When reading scholars’ arguments about determining the dates of books in the New Testament, I often come away feeling as if I know less than when I started. Their works frequently leave me with a dull headache.
Many current scholars have placed all their eggs in the internal evidence basket, admitting that all the external evidence we have is, at best, inconclusive. They focus on what the writers said and didn’t say, compared to what they assume a writer would say — or would not say — at any given period or with any given theological bent.
You might expect that the loss of all external corroboration would bring with it a concomitant drop in reliability. Or, to put it another way, the confidence interval (i.e., the range of dates between which a book was probably written) would now necessarily be quite large. However, you must recall that we’re dealing with NT scholars. Their lack of evidence is more than offset by their brimming self-confidence.
Because mainstream scholarship has generally concluded that the authors of Matthew and Luke used the gospel of Mark, we have a chain of dependency. We can say, for example, that if Luke depended on the availability of Mark’s gospel then Luke must have written his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles (assuming the same author wrote both) later than Mark.
Beyond that, if we could peg the dates for Luke and Acts at a certain point, then we would in the same stroke have defined the terminus ad quem for the writing of Mark. Using this logic, conservatives and apologists point to the fact that we never learn about Paul’s death in Acts. He arrives in Rome. He’s under house arrest. Then, silence. What does it mean?
Apologists, as you might imagine, have presumed that this silence means that Luke finished his sequel before Paul died. However, a surprising number of mainstream scholars have come to the same conclusion. That is, the author of Acts wrote before Paul died.
Now, I don’t wish to mislead you into thinking this is the current consensus opinion. However, as conservative scholars continue to dominate the publishing houses, flooding the market with their works, we cannot help but notice that such borderline apologetic ideas have become more commonplace.
Nor do I wish in this post to argue for or against a late or early date for the writing of Acts. Instead, I want to draw your attention to the basis for argument — namely, the silence of the author and what that silence signifies.
As we have noted several times here on Vridar, the silence of Paul in his letters concerning the facts of Jesus’ life, his nature, his family, his ministry, his history, his theology, etc., seldom, if ever, leads conservative scholars to conclude that Paul was ignorant of these things. And yet, the silence of Luke means something entirely different.
Adolf von Harnack speaks for them in The Date of the Acts and of the Synoptic Gospels:
Not only is the slightest reference to the outcome of the trial of St Paul absent from the book, but not even a trace is to be discovered of the rebellion of the Jews in the seventh decade of the century, of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, of Nero’s persecution of the Christians, and of other important events that occurred in the seventh decade of the first century. (Harnack 1911, p. 99)
(Note that John A. T. Robinson would later agree on these essential points in his Redating the New Testament, 1976. See Chapter IV, “Acts and the Synoptic Gospels.”)
When we offer similar arguments about, for example, Paul’s predicting the imminence of the eschaton without his ever mentioning that Jesus did, too, scholars smugly dismiss us. Of course Paul knew all that, but so did his readers. Why bore them with such well-known details?
Oddly enough, for conservative scholars, this argument does not work in the case of Luke. Harnack, again:
One may object that the end of the Apostle was universally known, or one may also say that when the author had brought St Paul to Rome he had attained the goal that he sets before himself in his book. For many years I was content to soothe my intellectual conscience with such expedients; but in truth they altogether transgress against inward probability and all the psychological laws of historical composition. The more clearly we see that the trial of St Paul, and above all his appeal to Caesar, is the chief subject of the last quarter of the Acts, the more hopeless does it appear that we can explain why the narrative breaks off as it does, otherwise than by assuming that the trial had actually not yet reached its close. (Harnack 1911, pp. 96-97)
Again, I don’t care to argue at this point one way or the other about the date of Acts and the synoptics. My point here is merely this: When we find scholars using a tool of argument to prove something conclusively in one area, but rejecting it out of hand in another area, we have a right to be suspicious.
We can with justification call the silence of Luke and the silence of Paul “anomalies” — what Thomas Kuhn called violations of expectation. We keep expecting Paul to cite Jesus instead of quoting from the Old Testament or referring to analogies from the natural world. Similarly we expect to learn the results of Paul’s trial in Rome and are left hanging when Luke does not narrate his martyrdom.
Since my apostasy, over 40 years ago, I had presumed Luke had left off where he did in order to pretend he was “in the moment.” Harnack will have none of that. He writes:
Besides the natural solution that the trial was already undecided when St Luke wrote, I regard, in abstracto, only one other as possible, namely, that the writer not only wished to pass as an eyewitness but also to give the impression that he was writing during St Paul’s life and while the trial was still proceeding. But this “seventh” way of escape is blocked; for the amateurish attempts which have been again made lately to prove that the “we” of the Acts is a forgery by appealing to the analogy of certain falsified “we”-accounts cannot be taken seriously, and are not worthy of formal refutation. We are accordingly left with the result: that the concluding verses of the Acts of the Apostles, taken in conjunction with the absence of any reference in the book to the result of the trial of St Paul and to his martyrdom, make it in the highest degree probable that the work was written at a time when St Paul’s trial in Rome had not yet come to an end. (Harnack 1911, pp. 98-99; italics his, bold text mine)
So there. I am duly chastened.
But in the end, I cannot help but notice that NT scholarship has a marvelous penchant for protecting itself with contradictory, hermetically sealed, ad hoc arguments and a remarkable track record of declaring certain uncomfortable ideas “not worthy of formal refutation.” These features make Biblical studies the practical antithesis to the study of history.
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