The early parts of Acts remind us that the Church was not born in a vacuum.  The city of Jerusalem was important for both its historic and prophetic value. The Church was also given authority from Jesus through the early apostles whose miracles and words helped establish the veracity of their Gospel.  Given this context, it is not surprising that Luke’s early writing creates a natural bridge between the history, theology and community of God’s chosen people—the New Covenant Church.  Ben Witherington summarizes some of these connecting literary elements in his commentary on Acts.  He writes,

It is important to look at the summaries from various angles and ask about their function as a whole in Acts, not just as individual linking passages. It is also useful to distinguish between summary statements and summary passages. For example, 2:41 is in a sense a summary statement concluding the previous narrative, and 2:42 is probably most naturally taken with what follows as part of a summary passage. Our concern here is primarily with the latter, of which there are a goodly number early on in Acts. In general one may say that summary statements are used to link together the narrative panels of Acts (6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20), and so the function of summary passages must be something else. The statements, like the panels they link, are meant to chronicle the spread of the word through the Mediterranean crescent, and as such they function much like similar statements about the spread of the word in Luke’s Gospel (cf. Luke 4:37; 7:17; and 4:14).

Cadbury’s general observations about the summary statements bear repeating: (1) they are Lukan creations, and are later than the intervening panels they link; (2) they are derived from generalization, probably from some of the specific adjacent material; (3) these summaries are liable to freer treatment than the material they link together and are liable to combination;(4) when the summaries are similar to one another in subject matter (as all the summary statements are), this may be due to Luke’s well-known tendency to repeat things with certain variations when he is dealing with the same theme on more than one occasion. Cadbury’s final remarks deserve to be stressed: “they are undoubtedly pieces of editorial workmanship, devised by the author or his predecessor for the creation of a narrative out of the raw materials. They serve double purpose—to divide and connect. They give continuity and historical perspective, but they are also of later vintage than the single episodes.… They indicate the material is typical, that the action was continued, that the effect was general. They fill in the lacunae … they suggest that there was plenty more material of the same kind.… Certain items are mentioned with a definiteness and brevity that imply that his knowledge or sources were more complete. In that case the summaries may rest on more information than we ourselves now have access to.” This last remark is crucial, for it suggests, as Hengel has elsewhere stressed, that in the case of Luke we are dealing with someone who is basically a condenser of a larger array of source material than he presents in Acts, rather than a creator of stories and statements based on too few, or in some cases no, sources at all.

It will be noted that the summary passages, unlike various summary statements, occur in the earlier part of Acts, suggesting perhaps that Luke has fewer and less extensive sources for the earlier period than for what he recounts later in the narrative. His sources only summarized much of these earliest days for him. In particular these summaries have to do with earliest Christian life in Jerusalem (2:42–47; 4:32–37; 5:12–16; 8:1b–4). We do not find these sorts of summary paragraphs about the interior life of the early church later in Acts.

Summing up, it is important to distinguish between summary statements and summary passages. The latter occur in the first eight chapters of Acts, the former in various places throughout. A further distinction can be made between summary remarks that link the so-called panels of Acts and remarks which conclude and summarize a particular episode in Acts, such as we find in 2:41. The panel-linking summaries have a very similar theme and vocabulary dealing with the spread of God’s word. The other sorts of summary remarks vary considerably. The summary paragraphs tend to share a common theme about the nature of the interior life of the early church, seen at its best. Finally, it should be pointed out that the use of such summary material, including linking summary remarks, is rather typical of ancient historiographical works that were based on research and the use of sources, which were by nature episodic in character.

Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 157-59.

 

Dr. J.R. Miller is a Professor of Applied Theology and Leadership & Dean of Online Learning at Southern California Seminary. Outside work, he is a church planter. Dr. Miller has a diverse educational background and authored multiple books on church history, biblical theology, and Leadership. Joe and his wife Suzanne enjoy the sun and surf with their 3 sons in San Diego, CA.

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