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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Acts of the Apostles (2)

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ACTS OF THE APOSTLES.—The aim of this article is to answer the question, What does the Acts of the Apostles say of Christ?; otherwise expressed, How is the Book of Acts related to ‘the gospel?’ or, What is ‘the gospel’ of the Acts? We do not know the name of the author of the book—for St. Luke or some other disciple of St. Paul did not compose it, but merely supplied valuable materials for its composition—but his religious individuality may be ascertained from his work with sufficient clearness to enable us to answer the questions just stated. The problem is all the more interesting because the author can hardly have written before the end of the 1st cent., and thus cannot reckon himself among the first eye-witnesses and ministers of the word (Luke 1:2). What then is the picture of Christ that stamps itself on the heart of a man of the second generation? Has this man anything new, anything unique, to tell us of Him?

Before we go on to answer this question, we must make it clear to ourselves that our author, in what he writes, does not always speak in his own person. From the Gospel of St. Luke we know to what an extent he is depentant on sources. This may be observed and proved in particular instances by a close comparison with St. Mark and (in the case of the discourses) with St. Matthew. In the Gospel he is almost entirely a mere retailer of older tradition, and the lineaments of his own personality scarcely come into view. There can be no doubt that likewise in the Acts he largely reproduces early tradition, that he makes use of sources, sometimes copying them in full, at other times abbreviating or expanding them, grouping them and editing both their language and their contents. Modern criticism, however, has reached the conviction that in this second work more of the author’s idiosyncrasy is to be detected than in his Gospel. Hence it will be necessary to make the attempt to distinguish the notions which reveal to us the educated writer of the last decade of the 1st cent. from those passages in which the rôle is played by early popular tradition.

The author’s personality undoubtedly shows itself more strongly in the second than in the first part of the book, but most clearly in the way in which the work is arranged in these two parts, so that the first is dominated by the person of Peter and the second by that of Paul. To him the Church rests upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets (cf. Ephesians 2:20; Ephesians 3:5)—not upon one Apostle, as in Matthew 16:18, but upon the two great leaders, the head of the primitive Church who by a Divine dispensation was led to engage in a mission to the Gentiles, and the great Apostle of the heathen world who by Divine guidance had to turn his back on his own people and betake himself to the Gentiles. ‘Peter and Paul’ is the watchword, the shibboleth of the Roman Church, as we find again in the First Epistle of Clement.

It is especially in the speeches contained in the second part of the book that the author reveals his conception of Christianity. When St. Paul discourses (Acts 24:24) of ‘the faith in Christ Jesus,’ the subjects of his address are given in Acts 24:25 as ‘righteousness, temperance, and judgment to come.’ This future and not distant judgment is also the point that forms the climax of St. Paul’s address at Athens (Acts 17:31): ‘He hath appointed a day in the which he will judge the world in righteousness,’ and immediately thereafter, ‘by a man whom he hath (thereto) ordained, having given him his credentials before all men by having raised him from the dead.’ This last is the essentially new point in contradistinction from the Jewish preaching in the Diaspora. That there is to be a judgment of the world had, indeed, been already declared, but that the Judge ‘appointed by God over living and dead’ (Acts 10:42) is already present in heaven (Acts 3:21), has already been manifested on earth (Acts 1:3, Acts 10:40 f.), and accredited by God through an unprecedented miracle—this is the cardinal and significant message of the Apostles. Now, it is noteworthy how the author of the Acts gives point and practical application to this generally accepted idea. The resurrection of Jesus is the main content of the Apostolic preaching, so much so that in Acts 1:22 the Apostles are roundly designated ‘witnesses of the resurrection.’ In the eyes of our author it comes to this, that in the gospel of the resurrection of Jesus is implied the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead in general. What St. Paul (1 Corinthians 15:12-19) seeks to prove to his readers, is to our author self-evident: the one special case implies the general. This is plainly declared in Acts 4:2 ‘they proclaimed in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.’ So also in Acts 17:18 ‘he preached Jesus and the resurrection,’ and in Acts 17:32 ‘the resurrection of the dead’ is the point in St. Paul’s address on which the Athenians fix. Before the Sanhedrin St. Paul declares: ‘Touching the hope and resurrection of the dead I am called in question’ (Acts 23:6); to Felix he says: ‘I have the hope that there shall be a resurrection both of the just and of the unjust’ (Acts 24:15). The latter passage is specially important because in it the relation of Christianity to Judaism is defined to the effect that there is really no essential difference between them. St. Paul, like his accusers, serves, although after the new ‘Way,’ the God of the fathers (Acts 24:13); ‘for the hope of Israel’ he bears his chain (Acts 28:20). All Jews who believe in the resurrection ought really to be Christians. ‘Why is it judged incredible with you if God doth raise the dead?’ (Acts 26:8). Hence also the Pharisees, who believe in the resurrection of the dead, appear as the party favourable to Christianity; whereas the Sadducees, who say that ‘there is no resurrection,’ are its enemies (Acts 23:8). Resurrection, then, is the main theme of the new message, hence the preaching of the Apostles bears the designation ‘words of this Life’ (Acts 5:20). The Risen One is ‘the Prince of Life’ (Acts 3:15). By His resurrection and exaltation He is proved to be the Saviour (σωτήρ, the term best answering our author’s purpose, and most intelligible to the Greeks of the time, Acts 5:30 f, Acts 13:23); the ‘word’ is the ‘word of salvation’ (Acts 13:26); and the whole of the Acts of the Apostles might have this motto prefixed: ‘In none other is there salvation, and neither is there any other name under heaven, that is given among men, wherein we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). This religion is proved to be the superior of all earlier ones, superior alike to the darkness of heathendom (Acts 26:18) and to Judaism, in this, that it tells of a Saviour who saves alive. The method is described in Acts 10:43, Acts 13:38 f, Acts 26:18 as the forgiveness of sins, or, to use the designation adopted in one of St. Paul’s addresses, ‘justification’ (Acts 13:39).

But who now is the Judge and Saviour accredited by the resurrection? It is very characteristic of our author that in those passages where for the most part it is himself that speaks, e.g. in the speeches put into the mouth of St. Paul before Agrippa or Felix or Festus (chs. 22, 23), we scarcely hear of the earthly Jesus but of the heavenly Lord. The appearance of the Exalted One near Damascus is the great matter which St. Paul has to communicate to his countrymen and to the Jewish king. It is the heavenly Lord that permeates the life of His Church and His apostles, the Κύριος on whom Christians believe. This Divine name is very often applied in the Acts to God, but not infrequently also to Christ. Thus the Exalted Christ, working miracles from heaven by His name (Acts 9:34), accredited by the miracle of the resurrection, and destined to come again with judgment and salvation, occupies the central point of the faith of our author.

But it would be a mistake to suppose that our author had no interest in the earthly Jesus of Nazareth. As the heavenly Christ says to Saul, ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth whom thou persecutest’ (Acts 22:8), so to the writer of the Acts ‘the Christ’ and ‘Jesus’ constitute an inseparable unity. He interchanges freely such expressions as ‘proclaimed unto them the Christ’ (Acts 8:5) and ‘preached unto him Jesus’ (Acts 8:35); cf. Acts 5:42 ‘to preach Christ Jesus’ ( Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘Jesus [as] the Christ’), Acts 9:20 ‘proclaimed Jesus that he is the Son of God,’ Acts 18:5 ‘testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ.’ And as our author in his Gospel narrative already calls Jesus ‘Lord,’ it is always of the Exalted One that he thinks even when communicating what he knows of the earthly life of Jesus. More than once he defines the contents of the Apostolic preaching as ‘the things concerning Jesus’ (Acts 18:25) or ‘the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 28:31), and this concise formula embraces far more than one might infer from the meagre sketches of St. Paul’s address in Acts 13:24-30 or St. Peter’s in Acts 10:37-43. We must keep in mind that the first readers of the Acts, Theophilus in particular, when this work came into their hands, were already acquainted with the Third Gospel, and would thus, by means of the full details supplied in it, unconsciously clothe with meaning the brief formulae in question. Still more varied was the knowledge which our author possessed of the life of Jesus, for he was acquainted not only with St. Mark’s Gospel, but with other writings which he utilized merely for extracts; and how manifold may have been the oral tradition current at the same time, which he made use of in an eclectic fashion! The whole of this copious tradition we must think of as forming the background of the Acts if we are to appreciate rightly its picture of Christ.

A special charm of the Lukan writings arises from the fact that the author, with all his culture and Greek sympathies, has had the good taste to retain in large measure the peculiar, un-Greek, popular Palestinian character of his sources, and that both in language and contents. Some scholars, indeed, are of opinion that he himself deliberately produced the colouring appropriate to place and time, as in the case of an artificial patina. But this view is untenable. The more thoroughly the Third Gospel and the Acts are examined, the deeper becomes the conviction that the author worked upon a very ancient tradition which he has preserved in his own style. As in the early narratives of his Gospel he preserves almost unimpaired the colouring and tone of Jewish-Christian piety without any admixture of Graeco-Gentile-Christian elements, so also in the Acts, especially in the first part of the book, he has succeeded in presenting the original picture of the religious conceptions and the piety of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem. We are far from believing that everything here related is ‘historical’ in the strict sense. For instance, it is in the highest degree improbable that the actual speeches of St. Peter have been preserved verbatim; all we assert is that these chapters are a true representation of the spirit of early Jewish Christianity. Very specially is this the case with the Christology. For such a doctrine of Christ as is represented by the Petrine discourses was scarcely to be found in the Church after the time of St. Paul and at the time when the Fourth Gospel was written. After the kenosis doctrine of St. Paul had been propounded, and then, as its counterpart, the Johannine picture of Christ, in which also the earthly Jesus wears the ‘form of God,’ had taken hold of men’s minds, a Christology such as the first part of the Acts exhibits could not have been devised. But we are grateful to the author for having preserved to us a picture of that earliest mode of thought. Let us examine its main features.

We may use as a collateral witness the words of the disciples on the way to Emmaus (Luke 24:19), for it is a mere accident, so to speak, that this story is found in the Gospel and not in the Acts: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet (ἀνὴρ προφήτης), mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.’ So also He is described by St. Peter: ‘Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved of God unto you by mighty works and wonders and signs, which God did by him in the midst of you’ (Acts 2:22). The peculiarity of this last statement is that the wonders and signs are not attributed to Jesus Himself: God wrought them through Him; He was simply God’s organ or instrument. The same thing is expressed in another passage (Acts 10:38), where it is declared that in His going about and in His deeds God was with Him. In both instances the conception comes out clearly that Jesus was a man chosen and specially favoured of God. There is not a word in all these discourses of a Divine birth, no word of a coming down from heaven or of a ‘Son of God’ in a physical or supernatural sense. On the contrary, Jesus is called more than once ‘the Servant of God’ (Acts 3:13; Acts 3:26, Acts 4:27). This designation suggests a prophet, and as a matter of fact Jesus is directly characterized as a prophet when in Acts 4:22 the words of Deuteronomy 18:15; Deuteronomy 18:18 f. are applied to Him. At the same time He is no ordinary prophet, but the prophet like unto Moses; He is the second Moses predicted by Moses himself.

But it may be asked, Was Jesus then nothing more than this to the earliest disciples, was He not to them the Messiah? In a certain sense—yes, and in another sense—no. Certainly He had received the kingly anointing (Acts 10:38); but, as David was anointed long before he received the kingdom, so Jesus was from the time of His baptism a king, indeed, but a secret one with an invisible crown. The primitive Jewish-Christian Church was far from saying: Jesus of Nazareth, as He journeyed through the land teaching and healing, was the Messiah; no, He was then merely the One destined for lordship. It was only at a later period that He received the crown, namely at His resurrection and exaltation. Here comes into view the saying of St. Peter in Acts 2:36, which is a gem to the historian of primitive Christianity: ‘This Jesus hath God made both Lord and Christ,’ namely by exalting Him to His right hand (Acts 2:33) and thereby fulfilling the words of Psalms 110:1 ‘Sit thou at my right hand.’ The exaltation of Jesus marks His ascension of the throne; now He has become in reality what since His baptism He was in claim and anticipation—‘the Anointed.’ Now for the first time the name ‘Lord’ is fully appropriate to Him. This is the principal extant proof passage for the earliest Christology. It reveals to us the conceptions of the primitive Church, which, as a matter of fact, still underlie the teaching even of St. Paul. For, in spite of his advanced speculations on the subject of Christ, in spite of his doctrine of pre-existence and his cosmological Christology, the Apostle holds fast in Romans 1:4 and Philippians 2:9 to the notion that Jesus became ‘Son of God in power’ through His resurrection from the dead, and was invested with the title ‘Lord’ at His exaltation. To the same effect St. Paul in Acts 13:33 applies the words of Psalms 2:7 (‘Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee’) not to the birth nor to the baptism of Jesus, but to the day of His resurrection and exaltation. With this fundamental passage corresponds another. When in Acts 3:19 f., speaking of the future, it is said ‘that there may come the times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ who hath been appointed for you, even Jesus,’ this assumes that Jesus has not yet made His appearance as Messiah; in that capacity He belongs to the future; there is not a word of coming again or of a second sending. Such is the earliest primitive Christian conception, and it is this alone which is in harmony with the preaching and the self-estimate of Jesus when these are rightly understood.

But what now are the contents and the significance of the life-work of Jesus? Thoroughly in harmony with important words of Jesus, Acts 10:36 replies: ‘He went about doing good, and healing all that were oppressed of the devil.’ Just as the Third Gospel delights to represent the work of Jesus as a conflict with the devil, the brief formula we have quoted reproduces accurately the contents of His life work. Along with this, indeed, should be taken also Acts 3:26 ‘God sent him to bless you in turning away every one of you from your iniquities.’ He was ‘the Holy and Righteous One’ (Acts 3:14), or, absolutely, ‘the Righteous One’ (Acts 7:52). The latter expression is chosen no doubt in order to emphasize His innocence in His sufferings and death, but it is certainly not contrary to the spirit of the Acts to find in it the testimony that it was He that was called to break the sway of sin in the world. Less clear is Acts 10:36, according to which God caused ‘peace to be preached by Jesus to the children Israel,’ a form of expression which recalls Ephesians 2:17, and in its abrupt conciseness no doubt reflects the conceptions of the author more than those of the early Church.

This brings us to the question, What view, judging from the evidence of the Acts, did the early Church take of the death of Christ? Repeatedly in the addresses of St. Peter it is urged upon opponents that this Jesus, the Holy and Righteous One, was put to death by the Jews (Acts 2:23, Acts 3:13, Acts 4:10;Acts 4:25 ff., Acts 5:28 ff., Acts 7:52, Acts 10:39, Acts 13:28), by the hands of wicked men (Acts 2:23), although Pilate was prepared to acquit Him (Acts 3:13). In all these instances, as was fitting in addresses meant to lead the hearers to conviction and repentance, the innocence of Jesus is emphasised as a point to awaken conscience, not as an element in a doctrine of the atoning death of Christ. Such an element is entirely lacking in these chapters, for in the passage from Isaiah 53 about the Suffering Servant, which Philip expounded to the Ethiopian ennuch, it is precisely the expressions about bearing our sins that are wanting. The early theology of the death of Christ confines itself entirely to the point that this event was in no way contrary to God’s saving purpose; on the contrary, it had long been foreseen (Acts 2:23, Acts 3:18, Acts 4:28, Acts 13:29). Hence the copious Scripture proofs, which, however, deal more with the resurrection than with the sufferings and death (Acts 2:25 ff., Acts 2:34 f, Acts 4:11; Acts 4:25 f, Acts 8:32 f, Acts 13:33 ff.).

The resurrection is not in these passages, as with St. Paul, regarded as a clothing of the Risen One with a glorified body, but as the revivification, or, to put it better, the conservation of the very same body of flesh which was laid in the grave. The principle that governs the conception is found in Psalms 16:10 (quoted in Acts 2:27), ‘Thou wilt not leave my soul to Sheol, neither wilt thou suffer thine holy one to see corruption.’ For, if Christ did descend to Hades, He was not given over to its power (Acts 2:31), God ‘having loosed “the pangs of death,” because it was not possible that he should be holden of it’ (Acts 2:24), ‘nor did his flesh see corruption’ (Acts 2:31). This is the essential point, that the same body which was laid in the grave was that which rose again. For this reason, as in St. Luke’s Gospel (Luke 24:39-43), such emphasis is laid upon the eating and drinking of the Risen One (Luke 10:41); hence also the forty days’ intercourse with the disciples (Luke 1:3). Jesus, in short, actually returned again to earth in complete corporeality; hence the necessity, at the end of the forty days, of yet another special miracle, that of the Ascension (Luke 1:8). Like Moses or Elijah, He is carried up by a cloud, as He still walks on earth and still belongs to earth. This tradition says nothing about the necessary change whereby this fleshly body that rose from the grave was transformed into the glorified heavenly body that appeared to Saul of Tarsus in kingly splendour. We have here before us the popular view of the Resurrection in its crudest form. That an author whose ideas otherwise are cast in such a Greek mould should reproduce it, shows that the popular conceptions cannot have been so strange to him as we should have supposed. Conceptions which our intelligence thinks it necessary to separate, and which a St. Paul did separate, appear to have found a place in the same mind side by side.

We owe a special debt of gratitude to the author of the Acts for having drawn for us several pictures illustrating the prominent part played in the early Church by the Spirit and the Name of the exalted Christ. The Spirit sent by the latter is the proof of His exaltation and Messiahship (Acts 2:33-36). This is the culminating point of St. Peter’s Pentecostal address (Acts 2:14-36), whose order of thought forms a very interesting study for the historian of primitive Christianity. This proof is addressed primarily to the house of Israel (Acts 2:36). The Jews have not, indeed, seen the Risen One (Acts 10:41), but for that very reason His exaltation is designed as a final means of leading Israel to repentance (Acts 5:31), for the coming of the era of salvation is bound up with this repentance (Acts 3:19 f.). Through this Spirit the exalted Lord is ever present with His own; He imparts power and success to the words of the Apostles (Acts 2:37, Acts 5:33, Acts 6:5); and miracles are wrought by the power of God (Acts 6:8). It is noteworthy, however, that it is only rarely that the Spirit of God is introduced in this connexion; far more frequently it is the Name of Christ that, like a present representative of the Lord, works miracles (Acts 3:16, Acts 4:30). Specially instructive are Acts 9:34 where the pronouncing of the Name effects healing, and Acts 19:13 where the use of the Name is resorted to even by unbelievers.

Literature.—Johannes Weiss, Absicht u. literar. Charakter der Apostelgeschichte; Weizsäcker, Apostolic Age; Pfleiderer, Urchristentum; McGiffert, Hist. of Christianity in the Apostol. Age; Hort, Judaistic Christianity; Chase, Credibility of Acts; Expositor, iv. iv. [1891] 178ff.

J. Weiss.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Acts of the Apostles (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/a/acts-of-the-apostles-2.html. 1906-1918.

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Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
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