The Speeches of Acts, Part 1: Overview


The speeches in the book of Acts are one of most distinctive and memorable features of the book; it is also the area where perhaps the largest number of critical questions are to be found. There are, by a varying count, more than twenty speeches, including eight by Peter, nine (or ten) by Paul, one each by James and Stephen, as well as other figures. Most of the orations by Peter and Paul can be categorized as sermons (or sermon-speeches), as can the great historical speech by Stephen, by far the longest in the book. I will attempt, in this series, to discuss each of the noteworthy speeches—some only briefly, others through extended exegesis—in the order which they occur in the book, beginning with the introductory speech of Peter in Acts 1:16-22 (see below).

With regard to the main critical issues surrounding the speeches in Acts, they can be grouped according to: (1) text critical, (2) source critical, (3) historical critical, and (4) literary critical.

1. Text critical. These are two, namely: (a) the overall question of the so-called “Western” recension of Acts, and (b) the form or version of the Old Testament cited in the speeches.

a. The Western Recension. The so-called “Western” text refers to a broad text-type (or textual grouping) of shared characteristics and/or readings, represented primarily (and most notably) by Codex Bezae (D) and a fair portion of Latin MSS, but which also includes (to some extent), other Greek MSS and Versions (Syriac, Georgian, Armenian). It is in the book of Acts that we see (by far) the most extensive differences between the Western text and the Alexandrian and/or Majority text, so much so that one may refer to them as separate recensions. The Western text in Acts is typically longer and more expansive, often with considerable narrative detail not found in the Alexandrian/Majority text. Scholars continue to debate the reasons for two such distinct ‘versions’ of Acts, with a variety of theories having been proposed over the years; it can be a highly technical matter, but I may introduce the topic here in a future article. Today, probably a majority of scholars would consider the Western recension to be a secondary expansion of the ‘original’ text. The differences are related principally to the narrative portions of Acts, and do not affect the speeches to the same extent; however, significant variants will be addressed, as appropriate, when discussing the individual speeches.

b. The Old Testament citations. More relevant to the speeches themselves is the question of the text/form of the Old Testament Scriptures cited within the speeches. I have addressed this to some extent in an earlier post (on the Old Testament in the book of Acts) and will discuss, in turn, individual examples within the speeches. The subject also involves historical- and literary-critical questions: is the Scripture presented as cited by the speaker (Peter, Paul, etc) or (as insertions) by the author of Acts (trad. Luke)? See below for more on this question.

2. Source critical. In past generations, critical scholars tended (at times) to find a separate “source” for each distinct element or genre in a book such as Acts—this might include, for example, a “source” for the various speeches (or groups of speeches). Today, this approach is far less prevalent, with scholars and commentators now positing a simpler, and more general, delineation of possible sources. While less adventurous, perhaps, it ends up being almost certainly a more reasonable (and realistic approach). A very simple division of commonly recognized sources would be:

  • A (loose) collection of Palestinian traditions, written or oral, primarily related to the early Jerusalem church.
  • An Antiochene source—traditions related specifically to the early church in Antioch, but possibly including Petrine, Pauline, and/or other traditions as well.
  • A Pauline source—consisting primarily of an itinerary Paul’s missionary journey, but likely including other traditions (narratives and/or sayings/speeches).

A special point of debate has been the so-called “we-passages” in Acts, where the author moves into speaking in the first person plural. Various theories involving a separate source have been argued in the past; however, in my opinion, the simplest explanation has always been that the author (trad. Luke) has modified the narrative in instances where he was personally present. Many scholars today also concur with this view.

3. Historical critical. The most significant historical-critical question is whether the speeches in Acts essentially reflect the words of the speaker, or of the author. Traditional-critical commentators would tend to take for granted (often as a basic point of dogma), or at least accept, that the speeches in Acts (as in other historical-narrative Scriptures) reflect, more or less, the ipsissima verba (i.e. the actual words) of the speaker. Critical scholars, on the other hand, often tend to view the speeches largely as the product of the author (trad. Luke), having been inserted within the narrative structure for dramatic and kerygmatic/theological effect. A moderating position among critical commentators would hold that, while ultimately the product of Luke (i.e. the author), the speeches have been, to some extent, shaped by underlying traditions (written or oral) involving the (sorts of) things the speakers would have said. A good example of this moderate critical approach can be found in J. A. Fitzmyer’s Commentary on Acts (Anchor Bible Volume 31, 1998), pp. 103-113, 124-128. A seminal (and highly influential) study earlier in the twentieth-century was the treatise “The Speeches in Acts and Ancient Historiography” (1944/49) by Martin Dibelius, published in English translation in Studies in the Acts of the Apostles (SCM Press: 1956), pp. 138-185. Scholars such as Dibelius compared the speeches in Acts with those of other Greco-Roman historians (Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Plutarch, Xenophon, Josephus, etc), on the basic premise that Luke (or the author of Acts) would have adopted an approach compatible with that used by other historians of his time. Most notably, Thucydides and Josephus have been used for comparison, since they both wrote describing events close to their own time. Thucydides offers a frequently cited explanation on how ancient authors would have approached the composition of historical speeches:

With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. (The Peloponnesian War I.22.1, transl. J. M. Dent, 1910).

Overall, it would seem that the moderate critical approach indicated above is the most plausible and realistic. I leave it for each reader to judge whether, or to what extent, this is compatible with a particular view of the inspiration of Scripture (and vice versa). For further discussion on this sensitive question, see my article “Ipsissima Verba and Ipsissima Vox“.

4. Literary critical. This has to do with how the author has crafted and included the speeches within the narrative—the form, structure and style with which they have been presented. It is best to treat this question inductively, allowing it to proceed as each speech is examined. In this regard, it will be useful to look briefly at what I regard as the first speech in the book of Acts (not including Jesus’ address in Acts 1:4b-5, 7-8)—the introductory speech of Peter in Acts 1:16-22.

Acts 1:16-22: The Introductory Speech of Peter

I have discussed Acts 1:15-26 in an earlier article related to the Pentecost narrative (2:1-13)—there I regarded the principal theme of the episode as the reconstitution of the Twelve apostles, part of a wider theme involving the restoration of Israel (the Twelve apostles symbolizing the Twelve tribes). In verses 12-14 we find a sequence of motifs pointing to unity/restoration:

  • The disciples return to Jerusalem (v. 12)
  • They come together into a single (upper) room where they remain (the Eleven apostles are listed) (v. 13)
  • They are firmly together, with one mind/impulse, (o(modumado/n) in prayer—joined with the other disciples (including women and Jesus’ relatives) (v. 14)
  • The apostles are to be restored to Twelve in number (vv. 15ff: “it is necessary…”)

In the midst of the disciples—all together (e)pi\ to\ au)to/) about 120 (12 x 10)—Peter stands up and speaks (v. 15). This speech (apart from the author’s parenthesis in vv. 18-19) can be treated as a kind of examplar, or pattern, for many of the subsequent speeches in Acts (especially the major sermon-speeches). Here is the basic sermon-speech pattern:

  • Narrative introduction—this may be a simple introduction or include an extended narrative
  • The speech itself:
    • Introductory address, often with kerygmatic elements, leading into the Scripture passage
    • Citation from Scripture
    • Exposition and Gospel kerygma
    • Concluding exhortation
  • Narrative summary

This pattern fits, in seminal form, Peter’s initial speech to the disciples, which I divide as follows:

  • Narrative introduction (v. 15), to which could be added the transitional narrative of vv. 12-14 (with its list of the Eleven apostles)
  • The Speech (v. 16-22):
    • Introductory address (v. 16-17): “Men, brothers! it is necessary (for) the Writing to be fulfilled, which the holy Spirit spoke before(hand) through the mouth of David, about Judas the (one) coming to be the one who leads the way for the (ones) taking Jesus with (them), (in) that he was (one) numbered down among us and obtained the lot of this service…”
      {Verses 18-19 are the author’s aside, describing an historical tradition involving the fate of Judas}
    • Citation from Scripture (v. 20): “For it has been written in the paper-scroll of (the) Songs [i.e. Psalms]…”—here two short Scripture verses are cited, from Psalm 69:25 and 109:8 (see below).
    • Exposition and Gospel kerygma (v. 21-22)—because of the brevity of the speech, these two sections have essentially been combined, the Gospel proclamation being embedded within the exhortation (see below)
    • Concluding exhortation (v. 21-22)—indicated primarily by the frame of the sentence: “Therefore it is necessary (for)… one of these (men) to become a witness with us”
  • Narrative summary (vv. 23-26), which actually contains the central core narrative of this passage—the selection by lot of the twelfth apostle.

In conclusion, I will discuss briefly two of the sections of the speech—the citation from the Psalms, and the expository kerygma:

The citation from Psalm 69:25; 109:9. Here, as with most such Scripture citations in Acts (and elsewhere in the NT), there are two main issues: (1) the extent to which the quotations conform or differ from either the LXX or Hebrew, and (2) the ways in which the quotation differs in application/interpretation from its original historical meaning and context. Both of these have been discussed in my prior article on the Old Testament in Acts. With regard to the first question, the Scripture quotations in Acts tend to follow, with some modification, the Greek of the Septuagint (LXX). This could be taken as an argument in favor of the citations coming primarily from the author (rather than the speaker), since here at least one might assume that Peter (like James in Acts 15) would more likely cite Scripture from the Hebrew rather than the Greek. Usually any obvious modifications are simple adaptations to the new context of the speaker/author. Here are both citations presented for comparison:

Hebrew MT (Psalm 69:26)

bv@y{ yh!y+Ála^ <h#yl@h(a*B= <t*r*yf!Áyh!T=
“Let their rows (of stones) [i.e. buildings] be destroyed,
let no one be sitting/dwelling in their tents”

Greek LXX (Psalm 68:26)

genhqh/tw h( e&pauli$ au)tw=n h)rhmwme/nh kai\ e)n toi=$ skhnw/masin au)tw=n mh\ e&stw o( katoikw=n
“Let their encampment become deserted/desolate, and let there be no(one) putting down house [i.e. dwelling] in their tents”

Acts 1:20a

genhqh/tw h( e&pauli$ au)tou= e&rhmo$ kai\ mh\ e&stw o( katoikw=n e)n au)th=|
“Let his encampment (be) deserted/desolate, and let there be no(one) putting down house [i.e. dwelling] in it

Hebrew MT (Psalm 109:9)

rj@a^ jQ^y] otD*q%P! <yF!u^m= wym*y`ÁWyh=y]
“Let his days be small [i.e. few], let (one) following [i.e. another] take his appointment/overseeing”

Greek LXX (Psalm 108:8)

genhqh/twsan ai( h(me/rai au)tou= o)li/gai, kai\ th\n e)piskoph\n au)tou= la/boi e%tero$
“Let his days come to be little/few, and may another take his (office of) overseeing”

Acts 1:20b

th\n e)piskoph\n au)tou= labe/tw e%tero$
“(and) let another take his (office of) overseeing”

In both instances, the LXX is a reasonable faithful translation of the Hebrew, and the citation in Acts has been simplified (with slight modification) presumably from the LXX. More significant is the way both passages have been taken out of their original context and applied to the current situation. Psalm 69 is a rather lengthy lament (ascribed to David) detailing the author’s suffering and continued faithfulness to God. Verses 22-28 are an imprecation against the psalmist’s enemies and a call for God to unleash his anger and judgment against them. Early on, this Psalm was understood and interpreted in light of Jesus’ Passion, so the malediction in vv. 22-28 naturally applied to Jesus’ enemies (including the betrayer Judas). Psalm 109 is a similar (personal) lament by the psalmist (again ascribed to David), with verses 6-15 as an extended malediction (or curse) like that in Ps 69:22-28. In Acts, just the short second half of verse 8 is cited, the portion which fits best with the idea of the office/appointment (e)piskoph/, lit. “looking upon, overseeing”) of Judas as an apostle. It was typical for early Christians—including the inspired New Testament authors—to focus on a single word or phrase, or other detail, and use it to apply the entire passage to their own time and to the Gospel message which they were proclaiming. It is important to keep this mind when faced with the apparent freedom with which the Old Testament is cited and applied in the New.

The Expository Kerygma. The kerygma simply refers to the Gospel proclamation as it took place in the early Church. Whatever else one wishes to say about the historicity of these sermon-speeches in Acts, they clearly do preserve early/primitive kerygmatic statements—basic Gospel formulae which are vivid and memorable, easy to preserve and transmit down to others. Here in Acts 1:21-22, we find a Gospel formula embedded within the exhortation:

“Therefore it is necessary (that) of these men, having gone together with us in all (the) time in which the Lord Yeshua went in and went out upon [i.e. about/among] us

…beginning from the dunking/dipping by Yohanan until the day of which he was taken up (away) from us

…one of these (men is) to become a witness of his standing-up [i.e. resurrection] together with us.”

The central clause in bold is similar to that in Acts 1:1-2, which might suggest here a Lukan origin for the speech. On the other hand, it is just as likely that Luke may have patterned the introductory wording in 1:1-2ff after the early kerygma.

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