A quick read through the opening chapters of Acts would lead one to believe that Peter stood up during Pentecost and delivered the sermon recorded in Acts 2.

Apparently "one" would be wrong, however -- at least, according to many modern Biblical scholars. Even a "moderate position" holds that:

"These speeches should be regarded not as the literal record . . . but as illustrations of apostolic preaching in various characteristic situations." 1

I confess, I am in the dark on this one... what reason would anyone have to doubt that it was in fact Peter who delivered this sermon -- or that it was indeed a sermon?

POSSIBLY RELATED: Apparently a "Thucydidean model" is sometimes argued for, if that helps... see R. Longenecker, Biblical Exegesis in the Apostolic Period, (Grand, Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 80-81

1 H. N. Ridderbos, The Speeches Peter in the Acts of the Apostles (London: Tyndale, 1962) 11

2 Answers 2


Basic Points

To begin, we need to remember something very basic, that is nevertheless taken for granted by modern readers: the ancient world didn't have audio recording. In the specific case of Acts 2, Peter's speech is portrayed as an impromptu reaction to accusations of drunkenness. It is unreasonable to expect the passage to contain a verbatim record of what Peter said.

That said, historical criticism of the speeches in Acts largely depends on a close examination of vocabulary, grammar, and style used in the speeches, in comparison and contrast with the author's own narration. This is because the author and the speakers would have their own distinguishable speech patterns.

If there is virtually no difference between the narration and the speeches in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and style, it would be a sign that the speeches were worded and shaped by the author. This would not necessarily mean the speeches are a complete fabrication by the author. It could easily be that fuller speeches were summarized, condensed, or reshaped to fit into his narrative.

However, if there are clear differences, it could be a substantial sign that the speeches came from an older source. This is assuming the author didn't consciously alter his writing style when it came to dialogue, which some have suggested.


The speeches in Acts do, in fact, contain some peculiar features that indicate the author was not pulling the speeches out of thin air to suit his narrative or his theology.

For example, Luke-Acts uses the Greek word for 'heaven' (ουρανος) 63 times, give or take a few depending on manuscript tradition. However, the author uses the word in the plural form only five times in Luke (10.20; 11.2; 12.33; 18.22; 21.26) and only two times in Acts (2.33; 7.56). This is unusual for the author, since he actually changed the 'heavens' to the singular 'heaven' in some of his parallels with Mark and Matthew (Luke 3.21-22; 6.23; 11.13; 15.7) to conform to his own natural writing style. All seven instances of the plural 'heavens' in Luke-Acts occur within speech from Jews (Jesus, Peter, and Stephen), not from the author's narration.

Taking note of this peculiarity, Zwiep examines the phrase 'ἀνέβη εἰς τοὺς οὐρανούς' in Acts 2.34 and suggests Peter's speech is pre-Lukan in origin, saying:1

Luke never uses ἀναβαίνω in connection with the ascension and he has a pronounced preference for the singular οὐρανός instead of the plural οὐρανοί. Luke is likely to have taken up this phrase from his source, presumably from a Jewish-Palestinian milieu. Since Luke did not assimilate the words to his own idiom, we may assume that he uses the traditional wording.

While discussing the apocryphal Didache, Robinson notes that the book's 'prayers and thanksgivings are full of archaic terminology'. He specifically notes how the Didache calls Jesus the 'servant' (παῖς) of God, pointing us back to Peter's speeches in Acts 3 and 4. Robinson suggests such vocabulary represents 'the earliest Christian liturgical language', bringing us back to early material.2

In the same line of thought, Green writes:3

The doctrine in these sermons is quite unlike that of Luke himself. He certainly did not think of Jesus as simply 'a man approved of God', 'the prophet', 'the righteous one', 'the prince (or "originator") of life'. His own theology did not expect 'times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord that he may send the Christ appointed for you'; his eschatology was of a different order. Long ago Harnack was greatly impressed by the antiquity of the title 'servant of God' used of Jesus in the speeches of Acts but nowhere else in Luke, and Cullman and Jeremias agree with him. The attempt by Wilckens to evade this point has been capably refuted by Dupont. Certainly the appearance of a 'different' theology in the Acts sermons need not necessarily mean that it is ancient; but when taken with the Aramaisms and the very Jewish nature of the doctrinal formulations concerned, the presumption is strong that we have here something very old.

Green goes on to say:4

we may with some confidence accept the sermons in Acts, not indeed as a transcript of what was said, nor even as a summary of the addresses (so thoroughly has Luke conformed them to his own style), but as a reliable sample of the way in which the early Christians set about convincing first the Jews of Jerusalem, then proselytes like Cornelius, then Diaspora Jews and finally Gentiles from varying backgrounds, of the truth of the Christian proclamation.


Based on the evidence of vocabulary and style, the speech in Acts 2, while likely not a verbatim record of Peter's own words, may rest on a core mode of thought and set of language used by Peter and/or his fellow Jews, and was intended by the author to accurately represent the type of thing he would have said in that time and place and situation. This seems to be the general perspective on speeches in ancient Greco-Roman historiographies, so Luke is not unusual here.


1 Arie W. Zwiep, The Ascension of the Messiah in Lukan Christology, p. 155-156.

2 John A.T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament.

3 Michael Green, Evangelism in the Early Church, p. 104.

4 Ibid., p. 105.

  • Great answer. I think the last point bears reemphasizing. The claim is not that Luke is acting unusually or in a dishonest fashion when he uses speeches this way. This was just how Greek historians wrote. Thucydides explicitly addresses this point.
    – Noah
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 5:24
  • 2
    " it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said."
    – Noah
    Commented Dec 11, 2013 at 5:24
  • Is it clear to you that this speech was in Greek? I linked to this on a newer question and was wondering about that.
    – Susan
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 15:22
  • From what I gleaned from my sources (a few cited above), the speech in Acts is likely Luke's creation (i.e. originally written in Greek), but worked from earlier sources (written or oral) that still contained Hebraism / Aramaisms originally used by Peter (e.g. 'heavens' mentioned above). Whatever source Luke used, it was probably already in Greek by the time he got to it.
    – user2910
    Commented Apr 21, 2015 at 16:00
  • A good resource for this question is Raymond A Martin's "Syntactical Evidence of Semitic sources in Greek Documents". Which was published by SBL in 1974 as apart of Septuagint and Cognate Studies series. Martin's systematic study of prepositions, conjunctions, cases use of genitive personal pronouns and use of genitive personal pronouns dependent on anarthrous substantives reveals that Acts 2.1-4 is among passages that are "clearly translations of Semitic sources." I recommend you find a copy of this book, lots of charts and graphs and ratings for how much like a translation a passages looks.
    – Dan S.
    Commented May 4, 2016 at 22:48

Peter, a mere Galilean fisherman, stood up and made an unscripted, impromptu speech in which he demonstrated an accurate recollection of Joel 2:28-32:

Acts 2:17-20: And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy: And I will shew wonders in heaven above, and signs in the earth beneath; blood, and fire, and vapour of smoke: The sun shall be turned into darkness, and the moon into blood, before that great and notable day of the Lord come: And it shall come to pass, [that] whosoever shall call on the name of the Lord shall be saved.

Shortly after this passage, Acts 4:13 describes Peter as unlearnt, using the Greek ἀγράμματοί (agrammatoi), a Greek word that Bart D. Ehrman says, in Forged, page 75, literally means ‘unlettered’, therefore illiterate. Peter had never been able to read the scriptures, yet was supposedly citing Joel with great accuracy. Even with his phenomenal memory, if indeed Peter had learnt the scriptures, he would have learnt the Hebrew text and his audience would have expected him to cite the Hebrew text, yet here Peter is citing the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version that few Palestinian Jews would ever use. On the other hand, Acts was written in Greek, and its readers would have been familiar with the LXX version of Joel. Craig A. Evans presents parallel translations of Acts 2:17-20 and the LXX and MT versions of Joel 2:28-32 in Luke and Scripture, page 213, showing that Acts accurately reflects the wording of the Greek LXX scripture, rather than the Hebrew scripture.

Although Acts credits Peter with an impressive ability to cite Joel 2:28-32, the book also has Peter make subtle alterations to the text, to suit a theological purpose. The most significant of these is to alter Joel's "and it shall be after these things" to "and in the last days it shall be".

I can conclude by saying that Peter's speech is inauthentic on multiple levels. On the one hand, even a learned scribe might have had difficulty in citing a text so accurately, and we read in Acts that Peter was illiterate. We can not say that the Holy Spirit spoke through Peter, as that would require us to believe that the Holy Spirit would have had Peter badly misquote the text by referring to the last days. It is not enough to say that Acts 2:17-20 is a paraphrase of Peter's rough use of Joel' text, because even a paraphrase should have cited the Hebrew version. And we can not believe that the author of Acts, not present at the Pentecost - and writing decades later - would have guessed that Peter so cleverly altered Joel's text to suit Christian theology. The imagery of the context in which this speech is portrayed matches the imagery in which Joel's speech is reported, so Peter's putative speech provides continuity for the context. The difference in style compared with the more general style of Acts simply reflects the fact that our author was quoting from the Old Testament.

  • 2
    ....citing the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version that no Palestinian Jew would ever use. Where does this come from? I think there's decent evidence that the post-Pentateuchal translations indeed originated in Palestine.
    – Susan
    Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 7:58
  • @Susan Perhaps I should not have said 'never', and I'll change that. Unprepared for this insightful question, I did a quick browse and note that p191-2, Clyde Weber Votaw says (jstor.org/stable/pdf/3136494.pdf) LXX was the standard OT of Jews everywhere except in Palestine. I note that few P Jews are believed to have been conversant enough to read or even speak Greek. I also note that any scribe who knew LXX and Hebrew would soon reject LXX after seeing the contradictions and errors, esp in early versions of LXX then available. .../ Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 8:36
  • .../ (edit) I accept that some sources freely say that LXX was used by P Jews. They may be correct (?) but more likely there is at least some apologetics here, because it is hard to read the NT and not think the P Christians did not use LXX. What I do find is that LXX was used in Jerusalem because Jerusalem was a cosmopolitan city - ie diaspora Jews and Greek God-fearers visiting for the Passover, etc. Commented Jul 5, 2016 at 8:55

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