Much of the book of Acts — about 50% — is comprised of speeches, discourses and letters. Among them, a total of eight speeches are given by Peter; a total of nine speeches delivered by Paul; there is Stephen’s famous address before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:2-53); a brief address at the Jerusalem Council by James (Acts 15:13-21); the advice given to Paul by James and the Jerusalem elders (Acts 21:20-25); in addition to the letter to the Gentile churches from the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:23-29) and the letter to Governor Felix from Claudius Lysias (Acts 23:27-30).
An interesting question that we can investigate pertains to whether these speeches and other addresses are historically authentic, or whether they instead represent the invention of Luke, the author of Acts. It is this question with which this essay is concerned.
We have indication that Luke himself accompanied Paul for a significant portion of his trip. This is implied by Luke’s use of the pronoun “we”, beginning in Acts 16. This means that Luke was present during Paul’s speech in Athens (Acts 17), his address to the elders of Ephesus (Acts 20), his speech in Jerusalem (Acts 22), and his defence before Felix, Festus and Agrippa (Acts 24-25). Since Luke was a close companion of Paul, it is entirely plausible that Paul gave Luke the wording of his other sermons. He may have even given Luke information pertaining to Stephen’s address to the Sanhedrin, at which Paul was present (Acts 7:58). Luke likely received material from Peter regarding his speeches. James may also have provided material regarding the Jerusalem Council.
Now, it is clear that these speeches are presented by Luke only in summary form (see Acts 2:40). But the question that concerns us here is whether these speeches are truthfully represented by Luke or whether he falsely attributes those words to the speakers. For the sake of brevity, this article will focus on the speeches of Stephen, Peter and Paul.
Stephen’s speech, given in Acts 7:2-53, makes extensive allusion to the Old Testament Scriptures, drawing out the history of the Jews from Abrahamic times to the time of Solomon’s temple. In all, the book of Acts quotes the Old Testament a total of 40 times. 15 of those quotations appear in Stephen’s speech. This repeated quotation of the Old Testament does not resemble Luke’s literary style, but instead suggests that its origin lies with a theologian of Stephen’s calibre. Moreover, there are at least 23 words that are never to be found in the book of Acts (or for that matter throughout the rest of the New Testament) apart from Stephen’s speech. Stephen’s particular way of talking about the temple and Moses is also not found anywhere except in this speech of Stephen. Further, the words affliction and promise take on a special significance in this particular discourse that does not reflect the way in which these words are used throughout the rest of Acts.
Peter’s speeches in Acts utilise similar word choice and ideas to his epistles. For example, consider the following striking parallels (in terms of both word choice and concepts) between the speeches of Peter in Acts and Peter’s first epistle:
- “…by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge…” (Acts 2:23) //“…chosen according to the foreknowledge of God…” (1 Peter 1:2)
- “Silver or gold I do not have…” (Acts 3:6) //“…it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed…” (1 Peter 1:18)
- “…the faith that comes through him…” (Acts 3:16) //“Through him you believe in God…” (1 Peter 1:21)
- “Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah, who has been appointed for you—even Jesus. Heaven must receive him until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:19-21) //“Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.” (1 Peter 3:11-12)
- “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism…” (Acts 10:34) //“Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially…” (1 Peter 1:17)
- “…whom God appointed as judge of the living and the dead…” (Acts 10:42) //“But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.” (1 Peter 4:5)
When taken as a cumulative case, the evidence points uniformly to the Petrian origin of the sermons attributed to him in Acts.
As for the sermons of Paul, there is also a clear connection between the speeches and epistles of Paul. For example, in Acts 13:39, when preaching in the synagogue in Antioch, Paul states, “Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.” This doctrine of justification is a common and characteristic theme throughout Paul’s epistles. In Paul’s sermon in Athens, he declares, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent,” (Acts 17:30). This sentence bears resemblance to the statement in Romans 3:5: “He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished.” Also in common with Paul’s Acts 17 sermon in Athens, Paul’s letter to the Romans indicates that God has revealed Himself through creation (Romans 1:19-21) and that there will come a “day when God judges people’s secrets through Jesus Christ,” (Acts 2:16).
Furthermore, consider the following parallels between Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders and his epistles:
- “I served the Lord with great humility…” (Acts 20:19) // “Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord.” (Romans 12:11) // “…with great humility…” (Ephesians 4:2)
- “I consider my life worth nothing to me; my only aim is to finish the race…” (Acts 20:24a) // “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” (2 Timothy 4:7)
- …and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me…” (Acts 20:24b) // “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.” (Colossians 4:17)
In conclusion, although the speeches in Acts are presented in summary form, there is good reason to think that the sermons recorded by Luke do not in fact originate with the pen of Luke but are indeed authentic sermons presented by the individuals to whom they are attributed. If this is so, then we have source material underlying the Acts of the Apostles that dates back exceedingly early, and provides us with a unique insight into the primitive beliefs of the early Christian movement.