The Unity of Luke-Acts

I was drawn to the topic of Luke-Acts upon reading the introduction to this Gospel in the class course pack. I was also drawn to this writer because of his ability to write a history and weave a story that spans the greater portion of the New Testament canon. It is my intention in this paper to discuss the Unity of Luke-Acts. I will be looking at what writers say about the collected works of Luke-Acts as a single unified document, I will also be looking at the timing of these two books i.e. when they were possibly written, and the themes that I have researched that give many points of commonality between the two texts.

Prior to beginning our discussions, Firstly: I would like to advise my reader that this paper relies heavily on source material for the bulk of the information given, which unnerves me. Because you do not hear from the writer except for transitional statements and odds and end notes. So I apologize for that in advance. Secondly, the way this paper wrote itself will break down into two sections. Section 1 will deal with Database articles and scholarly writings. On the themes of unifying scholarship, the placement and location of the two-volume work of Luke-Acts, and the theme of narrative unity to end out this section.

Section #1 – Database Journals

To begin our discussion of Luke-Acts we must start from the beginning, with a quote from the course pack “The Gospel according to Luke is the first volume of single two-volume writing. In the New Testament canon it is separated from the Acts of the Apostles by the Gospel of John. Although ancient manuscripts do not place them together, virtually all contemporary scholars think that the Gospel and Acts were conceived and executed as a single literary enterprise, which they have come to call Luke-Acts.”[1]

It is written that “Luke-Acts should be read as a single document and that any discussion of Luke’s purposes, or the development of his themes, must take into account the entire two-volume work.”[2] An important aspect of our reading of Luke-Acts is one of directionality of this two-volume work. The Gospel of Luke takes place and is centered in the city of Jerusalem, that is where it all begins, and that is where it all ends. Moving into the book of Acts, the directionality changes when Jesus admonishes his disciples to stay in Jerusalem to await the coming of the spirit:

(Acts 1:8 – But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”) From the beginning of Acts, the movement turns away from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.

In reading from the article titled the unity of Luke’s theology by Robert F. O’Toole, he writes that

“the author’s purpose is to show that Luke-Acts as a single two-part work has a dominant theme, namely, the universality of God’s plan of salvation, regardless of ethnic origins or social status. In writing this two-part work, Luke subordinated his various theological emphases to this dominant theme. Professor O’Toole’s basic presuppositions are that: 1) Luke and Acts must be studied together as an organic whole; 2) among sources used by Luke were the account of Mark, the hypothetical sayings source Q, and probably the account of Matthew; 3) it is helpful to use a form of composition criticism, that is, to seek to determine on this basis of the above presuppositions, why and how Luke modified his sources to meet the needs of his readers in structuring his two-part account.” [3]

Several scholars that I have read for this paper posit the following information on Luke-Acts. “In his magisterial work The Making of Luke-Acts, Henry J. Cadbury argued that Luke-Acts was a single work, divided into two scrolls, a view that has been common in New Testament scholarship ever since.”[4] In another article Joel Green states that

“Unity exists not in narration but in narrative purpose. The division of Luke-Acts into two parts, he argues, was also a matter of ‘physical expediency’, given the fact that Luke’s work could not fit on a single papyrus roll. The separation into two parts does not signify that one work has ended and another has begun. Green appeals also to the prologues, which he regards as supporting a narrative continuation. In fact, he regards the unity of Luke-Acts as hermeneutically necessary in order to understand the purpose of the Lukan writings and the way in which the incidents in Acts are prefigured in the gospel.”(Green 1997b: 12-13; 1996: 284-89)[5]

In my investigation of this two-volume work I have come across interesting data concerning the timing and writing of Luke and Acts. Scholars estimate that the Gospel of Luke was written between 80 and 85 of the Common Era. C. Kavin Rowe writes further on this topic when he states

“In this light, we may return to the preface in Acts. Though Acts 1.1-2 provides a clear and purposive link to Luke’s Gospel, it can nonetheless be read simultaneously as a presupposing a separation between the two volumes that fits well with the situation noted by Gregory, in two interconnected respects in particular. First, the address to Theophilus in Acts 1.1 can easily be interpreted to imply that he (they) has (have) already read, and presumably understood, the Gospel. Brief reference is made to its contents, and Luke speaks of the first book he has ‘made.’ Even for the author, then, reading the story of the Gospel would not depend definitely upon Acts. Literarily, Luke’s Gospel is more than ‘somewhat self-sufficient’; it is intelligible on its own.

Second, Acts 1.1-2 also seems to presuppose at least some chronological space between the two volumes, space that might allow the Gospel at least sometime to become associated with other narratives focused explicitly on the life of Jesus (e.g. Mark) and which would thus make good sense as a sort of ausgangspunkt for the different treatment of Luke and Acts in the second century. The Gospel, in other words, could well have been treated as a Gospel prior to the ‘publication’ or at least distribution of Acts. In such an early association or grouping, Acts would not really even have had the chance to become inseparably attached to Luke.

In addition, even if we accept an early date for Acts (late first rather than second century), the widespread assumption in modern scholarship of an early division of Luke from Acts is actually without an indisputably solid foundation. The only existing evidence that can be adduced in favor this assumption is the preface in Acts, if this preface is taken to establish above, the preface might as easily be interpreted as implying that ‘Theophilus’ has already read Luke’s first and that Acts came later. And if Loveday Alexander is correct, such a preface would not be anomalous in the ancient world.” [6]

Additional voices also agree on the truth that time had elapsed between both books as well. “Jacob Jervell believes that a lapse of some years transpired between the composition of Luke and Acts. The new preface in Acts 1.1-2 was necessary precisely because of such a lapse, and similar recapitulating prefaces were common in works that were drawn together (e.g. Josephus, Apion 1.1 with the reference to antiquities). Accordingly: ‘The Gospel and Acts are two works of the same author, and not two parts of one book. They are also not written as one book, but between the two works Luke has allowed some years to elapse.’ Even if one consents to a similar authorship for both works that does not establish a narrative unity, ‘because we have here to do with two different kinds of literature and because Acts was written several years later than the Gospel, so that preface of Lk. 1.1-4 only applies to the Gospel’(Jervell 1998: 57n. 23)[7]

Kavin goes on to write later on in his paper that

“In reading Luke-Acts as a unity we have often proceeded on the assumption that this hermeneutical choice is more historical than, for example, the canonical choice that was eventually made to place John between Luke and Acts. In one way, this hermeneutical claim to historical accuracy is indisputably true. Even if he thought he was composing scripture, Luke almost certainly did not write the Doppelwerk with the idea of a New Testament canon in mind, least of all one in which John would be situated between his own two volumes (even if he knew a form of John’s Gospel). [8]

We are moving between two pieces of writings that hinge this paper into a cohesive thought piece concerning the unity of Luke-Acts. Michael Bird’s paper which includes Green’s statements above also includes this information Bird offers this second thought on the placement of Luke-Acts when he writes:

“The separation of the Gospel from Acts in the second century was inevitable when Luke joined its partners Matthew, Mark and John, but was detrimental to Acts, which ceased to be a ‘confirmation of the gospel’. Instead, the question of what to do with Acts became a problem for the church in the first half of the second century, and it was only its utility in combating Gnosticism that guaranteed its survival and afforded its place in the canon. (Barrett 1996: 103-104; 1998: lxx).”[9]

In addition to what Bird writes in his paper, he adds several voices to this paper that all have opinions on the unity factors. Bird writes:

“Howard Marshall has presented a rigorous defence of the unity of Luke-Acts in light of the work by Parsons and Pervo (Marshall 1993). After presenting a taxonomy of views, Marshall states that there are really only two viable options:

The one is that the Gospel was written before and independently of Acts. The other is that Luke produced the two books as part of the one work, with some shaping and adaptation of each in a process which cannot now be reconstructed in detail (Marshall 1993:171)

Marshall draws on three arguments for postulating a unity between Luke and Acts: (1) evidence garnered from the prologues in Lk. 1.1-4 and Acts 1.1 that signifies that we have two parts pf the one work; (2) material in the Gospel as a whole, such as complexes that have been sourced or redacted in light of what follows in Acts, omissions of material or themes from the Gospels where the material or themes are paralleled in Acts, material that is prophetic of what is to happen in Acts, and alterations to the Gospel that reflect knowledge of traditions in Acts; (3) the ending of the Gospel, which shows signs of adaptation to allow for a sequel. Marshall therefore concludes:

The weight of these considerations point strongly in our opinion to the hypothesis that the Gospel was published as the first part of a two-volume composition, whatever be the process by which it came into its present form (Marshall 1993:176)”[10]

Another theme that I would like to touch on is narrative. In my research there are several notations and discussions on the fact that Luke flows into Acts from one place to another and so where one narrative stands in Luke, a second moves forward in Acts.

“In his New Testament Christology, Frank Matera demurs from the modern conception of a narrative unity that binds Luke-Acts together. Matera notes that Luke extends the story of Jesus by recounting the role of the risen Lord in the life of the church, but quickly adds:

But is there a narrative unity between the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles? Can we speak of a single, uninterrupted story, or do these writings represent different stories: the story of Jesus and the story of his church? (Matera 1999:49)

Matera states that in Acts, Luke is resuming the narrative begun in the Gospels, but he also asks: ‘But is it the same story? The answer to this question is not so clear.’ On the one hand, he finds a narrative unity apparent in so far as Acts completes the themes that the Gospel introduces. The risen Lord instructs his disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they have received the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24.49), and this is fulfilled at the day of Pentecost (Acts 2.1-12). Alternatively, Luke and Acts each have a literary integrity of its own. The Gospel concludes with Jesus’ ascension on Easter Sunday (Lk. 24.50-53), yet Acts begins with a new account of the ascension forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1.6-11). One Ascension account brings literary closure, while the other inaugurates a whole new narrative. According to Matera, Luke and Acts each has its own story, and their narrative unity exists only in so far as the person of Jesus is the indispensable character of both writings (Matera 1999:50) He thus writes:

In Luke- Acts we are dealing with two stories that have narrative unity rooted in the person of Jesus. One relates the ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension of the earthly Jesus; the other recounts the church’s witness to the risen Lord (Matera 1999: 50-51)[11]

Looking at Luke-Acts with a forward gaze Ben Witherington adds to the discussion of Luke-Acts in the Bird article he states: “In short the first volume was likely written with at least one eye already on the sequel. In other words, there is indeed some sort of compositional unity to Luke-Acts, and this raises the question about the generic unity of the two volumes (Witherington 1998:8). Witherington suggests that the preface in Lk. 1.1-4 includes bother Luke and Acts, and that Luke has composed a two-volume historiographical work in continuous narrative about the remarkable phenomenon of early Christianity (Witherington 1998:21).[12]

We will be leaving Part one of this paper now and we move into Part two which deals with the text book portion of the paper. You may find my reader that themes may repeat themselves from section to section. This was intentional as seeing that the paper is split between two academic mediums.

Part #2 – Text Notations

We move now into Henry J. Cadbury’s book titled ‘The Making of Luke-Acts’ and our discussion of these texts. Here we will be looking at the history and the origins of Luke-Acts. “These two volumes together occupy more than one quarter of the New Testament. Neither the thirteen epistles of Paul nor the writings which commonly bear the name of John, even if in either case they should be assigned to a single author, amount in bulk to the total of Luke and Acts. In extent of his writings, therefore, as well as for their circulation, the third evangelist must be accounts one of the most important writers in history.” [13] Cadbury continues his thoughts on Luke-Acts with these passages: “This volume contains the largest part of the unique material in the synoptic gospels. The book of Acts is even more indispensable. No narratives parallel to it have survived. It is our sole record of the apostolic age… The book of Acts is the keystone linking the two major portions of the New Testament, the “Gospel” and the “Apostle,” as the early Christians called them. To change the figure, the Book of Acts is the only bridge we have across the seemingly impossible gulf that separates Jesus from Paul, Christ from Christianity, and the gospel of Jesus from the gospel about Jesus.”[14]

On the topic of unity, this is what Cadbury has to say on this subject:

“In any study of Luke and Acts, their unity is a fundamental and illuminating axiom. Among all the problems of New Testament authorship no answer is so universally agreed upon as is the common authorship of these two volumes. Each is addressed in its opening words to the same Theophilus, the second volume refers explicitly to the first, and in innumerable points of style the Greek diction of each shows close identity with the other. Whatever their difference in subject matter and sources, each volume is in its present form the work of the same ultimate editor… The unity belongs to the ultimate editor rather than to his matter. It is he who has given to divergent materials such homogeneity in diction as is now revealed, in spite of some variations in style, from the beginning of Luke to the end of Acts… Even the recognition of the common authorship of Luke and Acts is not enough. They are not merely two independent writings from the same pen; they are a single continuous work. Acts is neither an appendix nor an afterthought. It is probably an integral part of the author’s original plan and purpose. To the modern English reader its opening words are misleading… The division of long works into rolls, like the modern division into volumes, was a matter of physical convenience and not an evidence of separate origin or publication, and the words which now give the impression of division were intended to mark the close association and continuation.” [15]

In our final text we will look at the writing of Charles H. Talbert and his book, ‘Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts.

Gospel – Acts Parallels

“Any attempt to determine the architecture of the Lucan literature must begin with its most distinctive feature, the existence of the Acts and the third Gospel alongside one another. Apparently the authors of Mark, Matthew and John saw no need for a second volume, one containing church traditions, to complement their gospels. In this regard the second and third century apocryphal gospels take their stand with the other three canonical gospels rather than with Luke-Acts. The apocryphal Acts, moreover, shows no sign of having felt the necessity for a gospel narrative to precede their apostolic legends. As far as we know, only Luke-Acts in early Christianity reflects the conviction that both the story of Jesus and the story of the apostolic church are incomplete without the other as complement.”[16]

I have attempted to present a paper that deals with the Unity of Luke-Acts from the point of views of many different writers to solidly link the two texts together. We have looked at unifying themes, the timing, and placement and writing of the two-volume set of work by Luke, we have also looked at narrative themes. We have delved a little into the history and method of the writer Luke and the many commonalities that appear to be present in the work of Luke-Acts.


Bird, Michael F. “The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion.” Journal for the study of the New Testament 29.4 (June 2007): 425-448.

Cadbury, Henry J. The Making of Luke-Acts. New York: Macmillan, 1958.

O’Toole, Robert F. “The Unity of Luke’s Theology: Analysis of Luke-Acts” Good News Studies, Concordia Journal 11.4 (1985).

Parsons, Mikeal C. and Richard I. Pervo. “Rethinking the unity of Luke-Acts” Currents in Theology and Mission 27.1.

Rowe, C. Kavin. “History, Hermeneutics and the unity of Luke-Acts.” Journal for the study of the New Testament 28, no. 2 (December 2005): 131-154.

Talbert, Charles H. Literary Patterns, Theological Themes and the Genre of Luke-Acts, Society of Biblical Literature and Scholars Press, University of Montana, 1974.

[1] The Gospel of Luke, Course Pack notes, pg. 65.

[2] The Gospel of Luke. Course Pack notes, pg. 67

[3] Robert F. O’Toole, The unity of Luke’s Theology: Analysis of Luke-Acts, Good News Studies, 9, 1984, pg. 151

[4] Mikeal C. Parsons & Richard I. Pervo, Rethinking the Unity of Luke Acts, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1993. page 52

[5] Michael F. Bird, The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion, Highland Theological College, UK, 2007, page 428.

[6] C. Kavin Rowe, History, Hermeneutics and the unity of Luke-Acts, The Divinity School, Duke University, 2007, page 138-139

[7] Michael F. Bird, The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion, Highland Theological College, UK, 2007, page 433

[8] C. Kavin Rowe, History, Hermeneutics and the unity of Luke-Acts, The Divinity School, Duke University, 2007, page 144

[9] Bird, Michael F. The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion, Highland Theological College, UK, 2007, page 429.

[10] Bird, Michael F. The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion, Highland Theological College, UK, 2007, pages 427

[11] Bird, Michael F. The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion, Highland Theological College, UK, 2007, page 434

[12] Bird, Michael F. The Unity of Luke-Acts in Recent Discussion, Highland Theological College, UK, 2007, page 432

[13] Cadbury, Henry J. The Making of Luke Acts, The Macmillan Company, 1958, page. 1

[14] Cadbury, Henry J. The Making of Luke Acts, The Macmillan Company, 1958, page. 2

[15] Cadbury, Henry J. The Making of Luke Acts, The Macmillan Company, 1958, pages 8,9

[16] Talbert, Charles H. Literary Patterns, Theological Themes, And the Genre of Luke-Acts, 1974, pg 15