The Acts of the Apostles–5th book of the New Testament—a.d. 65-90
25. A Worldwide Movement Begins
Though the book of Acts was in all probability not written until the 70s or 80s, it chronicles events in the early church that were happening much earlier. As we discussed before, there are always two time sequences to consider—when the writing actually took place, and when the events being written about took place. Sometimes they dovetail, but not always.
Obviously the Bible is generally laid out according to the latter sequence of events. Genesis starts with In the beginning…and Revelation ends with the new heavens and the new earth. We are attempting to focus here on the former chronology of authorship. Yet in so doing, the sequence of events must be considered too, in order to give us a clear picture and accurate insights into the development of the biblical story.
In considering Acts, therefore, we are going to break from our general sequence to consider the first portion of those events here, diverging from the authorship sequence to recap the story to date according to the chronology of events. We will thus be able to fit the writings and documents we are considering into the historical timeline that Acts provides. We will reserve a discussion of Luke and his writing of his gospel and the book of Acts until later.
Having just completed Mark’s gospel, whose events cover the years between 27 and 30, we will now continue that story from Jesus’ final appearances (Acts 1) up to approximately the year 55 (Acts 18). We will then have arrived at a point in Paul’s travels between his letters to the Thessalonians and the Corinthians, and be ready to consider the remainder of the decade of the 50s and the tremendous changes it brought to the church.
In considering Acts, we are faced with the puzzle alluded to before that Luke did not write a more thorough history of “the acts of the apostles”…all of them. It appears that he started out intending to tell the whole story. There are Peter and John, then Stephen, then Philip’s and Peter’s first forays into Gentile lands. Then Antioch and Barnabas and the first missionary trip. Up to Acts 15, Luke indeed gives a diverse account of the spread of Christianity in many directions at once.
Yet suddenly at the end of Acts 15, that broadly focused picture suddenly stops. Neither Peter, Barnabas, John, Mark, nor any other of the original apostles are mentioned again in the whole book, with the exception of James who appears briefly in the 21st chapter. From Acts 16 on, Acts provides only the very limited story of Paul and his travels. As important as that story is, it is but one part of a giant matrix of worldwide missionary activity.
Not only did Mark take the gospel to Alexandria, the other apostles were equally busy planting new churches and pockets of belief, literally worldwide. Because Acts is the only account that was later chosen to be included in the canon, we tend to think of Paul as the only first century missionary and apostle.
But he was one of many. Andrew is reported to have traveled with the gospel to Greeceand also to the area comprising modern Russia, where he is the patron saint. Philip preached in Asia Minor and strong tradition also has him traveling to France. Bartholomew is thought to have traveled to India, and taken with him a copy of Matthew’s gospel to leave with the believers there. Thomas has as many legends surrounding his later missionary activity as any of the twelve. He is considered one of the four founders of the Eastern Orthodox Church (along with Peter, Thaddeus and Mari of the Seventy.) Thomas, too, is associated with the origins of the church in India. Tradition has Matthew traveling to Ethiopia, though he is buried inItaly. Jude, or Thaddeus, along with Bartholomew, Simon the zealot, Andrew, and Matthias, are all strongly associated with the founding of the church in Armenia, which became the first officially “Christian” nation in 301 by proclamation from King Tiridates.
Obviously there are many “missionary journeys” whose stories we do not know in addition to those six recounted in Acts—Philip’s of Acts 8, Peter’s of Acts 9-10, that of Barnabas and Saul and John Mark of Acts 13-14, Paul’s two later trips of Acts 16-18 and Acts 18-21, and finally Paul’s to Rome in Acts 27-28.
Many other stories were indeed written down in accounts similar to Luke’s. Most of them, however, are considered apocryphal. Some are clearly works of fiction and are given no degree of credibility by scholars whatever. Yet as we have already discussed, not all “tradition” is necessarily unreliable. We are left to wonder about some of the traditions embedded in these other noncanonical works: The Acts of Peter, the Acts of Barnabas, the Acts of Andrew and Paul, the Acts of Pilate, the Gospel of Thomas, the Protevangelium of James, the Gospel of Peter, the Acts of John, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Thomas, the Epistle of the Apostles, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Acts of Peter and Paul, the Gospel According to the Hebrews, the Gospel of Bartholomew, and many others.
Much of the story of early Acts has already come into the discussion of the books we have already read. We might simply take an overview glance at a correlation of the first half of Acts with events we have already considered. The dates shown are approximations.
Acts 1 Events following resurrection 30
Acts 2 Pentecost 30
Acts 3-5 Fellowship in Jerusalem expands 30-33
Acts 6-8 Stoning of Stephen; Persecution and Dispersion 34-35
Acts 9 Saul’s conversion 35
Acts 9-10 Peter with Cornelius, Peter’s vision of descending sheet 37-42 (?)
Acts 11 Discussion of Gentile issues resulting from Peter’s vision 38-42 (?)
Growth of church in Antioch under Barnabas 40-45
Acts 12 Peter’s release from prison 41-43 (?)
Acts 13-14 First missionary journey—Barnabas, Saul, Mark 46-48
Acts 15 Council of Jerusalem about Gentile question 49-50
Acts 16-18 Paul’s second missionary journey to Derbe and Lystra,Troas,
Philippi, Thessalonica, Boroea, Athens, Corinth, and Ephesus 50-52
Acts 18:22 End of second missionary journey and return toAntioch 52
Acts 18:23 Paul departs on third missionary journey 53