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Bible Commentaries

Dummelow's Commentary on the BibleDummelow on the Bible

- Acts

by John Dummelow


1. Plan and Purpose. (1) Acts represents the exact religious standpoint of St. Paul. Its theme, the expansion of Christianity from a Jewish sect into a world-wide religion, is in fact St. Paul’s own ideal, in pursuit of which he broke every hindering tie, and strained every faculty of mind and body for upwards of thirty years. The keynote of the book is struck at once in Acts 1:8, ’Ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.’ These words, uttered by the risen Lord, fell at the time upon dull and inattentive ears. At first the Twelve realised only their mission to the house of Israel. It required a special revelation to procure the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch, and a thrice-repeated vision to induce the reluctant Peter to baptise Cornelius. Even when these important steps had been taken, the Twelve showed such hesitation to undertake aggressive work among the Gentiles, that the Lord of the Church raised up a thirteenth apostle to champion Gentile rights, and to inaugurate a more liberal policy. This ’chosen vessel,’ converted by a special miracle, and endowed with an authority independent of the Twelve, broke through the old prejudices which still hampered the original disciples, founded flourishing Gentile Churches, in which the Law was no longer observed, in the most important eastern provinces of the Empire, and, at the date when the book closes (about 61 a.d.), was proclaiming the gospel in the great western capital itself.

The book is thus a defence of Gentile Christianity, and of its great originator and advocate, St. Paul, of whom the author was a companion and enthusiastic admirer. What Boswell was to Johnson, that this unnamed writer was to St. Paul. Just as Johnson owes the affectionate regard of posterity in no small measure to the labours of his faithful and admiring biographer Boswell, so St. Paul owes his place of esteem in the minds of subsequent generations as the ideal Christian hero and missionary very largely to the author of Acts. The Pauline Epistles may teach us more of the Apostle’s inner life, but it is Acts which gives us those outward facts which make him live before us as an actual character on the scene of history.

(2) But the writer of Acts has still a further purpose. He recognises in a manner quite remarkable for so thoroughgoing a supporter of St. Paul, the immense value and importance of the work of St. Peter and the earlier Apostles. It is probable that when he wrote (about 61 a.d.), there still lingered in Gentile Churches some suspicion of the opinions and methods of the Twelve, and in the Judaic Churches of Palestine some dislike and distrust of the Apostle of the Gentiles. This the writer deliberately determined to remove. He therefore divided his book into two distinct sections, Acts 1-12, in which the chief hero is St. Peter, and Acts 13-28 in which the chief hero is St. Paul. He intended his Gentile readers by a perusal of Acts 1-12 to be brought to understand and to admire St. Peter, and his Jewish Christian readers by a perusal of the rest of the book to be brought to understand St. Paul. True to his purpose of acting as a peacemaker, he places both his heroes in the most attractive possible light, passes lightly over the past differences and misunderstandings (e.g. he omits the serious dispute between Peter and Paul at Antioch, Galatians 2:11., altogether), and dwells far more upon the points of agreement than upon the points of difference between two great Christian parties.

(3) There are reasons for thinking that the author intended his work to be also a kind of apology for Christianity addressed to the heathen world. Without going to the length of supposing, as some do, that it was intended to be produced and read at St. Paul’s trial as a formal vindication of the Apostle and his religion against the misrepresentations of his accusers, we may still discern in almost every chapter a desire to influence favourably Gentile readers, especially those belonging to the cultured and official classes. The author is well equipped for his task. He writes as an educated man to educated men. He opens his book with a short preface and dedication in the approved classical manner. He writes in a style which, if not the purest Attic Greek, is still graceful, easy, refined, and forcible. It is not only superior to any other Greek in the NT., but it compares favourably with that of many of the best profane authors of the age, and is far superior to the Greek of the early patristic writers, such as St. Clement of Rome, the author of the so-called Second Epistle of Clement, the author of the Epistle to Diognetus, and even to that of such professional scholars as Aristides and St. Justin Martyr. An educated pagan, happening to peruse Acts, could not fail to. recognise that some at least of the despised Galileans were persons of culture and refinement. Our author is in close sympathy with the best side of heathen life and religion, recognising that even the worshippers of the false gods of pagan Greece and Rome were feeling after the true God if haply they might find Him, and that He had not left Himself entirely without witness even in the gross darkness of degrading superstition (Acts 14:15; Acts 17:27 cp. Romans 1:20). He attempts to conciliate the official and power-holding classes, in whose hands was the actual administration of the Empire, by representing St. Paul as a peaceable and law-abiding subject, proud of his Roman citizenship, and, so far from cherishing disloyal designs against the Imperial Government, continually and successfully appealing to its aid against the hostile machinations of the turbulent Jews (Acts 18:14; Acts 19:31-41; Acts 21:32; Acts 22:29; Acts 23:29; Acts 24:26; Acts 25:16-20, Acts 25:25-27; Acts 26:32; Acts 27:3, Acts 27:43; Acts 28:7, Acts 28:10; Acts 28:7, Acts 28:10, Acts 28:16, Acts 28:30).

2. Value of the Book. To modern readers the chief value of Acts is that it is the only authentic record which we possess of the first thirty-five years of the history of the Christian Church. With the exception of a few meagre hints in St. Paul’s Epistles, Acts is absolutely our only first-century authority for the momentous events which followed the Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord. Even from the purely secular point of view, the process by which an obscure Jewish sect expanded into a world-wide Church, is a subject full of interest; but for Christians, who believe that the process was part of God’s gracious purpose for the salvation and regeneration of the world, the subject possesses an interest and attractiveness altogether unique.

3. Trustworthiness and Historical Character of the Narrative. Modern scholars apply tests of great stringency to ancient historical writings which profess to embody the evidence of eyewitnesses or contemporaries. Every statement made in such writings which can possibly be tested, is scrutinised and compared with the statements of other ancient writings of undoubted authority, also with the now very voluminous and valuable evidence of inscriptions, monuments, and coins. If the writer’s statements which can be tested are found upon the whole to be accurate and reliable, credit is also given to his statements which cannot be tested, and his work is pronounced to be a valuable authority for the events therein recorded. If, however, his statements which can be tested are found to be frequently false or inaccurate, his work is pronounced unauthentic and unreliable.

These tests have been applied with great and increasing rigour during the last half century to the remains of Christian antiquity, especially to those of a narrative character, like Acts. Tried by these tests, the various apocryphal Acts, e.g. the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Thomas, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and the Preaching of Peter, have been demonstrated to be forgeries. But the canonical Acts of the Apostles has emerged from the ordeal with its reputation established. The book is full of geographical and political notices which admit of definite proof or disproof, and in practically every case (the statement about Theudas, Acts 5:36, is a possible exception) the author has been proved to be right. Thus he knows that Cyprus was at this time governed by a proconsul (AV ’deputy’), whose name is correctly given as Sergius Paulus (see Acts 13:7); that Philippi was a Roman colony, having magistrates called ’prætors’ (AV ’magistrates’), attended by ’lictors’ (AV ’sergeants’) (Acts 16:20, Acts 16:35); that the magistrates of Thessalonica were called ’politarchs’ (AV ’rulers’) (Acts 17:6); that the ruler of Malta was called ’primus’ (AV ’chief man’) (Acts 28:7); that there were officers of the province of Asia called ’Asiarchs’ (AV ’the chief of Asia’) (Acts 19:31), with whose functions he is also familiar; that at Athens questions of religion were under the supervision of the ’Areopagus’ (Acts 17:19); that Derbe and Lystra, but not Iconium, were cities of Lycaonia (Acts 14:6); that Ephesus was ’neocoros’ (AV ’a worshipper,’ RV ’temple-keeper’) to the temple of Artemis, and that political power was exercised by the ’demos’ (’people’) meeting in ’the lawful assembly,’ presided over by an influential officer called the ’secretary’ (AV ’town clerk’); that the inhabitants of Ephesus were addicted to magic (Acts 19:13.), etc. He thoroughly understands the Jewish Sanhedrin, its functions and its parties; the position of the chief priests, of the Temple guard, of the Roman garrison in the fortress Antonia, and of the Herodian princes at Jerusalem. He is, moreover, familiar with Roman law, the procedure of Roman tribunals, and the rights and privileges of Roman citizens, e.g. freedom from binding and scourging, and the right of appealing to the Emperor. He seems also to be correct (though further evidence is desirable) in his allusions to the Italic and Augustan ’cohorts’ (AV ’bands’) at Cæsarea (Acts 10:1; Acts 27:1), and to the imperial troops called ’frumentarii,’ whose head-quarters were on the Cælian Hill at Rome. He is well acquainted with navigation, and his account of the voyage to Rome has been shown to be true in every detail by professional navigators who have sailed over the course with the express purpose of investigating its accuracy. We may add that the author’s allusion to the popular belief at Lystra that Zeus and Hermes (Jupiter and Mercurius) were accustomed to visit the earth in human form, and his descriptions of the temple and priest of ’Zeus propolis’ and of the attempted sacrifice to the Apostles, are thoroughly true to life, and have every appearance of historical truth (Acts 14:8).

The natural inference from these facts is that either the author himself was a contemporary and an eyewitness, or that his book is based upon and closely follows the evidence of contemporaries and eyewitnesses.

4. Authorship. (1) Internal evidence. The book is anonymous, but from internal evidence it is possible to gain much information about, and perhaps to identify, the author.

Certain sections (Acts 16:10-17; Acts 20:5-15; Acts 21:1-18; Acts 27:1 to Acts 28:16 also, in the D text, Acts 11:28) are written in the first person plural, and are hence called ’the we-sections.’ From them we learn that the author was a native of Antioch, and one of the earliest converts in that place (Acts 11:28; D text); also that he became a companion of St. Paul during the Second Missionary Journey. Joining the Apostle at Troas (Acts 16:10), he accompanied him to Philippi, where he was left behind, seemingly in pastoral charge of the newly-established Church (Acts 17:1). There he remained some years, probably engaged in evangelising the district, until St. Paul revisited Philippi on his Third Missionary Journey. He then accompanied the Apostle to Cæsarea, and Jerusalem (Acts 20:6; Acts 21:1-18), and finally to Rome (Acts 27).

Who was this companion? He cannot have been Silas (Silvanus), who was present at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:22), and would therefore have used the first person in describing it; nor Timothy, who is spoken of in the third person (Acts 17:14); nor Titus, who was a companion of the Apostle before the we-sections begin (Galatians 2:3), and therefore, had he been the author, would have begun the we-sections earlier. There remains Luke, who, in harmony with the indications of Acts, appears as a companion of St. Paul only in the later Epistles (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 1:24; 2 Timothy 4:11), and who was certainly, as Acts indicates, with St. Paul at Rome (Colossians 4:14; Philemon 1:24). In Colossians 4:14, Luke is called the ’beloved physician,’ and this again suits the author of Acts, who has an unusual (probably a professional) knowledge of medicine, and shows considerable acquaintance with the technical terms of the Greek medical writers (for instances see Acts 3:7; Acts 9:18; Acts 12:23; Acts 13:11; Acts 28:8, etc.). Internal evidence, therefore, points with certainty to a companion of St. Paul, and with considerable probability to St. Luke, as the author.

(2) External evidence. The internal evidence is decisively confirmed by the external. Thus (a) the author of Acts is certainly also the author of the Third Gospel. The common dedication to Theophilus, the reference to a ’former treatise’ of a scope and character exactly answering to the Gospel, the absolute identity of style spirit and Pauline standpoint, and, we may add, the common exhibition of unusual medical knowledge, point decisively to common authorship, and since the Gospel is ascribed by very ancient tradition to St. Luke, Acts must also be his. (b) Acts was received by all ancient authorities as the unquestioned work of Luke, the companion of Paul. Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and the Muratorian fragment (cirActs 200 a.d.) all ascribe it to Luke. A little earlier Irenaeus (177 a.d.) transcribes long passages from it into his work, ’Against Heresies.’ There are also practically certain references to it in the works of Clement of Rome (95 a.d.), Polycarp (110 a.d.), and in the Epistle of the Churches of Gaul (177 a.d.). This strong combination of internal and external evidence raises the Lucan authorship to a practical certainty.

The suggestion of certain critics that only the ’we-sections’ are the work of a companion of St. Paul, and that the rest of the book is by another and much later writer, cannot be taken very seriously. A uniform and easily recognisable style pervades the whole book, so that if any of it is by a companion of St. Paul, the whole is.

It is probably unnecessary to say much about the theory of F. chapter Baur and the Tubingen school that Acts is an unauthentic romance of the middle of the second century. Recent research has tended so strongly to confirm the antiquity and credibility of Acts, that the theory in question has been generally abandoned even in the circle in which it originated.

5. Date. The most natural date to assign to Acts is towards the close of the first Roman imprisonment (cirActs 61 a.d.). It is hard to believe that if St. Paul’s trial had actually taken place when the book was written, the author would have failed to mention the result.

So early a date, however, involves some difficulties. It throws back the date of St. Luke’s Gospel to 60, perhaps to 56 or 57, and St. Mark’s (which St. Luke used) still further. To many critics these dates seem altogether too early. Holding as they do, that St. Luke’s Gospel contains indications (see on Luke 21) that it was not composed till after the fall of Jerusalem, 70 a.d., they date the Gospel shortly after 70, and Acts towards the close of the decade 70-80. We may fairly leave the question open, with a preference for the former view.

6. The Text. The codex Bezae (D) and certain other authorities, generally called’ western,’ exhibit a text so different from that either of the RV or the AV, that it may almost be said to constitute a different edition of the book. The chief ’western’ variations are at Acts 8:37; Acts 11:27-28; Acts 12:10; Acts 14:3, Acts 14:5-6; Acts 15:2; Acts 15:26; Acts 16:35; Acts 19:9, Acts 19:14, Acts 19:25, Acts 19:28; Acts 20:15; Acts 21:1, Acts 21:6 where the notes should be consulted. The Bezan variations give additional particulars, which in nearly all cases seem to be authentic. We attribute them, therefore, if not to St. Luke himself, at any rate to some well-informed writer of the apostolic or sub-apostolic age.

7. Sources. For the early history of the Church of Jerusalem, there was available the testimony of St. Mark, who was certainly with St. Luke at Rome (Colossians 4:10, Colossians 4:14); also the testimony of Philip, with whom St. Luke stayed ’many days’ at Cæsarea (Acts 21:10). During the long waiting at Cæsarea, St. Luke doubtless visited Jerusalem, and obtained additional information from James, John, Peter, and others. His knowledge of St. Paul’s career was of course obtained from St. Paul himself, and from his own experiences as his companion.

8. Theology of Acts. The extremely primitive and simple character of the theology of Acts is a strong proof of the authenticity of the record. The great dogmatic Epistles of St. Paul had already appeared when Acts was written, but hardly the faintest trace of their characteristic expressions occurs in the author’s narrative.

(1) Christology. The Apostles insist that Jesus is the expected Messiah. His Messiahship is proved partly from prophecy and partly from the fact of the Resurrection. In general it is declared that ’to Him give all the prophets witness’; and again, ’yea, and all the prophets from Samuel, and them that followed after as many as have spoken, they also told of these days.’ In particular Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15) is quoted as to our Lord’s prophetic office, and Joel (Joel 2:28) as to the outpouring of the Spirit in the age of the Messiah. But most of the quotations are from the Psalms. Psalms 16:10 is quoted both by St. Peter and St. Paul as a proof of the Resurrection; and Psalms 2:7 by St. Paul in the same sense (see Acts 13:33). Psalms 132:11 is quoted to prove the Davidic descent of the Messiah, and Psalms 110:1 to illustrate the Ascension. Psalms 118:22; (’the stone which the builders rejected’) is also applied to Jesus as in the Gospels. But the great proof of the Messiahship of Jesus is the crowning miracle of His Resurrection, which is appealed to on every occasion with the greatest confidence. In the house of Cornelius Peter claims to have eaten and drunk with Jesus after He rose from the dead (Acts 10:41). On the day of Pentecost Peter says, ’This Jesus did God raise up, whereof we all are witnesses’ (Acts 2:32), and in general the history declares, ’with great power gave the Apostles their witness to the Resurrection of the Lord Jesus’ (Acts 4:33).

But faith in our Lord’s Messiahship was intended by the Apostles to lead on (as it had in their own case) to faith in our Lord’s Divinity. The indications that Jesus was already regarded as a Divine Person are neither few nor insignificant. Such titles as ’the prince of life,’ ’Lord of all,’ ’Judge of quick and dead,’ and ’Saviour,’ are only really applicable to one who is divine. More significant still is the practice of prayer to Christ. The dying Stephen invoked not God, but Jesus, to forgive his murderers and to receive his spirit (Acts 7:59 RV). The Christians even received their name from their practice of praying to Jesus (Acts 9:14; Acts 9:21; Acts 22:16). In that age, among a people trained to regard God as the only lawful object of religious devotion, and to guard His unique prerogatives with the utmost jealousy, prayer to Jesus clearly implied that He was within the Godhead. Another significant indication of what was believed about Jesus within the Church is contained in the confidential address of St. Paul to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20:28). There, according to the best reading (see RV), St. Paul said to the elders, ’Feed the Church of God, which He purchased with His own blood,’ thus expressly assigning the divine name to Jesus. It is somewhat remarkable that the title ’the Son (huios) of God,’ so common in the Gospels and Epistles, never occurs in the early speeches in Acts. Its place is taken by another word, pais (Acts 3:13, Acts 3:26; Acts 4:25, Acts 4:27, Acts 4:30) Which the AV also translates ’Son,’ but the RV ’servant.’ Both translations are supported by good modern authorities. The Gospel title, ’Son of God’ (huios), occurs only in the (probably genuine) confession of the eunuch (Acts 8:37), and in the preaching of St. Paul (Acts 9:29; Acts 13:33).

Characteristic of Acts is the stress laid upon the continued activity of the Ascended Lord, who is regarded as still carrying on from heaven the work which He began on earth.

(2) The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit. Much prominence is given to the activity of the Holy Spirit, who is regarded mainly as the Spirit of the Ascended Christ. Although He is a ’gift’ of Christ to believers (Acts 2:3, Acts 2:38), His will and personality are strongly marked (Acts 8:29, Acts 8:39; Acts 10:19; Acts 11:12; Acts 13:2; Acts 16:6-7; Acts 20:28; Acts 21:11; Acts 28:25), as also is His Divinity (Acts 5:3.). The doctrines of the personality and divinity of the Spirit, however, are not as yet thrown into definite theological language.

(3) Universalism. The writer strongly sympathises with St. Paul’s view that the obligation of the Ceremonial Law had been abrogated by Christ, and that Gentiles ought to be admitted to the Church without being circumcised. At the same time, he is perfectly fair to St. Paul’s opponents, and never uses bitter language against them. The tone of his book is generous and conciliatory. He does full justice to St. Peter and St. James and the other apostles of the circumeision: see § 1.

(4) Petrine and Pauline Theology. It is a proof of the accuracy of the writer that the speeches of Peter and Paul reflect the characteristic ideas of the speakers; but yet so naturally and unobtrusively that it is obvious that the writer has not copied their Epistles. The speeches of St. Peter have many points of contact with 1 Peter (see on 2 and those of St. Paul have recognisable, though by no means close, coincidences with the Pauline Epistles.

9. Contents, Chronology, and connexion with the Epistles.

I. The Church in Jerusalem, Acts 1:1 to Acts 8:8. 29-35 a.d.

The Ascension, Pentecost. First conflicts with the Sanhedrin. Stephen’s speech and martyrdom.

II. The Church in Judaea and Samaria, Acts 8:4 to Acts 11:18. 35, 36 a.d.

Philip in Samaria. Conversion of Saul (probably 35 or 36 a.d., though some place it as early as 30 a.d., shortly after the Ascension). Baptism of Cornelius, and important discussion thereupon.

III. The Church of the World, Acts 11:18 to Acts 28:31. 35-61 a.d.

(1) The Church in Antioch, Acts 11:19 to Acts 13:8. 35-47 a.d.

Mission of Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem. Persecution by Herod Agrippa I (44 a.d.). Barnabas and Saul sent forth from Antioch.

(2) First Missionary Journey of Paul and Barnabas, Acts 13:4 to Acts 15:35. 47 a.d.

Cyprus, Pisidia, Antioch, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe. Return to Syrian Antioch.

Possible date for the Epistle to the Galatians, beginning of 49 a.d.

Council of Jerusalem, Pentecost, 49(?) a.d.

(3) Second Missionary Journey of Paul, Acts 15:36 to Acts 18:22. 49-52 a.d.

Galatia revisited, Europe, Philippi, Thessalonica, Berœa, Athens.

Corinth, Acts 18:1 to Acts 18:1 and 2 Thessalonians written from Corinth, 50-52 a.d.

Possible date of St. Matthew’s Hebrew ’Logia’ or Gospel, about 45-50 a.d.

Visit to Jerusalem, and return to Syrian Antioch.

(4) Third Missionary Journey of Paul, Acts 18:23 to Acts 21:16. Aug. 52 a.d. to Pentecost, 56 a.d.

Galatia revisited, Apollos at Ephesus, Paul at Ephesus, Acts 19:1-41; (53-55 a.d.).

1 Corinthians written early in 55 a.d.

Paul in Macedonia and Greece (Corinth), Acts 20:1-6; (55, 56 a.d.).

2 Corinthians and (according to usual view) Galatians, written from Macedonia, and Romans from Corinth.

Possible date of St. Mark’s Gospel.

Troas, Acts 20:7-12. Voyage to Jerusalem, Acts 20:18 to Acts 21:16.

(5) Paul in Jerusalem and Caesarea, Acts 21:17 to Acts 28:16.

Pentecost, 56-59 a.d.

Paul’s arrest. Caesarea. Paul before Felix, Festus, Agrippa. Possible date for St. Luke’s Gospel, 57, 58 a.d. Voyage to Rome.

(6) Paul in Rome, Acts 28:17-31. From 59 a.d.

Epistles to the Philippians, Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon.

Probable date of Acts, 61 a.d.

St. Paul’s trial before Nero, and acquittal, 61 a.d.

Labours in Spain, Crete, Asia Minor; Macedonia, Achaea. Epistles to Titus and 1 Timothy written, 65 (?) a.d.

Second imprisonment at Rome. The Second Epistle to Timothy written, 67 a.d.

Second trial, condemnation and martyrdom of St. Paul (probably of St. Peter also), 67 a.d.

[Some authorities place the martyrdom of SS. Peter and Paul earlier, in 64 a.d.]

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