Acts Of The Apostles Essay, Research Paper
The Acts of the Apostles
By Tim Emery
The Acts of the Apostles provides us with a tome of knowledge on a lot of aspects of the second and third quarter of the first century AD. But most importantly it provides us with a wealth of insight into life and society in the cities of the Roman Empire. Without the Acts of the Apostles there would have been very little correlative evidence on this. For knowledge of the cities and people that appear in it, we have to rely otherwise on the collection of details from other sources, which can be a painstaking process. Although the author (Luke?) did not presumably set out to satisfy our interests in this topic, he was a good observer and the details that he gives provide a great number of snap-shots for the times. As Sherwin-White said “Acts take us on a conducted tour of the Graeco-Roman world. The detail is so interwoven with the narrative of the mission as to be inseparable. This essay will look at the book of Acts historically to find out how much information can be taken from it’s pages about Roman life and society in cities and how accurate it is to the Historian studying it.
The book of Acts is one of the most valuable sources for information on life and society in the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire during the 1st Century AD. The historical framework of the book is exact and in terms of time and places the details are precise and correct. They are a lot of references to the Roman world with political arrangements, legal procedures, commercial activities, social structures, religious allegiances etc found throughout the whole narrative, along with a lot of vivid details of family, group and urban life.
The narrative of Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome and traces the progress of Christianity from the former city to the latter. When you start to read the Book of Acts historically, you find that it is really a guided tour by Paul and his companions of the Graeco-Roman cities of the 1st Century AD. Acts provides us with evidence on how they travel by land and sea and what we would expect to find in the streets, markets and assemblies of Ephesus, Corinth, Athens and Thessalonica. The life in cities that are depicted in Acts accords with near contemporary descriptions in Strabo and Dio of Prusa, not to mention the Jewish Historian Josephus The Roman urban life is seen vividly through the cults, food shortages, magistrates and even the jails. Also Pauls Roman Citizenship gives us a peek into the legal processes within the empire and administration. The trials that Paul goes through are also a good legal record for the period. As Lord Hewart said “the best short general picture of the Pax Romana and all that it meant-good roads and posting, good police, freedom from brigandage and piracy, freedom of movement, toleration and justice-is to be found in the experience, written in Greek, of a Jew who happened to be a Roman Citizen-that is, in the Acts of the Apostles.”
The whole series of States that Paul moves through within the book of Acts lay under Roman control. At Philippi, Athens and Corinth a series of different governmental arrangements can be seen at work. Several features of Paul’s career are outlined in Acts. Firstly his relations with the civic authorities that he comes across in different cities of varying status. And secondly his claim to having Roman citizenship, his appearances before Gallio, Felix and Festus, and his appeal to Caesar. The conclusion of this then is that the picture in Acts is true to its dates. “Acts breathes the climate of the earlier phase of the Roman Empire, by contrast, for the example, with the situation which prevailed half a century later, in the time of the younger Pliny.
The Romans, as they spread their military and political influence throughout the East, planted colonies of their own, which served as bastions of the Roman power and civilisation. The characteristics of a Roman city for the context of this essay were that there were two main types of colonies. “Citizen Colonies” which were settled by Roman Citizens and in which Rome dictated the colony politically. “Latin Colonies” however where joint ventures of several of the Latin people, because of Romans prominence and dominance during the times. The physical layout of both these colonies reflected the “Orthogonal planning” which was learned from the Greeks. Romans also sometimes re-founded destroyed cities or land as colonies eg: Corinth. “Colonies expressed their ties to Rome by imitating its civic institutions. A Roman colony was governed like Rome itself, by a Senate-like council of former magistrates and administered by committees of magistrates elected for single year terms.” Eg: In Corinth, which is the capital of the province Achaia, Paul is brought before the Roman governor, Gallio, who conducts the hearings in the forum of the colony. The political structure is similar to Rome and financial arrangements of Roman Colonies were similar to those of other ancient towns. The physical features of a Roman town are similar to a Greek Polis, but some peculiar Roman structures are found. Examples include the Commemorative Arch, The Basilica, which is a roomy hall adjacent to the forum, which housed legal and other business and the Amphitheatre, a major structure near the edge of important towns.
Roman Colony’s that Paul spread his word in included Corinth, Philippi and Athens, which I will discuss in detail in the context of this essay.
The city of Corinth was a desolate place after the cities destruction by Mummius in 146 BC. However in 44 BC it was refounded by Julius Caesar and given the status of a Roman Colony. After 27 BC it was the commercial centre and place of power for the province of Achaia. Through the book of Acts it can be seen that the composition of the Roman Colony was quite mixed with part of the original settlers being said to be freedman from Italy. Also it is clear that there was a number of “social elites” from other parts of the province within the city holding magistracies. It is because of Corinth’s role as a provincial centre that Paul came into contact with the procurator Gallio. It was said that Paul arrived in Corinth around 49 or early 50 AD. It was also at this hearing that a key decision about Christianity’s legal status was made. Because after the Jews had brought Paul before Gallio, Gallio decided that this was a debate about Jewish law and not Roman law so he dismissed it. (18:14-16) This gives us an example of what is and what isn’t Roman Law within this time period. In Roman Corinth many of the people have Latin names. These include Aquila and Priscilla who came to Corinth, Alanna Nobbs believes due to their expulsion from Rome by Cladius and Crispus who was the ruler of the synagogue there. This dominance of Roman names reflects in the way that the colony adopted such a strong Roman image for itself. Also to note was that Paul’s time in Corinth coincided with a period of food shortage in the Roman World. Such food shortages often led to unrest, especially in the urban communities, and this could be attributed to the reasons, which allowed the Jews to bring Paul before the proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:22).
The colony of Philippi was correctly described as a Roman colony in (Acts 16:12). “It was a Roman veteran colony of the early Augustan period, possibly, to judge by it’s double name Julia Augusta, first founded by Caesar the dictator.” Through Acts we learn that the chief magistrates are Praetors, attended by Lictors whose rods are the instruments used of the corporal punishment inflicted on Paul and Silas (Acts 16:22). The situation Paul encounters when he enters Philippi accurately reflects the city life and the role of the magistrates. As stated above Paul and Silas are brought before the magistrates accused of spreading an Un-Roman cult. Sherwin-White states that “officially the Roman Citizen may not practice any alien cult that has not received the public sanction of the State, but customarily he might do so as long as his cult did not otherwise offend against laws and usages of Roman Life, i.e. so long as it did not involve political or social crimes.” Paul and Silas “introduce customs which we being Romans may not adopt.” Sherwin-White believes that it is not because of “the depravity of the practices introduced by Paul, but because of their Un-Roman character, that the magistrates are urged to intervene.” The Roman practice used was to punish people accused of joining undesirable sects when they became objectionable for one reason or the other. So the charge against Paul at Philippi gives us an insight into the rules and punishments Roman Law stood by in the area of Cults and whatnot. The procedure followed at Philippi has private accusers make the charge and the accused are arrested. One interesting feature in the book of Acts is the place of women. At Philippi, Paul meets women who are of the social elite and in doing so it shows the historian the place of woman in the Roman world and how they could be quite wealthy.
Paul arrives in Athens through a sea voyage from Macedonia. Gill states that “Athens had been a civitas libera et foederata after the incorporation of Greece into the Roman Empire, but her siding with Mithridates led to the Roman intervention through the action of L. Cornelius Sulla in 86 BC.” Athens at the time was essentially revered as a centre of Classical Culture, Philosophy, Literature, Oratory and Sculpture. Athens was the cradle of democracy at the time and was recognised by the Romans as such. Though lacking political power of it’s own, the importance in the history of ideas was keenly felt. Paul when he enters Rome visits the synagogue first and converses with the Jews and Gentiles. Paul also debates in the Agora, which is the main public space, sort of like the cultural heart of the city. Gill states that “these structures had long been used as meeting-places and indeed the Stoic philosophers took their name from the Stoa Poilkile where they used to meet. If Paul was debating in the agora, one of the likely settings for this dialogue would have been in one of the stoas; and it is here that he would have met with the Epicuran and Stoic philosophers (Acts17:18).” We also learn from the book of Acts about the “Areopagos” which was the effective government of Roman Athens and it’s chief court. Paul appears before it in (Acts 17:19-22). We also learn that the Areopagos would have been allowed to exact exile and capital punishments as verdicts. The Acts of the Apostles also hints at the diversity of the cult at Athens which archaeology is only just discovering now.
Through the context of these three studies into Roman cities you can conclude that Roman society was very hierarchical with a range of different social groups. There is even further division seen between a citizen and a non-citizen. Acts itself also draws attention to a number of senior Roman officials and figures, and women are shown to be members of higher social groups. A wealth of information is portrayed within Acts and this is very useful to the Historian studying it.
Acts is also a rich field for the study of what might be termed “Social History.” Within the cities it talks about, information on social status, influence, and mobility of the various figures and groups. We also can find out about the structure of households in the 1st Century BC, about the people living in them and attached to them, plus the all-important hospitality practice. Plus various trades, city-state religions, foreign cults and superstitions. Details of languages spoken in various cities, the places people gather to talk and so on. We also can find information into the nature of prisons and military life if you look closely, and of the hazards of the sea. Acts also provides insight into the ways of transport and communication over distances through foot, horse, chariot and ship and for the latter letters. So what can you conclude from this? Well from this we can conclude that the writer of Acts was very skilful in his job and a good observer to his surroundings, which in turn has landed us with a lot of precious information into life and society in Roman Cities.
One other great issue within the Roman Empire that is brought up in Acts on many occasions is the acquisition of Roman Citizenship. This is a very interesting topic and Acts has provided a lot of information for the Historian to consider when reading it. Gill writes “that it was in 212 BC that Caracalla extended Citizenship to virtually all free people within the empire.” So in this, Citizenship could be awarded to people living in specific cities; Paul himself was a citizen through this measure. Citizenship brought with it benefits such as lighter penalties in court cases, exemption from beatings/torture and the right to appeal against a death sentence. The writer of Acts reports that Paul uses his citizenship on 3 occasions. In Philippi, in protest to getting beaten without a fair trial (Acts 16:37). In Jerusalem against being flogged by the Roman authorities (Acts 22:25). And in Caesarea he appeals to Caesar to have his case transferred from the inferior jurisdiction of the governor of Judaea to the supreme tribunal in Rome. (Acts 25:11). The concept of citizenship is an issue open for study and once again the book of Acts provides the reader with primary evidence of it in three separate occasions.
From the examples shown we can conclude that there is a great amount of information within the Acts of the Apostles. No matter what questions you have concerning some form of life or structure within that area in the 1st Century BC you would look towards the Book of Acts as your primary source. As Banks said “there are some of the questions that may be pursued through a historical study of the Acts of the Apostles. Those willing to pay careful attention to its detail will find it yields a rich treasure of material, not only in relation to the early development of Christianity but to the 1st Century life in general.” So in response to the question there is a wealth of information within the pages of Acts, which is very accurate thanks to writer; on the life and society in cities of the Roman Empire and for the historian studying a question like this, he would turn towards Acts as his primary evidence on it.