The New Testament and the ‘Book of Acts’


By Bart D. EhrmanThe University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The New Testament’s book of Acts is an account of the spread of the Christian faith in its first 30 years after Jesus’s death. The very earliest Christians were Jesus’s immediate followers, who came to believe that he had been raised from the dead, exalted to Heaven, and made the Lord and savior. This was a tiny group of 20 or so lower-class, illiterate peasants.

Portrait of Jesus talking to the Apostles
The book of Acts describes the spread of the Christian faith by the Apostles. (Image: James Tissot/Public domain)

The Fifth Book of the New Testament

Within 400 years, the Christian movement had been adopted by over half the entire empire or some 30 million people or so. Obviously, the Christians made a lot of converts. But, it didn’t happen overnight. How did it all begin?

A sensible place to turn to find out is the New Testament book of Acts. It is the fifth book of the New Testament, immediately following the four Gospels. Like them, it’s a narrative. It picks up where the Gospels left off, after the life and ministry of Jesus comes the life and ministries of his followers as they spread their message of his death and resurrection throughout parts of the Roman world. The main figure of the narrative is the Apostle Paul.

Portrait of Apostle Paul
The main narrative figure in the book of Acts is the Apostle Paul. (Image: Rembrandt/Public domain)

Like the Gospels, the account is anonymous, but it was almost certainly written by the same person who produced the third Gospel, the Gospel of Luke. We call that book and the author of its narrative Luke because an ancient tradition claimed it was produced by one of Paul’s missionary companions of that name.

Who Wrote the Book of Acts?

The reason readers have assigned the two books to this particular person has almost nothing to do with the Gospel and everything to do with the book of Acts. Four times in its narrative, when the author is describing Paul and his companions on the mission field, he shifts from discussing what they were doing to what ‘we’ were doing. 

The natural inference of these ‘we’ passages is that the author occasionally accompanied Paul and the others during these trips. Moreover, since one of the emphases of the book is that the Gospel spread principally to foreign lands among Gentiles, that is non-Jews, it has long been thought that the author himself was a Gentile.

Written by a Gentile

Elsewhere in the New Testament, there is a reference to a Gentile companion of Paul named Luke, who was a medical physician. This is found in Colossians chapter 4, and so it has been traditionally claimed that this is the author. Scholars have long questioned whether the book of Acts was actually written by one of Paul’s traveling companions or not. The idea that he must be a Gentile because the book demonstrates Gentile concerns, may not be necessarily apt. 

Paul himself was concerned about Gentiles, but he was a Jew. There’s no evidence that the author was a physician, and the book of Colossians which names this figure Luke was probably not actually written by Paul himself. And so, we don’t know the name of the author or much about his identity.

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Discrepancies in Reports of the Same Event

One very big problem is that many of the things the author says about Paul’s experiences, journeys, and preaching appear to stand at odds with what Paul himself says in his own letters. That makes one suspect that the author of Acts did not actually know Paul. 

There are many places where the book of Acts will describe some activity of Paul or will give a speech of Paul, and sometimes Paul will report the same event. Virtually everywhere, where you find that kind of overlap, there are tensions and even discrepancies.

Publishing Date Debatable

It is to consider the date when the book was produced, whoever its author was. Since it’s written as the companion volume to the Gospel of Luke, obviously it was written later than Luke. Luke is usually thought to have been the second or the third Gospel to have been produced. 

Image of an old copy of the book of Acts
The book of Acts may have been written around 120 CE. (Image: Antonius/Public domain)

The Gospel of Mark was probably first written around the year 70 or so, Matthew maybe was the next one around 80–85, and Luke was about the same time. Luke’s Gospel is probably dated to 80–85 CE, which means that Acts is almost certainly later than that.

Among New Testament scholars, there’s recently been a groundswell of support for a much later date for the book of Acts, sometime around 120 CE. That view is based on what some people take to be illusions in the book of Acts to other books that we know about, that were not published till the end of the 1st century. Some scholars think that the author of Acts knows the writings of the Jewish historian, Josephus, from the end of the 1st century. 

We don’t need to decide that issue here. It’s enough to know that the book was written some decades at least after the events it narrates. Most importantly, that means Acts is not actually our earliest account of the missionary work of the early Church. Paul’s own letters were written earlier in the ’50s of the Common Era. But Acts does discuss events that took place before Paul was writing, even though it was written later.

Common Questions about the New Testament and the ‘Book of Acts’

Q: What is the New Testament book of Acts about?

The New Testament book of Acts is a narrative just like the four Gospels. The book picks up just where the Gospels end and tells the story of the life and ministry of the disciples of Jesus rather than Jesus himself.

Q: Who’s probably the author of the New Testament book of Acts?

We don’t know much about the author of the book of Acts, not even their name. It seems that the author is the same person who wrote the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke is supposed to be written by Luke, a physician who accompanied the Apostle Paul.

Q: Why do some suspect that the author of the book of Acts didn’t personally know Apostle Paul?

Although accounts of events given in the book of Acts report many of the same events that Paul himself reports in his letters, there are many discrepancies between the reports of the same event, giving the impression that the author didn’t know Paul.

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