that term. History-writers of that era created speeches that could or should have been made; they did not have the ability to know or to record for posterity what really may have been said in a given situation. Like other accounts of ancient history, Acts is selective; it does not systematically lay out the spread of Christian communities. It provides, for instance, no information about the spread of Christians into Egypt or other important cities where Christians established themselves in the first century. Acts devotes half its length to Paul’s travels and after chapter 15 pays almost no attention to other apostles, including Peter. While the selectivity can be frustrating for those who would like to know more, or potentially misleading if one insists that Acts tells the definitive story of early Christian activity and belief, Acts nevertheless remains our earliest overview of the beginning of the Christian movement, an invaluable book.

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