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The Miracle Narratives in the Acts of the Apostles

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

In the opening words of his first Homily on the Acts of the Apostles, St. John Chrysostom complains that, “This book and its author are so little known that many people are not even aware there is such a book in existence.” [1] Perhaps the life and spirit of the apostolic Church are more familiar today, at least among the clergy and educated laity, as indicated by such well-read publications as Paul of Tarsus and The Greatest Faith Ever Lived. But there are still many phases of that life which deserve to be better known, and among these in our apologetic age especially the function of the apostolic miracles as a “demonstration of the resurrection.” The proof of the resurrection, says Chrysostom, is the apostolic miracles; and of the apostolic miracles, the Acts of the Apostles is the school. [2]

It is not hard to see why this must be so. Christ had promised to send the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, by whose power they would bear witness to His resurrection even to the ends of the earth. If the Apostles had not worked the signs which Christ had foretold, what assurance would they have had or we after them that He was truly the “first-born of the dead,” that He was still with the Church in His Spirit, guiding and directing her teaching, and through her ministry dispensing to the world the benefits of His passion and death? Harnack recognized the importance of the apostolic miracles when he described them as “the manifestation in history of the power of the Spirit of Jesus in the Apostles.” [3]

Number and Variety of Physical Miracles in the Acts of the Apostles

The instances of divine intervention mentioned in the Acts are so numerous and varied that radical criticism, impatient with the supernatural, dismisses them as “distortions of history.” [4] The following is a comprehensive schema of all the phenomena in the Acts which occurred after the Ascension and which are traditionally regarded as miraculous. Prophecies, visions, the gift of tongues and other spiritual graces are not included. Only physical miracles, in the technical sense of events which transcend the sensible forces of nature, are listed:

  A. Resuscitations from the Dead
    1. Peter raises the disciple Tabitha 9, 36-42
    2. Paul raises the young man Eutychus 20, 9-12
  B. Miraculous Cures and Exorcisms
    1. Peter heals the lame man at the Temple gate 3, 1-16
    2. Ananias cures Saul of his blindness 9, 17-18
    3. Peter heals the paralytic Aeneas 9, 33-35
    4. Paul cures the lame man of Lystra 14, 7-9
    5. Paul stoned and miraculously healed at Lystra 14, 19
    6. Paul exorcises girl possessed of divining spirit 16, 16-18
    7. Paul heals Publius’ father of dysentery 28, 7-8
  C. Miraculous Penalties or Afflictions
    1. Ananias and Saphira struck dead at Peter’s feet 5, 5-11
    2. Saul struck blind on the road to Damascus 9, 8-9
    3. Herod suddenly slain by an angel 12, 23
    4. Paul temporarily blinds the sorcerer Elymas 13, 9-12
  D. Nature or Cosmic Miracles
    1. Violent wind at the Cenacle in Jerusalem 2, 2-6
    2. Shaking of the assembly building in Jerusalem 4, 31
    3. Prison doors open for the Apostles 5, 17-25
    4. Philip snatched by the Spirit of the Lord 8, 39
    5. Peter liberated from prison by an angel 12, 5-11
    6. Chains fall from Paul and Silas 16, 25-30
    7. Paul shakes off viper from his arm 28, 3-6


  1. Many signs and wonders done by the Apostles in Jerusalem      2, 43
  2. Apostles perform signs and wonders among the people 5, 12
  3. Peter’s shadow cures many in the streets 5, 15
  4. Multitudes from outside Jerusalem are healed 5, 16
  5. Stephen works great signs and wonders 6, 8
  6. Philip cures crippled and possessed in Samaria 8, 6-8, 13
  7. Miracles worked by Paul and Barnabas on mission journey 14, 3
  8. Great signs and wonders done among the Gentiles 15, 12
  9. Miracles worked through objects touched by Paul 19, 11-12
  10. Paul heals all the sick brought to him on Malta 28, 9

Comparison of the Miracles in the Acts with Those in the Gospels

Number of Miraculous Phenomena Recorded

The number of physical miracles described in the Acts of the Apostles differs considerably from that in the Gospels. Since the narrative of the Acts begins with the Ascension of Christ, say about 37 A.D., and extends to about the year 63, i.e. the end of the second year of the Roman house-arrest of St. Paul, the span of time covered by the twenty-eight chapters amounts to approximately twenty-six years. Conservative estimate places the number of miracles recorded in the Acts at twenty individual and ten collective phenomena, to a total of thirty for more than a quarter century. By contrast, in the four Gospels we have about thirty-six single and nine collective miracle narratives for a period of less than three years. Obviously we have no idea of how many miracles altogether were performed either by Christ or by the Apostles. But at least in terms of miracle record the disproportion is significant, and neutralizes any scepticism about the historical value of the Acts because they are so inconscionably full of miracles. [5] To be willing to accept the Gospels as substantially authentic but deny the same of the Acts for being miracle-ridden is not consistent.

Type of Phenomena

Practically all the types of phenomena narrated in the Gospels are duplicated in the Acts of the Apostles: the lame walk, the blind see, paralytics are cured, and the dead are restored to life. However there are some notable differences. Thus, whereas seven individual expulsions of demons are recorded of Christ, only one is described in detail in the Acts, that of the girl at Philippi whom St. Paul delivered of a divining spirit. Also there are no instances of the great miracles of power over nature worked by Christ, such as the stilling of the tempest, the changing of water into wine, or the feeding of the multitude in the desert. But the most striking difference is the number of punitive miracles in the Acts, of which there is not a single clear example in the Gospels. Ananias and Saphira are suddenly struck dead for having lied to the Holy Ghost; Saul is struck blind on his way to Damascus in search of Christians; Herod is suddenly killed by an angel for arrogating to himself the honors due to God; Paul curses the false prophet Elymas who tried to turn the pro-consul Sergius Paulus from the faith, and immediately “there fell upon him a mist of darkness” (13, 10-11).

To some extent these differences may be explained by the changed circumstances under which the Apostles worked in the ministry. But not entirely. The punitive miracles have been variously interpreted. One explanation is that it was not proper for Christ, whose mission from the Father was to prove to the world the infinite mercy of God, to use His miraculous power to punish those who resisted His Father’s will. Again it may be noted that two of the four cases were strictly punitive and followed by death, while two were primarily corrective. The former therefore implied resistance to the Holy Spirit, i.e. to a special bestowal of grace; the latter were only temporary and more in the nature of a rebuke which Christ in His mortal life might have administered verbally, but in His visible absence He gave by divine intervention.

Manner of Performance

More significant than the number or type of miracles is the manner in which they were performed in the Acts of the Apostles. All the miracles of Christ were wrought by His own power and in His own name. To the leper who asked to be cured, He answered, “I will; be thou made clean” (Mt. 8,3). To the paralytic at Capharnaum, He simply said, “Arise, take up thy pallet and go to thy house” (Mt. 9,7). To the widow’s son at Naim, he ordered, “Young man, I say to thee, arise” (Lk. 7,15). But in the Acts, whenever the Apostles performed a miraculous sign and the full details are given, they invoked the name of Jesus as a regular prelude to the occurrence. Thus in the first miracle of healing at Jerusalem, Peter addressed the man crippled from birth and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, arise and walk” (3,6). Later on at Lydda, when he found a certain man named Aeneas, in bed with paralysis for eight years, Peter said to him, “Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals thee; get up and make thy bed” (9,34). And when Paul was “very much grieved” over the condition of the possessed demoniac at Philippi, he rebuked the evil spirit, “I order thee in the name of Jesus Christ to go out of her” (16,18).

The Apostles were so conscious it was not they but Christ Himself who worked these marvels through them, that they spared no effort to undeceive the people who thought otherwise. After healing the lame man at the gate of the temple, when Peter saw the people running toward himself and John, ostensibly to worship them, he called out to the crowd:

Men of Israel, why do you marvel at this, or why do you stare at us, as though by any power or holiness of our own we had made this man walk? The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified His Son Jesus…. And it is His name, by means of faith in His name, that has made strong this man whom you behold and recognize (3,12. 16).

In thus invoking the name of Jesus, the Apostles were carrying into effect the injunction and promise of Christ at the Last Supper, “If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (Jn. 14,14). While this promise is generic, it occurs in a context in which Christ is speaking of the works which those who believe in Him will be able to do. Moreover, by using the expression, “in the name of Jesus Christ,” the Apostles were attesting both to the divinity and messiahship of the Savior. First to His divinity, since it would have been blasphemy to invoke the name of anyone but God as a direct petition for divine intervention; and then to His messiahship, because the title “Christ,” as we know from the Gospel of St. John (1,41; 4,25), is a perfect equivalent for “The Anointed One,” the Messias whose coming the Jews were awaiting and whose advent was indicated by the miracles which God was pleasing to perform on the invocation of His name.

Comparison Between the Miracles of St. Peter and St. Paul

Perhaps no other feature of the Acts has received more studious attention in recent years than the parallel account which the document gives of the missionary exploits of Peter among the Jews and Paul among the Gentiles. The adversaries of the Church argued from this undoubted parallelism to the conclusion that St. Luke did not compose the Acts, that they were anonymously written late in the second century, and that they are not historically true but were fabricated to meet a serious doctrinal crisis in the early Church. Schneckenburger in the 19th century seems to have been the first to develop the theory that the Acts were written about the year 150 A.D., in order to vindicate against the Judaizers the missionary apostolate to the Gentiles. The Tübingen school extended this hypotheses by suggesting that the writer of the Acts had only one purpose in mind, namely, to compose the differences between the two contending parties in the Church: the Petrine faction that wanted the Church to be Judaeo-Christian, and the Pauline which held out for a universal apostolate to all nations. To accomplish this end, the said, the author consciously adulterated the whole history of the infant Church, passing over in silence whatever might tell against his purpose, while changing, adding and inventing new facts, to that now only the most critical examination of sources can reveal to us the substratum of truth that lies beneath the tendentious accretion. The anonymous composer wished to show that whatever differences of opinion existed between Peter and Paul, they were not substantial. And to prove this concordance he wrote two documents in one: the Acts of Peter, in which he showed that Simon Peter was in every respect similar to Paul of Tarsus; and the Acts of Paul, in which Paul was shown to differ in no way from St. Peter. Among the devices to which he resorted to prove his thesis, the writer made sure that the miracles which were attributed to St. Peter would be duplicated in the life of St. Paul.

Before examining this theory in detail, it will pay to analyze the parallelism itself. The following is a complete list of the doublets in the miracle narratives of Peter and Paul as described in the Acts:

  Miracles in the Life of St. Peter   Miracles in the Life of St. Paul
1. Many signs and wonders were done by the Apostles, with St. Peter, among the Jews in Jerusalem (2,43).      Many signs and wonders were done by Sts. Paul and Barnabas among the Gentiles in Asia Minor (14,3).
2. Peter, in the company of John at the temple gate, heals the man lame from his mother’s womb (3,1 sq.).   Paul, in the company of Barnabas at Lystra, heals the man lame from his birth (14,7 sq.).
3. Peter rebukes Ananias and Saphira, who are struck dead for tempting the Spirit of the Lord (5,1 sq.).   Paul rebukes the sorcerer Elymas, who is suddenly blinded for making crooked the straight ways of the Lord (13,8 sq.).
4. The building in Jerusalem is shaken, where Peter and the disciples were praying for strength from God (4,31).   The prison building at Philippi is shaken, where Paul and Silas were praying and singing the praises of God (16,25 sq.).
5. Peter is so filled with the power of God that even his shadow is enough to heal the sick on whom it falls (5,15).   Paul is so effective in working miracles that even handkerchiefs and aprons were carried from his body to the sick and the diseases left them (19,12).
6. At Lydda, Peter suddenly heals the paralytic Aeneas, who had beenbedridden for eight years (9,33 sq.).   On Malta, Paul suddenly cures the father of his host, Publius, of fever and dysentery (28,7 sq.).
7. At Joppa, Peter restores to life the woman Tabitha, who had been devoted to works of charity (9,36sq.)   At Troas, Paul restores to life the young man Eutychus, who fell down from the third story (20,9 sq.).
8. Peter’s chains are removed, and he is delivered from prison in Jerusalem by means of an angel (12,5 sq.).   Paul’s chains are suddenly loosed in the prison at Philippi (16,25 sq.).

What are we to make of this parallelism? We may first of all ask whether in thus correlating the miraculous phenomena, St. Luke intended to show that for every sign and wonder in the life of St. Peter, there was an equal and corresponding wonder in the life of St. Paul. Rationalist critics are emphatic in this supposition, with the added contention that neither series is strictly historical but both are conscious lucubrations. In the past seventy years since the idea was proposed, it has been so thoroughly refuted that hardly any serious exegete now holds to the theory in this exaggerated form. However, the question is still debated, also among Catholics, whether we cannot see in this striking parallelism of miracle narratives, a secondary purpose of the author. Granting that the Acts are authentic history, inerrant and the inspired word of God, may we say that St. Luke consciously correlated the miraculous phenomena of the Apostle to the Gentiles with those of St. Peter? Some Catholic writers subscribe to this theory without hesitation. [6]

The argument is that the correlation is too close to be a matter of chance. It extends not only to the miracles as such, but even to the small details in their manner of occurrence. For example in the second doublet, in both cases the man is lame, in both it is specified that his lameness was from birth, in both cures the Apostles are said to have gazed intently into the face of their prospective beneficiary, and finally in both the cured man is described not merely as cured, but as “leaping up” and “springing up” and beginning to walk. Moreover it is pointed out that not only are the miracles of Peter and Paul susceptible of parallel classification, but once so paralleled, we have practically covered all the miracle passages reported in the Acts about the two Apostles. This should be emphasized, since it is quite clear that if, for instance, St. Peter was credited with fifty or more phenomena and Paul with only ten, it would not be hard to correlate Paul’s ten with as many chosen prodigies in the life of Peter. Actually the parallel is not merely coincidental in this loose sense, but adequate and almost numerically inclusive.

Without defending the above theory beyond stating it, we may say the explanation is at least possible. St. Luke may have deliberately introduced a parallelism between the miracles of Peter and Paul. However, this problem is only part of a larger and more important question. The main issue is whether, in general, St. Luke wrote the Acts with this secondary object in mind: to settle the differences between the Petrine and Pauline elements in the early Church. Here the answer is more uniform. Regarding the hypothesis of the Tübingen critics, the verdict is unmistakable: This theory is based on an arbitrary fiction and has not a single serious argument to uphold it. However:

It is something quite different and may be said with some probability that, as a secondary purpose of his work, St. Luke wished to emphasize the fact that the two great Apostles, Peter and Paul, were in perfect accord both in doctrine and discipline. It is not surprising that Luke, the disciple and companion of Paul, should have intended to refute those Judaizers who were constantly opposing his master and not infrequently, and unjustly, invoked Peter’s authority against him. [7]

Miracles in the Acts and the Growth of the Apostolic Church

In The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon inquires “by what means the Christian faith obtained so remarkable a victory over the established religions of the earth,” and gives as one explanation, “the miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church.” He goes on to explain: [8]

In the first ages of Christianity…the most credulous among the Pagans were often persuaded to enter into a society which asserted an actual claim of miraculous powers. The primitive Christians perpetually trod on mystic ground, and their minds were exercised by the habits of believing the most extraordinary events…. The real or imaginary prodigies of which they so frequently conceived themselves to be the objects, the instruments or the spectators, very happily disposed them to adopt with the same ease, but with far greater justice, the authentic wonders of the evangelical history; and thus miracles that exceeded not the measure of their own experience inspired them with the most lively assurance of mysteries which were acknowledged to surpass the limits of their understanding.

This analysis is at once penetrating and seriously defective. The defect lies in Gibbon’s arbitrary denial or at least suspicion of the miracles related of the early Church. Whether he actually believed in the Gospel miracles, at any rate he speaks of “the authentic wonders of the evangelical history.” But why deny the same value to the wonders in ecclesiastical, beginning with apostolic, times? The reason is a principle previously set down, that just as “every friend of revelation is persuaded of the reality,” so “every reasonable man is convinced of the cessation of miraculous powers,” the cessation having taken place suddenly or soon after the death of Christ. [9]

To refute Gibbon it is enough to point out that the phenomena in the Acts have as solid a documentary basis as the corresponding records in the Gospels. External evidence is unimpeachable. As for internal evidence, since the miracles in the Gospels are more numerous and varied, and more concentrated in a shorter space of time, if a critic of miracles were logical he would sooner disclaim the evangelical phenomena than the prodigies narrated in the Acts.

However Gibbon’s analysis is correct when he attributes the rise of Christianity to the miraculous powers possessed, or, as he says, claimed by the nascent Church. A study of the Acts will reveal this significant fact, that at every point where the Gospel was first established among a certain people, the foundation was made in a miraculous context, with manifest showing of signs and powers worked by the hands of the Apostles.

On Pentecost Sunday, the Jews and proselytes gathered in Jerusalem were attracted to the cenacle when “suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a violent wind, and it filled the whole house where the disciples were staying” (2,2). This experience plus the gift of tongues prepared the souls of those several thousand to receive the grace of faith and to be baptized as the first fruits of the Catholic Church. Examined apologetically, it may be asked whether the natives and visitors in Jerusalem would ever have approached the cenacle and thus placed themselves under the proximate influence of the Holy Spirit, except for the unusual sound from heaven? The answer is given by the context: “When this sound was heard, the multitude gathered” (2,6). More than once in the Old Testament, the sound of a mighty wind was the heavenly sign of a special presence of God, who walks upon the wings of the winds (Ps. 103,3, and 3 Kgs. 19,11). Therefore what first drew the people to the house where the Apostles were assembled was a physical miracle; on arrival at the place they witnessed the gift of tongues, a miracle in the intellectual order; followed in turn by the inspired sermon of St. Peter, itself a miracle of moral courage; and finally the conversion, when “they who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (2,41).

What happened in Jerusalem was repeated in Samaria. The hitherto unfriendly natives now “with one accord gave heed to what was said by Philip, listening to him.” The narrative immediately explains why this took place: “. . . seeing the miracles that he worked. For unclean spirits, crying with a loud voice, went out of many possessed persons, and many paralytics and cripples were cured. So there was great joy in that city,” which prepared the ground for the humble acceptance of the Gospel (8, 6-8). Particularly important about the miracles worked by Philip is the ready credence which they evoked in the Samaritans, as contrasted with the demoniac prodigies that Simon Magus had earlier performed in that country. St. Luke makes an issue of this contrast:

A man named Simon had previously been practicing magic in that city and astounding the people of Samaria, claiming to be something great; and all from least to greatest listened to him, saying: “This man is the power of God, which is called great.” And they gave heed to him because for a long time he had bewitched them with his sorceries. But when they believed Philip as he preached the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women (8, 9-12).

Not only the people, but Simon himself was so impressed “at the sight of the signs and exceedingly great miracles being wrought,” that he also believed and was baptized (8,13). The subsequent history of Simon Magus who wished to buy the spiritual gifts coming to those who received the Holy Ghost, further emphasizes the transcendent character of the apostolic miracles in their ability to convert not only ordinary souls but also those who were formerly charmed by diabolical prodigies and even the very sorcerers themselves.

When the time came for the Gospel to be preached to the Gentiles, it was through a series of miraculous events that the apostolate was inaugurated. Saul is struck blind on the road to Damascus and receives a commission from the Risen Lord; he is suddenly cured by Ananias, and then, in the words of Chrysostom, he becomes the orator of Christ and the fisherman of the world. Wherever he went, preaching Christ and Him Crucified, his words were accompanied by the “showing of signs,” which successfully planted the seeds of faith in the hearts of men.

On the island of Cyprus, where the wizard Elymas was hindering the conversion of the pro-consul, Paul cursed the unfortunate man and caused him to be temporarily blind. What was the result? Chrysostom thought that Elymas himself was converted. At least we know what effect this curse had on Sergius Paulus, who “seeing what had happened, believed” (13,12). The punishment of Elymas is correlative with that of Ananias and Saphira, except that in the case of Elymas the punishment is less severe and only temporary, because inflicted on one who was yet outside the Church. Otherwise the submission of faith might have seemed to be a matter of compulsion and fear, rather than of conviction and love. [10] To be noted also is the economy of the punitive miracles. Not just anyone is punished for his opposition to the spread of the Gospel, but only those who place the greatest obstacles against it; in the instance, Elymas, who stood in the way of the pro-consul’s conversion . According to an ancient tradition, Sergius Paulus became a disciple of St. Paul and his companion on the latter’s mission to Spain. Later he was appointed by the Apostle as bishop of Narbonne, where he died. [11]

At Iconium in Lycaonia, “a great multitude of Jews and Greeks believed,” in the Gospel preached to them by Paul and Barnabas. This in spite of the fact that “the disbelieving Jews poisoned and stirred up the minds of the Gentiles against the brethren.” But the author is careful to add that, “They stayed a long time, acting fearlessly in the Lord, who gave testimony to the word of His grace by permitting signs and wonders to be done by their hands” (14,3). This statement of St. Luke is almost a theological definition of the function of miracles as testimonials of revelation; the preaching in which the grace of salvation was promised to those who believe, was confirmed by the miraculous prodigies which the Lord performed through the Apostles, as a witness to the truth of what they were preaching.

After preaching in Derbe, Lystra, Perge and Pamphylia, Paul and Barnabas came to Antioch where they called the church together and reported all that God had done with them, and how he had opened to the Gentiles a door of faith. Before they left the city, another meeting had to be called in order to quiet the Judaizers who said that the pagan converts must be circumcised and made to observe the law of Moses. After a long debate, Paul got up and settled the dispute by declaring that “we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they are” (15,11). At this point, “the whole meeting listened while Barnabas and Paul told of the great signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentiles through them” (15,12). Here is a concurrence of two factors which is worthy of remark. First the dispute between the factions is settled dogmatically by St. Peter, exercising his authority as head of the Church. Then Paul and Barnabas express their approval of Peter’s decision by narrating the miracles which the Lord worked among the Gentiles. Implicitly they are saying that what Peter had just declared is most certainly true, since the Lord himself is inviting the pagans to enter the Church under the non-Judaic conditions permitted by Barnabas and Paul, otherwise He would not be doing so many signs and wonders among the heathen in confirmation of their preaching.

On his second missionary journey, Paul in company with Silas is put into prison Philippi. During the night, the chains mysteriously fall from their hands and feet so that the jailer is tempted to commit suicide. He is restrained by St. Paul, and promptly receives the gift of faith, falling down on his knees and asking, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas “spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his household. . . . And he and all his family were baptized immediately” (16,30-34). This narrative with its sequence of imprisonment, earthquake and sudden conversion has been, challenged by liberal critics, notably Harnack, as unhistorical. Without a shred of evidence, they argue the apparent discrepancies in the context to a “later interpolation,” or to be the “carelessness of a writer who has not thought out and realized what he is about to narrate.” [12]

On his third journey, While Paul was at Ephesus holding discussions and trying to persuade the people about the kingdom of God, we are told that “God worked more than the usual miracles by the hand of Paul; so that even handkerchiefs and aprons were carried from his body to the sick, and the diseases left them and the evil spirits went out” (19,12). Commentators rightly see in this passage a confirmation of the traditional veneration paid to the relics of the saints. Whether living or dead they are the focus of special divine pleasure. And here the life and teaching of St. Paul are testified as very pleasing to God since miracles occurred through an instrument as remotely connected with his person as pieces of cloth which had been touched to his body. [13]

At Ephesus too, the evil spirit overpowered and all but killed the Jews who had tried to exorcise a man by invoking over him the name of Jesus. The devil’s answer is familiar: “Jesus I acknowledge, and Paul I know, but who are you?” (19,15). As a result of this occurrence, “the name of the Lord Jesus came to be held in high honor. . . . Thus mightily did the word of the Lord spread and prevail” (19,17-20). The strange reaction of the demon in turning on the would-be exorcists is properly considered miraculous, following the teaching of Benedict XIV that God can perform true miracles even through the demons by using them as the instruments of His justice for the punishment of sinners. [14] Moreover the effect of the prodigy in this case is not duplicated anywhere else in Scripture. Notorious for their addiction to sorcery, on this occasion many Ephesians publicly renounced their magical practices. [15] In the words of St. Luke: “Many who had practiced magical arts collected their books and burnt them publicly; and they reckoned up the prices of them, and found the sum to be fifty thousand pieces of silver” (19,19).

The last reported miracles worked by St. Paul are described in the closing chapter of the Acts. Landing on the island of Malta, after shipwreck in the Mediterranean, Paul had a viper fasten itself to his hand. The first reaction of the natives was that “this man is a murderer, for though he has escaped the sea, justice does not let him live.” But when he shook off the serpent and suffered no harm, “they changed their minds and said that he was a god.” Following this prelude, Paul cured of dysentery the father of Publius, the head of the island. Whereupon, “all the sick on the island came and were cured” (28,10). St. Luke concludes the story of the three months’ stay on Malta by stating that the natives showed them special marks of honor, which may fairly be interpreted as a substantial if not mass conversion of the island to the faith of Christ.

Even this brief summary of divine interventions and correlative conversions will confirm Gibbon’s grudging admission, which is also Catholic doctrine, that except for the apostolic miracles, Christianity would not have been so rapidly and firmly established throughout the ancient world. Without the signs and wonders in the early Church, the boast of Tertullian could not have been made within less than two hundred years after the death of Christ: [16]

We are but of yesterday, yet we have filled every place among you - cities, islands, fortresses, towns, market places, camp, tribes, town councils, the palace, the senate, the forum. We have left nothing to you but the temples of your gods.
Although unarmed and without an uprising, simply by withdrawal, we could have fought against you. You would have been terrified at your loneliness, at the silence of your surroundings, and the stupor, as it were, of a dead world.

Apostolic Miracles and the Spirit of Jesus Christ

Not only do the apostolic miracles help to explain the rise of the apostolic Church, but in themselves they are a witness to the continued presence in the Church of the living Spirit of Jesus Christ, who alone, ultimately, must account for the growth of the Mystical Body to which He gave birth by His death on the cross.

If we examine the pages of the Gospel, we are struck by the two remarkable facts: first, that in spite of all His teaching and consummate sanctity, in spite of all the wonders that He worked, the number of conversions which Christ effected in His mortal life and before the Ascension was painfully small. The few disciples who believed in Him were so “without understanding” that to the day of the Ascension they had visions of an earthly restoration of the Kingdom of Israel (1,6). Secondly, Christ frankly admitted the “ill success” of His ministry, divinely arranged, but He foretold that shortly after ascending into heaven He would send His own Spirit upon His followers, who would bless their apostolic labors with success beyond their fondest dreams; “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you shall be witnesses for me in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the very ends of the earth” (1,8).

The first outpouring of this power, at once both external in the physical prodigies and internal in the gift of faith, came on the day of Pentecost. Through the years of the apostolic Church the miracles which the disciples worked produced exactly what Christ had promised. Instead of the paltry few who were convinced by the miracles of Christ acting in visible form, in every part of the world thousands came to believe in the Gospel, through the wonders which the same Jesus Christ performed, operating invisibly by the Holy Spirit through the hands of the Apostles.

It was this paradox of the failure of the Gospel and the success of the Acts in converting souls, which prompted St. Augustine to ask and to answer what Christ had meant at the Last Supper, when He said: He that believes in me, the works that I do, he also shall do, and greater than these shall he do: [17]

What are these great works which those who believe in Him shall do? Is it perhaps that when passing by, their very shadow would heal the sick? Certainly it is greater for one’s shadow than for the hem of one’s garment to cure disease.
What Christ really meant, however, had reference to the works and achievement which His words had produced. For unlike Himself, when the disciples would go out to preach, their converts would number not the small company which they themselves were, but whole nations would believe in their word . When Jesus had invited the rich young man to follow Him, he turned away in sadness; but later on when the disciples preached to the people, multitudes listened to their invitation and put into practice what a single man refused to do in response to Christ. These are the greater things which the One to be preached by those who believe, would accomplish; greater than were achieved by the One who had preached to those who listened to Him.

Superficially, it is true, the Gospels seem to suffer by comparison with the Acts, the Gospel of the Holy Spirit, in terms of conversions effected. Not to be forgotten, however, is that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the Son of God, whose work of sanctification was indeed begun before the Ascension, but whose “Spirit was communicated to the Church in an abundant outpouring, since the glorification of Christ on the cross.” [18]

The evidence for the working of the Spirit of Christ in the new-born Church is so clear on every page of the Acts that even the enemies of the Church can see it. They may be scandalized by the miracles which the author relates and conclude that “The Acts of the Apostles has as little intention of being history as the Res gestae divi Augusti.” [19] Or more kindly, they may only say that St. Luke was “wanting in the talent of personal characterization; miracles and supernatural cures so fascinated him that he practically dispensed himself from all profounder consideration of the inner life of his characters.” [20] As infidels, they will not believe it themselves, but they are forced to admit that to those who believe, the Acts of the Apostles: [21]

Show how the power of the Spirit of Jesus in the Apostles founded the Primitive Community, called into being the mission to the Gentiles, conducted the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, and set the receptive Gentile world in the place of the Jewish nation, which hardened its heart more and more against the appeal of Christianity.

To us they are the proof of history that Jesus did not leave His disciples orphans but came back to them, and their hands erected the edifice that should continue until the end of time.

John A. Hardon, S.J.
West Baden College

[1] Commentarius in Acta Apostolorum, I; MG 60, 13.

[2] Homilia, “Cur in Pentecoste Acta Leguntur”; MG 51, 105.

[3] The Acts of the Apostles (London: Williams and Norgate, 1909), xviii. In spite of many generous things which Harnack says about the Acts, he is a prejudiced critic. Denying the supernatural in revelation and its confirmation by miracle, he arbitrarily accuses St. Luke of “weakness as a historian . . . in his credulity in reference to cases of miraculous healing and of ‘spiritual gifts.’ ” Ibid., p. xxxix.

[4] F. J. Jackson and Kirsopp Lake, The Beginnings of Christianity (London: Macmillan, 1933), II 306. For Jackson and Lake, as for Harnack, what substantially detracts from St. Luke’s objectivity are the narratives of miraculous phenomena. They ask themselves: “Do miracles and other distortions of history which we perceive in the Acts, and the liberties which the author allows himself in the composition of speeches, exceed the limit which we should naturally expect a man like Luke to observe?” Ibid.

[5] Friderico Blass, Acta Apostolorum (Göttingen: Vandehoeck-Ruprecht, 1895), 8. And more recently, Joseph Klausner, From Jesus to Paul (New York: Macmillan, 1944). He dismisses the Acts as unhistorical because of the signs and wonders which it presumes to record. “The Acts of the Apostles, in spite of the fact that it is full of signs and wonders everywhere, purports to be a historical book. It wishes to relate and describe how the relatively large primitive church developed out of the small nucleus of the twelve apostles. Of course, there is no question here, in a religious book, of a desire for historical objectivity. … It wishes to show how the grace of God protected the little band…and how it continually grew until a weak little Jewish group in Jerusalem became a great and powerful Church Universal. Naturally, this would not have been possible without signs and wonders.” p. 213.

[6] G. M. Semeria, “Les Actes des Apôtres,” Revue Biblique 4 (1895), 330. Semeria’s theory has found limited acceptance among Catholic exegetes. The argument of the opposition is that there are too many elements in the narrative which do not fit in with his hypotheses. Asks one writer: “Nam quid facit ad hunc scopum electio diaconorum, quid martyrium Stephani et ejus longa oratio, quid Philippus evangelizans Samariam, baptizans eunuchum?” Revue Ecclèsiastique de liege 4 (1908), 163. Also J. Bellamy, DTC 1, 348, who says: “Cette theorie (of Semeria) est ingènieuse; mais plusieurs la trouvent contestable.”

[7] A. Camerlynck and A. Vander Heeren, Commentarius in Actus Apostolorum (Bruges: Beyaert, 1923), 38.

[8] Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (New York: Collier, 1900), I, 523, 555.

[9] Ibid., 554.

[10] Chrysostom, Comm. In Acta Apostolorum XXXVIII; MG 60, 211.

[11] VDB 5, 1671. Also Acta Sanctorum, Martii III, 371-376; and The Expository Times 60 (1949), 354.

[12] Adolph Harnack, Luke the Physician (London: Putnam, 1907), 113, 115-6.

[13] “Praesens locus imprimis valet ad defendendum religiosum sacrarum reliquiarum cultum.” Knabenbauer, Commentarius in Actus Apostolorum (Paris, 1899), 327. Also Camerlynck-Vander Heeren, op. cit., 324.

[14] “There are some instances in which, by the will of God, and especially for the destruction of wicked men, the demons produce certain effects which transcend the powers and faculty of visible and corporeal nature. (Therefore) God can and on occasion does use the works of demons in performing miracles.” De Servorum Dei Beatificatione et Beatorum Cananizatione (Venezia, 1767), IV, 12-3.

[15] DACL 1, 125-6.

[16] Apologeticus XXXVII, 4; ML 1, 462.

[17] In Joannis Evangelium LXXI; ML 35, 1821-1. St. Thomas uses this passage from St. Augustine to answer the objection that the miracles of Christ were sufficient to prove His divinity, namely: “. . . aliqui fecerunt majora miracula quam Christus; dicitur enim, ‘Qui credit in me, opera quae ego facio, et ipse faciet: et majora horum faciet.’ Ergo videtur quod miracula quae Christus fecit, non fuerint sufficientia ad ostendendum divinitatem ipsius.” Summa Theol., III, 43, 4, ad. 2.

[18] Pius XII, “Mystici Corporis Christi,” AAS 35 (1943), 219.

[19] Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, Die Griechische und Lateinische Literatur und Sprache (Berlin: Teubner, 1907), 190.

[20] Harnack, The Acts of the Apostles, 299.

[21] Ibid., p. xxx. The modern Fundamentalist attitude is close to the Catholic interpretation. Thus J. M. Gettys: “The Book of Acts is like a prairie fire, in that it sweeps along in an atmosphere of dynamic power…. After the Ascension there were one hundred and twenty believers praying for the promise of the Father and organizing for witnessing. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost marked …a new phase of life within the church. The focal point of this experience is not the specific form of speaking with tongues, even though they may intrigue us. The important thing is that the Holy Spirit manifestly intended for the gospel to be taken to all the geographical areas from which these devout Jews had come. The remainder of Acts becomes the outworking of the implication of this experience. Those who prayed for power and used it to witness to the crucified and risen Lord ultimately found themselves going to the whole Mediterranean world.” Int 5 (1951), 224.

Catholic Biblical Quarterly
Vol. 16, pp. 303-318

Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica

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