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The Speeches in Acts

By Christopher Price


    One cannot read through the Acts of the Apostles without noticing that a large part of the book is devoted to "major" speeches. By varying accounts, the speeches in Acts take up about 20-22% of the whole book. Some of the major speeches there are: Five speeches attributed to Peter. One to Stephen (the martyr). Six to Paul. One to James. Another 25% or so of the book is devoted to "direct speech"--statements and other speeches attributed to various participants, such as Jewish leaders like Gamaliel (5:35-59) and Romans like Festus (25:14-21). In comparison, other historical works at the time did not include nearly so much speech material. Josephus for example, devotes less than 9% of his Jewish War to speeches. This, in and of itself, is significant. It means that the author of Acts places a much greater interest on speech material than other historians of his time.

    Speeches and Ancient Historians

    It has often been argued that ancient historians--and therefore Luke by implication--felt that they had great liberties with the speeches they purported to record. This is over simplistic and misleading. There are examples of creative speech making among ancient Historians. For example, it is widely recognized that Josephus used a creative touch when "reporting" the speeches of major figures in his works. Likewise, there are indications that Dionysius and Tacitus were so inclined. An ancient Sicilian historian, Timaeus (356-260 BCE) apparently invented speeches and placed them in the mouths of historical figures.

    On the other hand, there is evidence that historians were expected to report speeches as accurately as possible. For example, one reason we know that Timaeus was so liberal with his speeches is that he faced strong criticism from a Greek historian, Polybius (204-122 BCE). Polybius severely attacked the works of Timaeus, noting that "Timaeus actually invents speeches." Polybius thought this intolerable, as it was the "peculiar function of history" to report what was actually spoken. To simply invent speeches was to "destroy[] the peculiar virtue of history." Regarding recording speeches, Polybius wrote:

    The tragic poet should shrill and charm his audience for the moment by the versimilitude of the words he puts into his characters' mouths, but it is the task of the historian to instruct and convince for all time serious students by the truth of the facts and the speeches he narrates. In the one case, it is the probable that takes precedence, even if it is untrue, the purpose being to create illusion in spectators; in the other, it is the truth, the purpose being to confer benefit on learners.

    Hist. 2.56.10-12.

    But how did Polybius himself stack up in his recording of speeches? Quite well. Despite the obstacles facing ancient historians, a review of the 37 speeches in Polybius' surviving text by F.W. Walbank reveals that while Polybius may have summarized some of his speeches, he attempts to accurately record the contents of speeches. When reporting the various speeches at the Locris conference in the Winter (198 BCE), Walbank concludes that they have "all the marks of being derived from a verbatim account of the meeting, and may be accepted as authentic." Speeches in Greek Historians, page 7-8.

    Another ancient historian of great importance is Thucydides, the Greek historian who wrote of the Peloponnesian War and in doing so launched the enterprise of recording history. While some use him as an example of creativity, this is misleading. Thucydides admits to having taken some liberty constructing some speech material, but only when he did not have access to any sources. When he had sources, he used them. Whenever he crafted a speech, he did so "of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what was actually said." History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.22.1. Thucydides believed that it was the historian's duty to try and report what the figures actually did say, rather than use them as mouthpieces for various viewpoints or agendas. Of course, even the serious historians such as Polybius and Thucydides did not record verbatim transcripts of all of their speeches. It is unlikely that such accuracy would be possible. They could not avoid using their own style and summarizing. Yet, as stated by C.W. Fornara, "[t]he principle was established that speeches were to be recorded accurately, though in the words of the historian, and always with the reservation that the historian could 'clarify." The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome, page 145.

    So, there were ancient historians who took seriously the task of portraying speeches as accurately as possible. The question becomes, then, whether Luke was one of such historian. The evidence demonstrates that he was.

    An Examination of Luke's Use of Speeches

    A. Luke Relied Heavily and Faithfully on Speech Material in the Gospel of Luke

    Although we have few of the sources Luke relied on to draft Acts, thus impairing a source-critical evaluation of that book, the same is not true for the Gospel of Luke. Almost no respected scholar questions the unity of authorship between Luke and Acts. And it is clear that Luke faithfully used pre-existing sources for when writing the Gospel of Luke. Moreover, the Gospel of Luke is--like Acts--largely driven by discourse. Luke clearly uses Mark and Q faithfully, though conforming their style to his own. As Paul Barnett has written:

    It is widely believed that the Gospel of Mark predated and was used by Luke in his Gospel. This means that we have an objective means by which we can measure Luke's use of texts that were at his disposal. Of course Luke has his own purpose in writing, which he does not disguise. Yet when passages in Luke are set alongside passages from Mark, Luke proves to have been a sober and careful scribe.

    Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity, page 209.

    The same is true of Luke's use the Q source, which scholars have easily detected by comparing the Gospel of Luke with the Gospel of Matthew, and even his own special materials. Many scholars have concluded that Luke's special source--L--was faithfully utilized in the Gospel of Luke. See Kim Paffenroth, The Story of Jesus According to L; Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the Gospels, page 136-143. Indeed, "[a]lthough there are minor changes, there is no evidence that Luke has invented material not found in his sources. Indeed, the gospel as a whole shows no evidence of such a tendency, and in view of this it is a fair assumption that he would not have resorted to it in the continuation in Acts." Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction, page 380.

    In sum, when evaluating the speeches in Acts, "we have to reckon with the demonstrable factor that Luke used sources for the spoken word, and used them rather conservatively." Colin Hemer, Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, page 426. That Luke relies on preexisting source material for his speech material in Luke strongly suggests that he was among those ancient historians who believed it was his responsibility to portray speeches as accurately as possible.

    B.     Luke Uses a Style Similar Accuracy-Minded Ancient Historians

    As an educated Greek, Luke was likely aware of the writings of Polybius and Thucydides, and their efforts to accurately transmit speeches. Moreover, a comparison of Luke's style with other ancient writers demonstrates that "Luke's Greek style is in various ways like that of the serious Hellenistic historians, Polybius in particular." Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, page 43. Moreover, "[t]his is important because style was an important indicator of how a work should be evaluated in antiquity. Luke's style suggests that he wishes to be heard as a serious Hellenistic historian would be heard, like a Polybius." Ibid.

    Of all the historians writing in Greek, Luke's work seem to [] be most like the Greek historiography of someone like Polybius, and, to a lesser degree, Thucydides. Indeed, a reasonable case can be made that in terms of method, style, and type of historiography Luke is following this particular Greek tradition of history writing, with some signs of influence Ephorus as well.

    For example, consider the words of Polybius in his famous preface (1:1-4). Polybius speaks of a "phenomenon unprecedented in the annals of humankind" (1.1), as does Luke, though the former refers to the rise to prominence and dominance of the Roman Empire, while Luke refers to the appearance of the eschatological dominion of God spreading across the Mediterranean crescent. Polybius says: "The unity of events imposes upon the historian a similar unity of composition in depicting for his reads the operations of the laws of Fortuna (fortune) upon the grand scale, and this has been my principal inducement and stimulus in the work which I have undertaken." He speaks of not "passing over without remark one of the most admirable and instructive performances of Fortune. That mighty revolutionary, whose pawns are human lives, has never before achieved such an astonishing tour de force as she has staged for the benefit of our generation; yet the monographs of the historical specialists give no inkling of the whole picture" (1.3-4). In 9.1-2 he goes on to speak on the fact that he writes more for the sake of instruction of the serious student than entertainment of the general reader.

    Luke also writes for a serious student who needs instruction about the remarkable things that have happened "among us" recently. He shares Polybius's view that something unique in the annals of history had transpired which could not simply be explained either piecemeal or on the basis of certain historical precedents or analogies. Luke, like Polybius, clearly has a sense of the magnitude of the historical moment and believes that it is somehow divinely guided, that the unity of events leading to particular ends reflects and reveals the singular hand of a larger guiding force or being. By comparison to these two writers, Josephus seems much more defensive and resigned, like the tone of the work of Tacitus, placing blame on human social forces, especially for what transpired leading up to A.D. 70.

    Witherington, op. cit., page 33-34.

    At the very least, therefore, Luke was aware of and shows an interest in following the example of historians who favored as accurate as possible speech recording. While standing alone these similarities do not show that Luke followed their example, combined with Section A above and Sections C and D below, it is probative evidence that he intended to do so.

    C.     Luke's Style of Writing in Acts

    Some have objected that the language of the speeches is too Lukan in style to reflect anyone else's words. Moreover, some have argued that the speeches of Peter and Paul are too much alike, and that especially Paul's are too distinct from his letters to reflect a true Pauline source. However, even in the Gospel of Luke, where Luke indisputably relies faithfully on pre-existing sources, Luke polishes the Greek and writes in a consistently Lukan style. Indeed, without the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, it would be difficult to have detected that Luke was using pre-existing sources or determine their boundaries even if we did. Moreover, no one suggests that Luke is providing us with verbatim transcripts of what was said. Accordingly, this objection has little merit.

    Furthermore, most of the speeches attributed to Peter and Paul in Acts were directed to pagan or Jewish audiences, whereas the canonical letters that bear their names were directed to Christians. All of the undisputed Paulines were addressed either to churches or to an individual who was already a Christian. Therefore, the audiences were different. The context was different. And the purpose was different. So, we should not expect them to be remarkably similar.

    D.     Several Speeches in Acts Are NonLukan and Correspond with External Sources

    Despite Luke's quality Greek and the different contexts, he recites four important speeches that demonstrate marks of relying on pre-existing non-Lukan materials.

    1.     Stephen's Speech Prior to His Martyrdom

    The speech of Stephen (Acts 7), the first recorded Christian martyr, is the longest speech in Acts. In Acts 6, Luke informs us that Stephen was an important member of the Jerusalem Church. He began preaching in Jerusalem and so incited some of his opponents, that they seized Stephen and brought him before the Council. Confronted by the Council, Stephen spoke at length about the history of Israel and the coming of Christ. He closed is speech with, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God." 7:56. After the speech, Stephen was stoned to death by an enraged mob.

    A notable characteristic about Stephen's speech is that it is "not noticeably Lukan in character." Witherington, op. cit., page 265. Indeed, after studying the language and theology of Stephen's speech as compared with the rest of Luke's writings, "[m]ost scholars [] rightly recognize Luke drawing on some sort of source here. Ibid. I. Howard Marshall agrees. He describes as a "certainty" that Luke used preexisting source material for Stephen's speech in Acts 7. Luke: Historian and Theologian, page 72. "[T]he speech of Stephen has by no means been fully assimilated to Lucan ideas but retains several individual characteristics." Ibid. For example, in Acts 7:46-49, Stephen's speech is critical of even the idea of the Temple. But in Luke 1:8-23; 24-53; Acts 3:1 and elsewhere, Luke seems to be more positive about it. "For Stephen the idea of a fixed structure for the worship of God was misguided from the beginning; for Luke the temple is the house of God throughout the twofold work until the moment when Paul is ejected from the sacred precincts." F.F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, pages 38-39.

    In sum, the longest speech in Acts displays remarkably unLukan characteristics which have lead the majority of New Testament scholars to the conclusion that Luke has based Acts 7 on a preexisting source. Just as with the Markan and Q material, Luke has relied on an already established tradition here.

    2.     Peter's Speech to the Jews in Jerusalem

    In Acts 3 and 4, Luke records that Peter gave speeches to the people of Jerusalem, and then to the Sanhedrin. Again, most scholars believe that Luke is relying on preexisting source material to reconstruct Peter's speech. Factors which support this position are 1) the grammatical awkwardness of several verses, 2) references to particular knowledge best explained by proximity to the speech, 3) the nonLukan christological terms, and 4) the eschatology of verse 20. Witherington, op. cit., page 165, fn. 2. Additionally, throughout Acts 3 and 4, but seldom elsewhere, Acts includes references to "servant Christology." Such Christology portrays Jesus as the suffering servant of God and humanity. It was through the position of servant that Jesus accomplished his redemptive work. This view stresses how far Jesus lowered Himself and His obedience by becoming a "suffering servant." For example, in Acts 3:18 "But the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets, that His Christ would suffer, He has thus fulfilled. " Notably, the suffering servant Jesus is also found in the First Epistle of Peter. Even if we assume that the letter was written by someone merely of the Petrine tradition, the similarities are probative. This is most clearly demonstrated in 1 Peter 2:22-25:

    For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.

    As Witherington states, "I therefore doubt that it is an accident that Peter is presented here, as in 1 Peter 2, as the first, and perhaps only truly major, Christian expositor of a servant Christology. This Christology was in any case primitive and does not appear to have became a major way of viewing Jesus, at least in the Pauline communities." Witherington, op. cit., page 180.

    Furthermore, in Acts 2:25-33, Peter explicitly discusses how Jesus fulfilled the Davidic prophecies concerning resurrection. The same is true in Acts 3:18, where Peter preaches that Christ had fulfilled "the things which God announced beforehand by the mouth of all the prophets." Such blatant reference to prophecy fulfillment is not Luke's style. "He, at all events, does not turn aside to tell us that 'Then was fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets.'" J.R. Harris, Ii>Testimonies, II, page 80. Indeed, this is one area where Matthew and Luke differ strongly. Throughout Matthew turns aside to let us know certain prophecies had been fulfilled. Not so with Luke. Yet Peter's speeches have this as one of their key elements.

    3.     James' Speech and Letter Regarding the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15)

    Yet another major speech in Acts reveals contact with its purported author. The speech and letter of James in Acts 15 reveals similarities to the Epistle of James. Acts 15 is the famous Jerusalem Council where the leaders of Christianity decided that Gentiles did not have to follow the full Mosaic Law. James, the leader of the church in Jerusalem, gave a speech and then, apparently, helped draft a letter to the Gentile Christians informing them of the Council's decision. There are "striking similarities between the Greek of the Epistle of James and that of the speech attributed to James in Acts 15:13-21." D. A. Carson, et al., An Introduction to the New Testament, page 410 (citing J.B. Mayor's The Epistle of St. James, pages iii-iv). Additionally, there are some impressive similarities between the speech and letter of James in Acts, and the Epistle of James in the New Testament. First, both the opening words in James 1:1 and the letter in Acts 15:23 are a distinct Greek phrase for Greeting--"chairo." No other New Testament author introduces there letter in a similar fashion. Second, the Epistle of James also uses a distinct Greek term to exhort his "Brethren" (adelphos) to "listen" (akouo) to him (James 2:5). According to Acts, James uses the same language to exhort his "Brethren" (adelphos) to "listen" (akouo) when he begins his speech in Acts 15:13.

    Although neither James nor Luke used each other's writing, they both portray some common, but unique, linguistic terms and sentiments and attribute them to James, the brother of Jesus.

    4.     Paul's Speech at Miletus (20:17-38)

    In Acts 20:17-38, Paul gives a farewell speech to the leaders of the Ephesus church that he had worked to establish. It is dealing with a figure--Paul--for whom we have many additional sources. Also, the context of the speech is similar to the context of Paul's letters: the audience is a Christian one. Accordingly, Acts 20 presents us with the best opportunity we have to examine Luke's representation of a speech and compare it to the language and emphasis of the speaker as we know him through independent sources. It is perhaps also significant that Luke claims to have been present for this speech. As we will see, Luke has presented Paul's speech in a manner strikingly similar to how Paul addressed Christians through his letters in similar situations.

    Here is a rundown of some of the similarities:

    *Compare Acts 20:17-18 (how he lived when with is converts) with 1 Thess. 2:1-2; 5:10-11; Phil. 4:15 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:19 (serving the Lord) with Rom. 1:1; 12:11; Phil. 2:22 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:19 (humility--refusing to claim for himself) with 2 Cor. 10:1; 11:7; 1 Thess. 2.6 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:19 (fears/personal concern) with Rom. 9:2; 2 Cor. 2:4; Phil. 3:18 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:19 (reference to persecution by Jews) with 2 Cor. 11:24, 26; 1 Thess. 2:14-16 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:20 (Paul taught from house to house) with Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:14; Phm. 21 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:21 (preaching to both Jews and Greek) with Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 9:20 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:22 (Paul's uncertainty about his future) with Rom. 15:30-32 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:24 (lack of care for own life) with 2 Cor. 4:7-5:10; 6:4-10; Phil. 1:19-26; 2:17; 3:8 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:24 (his job is to preach the gospel of God's grace) with Gal. 1:15-16; 2 Cor. 6:1 (same).

    *Compare Acts 20:26 (being innocent of his converts' blood) with 1 Thess. 2:10 (same).

    Stanley E. Porter categorizes even more similarities into three categories 1) verbal parallels, 2) biographical details, and 3) theological similarities:

    The first are verbal parallels, including the following phrasing: 'being a servant of the lord' (Acts 20:19; Rom 12:11), 'with all humility' (Acts 20:19; Eph 4:2), 'Jews and Greeks' (Acts 20:21; and especially Romans), 'complete the course' (Acts 20:24; 2. Tim. 4:7), 'complete service' (Acts 20:24; 2 Tim. 4:5; Col 4;17), 'the service which we received from our Lord Jesus' (Acts 20:24; Col. 4:17), 'grace of God (Acts 20:24, 32; frequently in Paul), 'the church of God' (Acts 20:28; frequently in Paul), 'watches out for yourselves' (Acts 20:28; 1 Tim 4:16), 'consider' (Acts 20:31; 1 Cor 16:13; Col 4:2; 1 Thess. 5:6, 10), 'build up' (Acts 20:32; Rom 15:20; 1 Cor 8:1, 10; 10:23; 14:4, 17; Gal 2:18; 1 Thess 5:11), 'inheritance among the saints' (Acts 20:32; Col. 1:12), 'hands...working' (Acts 20:34-35; 1 Cor 4:12; Eph 4:28), and repeated language of earnestness (Acts 20:31; 1 Thess 2:7-8). The second set of parallels includes biographical details: for example, Paul's not wishing to be a burden to his churches (Acts 20:33-34; 1 Corinthians 9; 2 Cor 11:7-11; 1 Thess. 2:9-12), and the length of his stay with the Ephesians. The third set of parallels covers theological similarities, including reference in Acts 20:28 to 'the blood of his own.' This redemptive language is untypical of Luke, both in the Gospel and in Acts.

    Stanley E. Porter, Paul in Acts, page 117.

    As a result of these similarities, "[t]he Miletus speech is widely conceded to contain Pauline characteristics." Hemer, op. cit., page 425. There are striking similarities of language, biography, and theology. "This is Paul, not some other speaker, and he is not evangelizing but recalling an already evangelized community to its deepest insights. The situation, like the theology, is precisely that of a Pauline epistle, not of preliminary evangelism." Ibid. at 426.


    It appears that ancient historians were expected to accurately represent the speeches they recorded in their works. Although some did not, they were generally criticized for it. Luke's style is representative of those ancient historians which we know attempted to accurately record speeches in their works. Even more importantly, we know from reviewing the Gospel of Luke that the author of Acts was committed to faithfully relying on pre-existing traditions for his speech material. While it is true that Luke consistently polishes the Greek style throughout his work, this is not the same as redacting or manufacturing material. Finally, an examination of several of the major speeches in Acts reveals that while the author smoothed out the Greek in some cases, he clearly relied on preexisting material to reconstruct his speeches. He did not believe himself at liberty to invent material, but attempted to accurately record the reality of the speeches in Acts.



    Bruce, F.F. The Acts of the Apostles Wipf & Stock Publishers, 1999

    Barnett, Paul, Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity Intervarsity Press,1999

    Carson, D. A., et al., An Introduction to the New Testament Zondervan, 1992

    Fornara, Charles The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome University of California Press, 1983

    Guthrie, Donald New Testament Introduction Intervarsity Press, 1990

    Harris, J.R. Testimonies, II Cambridge, 1920

    Hemer, Colin Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History Coronet Books, 1989

    Marshal, Howard I., Luke: Historian and Theologian Intervarsity Press, 1998

    Mayor, J.B. The Epistle of St. James Kregel Publications,1990

    Paffenroth, Kim The Story of Jesus According to L Sheffield Academic Pr., 1997

    Porter, Stanley, Paul in Acts Hendrickson Publishers, Inc., 2001

    Van Voorst, Robert E. Jesus Outside the Gospels Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2000

    Walbank, F.W., Speeches in Greek Historians in Selected Papers, Cambridge, 1985

    Witherington, Ben The Acts of the Apostles Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997

©2003 Christopher Price

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