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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Did the Author of Acts Use Sources? If So, What Kind and From Where?

In an earlier post I noted that Luke’s tendency to make his sources linguistically in his own impairs our search for his use of sources in the Acts of the Apostles. For unlike his gospel, we do not have any “synoptic” traditions with which to compare Acts. Nevertheless, one obvious use of a source in Acts is the we passages, which I take to represent the author’s own involvement in his narrative. Indeed, the sheer amount of detail and accurate references to Paul’s ministry in the we passages adds weight to the argument for authorial participation:

The we-sections are disproportionately lengthy and detailed, in comparison with the rest of Acts, which, in narrative, is usually brisk and succinct. The fact that the we-sections have not been cut to a suitable length strongly suggests that they are extended personal reminiscence in which eyewitnesses sometimes indulge.

J.M. Gilchrist, “The Historicity of Paul’s Shipwreck,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament, page 37.

But even if we assume that Luke’s own experiences constituted one of his sources, the we passages do not even constitute half of the narrative of Acts. Of course, Luke’s proximity to Paul and his associates would have given him access to excellent sources of information about Paul and his missionary activities, but that still leaves us with questions about the sources – if any – Luke used for the first half of the Acts narrative (chapters 1-15). The first part of Acts focuses on Peter, John, and the Jerusalem Church. As John Polhill asks, “[e]ven if he were present on a large part of Paul’s missionary activity, what was the basis of his account for the history of the early Jerusalem Church, the mission of Philip, the conversion of Cornelius, the apostolic conference in Jerusalem, and the many other events of Acts 1-15?” Acts, The New American Commentary, page 38.

The question is unlikely to be answered by textual analysis, though that may provide some clues. Luke simply smoothed out the Greek of his sources so much that we cannot assume he left obvious traces of his use of sources. Nevertheless, it seems likely that he did use sources. The pattern he established in the Gospel of Luke certainly suggests that Luke used sources and used them relatively faithfully. That he relied on his own experiences for part of his narrative does not count against his use of sources earlier, for it was customary among ancient historians to impart their personal involvement in the narrative and use sources. In fact, Luke’s “smooth” use of his sources is just what we would expect from an ancient historian who collected notes or sources, drafted them, and then finalized them into his narrative.

Luke could have learned some of the material he used in Acts 1-15 second hand from Paul, who met with Peter and James and undoubtedly would have learned some facts about the early Jerusalem Church. Much the same is true for Luke’s contact with companions of Paul. Moreover, Luke himself traveled to Jerusalem with Paul and would have had access to plenty of information about the early Jerusalem Church from its own members; though this would have been several years after the events recounted in Acts 1-15. See Acts 21:17-18 (“When we arrived in Jerusalem, the brothers welcomed us warmly. The next day Paul went with us to visit James; and all the elders were present.”).

Complementing and supplementing Luke’s access to early sources of information is the fact that the early Church valued, formulated, and passed on traditions about the apostles, the Jerusalem Church, and other early churches. Indeed, these traditions could have been a source of information for Acts 1-15 irrespective of whether he was a companion of Paul.

Many scholars used to assume that “there were no traditions concerning the apostles.” W. Ward Gasque, “Did Luke Have Access to Traditions About the Apostles and the Early Churches?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 17.01 (Winter 1974), page 46. However, as Gasque -- relying on an article in German by Jacob Jervell – demonstrates, Paul’s own letters prove that the early Christian churches developed and shared traditions about each other. For example, though Paul had nothing to do with founding the Roman church and had yet to even visit it, he wrote to them, “thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed throughout the world.” Romans 1:8. Paul uses the verb katangelletai for proclaimed, which “is always used in a kerygmatic sense and is similar in meaning to kerysso and eveangelizomai (cf. I Cor. 2:1; 9:14; 11:26; Phil. 1:17-18; Col. 1:28). This makes it clear that he regards the faith of the Roman church (i.e. the story of their conversion and present Christian experience) as constituting an element in the kerygma.” Ibid. Such references are found elsewhere in Paul’s letters, including regarding the Thessalonian church, which “became an example to all the believers in Macedonia and in Achaia” (Thess. 1:2-8) and the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 3:1-3).

Paul also passes along stories about events in other churches. In 2 Corinthians 8 he refers to “the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” 2 Cor. 8:1-2. Similar stories (some about Paul himself) are found in 2 Cor. 9:1-4; Romans 16:17-29; 1 Thess. 1:5-; 2 Thess. 3:7; Phil 3:17; and 1 Cor. 4:17; 11:1.

Most important for our purpose here is that the Jerusalem Church occupies a prominent role as the primary example for other Christian churches. Again and again Paul emphasizes the importance of the faith of the Jerusalem Church. See 1 Thess. 2:14; Rom. 15:25-27; 1 Cor. 14:36; 1 Cor. 16:1; and, 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:1, 12. Also important is Cor. 15:3-8, “where the gospel—in a form which probably stems from the Jerusalem Church itself—contains not only the report of Jesus’ death and resurrection but also the report of the appearance of Jesus to Peter and the twelve, to a host of other (Jerusalem?) brethren, to James, and to other apostles. Added to this is the vast amount of data in the Corinthian epistles and in Galatians (especially chs. 1 and 2) which is unintelligible apart from the fact that the life of the Jerusalem church was well-known to all the other churches and vice versa.” Ibid., page 48.

From this data it is clear that the early Christian movement was not a loose collection of isolated churches with little or no contact and information about each other. Indeed, the missionary experiences of the apostles and the early churches were part of the preaching of the early Christians. This is particularly true of the Jerusalem Church. “[A] considerable amount of information concerning the life of the Jerusalem Church was available, and this was important to all the churches.” Ibid. Clearly, therefore, given Luke’s access to so many of the early churches, and especially his time in Jerusalem, he would have obtained plenty of material upon which to base Acts 1-15. Indeed, even if Acts was not written by a companion of Paul, there is nothing at all improbable about him having learned of the widespread and important traditions about the early Jerusalem Church.


For more scholarship in this vein, I'd recommend the collection of essay edited by Richard Bauckham entitled The Gospel for All Christians (1997).

Michael B. Thompson's essay "The Holy Internet: Communication Between Churches in the First Christian Generation" in this book is particularly apropos.

The irony here is that I bought and read most of The Gospel for All Christians a few years ago. And I completely forgot about consulting it when I was preparing this post.

Thanks, good recommendation.

It would be interesting to trace through all the personal references -- especially at the beginnings/endings of letters but also scattered throughout the epistles. I do not know how much of the specific detail is still relevant, how many of the people can be placed. But some of the letters make it seem like a number of people knew each other, and that a number of messengers and/or travelling missionaries were well-known to more than one church. I know that "Luke says hi, and so does Mark" -- that kind of thing was one of my first clues that (say) Luke and Mark had probably actually met each other. I imagine the other greetings and cross-mentions reflect something of the same sort.

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