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Is Acts a Work of Fiction, History, or Theology?

By Grant Osborne

Most ancient books trace the “acts” of heroes like Odysseus, Alexander the Great, or Julius Caesar. Luke’s is unique because these are the “acts” of a movement. As the second part of a two-volume work, it is a historical narrative tracing how the Christ followers built on their founder and became a worldwide force. They began as a fairly narrowly conceived Jewish “sect” and by the end of the book had expanded to “the ends of the earth” (1:8). This work tells how that came to pass in just a little over thirty years, from the ascension of Jesus (AD 30) to the imprisonment of Paul in Rome (AD 60–62).[pullquote]

Virtually an entire nation turned against and sought to eradicate one small religious movement and ended up empowering a world-changing force.[/pullquote]

Amazingly, all this is accomplished in the midst of incredible adversity and opposition. Virtually an entire nation turned against and sought to eradicate one small religious movement and ended up empowering a world-changing force. Thus the book should be labeled not “the Acts of the Apostles” but “the Acts of the Holy Spirit through the Apostles.” It is the Triune Godhead who is the central figure in this book. The progression of these acts is both geographical (from Jerusalem to Judea and Galilee, to Samaria, to Antioch, to Asia Minor, to Macedonia and Achaia, to “the ends of the earth,” 1:8) and personal (from the Twelve to Stephen to Peter to Paul), as God orchestrates all the details.

Even though Luke is called the primary historian of the early Church, it has been almost a fad in scholarly circles to doubt the historical trustworthiness of Luke-Acts and to argue that they are largely fictional stories that were created as the early Church tried to defend itself in the Greco-Roman world. This scholarly view assumes a work must be either history or theology, and that the theological core of these writings diminishes their historical worth.

Alternatively, we could see Luke–Acts as both history and theology, with a blend of the two functioning equally in the production of the work. Ancient Judaism strongly stressed history, and Christianity was more Jewish than gentile in outlook and perspective. If God is involved in history, as Christians strongly believe he is, then it is false to separate history and theology, since theological explanations simply highlight the significance of historical events. Miracles, for example, do not happen outside history but simply explain the supernatural acting within history.

As a test case, let’s consider the speeches in Acts since nearly a third of the book (300 of the 1,000 verses) occurs in speeches. It is common for critical scholars to assume Luke created these speeches, thinking they were what would likely be said on each occasion. However, it is likely that Luke assimilated what was said in speeches and summarized material he received in notes taken during those speeches. There is quite a bit of evidence that the apostles were note-takers (especially Matthew), and Luke as a historian would have taken care to speak to people who had been present at the events. There is no evidence he made up accounts and created speeches wholesale. Furthermore, there is evidence that ancient historians like Thucydides tried to be as accurate as possible when re-creating speeches. While they certainly used paraphrase and summary, they still sought accuracy. Truth had absolute priority over the fabrication of details for the sake of the narrative. In Luke 1:1–4, Luke stresses how carefully he sought eyewitness sources behind everything he wrote.

Luke’s purposes are closely tied to his theological emphases, but they are not identical. I find five major purposes for this work:

  1. To preach the gospel. Luke wanted to proclaim the good news of Christ by relating its history in the early Church. It is mainly a historical work showing how the presence of the Holy Spirit moved the people of God from a small Jewish sect in Jerusalem to a worldwide force bringing the gospel of salvation to a lost world.
  2. To trace the Spirit’s activity and show the divine impetus behind the Church’s mission. Here Luke is a theologian of salvation history as well as the “father of Church history.” The goal of this book is to forge a new movement whose mission is to bring God’s truths to all the world.
  3. To defend the faith. This is an apologetic work with two audiences: to defend Christianity against Jewish antipathy and the demands of the Judaizers, and to show the tolerant attitude of Roman officials, proving that Christianity was no political danger to Rome and should be tolerated.
  4. To bring together the Jewish and gentile elements of the Church into one united new Israel. Both sides need to understand that God’s will is for them to come together and form the new messianic community together.
  5. To teach the historical beginnings of the Church for the benefit of new converts and to tell those in Jerusalem about the spread of the Church into gentile lands.


Grant R. Osborne (1942–2018) was professor emeritus of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. He authored numerous books, including The Hermeneutical Spiral: A Comprehensive Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, and commentaries on Revelation (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Romans (IVP New Testament Commentary), Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), and John, James, 1-2 Peter, and Jude (Cornerstone Biblical Commentary). He also taught at Winnipeg Theological Seminary and the University of Aberdeen, and pastored churches in Ohio and Illinois.

This post is adapted from Acts Verse by Verse by Grant Osborne (Lexham Press, 2019).

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