The book of Acts in the Bible is reliable history. It is also reliable theology. Those who reject it do so for reasons other than academic honesty.
By Mark D. Harris
Modern historiography, almost regardless of the topic, has a standard framework. Whether describing a person’s life or describing an event or series of events, the modern historian will write chronologically; things that happened earlier in time will occur earlier in the article or book. Certain elements are also usually present. A biography, for example, will almost invariably contain a chapter about the subject’s family and background, another about his birth and childhood, both early in the book, several chapters about his life’s work and contribution in the middle and then a chapter about his death at the end. Modern authors carefully specify when and where events happened so that readers can associate what they are reading with other people and events. Ancient history is more likely to be thematic and dialectic than modern history, and less willing to sacrifice theme for chronology.
Acts is the second half of a two volume set written by Luke. Like the Gospel of Luke, it is a theological history; “a narrative of interrelated events from a given place and time, chosen to communicate theological truths’ (1). It begins with the actions of the eleven remaining apostles and the final moments of Jesus’ resurrected life on earth. In chapter two, however, it narrows focus to the work of the Holy Spirit through Peter in Jerusalem. It stays primarily with Peter and Judea until chapter eight when the gospel spreads north to Samaria and south with the Ethiopian eunuch. In chapter nine the focus shifts to the work of the Holy Spirit through Paul in ministering to the Jews and then to the Gentiles throughout the Roman Empire. Luke’s theological narrative stays primarily with Paul through its end in chapter 28. Luke is a competent historian but he is also a theologian.
The implications for the genre theological history are primarily that the author intended to produce reliable history which also teaches theological truths. RC Sproul is a theologian but not a historian and he has never, to my knowledge, produced a historical work. Stephen Ambrose was a historian but never sought to reveal theological truths through his historical narrative. Luke did both. In the first half of his work, Luke, he explicitly stated that his intention was to write an authoritative history on the life of Christ (Luke 1:1-4) and that intent carried through to the second half, Acts (Acts 1:1-2). When interpreting theological history, therefore, we must not only grasp the history but also the theology and even more how the history teaches theology and how the theology influences what is included in the history.
It is important to differentiate between what is history and what is theologically normative for all Christians. The key ways to do this are similar to how it is done in other narrative books in the Bible (2). Readers must look for dialectic in Luke and Acts, in other New Testament books, and in other Old Testament books to see if the teaching indicates that the narrative is normative or not. If truths are to be considered timeless they must also make sense. I have never seen a market in the US that sells meat sacrificed to idols, so the question of whether or not Christians should consume such meat, a big deal in Acts, is moot in twenty-first century America. Understanding the historical-literary background is vital to understanding Acts, just as it is to all other narrative works in the Bible (3).
- Klein WW, Blomberg CL, Hubbard RL, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Thomas Nelson, Nashville TN, 2004, pp 418-426
- Duvall JS, Hays JD, Grasping God’s Word, Zondervan 2nd ed, Grand Rapids MI, 2005, p265-280
- Fee GD, Stuart D, How to Read the Bible for all it’s Worth, Zondervan, Grand Rapids MI, 2003, p 107-125