Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

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10. Acts


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize the basic content of the book of Acts and the stories it tells about early Christianity.
  • articulate what modern scholarship has to say about the historical background for the book of Acts, including what can be known about its author, intended audience, and date of composition.
  • explain how the book of Acts fits into the genre of “ancient history” and engage the question of how it can serve as a reliable source for historical knowledge today.
  • discuss how the book of Acts expresses theological claims about God, including God’s control over history, guidance, and faithfulness to both Israel and gentiles.
  • engage the Christology of Acts in terms of how it presents Jesus as both absent and present, and as the one through whom present and future salvation are experienced.
  • describe the book of Acts’ enthusiastic portrayal of Christian life as marked by charismatic manifestations, miracles, and participation in a triumphant mission.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Two Versions of Paul’s “Conversion”

In this exercise, students compare Paul’s firsthand “conversion” with the story told in Acts. One way to do this is to divide the class into an even number of groups of 4–5 people. Half of the groups can work with Philippians 3:1–21 (or Gal. 1:11–14) and the other half with Acts 9:1–25. Each group should plot out and prepare a quick play that illustrates their version of Paul’s “conversion.” Pair up the groups and have the Paul group enact their play for the Acts group and then the Acts group enact their play for the Paul group. What differences and similarities do the two groups note? What tone does Paul use and what tone does Luke use to tell their respective versions? How might each author’s purpose influence how they tell the story?

Alternatively, rather than have students enact the two stories for one another, have each group of 4–5 students work through the two passages (they can draw or sketch the interactions on a map or blank piece of paper) together, noting similarities and differences.

For a history of the early church emphasis, have students compare reports of Paul’s engagement with the Jerusalem council: Acts 15:1–35 and Galatians 2:1–14. They can act these reports out or outline the events and compare them. After comparing the two versions, have students think about the purpose each author has for describing the Jerusalem council. What is Paul’s tone, and Luke’s? How might their aim in describing this event shape the way they tell the event?


Every retelling of history has a perspective, even, dare we say it, an ideological shape. Although students in this course are meeting the New Testament at an introductory level, they can easily glimpse the problems associated with reconstructing historical events from primary materials. In the suggested comparisons in this exercise, students confront the same problems scholars wrestle with. Have students enumerate these problems and attempt to articulate the ways one might negotiate the ideologies involved in reconstructing first-century Christian movements. This is critical thinking.

2. Theology in the Acts Speeches

Powell argues that “Paul and other characters in Acts become spokespersons for Luke’s own theological agenda” (text p. 204). If this is the case, then students should each be able to analyze speeches from Acts and discover similarities in theological outlook. Pose this hypothesis as an exercise for analyzing and interpreting specific speeches in Acts. For example, working singly or in pairs, students might examine Peter’s speech in 2:14–35; Stephen’s speech in 7:1–53; Peter and John’s speech in 4:5–22; Peter’s report to the Jerusalem council in 11:1–18; Paul’s speech in Antioch in 13:13–47; etc. As a class, discuss the theological themes and beliefs or faith statements students identified in the speeches from Acts.


This is a more advanced exercise in which students practice their exegetical skills by analyzing passages and looking for the author’s theological thinking. The exercise is framed in such a way that students cannot read these texts as straight historical reports of “what Peter said.” Rather, students look at the speeches and characters as platforms for Luke’s theology. In this way, students add nuances to their understanding of how history is done. They learn to ask more critical questions: Whose perspective is recorded in this text? What is the goal of the author in this characterization? In analyzing the book of Acts to this degree, students further develop their sense of critical thinking and are better equipped to evaluate the New Testament as a historical source.

3. Looking for Patterns in the Text

One way to analyze a particular writing is to look for patterns of repetition, language, and imagery, as well as the verbs associated with particular characters. For example, to help students understand the ways in which Luke-Acts is a profile of the Holy Spirit, have them do some exegetical analysis and compare the role of the Holy Spirit in Acts to the Holy Spirit’s role in Luke (cf. text pp. 214–16). See text p. 216 for some passages to start with. Alternatively, ask students to read Acts for homework (or a portion thereof) and to record all the verbs associated with the Holy Spirit. They can use a similar strategy when reading Luke. Is the Holy Spirit a character unto itself in these two writings? What is the relationship between the Spirit and Jesus? (Compare Jesus’s baptism with the disciples’, and Jesus’s death with Stephen’s.)


This is a basic exercise in textual analysis and is good for beginning students. Here students focus on one aspect of evidence in a text: patterns and repetition of language. From this basic examination (which can be used on any text), one can move to the patterns and repetition of imagery, themes, concepts, characters, and plot structures. These are helpful tools for introducing interpretation and basic literary analysis. ?

Discussion Prompts

  1. What is the significance of the so-called “we passages” in the second part of Acts (see text p. 199)?
  2. What are the characteristics of ancient histories, and how did such writings function for particular communities? Given the differences between modern and ancient historiography, how can modern historians make use of ancient forms of history? In other words, is Acts a reliable source for information about first-century Christianity? Why? Why not?
  3. How is Luke’s purpose similar in the Gospel and in Acts? Look at the passages referenced in box 10.4. What can we understand about Luke’s purpose in writing simply from the parallel layout, as well as looking more closely at the passages?
  4. What is the role of the Holy Spirit in this book? Can you detect Luke’s “theology of the Holy Spirit”? How about Luke’s ecclesiology (theology of the church)? What textual evidence is there for who the Spirit is and how the Spirit acts, for how and what the church should be?

Explore Readings

These readings provide a chance for your students to explore the New Testament in more depth. The boxes from the text are included here, as well as bibliographies and outlines for the books of the New Testament.

All the Explore readings can also be downloaded as PDFs here.