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).

Analysis

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” (1:78). 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” (28:28).

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” (3:2526).

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.