The literary genre of Acts. 2: Chronology

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by Neil Godfrey

There is not a lot to say about the use of chronological markers in Acts. There aren’t many.

I still recall my first readings of the synoptic gospels and Acts and wondering over what time span readers were meant to understand the narratives taking place. There are simply no clues within the text itself. No absolute chronological markers worth the mention. How long was it from Pentecost to the conversion of Paul? There are a few mentions of several month stays and weeks of traveling, but no clue is given in the text itself about whether the events covered a handful of years or a generation.

Pervo writes in relation to determining the genre of Acts:

Nor does chronology settle the question. Luke’s absolute chronology is so thin that one of his defenders was driven to assign chronological data to a projected third volume by Luke and another to blame the problem on sources.¹ Relative chronology is also problematic. Only those readers supplied with data from other sources perceive that the book records events that took place over an entire generation.² If chronology, both external and internal, was an important concern for historians, it was not so for Luke. (p. 5)

His footnotes elaborate:

  1. Poor sources: Bruce, 15. (What of Luke 3:1-2, where the source is known?) Most of the chronology of Acts derives from the mention of known persons (e.g. Gallio, Claudius) whose dates are elsewhere available.
  2. Thus Acts 12:1-23, if it refers to Agrippa, implies more than a decade has elapsed since the ascension. No one would guess this, nor imagine that chaps. 12-18 covered eight years.

Readers of Acts who wish to decipher its chronology are driven to what they know from other sources unrelated to the text before them. Acts shows no real historical interest in helping readers get their chronological bearings as they read. What is important is to keep the entertaining adventures racing along.A post script to this:

I have discussed in brief a possible source for Luke’s chronology in Luke 3.1 in a post that is part of another series I am working on. See Dating the Book of Acts: 5

Next, 3. Speeches

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Neil Godfrey

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3 thoughts on “The literary genre of Acts. 2: Chronology”

  1. There are at least some clues in the writings attributed to Josephus that original Antiquities was written first and that original War was written during the reign of Nero. To boot, I suggest that Josephus became one of the earliest ‘Christians’ or anointed ones, that is anointed by the Spirit, while living as a young man in Rome where he was raised. The earliest Christians knew nothing about Jesus.

  2. An earlier date for the original writings of Josephus, allows for the possibility of an earlier date for original Acts, i.e. pre 60 CE when James went to Jerusalem with a shipment of Egytian grain delivered to Caesarea (and not shipwrecked as in extant Acts).

    There was no mission to Gentiles in original Acts. So the fictitious Paul never went to Corinth. But in mentioning Gallio (Acts 18.12), the Pauline editor tried to kid you that his Paul did visit Corinth where supposedly ‘many of the Corinthians who heard him believed and were baptised’. Of course the Pauline editor was well aware that Gallio, Seneca’s brother, was proconsul of Achaia at some time. But Paul’s apparent journeys to Gentile areas are padding between what were seamless events, in this case in Rome. In Acts 18.12, it was James who was brought into court by Jews of Rome who supported the temple cult. And it was not while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, but while his brother Seneca was consul, that is in 57 CE. The case was sufficiently serious to be heard by Seneca. Thus original Acts was written after 57 CE, but before 60 CE.

    The two original letters to the Corinthians were sent to Corinthians who lived in Rome and no doubt had their own synagogue there. The original letters were witten by James.

  3. On second thoughts, Acts could have been finished, shortly after James’ arrival in Jerusalem in 60 CE, i.e. shortly after the coincidental arrival of the fictitious Paul in Rome – Paul’s final journey to Rome was James’ second and final jouney to Jerusalem. Extant Acts reverses the journey.

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