Home > Christianity, Criticism, Study of the New Testament, Theology > The Theology of the Acts of the Apostles

The Theology of the Acts of the Apostles

  • Series: New Testament Theology
  • Author: Jacob Jervell
  • Pub. Year: 1996
  • Language: English
  • Pages: 162
  • ISBN-10: 052142447X
  • ISBN-13: 9780521424479
  • Format: PDF*

Who are the people of God? Luke’s purposes in the Acts of the Apostles are to identify the church, to establish the legitimacy of its gospel and to demonstrate that God was an active force in history. He wanted to show that the communities of Jewish and, increasingly, Gentile Christians are the true heirs of God’s promises to Israel. He gives the history of the early church from the last decades of the first century as the communities become separated from their Jewish origins, and Paul plays the lead role. Acts offers an apologetic for the mixed mission of the church: first to the Jews and then to Gentiles who are included in the chosen people. Luke was an eyewitness to some of what he reports, but his authorship and views have been questioned. This is a theological interpretation of the history of the church within history: Luke is an artist, a narrator rather than a systematic theologian, but writes about the roles of God, Christ and the Holy Spirit, and of the church.

Editorial Reviews


“Jervell’s book presents todays Catholic reader with a twofold challenge….Jervell’s argument is cognent and deserves serious consideration.” J. Terence Forestell, The Canadian Catholic Review

“…it is a perceptive and provocative study, well worth reading and pondering.” John T. Carroll, Anglican Theological Review

“This book is a useful summary of the views of an importnat scholar who has provoked and continues to provoke debate on significant issues in the interpretation of Acts.” Robert C. Tannehill, Journal of Biblical Literature

“Jervell’s perspective on Acts as Luke’s theological interpretation of the history of the church within world history is a helpful one, and there is much to learn from this synthesis of the theology of Acts. His book helps to fill an important lacuna in Acts-studies….” Joel B. Green, Ashland Theological Journal

“…gracefully presented and worth the read.” Currents


Drab rendering of Luke as Theologian by Brian Gamel

The Acts of the Apostles has always been a bit of a boring read for me and Jacob Jervell’s review of its theology has not helped that inclination.

Jervell’s main thrust is actually creative and throught provoking. He claims that the main artery of theology behind Acts is to discern who the people of God are and the Luke answers this simply as “Israel.” Thus, Acts is seen not as a document for Gentiles but for Jews. It is replete with Jewish concepts (Theocentric lens of Christ), words (“laos” as people of God) and ideas (Jesus as Jewish Messiah).

He goes on to show Luke’s portrayal of the law (how nothing is left behind or made obsolete but is fulfilled), Scripture (its role in showing the Messiah), salvation (as deliverance from evil men and forgiveness of the sin of rejecting the Messiah), Paul (as law-abiding teacher of Israel) and Spirit (the dynamic, creative force of God that identifies the people of God). All of this is well done and informative, but it is so boring in its presentation. Needless to say, something is missing in his delivery.

In spite of this blandness, the ideas are useful. Perhaps most useful is the end discussion where Luke’s view of a theology of history is used to challenge us today to renew that quest, especially since Luke is the only writer in the NT to have dealt with the issue of history.

Overall, Jervell’s work is adequate but dreary. A fine read for someone really interested in Luke-Acts or NT theology.

He is sureby Joseph Valentine Dworak

Jervell’s argument for this book is found on page 16 where he states,

“In the last decades of the first century many Christian Jews left the church and returned to the synagogue. There was obviously a relapse into Judaism. Luke is writing Acts in order to prevent such a relapse.”

Jervell is out to prove that Paul is an apostle to the Jews, and that, “Christianity is true Judaism.” (Powell 17) How does he do in this venture? It seems the tone throughout the book is one where if you dared to disagree with Jervell, you would have your head bitten off. He is sure in his arguments regarding the theology of God in Acts, the Christ in Acts, the Spirit in Acts, the Law in Acts, and the role of the disciples in Acts. He heavily emphasizes the role of God in Acts. Almost to the point where you feel he is tipping the perfect balance of the Trinity. God is seen, by Jervell, in Acts, as superior to Jesus or the Holy Spirit. How can this be? Maybe this was not his intent but the way in which he presents his argument one could certainly argue this is the case. If we stick with his stated goal of showing the theology of Acts, he does this well, it is just not in line with balanced Trinitarian theology. This heavy emphasis on God the father supports the argument that Christianity is true Judaism but again seems a bit skewed.

It almost seems as if, to make his point, Jervell focuses heavily on the contextualization of Acts for the first century, but decries the fact that it is only an evangelistic document to the first century Jewish Christians who were relapsing to Orthodox Judaism. When I read the Acts and hear Jesus saying to take the Gospel to Jerusalem, Judea-Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, I hear him saying this in regards to all people Jews and Gentiles. Jervell does little to convince me otherwise. Jervell is far too limited in his view of Acts. As stated in the Mark Powell book “What are they saying about Acts” this is a “minority view” (Powell 71), and it should stay that way. I prefer the both/and approach to the evangelistic nature of the book of Acts. The theory that the mission to the gentiles in Acts supplements the mission to Israel. (Powell 69) This allows for what Jervell is arguing for, but does not limit it to the Jews.

Review of this book:

Jervell, Jacob

The Theology of the Acts of the Apostles

New Testament Theology

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv +

142, Cloth, $34.95, ISBN 052142447x.

Robert C. Tannehill

Methodist Theological School in Ohio

Delaware, OH 43015

Jacob Jervell has persistently attacked the previously dominant view that Acts is the product of a Gentile church seeking to justify its divorce from its Jewish beginnings. This volume provides a relatively compact summary of his views. It is a useful book because it provides a clear statement of an important point of view which, in the context of a class or elsewhere, can then be compared and contrasted with other interpretations. Chapter 3, “The Theology of Acts,” covers almost a hundred pages and is the heart of the book. This chapter is preceded by two short chapters on “The Author and His Sources” and “Purpose and Historical Setting.” It is followed by three short chapters comparing the views of Acts with other NT writings, discussing what Acts reveals about Jews and Gentiles in the early church, and commenting on “the significance of Acts for today.”

According to Jervell, Acts was addressed to a church of Jewish origin, or, at least, to a church in which Jews were a “mighty minority,” that is, they continued to be a strong influence. In light of Jewish controversies over who is the true Israel, Luke’s purpose is “to demonstrate and guarantee to his readers that the church actually is Israel” (p. 12) and so heirs of the promises. Jervell also believes that there was a threat of relapse into Judaism and that Paul was a special problem because he was regarded by many as an apostate Jew.

The God of Acts is the God of Israel, Jervell insists, and the main concern, as in Jewish Scripture, is the relation of God to God’s people, Israel. Similarly, the Christology of Luke is Jewish-Christian. Jesus is not presented as divine, pre-existent, or incarnated, but as “the most Jewish Messiah within the New Testament” (p. 13). These views are not the reflection of a past era but indicate the present views of the author of Acts. The fate of Israel is a burning question for Luke, for Israel is a people in crisis, divided over its Messiah. The law is also a burning question. Luke presents the law entirely positively, even if it is not the source of salvation. Gentiles, too, are to obey parts of the law that apply to them, as the Apostolic Decree indicates. Jervell also emphasizes the importance of the Scriptures for Luke. There is no criticism of Scripture; indeed, Luke is a “fundamentalist” (p.61; an unfortunate choice of words, I believe). The Twelve are important not as guarantors of the Jesus tradition but as the future regents over Israel. Acts does not engage in political apologetic. Rather, Acts 21-28 are an apologetic for Paul against Jewish accusations, resulting in a portrait of Paul as a thoroughly loyal Jew. Paul has unique importance in Acts, for he is “the first and only witness to the world” (p. 84). Yet his place of mission is primarily the synagogue. In fact, “we find nowhere in Acts Paul addressing audiences which consist of Gentiles only” (p. 85). The Gentiles to which Acts refers turn out to be mainly God-fearers associated with the synagogue.

Through the mission they become associates of Israel restored through Jesus Messiah, for “even for Gentiles salvation is to be found in Israel” (p.97). The mission to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8) refers to a mission to the Jewish Dispersion. This mission is fulfilled when Paul preaches in Rome. At that point Israel is restored, and the mission to Jews is complete. Unbelieving Jews are eliminated from Israel, as Acts 3:22- 23 indicates.

In my opinion, it is necessary to separate Jervell’s important contributions from certain excesses in his work. Jervell helps us see that Acts cannot be properly understood without recognizing that the fate of Israel remains a burning issue throughout. Yet Jervell’s attempts to restrict the importance of Gentile mission distort the story. By his divine commission Paul is directed to both Jews and Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 26:17). When he turns from the synagogue to the Gentiles (as in 13:45-49), he is turning from a community of both Jews and God-fearers to anyone who will hear, including persons untouched by the synagogue. Jervell claims that the Areopagus speech is “a polemical speech, not a missionary sermon” (p. 85, n. 157). When read in conjunction with 17:16-18, however, it is clear that it is part of a missionary effort that includes Gentiles who are not Godfearers, and an Areopagite believes as a result of Paul’s words (17:34). Furthermore, we should question Jervell’s assumption (shared by others) that “the end of the earth” in 1:8 refers to Rome and that Paul’s preaching in Rome is the end of mission to the Jews.

Moreover, there is one point where I believe the Lukan theology is more Jewish and scriptural than Jervell recognizes. The question is whether unbelieving Jews have been eliminated from Israel and are no longer regarded as heirs of the promises. I believe we miss a major structural element of the narrative–the persistent tension between the divine promise to Israel and Israel’s stubborn resistance–when we assume that unbelieving Jews have already been dismissed from Israel. This assumption is often supported by Acts 3:22-23, a threat of exclusion from the people. Peter, however, does not say when this threat will finally take effect. In Peter’s speech, it is preceded (and followed) by another possibility, for it is still possible for Jews, through their Messiah, to enjoy the “restoration of all that God spoke” through the prophets (3:21). The restoration of Israel is not complete with Paul’s preaching in Rome. It will only be complete when the twelve tribes–Israel in its fullness–are assembled under their Messiah and living in political freedom from their “enemies” (Luke 1:69-75), as God spoke through the prophets (Luke 1:70).

This book is a useful summary of the views of an important scholar who has provoked and continues to provoke debate on significant issues in the interpretation of Acts. (8/97)

Citation: Robert C. Tannehill, review of Jacob Jervell, The Theology of the Acts of the Apostles, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (2000).

    August 10, 2011 at 2:06 am


  2. November 14, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Admirable article!!!

  3. November 26, 2011 at 3:18 am

    I dont disagree with this writing.

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