On an early date for Acts — and its problems

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by Neil Godfrey

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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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;
  3. 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;
  4. The differences between the Pastoral letters and the generally acknowledged genuine letters of Paul are explained by Paul’s new perspective after his release;
  5. 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. TysonMarcion 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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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on “On an early date for Acts — and its problems”

  1. Hemer does not assume the historicity of Acts, rather he demonstrates it in the book you are quoting (“The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History”). And it is one thing to include ‘colorful’ details as a bit of narrative flourish, but quite another to reconstruct a lengthy, intricate voyage which shows accurate knowledge of harbors, sailing times, manifests, etc. at a specific point in time. The impression one gets from the remarkable detail of the sea voyage in Acts is that if the writer was not actually on that trip to Rome, he participated in one just like it, for similar reasons and around the same time: “Shakespeare didn’t write any of his plays, but someone else called Shakespeare did who had his level of education and literary sensibilities and lived around the same time”.

    There is absolutely no textual evidence that there was an ur-Luke which supported Marcion’s theology and which was later expanded and redacted. Even John Knox, supporter of this theory, had to admit that there were links with the Old Testament and with John the Baptist, etc. which Marcion almost certainly excised from the text that he used. Scholars who argue that the Lukan infancy narrative was not original to the gospel have not considered how well it serves as a preface and summary of the whole book of Luke-Acts.

    And even if there were substantial evidence that Acts was written around 110-120 C.E., it still does not disqualify Acts as a source of history. Think again of our earliest historical sources for Alexander, about 300 years after the time he lived in.

  2. I suggest you wait to hear the arguments for an earlier Luke given by Tyson (a student of Knox) before you launch your critique. As for their being “no textual evidence”, iirc that little problem did not stop you earlier from arguing that many texts are simply lost so the evidence is not available for what we “know” must have been true.

    Why not show me here how Hemer “demonstrates” the historicity of Acts? Just one point will do.

    As for relying on graphic detail as a proof of author involvement, this simply flies in the face of all that is known by scholars and lay alike, from studies and common experience. It’s part of the novelists craft to strive for plausibility with graphic details. Your impressions that the author was really there simply demonstrates how well the narrator has succeeded. Tom Clancy would be proud, as would any Hellenistic novelist or poet.

  3. I am waiting to hear the arguments. Take the above as preliminary observations to establish the burden of proof. I especially want to see how he disproves the common impression that Luke-Acts is a literary unity, and that both books have a very clear, elegant internal structure. Of course such judgments are to a certain extent subjective. Tyson probably finds literary incongruities where other scholars would notice only a pointed use of literary technique or deliberate ambiguity, just like Darrell Doughty in his argument for a long history of Pauline redaction.

    What do you mean, “just one point will do”? With just one point of congruity of a literary work with ‘external’ history, I could ‘prove’ that virtually any fictional work is historical. You should know as well as I do that judgments about historical reliability are complex, cumulative efforts which call upon well-honed professional instincts. Why don’t you just read Colin Hemer’s book yourself? In any case, my point was one of clarification of Hemer’s method. He did not ‘assume’ the historicity of Acts. Whether he succeeded or not, demonstrating that historicity was precisely what he set out to do.

    Your analogy with Tom Clancy actually undermines your own statement, because this is precisely the difference between modern and ancient writers. Tom Clancy has a wealth of material to create the impression of verisimilitude in his novels, including newspaper and photo archives, interviews with relevant experts, non-fiction historical studies, detailed and accurate maps, the Internet, etc. This was not the case in the ancient world, in which even geographers like Strabo and Pliny did not have access to reliable maps and often made mistakes. It would have been hard in ancient times to create the level of detail which Luke describes without actually having been to those places and gone on those journeys. And when you compare the verisimilitude involved in other ancient novels with that of Acts, the difference is striking. It is easy to see the generic nature of narrative detail in the other novels, not so in Luke, who gives a description which suggests having been there himself (See Loveday Alexander, “The Book of Acts in its Ancient Literary Setting”, chs. 4 and 5).

  4. Well I’ve read many ancient novels and epics and Luke’s level of detail is no different in kind from what I read in those. And Luke’s storm at sea is as generic as it is unique like other storm at sea episodes in ancient literature. Why not cite the relevant sections in Alexander for me if they establish this is not so? If you are going to simply say ‘read this’ I can simply say ‘read that’ — which is not very useful. You don’t seem very familiar with ancient novels and epics.

    I mean by ‘just one point’ that you show me one detail that demonstrates the historicity of Acts. You suddenly now talk of relying on ‘instincts’ to establish what is historical. This is not the position you appeared to be taking in your earlier posts. I ask you to show me how Hemer demonstrates the historicity of Acts in just one point and you suggest in reply that instead I read Hemer myself. Why not tempt me? — show me where he demonstrates historicity of one section or part of the story of Acts and I will have reason then to reject Tyson’s claim as false. That should not be too hard if you have read his book and it does indeed demonstrate the historicity of Acts — and not just rely on “well honed professional instincts” to make its case. (We don’t need “instincts” to verify the historicity of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great — we have primary evidence and verifiable secondary evidence there.)

    As for your ‘probables’ in what the argument is going to be, again, it sounds like you are preparing your faith-based position to demolish it all before you even know what the arguments are.

  5. I’ll have some page numbers and quotes from Alexander and Hemer shortly. I don’t own the books and it’s been awhile since I borrowed them from the library.

    You seem to have misunderstood my reply about showing the historicity of Acts at “just one point”. I can give you the catalogue (taken not only from Hemer, but also Bruce, Gasque, Sherwin-White, McRay, etc.) of about 100 different places where Luke shows intimate familiarity with Jerusalem temple practice before its destruction, Roman legal procedure, Greco-Roman religion, trade routes, navigational details and city architecture, but that in itself won’t convince a hardened skeptic that the account is historically reliable. They’ll just reply, “Oh, he just added those details, which he pilfered from other historians and travel stories, to add local color to his tale”. The judgment of historicity is based more broadly on the above considerations, inferences of the author’s intent, etc.

    ‘Primary evidence’ for Alexander the Great? Really? You mean we actually have the written accounts from eyewitnesses of his exploits and conquests by their own hand, securely dated to the right time period, themselves verified by other eyewitness accounts of neutral observers from the same period? Are you sure that by ‘primary evidence’ you don’t mean the Astronomical Diary and Ptolemy and Aristobulus’ witness as recounted by Arrian, neither of which was very ‘neutral’ either in regards to Alexander or themselves and for whom we have quotations in other writers not all of which are authentic? Historians use their professional instincts to sift through this secondary and tertiary material. The facts don’t just ‘leap off the texts’. And like I said in a previous post, a really thorough, radical skeptic could claim that the generals of Alexander were actually responsible for creating the myth of a “king of the world” to legitimate their own political position, minting coins, calling cities after their mythical hero’s name, etc. Historians don’t take these proposals very seriously. So why are historical Jesus skeptics allowed to get away with it?

  6. You wrote:
    “but that in itself won’t convince a hardened skeptic that the account is historically reliable. They’ll just reply, “Oh, he just added those details, which he pilfered from other historians and travel stories, to add local color to his tale”. The judgment of historicity is based more broadly on the above considerations, inferences of the author’s intent, etc.”

    My response:
    I don’t know anything about being a “hardened” sceptic but I do believe that healthy scepticism is a virtue in any rational historical or scientific enquiry. I think being “hardened” in anything would make a pursuit tedious and pointless with the outcome always predetermined. Like a faith-based enquiry. I have a wide range of viewpoints on my shelf and never quite know where any of them will lead when I start to read. I suspect you do know where you are headed in any enquiry that concerns the fundamentals of your faith, however, yes?

    But surely it is a valid question to ask of any text if historical background details in it necessarily verify the story itself as historical. What is wrong with wanting to honestly face that question? We certainly see accurate geographic and background historical details referenced in the Hellenistic novels and various epics without assuming those stories are anything more than fictional. And we do see lots of novelistic features in Acts too, so this is not an unfair comparison. Genre is not so subjective as sometimes claimed. And some historians get details wrong but that doesn’t affect their overall historicity. And some historical persons tell outright porkies in surviving monuments about their achievements.

    As for your next para, your rejoinder has lost me: primary evidence is not confined to written texts. Even if we had no late texts about Alexander historians would be able to work out at least a little about him and find themselves always wanting to know more simply because of the priimary evidence, coins.

    And again, you refer to “professional instincts”. What are these exactly? I never learned about “professional instincts” while studying historical research. This sounds like a new methodology to me. You would think such a term would be tossed out as overly subjective, wouldn’t you?

    Is the alternative to “instincts” really having facts “leap off the texts”? Again you’ve lost me with these alternatives. Historical research is often painstakingly hard work. It does not come about by “instincts”. Or maybe it does in biblical “scholarship”? I think you’d have a case if you confined it to biblical studies.

    As for your “really thorough radical skeptic” — you are simply setting up a straw man there and surely you must suspect as much. The critiques of Jesus that I have engaged with (and I don’t agree with all of them, by the way) are not so comically shallow as you attempt to depict. Such a caricature makes me suspect you have yet to engage any serious critiques of the Jesus myth (using “myth” in the technical sense).

    I should also add I guess that Tyson is not addressing the issue of “historicity” of Acts per se and nor am I when discussing his book. Yet this aspect seems to have triggered a very defensive response for some reason. Tyson is also one of those scholars you commended in another post for being scholarly in his approach without pushing a confessional agenda. So I am not quite sure what is prompting your objections to my post on this topic.

  7. “I suspect you do know where you are headed in any enquiry that concerns the fundamentals of your faith, however, yes?”

    No, absolutely not. I still haven’t seen firm arguments either for or against a really early date for the Gospels, or for whether John was an eyewitness. I don’t know whether I accept Maurice Casey’s reconstruction of the purported Aramaic sources behind Mark’s Gospel. I have not decided yet just how much of the teaching of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels goes back to him. I certainly cannot prove that Jesus was resurrected based on the NT alone. But I have seen enough to rule out fringe theories like Hermann Detering’s “Falsified Paul” (which I pored over extensively on Easter weekend, no less, and which forced me to become familiar with a lot of Pauline studies in a hurry!) or its more famous cousin, the Jesus myth theory.

    And I agree with you about the historical details not necessarily proving historicity. That depends, like I said, on a wider judgment of the author’s intent, the genre of the work, etc.

    I still don’t understand why you do not recognize professional instincts as part and parcel of any scholarly method. If there was not at least some element of subjective (but not necessarily irrational) judgment involved, why would historians disagree about anything? I agree that historical research is painstakingly hard work, but a large portion of that is sifting through the materials available making informed judgments, to the greatest extent possible, about the value of this or that source, the significance of this or that inscription, etc. This is certainly not confined to biblical studies. The disagreements there seem more pronounced because of the great importance the Bible has for so many people. But I see scholarly disagreement, even violent disagreement, in just about every field of history that I see, especially ancient history where our sources are so fragmentary.

    A radical skeptic certainly does not have to accept the existence of Alexander based on coins. Mythical figures were also imprinted on coins. And I really don’t think I’m setting up a straw man with this “thorough radical skeptic”. Earl Doherty certainly comes close. Just reading his articles scrambling to come up with an alternative translation for passages in the epistles which quite clearly point to Jesus’ humanity, and trying to force them into the mold of a rather narrow middle Platonism is painful.

    First-class historians like Michael Grant, Robin Lane Fox, Peter Brown and W.H.C. Frend have no problem using the four Gospels to reconstruct the life and career of a real 1st Century person, just like Alexandrian historians are content to work with basically four sources which are much later from Alexander than the Gospels are from Jesus to reconstruct his life and career. It’s just standard historical procedure.

    I’m not sure where I commended Tyson before on this blog. I never heard of him before this post. And I was not ‘attacking’ this post simply for presenting Tyson’s point of view. I’m simply being critical, just like you plead we should be about the Gospels and the NT. So Earl Doherty is allowed to be radically skeptical about the Gospels and I’m not allowed to be skeptical about revisionist ideas? Some scholars are skeptical of historical studies if and only if they support traditional viewpoints. I tend to be initially skeptical of studies which support revisionist viewpoints.

  8. Hi JD,

    You wrote: “I still don’t understand why you do not recognize professional instincts as part and parcel of any scholarly method. If there was not at least some element of subjective (but not necessarily irrational) judgment involved, why would historians disagree about anything?”

    My response: I see quite a difference between ‘instincts’ and ‘subjectivity’. Even painstaking hard work can be subjective. Every question we ask, every interest we have, every rational conclusion we reach, contains a ‘subjective’ element within it. Historians can be aware of their subjectivities and make allowances for them in discussions and research. But the subjective does not at the same time rule out rigorous rational hard nosed methodology either. My point is that there is so much lack of the latter rigour in biblical scholarship applied to their basic assumptions about their sources. But before one can even ask the questions one must come from the subjective position of being personally interested to explore where such questions may lead.

    You wrote: “A radical skeptic certainly does not have to accept the existence of Alexander based on coins. Mythical figures were also imprinted on coins.”

    My response: I have a number of times tried to put the breaks on your setting up straw man cases to knock down. This is another one. You seem to be setting up an alternative that is an extreme form of scepticism that is bereft of all historical method and norms and knowledge as your alternative (and associated to the position I present). But the case against the gospels being ‘history’ does not rest on their relative dates. Even if they could be dated to the 30’s ce most of the arguments critiquing their historical value about Jesus would still hold. The reason the later dates are considered is that they are firstly, permissible in light of the evidence, and secondly, find a plausible rationale for their creation at that time. There is no comparison with the texts for Alexander which are not theological texts (and which, incidentally, do not rely on multiple miraculous elements to forge their meaning and significance) and are clearly of a quite different cultural milieu and genre. As for Earl Doherty, I am quite sure he can defend himself on his site if you raise your objections to his arguments with him.

    You mention creating the life of a 1st century person from the gospels. Fiction is an essential resource for ancient historians (and sometimes for modern ones too, for that matter) for recreating lives of people of the time. We learn so much from the Hellenistic novels about life in the ancient world that would otherwise be lost to us.

    But my position is not to use the gospels to reconstruct the life of Jesus. That would be circular, and missing the first step. First I seek to establish the nature of the gospels and decide what sort of evidence they can yield. I can’t begin with the assumption they will yield a true historical biography. That’s not being extreme. It’s starting at the beginning. It’s how historians approach the sources for Alexander, too, which is why they find some virtually totally useless. Unfortunately, however, it is not as common a method as it should be in biblical studies.

    No, you are right, you did not mention Tyson. But you did commend a large number of scholars who do appear to have confessional agendas, like Burton Mack and Bart Ehrman and I saw Tyson as quite comfortably within that bracket. I apologize if that misrepresented your position and should have clarified at the time.

    You are most certainly allowed to be sceptical about revisionist ideas. But expect a “revisionist” to equally come to the defence of his position. If you were not allowed your posts would be zapped. Instead, they are accepted and responded to 🙂

  9. I’m curious about the author of Acts knowing all these technical terms used in seamanship that he found out while , presumably, a prisoner on the boat.

    Did the sailors teach their prisoners advanced seamanship?

    Did the slaves transported to America emerge from the boat with knowledge of winds, harbours, cargoes and various technical terms?

    How do you learn all these technical terms as a prisoner on a ship?

  10. I like your original insights.

    The author was a beloved physician too, wasn’t he? (At least till Cadbury tore apart the arguments.)

    (Preparing a detailed reponse to another post on the Loveday Alexander assertion, maybe will make a whole new post of it since it gets to the heart of unquestioned assumptions undergirding the most fanciful scenarios touted in biblical studies.)

  11. “I’m curious about the author of Acts knowing all these technical terms used in seamanship that he found out while , presumably, a prisoner on the boat.”

    Breath-taking willfull ignorance. The author of Acts first of all was NOT a prisoner on the ship with Paul, he was a companion who was allowed to travel with him, just like Aristarchus. And this is NOT the first time the author has set foot on a boat. He has learned all this nautical terminology on his previous extensive travels with Paul! You seem to be forgetting that Acts 27-28 stands at the end of a long series of ‘we’ travel narratives!

    “At least till Cadbury tore apart the arguments”

    So you are content that scholarship from more than 50 years ago still stands unchanging today? Am I then allowed to assume that Schweitzcher demolished the Jesus myth arguments once and for all? And that Martin Hengel and Colin Hemer conclusively proved the historicity of Acts?

  12. “So you are content that scholarship from more than 50 years ago still stands unchanging today? ”

    This is a baseless ad hominem, as is your “breath taking willful ignorance” put down. Please be nice.

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