The structure of the Acts of the Apostles


Introduction

Many have tried to determine the structure which Luke [1] had in mind for Acts. None of the atttempts have been based on objective techniques, and so perhaps not surprisingly none has won wide acceptance.

My very first attempt in 1980 was a division into four roughly equal major sections starting at 1:1, 8:4, 15:1 and 21:27. Many years later Michael Goulder brought to my attention his intriguing division into four major sections: 1 - 5; 6:1 - 9:31; 9:32 - 12; 13 - 28. [2] But does it indicate the author's plan? My attempts only came to fruition after significant improvements in the mathematical algorithms for page analysis, and after developing a new algorithm for word stem analysis. (The full details of these algorithms are beyond the scope of this Web site.) As it happens, the first-level section divisions in the table below support the theme of Goulder's "A Tale of Two Missions" even better than his own division into four sections.

The first two levels of the structure of Acts


chapter:verse Greek pages suggested
range letters   section title
 
1:1-11 1126 1 JESUS instructs the apostles
 
  PETER: apostle of the Jews
1:12 - 5:42 15609 13    The apostles receive boldness to speak
6:1 - 8:2 7236 6    STEPHEN, the first martyr
8:3 - 9:2 3490 3    PHILIP's mission, set amidst persecution
9:3-30 2501 2    On the road to DAMASCUS
9:31 - 11:18 7149 6    Peter's mission based in JOPPA
11:19-30 1161 1    Barnabas and Saul in ANTIOCH
12:1-24 2421 2    HEROD's persection of Christians and death
 
  PAUL: apostle to the Gentiles
12:25 - 15:35 10715 9    The activities of Paul and BARNABAS
15:36 - 20:38 18203 15    The activities of Paul and TIMOTHY
21:1 - 23:11 8234 7    Paul is to lose his freedom in Jerusalem
23:12-22 1305 1    The Jews' OATH to kill Paul
23:23-35 1139 1    The CAVALRY come to Paul's rescue
24 - 26 8260 7    Paul's defence before three governors
27 - 28 7262 6    Paul's destiny to end his life in Rome

Concerning the two-level structure

  1. Indentation of a title indicates a second-level section.
  2. In the section titles, words in capitals (more accurately the stems of the equivalent Greek words) were picked out by my word stem analysis as the most distinctive words in their respective sections. The analysis shows that the structure was based more on famous men than on geography (8 key people, 3 key places). In the second major section the stem πετρ  (re the word 'Peter') has 55/56 of its occurrences in the book, and they spread from 1:13 to 12:18. 'Paul' is even more dominant in the third major section. Overall this two-level structure was shown to have sections which are on average more clearly distinguished from each other than those in any previously published two-level structure I could find.
  3. Jesus being "taken up" in 1:2 and 1:11 constitutes a frame for the first section, 1:1-11.
  4. The "but" in 9:1 connects with 8:3. [3] Saul's persecution thus forms a frame for the section 8:3 - 9:2. There is a hiatus between 9:2 and 9:3, for neither the acquisition of the letters nor the start of the journey to Damascus are recorded. Starting the first conversion account at 9:3 brings it into line with the second account in 22:2-16 as delineated in UBS.
  5. The references to Jerusalem in 21:11 and 23:11 constitute a frame for the section 21:1 - 23:11.
  6. The structure is largely symmetrical: the major sections associated with Peter and Paul each have seven subsections.

The format of the archetype

  1. The numbers of letters refer to the NA27 Greek text. According to the model proposed here, the 95811 letters occupied 80 pages with a mean of 1197.6 letters per page. The number 80, being a whole multiple of 4, suggests a codex made up from 20 sheets. [4]
  2. In the fathom measurements of Acts 27:28 Luke may have left us a hint (by means of a metaphorical second meaning) concerning the 20 sheets which became a document composed of these 15 carefully planned sections.


Seven pairs of linked sections


section item linked connecting feature item linked section
 
1:12 - 5:42 Peter and John Apostolic exploits Paul and Barnabas 12:25 - 15:35
  1:19; 2:5,14; 4:16 "dwellers in Jerusalem" 13:27  
  1:24 "knowing the heart(s)" 15:8  
  3:2 "lame from birth" 14:8  
  3:6,8,9,12 "walk" 14:8,10  
  3:26 "to you first" 13:46  
  5:17 "filled with jealousy" 13:45  
  5:42 "teaching & preaching" 15:35  
 
6:1 - 8:2 Stephen Focus on a key apostle Timothy 15:36 - 20:38
  6:3 of good repute 16:2  
 
8:3 - 9:2 story of Philip the evangelist visit to house of 21:1 - 23:11
      21:8  
 
9:3-30 after conversion Jews plot to kill Paul in Jerusalem 23:12-22
  9:23   23:12  
 
9:31 - 11:18 Peter - Rescue by centurion(s) Paul - 23:23-35
  from prejudice   from the mob  
 
11:19-30 In Antioch (11:26) "Christian" Agrippa? (26:28) 24 - 26
 
12:1-24 Peter (12:7) An angel stands by ... Paul (27:23-24) 27 - 28


The full three-level structure of Acts


chapter:verse Greek pages suggested
range letters   section title
 
1:1-11 1126 1 JESUS instructs the apostles
 
  PETER: apostle of the Jews
     The apostles receive boldness to speak
1:12 - 5:16 13109 11       The exploits of Peter and John
5:17-42 2500 2       Persecution of the apostles
6:1 - 8:2 7236 6    STEPHEN, the first martyr
8:3 - 9:2 3490 3    PHILIP's mission, set amidst persecution
9:3-30 2501 2    On the road to DAMASCUS
     Peter's mission based in JOPPA
9:31-43 1312 1       Peter at Lydda
10:1 - 11:3 4575 4       The visions of CORNELIUS and Peter
11:4-18 1262 1       Peter's explanation
11:19-30 1161 1    Barnabas and Saul in ANTIOCH
12:1-24 2421 2    HEROD's persection of Christians and death
 
  PAUL: apostle to the Gentiles
     The activities of Paul and BARNABAS
12:25 - 13:12 1322 1       Barnabas and Saul are sent to Cyprus
13:13 - 14:26 5990 5       The mission to Galatia
14:27 - 15:35 3403 3       The apostolic council
     The activities of Paul and TIMOTHY
15:36 - 18:18 9646 8       With SILAS
18:19 - 20:38 8557 7       Centred on EPHESUS
21:1 - 23:11 8234 7    Paul is to lose his freedom in Jerusalem
23:12-22 1305 1    The Jews' OATH to kill Paul
23:23-35 1139 1    The CAVALRY come to Paul's rescue
     Paul's defence before three governors
24:1-27 2391 2       Before FELIX
25:1-12 1195 1       Before FESTUS
25:13 - 26:32 4674 4       Before AGRIPPA
27 - 28 7262 6    Paul's destiny to end his life in Rome

Concerning the third-level sections

  1. The section 13:13 - 14:26 is framed by the references to Perga and Pamphylia in 13:13 and 14:24-25.
  2. The section 14:27 - 15:35 is framed by the references to the gathering of the congregation in 14:27 and 15:30.
  3. 18:18 does not belong to what follows it, as is commonly assumed, but to the preceding stay in Corinth. For Paul stayed many days longer in Corinth, Cenchreae was the port of Corinth, and cutting one's hair (c.f. Num 6:5) indicated release from a vow and thus the end of a process.
  4. Notable men continue to play a more important role than notable places in the third level of the structure (5 key men, 1 key place).

Concerning the whole three-level structure

The word stem analysis of the whole three-level structure again shows that the sections are on average highly distinctive.

Method of composition

  1. In practice there are two ways in which the author/scribe could have made the sections match the pages. Both involve self-imposed constraints. [5] He could ensure that the text for each section fits exactly into the pages allocated to it, or he could use the relevant page boundaries as guidelines to allow him to finish each section as close as practicable to the appropriate page boundary. [6] Mathematical analysis of the full set of Greek letter counts shows that the latter was almost certainly the case here.
  2. A useful measure of the accuracy of fit between the structure and the page boundaries is the ratio:
    quarter_page / mean_dev
    where quarter_page is the mean page size (in Greek letters) divided by four, and mean_dev is the mean absolute deviation (also in Greek letters) between an internal structure boundary and its nearest page boundary. For the full structure of Acts presented here this value is 4.54, which is remarkably high for a structure of 23 base sections and 80 pages.
Three factors combine conclusively to indicate that the structure shown here was in the mind of the author of Acts. Firstly the links at the second level of the structure. Secondly the high 'average distinctiveness' of the sections as measured by the word stem analysis. Thirdly the fact that the section boundaries provide an extraordinarily accurate fit with the 80-page model, suggesting a codex made up from 20 sheets.

Notes

1. I have followed the convention in referring to the author of Luke-Acts as "Luke". In fact the work is anonymous - we simply do not know the name of the author.
2. See M.D.Goulder, "Type and History in Acts" (SPCK, 1964)
3. H. Conzelmann, "Acts of the Apostles" (ET: Fortress, Philadelphia, 1987, p.71)
4. Interestingly in his "Natural History" Pliny had written only a few decades previously that there were never more than 20 sheets in a bundle of papyrus.
5. The constraints are similar to those of a newspaper editor before the advent of computing. He or she knew roughly how much material was available, then decided on the number of sheets required, then made fine adjustments to the detail in order to fill the space exactly.
6. Of course the last page boundary was at the end of the codex. Here the author/scribe would probably try to use all the space in order to discourage any spurious addition by a later scribe.