Opening Acts

Coffee with the King resumes today with a series in The Acts of the Apostles. Today it’s all about background. What is this book we call “Acts” and how should we read it?

Understanding the genre of a particular communication is important. It tells us how to understand it. We comprehend news reports, poetry, jokes, fairy tales, and textbooks in different ways, using different rules.

Often, the beginning will give us clues as to what kind of communication it is. For example:

  • Fairy tales often begin with “Once upon a time…”
  • If someone says “A man walks into a bar…” we get ready for a joke.
  • A news report will begin with a headline, and tell us the date and location.
  • “Roses are red, violets are blue” introduces (usually bad) poetry, not a biology textbook.

And from that point, because we’re familiar with the cues, we know how to read what follows. (Problems can occur when the cues aren’t picked up – like where people read satirical news items on sites like and respond like they are real news!)

So how does Acts begin? Let’s take a look.

1:1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…

Already, we know we’re coming in halfway through. This isn’t the start, it’s the sequel. So to get to the real beginning – and pick up the genre cues – we need to take a look at the start of the “former book,” the Gospel of Luke.

Luke 1:1-4 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3 With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

From that, we can see the purpose of Luke’s Gospel (and, probably, the sequel) – so that the reader might know the certainty of what they’d been taught about Jesus. (We’ll get to who Theophilus is tomorrow.) But what do these opening verses tell us about genre?

Quite a lot, as it turns out. Most of us these days aren’t used to reading the prefaces to ancient works of history. But in Luke’s day, educated people (like Theophilus) would know that this opening paragraph signalled that Luke was writing history. It contained most (if not all) the elements identified in prefaces by the likes of Thucydides (acknowledged as the “father” of Greek history writing), Josephus, and (later) Tacitus. These are:

  1. Requests and dedications – most history works were funded by private patrons, and were dedicated/addressed to them.
  2. Comments on the value and usefulness of history.
  3. Mention of previous writers on the subject (often in a critical way).
  4. An assurance that the writer has approached the task impartially (often in contrast with his predecessors).
  5. A description of their methodology.
  6. The reason for choice of subject.

See if you can find these elements in Luke 1:1-4. (You should be able to find five; the second one is probably not present.)

If you’re interested, take a look at the following excerpt from Josephus’s preface to his history on the Jewish wars (from the same period), or just skip ahead:

“Whereas the war which the Jews made with the Romans has been the greatest of all those, not only that have been in our times, but, in a manner, of those that ever were heard of; both of those wherein cities have fought against cities, or nations against nations; while some men who were not concerned in the affairs themselves have gotten together vain and contradictory stories by hearsay, and have written them down after a sophistical manner; and while those that were there present have given false accounts of things, and this either out of a humour of flattery to the Romans, or of hatred towards the Jews; and while their writings contain sometimes accusations, and sometimes encomiums, but nowhere the accurate truth of the facts; I have proposed to myself, for the sake of such as live under the government of the Romans, to translate those books into the Greek tongue, which I formerly composed in the language of our country, and sent to the Upper Barbarians; Joseph, the son of Matthias, by birth a Hebrew, a priest also, and one who at first fought against the Romans myself, and was forced to be present at what was done afterwards, [am the author of this work]. … I have comprehended all these things in seven books, and have left no occasion for complaint or accusation to such as have been acquainted with this war; and I have written it down for the sake of those that love truth, but not for those that please themselves [with fictitious stories].” (Josephus, Wars, 1.1-2, 12.)

In addition to the preface, there are other features of Luke’s Gospel and Acts that tell us Luke is writing history. Two significant ones are:

  1. A careful attention to “orderly arrangement” – both chronological and geographical. Luke’s Gospel has a geographical arrangement starting in Galilee and moving down toward Jerusalem. Acts is similarly arranged, starting from Jerusalem, moving up through Samaria, and westward across Asia Minor, the Greek peninsula, ending in Rome.
  2. Speeches at key points. One of the great interests of history writers like Thucydides was how speeches influenced events. Thucydides reproduced summaries of great speeches in Greek history, and then narrated how events played out as a result of the people being persuaded by rhetoric. In Acts, each time the Gospel goes forward it’s in response to a speech by e.g. Peter (chapter 2, chapter 3), Stephen (chapter 7), Paul (chapter 13). The Gentiles are included in the church in response to key speeches by Peter and James (chapter 15).

So what?

If we can identify that Luke wrote his Gospel and Acts deliberately as history, following the historical conventions of his day, what does that mean for how we read and apply Acts today?

Think about that for today, and I’ll begin with my answers tomorrow.

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