Please wait while we process your payment
If you don't see it, please check your spam folder. Sometimes it can end up there.
Don’t have an account?
Create Your Account
Sign up for your FREE 7-day trial
Already have an account? Log in
Choose Your Plan
$4.99/month + tax
$24.99/year + tax
Save over 50% with a SparkNotes PLUS Annual Plan!
for a group?
Get Annual Plans at a discount when you buy 2 or more!
$18.74 /subscription + tax
Subtotal $37.48 + tax
on 2-49 accounts
on 50-99 accounts
You'll be billed after your free trial ends.
7-Day Free Trial
Renews March 11, 2024
March 4, 2024
Discounts (applied to next billing)
This is not a valid promo code.
(one code per order)
Annual Plan - Group Discount
SparkNotes Plus subscription is $4.99/month or $24.99/year as selected above. The free trial period is the first 7 days of your subscription. TO CANCEL YOUR SUBSCRIPTION AND AVOID BEING CHARGED, YOU MUST CANCEL BEFORE THE END OF THE FREE TRIAL PERIOD. You may cancel your subscription on your Subscription and Billing page or contact Customer Support at email@example.com. Your subscription will continue automatically once the free trial period is over. Free trial is available to new customers only.
For the next 7 days, you'll have access to awesome PLUS stuff like AP English test prep, No Fear Shakespeare translations and audio, a note-taking tool, personalized dashboard, & much more!
You’ve successfully purchased a group discount. Your group members can use the joining link below to redeem their group membership. You'll also receive an email with the link.
Members will be prompted to log in or create an account to redeem their group membership.
Thanks for creating a SparkNotes account! Continue to start your free trial.
Your PLUS subscription has expired
Acts of the Apostles, the second part of the work that
begins with the Gospel According to Luke, is the story of the early
church after Jesus’s martyrdom. Like Luke, Acts is addressed to the
unknown reader Theophilus, and in the introduction to Acts, it is
made clear that it is a continuation of Luke: “In the first book,
Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the
beginning until the day he was taken up to heaven” (1:1–2).
Second-century Christian tradition identifies the author of Luke
and Acts as Luke, a traveling companion of the missionary Paul of
Tarsus. Modern scholars agree that Acts and Luke should be credited
to the same author, but have been more reluctant to identify him:
the author most likely wrote between the years 80 and 90,
and may indeed have been Paul’s companion.
One of the perplexing problems surrounding the authorship
of Acts is the narrator’s changing voice and person. He generally speaks
as an uninvolved third party, but sometimes lapses into the plural.
Acts is certainly intended as a history of the early church, and it
is the most complete and valuable history we have of the Christians
in the first century. However, it is not necessarily historically
reliable, either in terms of its depiction of the first-century
development of Christian theology and religion, or in its description
of the political history of the church. For instance, the author
seems relatively shaky in his knowledge of Paul’s theology. Whether
or not it was intended to be a historically accurate text, Acts
can be read as a devotional and instructional history, whose religious
purpose remains unaffected by its inaccuracies. It depicts the story
of the spread of Christianity, the growing distance between Christianity
and Judaism, the move toward earthly concerns rather than apocalyptic
expectations, and the triumph of the Christian message despite persecutions.
Acts begins with Jesus’s charge to the Twelve Apostles
to spread the Gospel throughout the world. Peter serves as the leader
of the apostles and the small congregation of the faithful in Jerusalem.
Their first order of business is to elect Matthias as the twelfth
apostle, replacing the traitor Judas Iscariot. During the year of
Jesus’s death and resurrection, the disciples are gathered for Pentecost,
a religious holiday celebrating the grain harvest. The Holy Spirit
descends upon them. As a result of the Holy Spirit’s presence, they
begin speaking other languages.
Peter delivers a sermon explaining the miracle. He says
that the gift of tongues is given to prophets. Peter summarizes
the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus. He gives scriptural
proof that Jesus is the Messiah, the savior whom God promises in
the Old Testament to send to save Jews from their adversity. Responding
to Peter’s sermon, 3,000 people
are baptized into the Christian community—an idealized, thriving
community characterized by prayer, brotherhood, common ownership,
and sharing. A man named Barnabas is particularly praised for his
generosity, and a couple that defrauds the church is stricken dead.
Going to the temple to pray, Peter and John cure a crippled beggar.
Peter tells a crowd the story of Jesus’s persecution and his eventual
resurrection, concluding with a reminder that the Jews are favored
by God and a call to repentance. The Sadducee high priests of the
temple, who do not believe in the resurrection of the dead, bring
Peter and John before the Jewish high court, where Peter preaches
the Gospel fearlessly. The court, which is called the Sanhedrin,
recognizes that public opinion is in favor of the apostles and releases
them with only a warning.
The high priest imprisons the apostles, but they are miraculously freed
by an angel, and they continue their preaching. Brought again before
the court, Peter leads the apostles in their defense, saying, “We
must obey God rather than any human authority” (5:29). Influenced
by the great sage Gamaliel, who warns, “[Y]ou will not be able to
overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against
God,” the court declines to execute the apostles, who continue preaching
throughout Jerusalem (5:39).
The church divides into two groups. One group is the Hellenists, Christians
who were born Jewish but who have a Greek cultural background. The
other group is the Hebrews, the Christians who, like the apostles,
were born into Jewish cultural backgrounds. The Hellenists feel
discriminated against, so in response, the community of disciples
elects seven leaders to account for the needs of the Hellenists.
Foremost among these Christian Hellenist leaders is Stephen. A controversy
ensues between Stephen and some Jews, who accuse him of heresy before
the Sanhedrin. Stephen’s accusers testify that “[t]his man never
stops saying things against the holy place and the law” (7:13).
In front of the Sanhedrin, Stephen delivers a long speech detailing
the history of Jewish leadership in the Bible, concluding with a
damning accusation: “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses
made with human hands. . . . You stiff-necked people . . . you are
forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to
Stephen is stoned to death, with the approval of a young
man named Saul of Damascus, a vigorous persecutor of the Christians. Stephen
is the first Christian martyr, a person who is killed as a result of
defending the church. Saul is a Jewish leader who has been trying to
wipe out the new community of Christians because he believes that
they are trying to dismantle Jewish law. While traveling to persecute
Christians, Saul is blinded by a light and hears the voice of Jesus
asking, “Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4). Saul
then sets out to become the most relentless, brilliant, and bold missionary
of Christianity that the church has ever known. He travels to the
coast, performs miracles, preaches the Gospel, and converts Gentiles.
In a brief interlude, Acts recounts the miracles and speeches
of Peter. Traveling to the coast, Peter cures a paralytic at Lydda
and revives a woman at Joppa. In Caesarea, he says that he has received a
message from God telling him that he “should not call anyone profane
or unclean” (10:28).
He deduces that he may associate with Gentiles, as “God shows no
partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what
is right is acceptable to him” (10:34). He
therefore dines with the family of a Roman centurion named Cornelius,
and they become the first Gentiles baptized by Peter. The church
continues to shift its emphasis toward welcoming the Gentiles. Some
of those who fled persecutions in Jerusalem arrive at the Syrian city
of Antioch, where they begin to preach to the Greeks. Saul and Barnabas
are among these people. Judea, meanwhile, is under the rule of King
Herod Agrippa, who ruled from 41 to 44 a.d. Herod Agrippa introduces institutional persecution against the Christians
and arrests Peter, who is miraculously freed from jail by an angel.
Barnabas and Saul, who is renamed Paul, depart on a missionary journey.
In Cyprus, Paul blinds a magician, Elymas, who tries to prevent
Paul from teaching. At Antioch in Pisidia, a central region in modern-day
Turkey, Paul preaches to a Jewish congregation, telling his listeners
about forgiveness of sins through faith in Jesus as the resurrected
Messiah. Many listeners become converts, but many also contradict
Paul, and the missionaries are expelled from the territory. At Iconium,
too, they have some success until nonbelievers, including both Jews
and Gentiles, drive them from town. At Lycaonia, Paul cures a cripple,
and the local Gentiles take them for the pagan gods Zeus and Hermes
before Paul is able to convince them otherwise. As usual, however,
the missionaries are chased from town, and Paul is nearly
stoned to death. The two make their way back to Antioch in Syria,
preaching the whole way. A controversy arises as a result of their
missionary activities among the Gentiles, and Paul and Barnabas
journey to Jerusalem for a debate of church leaders.
At the debate, traditional Jewish Christians argue that,
to become a Christian, one must first convert to Judaism and become circumcised.
Paul and Barnabas are strong supporters of expanding the church
among Gentiles. Peter and James, leaders of the Jewish Christians
in Jerusalem, decide in favor of Paul’s perspective, arguing that
they should preserve the community of believers and “not trouble
those Gentiles who are turning to God” (15:19).
Only a minimal adherence to the law is required of Christian Gentiles.
Paul separates from Barnabas and, together with another disciple,
Silas, sets out in Macedonia. Local Gentiles are angry at their
exorcism of a spirit from a soothsayer slave, which deprives her
of the ability to tell the future. They imprison Paul and Silas.
An earthquake shakes the prison cell, and the missionaries are quickly
In Greece, Paul meets with mixed success, converting some
but meeting opposition from many Jews and some Gentiles. In Athens, Paul
speaks at the public forum, the Areopagus, contextualizing Christianity
within Greek beliefs. From Athens, Paul travels to Corinth, where
he turns away from the Jews in despair and preaches almost entirely
to the Gentiles with great success. He also attracts his faithful
disciples Aquila and Priscilla. The Jews take Paul before the governor
of the region to accuse him, but the governor refuses to adjudicate
a matter of religious faith. Paul, after a brief return to Antioch,
continues to work his way through Greece, establishing the church
in Ephesus and working great miracles. He leaves Ephesus after a
mass riot instigated by the silversmiths, who are concerned that
Paul’s preaching against pagan idolatry will ruin their trade.
Paul travels onward and stops to revive a dead man in
Troas. Paul sends for the Christian elders of Ephesus, and in an
emotional speech he reminds them of his faithful service to them
and warns them of the persecution that might begin. The Holy Spirit
urges him to travel to Jerusalem, where he himself expects to be
persecuted and possibly killed. In Jerusalem, Paul meets with James
and the church leaders, who are concerned that Paul appears to have
been urging Christians not to follow Jewish law. They plan for Paul
to make a public show of worship at the temple, to indicate that
he continues to adhere to Jewish law. In the temple, however,
Jews seize him, accusing him of profaning the temple and preaching
against the law. Paul tells the crowd his personal history. He relates
the stories of his past persecution of Christians, his miraculous
vision of Christ, and his conversion to Christianity and mission
to preach to the Gentiles.
The crowd becomes outraged, and the Roman tribune seizes
Paul and flogs him. The tribune then has him brought before the
Jewish high court, the Sanhedrin, where Paul creates dissent by
setting the two factions in the court, the Pharisees and the Sadducees,
against each other. The tribune saves Paul from the ensuing riot,
and, hearing of a Jewish plot against Paul’s life, sends him for
his own protection to Felix, the governor of Palestine, in Caesarea.
At the trial in Caesarea, Paul professes to worship God and adhere
to Jewish law. He claims that it is only because of his belief in
the resurrection of the dead—a belief not shared by the Sadducees—that
he is on trial. Hearing that Paul collects and distributes alms,
Felix holds him in jail for two years, hoping for a bribe. After
Felix’s death, Paul is tried before the new governor, Festus. Paul
appeals to Caesar’s judgment, and Festus—who does not believe Paul
guilty, but who wants to appease the Jews calling for his execution—resolves
to send him to Caesar, in Rome. First, however, Paul is brought
before Herod Agrippa, the Jewish puppet-king of Palestine. Again,
Paul recounts the story of his vision of Jesus and conversion to
Christianity, and argues that his missionary activity is merely
a fulfillment of Jewish hopes and Old Testament prophecies. King
Herod Agrippa is impressed, but Paul is sent to Rome. On the way
to Rome, Paul’s ship is wrecked, and through a series of sailing
mishaps it takes months to arrive at Rome. Awaiting his hearing
at Rome, Paul begins to spread the Gospel to the Roman Jews, who
disbelieve him. He turns his emphasis again toward the Gentiles,
and as Acts ends, Paul is in Rome, “teaching about the Lord Jesus
Christ with all boldness and without hindrance” (28:31).
Acts of the Apostles demonstrates the importance of missionary work
in the early church. The book begins with the appearance of the
resurrected Jesus to his disciples, who are anxious for the final redemption.
The apostles demand of Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will
restore the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6).
Jesus responds by charging them to concern themselves not with the
Apocalypse, but with spreading the Gospel on Earth: “It is not for
you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his
own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has
come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in
all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:7–8).
It is through Paul, the great early missionary of the church, that
Acts dramatizes the fulfillment of Jesus’s command, the spreading
of the Gospel across the known world. Paul dominates the second
half of Acts and, more than any other figure, dictates the trajectory
of the church’s rise. Acts begins with Peter and the apostles in
Jerusalem; it ends, years later, with Paul in Rome. Paul’s final
words are an apt summary of the direction in which he leads the
missionary church in the vital first decades of its existence: “Let
it be known to you then,” he says to the Jews of Rome, “that this
salvation of God has been sent to the Gentiles; they will listen”
The ending of Acts in Rome foreshadows the eventual transition of
the church to that city. Acts is the story of the church’s turn
away from Jerusalem and toward Antioch, Ephesus, and Rome. Acts
is filled with stories and speeches, but the dramatic arc that connects all
of Acts of the Apostles is the church’s move, driven by Paul, toward
a split with Judaism and an emphasis on converting Gentiles. It
is in that move that Christianity becomes its own distinct religion.
Jesus and his followers consider themselves Jews, and Jesus’s
message and teachings are the fulfillment of Jewish prophecies.
It is evident from the first chapters of Acts that, in the first
years after Jesus’s ascension, the apostles and their followers continued
to consider themselves Jews, and to follow Jewish law. Peter and
John, both of whom consider Jews the chosen people of God, are on
their way to worship in the Jewish temple when they encounter the cripple.
“You are the descendents of the prophets,” Peter tells a Jewish
audience, “and of the covenant that God gave to your ancestors.
. . . When God raised up his servant [Jesus], he sent him first
to you” (3:25–26).
The early church controversy between the Hellenists and
the Hebrews introduces the first dissent within the church itself.
The Hellenists are Jewish adherents to Jesus who were born into
a Greek cultural background. They feel that the Hebrews, Jewish
Christians who were born into a Jewish cultural background and who
adhere strictly to Jewish law, are discriminating against them.
The apostles and disciples decide that unity is more important than
conformity, and they accept the position of the Hellenists, even
appointing Stephen and six others to minister to the Hellenists
in the church. When Stephen breaks with Jewish tradition, however,
he shows how Christianity is becoming increasingly incompatible
with Judaism. Although Stephen is stoned to death, the Hellenists
continue to move away from the Jewish focus of the church,
baptizing Samaritans and an Ethiopian. A turning point for the church
occurs when Peter himself receives a message from God: “God has
shown me that I must not call anyone profane or unclean” (10:28).
The message challenges one of the fundamental aspects of Judaism,
the idea that Jews are a special population chosen by God. But God’s
message to Peter indicates that Gentiles are no less clean than
Jews, and therefore that “God has given even to the Gentiles the
repentance that leads to life” (11:18).
The church in Antioch is founded immediately after the
Jerusalem elders accept Peter’s rationale for baptizing a Gentile,
thus laying the foundation for the Antioch church to become dominated
by Gentile Christians. It also indicates the increasing degree to
which followers of Jesus Christ are non-Jewish. The acceptance of
Gentiles gives impetus to the move away from Jewish law and Judaism,
and it signals the beginning of the move away from Jerusalem. In
fact, at Antioch the disciples are first called Christians rather
than Jews. Paul becomes the great Christian missionary
to the Gentiles, traveling throughout Greece and Asia Minor and,
while receiving little welcome from the Jews, recruiting many Gentiles
to the church. Paul and Barnabus say, “It was necessary that the
word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you reject it and
judge yourselves to be unworthy of eternal life, we are now turning
to the Gentiles” (13:46).
The New Testament texts are not monolithic, or conveying
only a single, objective perspective. The Book of Acts reveals that
early Christianity was a highly dynamic movement, full of doctrinal
and theological differences. Acts functions as a historical text
in allowing us a unique insight into the transition of Christianity
from a Jewish sect into its own religion. The controversies over
adherence to Jewish law, the role of Gentiles within the church,
and the relationship of the Diaspora communities to the Jerusalem
community make it possible to understand Paul’s letters, which comprise
a later part of the New Testament. Acts describes the beginning
of the process by which the faith of a few followers grew into a
church that dominated Europe for more than 1,000 years.