Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report

2001–2011

Goal

The Seminar on the Acts of the Apostles began deliberations in 2001, with the task of going through the canonical Acts of the Apostles from beginning to end and evaluating it for historical accuracy.

The goal was to produce a red-letter edition of Acts, following the publication model the Jesus Seminar used in The Five Gospels and The Acts of Jesus. With such a tool in hand, students of the Bible will be better able to address issues of Christian origins. This volume, titled Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report, is now available from Polebridge Press. Edited by Dennis E. Smith and Joseph B. Tyson, it includes comments on the narrative of Acts and on its historical accuracy as well as cameo essays by members of the Acts Seminar.

Acts is the first and most successful attempt to tell the story of Christian origins. It is a story so well told that it has dominated Christian self-understanding down to the present day. Yet today the historicity of much of the story Acts tells can be challenged. Part of that challenge derives from a new awareness of the complex diversity of Christian origins—the story in Acts simply cannot successfully account for that diversity. But the most significant challenge to Acts' story of Christian origins derives from a critical study of Acts itself. Today we are convinced that Acts is a work of imaginative religious literature exhibiting the characteristics of other such literature of its day. When critically examined, it is unable to support the high level of trust that Christian interpreters have traditionally placed in the accuracy of its story.

Findings

The Acts Seminar met twice a year beginning in 2001 and concluded its work at the spring Westar meeting in 2011. Dennis Smith, the seminar chair, compiled a list of the top ten accomplishment of the Acts Seminar:

  1. The use of Acts as a source for history has long needed critical reassessment.
  2. Acts was written in the early decades of the second century.
  3. The author of Acts used the letters of Paul as sources.
  4. Except for the letters of Paul, no other historically reliable source can be identified for Acts.
  5. Acts can no longer be considered an independent source for the life and mission of Paul.
  6. Contrary to Acts 1-7, Jerusalem was not the birthplace of Christianity.
  7. Acts constructs its story on the model of epic and related literature.
  8. The author of Acts created names for characters as storytelling devices.
  9. Acts constructs its story to fit ideological goals.
  10. Acts is a primary historical source for second century Christianity.

While the Jesus Seminar, in sifting through the Jesus tradition, was able to find a credible core set of data about the historical Jesus, the Acts Seminar has not found a core historical story of Christian beginnings in Acts. This is not to say that Acts is totally unhistorical, but to observe that it is less helpful in the historical reconstruction of Christian beginnings than previously assumed. Its story has long dominated Christian imagination and shaped critical scholarship, but we must now rethink how we reconstruct Christian origins in the absence of the Acts default.

At the same time, Acts has emerged as a primary resource for early second-century Christianity, a program of research that is increasingly attracting the attention of a new generation of Acts scholars.  The Acts Seminar Report is an essential resource for future research because of its contribution in providing:

  • A comprehensive analysis and deconstruction of presuppositions about first-century Christian beginnings that can no longer be credibly sustained
  • A foundation for future studies of second-century Christianity as evidenced by Acts

Reports

Reports from the seminar appear in Westar's magazine for members, The Fourth R, and many of the papers appear in the academic journal, Forum.

Report from Fall Meeting 2006 (or PDF)

Report from Spring Meeting 2007 (or PDF)

Report from Fall Meeting 2007 (or PDF)

Report from Spring Meeting 2008 (or PDF)

Report from Fall Meeting 2008 (or PDF)

Report from Spring Meeting 2009 (or PDF)

Report from Fall Meeting 2009 (or PDF)

Report from The Fourth R 24-2, March-April 2011