Dating the Book of Acts: 1, Evidence for the early date (before 70 c.e.)

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by Neil Godfrey

This is a short list points I have distilled from Tyson’s Marcion and Luke-Acts . This section will summarize the evidence adduced for an early date for the composition of Acts (pre-70 C.E. — before or around the trial and execution of Paul and the fall of Jerusalem) and the arguments against the interpretation of this evidence.

Future posts will look at evidence for:

  • an “intermediate” date (usually around the last couple of decades of the first century/very early second century);
  • and for a late date (well into the second century C.E. — even possibly as late as the mid or latter half of the second century C.E.)

(To do real justice to the question of dating would involve a detailed discussion of Pervo’s Dating Acts, and I suspect there is more to the relationship between Acts and the earliest gospel than even he publishes — but all of that is another discussion entirely.)

I’ll refer to Luke as the author throughout for simplicity’s sake even though this identification is debatable for the authorship of the whole or part of Acts.

One more point: Tyson does not present the following data as I do here. He is in fact discussing the changes of views of Harnack in particular from one preferred date to another, and the rationale and implications underlying this change of view — not to mention the way the scholarly field has fallen in line behind either one since. I will reserve Tyson’s discussion on that aspect till later. Till then, I just want to make a list of the commonly applied broad brush-stroke arguments for the various dates assigned for the composition of Acts.

The significance of the dating of Acts is enormous. The question bears heavily on how much can be taken as history as opposed to theological propaganda and political fiction — and the very nature and purpose of the Book of Acts. Is it a rough outline of the reasonably true origins of the Church from the time of Jesus to the trial of Paul? Or a complete fictional fabrication constructed for the purpose of denouncing a mid to late second century rival Church faction? Or neither?

Evidence adduced for an Early Date (Tyson, pp 7-13)

1. If we accept that Luke wrote Acts as late as 80-93 C.E., and if we accept that the trial of Paul and his appeal to Caesar are the chief subject of the last quarter of Acts, then we must account for Luke’s failure to mention these events at the end of his two years’ imprisonment. Is there any other more likely explanation than that he must have been an incompetent and incomprehensible historian? (Harnack (1909))

  • It can be countered that Harnack moved to this position without clear rationale after initially strongly arguing that the an intermediate date did indeed satisfactorily address (and dissolve) these arguments for an early date.

2. The absence of any “explicit and precise reference” to the fall of Jerusalem and with it the collapse of institutional Judaism is inexplicable if Acts were written after 70 C.E. (Robinson).

  • But how “explicit and precise” does a reference have to be? Assuming that Acts was written with or after Luke, “most scholars take Luke 19:41-44 and 21:20-24 to be just the kinds of specific detailed prophecies ex eventu that Robinson requires” (p.12). It can also be countered that Robinson imposes his own expectations of what should have been important for the author.
  • Robinson further assumes that Luke-Acts must have been “written either before 70 C.E. or in the immediate aftermath of these events and in a context in which they had a significant impact” — such as being in conversation with Palestinian or diaspora Jews. His assumption precludes consideration of a second century date or a non-Palestinian context.
  • Harnack argued that the references to the fall of Jerusalem in Luke and their absence in Acts pointed to the author knowing of the fall but writing many decades later.

3. The large number of seemingly insignificant details in the final chapters of Acts and its apparently inconclusive ending suggest an “immediacy” factor and composition of the work within two years of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome — around 62 C.E. when he would have been released. Further on the “immediacy factor” is the argument that insignificant details are found in the midst of less detailed brush strokes, indicating some parts of the story have not had time for further refinement before being penned. (Hemer)

Hemer also addresses various questions arising out of the abrupt ending of Acts. One example: he rejects the argument that the reason the author omitted the final fate of Paul was because his audience would have already known of it. Hemer responds that such an audience would also have known of many events leading up to Paul’s imprisonment but he did not omit those.

Hemer reconstructs the life of Paul from Acts and several of the Pauline and Pastoral epistles. (The difference in tone between these groups of letters is accounted for by changed circumstances in Paul’s life.) And upon this reconstruction he deduces that Acts was written around the time of Paul’s release from confinement in Rome. Paul did not disclose the subsequent movements of Paul in order to protect him from his enemies.

  • Hemer’s dating of Acts rests on his speculative reconstruction of Paul’s life — which in turn assumes the historicity of both Acts and the epistles.
  • Hemer’s “immediacy” factor may as well be explained as effective narrative rhetoric.

Will look next at the arguments for the intermediate dating of Acts.

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “Dating the Book of Acts: 1, Evidence for the early date (before 70 c.e.)”

  1. Tyson concludes that the arguments for the early date (approx 60-70 c.e.) are flawed:

    — absence of specific mention of fall of Jerusalem and death of Paul do not necessitate a date before these events

    — sayings of Jesus (Luke 19:41-44 and 21:20-24) clearly show the author was looking back at the year 70 c.e., and author of Acts certainly knew these passages in the gospel.

  2. There are some who think that Luke may have written a proto-Gospel and only later, after composing Acts, added in the Marcan content. Thus, references in Luke to a post-70 date do not necessarily indicate Acts must be written later as well.


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