One of the historical giants of biblical scholarship, Adolf von Harnack, from 1908 argued for the Book of Acts being composed possibly as early as the 60s ce, in the lifetime of the apostle Paul. His reasons:
- the author of Acts fails to mention the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce, an event that must surely have impacted him sufficiently to address in some form in his church history if he knew of it;
- the author of Acts fails to mention the death of Paul at the end of his 2 year imprisonment in Rome (the scene where the Book of Acts ends), and since the fate of Paul was the chief subject of the last chapters of Acts, the only plausible explanation for this failure is that Paul must still have been alive at the time of writing.
Bishop John A. T. Robinson has argued similarly (1976), dating Acts beween 57 and 62 ce. He believes that the failure to mention the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 ce as a past fact is as significant as the dog that did not bark was for Sherlock Holmes.
Colin J. Hemer (1990) is convinced of an early dating, around 62 ce:
- the number of “insignificant details” in the final chapters of Acts (in particular Paul’s voyage to Rome) is evidence of immediacy in the mind of the author, that the author was narrating an event still fresh in his memory;
- arguments that Paul’s death was not mentioned in Acts because the audience knew of it already fail on the grounds that they would also have known of the events that led to his death, which Acts does narrate;
- Acts must have been written just prior to Paul’s release (ca. 62 ce) and subsequent letters of Paul (Philippians, Philemon, Pastoral Epistles) enable one to reconstruct Paul’s career after his release, culminating in his martyrdom under Nero;
- The differences between the Pastoral letters and the generally acknowledged genuine letters of Paul are explained by Paul’s new perspective after his release;
- Luke gave no hint in Acts of Paul’s fate in order to avoid revealing information to his enemies.
Harnack arrived at his arguments for the early dating of Acts after initially arguing for a later date (1897):
The fall of Jerusalem
Harnack originally argued (1897) that the failure to mention the fall of Jerusalem was easily resolved by dating acts far enough AFTER 70 ce for it to be no longer an issue uppermost in people’s minds. In his Chronologie he wrote that it is “not conceivable” for Acts to be written in 70 or soon thereafter.
The fate of Paul
Harnack originally argued that the abrupt ending without reference to the death of Paul excluded the possibility that Acts was written near the end of Paul’s 2 year imprisonment in Rome. Or if Paul had survived and was still alive at the time of writing it was incomprehensible that the author would have given the reader some mention of this. Rather, the ending of Acts is a triumphal message of how the word had been migrated from Jerusalem and become established in Rome from where it goes out “unhindered”. The author is not interested in the life of Paul except as it can demonstrate the victory of this larger mission.
The ‘insignificant details’
One normally associates colorful detail with effective narrative rhetoric, not necessarily with personal experience.
The reconstruction of Paul’s career
Hemer’s arguments must assume both the authenticy of the Pastoral epistles, something probably most critical scholars would question, and the historicity of the narrative of Acts.
Joseph B. Tyson “Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle” (2006) is my source of most of the above summary. Tyson says one must needs be in two minds about Harnack’s reversal of his position on the date of Acts. On the one hand one must respect an openness and courage to change a view forcefully argued, but on the other, one would be more persuaded by Harnack’s change of mind had he addressed with critical argument his earlier position. Instead he simply explained his change of heart largely in part to ‘giving more weight’ to other factors than before.
Tyson will proceed to argue that their is much more substantial evidence to date the Book of Acts as late as 110-120 ce. He will further argue that our canonical Gospel of Luke (with which Acts is linked with the Prologues) was also written around the same time as Acts. However, this canonical version was based on an earlier rendition used by the “heretic” Marcion. The author of Acts added material to this Marcionite gospel and re-wrote portions to give the whole work, canonical Luke and Acts, a narrative and theological unity. Nevertheless, enough wrinkles remain to reveal the fact of the earlier work that was its basis.
Will discuss more of Tyson’s work in future posts, possibly in broader contexts of Christian and Christian text origins.
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