When most of us think of the New Testament, we likely imagine one of two things: Gospels or Letters. The Gospels, of course, detail the life and ministry of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John all take a somewhat different perspective to teach us about Jesus. The Letters, or Epistles, mainly authored by (or attributed to) the Apostle Paul, give us a glimpse into Paul's attempts to pastor many of the churches he set up in his ministry. The Acts of the Apostles is slightly different. Set following the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the author of Acts paints a portrait of Christian life after Jesus as the disciples attempt to follow Jesus' teachings and resist the power of the Roman Empire. About half way through the 28 chapter volume we met the Apostle Paul and follow him through the beginning of his ministry.
speaking of authors, who was the author of Acts?
Acts is universally attributed to Luke - the same author of the Gospel of Luke. While a number of more technical clues lead us to this conclusion, the most obvious link is found in the very first line: "In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught form the beginning..." (Acts 1:1). From the very beginning of the text we learn that A) This is one of two companion books, and B) They were addressed to a man name Theophilus. What other book also contains a dedication to Theophilus? The Gospel of Luke. (Luke 1:1-4) In scholarly works, Acts is commonly referred to along with it's companion text as "Luke-Acts." For our purposes, we'll keep calling it Acts.
As for Luke himself, we don't know much about him. Nowhere in Acts does the author refer to himself as "Luke;" we get his name from the attributed author of the Gospel of Luke. However, (if you remember all 12 names!) Luke was not one of the original 12. The only references to someone name Luke appear in Colossians (Col 4:14) and 2 Timothy (2 Tim 4:11). In both texts Luke is described as a companion of Paul. However, there is much debate as to whether either text was actually written by Paul or not.
For our purposes, we'll refer to the author of "Luke-Acts" as "Luke." Whether he is the Luke mentioned in other parts of the New Testament, a companion of that Luke, or someone else entirely, we will never know. For our purposes, we trust that God continues to reveal truth to us through our sacred text whether Acts was written by the Physician Luke or someone who had a deep respect for him.
When was it written?
Scholars generally agree it was sometime between 80 and 90 AD - which would place it about 50 years after Jesus death and resurrection.
What is actually in Acts?
In the simplest possible terms: Acts follows the early Christian Church. There are likely many ways to think about how to break up the 28 chapters that make up the text, but I think the easiest way to think of Acts is through the lens of two figures central to its story: Peter and Paul.
Peter is the same Peter of the Gospels, one of the twelve disciples called by Jesus during his ministry. Famously, Peter is known as Simon (son of Jonah) until Jesus renames him Cephas/Peter (meaning: Rock) in Matt. 16:13-19. About half of Acts centers around Peter and his ministry in the Early Church.
Paul - as mentioned previously - is the apostle who wrote (or is named as having wrote) many of the epistles/letters following Acts in the New Testament canon. In Acts we'll read about his famed conversion story and see the beginning of his ministry to many of the communities he will later write letters (Rome, Corinth, Galatia, etc.). The other half of Acts centers around Paul and his ministry in the Early Church.
As you'll see, Acts is more than Peter and Paul, but as we think about how the text is divided, Peter and Paul make a convenient and easy way to describe it's progression.
questions for reflection
Take a few minutes with each question. Feel free to leave your answers as comments below, journal them in your own notebook, or talk about them with family or friend.