Apostle Associations: An Argument Against Lukan Authorship?

One of the less impressive arguments against Lukan authorship of Acts is that Luke and Paul disagree on what it takes to be an apostle. There is no doubt that Paul claimed to be an apostle because he was called by Jesus to serve as a messenger to the Gentiles. Paul’s role as an apostle is attested in the following letters: Rom 1:1; 11:13; 1 Cor. 1:1; 9:1-2; 15:9; 2 Cor. 1:1; 12:12; Gal. 1:1; Eph. 1:1; Col. 1:1; 1 Tim. 1:1; 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:1; 1:11; and Titus 1:1. While it is true that in 1 Cor. 15:9, Paul associates his being an apostle with being commissioned by the risen Jesus, it is also true that this is not the only way in which he uses the term. The world itself is something akin to “sent messenger.” Paul refers to apostles (“apostolos”) that he has sent out as his representatives to another church in 2 Cor. 8:23. A similar usage of the term is found in Phil. 2:25 and 1 Thess. 2:6. In 2 Cor. 12:12, Paul seems to associate being an apostle with “signs and wonders and miracles." Many of the rest of the references do not lend themselves to an easy understanding of the precise definition beyond being specially called to act as a representative of Christ, mostly likely in the founding of churches.

The situation is further muddied by yet more variety in the use of the term among early Christians. A curious example of how the term could be used differently comes from the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author of Hebrews refers to Jesus himself as “the Apostle and High Priest of our confession.” (Heb. 3:1). The Gospel of Matthew uses it to refer to the twelve disciples (Mat. 10:2), as does the Gospel of Mark (Mark 6:30). The usage in Mark is interesting in its focus on being sent by Jesus. The twelve are sent out as “disciples” but when they return from their missions they are “apostles.” (Mark 6:7, 30). Given the temporal primacy of Mark and the popularity of Matthew, this association of the term with the Twelve was, at the least, quite common in the early Christian churches. Luke, for the most part, follows Matthew and Mark by using “apostles” to generally refer to the Twelve.

One skeptic argues: “In Acts, however, the apostleship was presented as an office which could only be conferred on someone who had been with Jesus when he was alive and must be one of the twelve.”

Our skeptic has overstated his case. The verses he cites to claim that Acts unequivocally states that no one could be an apostle without having broken bread with Jesus are not compelling. In Acts 1:21-25, Peter describes how the Twelve chose a successor to Judas. Although Peter says that Matthias will take his place in this “ministry and apostleship” from which Judas turned aside, he does not equate “apostleship” exclusively with being a member of the Twelve anymore than he equates having a “ministry” exclusively with being a member of the Twelve.

As for Acts 10:41, it does not mention any “criterion for apostleship.” In fact, it does not refer to apostleship at all. The same is true of Acts 13:30-31. Therein, Acts refers to those who followed Jesus from Galilee through the resurrection. They are witnesses (“martus”) to Jesus’ ministry and resurrection, not necessarily apostles. Nowhere is Paul “made to accept” that he is not an apostle because he did not follow Jesus from Galilee through his resurrection.

Additionally, as our skeptic must concede (albeit in tiny print in an endnote), the author of Acts specifically refers to Paul as an apostle twice in Acts 14:4 and 14:

“But the people of the city were divided; and some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles,” and

“But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of it, they tore their robes and rushed out into the crowd, crying out.”

Undaunted, our skeptic claims that it is irrelevant that Acts specifically refers to Paul as an apostle on two occasions because the author is relying on a source for verse 14. Of course, the author of Acts is also relying on a source (Mark) and his usage in Luke when he refers to the Twelve as apostles. And here we perhaps have the crux of the explanation. The author of Acts is somewhat boxed in by the established usage of the term “apostles” in his most important gospel source, Mark. Having faithfully followed Mark’s use of the term as applied to the Twelve in the Gospel of Luke (and consistent with Matthew and most likely a widely established usage at the time he wrote), the author of Acts continues to use the same term in the same way in his second volume. Nothing about this is inconsistent with the author having been a companion of Paul. Simply because the author traveled with Paul on occasion does not mean that he was obligated to make an issue out of how the term apostle was used. Nor does it mean that the author/companion was required to have one meaning of the term in the Gospel of Luke and another in Acts. Nor does it mean that he would have picked a fight over this one point to champion Paul at the risk of obscuring his larger points or alienating some of his readers. Indeed, simply because they worked together on occasion does not mean that Luke could not have had a different opinion about the meaning of the term "apostle."

Put it this way. If it is true -- as many claim -- that the author of Acts was attempting to portray a positive portrait of the early Church, and if there was a more accepted understanding of the term “apostle,” why is he obligated to rock the boat? There is no compelling reason to pick such a fight. Even if it was not a point of contention at the time he wrote, why would he be obligated to use the term in a way that might confuse a good portion of his readers? He is not. Moreover, the author of Acts may simply have wanted to be consistent in how he used the terms in both volumes. Following his primary gospel source he used “apostles” to refer to the Twelve and, rather than jump ships midstream, continued with that usage of the term in Acts. Surely even a friend of Paul could use the term apostle in the same way he used it in his first volume without denigrating Paul. Remember, Acts was written probably 10 or 15 years after Paul’s death. It is not a biography of Paul or even a defense of his ministry. Rather, it is a history of the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome. Peter, James, and John carry the torch in the first half. Paul in the second.

In any event, whatever the subtleties of Acts’ and Paul’s use of the term “apostle,” they both agree on the main points. Paul encountered the risen Jesus and was given special authority to be his messenger to the Gentiles. Thereafter, Paul carried out a successful ministry to the Gentiles. As F.F. Bruce notes, “when Paul in letters argues for the validity of his apostleship by an appeal to his achievements, the record of Acts provides abundant independent confirmation of his argument.” Bruce, Apostle of the Heart Set Free, page 156.

Finally, let us return to our two exceptions in Acts – where the author does refer explicitly to Paul as an apostle. While we probably cannot know why the author of Acts slips into using the term to refer to Paul, what vs. 4 and 14 do tell us is that the author was not ignorant of Paul’s usage of the term. Paul thought of himself as an apostle. 1 Cor. 9:6, reveals that Paul thought Barnabas was one as well. The author of Acts knows that Paul was called an apostle. He apparently knows that Barnabas was called one as well.

In sum, there is no reason to doubt the authorship of Acts by a companion of Paul because of how the term apostle is used.


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