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Acts of the Apostles


Key Terms

  1. Apostle (literally "one sent"): a missionary, “commissioned representative;” sometimes used to distinguish “the twelve” disciples from other disciples, but in Acts, also used of Barnabas and Paul (e.g. 14.14, presumably from one of Acts' sources).
  2. Christian (literally "Messianist"): follower of Joshua/Jesus "the Messiah." First used in Acts 11.26 (an Antioch tradition?).
  3. Deacon: from the Greek word “diakonein” meaning “to serve;” especially one who serves tables or functions similarly in the community (see Acts 6.2).
  4. Epicureanism: the Greek philosopher Epicurus taught that people should focus on things within their power. Epicureans did have some following and were more inclined to resist organized religion that looked to the gods to be involved in things that could be accomplished by humans unaided. This was part of the larger Epicurean idea of "balance" or stability in outlook, which led some followers to culturally libertine practices (treat everything equally, despite social pressures), and the identification of "Epicurean" with crass sensualism.
  5. Hebrews (or "Hebraists," in contrast with "Hellenists") are undefined in Acts 6.1 although basic to the story of Stephen and his companions. Some commentators suggest that they were Jews who not only retained the religious beliefs and practices of Judaism, but who also continued to speak the Hebrew language and refused to relinquish their Jewish customs, traditions, and culture, determined never to submit in any way to what they imagined to be non-Jewish ("hellenistic") influences surrounding them. Probably the term came from the sources used by the author of Acts, and its precise meaning historically is lost to us.
  6. Hellenists (or "Greeks," in contrast with "Hebrews") also are undefined in Acts 6.1 but apparently are represented by Stephen and his companions. Some commentators see them as Jews (vast majority) who had conformed themselves and their Judaism to Greco-Roman culture, with a much less conservative view of "traditional" Jewish perspectives and practices. In some ways, the Sadducees, for example, tended to be Hellenists, whereas the Pharisees were generally Hebraists. Hellenists saw no need to retain the Hebrew language, but rather spoke Greek, or whatever happened to be the language of the country in which they dwelt. They also would be more open to adopting the customs of their non-Jewish neighbors, and in some cases might conform to their surroundings so completely that they were hardly recognizable as Jews.
  7. Heresy: derived from the Greek word for "sub-group" or "sect"; in early Christian circles it came to designate objectionable ideas and/or groups within "Christianity" broadly defined.
  8. Martyr: from Greek word “martus” meaning “a witness” -- thus it came to designate someone who held to their (Christian) "witness"despite the threat of death (a "blood witness').
  9. Pharisaic: a Christian subgroup that apparently observed traditional Jewish-Pharisaic law, mentioned in Acts 15.5.
  10. Proselyte: from the Greek "one who comes near" (joins), used for a convert to a different religion (and especially to Judaism, and later, to Christianity).
  11. Polemic: from the Greek for "war-like," used with reference to verbal arguments and/or accusations, as between Jews and “Christians.”


Introduction to the Acts of the Apostles


The Book of Acts has traditionally been attributed to the same author as the Gospel of Luke.

It has the title “Acts of All the Apostles” but only focuses on a few of the apostles.


The first 5 chapters focus on Peter (Simon) and John. Chapters 6 & 7 are transitional, as are 8-11.

The remaining chapters mainly deal with Paul and his travels.


In chapters 1-5, Peter and John head the early community in Jerusalem. They see themselves as living on the edge of the last times.


In chap. 6, the Hellenists (who are contrasted with the Hebraists) cause unrest because they feel their widows are not being given fair treatment. In this community the followers of Jesus had pooled all the resources into a commune and the Hellenists feel that they are not getting their fair share. The twelve were busy preaching so they appointed seven men to “serve tables.” One of the seven deacons, Stephen, goes out to preach, gets in trouble with the Jewish authorities, and is stoned to death. He becomes the first martyr. It is used in this context because Stephen is depicted as having died for bearing witness to Jesus.


The Book of Acts at that point talks about the persecution of Christians in Jerusalem; because of this persecution Christians began to spread to areas outside of Jerusalem and Judea, to the seacoast, north to Antioch and ultimately to Rome. Some episodes connected with the early spread are recounted in Acts 8-11.


Paul is introduced at the death of Stephen as “Saul of Tarsus.” He was originally a persecutor but in Acts 9 receives his “call” to preach the Jesus message to the “Gentiles.” He goes on two journeys using Antioch as his base, but ends the second one in Jerusalem, where he is imprisoned and ultimately sent off to Rome.


According to Acts, Paul was a Roman citizen. Roman citizenship was held in high esteem. Many Roman citizens killed themselves if they thought they’d be convicted of a crime for which they would lose their property or status or damage their family heritage.


Kraft theorizes that Paul was his real (birth) name. The notion that he was named “Saul” may have been derived from his enemies, by associating him with the biblical king Saul (from the tribe of Benjamin, like Paul) who had a negative image for various reasons (he did unauthorized religious activities and also tried to kill David; Paul persecuted followers of David's descendant, Jesus, and also advocated untraditional religious perspectives).


Acts uses various sources, but in its first half it frequently appears to have Jerusalem-oriented materials, with an emphasis on the spirit’s power among the followers of Jesus. There is also a focus on harmony among the early Christians.


The Early Jesus Community as found in Acts of the Apostles.


The first few chapters of the Acts describe the community of Jesus' followers with the apostles holding main leadership positions. There are references to other groups such as the Hebrews and Hellenists.


Probably Christians originally met in private houses. “Church” referred to an assembly of people, not to a building. (From at least the 4th century, it came to refer to special buildings.)


Acts describes how Christians spread out from Jerusalem. The message of Christianity spread to the surrounding areas around Jerusalem, then to places such as Syria (Antioch), Asia Minor (modern Turkey), Greece and Rome. Its presence in the Galilee is barely mentioned.


Barnabas is sent up to get Paul to have him help those in Antioch with ministering to the Christian community there. Antioch becomes the base of Paul and Barnabas’ first missionary trip, which is to Cyprus and Asia Minor (Turkey). When they finally return to Antioch, they find that people from Jerusalem are upsetting the brethren, claiming that to be a Christian, one must first be circumcised as a Jew. These problems are discussed in Acts 15 (aka “The Jerusalem Council”) with speeches by Peter, Paul and James (who seems to be in charge). This question was resolved by placing minimal requirements on the Gentile Christians (Acts 15.28). Then Paul and Barnabas return to Antioch. The rest of the Acts deals mainly with the journeys of Paul.


Paul Traditions


Key Terms

  1. Gentile (Greek "ethnos" -- a person "from the nations"): one who is not Jewish.
  2. Salvation (can also be translated "healing," "liberation," etc.): acceptance by God in the last times.
  3. Heresy (see also above): from the Greek word meaning sub-group, which becomes a very different and negative term over time, to refer to a belief (or group) that rejects the "orthodox" tenets of a religion (of course, this is relative to the user's vantage point; one person's "orthodoxy" can be another person's "heresy").

Refer to RELS436: “The Life and Letters of Paul” web page, which includes ancient sources and biographical information about Paul. It explores the authenticity of letters attributed to Paul.


Background Information


Little is known about Paul’s background. Best guess is he is Palestinian and born sometime around the turn of the era. Although the author of Acts believes Paul is from Tarsus, there is a good chance he misinterpreted his sources (“Tarsian” can refer to the occupation of weaver). Paul may have been educated and from an elite class. The Group #1 letters (see below) are written by someone who knew Greek well. In Acts, Paul’s father was identified as a Roman citizen; Acts and Philippians refer to Paul as a Pharisee. Paul says that he worked, but never mentions his occupation; Acts says he was a “tentmaker.”


Paul’s Call


The story of Paul’s call appears three times in Acts; first in Acts 9, when Paul is blinded on the road to Damascus only to regain his sight later, when he becomes a follower of Jesus with a special mission; then the story is retold in Acts 22 (in a speech by Paul); finally a third version occurs in Acts 26 in Paul’s defense before Herod Agrippa. There are variations in all three versions.


Paul does not describe himself as converting from Judaism to Christianity. He believes he is a Jew who holds Jesus to be the Messiah of the Jewish expectations. With this Messiah, Paul believes the end times are near. Paul goes to every effort to justify his religion as an extension and fulfillment of Jewish expectations. He even goes as far to say that the Messiah has now opened the promises of Judaism through Joshua/Jesus the Messiah to all people (Gentiles, the nations), Jewish or not. Paul sees himself as “called” by God to bring the message of salvation through “Messiah/Christ” to the “Gentiles.” Paul refers to his experience of associating with the Jesus movement as a “call;” he was called to be an apostle (“apostle,” at that time, had not taken on the specific meaning of one of the twelve earliest followers of Jesus, but referred more generally to a person “sent out” for a particular reason).


Paul’s message


The end has begun (eschatological and apocalyptic); He uses economic language (Jesus' resurrection is the "down payment"). Paul sees himself as living in linkage with the resurrected Messiah (life “in Christ”) but always in danger of being pulled back by the flesh (where sin operates). He says that the “body of Christ” is the collective church living by the spirit of God/Christ.


Paul’s Eschatological Perspective Chart


The chart shows divisions of "salvation history." Paul views the period between "This Age" and "The Age to Come" as including "Messianic Sufferings." For Paul, people live on two levels, in the body of death (sin's domain, flesh), and in the body (corporate eschatological entity) of Christ. However, Paul is ambiguous about the "bodily" nature of resurrection in his treatment of the subject in 1 Cor 15. He contrasts earthly/heavenly in this connection, although his anti-Gnostic followers interpret him as teaching a bodily/physical resurrection. Paul's language is full of contrasting terms such as life/death, sin/redemption, law (bondage)/freedom, faith/works, flesh/spirit.


Paul often assumes that his readers will know what certain terms mean. Creation occurs, and there is disobedience (Adam and Eve). Paul says that the physical body ("flesh") gives way to sin and death, but with the power of the spirit, one can overcome sin/flesh and find true life. He says that we die because Adam sinned, which develops later into the idea of "original sin" (humans inherit Adam's punishment and guilt, as well as the inclination to sin; it's in the genes). Next in Paul's eschatological perspective comes the promise to Abraham followed by the period of Moses/law. Here, Moses is given the law to keep people in line. This is so that God's people would have a way to control sin. It defines Judaism in the pre-eschatological period. Paul sees this as a temporary solution that ends with the arrival of Messiah/Christ and the last times. Now the spirit makes freedom from the external law possible, in accord with God's promises through Jewish scriptures as Paul interprets them.


History of Salvation outline

Start: glory, perfection

First Adam: disobedience, sin

Bondage, slavery, Torah, Moses

Last Adam: Jesus

Restoration: Jesus’ resurrection

Obedience, suffering of Jesus’ body (his followers)

End: perfection, glory


Key Figures in Paul's Eschatological Perspective

First Adam: produces sin/death as the human condition.

Abraham: key figure of Israel, where message of God's promise comes. This is how Paul sees his mission. "All nations will be blessed."

Moses: Torah/law comes from God through him, to control human sin.

Last/Second Adam: Jesus the Messiah or "Christ" suffers and dies, is resurrected, makes salvation and resurrection possible for others through God's spirit. God's spirit can live in a person while the person is still in the flesh.


Paul uses lots of legal/forensic language -- to be declared righteous/innocent (acquitted), to be judged guilty. He's also fighting a battle with followers of Jesus with whom he disagrees (and vice-versa), who in some traditions are identified with Peter and James (brother of Jesus) as leaders of "Jewish Christianity."


Question: What does Paul think the Age to Come is going to be like?

Reference to 1 Cor 15. Paul focuses on double existence, in the spirit while still in the flesh (see above) -- living as if one is already in the age to come is where he thinks people should be. Once the spirit is in you, you have the power to do the right thing automatically, although people sometimes don't meet this ideal.


Question: What about Paul's view of death and sin?

Each is used to define the other. Last Adam is Jesus, and his death reverses death. For Paul, sin dominates through the flesh (similar to later rabbinic Jewish ideas about the "two inclinations," good and evil). Paul has a pessimistic view about the abilities of humans "in the flesh."


Question: What's the difference between death in the physical realm and spiritual death?

Physical death is when your body dies. Spiritual death is when you have no future with God, entering into a state of non-existence, or perhaps of punishment. Sin and flesh work together to produce death, first in Adam, then in humankind in general (Hebrew "Adam" = "man/human").


Question: When does grace pop up in Christianity?

Hesed [Hebrew meaning God's loyalty to the covenant] is translated into Greek as "grace." Paul thinks of salvation as involving faith in God, who is gracious. To take care of justice, Jesus' death is the way. Faith connects you to God's grace, but you can't earn God's favor. When the Galatians who first accepted God's grace now try to earn God's favor, they are moving backwards. Instead they should accept God's favor through faith, which also brings them the Holy Spirit. God is faithful to His promises, so one receives grace and forgiveness through faith.


Historical Analysis


Historically speaking, questions arise on style, consistency, and probability that Paul could or would be communicating with certain persons found addressed in the letters. Although Paul is referred to by early Christian writers (evidence of his existence), there is a gap between his death and the earliest references to his writings. It is likely that Paul died slightly before 70ce, in the latter part of Nero's rule, but the earliest extant copies (not originals) of his works date a century or so after his death.


Studying Paul’s Letters (Primary Sources)


Group 1: Most scholars agree that he wrote these four; they are similar in style and language; tend to be preferred because they are "primitive" (earlier and less developed) in conception of eschatology and community organization, etc.

o        Galatians

o        Romans

o        1 Corinthians

o        2 Corinthians


Group 2: known as the “Prison Epistles," since in each of these letters Paul is depicted as either in prison or recently imprisoned. Each of these letters is addressed to a group in a particular location (as are Group 1 letters), except for Philemon, who is an individual. Style, language, and themes are relatively close to those of Group 1; similar language between the five texts; Laodiceans is not included in the New Testament collection – if forged, apparently not to support a theological program.

o        Philemon

o        Philippians

o        Ephesians

o        Colossians

o        Laodiceans (not in the New Testament)


Group 3: two letters to the Thessalonians are studied as group 3; some believe that 1 Thessalonians is the earliest extant letter by Paul; nonetheless, both letters address the people’s obsession with the immediate expectation of the end times. The author of the letters addresses these views as quite radical, and explains to the people that no one can know exactly when these times will come upon us. Some argue that Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians but not 2 Thessalonians.

o        1 Thessalonians

o        2 Thessalonians


Group 4: The fourth group studied are not considered authentic by many scholars. Most believe these were written long after Paul’s death, and Paul’s name was attached to give them his authority. The first three letters are known as the “Pastoral Epistles” for each is addressed to a pastor or “shepherd.”

o        1 Timothy

o        2 Timothy

o        Titus

o        3 Corinthians (not in the New Testament)


Group 5: This correspondence with the famous Roman writer and philosopher Seneca is preserved only in Latin (4th or 5th century); talks about Jews and Christian persecution after the fire in Rome in 64 ce, among other things.

o        Seneca (several letters; not in the New Testament)


Group 6: Both of these "apocalypses" claim to be written by Paul; mystic view; unclear relationship between two writings.

o        Apocalypse/Vision (not in the New Testament)

o        Apocalypse 2 (Nag Hammadi Library; not in the New Testament)


Group 7: Prayer of Paul. Not really associated literarily with any other Pauline writings; Gnostic groups apparently used this text, with Paul's name attached to it.

o        Prayer of Paul (not in the New Testament)


Secondary Sources on Paul


o        Acts of the Apostles: second half is mostly about Paul

o        Acts of Paul: collection of stories, travels, and death

o        Acts of Peter: Paul and Peter in Rome; Paul leaves for Spain

o        Martyrdom of Peter and Paul

o        Ascent of James and Pseudo-Clementines: attributed to Clement; talk of Paul in negative way

o        Arabic excerpts of Jewish Source and related to Arabic Muslim Source

o        Samaritan Chronicle 2

o        Various briefer references: 2 Peter 3.15, 1 Clement 5, Ignatius Ephesians 12.2, Polycarp Philemon 3.2, Epistle of the Apostles 31-33, Life of Mani 60.12



o        Galatia: Roman province in central Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey)

o        written probably between 48 –55 ce

o        purpose: Paul was angry because his authority was being challenged; answering his opponent(s)’ claim(s) to be more authoritative preachers of Jesus.



o        written to a community that Paul had never seen

o        wishes to visit Rome on the way to Spain

o        Paul’s message and views are clearest in this letter as opposed to any other letter he wrote


1 Corinthians

o        Corinth: capital of the Roman province of Achaia (modern-day Greece)

o        Paul founded a church here with two companions (Timothy and Silvanus)

o        writes letter to address problems within the Christian community in Corinth


2 Corinthians

o        possibly a compilation of two or more letters

o        preaches his eschatological views



o        only relatively undisputed Pauline letter written to an individual

o        does not address practical and doctrinal matters

o        concerns a runaway slave, Onesimus, and his fate at the hands of his master, a Christian named Philemon



o        Philippi: in Macedonia

o        could be a collection of several letters or a single letter

o        correspondence between Paul (while in prison) and the church of Philippi



o        widely circulated

o        about problems not unique to the Ephesians but common throughout Asia Minor

o        purpose: to remind Gentiles that they have now been reconciled through the work of Christ



o        directed against a group of “false teachers” who had infiltrated the Christian community

o        basic layout is similar to Pauline epistles (especially Ephesians) but writing style is somewhat different



o        Laodicea: in Asia Minor

o        Letter is non-canonical, not particularly controversial in content


1 Thessalonians

o        Thessalonica: capital of the province of Macedonia

o        some think it was the first book of the New Testament to be written (50 ce)

o        address to a church founded by Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus


2 Thessalonians

o        possibly written by a “second” Paul, years after Paul’s death

o        written to comfort those who were being persecuted for their faith


1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, Titus

o        “Pastoral epistles” (each written in Paul's name to a person he had chosen to lead one of his churches)

o        contains pastoral advice concerning the management of Christian communities

o        deals with false teachers and the internal organization of the Christian communities


3 Corinthians

o        penned in Paul’s name

o        addresses theological issues that were already debated, especially "gnostic" ideas

o        found separately and also in the Acts of Paul


Seneca Correspondence

o        correspondence between Paul and Seneca

o        preserved only in Latin unlike the other Pauline epistles which are in Greek


Apocalypse (Vision of Paul), Apocalypse 2

o        Apoc. 2 is part of the NHL (Nag Hammadi Library)

o        Apoc. 2 differs significantly from Apoc. 1


Prayer of Paul

o        found in Nag Hammadi Library

o        deals with mysticism and gnosticism

[compiled and edited by Christina C. Lee, Fall 2001]