2008-05-29

Dating the Book of Acts: Acts as a response to the Marcionite Challenge

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by Neil Godfrey

This post follows on from one I completed — here — way back in February. The lot can be found in my archive for the Tyson category.

Continuing notes from reading of Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts . . . .

Tyson summarizes the hypothesis of John Knox published in 1942, that Acts (and canonical Luke) was composed as a response to the (second century) Marcionite challenge:

  1. that the apostle Paul was linked with the gentile churches was too well known to be ignored
  2. the problem was that it was equally known that Paul was associated with the “heretic” Marcion — he was sometimes even labeled by the “proto-orthodox” as “the apostle of the heretics”
  3. here the silence of Justin and Papias (per Eusebius) is deafening — both lived at the time of Marcion and both wrote as if they never knew Paul even existed!
  4. this silence must have been deliberate — which means that some churches, e.g. Rome, must have regarded Paul as suspect
  5. so churches such as Rome had to decide if they would discredit or repudiate Paul, or canonize him
  6. “There was, however, no real choice: Paul had to be claimed even if it meant shaping his legacy in a more proto-orthodox mold.” (p.76)
  7. but if the epistles of Paul were to be canonized they could not be canonized alone, lest they be interpreted as an endorsement for Marcionism (e.g. that Paul was the only true apostle, that he was independent of the Jerusalem Twelve, an irreconcilable contrast between law and gospel, that the god of this world was the god of the Torah and the god of Jesus was the god of grace)
  8. therefore to canonize Paul meant that the orthodox had to show that Paul was subservient to the Twelve apostles, had been accredited by the Twelve, had acknowledged their authority and worked obediently under their direction
  9. therefore Acts, which did all of the above, entered: Acts shows Paul
  10. in agreement with the Twelve apostles
  11. regularly reporting to the Twelve
  12. accepted the apostolic decree — which imposed some Torah restrictions on gentiles — that was authorized by the Twelve and the Jerusalem authorities
  13. claiming to be a Pharisee!’
  14. “Acts appeared at precisely the point at which there was a need for separating Paul from Marcion and provided the basis for doing so. The book of Acts, together with other apostolic letters and the Pastorals, allowed for the acceptance of Paul as one among the apostles.” (p.76-77)
  15. It may not be insignificant that in the Muratorian canon Acts is called “The Acts of ALL the Apostles”

Unfortunately for Knox’s hypothesis no-one as been able to discover an explicit reference to the Marcionite controversy in the book of Acts — any more than they have discovered explicit reference to the fall of Jerusalem or to the death of Paul. Tyson’s book, from which I have posted notes in this series, is an attempt to garner new evidence that supports the hypothesis nonetheless.

We do read in Acts of false prophets who, like “fierce wolves”, will come in to the churches of Ephesus and Asia and will be “speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:29-30). “[B]ut this reference is agonizingly vague.” (p.77)

But Tyson does point to a strange passage in Acts 16:6-8 that just possibly may point to the Marcionite homeland and sphere of influence:

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas.

How to explain this prohibition of preaching in a certain area? The verses apply to Paul, Silas and Timothy, and (perhaps notably) precede the first of the “we passages” in Acts (Tyson, p.77). This prohibition from preaching in certain areas is striking. It is a unique stand-alone comment. Why? Not only are these areas forbidden from the gospel of Paul, but they are forbidden “by the Holy Spirit”, by “the Spirit of Jesus”!

Later in Acts we do find Paul preaching throughout Asia (i.e. the Roman province named “Asia” in present day Turkey, not the present-day geographical area that includes Russia, India and China), but Bythinia remained a firmly closed door. Why? Tyson has a suggestion:

A plausible suggestion is that in the second century Bithynia, which was generally connected with Pontus, was known as the place of Marcion’s origin and that Luke wants to disassociate Paul from Marcion. He does so by affirming that in the very area where Marcion was born and began his preaching, there had been no Pauline mission, thus no association with earlier Christianity. The author of Acts would be signaling the reader that the claims of the Marcionites to be followers of Paul are mere fabrications, unsupported by the historical “facts” and, what is more important, contrary to the “Spirit ofJesus.” (p.77)

Will look next at Tyson’s suggestions for how our canonical Luke came to be . . . .

Conclusion

This post completes my notes from the initial argument of Tyson that an early or intermediate date for Acts does not fit any known context for its authorship, but that the late date, between 100 and 150 c.e., does. This late period also explains the unique characterization of Paul and Peter. This explanatory power is a strong argument in favour of placing the composition of Acts in the early half of the second century.

6 Comments

  • Joe
    2008-08-28 12:36:41 UTC - 12:36 | Permalink

    If Acts was written as late as 150 AD, then all kinds of myths could have crept in. In fact, if Acts was written 100 years after some of Paul’s letters, then the author could have just made up Paul’s role in Acts and no one would be alive to refute it.

  • 2008-08-28 14:16:45 UTC - 14:16 | Permalink

    The evidence for and about Paul, as I understand it, really only appears from around the turn of the century, even as late as early in the second century. Paul’s letters may or may not go back much earlier than this — I don’t believe anyone can justifiably argue dogmatically either way. But it does appear that the early and mid second centuries did see rival narratives competing for “Christian origins” — the Pastorals present one Paul, the Acts of Paul another, Acts of the Apostles another alternative, and maybe even the Pauline epistles corpus appeared at this time as another version. And against, or in tandem with, some of these we have yet other narratives of the Twelve, or Seven, or Three. All these do appear to me to point to some sort of ideological rivalry, each with their competing origin narratives, as a second century phenomenon. If so, we know which one/s were left standing at the end of the day.

  • phil
    2009-02-16 00:22:09 UTC - 00:22 | Permalink

    It is clear that Jesus is referred to as the son of GOD. There cannot be a son without a Father. The only true God mentioned at that time was the GOD of Israel. So it takes a bit of common sense to know that Jesus was the son of the OT GOD. Jesus was that “Perfect JEW” of the Prophecy.

  • 2009-02-16 01:12:34 UTC - 01:12 | Permalink

    This is the correct understanding of the Biblical texts as we have them now. But in the earliest days of Christianity these texts did not all exist, and there were many competing views about the nature and origin of Jesus. Some of the texts we have today in our Bibles may well have been written after Marcion and as attempts to squash all competing views at the time.

  • David Ashton
    2015-05-19 22:29:22 UTC - 22:29 | Permalink

    Have we evidence from linguistic similarities or dissimilarities between Luke as acceptable to Marcion and passages in Acts which would be unacceptable to Marcion?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2015-05-20 02:03:36 UTC - 02:03 | Permalink

      Definitely. The series of posts (on Tyson’s book) of which this one is a part sets out those very points.

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