Is Acts a Work of Fiction, History, or Theology?

The Preaching of Saint Paul at Ephesus by Eustache Le Sueur (1649), commons.wikimedia.org

By Grant Osborne

Most ancient books trace the “acts” of heroes like Odysseus, Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar. Luke’s is unique because these are the “acts” of a movement. As the second part of a two-volume work, it is a historical narrative tracing how the Christ followers built on their founder and became a worldwide force. They began as a fairly narrowly conceived Jewish “sect” and by the end of the book had expanded to “the ends of the earth” (1:8). This work tells how that came to pass in just a little over thirty years, from the ascension of Jesus (AD 30) to the imprisonment of Paul in Rome (AD 60–62).

Virtually an entire nation turned against and sought to eradicate one small religious movement and ended up empowering a world-changing force.

Amazingly, all this is accomplished in the midst of incredible adversity and opposition. Virtually an entire nation turned against and sought to eradicate one small religious movement and ended up empowering a world-changing force. Thus the book should be labeled not “the Acts of the Apostles” but “the Acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles.” It is the Triune Godhead who is the central figure in this book. The progression of these acts is both geographical (from Jerusalem to Judea and Galilee, to Samaria, to Antioch, to Asia Minor, to Macedonia and Achaia, to “the ends of the earth,” 1:8) and personal (from the Twelve to Stephen to Peter to Paul), as God orchestrates all the details.

Even though Luke is called the primary historian of the early Church, it has been almost a fad in scholarly circles to doubt the historical trustworthiness of Luke-Acts and to argue that they are largely fictional stories that were created as the early Church tried to defend itself in the Greco-Roman world. This scholarly view assumes a work must be either history or theology, and that the theological core of these writings diminishes their historical worth.

Alternatively, we could see Luke–Acts as both history and theology, with a blend of the two functioning equally in the production of the work. Ancient Judaism strongly stressed history, and Christianity was more Jewish than gentile in outlook and perspective. If God is involved in history, as Christians strongly believe he is, then it is false to separate history and theology, since theological explanations simply highlight the significance of historical events. Miracles, for example, do not happen outside history but simply explain the supernatural acting within history.

As a test case, let’s consider the speeches in Acts since nearly a third of the book (300 of the 1,000 verses) occurs in speeches. It is common for critical scholars to assume Luke created these speeches, thinking they were what would likely be said on each occasion. However, it is likely that Luke assimilated what was said in speeches and summarized material he received in notes taken during those speeches. There is quite a bit of evidence that the apostles were note-takers (especially Matthew), and Luke as a historian would have taken care to speak to people who had been present at the events. There is no evidence he made up accounts and created speeches wholesale. Furthermore, there is evidence that ancient historians like Thucydides tried to be as accurate as possible when re-creating speeches. While they certainly used paraphrase and summary, they still sought accuracy. Truth had absolute priority over the fabrication of details for the sake of the narrative. In Luke 1:1–4, Luke stresses how carefully he sought eyewitness sources behind everything he wrote.

Luke’s purposes are closely tied to his theological emphases, but they are not identical. I find five major purposes for this work:

  1. To preach the gospel. Luke wanted to proclaim the good news of Christ by relating its history in the early Church. It is mainly a historical work showing how the presence of the Holy Spirit moved the people of God from a small Jewish sect in Jerusalem to a worldwide force bringing the gospel of salvation to a lost world.
  2. To trace the Spirit’s activity and show the divine impetus behind the Church’s mission. Here Luke is a theologian of salvation history as well as the “father of Church history.” The goal of this book is to forge a new movement whose mission is to bring God’s truths to all the world.
  3. To defend the faith. This is an apologetic work with two audiences: to defend Christianity against Jewish antipathy and the demands of the Judaizers, and to show the tolerant attitude of Roman officials, proving that Christianity was no political danger to Rome and should be tolerated.
  4. To bring together the Jewish and gentile elements of the Church into one united new Israel. Both sides need to understand that God’s will is for them to come together and form the new messianic community together.
  5. To teach the historical beginnings of the Church for the benefit of new converts and to tell those in Jerusalem about the spread of the Church into gentile lands.

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Grant R. Osborne (1942–2018) was professor emeritus of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He authored numerous books, including The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, and commentaries on Revelation (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Romans (IVP New Testament Commentary), Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), and John, James, 1-2 Peter, and Jude (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary). He also taught at Winnipeg Theological Seminary and the University of Aberdeen, and pastored churches in Ohio and Illinois.

This post is adapted from Acts Verse by Verse by Grant Osborne (Lexham Press, 2019).

Comments

  1. The Bible is a compendium of fire side tales and fables,

    recounted orally for generations by goat herders and primitive tribes from the stone age, until writing was invented,

    and then again, many different sources, transliterations, and versions were copied and written down.

    ”The Bible was created during a time where stories were orally passed down over thousands of years.
    Stories constantly morphed and changed over time, and the Bible is a collection of these.
    This is why it has the nearly identical flood story from Gilgamesh, and why Jesus has the same characteristics as Dionysus, Osiris, Horus, Mithra, and Krishna.
    The contradictions and immorality in the stories are not evidence that God is flawed or evil,
    but rather that humans invented him, just like the thousands of other gods that we used to but no longer believe in.”

    …and to answer the questions of the many fears and mysteries of our universe, like ‘thunder’ and earthquakes, since there was no science yet.

    This is the old Testament.

    The ‘new’ Testes is also hearsay since these letters, ‘gospels’ and stories were written by the loyal faithful, the camp followers,
    not by objective historians at that particular time,
    or by any contemporary writers,
    and these tales were written many years after the supposed events of this mythical Jesus.

    Thus, there is no verifiable evidence of a Jesus in real documented history.

    Then, many of these stories, but not all, as many were not chosen,
    [ There are more than just four Gospels but only these four were agreed on ],
    were compiled for one self-absorbed converted Roman Emperor in his Nicean Council,
    for his expressed purpose of conquest and
    control of the people of Europe for his Holy Roman Empire.
    He recognised that this was the perfect religion/mythology for the future domination of the populaces.

    Half of the stories were ignored by the Nicean Bishops and none have been proven to be based on fact.

    This ‘Bable’ book is backed up by absolutely no facts and no evidence.
    It is not proof for any god(s) ….(or of any jesus…)

    It is a historical novel…..

    Only!

    The Bible is proof of a book ONLY (certainly not evidence of any gods…)

    • Like all of the rest of the scriptures, Acts is history. It is an account of God’s dealings in the past. It is “sacred history”. Nothing in the scriptures addresses us directly. Even the letters of Paul who was the apostle to the gentiles in the first century were not directed “To Christians Everywhere, greetings from the first century!”

      So the reader is an observer and not a member of that world that was lived long ago. To the reader, that is ancient history. To the extent that it can be corroborated by ancient sources it is convincing.

      But that’s not the point. The point is that for many of us as we read this bizarre history we realize that that is the real world and this one is illusory. That one lasts, this one disappears like a puff of smoke. Here wickedness is rampant and celebrated, there it creates grief and the righteous cry out to God for relief. Here sins are unpunished but there, though it seems to delay, all is set right in the end. Here death is “a part of life” but there it is one more enemy that the Savior destroys. Through this book we interact with our consciences first and sort out the eschatology later. The word breaks and shapes the believer like life from death.

      The death and resurrection of Jesus happened and in this sacred book it becomes the believer’s shared experience, at least at the level at which it matters.