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Study Resources :: Intros to the Bible :: The Book of Acts

The Book of Acts


The author of the Acts of the Apostles is the same author of the Gospel of Luke. Both books are addressed to Theophilus, and the latter (Acts) refers to the former (Luke). Luke the Physician was the author of Luke-Acts. [1]

Date and Location of Composition

During the Nineteenth Century, scholars from the University of Tübingen, led by Ferdinand Christian Baur (1792-1860), considered Acts to be a product of the second century. They held that the purpose of its composition was to clear up the conflict between Pauline and Petrine Christianity that supposedly controlled the thought of the early church. They pointed to the so-called errors in Acts and concluded that the author was careless and not familiar with the specific geography of the first century. William Ramsay (1851-1939) was brought up under this school of thought, but had a change of mind after finding Luke to be a first-class historian. "You may press the words of Luke," wrote Ramsay, "in a degree beyond any other historian's, and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment...." [2] Some of Ramsay's contributions include helping to validate Luke's references to geography [3] and historical facts. [4] As of today, there is no reason not to accept the Book of Acts as historically accurate. [5]

Since Luke is the author of Acts, any date between AD 60 and 100 is reasonable as Conzelmann points out; [6] however, a precise date is desired. The ending of Acts plays an important role in route of determining the book's date. The Book of Acts ends with Paul in house arrest waiting to present his case before Caesar. A few hypotheses have developed seeking to solve Luke's intention for his abrupt ending. Gundry gives a good overview of these hypotheses: Luke may have originally intended on writing a third volume, he could have ran out of space on his papyrus scroll, or maybe there was a "personal catastrophe" that would have inhibited him from completing the book. [7] On the other hand, Luke closes the first volume well, even with the intention of writing the second. Why would he have not done that here? If he ran out space on his papyrus scroll, he would have been able to notice that and make the appropriate ending to his account. A personal catastrophe does not explain it either because Luke already wrote enough to fill his scroll. [8] The best answer is that Luke wrote his narrative up to the time that the events occurred. Luke does not give the results of what happened with Paul because they had not happened until after he had completed the book. With this in mind, it is much easier to date Acts in the early Sixties, or more precisely sometime between AD 62 and 63.

Determining the location that Luke wrote is a more difficult task than determining that date. Concerning the composition location, Marshall writes, "It must be confessed, however, that we simply do not know the answer to the question." [9] Some speculative suggestions included Antioch and Ephesus. Rome, however, is a better possibility than the former two. If Luke composed Acts while Paul was still in house arrest, than Rome would be a great possibility because Luke was with Paul in Rome (Acts 28:16, Col 4:14, Philem 1:24).

Audience and Purpose

Luke's audience is clear in both of his volumes. He wrote to Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1). Unfortunately, there is not much known about who Theophilus was. Some of the possibilities are that he was Luke's patron, or that the name Theophilus (which means "lover of God") is being used universally as a reference to all Christians. Luke's usage of the term "most excellent" (kratistoV) helps to identify this character. The word is a "strongly affirmative honorary form of address" [10] and every occurrence of it in the New Testament refers to governing officials (Acts 23:26; 24:3; 26:25).

The purpose of Luke-Acts may be ecclesiastical or apologetic. For ecclesiastical purpose, it may have been written in order to edify the church, serving as a history of both Jesus and his apostles. Or apologetically it may have been composed to make the case that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman Empire-more specifically, it seems that it could have been Paul's defense before Caesar. [11] This last argument seems to fit the abrupt ending the best and is also supported through the acceptance (or non-conviction) of Paul from governing officials (18:12-17; 23:23-30; 26:31-32; et al.).

Themes and Theology

Luke is often neglected as a theologian. This is unfortunate because he has a very developed theology and also wrote a larger portion of the New Testament than any other author.

The main theological emphasis of the book of Acts is the Holy Spirit. The book begins with Jesus' promise of the Holy Spirit, which is later fulfilled in reference to the Jews (ch. 2), and then for the Gentiles (ch. 10). [12] Reference to the Holy Spirit comes in a variety of ways. Many of the occurrences are references to a person being filled with the (Holy) Spirit: 2:4; 4:8, 31; 9:17; 13:9, and 52. Luke also equates the Holy Spirit with God (cf. 5:3 with 5:4), [13] and the Holy Spirit directly intervened in Paul's life (16:6-7).

Luke also makes it clear that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman Empire through "the demonstration that Christian preaching does not impinge upon the power of the empire." [14] The Jews accused the Christians of "defying Caesar's decrees" and "saying that there is another king, one called Jesus" (17:7). Prior to the ascension, Jesus' disciples asked him if he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel (1:6). He told them that it was not for them to know the times or dates that were in the Father's authority, but told them that they would receive power from the Holy Spirit to be his witness to the whole world (1:7, 8). It is evident that Jesus was not sending out his disciples to bring in a new "earthly" kingdom, but to bear his witness to the present kingdom.

In proving that Christianity was not a threat to the Roman Empire, Luke also succeeds in showing that Jesus was a world messiah and not just another prophet. The message of Jesus was not limited to Israel but extended to the Gentiles as well. Acts concludes with an "open-ended mission to Jews and Gentiles" which is a reminder of an "unfinished task and the urgency of being identified with the ongoing advance of the gospel of salvation." [15]

Paul's ministry as an apostle is validated in Acts by a comparison with the apostle Peter. They both heal a lame man (3:1-10 and 14:8-10), and heal others-Peter heals the sick with his shadow (5:15, 16) and Paul heals the sick with his handkerchiefs and aprons (19:12). Both were recipients of jealousy from the Jews (5:17, 13:45), confront sorcerers (8:9-24, 13:6-11), raise people from the dead (9:36-41, 20:9-12), and were imprisoned and miraculously delivered from jail (12:3-19, 16:25-34).

Literary Style, Structure, and Other Issues

As it is expected, the book of Acts has a similar literary style as the Gospel of Luke because it is the second volume of Luke's account.

There are different ways to divide the book of Acts. It can be divided in half, 1:1-12:25 designating the Spirits work in and around Jerusalem, then 13:1-28:31 being focused on the Apostle Paul. Conzelmann believes that the first section shows the church as being bound to the law, while the second section portrays Christian Gentiles who have been freed from the law. [16]

Acts reveals a progression of the gospel that divides the book into six parts. At the end of each section is a summary statement (6:7, 9:31, 12:24, 16:5, 19:20, 28:30-31). The progression begins in Jerusalem (1:1-6:7), extends to Judea, Galilee, and Samaria (6:8-9:31), Syria and Cyprus (9:32-12:24), Pisidia, Pamphylia, Lycaonia, and Cilicia (12:25-16:5), Asia and Greece (16:6-19:20), and finally Rome (19:21-28:31).


[1] See Introduction to the Gospel According to Luke for more information.
[2] William M. Ramsay. The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (London: Hodder and Stroughton, 1915) p. 89.
[3] In Ramsay's day it was thought that the city of Iconium was a part of the region of Lycaonia. Acts 14:6 clearly shows that Paul and Barnabas went out of the city of Iconium and into the region of Lycaonia. To contemporaries of Ramsay this would be similar to saying that someone went out of Los Angeles and into California. In support of Luke's geography, Ramsay proved that Iconium was not a part of Lycaonia as it was thought, but that Iconium belonged to the district of Phrygia. The people of Iconium did not speak the same language and were "of a different stock" than the Lycaonians (See W. W. Gasque. Sir William M. Ramsay: Archaeologist and New Testament Scholar. [Grand Rapids: Baker Book House Co., 1966]. p. 416 ff.).
[4] One example of this is his attempt to clear up the problem of dating the Census of Quirinius described in Luke 2:1-2. See Ramsay's Was Christ Born in Bethlehem? A Study on the Creditability of St. Luke. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1898).
[5] For a comprehensive study of the history of criticism of the Book of Acts see W. W. Gasque. A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles. (Mohr, Tübingen/Eerdmans, 1975).
[6] Hans Conzelmann. A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987). p. xxxiii.
[7] Robert Gundry. A Survey of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994) p. 297-298.
[8] Ibid.
[9] I. Howard Marshall. The Acts of the Apostles. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1980). p. 49.
[10] Frederick W. Danker et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). p. 565.
[11] For an updated discussion of this, see John W. Mauck. Paul on Trial. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2001).
[12] F. F. Bruce. "The Acts of the Apostles", in D. Guthrie et al., The New Bible Commentary Revised. (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970). p. 972.
[13] "The language of vv. 3 and 4 makes it clear that the Holy Spirit is viewed as a divine person" F. F. Bruce "The Acts of the Apostles", in D. Guthrie et al., The New Bible Commentary Revised. (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970). p. 978. See also F. F. Bruce. The Book of Acts, Revised. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988). p. 105, and John Stott. The Spirit, the Church, and the World. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1990). p. 110.
[14] Hans Conzelmann. A Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987). p. xlvii.
[15] Andreas Köstenberger and Peter O'Brien. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001). p. 159.
[16] Ibid., p. xliii.

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