Skip to main content

Luke-Acts

LUKE-ACTS

One of the overarching issues in modern New Testament criticism is the relationship of the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. As Biblical studies moves beyond historical criticism, scholars began to treat Luke and Acts as a single, two-volume whole. The Third Gospel is interpreted in light of its sequel Acts, not through its differences from Mark and Matthew, though these remain important clues to Lukan intentions.

In last decades of the 20th century, redaction criticism and stylistic criticism dominated approaches to Luke and to Acts respectively. Stress on Lukan theology theology replaced concern for the historicity of Luke and Acts, often bringing with it negative judgments about the latter. For example, few scholars held any longer that Luke and Acts were written before the destruction of Jerusalem; nor did many think the author was Paul's companion Luke. Not being an eyewitness and writing some 20 years after Paul's death, the author's picture of Christian beginnings seemed idealized and the Paul of Acts scarcely reconcilable with the historical Paul and his theology found in his letters. Acts was more and more ignored in theories of the origins of Christianity or as an interpretive guide to Paul's letters. These negative attitudes especially towards Acts filtered down into religious education on all levels.

Then in the 1980s scholarly unrest with this negative picture grew. In his Anchor Bible commentary, Joseph Fitzmyer dated Luke-Acts in a.d. 8085. Still, he argued that its author was a companion of Paul, though only on the two later journeys where he signals his presence by using "we" in Acts 16:10 and later passages. The differences between Lukan and Pauline theology do not necessarily mean that Luke never knew Paul. They rather suggest that Luke did not use Paul's letters when he wrote 20 to 30 years later. They imply that Luke had less accurate information about Paul's early career before Luke came to know him than Paul's letters had, that he wrote in a later period when Pauline controversies about justification by faith were no longer burning questions, and that he had his own theological concerns that account for many of his differences from Paul (cf. The Anchor Bible,v. 28, 3557).

Fitzmyer voiced the objection of many to unfair comparisons between Luke and Paul, especially regarding Luke's failure to emphasize Jesus' death as saving, and his substituting a "theology of glory" for Paul's "theology of the cross" and a bland salvation history for his eschatological urgency. As the reaction against these previous negative comparisons spread, first Lukan theology, then his narrative techniques, were studied in their own right. No longer do many scholars label Luke-Acts by the pejorative term "early Catholic," implying a decline from the Pauline-Johannine gospel of salvation by faith into an institutionalization, legalization, and sacramentalization of Church order and discipleship, as well as "bourgeois ethics."

New Approaches. Within historical criticism, sociological and anthropological approaches tried to fill in more first century cultural background and thus remedy some of the historical deficiencies inherent in mere extrapolations from Lukan changes in presumed Markan and Q sources used to reconstruct the situation of the author and his community or communities. Meanwhile, skepticism toward the historical value of Acts increased, bringing on counter-reactions led by Martin Hengel in Germany and English-speaking Evangelicals who defended the basic historicity of Acts according to the standards of its day and in conjunction with its theological concerns.

Historiography. Study of the rhetoric and historiography of the Hellenistic age was an important factor in moderating some of the extremes in debates about the genre, purposes, and historicity of Luke-Acts. By ancient standards, Luke-Acts is reputable and serious history comparable with contemporary works by historians as diverse as Josephus, Polybius, and Dionysius of Hallicarnasus, and with the Biblical books of Sm-Kgs and 12 Mc. Luke exhibits terms and methods common in the rhetorical training for writers of that age. His preface uses technical rhetorical terms to indicate his goal to convince his addressee Theophilus of the reliability of what Theophilus had been told about Christian beginnings by structuring an appropriate narrative. This is not a mere chronicle of unrelated facts but an embellishment of these facts in a narrative complete with rhetorical devices like speeches, vivid episodes, prophesies, fulfillments and proofs from prophecy. All ancient historiography had to appeal to general readers, for there was no purely academic history to be read only by historians. Therefore, history had to be interesting and persuasive, not just a factual account. This accounts for the novelistic elements scholars have found in Acts: ancient history did incorporate some such elements.

Comparison of Luke-Acts with both Biblical and Hellenistic forms of history shows its considerable use of elements of both types. Luke was a minor Hellenistic historian who imitated Biblical rather than Attic style because of his special subject matter. The overall structure of Luke-Acts is therefore a "continuation of the Biblical history" to Paul's ministry in Rome, using many Hellenistic motifs and methods familiar to its readers, as 1 and 2 Mc had done. Its universe is the Biblical universe, not that of secular Hellenistic writing. That is, it is dominated by a creator God and his plan of salvation for his people, not by Fate or Chance or a punishing Justice (to which Luke alludes as the thought of pagans on Malta when Paul survived shipwreck and was bitten by a snake; Acts 28:34). The events of Luke-Acts fulfill God's promises and prophecies, both from Luke's Greek Bible (OT) and from prophetic figures in the narrative, like John the Baptist, Jesus, Paul, and Agabus.

God as Main Agent. Thus the main driving force in Luke-Acts, as in Gn or 1 Sm, is not Jesus or Peter or Paul but God. God begins the action in the Gospel with his messages to Zachary and Mary, his causing the virgin Mary to conceive Jesus miraculously, his anointing of Jesus with his Spirit and call of him as Son at the Jordan, his raising Jesus from the dead, and the Pentecostal outpouring of his Spirit through the risen Jesus on the community of disciples in Acts. God directs the action by means of his Spirit and prophecies and angels' messages throughout both Luke and Acts, as when he leads Jesus into the desert to be tempted, fills Peter and Stephen with his Spirit to proclaim his word, and forbids Paul to go further into Asia and calls him instead to Macedonia. God continues to work in Luke-Acts the kinds of signs and wonders He had worked through Moses, Elijah, and Elisha. These signs indicate the presence of God's salvation to those healed and raised from the dead especially by Jesus, Peter, and Paul.

Acts traces the spread of God's word from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, Asia, Europe, and Rome where it is poised for launching to the end of the earth. The obvious biographical interest and focus on individuals is subordinated to a narrative showing the roots of the contemporary Gentile church in the first community of Jerusalem, and demonstrating God's will in the turn to the Gentiles without requiring the circumcision that would make them first Jews. The narrative demonstrates that after God's people Israel had rejected its prophetic Messiah like Moses, it was restored when thousands of Jewish pilgrims and Jerusalem dwellers accepted the Pentecost preaching (Acts 2:41) and the Jerusalem church grew to "tens of thousands" (Acts 21:20). The narrative also shows that those Jews who rejected the resurrected prophet like Moses preached by the Apostles and Paul were cut off from people and promises (Acts 3:23), thus creating a division among the people and the prophesied "fall and rise of many in Israel" (Lk 2:34). Acts ends with Paul declaring for the third and climactic time, that as Is 6:910 had prophesied to "your fathers," this people's heart has grown dull, but the salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles. "They will listen" (28:28).

Shifts in Scholarship. Unrest among Biblical scholars over the limitations of historical criticism in general has grown dramatically in the 1980s, leading to the paradigm shift beyond mere historical criticism to more holistic and multi-disciplinary approaches. Thus, canon criticism counteracts the atomizing of the Bible by treating all Scriptures in the context of the OT-NT Christian canon. Against the relating of the Bible primarily to ancient cultures it treats it as appropriated by the Church. For Luke-Acts, this means not emphasizing isolated pre-Lukan stages like the "historical Jesus" or Markan and Q communities, or admitting absolute dichotomies between Luke and Paul, but recovering some of the lost patristic emphasis of the unity amidst the plurality of the Bible.

Another source of dissatisfaction with historical criticism is its failure to relate to contemporary religious and social experience. Critiques come from such vastly different sources as liberationist and feminist theologians and from charismatics of all denominations. Historical critics often resist liberationist analyses and applications as anachronistic. And they tend to dismiss as implausible many Lukan descriptions of phenomena like religious healing, community, deliverance from evil spirits, prophecy, and tongues, which look very similar to contemporary charismatic experience.

But not all of the new approaches shed real insight on Luke-Acts. Structuralism seems to most exegetes to be needlessly arcane. Liberationist and feminist uses of Luke-Acts tend to be more marginal to the main concerns of the text, as when applying Lukan concern for the poor to Marxist readings of Scripture or when focusing exclusively on Luke's treatment of women. And insofar as liberationist exegesis uses a "hermeneutics of suspicion"(e.g., in seeing bias toward the economic or patriarchal status quo ), it critiques the Lukan Scriptures from nonbiblical standards of authority which are themselves not subjected to criticism, more than it explains their intrinsic meaning.

Narrative Criticism. Literary and narrative criticism of Luke-Acts seems more promising for explaining the aims, limits, and dynamics of the Lukan narratives. First applied to OT narratives, narrative approaches began only in the mid-1980s to be applied to Luke-Acts. These analyze such narrative elements in Luke-Acts as deliberate plot gaps, use of irony, the author and readers implied by the narrative, and different narrators (the usual Biblical "omniscient" third-person narrator in most of Luke-Acts; the historian "I" sifting strands of evidence in Lk 1:14; and the "we" participating marginally in some passages after Acts 16:10).

These literary and narrative studies have relativized the dogmatism of some historical critics and exposed the lack of evidence and foundation for many popular historical conjectures. Where historical critics have found dichotomies and "seams" between not fully compatible sources, literary critics often see the "gaps" that are needed for any sophisticated narrative to maintain interest by engaging the reader's imagination. Thus the gaps at the end of both Mark and Acts prod the readers to fill in the gaps with information they had. For deliberate ending before foreshadowed outcomes was a common Greco-Roman narrative practice, as St. John Chrysostom noted in his Homilies on Acts 55: "At this point the historian stops his account and leaves the reader thirsting so that thereafter he guesses for himself. This also non-Christian writers do. For to know everything makes one sluggish and dull" (Cadbury 322).

Where historical critics conjecture about who wrote Luke-Acts and whether he could possibly have known Paul, literary critics speak more appropriately of the implied authorthose aspects of the real author that have been revealed and included in the text. The abrupt switch in style after the prologue, for example, makes a deliberate claim about the implied author. He reveals himself as someone able to write both in cultivated Greek periodic sentences (the prologue) and in the Biblical paratactic style using "and and and," as in Mark's Gospel. Because of the prologue, his imitation of the cruder Septuagint style does not label his work barbarian, as Mark's Gospel was.

While historical critics hypothesize where and to what communities Luke-Acts was written, literary critics content themselves with the implied readerthose aspects of the real readers imagined and addressed by the real author and discoverable from the emphases in the text. Literary criticism has shown that the real author and readers are outside the text (e.g., anyone in any place and time who can read the text's language could be the real reader, such as we are today). The act of writing creates distance from the original author, setting, and auditors, and requires the writer to imagine his absent audience (Ong). Historical reasoning beyond the authors and readers implied by the text to real authors and readers is necessarily conjectural and at best probable.

Narrative critics have also exposed the dogmatism of some historical judgments that the author of Luke-Acts could not have known Paul. They show that the narrative claim made by using a first person narrator in the Lukan prologue ("events among us to me also," Lk 1:14) and the "we" passages of Acts (16:10 and later) is that the real author is analyzing experiences of the community and was present at events narrated with "we." Not all such claims are true (e.g., in Lucian of Samasota's fantastic "True History"), but they are intrinsic to understanding the narrative as it stands and are not fully explained by source theories like use of an itinerary, or claims that the genre of sea voyages has a conventional use of "we." The switch in narrator is always meaningful in literary criticism and not merely a matter of sources or convention. Regardless of how it originated, the effect of switching from third person omniscient narrator to "we" in parts of Acts has been observed from ancient to contemporary timesit claims participation in those events narrated by "we."

Infancy Debate. In the context of dissatisfaction with historical criticism can be mentioned the acrimonious debate about the historicity or midrashic (and fictional) character of the infancy narratives between R. E. Brown and R. Laurentin. Both have written major books with suggestions that tend to balance one another, and both seem to have hypothesized beyond the limited evidence. Studies of narrative do undercut the certitude of some of Brown's historical negativity based on style, differences between Matthew and Luke, silence about some facts in other NT authors, or use of OT in describing an event. Beyond their debate, Luke-Acts makes the narrative claim that Lk 12 has some basis in fact and Mary's memory preserved in the early Church: "His mother meanwhile kept all these things in memory," Lk 2:51 (NAB), and her presence in the Acts 1 assembly. This claim seems more plausible than to dismiss all historicity of Lk 12 as purely Lukan theology in narrative form, as some do who go beyond Brown.

Text Criticism. Narrative and other holistic approaches to Luke-Acts have contributed to text-critical debates about the authenticity of some key Lukan verses. Fitzmyer, e.g., argues on textual grounds for the authenticity of Lk 22:19b20 (Luke XXXIV 138788), which to "This is my body" adds "to be given for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (NAB), and the covenant in his blood shed for them. The command to do this in Jesus' memory fits the farewell genre perfectly, and reference to his body and blood given "for you" provide an apologetic for Jesus' Crucifixion appropriate to that genre. On textual grounds, Fitzmyer rejects Lk 23:34a, "Jesus said, 'Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing"' (NAB). But despite weak manuscript support, most narrative critics consider it more likely to be from Luke than a copyist because of its strongly Lukan language and narrative links with Stephen's dying forgiveness in Acts 7:60b and the ignorance motif in Acts 3:17, 13:27, and 17:30. Fitzmyer also rejects the angel strengthening Jesus and his sweat like blood in Lk 22:4344 because of its mixed textual evidence (though it is canonical). Besides Duplacy's persuasive textual arguments that these verses are more likely to have been dropped than added because of heresies, Neyrey (pp. 5565) adds cogent arguments for the narrative appropriateness of their Lukan style, vocabulary and themes, and as the needed follow-up to Lk 4:13 about Satan's return against Jesus.

Lukan Theology. One aspect of the "certainty" about the catechesis of Theophilus that Luke promises to him (Lk 1:4) is the reliability of God's promises and prophecies. Luke-Acts answers a problem of theodicy, defending God's activity in history, by showing that his promises to Israel have not come to naught but have been fulfilled in the events "among us." As in all of Israel's history, some have responded to God's offer of salvation through Jesus, the resurrected prophet like Moses, and many others have rejected and thus excluded themselves from that salvation (Acts 3:23; 7:5153). Thus Christians like Theophilus can understand how salvation could seem to have passed from God's original people Israel to their Church consisting mostly of Gentiles.

To demonstrate this, Luke-Acts shows that the Biblical history of God's people continues in how Jesus and the community of his followers in Acts fulfill the prophecies. Jerusalem is therefore treated more theologically and literarily than geographically: it is the center, the middle 12 chapters, of the two-volume narrative. The gospel climaxes in Jesus' death and Resurrection appearances in Jerusalem, from where Acts begins and moves out toward Rome and "the end of the earth" (Acts 1:8). Jerusalem provides the paradigmatic expression of the Jewish people's acceptance or rejection of God's prophet (Johnson).

Lukan Christology is subordinated to his demonstration of continuity with Israel through the image of the rejected prophet like Moses. This required stress on Jesus' humanity and prophetic roles of Jesus, rather than on his divinity as in the fourth Gospel's claims against the synagogue.

The image of the Moses-like prophet provides a fundamental structure for Luke-Acts, as suggested by the close parallelism between the story of Moses in Stephen's Acts 7 speech and that of Jesus in Luke-Acts. First God visits his people through this prophet Jesus (e.g., in Lk 7:16 at Naim, "A great prophet has risen among us" and "God has visited his people," RSV). After they reject him, God recalls this prophet to his people a second time (Moses after his exile, Jesus through Resurrection after His Crucifixion). Only those who reject this risen prophet like Moses a second time are cut off from the people's salvation (Acts 3:23), as the generation who rejected Moses a second time by idolatry in the desert (Acts 7:3943). Thus Paul three times warns Jews who reject his message about Jesus that he will take it to the more receptive Gentiles (Acts 13:46, 18:6, 28:28).

A closely related christological issue is that in God's plan the Christ must (dei ) suffer and rise from the dead. The OT prophesied a crucified Messiah. In the NT, only Luke has an explicit rhetorical two-part christological proof from prophecy: the Christ must suffer, and therefore Jesus is the Christ (cf. Lk 24:2627).

The debate over Lukan eschatology continues to rage, but the programmatic Joel quotation in Acts 2:1721 seems the key. According to the Joel citation with its Lukan modifications, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the inauguration of the eschatological "final days" (2:17) leading up to the manifest day of the returning Lord (2:20). These final days are subdivided into periods including persecution, the destruction of Jerusalem, "times of the Gentiles" (Lk 21:1224), and false teachers in the community (Acts 20:2930). This periodization of history is more rooted in the text of Luke-Acts than Conzelmann's three epochs of the time of Israel, the time of Jesus, and the time of the Church. Most scholars have also rejected the notion of a Lukan delay of the parousia prolonged into the indefinite future, so that the Church must "settle down" with "bourgeois ethics" for the long haul. Rather, by the end of Acts all the predictions mentioned in Luke-Acts have come true except for the cosmic signs and return of the Son of Man in judgment (Lk 21:2528; Acts 1:11). Luke has explained a delay of the parousia by separating it from the fall of Jerusalem, but he continues to expect it soon.

Bibliography: Commentaries. Luke. j. fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke IIX, XXXIV, The Anchor Bible, v. 28, 28A (Garden City, N.Y. 1981, 1985). j. ernst, Das Evangelium nach Lukas, Regensburger Neues Testament (Regensburg 1977). c. h. talbert, Reading Luke (New York 1982). j. kodell, The Gospel according to Luke, Collegeville Bible Commentary, v. 3 (Collegeville, Minn. 1983). Acts. g. schneider, Die Apostelgeschichte,I. Teil, II. Teil. Herders Theologischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, v. 5.1, 5.2 (Freiburg 1980, 1982). e. haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Philadelphia 1971). w. kurz, The Acts of the Apostles, Collegeville Bible Commentary, v. 5 (Collegeville, Minn.1983). Studies. e. gÜttgemanns, "In welchem Sinne ist Lukas 'Historiker'? Die Beziehungen von Luk 1, 14 und Papias zur antiken Rhetorik," Linguistica Biblica 54 (1983) 926. e. plÜmacher, "Acta-Forschung 19741982," Theologische Rundschau 48 (1983) 156; 49 (1984) 105169. e. richard, "LukeWriter, Theologian, Historian: Research and Orientation of the 1970s," Biblical Theology Bulletin 13 (1983) 315. f. bovon, Luc le théologian. Vingtcinq ans de recherches (19501975) (Neuchâtel 1978); "Chroniques du côté de chez Luc," Revue de théologie et de philosophie 115 (1983) 175189. c. h. talbert, "Shifting Sands: The Recent Study of the Gospel of Luke," Interpretation 30 (1976) 381395. w. gasque, A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles (Tübingen 1975). m. hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (Philadelphia 1979). j. jervell, Luke and the People of God (Minneapolis 1972). w. kurz, "Narrative Approaches to Luke-Acts," Biblica 68/2 (1987) 195220. w. ong, "The Writer's Audience Is Always a Fiction," Interfaces of the Word (Ithaca 1977) 5381. r. dillon, "Previewing Luke's Project from His Prologue (Luke 1:14)," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 43 (1981) 205227. r. f. o'toole, "Why Did Luke Write Acts (Lk Acts)?" Biblical Theology Bulletin 7 (1977) 6676. r. maddox, The Purpose of Luke-Acts (Edinburgh 1982). j. duplacy, "La préhistoire du texte en Luc 22:4344," New Testament Textual Criticism [Festschrift B. M. Metzger], e. j. epp and g. d. fee, eds. (Oxford 1981) 7786. j. neyrey, The Passion according to Luke (New York 1985) r. e. brown, The Birth of a Messiah (Garden City, N.Y. 1977) 2541, 235499. r. laurentin, The Truth of Christmas beyond the Myths (Petersham, Mass. 1986) 1246, 302562. c. h. talbert, ed., Perspectives on Luke-Acts (Danville, Va. 1978). c. h. talbert, ed., Luke-Acts: New Perspectives from the Society of Biblical Literature Seminar (New York 1984). l. keck and j. l. martyn, Studies in Luke-Acts (Philadelphia 1980). f. neirnynck, ed., L'Evangile de Luc (Gembloux 1973). j. kremer, ed., Les Actes des Apôtres (Leuven 1979). j. dupont, Nouvelles études sur les Actes des Apôtres, Lectio Divina, v. 118 (Paris 1984). l. t. johnson, The Writings of the NT (Philadelphia 1986) 197240. d. aune, The New Testament in Its Literary Environment (Philadelphia 1987) 77157. h. j. cadbury, The Making of Luke-Acts (London 1968 [1927]). n. a. dahl, Jesus in the Memory of the Early Church (Minneapolis 1976) 6698.

[w. kurz/eds.]

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Luke-Acts." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. 26 Sep. 2018 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Luke-Acts." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 26, 2018). http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/luke-acts

"Luke-Acts." New Catholic Encyclopedia. . Retrieved September 26, 2018 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/religion/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/luke-acts

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.