Why does it matter when the Bible’s Book of Acts was written?

Why does it matter when the Bible’s Book of Acts was written? August 25, 2018

THE QUESTION:

When was the New Testament’s Book of Acts written and why does it matter?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This topic cropped up recently when The Guy visited the adult Bible class at a prominent Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. Participants are taught that the Book of Acts, which depicts the three decades directly following Jesus Christ’s earthly life, was written between 110 and 120 A.D., a generation later than scholars’ consensus. Does that seem a trivial technicality? “A good deal rides on decisions about the date of Acts,” says Joseph Tyson of Southern Methodist University.

Christian tradition holds that Acts reliably records what Jesus’ original followers believed and how the earliest churches spread that message. But if it was written long after the events, that opens up radical theories. Bible experts left and right agree that Acts and the Gospel of Luke are in fact two volumes of a unified work by the same writer, although separated by John’s Gospel in Bibles. (Both books are anonymous but Paul’s colleague Luke is identified as the author in 2nd Century texts so The Guy follows that custom.)

Luke’s Gospel begins: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us,  just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word,  I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first,  to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus,  so that you may know the truth . . . (New Revised Standard Version)

Acts then begins with a specific link back to Luke: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning . . .”  Because of those opening words, the credibility of the New Testament as history is at stake here.  (If interested in who that Theophilus was, see “Religion Q & A” for December 22, 2015, in the archive.)

The Acts discussion is a very revealing example of how various types of Bible scholarship go about their business. Here, briefly, are the three basic options on dating, all using circumstantial arguments since we lack documentation.

The hard Left is typified by the “Jesus Seminar,” which won headlines in the 1990s by announcing that few of Jesus’ deeds actually happened and calculating that 82 percent of his biblical sayings weren’t authentic (perhaps bringing to mind Yogi Berra’s “I really didn’t say everything I said”).

A follow-up seminar declared in 2011 that much of Acts lacks “historical credibility” and it’s actually “imaginative religious literature” from “the early decades of the 2nd Century.” A seminar book by the late Richard Pervo contended that its author “did not even aspire to write history.” Such attacks on the Acts tradition originated with Germany’s F.C. Baur (1792-1860) but most scholars discarded his theory a century ago.

The current revival by Tyson and others thinks that Acts echoes the “Antiquities” of Jewish historian Josephus from A.D. 94 [though others would say any dependence could run the opposite direction] and was a critique of Marcion, who was condemned as a heretic around A.D. 144 for rejecting the Jewish Scriptures. Some also spot links with Justin Martyr’s writings from that era, which puts Acts as late as A.D. 150. Tyson notes there’s no surviving mention of Acts till the later 2nd Century [though others see Acts cited much earlier in texts of Barnabas, Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp].

A second option is a very early date, favored not only  by traditionalists but influential liberals like Germany’s Adolf von Harnack in the early 20th Century or, later on, England’s John A.T. Robinson, who put composition at A.D. 62 or before. Among the reasons: Acts concludes with the apostle Paul awaiting trial in Rome, which indicates writing before his execution around A.D. 64. Narratives in Acts that use “we” are said to show Luke or one of his sources was an eyewitness. Conservatives note many accurate details [though either Acts or Josephus got the wrong date for Theudas’ revolt].

On similar lines, these scholars say Acts must pre-date other major events that its history shows no awareness of: the execution of James who led the Jerusalem church (A.D. 62), mass persecution of Christians in Rome (64), Peter’s martyrdom (mid-60s), Christians fleeing Jerusalem (66), and Roman destruction of the holy city (70) — though others see that cataclysm reflected in Luke 13:35 and 21:20-24. Importantly, this camp says Acts has no knowledge of Paul’s letters that the church soon collected as authoritative [though Tyson, for one, sees such echoes]. Finally, Acts has no sign of the developed church organization in the 2nd Century.

The third option puts the date between the other two, in the 80s or possibly the 70s A.D. when eyewitnesses would still have been alive for confirmation. Such thinkers see no knowledge in Acts of Paul’s letters,  Josephus, Marcion, or Justin. But they think Luke 13 and 21 refer to the A.D. 70 cataclysm so Acts came afterward. They assume Luke knew about Paul’s execution but didn’t want to irritate Romans by mentioning it. And they date the Gospel of Mark in the 70s and believe Luke later used it as a source.

Favoring option three, the scholarly consensus, Joseph Fitzmyer of Georgetown University writes that “there is no good reason to oppose that date, even if there is no real proof,” and “such an intermediate dating remains the most plausible.”

 

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