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The Fictitious Speeches in Acts

There are 24 speeches [a] in the Acts of the Apostles, taking up about 300 out of the 1,000 verses in the book.[1] Their obvious importance is found not only in the amount of space the speeches take up in Acts but also in the fact that they play a crucial role in the development of the plot in Acts.[b]

In the early twentieth century it was fashionable for scholars to assert, due to their importance to the whole structure and plot of Acts, that the speeches had to be historical and that Luke included the speeches from reliable source materials from the early Church.[4]

Yet today the opinion of the majority of (non-fundamentalist) scholars is diametrically opposite to the traditional one. [5] Some samples (emphasis are mine):

  • Gunther Bornkamm in his book, Paul (1971):
    [T]here can be no doubt that the speeches...are not transcripts or excerpts from speeches actually delivered, but are compositions by the author of Acts. [6]

  • Werner Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament (1975):
    [I]t is incontestable that the speeches of Acts are the decisive literary means by which the author of Acts stamps his own theological meaning on the narrative tradition that he has employed. [7]

  • Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament (1992):
    It is ...clear...that the speeches of Acts are the author's own and serve to advance his narrative aims. [8]

  • Udo Schnelle, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings (1998):
    Although it has been repeatedly asserted that the basic content of the Acts speeches are reliable reports, research has rightly generally come to the conclusion that they cannot be understood as authentic accounts of speeches that were actually given. [9]
This about-turn in scholarly opinion stems from the seminal work of Martin Dibelius (1883-1947). Since his early research (collected in an English translation under Studies in the Acts of the Apostles), Dibelius's findings have been repeatedly confirmed and expanded by other scholars.

As the lack of authenticity of these speeches will have an important bearing on our evaluation of what actually happened in early Christianity during the crucial years between 30 CE to circa 62 CE, we will present the evidence below. There are two, intertwined, parts to the modern claim; firstly that the speeches are generally unhistorical and secondly they are the free literary invention of Luke.

It is certainly possible, of course, that there is some authentic tradition embedded in a few and scattered places within the speeches; but, by and large, they are the fictional inventions of Luke.

We have also discovered elsewhere that the overall portrait of Paul given in Acts is largely unhistorical. These two findings tell us that in reconstructing what happened between Paul and the apostles, we have to rely heavily on the authentic Pauline epistles and use Acts only sparingly and with extreme skepticism.

Historical Anachronisms and Mistakes

In the speech of Gamaliel (Acts 5:36-37), the famous Pharisee supposedly made the remark about the uprising by Theudas. However this is a gross anachronism. The speech within Luke-Acts was set in the early thirties (circa 30-33 CE), since it was placed before the conversion of Paul (which happened only in Acts 9). Yet we know from Josephus's Antiquities (20:5:1-2) that this revolt happened during the procuratorship of Cuspius Fadus, who took office only in 44 CE. This means that Luke had Gamaliel making a remark about the revolt by Theudas that, at that time, had yet to occur and will not happen for another ten years! It is quite obvious that Gamaliel could not have made that remark. [10]

In the speech attributed to James (Acts 15:13-21), Luke had James quote a text (Acts 15:16-18) from the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Bible, instead of the original Hebrew one. In this text (Amos 9:12), the original Hebrew had Edom which the Septuagint translators mistook for adam (i.e. Man). Now the point of James' speech only works if the Septuagint version was used. That James, a devout Palestinian Jew, would quote an erroneous translation of the Bible to make an important point is simply beyond historical possibility. [11]

In Paul's proclamation to the Athenians he mentioned an altar to an unknown god (Acts 17:23) and used that as a point of departure for his Christian monotheistic proclamation. Yet we know from other ancient references that the inscription on the Athenian altar refers to unknown gods (in the plural). As Hans Conzelmann remarked: "Surely Paul (!) cannot have spoken this way, nor can the Christian missionary begin his preaching in this way everywhere. It can only be the work of an author developing his paradigmatic discussion." [12]

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Tensions Between the Speeches and the Immediate Narrative Contexts

Some of the speeches given in Acts simply do not fit the narrative context and are quite inexplicable if they are historical. Examples include:

  • Paul was described to be troubled by the presence of many idols when he arrived in Athens. (Acts 17:16). Yet in his speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus, the apostle supposedly praised the Athenians for their piety. (Acts 17:22) [13]

  • At the Jerusalem Temple, Paul was accused by some Jews from Asia as defiling the Temple by bringing a Greek into the sacred place. (Acts 21:27-30) Yet in defending himself (Acts 22:1-21), where we would have expected him to prove his innocence by denying the incident, he instead started a long speech describing his biographical background and his conversion. [c] [15]

  • In his speech before the Ephesian elders (Acts 20:18-35), Paul strongly defended his work. Yet the elders were on very intimate terms with Paul and did not raise any complaint about Paul's work. [16]

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Unhistorical Presentation of Pauline Theology

We treat the unhistorical portrayal of Paul and his teachings by Acts elsewhere. Here we will merely look at the summary of the reasons why Pauline theology, as given in Acts, is not representative of the historical Paul. Steve Mason, provided an excellent summary of these reasons, in his book Josephus and the New Testament:

Their [Paul and Peter] summaries of Christian preaching are likewise similar, even though we know from Paul's letters that he, for one, had quite distinctive language for discussing Christ's work [e.g. being "in Christ", dying and rising with Christ, the flesh spirit dichotomy, righteousness through faith etc-Tobin]. In his letters, because he writes as apostle to the Gentiles, Paul spends no time at all proving Jesus is the Messiah or recounting Israel's history in any connected way. Indeed the absence of Jewish content in his gospel is what provoked a response from his Jewish Christian opponents. Yet Acts depicts Paul, like Peter (2:14-31) and especially Stephen (&:2-50), as rooting his gospel in Israel's history (Acts 13:17-37). Like Peter in Acts (2:38; 5:31; 10:43), Paul even preaches "forgiveness of sins" (13:38; 26:18). But this phrase is part of the characteristic vocabulary of Luke-Acts (cf. Luke 1:77; 24:47); it does not appear at all in Paul's undisputed letters, for he typically speaks of sin, in the singular, as a power. The result is that, in Acts, Paul sounds much like Stephen and Peter. [17]

And, we might add, in Acts, they all sound like Luke!

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Other General Considerations

Luke's used the speeches, as we have seen [b], to illuminate the pivotal points of the plot in Acts. Since most of the discourses in Acts are supposedly occasional, unprepared, spur of the moment words, it is quite unlikely that they could exhibit such a well structured form. [18]

The occasional, ad hoc, nature of the speeches also excludes the possibility (suggested by the fundamentalist apologist F.F. Bruce) that there could be people around to take stenographic(!) notes or that the speakers kept their speeches in written manuscripts. Kummel had called such assertions "irresponsible". [19]

Furthermore since Luke was writing around at least four to five decades after the purported events, the question needs to be asked: Why were the speeches preserved? Form critics have shown that some of Jesus authentic sayings were preserved because they meant something for the community that preserved them. Thus Jesus' arguments with the Pharisees on the application of Mosaic laws were important to the early Jewish Christians in the arguments they had with the emerging rabbinic Judaism. As such we could imagine the Sitz im Leben [d] for many of the sayings of Jesus. But there is no Sitz im Leben that could be postulated for the repetition and preservation of the speeches of Acts in late apostolic times. [20]

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Structural Similarity of the Speeches

The overall structural similarity, especially in the missionary speeches, has been noted for a long time. Let us take two examples in detail, one speech by Peter and the other by Paul: [21]

Peter's Pentecostal Speech
Acts 2:14-39
Paul's First Speech
Acts 13:16-40
a: Direct address
But Peter standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, "Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem..."
So Paul stood up and with a gesture began to speak: "You Israelites, and others who fear God..."
b: Appeal for Attention
"...let this be known to you, and listen to what I say"
c: A Keynote Quotation or Summary from Scripture
"[T]his is what was spoken through the prophet Joel..."
"The God of this people Israel chose our ancestors and made the people great during their stay in the land of Egypt..."
d: Summary of Christian Preaching about Jesus
"Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power, wonders and signs that God did through him, ..., this man, handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him, having freed him from death..."
Because the residents of Jerusalem did not recognize him...they fulfilled those words by condemning him. Even though they found no cause for a sentence of death, they asked Pilate to have him killed. When they carried out everything that was written about him, they took him down from the tree and laid him in a tomb. But God raised him from the dead...
e: Scriptural Proof
"For David says concerning him..."
"And we bring you the good news that God promised to our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising Jesus; as also it is written in the second psalm..."
f: Final Proclamation of Salvation
Peter said to them, "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven..."
"Let it be known to you therefore, my brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you..."

Note how the speeches work. They start with a direct address (calling the people around them), then there is a call for attention (asking the people to listen) and followed by a quotation from scripture. Then comes a proclamation of the life of Jesus which is followed by scriptural proof relating to him. Finally there is another proclamation and a call to repentance.

This similarity in structure can be seen in all the missionary speeches [e] given in Acts. Similarly the two speeches by Paul before the Gentiles (in Lystra [Acts 14:15-17] and Athens [Acts 17:22-31]) show a largely parallel structure. [22] As Schweizer noted:

What is clear, first of all, is the uniformity of speeches, above all in their total structure, but also in a considerable number of details [we have already seen this above, in the presentation of identical theologies for Paul and Peter-Tobin] It seems clear that the same author has composed them, taking up traditional material only in particulars. [23]

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Elements in the Speeches that Make Sense Only To the Reader

A large proportion of the major speeches in Acts would not have made much sense to the people it was supposedly addressed and, indeed, in many cases they make sense only to the reader. Let us look at a few examples.

The longest speech given in Acts is that supposedly made by Stephen before the Sanhedrin (Acts 7:2-53). Stephen was accused by some returned diaspora Jews of violating the Mosaic laws and saying things against the Temple (Acts 6:11-14). Yet in Stephen's defense speech, a large section of the beginning (Acts 7:2-34) contained references to the history of Israel (from the Abraham to Moses) and had really nothing to do with the charges against him. It was only in 7:35-50 that some semblance of polemic can be found. The speech as a whole thus makes no sense within its narrative context. [24] But when it is considered within the context of the book of Acts, within the purview of the reader, it finally makes sense. As Martin Dibelius noted:

[I]n Stephen's speech...the content...paves the way for the separating of the Christian from the Jewish community. It is not a typical speech by a martyr, for neither the danger nor the gain in martyrdom is discussed. It needs to be appreciated, not within the setting of martyrdom in the book but of the book as a whole. It inaugurates that section of Acts (6-12) which portrays the progress of the gospel to the Gentile world. [25]

Another example comes from Paul's speech before the crowds at the steps of the fortress of Antonia in Jerusalem (Acts 22 1-21). As we have seen above his speech does not even begin to answer the accusation against him (that he brought a Gentile into the Temple) but covers mainly his background and his conversion and his calling as the apostle to the Gentiles. Again considered within the context of the narrative, the speech makes very little sense. But considered within the context of the book as a whole it makes perfect sense. For the setting in Jerusalem, speaking to the Jews, provide an excellent backdrop for the speech as a justification for Paul's mission to the Gentiles. [26]

A small detail in Paul's speech before Agrippa also betrays this fact. In Acts 26:10, Paul called Christians, the saints. This is perfectly understandable to the reader but would have the unintelligible to Agrippa who was the supposed audience for the speech. [27]

These examples show that the intended audience for the speeches were not the crowds or persons in the narrative but the reader of the book.

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Contemporary Historiographical Convention

We know that Luke followed certain literary conventions of his time. The presence of the prologues in both Luke (1:1-4) and Acts (1:1-2) shows adherence to a Hellenistic convention. For prologues are common in Greco-Roman works. Josephus's Antiquities and War also began with prologues. [28]

Another feature of Hellenistic history writing is the major role of speeches. The Hellenistic historian used speeches as a means to provide the reader with an insight into, among other things, the total situation, the specific factors of that historical moment or the character of the speaker. We find that Luke certainly followed this convention; for every major event in the plot of Acts is accompanied by a speech.[b]

It was the Athenian historian, Thucydides (c460-400 BCE), writer of the history of the Peloponnesian War, who treated the subject of speeches in historical work in a most vigorous manner. Thucydides noted that it is quite difficult for the historian to construct speeches as accurately as events in history. Thus the task of the historian, according to him, is to present the speeches in a way that he believed the individual could have made them. In other words, while the historian will have to compose the oration of historical figures himself, he must fashion it in a way that fit the occasion and the speaker.

Indeed ancient historians never felt compelled to reproduce speeches exactly; even when they had access to the original texts. An often quoted example of such an attitude relates to the speech of Claudius (10 BCE-54 CE) about the citizenship status of the people of Gaul. Claudius' address is narrated in direct speech in Tacitus's (C55-117 CE) Annals of Imperial Rome, XI:24. Yet the original text of Claudius' oration, which was available to Tacitus (and indeed is preserved even today on a bronze tablet in Lyon, France), was quite different from what was given in the Annals. Tacitus brought out the main points but "intentionally and completely obliterated the personal notes in the original speech." [29]

How much more freer would the ancient historian be with his speeches when he did not have any access to the actual words!

We have seen that while certain conventions were followed, for examples making the speech "believable" and using it to "deepen" the reader's understanding of the situation or the character, the main point is that the speeches need not be "historical" in the sense of it actually happening! Thus for the ancient historian, the speech is a literary device that helps him tell a better story! [30]

We are therefore not surprised to find that Luke composed his speeches not from historical sources, but from what he thought would fit the occasion or would further the plot or his agenda. He was simple doing what was common practice for comtemporary Greco-Roman writers.

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a.The breakdown of the 24 speeches is as follows:[2]
  • Nine by Paul: Acts 13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31; 20:18-35; 22:1-21; 24:10-21; 26:2-23, 25-27, 27:21-26; 28:17-20
  • Eight by Peter: Acts 1:16-22; 2:14-36, 38f; 3:12-26; 4:8-12,19,20; 5:29-32; 10:34-43; 11:5-17; 15:7-11
  • One by Stephen: Acts 7:2-53
  • One by James: Acts 15:13-21
  • Five by non-Christians: Acts 5:35-39 (Gamaliel); 19:25-27 (Demetrius ); 19:35-40 (The Ephesian Town Clerk); 24:2-8 (Tertulus) and 25:24-27 (Festus)
b.Speeches illuminate the first preaching of the kerygma (Acts 2:14-36), the first martyrdom (Acts 7:1-53), the first Gentile conversion (Acts 10;34-43), the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:7-11; 15:13-21), the first penetration of Christianity into the heart of Greek intellectual culture (Acts 17:22-31), Paul's departure from the mission field (Acts 20:17-35) and Paul's final dispute with the Jews at the Temple in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3-21). [3]
c.Any attempt to argue that Paul was interrupted in his speech and was thus unable to get to the main point of his defense is off the mark. As Dibelius himself points out, many of the speeches in Acts are ended by interruptions and, indeed, the form of interruption is a literary device unique to Luke. Some of the other examples of interrupted speeches in Acts include: [14]

  • Peter's speech after healing the lame man was interrupted by the priests and caption of the Temple (Acts 4:1)
  • The prayer of the community was ended abruptly by an earthquake (Acts 4:31)
  • Stephen's speech was ended when the hearers became enraged (Acts 7:54)
  • Peter speech in the house of Cornelius was ended by an outpouring of Holy Spirit (Acts 10:44)
  • Paul's speech to the Athenians was cut short when the crowd scoffed at his proclamation (Acts 17:32)
  • Paul's defense speech before the Sanhedrin was ended by an argument between the Pharisees and the Pharisees (Acts 23:7)
d.Sitz im Leben is a German phrase which literally means "Situation in Life". It refers to the social setting of the early communities which led them to preserve, shape and form the various anecdotes and sayings from the life of Jesus.
e.The other missionary speeches are found in Acts 3:12-26, 4:8-12, 5:29-32, 10:34-43.


1.Heanchen, The Acts of the Apostles: p104 n1
2.Dibelius, Studies in the Acts of the Apostles: p150
3.ibid.: p164
Mason, Josephus and the New Testament: p194
4.Powell, What are They Saying about Acts?: p30
6.Bornkamm, Paul: pxvii
7.Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament: p169
8.Mason, op. cit.: p195
9.Schnelle, The History and Theology of the New Testament Writings: p270
10.Dibelius, op. cit.: p186
11.ibid.: p179
12.Conzelman, The Address of Paul on the Areopagus, Keck & Martyn (ed), "Studies in Luke Acts": p220
13.Schnelle, op. cit.: p270
14.Dibelius, op. cit.: p160-161
15.ibid.: p158-159
16.ibid.: p164
Schnelle, op. cit.: p270
17.Mason, op. cit.: p195-196
18.Dibelius, op. cit.: p138
19.Kummel, op. cit.: p168
20.ibid.: p168
21.Mason, op. cit.: p 195
Schweizer, Eduard, Concerning the Speeches in Acts, Keck and Martyn "Studies in Luke-Acts": p208-212
22.ibid.: p212-214
23.ibid.: p214
24.Dibelius, op. cit.: p167-168
25.ibid.: p169
26.ibid.: p158-160
27.ibid.: p173
28.Mason, op. cit.: p 186-192
29.Dibelius, op. cit.: 138-142
30.ibid.: p144

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