A Brief Historical Background of Acts

The eternal struggle of the Christian preacher and teacher is to bring antiquity to contemporary audiences in such a manner that transports these modern hearers into the shoes of the people in the past while simultaneously leaving behind biases, preconceived notions, modern senses of morality and understanding.   The context of the original audience must be carefully reconstructed for anyone who seeks to properly interpret any part of Scripture.  R.C. Sproul emphasizes, “Understanding the Bible properly requires that we clear our minds of all ideas, opinions, and systems of our own day and attempt to put ourselves in the times and surroundings of the Apostles and Prophets who wrote.” [1]  The historical background of Acts cannot be viewed as a sequence of events separated from the surrounding history but instead should be viewed as integrated and all aspects carefully considered in order to properly understand the words contained within sacred Scripture. 

Greco-Roman and Jewish History Leading to A.D. 30

            Burge and Green write, “Every culture is influenced by the historical forces that shape it.  Events in history change who we are.  Thus, it is impossible to understand the world of the New Testament without some grasp of the major political events that shaped its world and culture.” [2]  The major players and influencers of the New Testament were the Roman Empire, utilizing the previous Macedonian Empire’s foundations, and the returned and consistently oppressed and rebellious Jews.[3]  The Roman period of reign over Israel began with the conquest by Pompey in 63 B.C.[4] , and their expansion and conquest of these territories were accomplished by utilizing the same strategies as Alexander the Great.  The Jewish historian Josephus documents this conquest in Antiquities and War.[5] 

            The Jews, following their return to the land with the edict by Cyrus the Great in 539 B.C., were able to redevelop some autonomy in their gradual restoration.  The Non-Jewish remnants that were in the land would see them as a threat, and quickly hostilities would arise in the land.[6]  The religious, political, and cultural environment for the Jews had radically changed.  They primarily spoke Aramaic, they had to come to terms with adhering to Judaism without the temple and sacrifice, and there was a divergence between Jews who desired to follow pure Judaism, Hellenized Jews, and Jews who stayed behind in Babylon.  Infighting would continue for the Jews until the Roman occupation, and they shifted, with some exceptions like the Zealots, to a political resistance against the Romans.  Conquerors and subjugated would have to tolerate each other, and it was in this context that the life and ministry of Jesus, the birth of the Church, and the Acts of the Apostles would occur.

Greco-Roman and Jewish History From A.D. 30-65

            Balance needed to be maintained between the conquerors and the conquered.  Caligula (A.D. 37-41) was one Emperor with much anti-Jewish resentment, even ordering a statue of himself erected in the temple.[7] The timeframe of 30-65 A.D. was unusually uneventful for this region of the world.  Different emperors and rulers would come and go, and the Jews would enjoy a significant amount of autonomy even having Jewish kings reign due to familial and Emperor connections.[8]  These were Herod Agrippa I, who executed James the Apostle in Acts 12:1-2 and imprisoned Peter in Acts 12:9.  He would end up being struck down by an angel of the Lord in Acts 12:23.  Following Herod Agrippa I’s death, Roman rulers would return, but Agrippa II would eventually reign from A.D. 50 to A.D. 93. Tensions would continue to rise between the two factions as cruel and offensive leaders would change from 30-60 A.D., ultimately ending with two different Jewish revolts, siege, and final destruction of Jerusalem from A.D. 67-70.

The Influence of Greco-Roman and Jewish History on the Life and Ministry of Jesus

            Jesus was born during the reign of Tiberius as Emperor and Herod the Great as ruler of Judea.  The conflict between Rome and the Jews would demonstrate itself in different aspects, though often political, and would manifest itself in Jesus’ frequent interactions with the people and with the Sanhedrin.  Though there was a semblance of religious freedom for the Jews, the Romans were swift to remind the Jews who the true rulers were with sacrilegious demonstrations to purposefully offend the Jews.[9]  The High Priest had become a political position, starting with Pompey’s appointment of Hyrcanus II, eventually leading to Caiaphas’ appointment in the Gospels. 

Jewish history had a greater and more direct effect on the life and ministry of Jesus.  While it was the Romans who ruled, the Jews were allowed to maintain adherence to their religion.  Even with the return to the land following Cyrus’ decree, the Jews still utilized the synagogue as a central community gathering place for worship, prayer, and all sorts of events. [10] The Mosaic Law still maintained influence over the Jews, but the addition of the Mishnah and Talmud created a stricter environment for all adherents to Judaism.[11]  The different parties that arose within Israel, from the Herodians to the Zealots to the Sanhedrin and Roman supporters, were all sects that Jesus, the Apostles, and the Early Church would interact with from 30 to 65 A.D.

The Influence of Greco-Roman and Jewish History on the Acts of the Apostles.

            The same world and history that influenced the life and ministry of Jesus would influence the birth of the Church and the spread of the Gospel.  However, the geographical locale would shift from an exclusive focus on the land of Israel and go to the boundaries of the Roman Empire.  The captivity of the Jews resulted in their spread not only to Babylon but would also influence their spread to regions across the entirety of the Mediterranean.  The Pax Romana [12]  and engineering the Romans brought with them helped to spread Christianity across the known world rapidly, and the establishment of synagogues in many cities brought Jews to Jerusalem for Passover and sent the Gospel back with them. 


            God had sovereignly orchestrated all things to bring about His divine and redemptive purposes and bring about the fulfillment of His great promises.  These divine outworkings are all-encompassing:  From the Babylonian Captivity to the rise of the Greek language, as the Lingua Franca, or “universal language,” Alexander the Great brought to the lands, from the Roman Empire’s philosophy of Pax Romana to the Jewish subjugation and rebellion, all are important in understanding the events that transpired from 30-65 A.D. and the historical context for the events in the Book of Acts.  Failure to understand these historical realities will result in an incomplete and faulty interpretation of the New Testament.

Why does this matter?

If we believe that the Bible is filled with words sourced from the Lord God Almighty, then it is reasonable for us as Christians to pursue all aspects of knowledge concerning the times, history, and context surrounding His words. The Bible has been preserved for us by God through diverse and varying means that we would know Him (Psalm 119). Understanding the surrounding contexts in order to know the Lord and know His Word better is a reasonable response to this question of “why.” Further, let us employ an illustration concerning certainty. The last thing we would want to hear from a surgeon as we go under his or her knife is, “I think this surgery should work.” There is comfort and assurance when we can look at the surrounding events of Scripture and proclaim with complete certainty the validity of the events that the Lord shaped and guided. The Acts of the Apostles, as well as the rest of Scripture, are not separate or distinct events of history but are part of history. There were real people who lived and died, nations that rose and fell, kings, queens, peasants, noble deeds, heinous actions, consequences for both, and a whole world going forward in time while the Lord intervened in time. It is with absolute certainty that the Christian can point at these events and say, “Look at how my Lord and my God shows grace and mercy to sinners, therefore repent and believe in the Gospel.” If these tiny, miniscule details matter to the Sovereign God of the Universe, then they should matter to those who love Him and are called according to His glorious purposes.

Paul provides a great conclusion to understanding Christian certainty. Paul states in Acts 17:24-28, “The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for “‘In him we live and move and have our being.” Let us study to be certain about God’s mighty working in the universe and our lives.

[1] R.C. Sproul, Knowing Scripture (Downer’s Grove, Ill.:  Intervarsity Press, 1979), 102.

[2]  Gary M. Burge; Gene L Green, The New Testament in Antiquity 2nd edition (Grand Rapids, MI.:  Zondervan Academic, 2020), 30

[3] W. Carter.  Seven Events that Shaped the New Testament World.  Grand Rapids:  Baker, 2013.

[4] Ibid,. 43

[5] Josephus Ant. 14.4.1-4; War 1.7.1-5. 

[6] See Ezra and Nehemiah

[7] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2003

[8] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity. Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2003

[9] Pilate was guilty of these offenses as recorded by Josephus in War 2.9.2-3.  

[10] Carson, D., & Moo, D. J. (2005). An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

[11] E. P. Sanders, Judaism:  Practice and Belief, 63 B.C.E-66 B.C.E.  Philadelphia:  Trinity Press International, 1992.

[12] J.S. Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament.  Downer’s Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1999.

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