Is Luke’s Silence Evidence of Ignorance?

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by Tim Widowfield

The Apostle Paul

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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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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16 thoughts on “Is Luke’s Silence Evidence of Ignorance?”

      1. Nice to see you back Tim! Missed your entries. Yes, I agree. An “allusion” is not a historical event. We have nothing to back up Luke. Unless you read about Paul’s martyrdom by beheading and then to show victory in Christ he picks up his head and puts it back on!
        Come on now! I find most Christian scholars immediately turn into immediate “rationalists” when they discover data that runs against their own “disbeliefs” and apologetic spin. Not saying Mr. Covington that you are such. But what is the point of your comment anyway? Moreover, I trust very little Luke-Acts would say about “Paul”. I am not alone in that assessment.

        BTW this goes for the contents of I Cor. 15. The entire list is all hearsay! Look !Not one “appearance” has any “first” person testimony. Check it for yourself. Paul is the only one there actually giving a salvation history “testimony”, not any proof from history for the event on the historically verifiable level. How interesting.

        So he too is simply spinning out his own bankrupt apologetics. I think Biblical apologetics is bankrupt…from someone who was an apologetics teacher and writer for many years in a fundigelical institution. Btw Tim since you like Luke and Acts so much I will send you some things for research if your are interested. Let me know. I have missed your input. Would need your email. Here is mine… thricehermes@gmail.com I have great things to send you as a help for furthering your contributions here and elsewhere.

        1. Not finished yet. Sorry. Luke’s clear agenda or purpose or ultimate goal…note the Greek text. It is not to give a verifiable history but to give a verifiable or “secure” basis for the theological catechesis in terms of the Holy Spirit’s “witness” in Acts!

          Note Luke 1:4. I don’t know why so many are missing this in their analysis of Luke Acts. Luke is giving a Holy Spirit history. Furthermore, Luke is a bad historian regarding both the “historical ” Jesus and the “historical ” Paul!

          1. Tim. What a wonderful statement you made.

            “We keep expecting Paul to cite Jesus instead of quoting from the Old Testament or referring to analogies from the natural world.”

            This is a terrible lacunae in Pauline lit. Very little. If we do have “seemingly” words of Jesus, they are not from any historical source but either “revelational” I Cor. 11 and I Cor. 15 or the product of Paul’s interest in Nature in many respects as a Stoic or even Hermeticist in some ways!

            Here is something new as well I would like to put out there. When Carrier says in his talks(, I haven’t read his book yet,) but will soon, I notice he immediately starts getting into “hallucination” theorizing. I have had visions and hallucinations when I was a charismatic teacher and scholar in the ranks of evangelicalism. I still have visions/trances and hallucinations (I am finding this is not a good word to use in many contexts since it is so pejorative).

            So I Cor. 15. Let’s say the Lord (I take it to be Jesus but Paul is so free to say it was coming perhaps from the Jewish Lord – Jahweh. But not sure at this point. I have been seriously influenced by Margaret Barker. You must read her The Great High Priest. Your life and scholarship will change forever! Guaranteed! Anyway, Let say the Lord..Jesus actually gave Paul that resurrection info in a dream or trance state of some sort. There are many types. I have organized them in my own studies of the texts and in my own contiuing experiences of “spiritizations” of sorts throughout my life. I am atheist who does not believe in “spirits” anymore, but I do find interesting various phenomena connected with religious contexts. I Cor. 5 is a highly polemic piece in its own right. Moreover, how in the hell do you use a theological “creed” not a historical one (no such thing exists!) as a basis for doing history. Liconal, Craig, et al have all shot off their foot in trying to use a gun they have never used.

            Spirit and revelational talk is often is often generated by what presents itself as strange phenomena present in the human condition which we have yet to explore or explain in many cases. I don’t go for “gap” conclusions simply based on the fact that I may not be able to explain what happened to me or anyone else.

            So back again…Could Jesus give “historical verifiable information” from heaven to Paul regarding some “alleged” experiences of the named individuals and groups. How on earth would one come by such info, not to mention how to verify all this??!!

            There are serious problems here folks…. Peter is silent about his resurrection encounter, and the rest as well… then Paul performs a good rhetorical trick and adds himself to this “supposed” creed ( I don’t think G. Habermas has any real proof for his concensus apologetic..furthermore I used to read Habermas and I think even met him once at an ETS meeting. I think he engages in bibliographical bigotry as an apologist). I could say more but won’t … Like Tim I seem to be getting weary and irritated more and more with apologists and the field at this point in my life.

            Oh well,,,bye for now

            1. I haven’t read his [sc. Carrier] book yet

              You may wish to read Raphael Lataster first.

              Available online:

              • Lataster (2014). “The Fourth Quest: A Critical Analysis of the Recent Literature on Jesus’ (a)Historicity”. Literature & Aesthetics. 24 (1): 1–28. ISSN 2200-0437.

              • Lataster (2015). “Questioning the Plausibility of Jesus Ahistoricity Theories – A Brief Pseudo-Bayesian Metacritique of the Sources”. Intermountain West Journal of Religious Studies. 6 (1): 63–96. ISSN 2155-1723.

              • Lataster (2016). “Review Essay: Bart Ehrman and the Elusive Historical Jesus”. Literature & Aesthetics. 26 (1): 181–192. ISSN 2200-0437.


              • Lataster (2015). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists. CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1-5148-1442-0.

  1. One thing that supports the idea that the author of Acts did not in fact have details of the knowledge of Paul’s death is that it would have supported the author’s cause to deem Paul a martyr, but if this trend of ‘authenticity due to martyrdom’, only comes a few decades later i.e. Polycarp and onwards then my suggestion is not true, but if all martyrs, from Stephen are taken as a “sign” of their Christian authenticity then surely they would want Paul on that bandwaggon, which we learn he eventually does join.

    Perhaps we can therefore conclude that the author intentionally hid the death of Paul favouring the notion that the timing of the writing was more important over the label of martyrdom (or martyrdom not being imortant at the time it was written) or the text was indeed written before the death of Paul.

    The latter seems to be less convoluted.

  2. Not only the Argument from Silence, but the same criterion of embarrassment is used by the scholars only when they like and not when the same criterion may give what they absolutely don’t like.

    For example, according to Jean Magne, a particular emphasis in Hebrews 5:7-9 7
    In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. 8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. 9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him,

    …betrayes the need of a defense of the goodness of the god creator who wanted the death of Jesus, even when a particular version of Ascension of Isaiah 9:14 reads:

    “And the god of that world will stretch out his hand against his son”.

    The Latin summary corrects the words ”against his son” by ”against the Son of God”, but like Marcion, leaves the god of this world responsible for the crime which Paul will impute to the supreme god by mixing up the two persons.
    (From gnosis to Christianity, p. 179)

  3. Good points again. I think the only way to get the mythicist case properly addressed is to bypass the mainstream biblical scholars and take the case to the public. This is just one more example of why that’s the case. This is why I’m working on trying to figure out how to make a 1 hour documentary advocating for the mythicist position along the lines of what I’ve put forward in my book. The scholars will just keep dismissing and denying the evidence, so the only thing to do is present a polished case to the public directly and it it draws enough attention then it will have to be taken seriously.

    1. Dear R.G. Price. I have found some of your stuff very interesting and helpful in this respect. I would talk to the other Price (R. M) and ask him for suggestions since he already did this himself and so has wisdom in the process.

  4. The confused use of Josephos by “Luke” can be shown, so he was writing well after the Jewish War. It can be shown he copied “Mark”, who has Jesus prophecy the Temple destroyed. Again that puts the writings well after the Jewish War, “Mark” having to take much longer to become well known than Josephos. The conservatives might be able to whack one mole but the argument is cumulative: there are so many things supporting it that dismissal is very difficult; that they are all wrong is just very improbable.

  5. The idea of using accurate prophecy vs inaccurate prophecy as a marker for dating texts is prone to error itself. This is because this method invalidates the concept of true prophecy. That accuracy is only a result of writing about something that happened after the fact. It also presumes that memory of past events is accurate too and it negates the idea that predictions not prophecy are sometimes included in texts. At best it is a useful way to shine light on a matter but it is by far a conclusive science.

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