Dating the Book of Acts: 4, the late date reconsidered (1-3)

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by Neil Godfrey

Tyson has presented the selective summary of views on the date of Acts (outlined in previous 3 posts) to bring to readers’ attention the fact that the current majority view for the intermediate date for Acts (80-100 c.e.) has not always held the floor. He believes recent scholarship in a number of fields invites us to re-open the question of the second-century date for Acts, even though it has not been widely entertained now for 100 years. Tyson sees five issues as significant for this reconsideration of a late date for Acts:

  1. External references to Acts
  2. Significance of the events of 70 c.e.
  3. Bearing of the end of Acts
  4. Possible influence of Josephus on Acts
  5. Use of Paul’s letters by the author of Acts

Again, the notes here are from Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (2006) pp. 10-23 . . . . .

1. External references

Haenchen and Conzelmann both concluded that definite evidence for Acts exists only from the second half of the second century.

While short phrases before then (in 1 Clement, Ignatius, Barnabas, Polycarp, 2 Clement, Papias) appear to contain fragments that are similar to passages in Acts, Haenchen shows that none of them is necessarily or clearly drawn from Acts. Rather, the first to indicate debt to Acts according to Haenchen is Justin Martyr. He considers Justin’s 1 Apology 50:12 narrating a sequence of events that mirror the last chapters of Luke and first chapter of Acts. (See also my links to tables illustrating Justin Martyr’s knowledge of canonical gospel and church history, including links there to 1 Apology.)

Townsend (in Luke-Acts, 1984) doubts Justin Martyr’s knowledge of Acts (so do I — see my tables linked above). For example, he comments that while Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho 105 may be taken to cite Luke 23:46, it is equally plausible that it is a citation of Psalm 31:5. In Townsend’s view the earliest definite citations and allusions to Luke-Acts are from 170 c.e.

It may be argued that the absence of definite external references to Acts before 170 c.e. is an argument from silence and that there are plausible explanations for this absence of evidence of Acts prior to this time. Thus the lateness of external attestation for Acts does not establish a late date for the composition of Acts. But it does give us permission to embrace such a late date if other arguments offer a probability for it.

2. Significance of 70 c.e.

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). Robinson counters that these references are not as explicit as a “prophecy” after the event in the Sibylline Oracles (See Book IV, 125) — apparently assuming that if an author “does not make explicit and precisely detailed reference to the fall of Jerusalem, it is reasonable to conclude that the author was writing before 70 c.e.” (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.
  • Windisch also contends that the disaster of 70 c.e. “by no means resulted in breaking the pride and self-confidence of the Jews, least of all in the Diaspora” — so the extent to which it is referred to in the gospels is quite adequate anyway.
  • Witherington agrees, thinking that the way Luke portrays the fall of Jerusalem and its contrast with Mark’s account strongly indicates a look back on 70 c.e. in hindsight.
  • While a lack of specific reference to the fall of Jerusalem might seem strange if the work were written within a decade of the event and in dialogue with Palestinian or diaspora Jews, it would not be at all surprising if the work were written as late as the second century. And in Tyson’s view, Luke 19 and 21 give ample testimony to the author’s knowledge of, and writing well after, the event. His failure to be more specific is what we would expect if he were writing in the late first or second century.
  • 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. End of Acts

The conclusion of Acts does not tell readers what happened to Paul, and many find this too difficult to accept if the book were written after the fate of Paul were known, or at least long afterwards when there was no longer a risk involved in revealing Paul’s movements after his release from house confinement.

“Most scholars would agree that, although sufficient notice of the fate of Paul was given in Acts 20:25, Luke’s major purpose was not to portray the life and death of Paul but to provide a basis for legitimating the Gentile mission. Luke’s main story in Acts was that of the progress of the gospel from Jerusalem to Rome.” (p.13)

The assumption made by Robinson and Harnack that the absence of explicit reference to the fate of Paul is the same one made in relation to the lack of clearly explicit reference to the fall of Jerusalem. To assume that if the authors were writing after these events they would necessarily have made more detailed references to them is to “impose on the author of Acts our own assumptions about what he should have known, should have considered germane to his purposes in writing, and should have included.” (p.14). Modern tastes should not influence our judgments about the dating of the work.

Will look at the next 2 points — influence of Josephus and use of Paul’s letters in next post (or two).

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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Dating the Book of Acts: 4, the late date reconsidered (1-3)”

  1. Tyson believes that the arguments for a late date for Acts (100-150 c.e.):

    — “recognize more of the relevant factors affecting its composition”

    — “present us with few problems than do the other nodal dates”

    In the second century events such as the death of Paul and fall of Jerusalem are distant memories not requiring explicit references.

    Terminus a quo
    is determined by the influences of:

    — Josephus

    — Paul’s collected letters

    Terminus ad quem is determined by

    — the appearance of citations of Acts in Justin and later writers

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