The Chronology of Acts 6

One of the frustrations of studying Acts is Luke’s tendency to offer only a few chronological clues for the events after the resurrection until the death of Herod in Acts 12. To complicate matters, Luke presents the story thematically in the early chapters, creating an overlapping chronology. The events of chapters 2-5 are a unit with a clear conclusion. Chapters 6-8 probably do not following immediately, but take place at about the same time. The difference is in the social and cultural location of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Luke does not say there is a shift from the Aramaic speaking Apostles to the Greek-speaking Hellenists. As I read Acts, the activities of Peter and John are more or less parallel to that of Stephen and Philip in the months after Pentecost.

Deacons Acts 6 Angelico,_niccolina_17The situation in Acts 6:1 occurs after Pentecost, although there is nothing to indicate how long. The Jesus movement is “living in common,” selling property and distributing food to the poor members of the community. The phrase “In these days” is used by Luke occasionally to signal significant stages in the story. In Luke 6:12 the phrase appears before the appointment of the 12, and in Acts 11:27 it appears as a reference to the prophets going from Jerusalem to Antioch.

The preaching of Stephen at least must pre-date Paul’s conversion since he is instrumental in the death of Stephen. Luke places his section on Philip between the introduction of Saul / Paul in 8:1 and his conversion story in chapter 9 in order to create narrative tension. The reader only knows there is a great persecution and the Hellenistic Jews have been forced out of Jerusalem.

Given these factors, James Dunn suggests that Stephen’s ministry began no less that 18 months after the resurrection (Beginning at Jerusalem, 257).  Perhaps this range can be narrowed a bit.  I am inclined to think that the appointment of the Deacons must have taken place fairly early since there are thousands of followers of Jesus after the two sermons Acts 2 and 3.  Luke tells us that the initial crowd included Diaspora Jews from every part of the Empire.  This means the group which turns to Jesus as the Messiah in Acts 2 and 3 undoubtedly included people from the Diaspora who were visiting Jerusalem for Passover and Pentecost. Some of these people chose to remain in Jerusalem rather than return home after accepting Jesus. This explains the need for believers live in common almost immediately (2:42-47).

How does this compressed chronology effect the way you read Acts? What changes in your perception of the persecution if there is only a matter of months between Pentecost and Stephen?

16 thoughts on “The Chronology of Acts 6

  1. “So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together…” [Acts 6:2]

    Phillip, you wrote, QUOTE:
    “The phrase “In these days” is used by Luke occasionally to signal significant stages in the story. In Luke 6:12 the phrase appears before the appointment of the 12…..”

    Yes, and you will note the the 12 were NOT sent out immediately. They were not sent out until Luke 9. This time gap agrees with Mark, where the 12 were appointed in Mark 3 but not sent out until Mark 6. Matthew’s famous chapter 10 is thematic, not chronological order.

    So to define “Apostle” as simply “someone who is sent” is really based on Paul’s definition, Luke 14 out of context, Matthew 10 out of context, and the human traditions, dictionaries and theological resources that have grown up over time based on these sources. It is not based on the testimony of Jesus and the Original appointed Apostles, recorded in the text of the Bible by the Gospel Writers Matthew Mark Luke & John in context. Yes, being “sent out” is a secondary meaning and it is related, but it is not the only meaning or even the primary meaning according to Jesus the Original Apostles.

    In Acts 1, Matthias was appointed the 12th Apostle.
    Now in Acts 6, Luke refers to “the Twelve.”

    Referring to the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven the Apostle John records: “The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the name of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.” [Revelation 21:14]

    There were only 12 Apostles in Acts 6,
    there are ony 12 Apostles now, and
    there will only be 12 Apostles in the future.

    No Paul, you can’t usurp the 12th throne beloning to Matthias, or any of the other 12 thrones. No there is no 13th Apostle. No, no one else ever appointed you an Apostle, or gave you the special title “The Apostle to the Gentiles..” You were not wrong about everything, but on the subject of “Apostles” and your own supposed apostleship, you were speaking on your own. No one in the pages of the Bible agrees with you.

    Jesus said:
    “He who speaks on his own does so to gain honor for himself, but he who works for the honor of the one who sent him is a man of truth; there is nothing false about him.” [John 7:18]

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  2. “No Paul, you can’t usurp the 12th throne beloning to Matthias, or any of the other 12 thrones. No there is no 13th Apostle.”

    Whoa there, don’t get the idea I think Paul is the thirteenth apostle! That is certainly not the case, and reading Galatians and Acts 15 makes it obvious Paul himself did not consider himself one the twelve. I think you are arguing against a happily abandoned idea, at least among contemporary scholars.

    Is there a single recent Pauline scholar (or NT scholar) who would actually argue Paul was supposed to be the 12th apostle or that he was trying to worm his way into the circle of the Twelve? (I think none could be cited, but maybe someone has said this to get you so wound up about it…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Phillip,
      So we agree that Paul was not the 12th nor “13th” Apostle. (Most Evangelicals I’ve heard preaching and interacted with online for years have believed one of those two views.) I’m not sure which theologians you are speaking with.

      (a) The first uninformed view I run into is, “stupid Peter made a mistake in appointing Matthias, when really Paul was God’s choice.” They will falsely claim that “we never hear anything more about Matthias after he was appointed, yet Paul wrote most of the New Testament.” False and False.

      We DO hear about Matthias right here, Acts 6:2. And Paul only wrote one third of the New Testament by chapter count. (Yes it’s still a lot, more than anyone else, but let’s not exaggerate, it’s not half, and not most.) Probably the reason they think that Paul wrote more than he really did is because Paul’s letters are their personal “canon within the canon” and they spend most of THEIR time listening to the voice of Paul.

      (b) The second uninformed view I run into is, “Paul was appointed The Apostle to the Gentiles, equal to the other Apostles.”

      You asked about NT Scholars..
      I have “The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology” edited by Walter A. Elwell. Baker Reference Library. There are endorsements on the back from top names, including Christianity Today,
      J. Lanier Burns (Bibliotheca Sacra, Chair of Systematic Theology at my old school Dallas Theological Seminary), and
      Douglas Kelly, PCA Messenger (maybe you can relate to that?)

      Under “Apostle, Apostleship”
      There is a paragraph “Paul as Apostle.”
      There are 8 Bible passages quoted as backup regarding “Paul as Apostle”, and all 8 are the voice of the same man. Who? PAUL !!!
      Paul, himself and him.
      3 from Galatians,
      3 from First Corinthians,
      1 from Romans, and
      Acts 26:16-18.

      Most people who are Reading Acts believe that Luke’s narrative recorded the account of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus 3 times. This is not true. Luke recorded the account only one time, in Acts 9.

      Then Luke’s narrative recorded Paul making two different speeches in Acts 22 and Acts 26, with the voice of Paul giving his own version of his conversion experience. Paul’s stories are exaggerated, and they don’t match the facts Luke recoreded in Acts 9. Paul’s stories don’t even match each other. Luke must have wanted us to see that Paul was stretching the truth, making things up, and embelishing the story to elevate himself and overemphesize his own importance. Paul’s stories are not a complete fabrication, but they ARE exaggerated. It’s a fact that anyone can easily see, if they will take a couple of minutes to look at Acts 9 and compare that with Acts 22 and Acts 26.

      Luke records for us that Paul put words in the mouth of Jesus that Jesus never said, in Acts 26:16-18. On top of this, these 3 verses don’t contain the word “Apostle” anyway.

      So according to “The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology” edited by Walter A. Elwell, Paul was an Apostle on the testimony of only 1 Biblical witness – Paul testifying about himself. Just “because Paul said so.”
      Is that your view as well?

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    • Phillip,
      So we agree that Paul was not the 12th nor “13th” Apostle. (Most Evangelicals I’ve heard preaching and interacted with online for years have believed one of those two views.) I’m not sure which theologians you are speaking with.

      (a) The first uninformed view I run into is, “stupid Peter made a mistake in appointing Matthias, when really Paul was God’s choice.” They fill falsely claim that “we never hear anything more about Matthias after he was appointed, yet Paul wrote most of the New Testament.” False and False.

      We DO hear about Matthias right here, Acts 6:2. And Paul only wrote one third of the New Testament by chapter count. (Yes it’s still a lot, more than anyone else, but let’s not exaggerate, it’s not half, and not most.) Probably the reason they think that Paul wrote more than he really did is because Paul’s letters are their personal “canon within the canon” and they spend most of THEIR time listening to the voice of Paul.

      (b) The second uninformed view I run into is, “Paul was appointed The Apostle to the Gentiles, equal to the other Apostles.”

      You asked about Evangelical Theologians.
      I have “The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology” edited by Walter A. Elwell. Baker Reference Library. There are endorsements on the back from top names, including
      Christianity Today,
      J. Lanier Burns (Bibliotheca Sacra, Chair of Systematic Theology at Dallas Theological Seminary), and
      Douglas Kelly, PCA Messenger (maybe you can relate to that?)

      Under “Apostle, Apostleship”
      There is a paragraph “Paul as Apostle.”
      There are 8 Bible passages quoted as backup regarding “Paul as Apostle”, and all 8 are the voice of the same man. Who? PAUL !!! Paul, himself and him.
      3 from Galatians,
      3 from First Corinthians,
      1 from Romans, and
      Acts 26:16-18.

      Most people who are Reading Acts believe that Luke’s narrative recorded the account of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus 3 times. This is not true. Luke recorded the account only one time, in Acts 9.

      Then Luke’s narrative recorded Paul making two different speeches in Acts 22 and Acts 26, with the voice of Paul giving his own version of his conversion experience. Paul’s stories are exaggerated, and they don’t match the facts Luke recoreded in Acts 9. Paul’s stories don’t even match each other. Luke must have wanted us to see that Paul was stretching the truth, making things up, and embelishing the story to elevate himself and overemphesize his own importance. Paul’s stories are not a complete fabrication, but they ARE exaggerated. It’s a fact that anyone can easily see, if they will take a couple of minutes to look at Acts 9 and compare that with Acts 22 and Acts 26.

      Luke records for us that Paul put words in the mouth of Jesus that Jesus never said, in Acts 26:16-18. On top of this, these 3 verses don’t contain the word “Apostle” anyway.

      So according to “The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology” edited by Walter A. Elwell, Paul was an Apostle on the testimony of only 1 Biblical witness – Paul testifying about himself. Just “because Paul said so.”
      Is that your view as well?

      Like

      • First of all, you know we have not really gotten to Paul yet, right? Save from steam for when we actually get to Paul. For the most part, you are creating your own argument with yourself, since I have not really said anything about Paul’s apostleship yet. Maybe I will later, and you can give righteous vent to your anger then .

        Second, if anyone says Peter sinned by appointing Matthias as the replacement for Judas, they are wrong. There is simply no reason in the text of Luke for thinking that, the only motivation is theological support for a particular church or denomination. IMHO, that has no business in biblical studies.

        Third, not everyone thinks Peter was stupid. I think you have heard some bad sermons from poor pastors who want to score easy preaching points. I recommend you read this post I made quite some time ago about Peter:

        https://readingacts.com/2009/08/26/the-voiceless-peter/

        Last, no one will deny that there is only one place in the NT outside of Paul’s letters where he is called an apostle (Acts 14:4, 14). The article you cite by Everett Harrison states clearly Paul never claimed membership in the Twelve, and that Paul considered himself an apostle independent of the Twelve. The article no where implies Paul is a real 12th apostle, or the replacement apostle was a mistake. I think you are missing the point of what “apostle” can mean in the whole Bible, especially the Hebrew/Second Temple use of shiliach / apostolos.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. In chapter eight, Philip’s testimony of traveling around proclaiming Christ to the people fits well into the timing of the persecution that these early believers were facing. Not only were many of the apostles and followers being persecuted, but many others were joining them and being saved (4; 5:12-16). In this same particular section in chapter five, verses 12-16 it describes many signs and wonders being done by the apostles. In chapter 8, we also read of many signs and wonders being performed (v. 13, 36-40). Acknowledging these similarities and recognizing that Luke is not writing chronological, uncovers more mystery as I seek to understand and study the book of Acts. The fact that Pentecost and the stoning of Stephen was only a couple months apart gives me a clearer picture of how explosive the ministry of the apostles was during that time. It also sheds light on when Paul actually came into the picture – it is sooner than I had previously known.

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  4. If there are only months between Pentecost and Stephen it makes a lot of sense that the Jewish leaders are so strongly persecuting the believers. It makes it appear that they are trying to wipe these people out before things get out of hand. In Gamaliel’s argument he presents the idea that if what they are doing is not from God they will fail and then lists a group of false messiahs who have failed. (Acts 5:35-39). This persecution makes sense if they are trying to wipe them out since, in their opinion, Jesus is gone. This makes the persecution appear to be more in reaction to what Jesus did than to what the disciples did. The shorter time makes me think that this persecution is a continuation of what they did to Jesus as it may have been there attempt to end what they viewed as a false messiah. This also explains the great rage that lead to the death of Stephen at the end of chapter seven.

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  5. There clearly is a lot more to the “Hellenists” situation (I have yet to read that post of yours, but will asap, and have read lots on it elsewhere) than Luke chooses to include, here or elsewhere. For one thing, it appears it was mainly, if not exclusively the Hellenists who were forced out of Jerusalem. This is not the only clue that there must have been not only linguistic and ethnic differences between these diaspora Jewish-Christians and the Galilean/Judean ones.

    As we see in the differences with Paul’s theology and his loud protestations against “false brethren” and the “men from James”, etc., there were key theological and/or “admission” differences as well.

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    • Howard,
      Yes, Paul made a lot of “loud protestations”, and went around like the Tasmanian Devil in the Bugs Bunny Cartoons, tearing down, criticizing, undermining, and fighting with almost everyone around him With the notable exception of Luke, can you think of prominent people that Paul worked with that he DIDN’T have a problem with?

      (except maybe Lydia in Philippi, who kept sending him money with no question asked, so Paul could travel around wherever and whenever he wanted and do his own thing?) Timothy and Titus worked FOR Paul, as opposed to WITH him. And Paul ran his own school in Ephesus, for 2 years – there is no evidence that Paul worked with others to start the church in Ephesus.

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  6. Knowing that there is not long between these two events makes sense. If Jews chose to stay in Jerusalem after accepting the teachings of Jesus and began to live together, it would make sense that they were being heavily persecuted. In order to squash out the idea of Jesus and his followers, it would be easiest to make sure this message never left Jerusalem. By persecuting Jesus’ followers, they were reacting still to what Jesus had done. There was probably high hopes that once they killed off Jesus, that it would only be a matter of weeks before he would become just another dead man who’s name had been forgotten. But a few months later, people were still preaching his name. Now they were left with needing to get rid of anyone who was proclaiming Jesus’ teachings, not just the man himself. If these two events were only a few months apart, then the Pharisees, and Saul, would still have it fresh in their mind, which is what lead to the stoning of Stephen when he preached.

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  7. Here is where the excitement of realizing the importance of eyewitnesses dissipates a bit for me. As a factual, details kind of person – it can be quite aggravating to read any portion of Scripture or literature in general that does not give specifics. The Biblical narrative of the ministry following Christ’s death and resurrection may be in perfect chronological order, but which narrative is in order, and what are the lengths of time between each segment? Whatever the case, I really had not considered that these times could have been so close – though it does not seem entirely unlikely.

    As Leah stated in her post, the ministry and message of the disciples was explosive, and it would not have been a surprise to have large numbers of followers quickly – especially in the Jerusalem area. From this Jerusalem area, there were many travelers, and a message like this would have been discussed and shared at length wherever a traveler would go.

    Acknowledging that Luke did not necessarily write to be chronologically sound, and it was interesting to note that it was entirely possible that chapters 5-6 happened at the same time of chapters 7-8. In my mind, this brings a new perspective on the reading of Acts, but also to the current day application of God’s plan and message. Time is of no essence to God, and as the disciples believed He would come back at any time, so should we. A thousand years is as a day in His sight, so what would it matter if the spreading of His Word took weeks, months, days, years, or centuries? God is still God, and God is still good, and God is still working His plan out for His glory – whether we comprehend the details presented in Scripture, or trust that He will work through His Word to teach us even now.

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  8. It is interesting to me that Luke writes the book of Acts in a narrative or thematic order. I’ve known this facts since Freshman Bible, but I have never really sat down to think about the effect that it has on how we read Acts and understand the events to be factual and accurate. To me, the lack of chronological order doesn’t dissuade the content that Luke includes. In fact, I feel as though his use of narrative and thematic elements gives way to a more climatic and engaging book, which naturally makes us, as the readers, get lost in the life of the apostles after the day of Pentecost, where they receive the Holy Spirit. The fact that there is only a few months between Pentecost and Stephen makes my faith increase in the validity of the Risen Lord because the Apostles were quick to get persecuted after having received the Holy Spirit, which was supposed to happen. It would lose it’s authenticity if there were many months or years because the coming of the Holy Spirit was meant to empower the believers to “proclaim…with all boldness and without hindrance” (Acts 28:31) which would evoke in the religious leaders a sense of zeal to “purge” the nation and draw them back to the Law–as fast as possible. However, saying all of that, Luke does a good job of creating anticipation and suspense that makes us keep reading, without straying away from the truth.

    The fact that this would justify greatly the fact that the believers would have to live communally after receiving the Holy Spirit, interests me and makes a lot more sense. That passage alone was hard to understand because it seemed like a way of life for believers from Luke’s perspective–which as a believer would mean myself as well. Having it be a necessary thing because of their changed location of living, makes the understanding of the text take full clarity and understanding.

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  9. I dont think that the fact that Acts is not written chronologically, is something that changes the way I read it, but I think its something interesting to note. It seems like Paul could have and it maybe would have made more sense for us, but potentially there are things that we could miss if it was. The fact that there wasn’t much time between Pentecost and Stephen makes me think of the mindset he must have been in in that little time. Knowing the severity of what was happening, and just wanting people to understand this idea that he knew and believed so fully. This short time, and with the impact that took place, I think that without a doubt it is due to the work of the Holy Spirit in those who were willing to be a vessel.

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  10. The compressed chronology of Acts can be quite confusing when reading through it for the first time without any commentaries or external knowledge of the book, but it makes a lot of sense that this story is only months after the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. I think many people tend to separate the story of Acts from the story of Christ’s death unintentionally in their heads. I know that I’ve accidentally viewed the stories as quite separate, rather than being roughly 18 months apart. Having the context of time when reading is important because it helps the reader to understand that the anger of the enemies of the early church. Christ was crucified quite recently, giving people much less time to wrap their heads around everything that has and is going to happen. The people who crucified Jesus are still alive, and the apostles had walked with Him less than two years beforehand, making it still quite recent memory for them.
    In Acts 4, when Peter is before the Sanhedrin, understanding that they are before the people that sent Christ to his death, he is telling them they have rejected and killed the Messiah. The Sanhedrin grow furious with them for what they are saying and doing, and their rage is much more tangible when reading and understanding the short amount of time between Christ’s death and Peter testifying.

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