The eighth chapter of Acts begins with the persecution of the Church immediately following the death of Stephen in the fall of 34 CE. At this point in time, however, it would be wrong to assume the Church is an entity in itself in the same manner that it had become in the 2nd century CE. Rather all Messianic Jews were considered a part of Judaism, a faith made up of all Jews, whether or not one believed in Jesus as the Messiah. It is precisely because Stephen and the group of Messianic believers who settled in Jerusalem from the Diaspora were Jews that the leaders in Jerusalem had the authority to pursue them and bring them to Jerusalem for trial.
Acts 8:3 mentions Paul doing what he could against the Church, that is, the Grecian believers or those of the Diaspora who resettled in Jerusalem. In Acts 26:11 Paul testified that he had gone even to cities outside Judea, probably meaning within the province of Syria. This would have taken months at the very least, depending upon how many cities Paul had in mind. The rest of chapter eight concerns the ministry of Philip, one of the original seven. He preached to the Samaritans and many of them came to believe in Jesus. The chapter ends with Philip settling in Caesarea on the coast of the Mediterranean, where we find him in Acts 21:8 just days before Paul was taken prisoner in Jerusalem in 58 CE. Philip’s work in chapter 8 could have taken years or a few months. Luke doesn’t offer an indicator as to how long it took him to get to Caesarea. However, this doesn’t matter as far as chronology is concerned, because Luke’s book of Acts is mostly interested in either the ministries of Peter or Paul, especially Paul.
In Acts 9:1-2 Paul sought letters of extradition to arrest believers in Damascus and bring them to Jerusalem for trial and punishment. The Roman governor of Syria had replaced both Pilate and Caiaphas about the time of the Passover in 35 CE. He put Jonathan, the son of Annas, into the office of high priest, and it is Jonathan to whom Paul went seeking letters to allow him to go to Damascus and arrest believers and return with them to Jerusalem for judgment. On the way to Damascus Paul’s life was transformed through a meeting with Jesus. He became a believer, stayed with the brethren in Damascus for a short time (Acts 9:19) and then went into Arabia where he spent perhaps 2 ½ years, developing his Gospel to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:17). Afterward he returned to Damascus, but got himself into trouble with the local Jewish synagogue authorities (Acts 9:20-23) and the Jewish ethnarch under Aretas (2Corinthians 11:32). Paul’s life was in danger so the brethren aided him, and he escaped through a window in the wall of the city (Acts 9:24-25), and so, after three years away from Judea, Paul returned to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18; Acts 9:26) in 39 CE. After a few weeks, perhaps a month, he fled to Tarsus, as the unbelieving Hellenist Jews sought his life (Acts 9:29-30).
It was in the fall of 39 CE that trouble developed between Rome and the Jewish authorities. Caius Caesar was growing mad by this time and had ordered Petronius, the new governor of Syria, to erect an image of him in the Temple at Jerusalem. All of a sudden the Messianic Jews were no longer a problem as far as the Jewish authorities were concerned (Acts 9:31). The Jews left off plowing and seeding their fields for the remainder of 39 CE and throughout 40 CE [Josephus: Antiquities, 18.8.2-9] and assembled themselves, together with their wives and children, in mourning before the new Syrian governor where he had assembled his men at Ptolemias along the coast just north of Caesarea. Petronius was impressed with the sincerity of the Jews and wrote back to Caesar interceding for them and awaited a reply. By the time Petronius received his reply in the spring of 41 CE, Caius had been assassinated and Claudius reigned in his stead, and Agrippa was appointed King of Judea. Petronius’ orders were now moot, so a Jewish war was averted.
While all this was happening, Peter was ministering in Lydda (Acts 9:32) and Joppa (Acts 9:36-43). At this time, probably cir. 40 CE, we are introduced to a centurion named Cornelius, living in Caesarea just south of where the Roman troops were stationed awaiting orders from Petronius (Acts 10:1).
Long-story-short, Peter preached the Gospel to Cornelius and his family and friends—all Gentiles. They believed and were baptized without having to be circumcised (Acts 10:47-48). Of course Peter had a lot of explaining to do (Acts 11:1-2), but he was prepared in that he brought a lot of witnesses with him to show this was God’s doing (Acts 11:1-18).
The rest of chapter 11 concerns the Gospel reaching the northern coastal cities of the Syrian province. At first the believers preached only to Jews, but probably after hearing of what Paul was doing in Cilicia, they began preaching to Gentiles in Antioch, and the Gentiles believed. Barnabas was sent to Antioch from Jerusalem, and he went looking for Paul in Cilicia to bring him to Antioch to minister to the gentiles there. Notice that believers were called “Christ-ian” first here (Acts 11:26). The word “Christ” comes from the Greek for Messiah or Anointed One. However the ending “-ian” is Latin. “Christ-ian” is a Latinized ending of a Greek word. This implies that the believers in Jesus were under close scrutiny by the Romans in Antioch, the seat of Roman authority in Syria. This seems to imply Rome and Jerusalem were still on the brink of war, and the timeline is 40 CE, the final year of Caligula’s reign. The Jesus Movement was under scrutiny because Rome had to understand if these new gentile believers would side with the Jews in a war against Rome. Nevertheless, the Jesus-Movement was considered innocuous by Roman authorities and was treated as such until Nero outlawed the movement in the final years of his reign.
Prophets from Jerusalem came to Antioch while Paul was there and spent time with the brethren. One of them, Agabus, predicted a famine that is said to have occurred during the reign of Claudius (Acts 11:28).
With Caligula dead, Claudius acted swiftly to ease the tensions in the East by adding Samaria and Judea to the realm of King Agrippa. Originally upon arriving in Jerusalem, Agrippa had replaced Theophilus, the son of Annas, as high priest with the Simon, son of Boethus, the family line preferred by his grandfather, Herod the Great. This was a political blunder, because the Annas family had grown very powerful. Later, possibly at the request of Claudius, he offered to reinstate Jonathan as high priest, but Jonathan refused the king, showing the power and arrogance of this family that was Rome’s preference! In any case, Jonathan mentioned to the king that his brother, Matthias, would be a good choice. The king consented.
The execution of James the apostle and brother of John in Acts 12:1-2 represents an escalation of the persecution against the Jesus Movement and probably occurred during the time Matthias, son of Annas, was the high priest. The liberal branch of the believers, remember, were the first to be persecuted by Annas’ attack against the Hellenist believers (Acts 8:1), but now he reached out through King Agrippa against the more moderate branch of believers by persecuting the Apostles. With the Hellenists and Apostles expelled from Jerusalem, this left only the most conservative branch of believers in the Jerusalem church, headed by James, the Lord’s brother. This would continue until James, himself, was killed and the persecution spread to the entire movement cir. 62 CE. But, this is well beyond Acts 12.
Peter escaped and King Agrippa died about four to five months later in 44 CE, presumably during the summer games in honor of Caesar, according to the historian Josephus. Acts 12 ends with an ambiguous “and the word of God grew and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). This doesn’t give us an idea of how long the time is, but it is certainly after Agrippa’s death in 44 CE. Acts 12:25 ends the chapter by connecting it to the end of chapter 11, implying the famine Agabus predicted occurred sometime after Agrippas death. This famine was most severe, especially in Jerusalem. It occurred during the days of Cuspius Fadus and Tiberius Alexander, procurators of Judea [Josephus: Antiquities; 20.5.1-2]. Josephus records a letter from Claudius to Fadus and can be dated before the famine in 47 CE [see Josephus: Antiquities 20.1.2]. So, if there was a bad harvest in 48 CE, the Sabbatical year stretching from autumn of 48 CE to the autumn of 49 CE would be especially severe for the poor, because the fields were not tilled or harvested in Sabbatical years. Therefore, Acts 8 begins in the fall of 34 CE and the current chronology study ends in Acts 12, about 14 1/2 years later, cir. spring of 49 CE.