Turning to God in Acts: Insights from Three Key Conversion Narratives by Luke

Russell Warnken

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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In this thesis I use narrative criticism, supplemented by features of historical and textual criticism, to examine Luke’s accounts of the conversions of the Ethiopian (Acts 8:26–40), Saul (Acts 9:1–30) and Cornelius (Acts 10:1–11:18). Narrative criticism was chosen as a methodology to concentrate on what Luke wrote and to avoid unresolvable historical critical issues (for example, sources and reconciling the Paul of his letters with the Paul of Acts). The stance adopted is that of a present-day reader who uses various critical tools such as the latest Koine Greek text, textual criticism and historical analysis of the Lukan text to read, as far as possible, the passages in Acts as the Lukan reader might have read them.

I propose that Acts 8:4–11:18 is a literary block which has a major theme of
conversion and from which I have chosen to examine closely three conversion accounts:the Ethiopian eunuch, Saul and Cornelius. To better understand the Lukan narrative of Acts 9 I have also looked at the Lukan Paul’s reflections on his conversion in Acts 22:1–16 and 26:1–23.

To contextualize the three conversion accounts I survey conversion in Second
Temple Judaism (including John the Baptist), Hellenistic paganism and philosophy. My aim is to understand the likely influences on early Christians that shaped their understanding of conversion and how those who heard the call to repent and be baptized understood it? I conclude that the strongest influence, but not the only one, was most likely Second Temple Judaism.

While I consider how Luke structures his conversion narratives to create an
impact, my main focus is on how Luke portrays the divine and human characters in each account. In the three narratives examined I find that the initiative in the conversion process is with divine agency, which also has a guiding role in the ensuing developments in each conversion. However, divine agency is manifested in different forms, including angels, visions, divine voices, providential ordering of events, the Holy Spirit, even a manifestation of the ascended Jesus.

There is variety also in those who are converted and how they are converted. I
further argue that despite its prominence divine agency does not overwhelm human involvement. Rather, it is played out in ways that allow the human characters to remain fully human. At the least, these characters have to cooperate willingly with the divine. The intersection of the divine and the human is most clearly seen in the act of baptism, which is common to all three conversion accounts. In baptism human agency responds
to divine agency, the human embraces the divine and encapsulates the essence of the conversion experience as described by Luke. I am also interested in what Luke narrates about the changes that result from conversion. This is most clearly seen in the conversion of Saul, in which the persecutor of Jesus becomes the proclaimer of Jesus.

Within the three accounts considered, no fixed pattern of conversion is
established; rather, the diversity found in the three narratives suggests that divine agency is suited to those converted and their circumstances.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Awarding Institution
  • Charles Sturt University
  • Neville, David, Principal Supervisor
  • Haire, James, Principal Supervisor
Place of PublicationAustralia
Publication statusPublished - 2018


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