This book is to the Gospels what the fruit is to the tree that bears it. In the Gospels we see the corn of wheat falling into the ground and dying: in the Acts we see it bringing forth much fruit (Joh 12:24). There we see Christ purchasing the Church with His own blood: here we see the Church, so purchased, rising into actual existence; first among the Jews of Palestine, and next among the surrounding Gentiles, until it gains a footing in the great capital of the ancient world -- sweeping majestically from Jerusalem to Rome. Nor is this book of less value as an Introduction to the Epistles which follow it, than as a Sequel to the Gospels which precede it. For without this history the Epistles of the New Testament -- presupposing, as they do, the historical circumstances of the parties addressed, and deriving from these so much of their freshness, point, and force -- would in no respect be what they now are, and would in a number of places be scarcely intelligible.
The genuineness, authenticity, and canonical authority of this book were never called in question within the ancient Church. It stands immediately after the Gospels, in the catalogues of the Homologoumena, or universally acknowledged books of the New Testament (see Introduction to our larger Commentary, Vol. V, pp. iv, v). It was rejected, indeed, by certain heretical sects in the second and third centuries -- by the Ebionites, the Severians (see Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 4.29), the Marcionites, and the Manicheans: but the totally uncritical character of their objections (see Introduction above referred to, pp. xiii, xiv) not only deprives them of all weight, but indirectly shows on what solid grounds the Christian Church had all along proceeded in recognizing this book.
In our day, however, its authenticity has, like that of all the leading books of the New Testament, been made the subject of keen and protracted controversy. De Wette, while admitting Luke to be the author of the entire work, pronounces the earlier portion of it to have been drawn up from unreliable sources (New-Testament Introduction, 2a, 2C). But the Tubingen school, with Baur at their head, have gone much farther. As their fantastic theory of the post-Joannean date of the Gospels could not pretend even to a hearing so long as the authenticity of the Acts of the Apostles remained unshaken, they contend that the earlier portion of this work can be shown to be unworthy of credit, while the latter portion is in flat contradiction to the Epistle to the Galatians -- which this school regard as unassailable -- and bears internal evidence of being a designed distortion of facts for the purpose of setting up the catholic form which Paul gave to Christianity in opposition to the narrow Judaic but original form of it which Peter preached, and which after the death of the apostles was held exclusively by the sect of the Ebionites. It is painful to think that anyone should have spent so many years, and, aided by learned and acute disciples in different parts of the argument, should have expended so much learning, research, and ingenuity in attempting to build up a hypothesis regarding the origination of the leading books of the New Testament which outrages all the principles of sober criticism and legitimate evidence. As a school, this party at length broke up: its head, after living to find himself the sole defender of the theory as a whole, left this earthly scene complaining of desertion. While some of his associates have abandoned such heartless studies altogether for the more congenial pursuits of philosophy, others have modified their attacks on the historical truth of the New Testament records, retreating into positions into which it is not worth while to follow them, while others still have been gradually approximating to sound principles. The one compensation for all this mischief is the rich additions to the apologetical and critical literature of the books of the New Testament, and the earliest history of the Christian Church, which it has drawn from the pens of Thiersch, Ebrard, and many others. Any allusions which it may be necessary for us to make to the assertions of this school will be made in connection with the passages to which they relate -- in Acts, First Corinthians, and Galatians.
The manifest connection between this book and the third Gospel -- of which it professes to be simply the continuation by the same author -- and the striking similarity which marks the style of both productions, leave no room to doubt that the early Church was right in ascribing it with one consent to Luke. The difficulty which some fastidious critics have made about the sources of the earlier portion of the history has no solid ground. That the historian himself was an eye-witness of the earliest scenes -- as Hug concludes from the circumstantiality of the narrative -- is altogether improbable: but there were hundreds of eye-witnesses of some of the scenes, and enough of all the rest, to give to the historian, partly by oral, partly by written testimony, all the details which he has embodied so graphically in his history; and it will appear, we trust, from the commentary, that De Wette's complaints of confusion, contradiction, and error in this portion are without foundation. The same critic, and one or two others, would ascribe to Timothy those later portions of the book in which the historian speaks in the first person plural -- |we|; supposing him to have taken notes of all that passed under his own eye, which Luke embodied in his history just as they stood. It is impossible here to refute this gratuitous hypothesis in detail; but the reader will find it done by Ebrard (The Gospel History, sect.110, Clark's translation; sect.127 of the original work, Wissenschaftliche Kritik der Evangelische Geschichte, 1850), and by Davidson (Introduction to New Testament, Vol. II, pp.9-21).
The undesigned coincidences between this History and the Apostolic Epistles have been brought out and handled, as an argument for the truth of the facts thus attested, with unrivalled felicity by Paley in his Horæ Paulinæ, to which Mr. Birks has made a number of ingenious additions in his Horæ Apostolicæ. Exception has been taken to some of these by Jowett (St. Paul's Epistles, Vol. I, pp.108 ff.), not without a measure of reason in certain cases -- for our day, at least -- though even he admits that in this line of evidence the work of Paley, taken as a whole, is unassailable.
Much has been written about the object of this history. Certainly |the Acts of the Apostles| are but very partially recorded. But for this title the historian is not responsible. Between the two extremes -- of supposing that the work has no plan at all, and that it is constructed on an elaborate and complex plan, we shall probably be as near the truth as is necessary if we take the design to be to record the diffusion of Christianity and the rise of the Christian Church, first among the Jews of Palestine, the seat of the ancient Faith, and next among the surrounding Gentiles, with Antioch for its headquarters, until, finally, it is seen waving over imperial Rome, foretokening its universal triumph. In this view of it, there is no difficulty in accounting for the almost exclusive place which it gives to the labors of Peter in the first instance, and the all but entire disappearance from the history both of him and of the rest of the Twelve after the great apostle of the Gentiles came upon the stage -- like the lesser lights on the rise of the great luminary.