Anyway; after the resurrected Jesus departs from them (being beamed up, Star Trek-style, to heaven), the 11 remaining apostles (with the usual confusion of names) choose 2 men, Barsabas and Matthias, to replace evil Judas (there apparently really was a second Judas amongst the 12, did you know that? He's again listed here, as before in some of the gospels). Lots are cast, and Matthias becomes the New Kid. At Pentecost, some sort of celestial fire descends from heaven, spreading over the apostles and making them "speak in tongues" (in some contemporary churches still considered a sign of great holiness - gibbering idiots apparently convey deep truths). People of "all nations" hear them and are amazed to hear them proclaim god's word in their own native tongue. Peter explains: because prophecy (some vague lines from Joel this time), once more highlighting how inextricably old & new testament are intertwined. Thanks to Peter's silver tongue (and the "many signs and wonders" performed by the apostles, such as healing the sick and reviving the dead), the numbers of baptized believers rapidly rise, resulting at first in some sort of happy hippie commune. Needless to say that the believers' money ends up "at the apostles' feet"... one guy who, after selling everything he owns, tries to hold back a portion for himself, is severely reprimanded by Peter & dies on the spot! The same happens to his wife. That should teach people not to fuck with the Congregation (nothing much has changed, it seems). The Jewish priests are rather pissed off at the rise of this new cult and have the apostles incarcerated. Unsurprisingly, an angel frees them at night (why always at night? Are angels nocturnal creatures?) and they quickly resume their preachin' & healin', after which the priests wisely decide to leave them alone. (Really odd detail: Peter accuses the priests of slaying Jesus and hanging him on a tree. When did that happen?)
The first attempts at converting the masses are not without problems however; take for instance the story of Stephen, one of the many newly-ordained apostles. When he tries to explain the wonders of god to a skeptical audience (even summarizing the old testament for clarity's sake), they turn on him & stone him (in those days, stand-up comedy was risky business). This would make him one of the first martyrs (albeit a bomb belt-free one), a class of believers so deluded they are willing to endure torture or even die for their belief. (Later accounts of martyrs, often promoted to and worshiped as saints, paint a picture of mostly mentally disturbed and deeply masochistic maniacs; the nuttier the holier. Once again, nothing changed.) Then there is Simon, a sorcerer who made a good living from his spells. He aspires to become an apostle too, and when he learns that "the holy ghost", or the power of performing miracles, is passed on by the apostles by laying hands on a person, he offers money to buy this fabulous magic trick. Disgusted, the apostles send him away. (The practice of selling holy offices and pardons, vague spiritual mumbo-jumbo like indulgences and forgiveness, is called simony because of him.)
The majority of the Acts however is taken up by arguably one of the most important figures of the early christian church: Paul, a young Roman initially called Saul, who at first zealously persecutes the christian sectarians. But when travelling to Damascus his chariot is stopped by god himself. A life-changing experience; after being blind for three days, he is converted and becomes one of the most annoying & fervent believers, incidentally responsible for centuries of misery, misogyny and suppression because of how he interprets the christian faith in his letters (more about them in next blog). For Johnny Cash or Nick Cave aficionados: when god speaks to Saul, he uses the phrase "it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" (9:5). God introducing himself as Jesus shows that Acts is a later work, from around the time when the gospel of John arose, when people had already fleshed out the concept of the Trinity (father, son & holy ghost, whatever that may be).
King Herod (we already met him before; I still do not know if it's the same one as the Baby Killer, which would make him really old by now) kills James the apostle; emboldened by the (evil!) Jews' support, he incarcerates Peter as well, wrapping him up in heavy chains between two guards. But of course our nocturnal angel appears, effortlessly freeing The Rock. When Herod gives a speech some days later, he is duly "eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost" (12:23). Which begs the question: if all enemies of god are so easily taken care of, why doesn't he just wipe them all out in one fell stroke? Would save a lot of bother... shalom-in-one. Oh yes, because he's imaginary and it's his deluded believers who have to do all the converting, subjugating and killing. Which takes a lot more time & effort.
Saul ("also called Paul", and from there on referred to as Paul) and one of his cronies, Barnabas, continue their Grand Tour of the Continent, performing miracles & preaching. After watching them make a cripple walk, the people of Iconium think they are gods returned to earth and call them Jupiter and Mercurius. (Any old iron; all gods are equally fictional. Today's religions are tomorrow's mythology, after all.) When the two refuse the people's votive offerings, the mob gets angry and, incited by some more evil Jews, stone our hapless heroes. Paul is dragged out of the city and left for dead, but he's a tough one & returns preachin' the very next day, showing some real dedication.
At some point, a long & intense altercation arises with the Pharisees as to the need for circumcision (almost endearingly silly). As with every argument, sermon or act, everything is always justified by old testament scripture, sometimes at great length. Also, it doesn't take long before Paul and Barnabas have a violent argument (over some guy called "John whose surname was Mark"; Barny wants to take him along, Paul doesn't). The two split up and go their separate ways. A little ego trip from Paul, perhaps?
In Macedonia, Paul once more sticks his foot in it: after casting out a spirit from a woman who is highly regarded as a soothsayer, she impeaches him as a firebrand & troublemaker (fair enough; he did rob her of her livelihood); he's given a damn good lashing & thrown into prison. For variety's sake, this time an earthquake hits the city (saving our angel a trip to Macedonia, I guess), setting him free. The converted jailor takes him home, dresses his wounds & feeds him, after which he is allowed to continue his journey. He (unsuccessfully) tries to win over some philosophers (Epicureans and Stoics, some of the keenest minds in ancient Greece), but his tall tales fall upon deaf ears. (One-nil for Greek philosophy.) After his visit to Greece, the narration suddenly switches to first-person, "we disciples" etc., so apparently the writer of Acts claims to be one of the seven men accompanying Paul (their names are listed in 20:4, for the curious). No wonder then the Acts mainly consist of the Amazing Adventures of Paul.
In Cesarea, once more there's trouble afoot: Paul is attacked & beaten by a mob & chained up. Bruised & bloody, he delivers a stirring speech, recounting his conversion. He is still brought to trial though, during which he successfully sets up both parties (Pharisees and Saducees) against each other over some religious nitpickery. (Divide & conquer.) At night, god makes another personal appearance; not to free Paul from his prison though, he is looking too much forward to him being the champion at the coming trial. Which drags on for some years (this starts to feel like some third-rate John Grisham novel); once again, Paul recounts his conversion (it's really the only card he's got) and files a plea to appear before Caesar himself. To that end, he is taken on a ship to Italy (taking along his companions; the narration immediately switches back to "we" once more). The voyage is not without its problems though; because of an evil wind they end up shipwrecked on a small island near Crete and have to repair the damaged ship. Paul cheerfully informs the crew that they will all make it because an angel appeared in his dreams, confirming his appearance before Caesar. Ain't that nice. After setting sail once more however, they quickly run aground on another island, Melita (just maybe their ship's captain wasn't very good at navigating?). They are welcomed by the locals, who at first take Paul for some sort of criminal, possibly a murderer (but then, he *is* on a boat on its way to Caesar guarded by 268 soldiers... that does give a certain impression), but when he is bitten by a venomous viper and doesn't suffer any pernicious side effects, they decide he must be a god. Life in black & white sure is simple.
Eventually, the ship reaches Italy and the centurion delivers his prisoner - although Paul is permitted to live in a house of his own, instead of in a prison. Strange enough, there never is a meeting with Caesar, and Paul just continues to preach from his house for 2 years. After which the book suddenly ends (quite possibly because our friend the scribe died). So we'll never know the end of that story... not that anyone bothers.