The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


The Narrowing of the Gospel

Why are there four Gospels, but only one Acts?

by Russell Rathbun

First  Reading: Acts 2:1-21

For Sunday, June 12 , 2011: Year A – Day of Pentecost

The church is born fifty days after the resurrection, (pentecost means “fifty”), which is also the gestation period of crocodiles, goats and green beans. I don’t think too much significance should be drawn from that, but there might be something there.

Fifty Day Gestation?

More likely the fifty days echo the fifty days after the exodus the God gave Moses the Ten Commandments.  The Hebrews unanimously ratify this covenant with God and  Israel is born.

The church is born in Acts when a sound comes from heaven like a violent wind and tongues of fire descend on the disciples, filling them with the Holy Spirit and giving them the ability to speak so all could understand them in their native language.

Reversing Babel?

This text is sometimes read as the inverse of the tower of Babel story. In the Genesis story the people are one and speak one language. They put this unity to work to build a tower that will reach up to the heavens.

God doesn’t think this unity is such a good thing so God confounds their language and scatters them over the earth. This produces many peoples with many different ways of talking about who God is and what it means to be human.

One Voice?

Our holy book contains different interpretations of the same stories from creation to the resurrection. There are four gospel voices but only one Acts of the Apostles in the cannon.

The author of the Gospel of Luke writes the book of Acts, telling the story of the early growth and goings-on of the church. It is a story that starts in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, it largely tells Paul’s story. Why does only Luke get a part two? I would really be interested in reading John’s part two or Matthew’s. Mark’s Acts of the Apostles would be really interesting. Maybe these other stories end up in places other than Rome. India? North America? More voices, more stories are better than less voices and less stories.

A Puzzling Monoculture

If The Omnivore’s Dilemma has taught us anything, it is that while monocultures are really good a producing a crop consistent in quality and yield, of let’s say green beans, it only takes one strain specific enemy level the field.

When it comes to the church, we clearly have many different strains and stories, that diversity is what keeps it healthy, what keeps it alive. The narrowing of the story of the proclamation of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ from four voices to one seems puzzling, not to mention, at odds with the movement or our current historical location.

The Hardest Question

Why are there four Gospels, several historical traditions in the Hebrew Bible, but only one Acts?

Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. To ask your question “Why are there four Gospels, several historical traditions in the Hebrew Bible, but only one Acts?”, we have to remember that the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are a two volume set and need to be read/viewed together (whether they were actually written by the same person or not). The Acts of the Apostles volume shows up what happens to those who follow Jesus in the first volume venture out and live out what they were called to do.

    Just my simple take on this Hardest Question . . .

  2. Jeff says:

    Love the green bean analogy! I am going to steal that. Your question leads me to another question that I would love to pose in a sermon. Namely, what does our “Second Chapter” say? I remember a Seminary Prof who used to say, “The books of the Bible invite us to write our own. Perhaps Luke /Acts is modeling what we all should be doing every day…telling the story of what God is still doing.

  3. Rev. Russell says:

    Jeff, your comment reminds me of an interview with Eugene Peterson at the Writers Symposium at Point Loma Nazarene University in 2007. It is about 29 minutes long, but the whole thing is about story telling and the Biblical story. At one point he says that the first year of seminary should just the study of literature, so that pastors could learn how to read a story. But to your point he also says, we should all write stories, because the world needs more stories, not less.

  4. Aych Kerygma says:

    I understand the teaching of Paul in Acts 13:13 through 15:35 to be the earliest Christian rulebook (that I am aware of). Maybe the reason for one “Acts”, one account of this, is because only one rulebook was needed, for unification, and still is. I think this is an evil/a parellel/a parasite on, the original message of grace. And I think it is difficult to recognize. It is an amazing coexistance. I believe in “law” as being defined as any routine or repeated behavior by a person or group, including this behavior’s relationship with all intritution, technology..and even language. I ALSO believe that it is a person’s natural, and appropriate, response to the message of forgiveness to immediately apply this feeling and freedom to their current circumstances, as well as to consider what this freedom may mean to the others around them and their circumstances. I believe that this is correct and good to do. The PROBLEM, I think, is when we, or I, or Paul’s initial followers, or Paul’s current followers replace Paul’s rules for living, or any rules for living (moral rules not state rules) for the “grace response” that’s required in each moment. And it is ever changing. So, four gospels..four accounts of Jesus, the one making “acts of grace”. And one “Acts”. Possibly one, because it may cause greater unification in the idolization of ourselves..our works, rules, and sociological ideals.

    Aych Kerygma

  5. thomas says:

    Really nice thoughts – thanks very much!

    There is a little bit of pluralism left, though: as it is not clear wheather the miracle on Pentecost was one of speech or one of hearing…

    I like to elaborate on the theme of “stories”: I like to think of Pentecost as the inclusion of the hearers to become part of the storytelling: Just as the spirit who was “breeding” over the vast and empty earth in the beginning before the ‘Word” is spoken, is poured in “tongues” over the hearers… Anyone?


  6. Rebekah Eckert says:

    Ummm…there are more Acts. You know this, right? The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Acts of Andrew, the Acts of Barnabus, etc. etc. There are multiple books of Acts, but only the Acts of the Apostles got included in the final version of the NT canon. Any decent collection of early Christian writings will include these other Acts. Some are clearly quite late, but others are not, and there are records of early Christians reading regularly from these other Acts.

    And yes, they have other stories of the early church. So if you read the Acts of Paul and Thecla, all of a sudden new images of women’s early ministry emerge. Not all of this is factual (but then, that’s also the case of the Acts of the Apostles, as at least one story directly parallels Roman myth) but it is certainly relevant.

    If you want a great read on this, I would suggest Dennis Ronald MacDonald’s The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story in Canon (Westminster Press, 1983). MacDonald is a well-redognized NT scholar and he focuses this book on the Acts of Paul and Thecla and the Pastoral Epistles.

    My answer your question, Russell, is that there is only one Acts because other voices were silenced and/or merged (pacified?) into the dominant voice. Not an easy answer, but there it be.

    By the way, taking this process into account does not mean there is nothing of value within the canon – not at all! But nor does it mean we blindly, blithely close our eyes to the diversity of the early church.

  7. Aych Kerygma says:


    Thank you for suggesting this book. I will look into it. These matters are close to my heart. Also I do agree that there is beautiful truth to be found in the Acts of the Apostles. I like your answer in paragraph 4. I felt a sense of “dominant voice” when I was reading the section of Acts that I referred to. I also realized something for the first time as well. One of the first specific instructions by Paul was to avoid sexual immorality. The Church’s instruction is to avoid sexual immorality. I have got an idea that this early and ongoing instruction has actually GIVEN “sexual immorality” an immense amount of power.

    Aych Kerygma

  8. Rev. Russell says:

    Rebekah, Aych, Thomas and all, I think it is really interesting to consider why the Cannon-ers when with this Acts as the story to elevate–as I eluded in my post, I think it has a lot to do with Empire. When our interpretive is at it’s best it is both confessing our Holy Book’s susceptibility to co-option by the Empire or story of the World AND uncovering the text subversive stories and counter narratives–the story of the Word. I think Preaching at its best does those two things as well. This is a great discussion.

  9. Rebekah Eckert says:

    I think there is a real challenge to us as preachers to honour those alternate narratives.

    I do think the formation of our Newer Testament reflects the narrowing and unifying forces of Empire, the Great Homogeneity. I love that idea of monoculture, Russell. In her book Dark Days Ahead, Jane Jacobs expands on this to liken how our mono-cultural systems are choking off our life, in communities and across the world. In most congregations, we read and preach from the canon, which means we are paradoxically both reinforcing the structures of Christendom and Empire even as we preach against it. Le paradox est mort/ Vive le paradox!

    In the congregation I’m currently involved in, we preached on non-canonical books during Lent, addressing both the strengths and weaknesses of venturing into unknown territory. What is true/True if it’s not determined by canon? What does the Gospel of Peter teach us about our own anti-semitism? What does the Gospel of Mary Magdalene show us about our own understandings of freedom and gender? (We only touched on sexual immorality, Aych Kerygma – we’re brave, not foolhardy! :) It was a LOT of work, and hard – not sure we did all parts as well as we should, but I think it was right to try. We’re now back to more pastoral preaching. Like my homiletics professor said, it’s good to vary things (no monoculture in preaching, ha!) – keep ‘em wondering what you’re going to say next.


  1. [...] Turning as I often do to The Hardest Question, finds the Rev. Russell Rathbun musing: “The church is born fifty days after the resurrection, (pentecost means “fifty”), which [...]

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