The Book of Acts: written for the elite, but adopted by the marginalized?

Yesterday morning I tweeted the following:

There were several responses—some questions, some pushback—so I thought I'd put some meat on the bones of my statement in order to clarify the point I was trying to make. 

the Book of Acts (Source: danrupple.com)

the Book of Acts (Source: danrupple.com)

First, Luke appears to have written his account for a patron named Theophilus. There is some debate over whether this was a real person. I'm inclined to think that Theophilus was a real, specific individual who financed Luke's research. If so, this means that initial audience would have been a member of society's elite.

Second, the author focuses on "the Way" as it relates to Roman society. In The Acts of the Apostles: Taming the Tongues of Fire (p. 30) the author Shelly Matthews makes a very interesting observation about the narrative in 8:26-40 where Philip meets and converts the eunuch from Ethiopia. When this story is finished Luke doesn't say anything further about Ethiopia in spite of its rich heritage and in spite of the fact that we know early Christianity flourished in Africa. Why? Because Luke is concerned with Christianity's existence in the empire. In some sense this parallels how many in the United States speak of the health of "the Church" based on what is happening here. We know that early Christianity went eastward, yet in 16:6-10 "the spirit of Jesus" prevents Paul from going toward Asia Minor directing him instead to Macedonia. Those of us with a European ancestry may read this as the Gospel going our direction primarily, not toward the Middle East or Asia. Strange theology has been derived from this passage. While there is a difference between the authorial intent and the received meaning of this passage, I think Luke has a similar agenda (though obviously not a modernistic, racist agenda) in describing what mission is most "important" in his view (notice the disinterest in Babylonia, India, etc.).

Third, throughout Acts Luke presents the Gospel as going to society's elite: the eunuch is from the Ethiopian Queen's administration (8:26-40). Cornelius' household is that of an influential centurion (10:34-48). Paul stands before the philosophers of the Areopagus (17:22-34). He stands before Gallio (18:12-16), before the Sanhedrin (23:1-11), before Antonius Felix (24:1-27), before Porcius Festus (25:1-22); before Agrippa II and Bernice (25:23-26:32), and though there is no mention of him standing before Caesar he is sent that direction (26:32; 28:11-26). Even earlier narratives such as 4:1-31, 5:17-32 and 33-42 (Gamaliel), and all of chapter seven have the Gospel being proclaimed before the Jewish elite. 

Yet this book has become one of the most beloved by marginalized Christians, especially those of the Pentecostal/Charismatic tradition. (I was asked by someone what Liberation theologians have done with Acts, but unfortunately I am not familiar enough with their writings to say.) In 2:14-21 Peter is presented as describing the events of Pentecost as a fulfillment of the word of the prophet Joel in 2:28-32, including the remarkable words that all humans with have the spirit poured out upon them: sons, daughters, young and old, slaves, both men and women. This "egalitarian pneumatology" has been central to much of Pentecostalism's ecclesiology. 

In 4:13 Peter and John are presented as being without formal training, yet powerful in their preaching. For many who have been unable to receive high levels of formal education this has been a great inspiration. Pentecostal preachers were often armed with experience, not opportunity. They couldn't quote a lot of "authoritative" Christian literature, but they could preach with "power" and "authority" given "by God, not man".

Stephen is a "deacon" (not an apostle) who gives his life as a witness (chapter 7). Philip is one as well and he is a charismatically gifted evangelist (8:4-40, yet, observe in vv. 14-16 his authority is less than the apostles, indicating Luke's concern for some sort of authoritative representatives of "the Way"). Although the Ethiopian eunuch is part of the royal palace he is also a servant figure and that "employee" status has made him important for some preachers. A similar approach may be taken when reading 16:31-40 where the jailer employed by the State joins "the Way".

As regards gender equality many have cited the importance of Lydia, a business woman, the first convert in Thyatira who represents her "household" in the same way Cornelius did several chapters prior (16: 14-15). We meet Priscilla and Aquila (18:2), who are team teachers, together instructing Apollos with Priscilla's name is listed first possibly indicating her role in this activity. Either way, in response to those who quote slivers from the Pauline Epistles to enforce a universal ecclesial ban on women teaching this narrative has no qualms with the idea. 

I may be missing either an example of where Luke wants Theophilus to see that the Gospel has been presented to the elite, or I may be missing another example of how Luke exalts the marginalized, but I think the basic observations can be made:

  • Acts is concerned with Theophilus and his embrace of Christianity (likely as an elite).
  • Acts is concerned with Christianity in the Empire: not the east, not Africa, etc.
  • Acts is concerned to show that the Gospel has gone to the elite, though we must note it is often rejected, especially the higher in rank the character(s).
  • Yet Acts has occasion after occasion where the marginalized of society are exalted: the poor, the uneducated, slaves, women, youth, the elderly, etc.
  • Therefore, while Acts may have been written as an apologia of sorts defending "the Way" before the elite its internal structure once canonized as Scripture has functioned in a way where it is easily adopted as an authority by the marginalized showing others that they have worth and purpose due to the Gospel.

I welcome feedback or insight!