Someone just sent me this short article from the Daily Beast by church historian Candida Moss: “Nero, the Execution of Peter and Paul, and the Biggest Fake News in Early Christian History.” Basically, it’s about how Christians really weren’t persecuted by Nero as part of the great fire of Rome because the term “Christian” wasn’t in use by 64 AD. If you’re thinking the book of Acts’ references to Christians rebut that, Moss just says you can’t trust Acts — it was written after 64 AD (Moss notes scholars disagree but basically just ignores that point; see below). Candida Moss was the scholar who told us that Christians really weren’t persecuted like church tradition has it. Scholars have pointed out that her definition of persecution was too narrow — essentially front-loading the conclusion in the data.
Aside from the fact that plenty of scholars would assign an early date to Acts which would fit just fine with the Nero chronology, this idea is another example of scholarly illogic. (I’ve mentioned before how I once said — in a doctoral seminar — that all scholars should be forced to take at least one course in logic). Moss commits the (I should think obvious) logical error of presuming no one used a term in SPOKEN discourse before a term was WRITTEN. Really? Think about the illogic of that. Did peoples whose languages were never preserved via writing not have a vocabulary? Scholars regularly make this mistake — equating communication and its vocabulary with writing instead of … well … SPEECH.
The point is that lots of people could have been referring to Christ-followers as Christians before the term was ever put into a piece of literature.
For those curious about the dating of Acts, here are some excerpts from sourced discussions (footnote content is not copied):
As regards the date of composition, most scholars assume that Luke wrote the book of Acts between AD 80–90. This date is predicated on two factors: the dependence of Luke-Acts on the gospel of Mark, and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 which is regarded to be presupposed both by Mark 13 and by Luke 19:43–44; 21:20. To begin with the second argument: since the description of the fate of Jerusalem by Mark (and Luke) contains many Old Testament and Jewish motifs (Daniel; 1-2 Maccabees), and since we should not discount the possibility of genuine prophecy, the date of AD 70 as terminus post quem for the composition of both Mark’s gospel and Luke’s two volume work is not compelling. The first argument raises the issue of the reliability of the two-source hypothesis (Mark wrote his gospel first, and both Matthew and Luke depend on Mark as well as on a source which contained mostly sayings of Jesus), which continues to be disputed; and it begs the question when the gospel of Mark was written—some scholars are prepared to date Mark as early as AD 55. If Luke’s gospel is indeed dependent on Mark’s gospel, and if Luke wrote Acts shortly after having written his gospel, a date of Mark in the late 50s or even in 60/61 would allow for the completion of Acts certainly before AD 70 and possibly before the date at which Luke’s narrative in Acts ends (Paul is a prisoner in Rome from AD 60–62). This leaves the possibility that Luke published Acts before he knew the outcome of Paul’s trial.
The ending of Acts which relates Paul being under house arrest in Rome, preaching the gospel, does not by necessity presuppose that Acts was written before AD 62. If Paul was indeed released from prison, as 2 Tim 4 suggests and 1 Clement 5:5–7 presupposes, Luke may have written Acts soon after Paul’s release in AD 62. Luke’s silence about Paul’s acquittal and about Paul’s renewed missionary activity could be explained by his desire not to alert the apostle’s enemies about the location of his ministry. Or Luke took Paul’s preaching in Rome to be a more suitable climax for his narrative than a reference to Paul’s continuing ministry in the churches of the East.40 A date not long after AD 62 is suggested not only by the lack of reference to Nero’s persecution of Roman Christians between AD 64–67 and Paul’s (and Peter’s) martyrdom, but also by the fact that the Jewish revolt against the Romans in AD 66 and the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 are not reflected in Luke’s portrayal of the Jews and of Jewish institutions in Jerusalem and in the diaspora. Irenaeus (Haer. 3.1.1; 3.14.1) and Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 2.22.6) assert that Luke-Acts was written in Rome, which is a good possibility, particularly in view of the historical considerations connected with the date of Acts, but certainty is not possible in this matter.
Eckhard J. Schnabel, Acts (Expanded Digital Edition.; Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012).
The date of Acts is tied to discussion of the date of Luke’s Gospel (Bock 1994a: 16–18). As the sequel, Acts would have come after the completion of the Gospel, and so the discussion is tied to the two books as well as to the Gospel of Luke’s relationship to the other Gospels (Fitzmyer 1998: 51–55 has a solid survey of the issues here). Acts could have been written no earlier than AD 62, since there is discussion of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. Some scholars argue for allusions to Acts in the Pastoral Epistles, such as in 2 Tim. 3:11 or the mention of Luke in 2 Tim. 4:11, but such connections are not certain (Conzelmann 1987: xxvii).
Conzelmann (1987: xxvii–xxxiii) covers potential allusions to Acts in the later writings of the church, as does Bruce (1990: 10–12). Potential allusions include 1 Clem. 2.2 (Acts 2:17); 1 Clem. 5.4, 7 (Acts 1:25); Pol. Phil. 2.3 (Acts 20:35); Pol. Phil. 6.3 (Acts 7:52); Pol. Phil. 12.2 (Acts 2:5; 4:12; 8:21; 20:32); Justin Martyr, 1 Apol. 50.12 (Acts 1:8). Such allusions would mean that the work was completed by the turn of the first century.
Two options dominate the discussion of the date of writing. One possibility is sometime in the 60s. The other is the period AD 70–100. Hemer (1989: 367–70) has a good list of adherents for all such options over about the last century, including those who opt for a date as late as AD 135, a decidedly minority third view. The latter date assumes that a noncompanion of Paul wrote this work and that the unified tradition surrounding Luke is completely wrong, as he would not have lived to such a late date.
The major arguments for a date in the 60s are the absence of references to Paul’s death and/or the lack of resolution of his Roman imprisonment (Kistemaker 1990: 22–24, opts for a date before Nero’s persecutions in AD 64). Reasons are as follows: (1) Those who point to the lack of resolution on the imprisonment favor an early 60s date. Those who emphasize no mention of Paul’s death favor a date in the mid- to late 60s. The rationale here is that if a writer had written after AD 70, then how could the outcome of this imprisonment or the eventual death of Paul in about AD 67 not have been noted? The argument is more against a later date than for the earlier date, since it is an argument from silence. (2) The absence of any mention of Nero’s persecution also suggests an earlier date in a time before Rome attacked the new movement. Bruce (1990: 14) responds, however, that the Romans themselves regarded Nero’s behavior as an aberration of Roman standards, so nothing need change in how someone writing after AD 62–64 saw the Romans as a whole. (3) There also is no hint of the war with the Jews in the late 60s. Here too the argument is more against a late date and is grounded on what is not covered. (4) It is also suggested that the positive tone in engaging Judaism comes before there was a major split. (5) Finally, the lack of discussion of Paul’s letters is said to favor an earlier date. The argument for a late date must suppose that the author of Acts ignored these letters, which would have been well known by the later period.
A date in the early 60s relies a great deal on the lack of resolution of Paul’s fate. Hemer (1989: 383) asks rhetorically about the argument for the nonresolution of Paul’s fate, “If Paul’s fate were immaterial, why tantalize the reader with a cryptic and unnecessary focus on it?” If there are reasons to suggest a resolution is not necessary to the author’s account, however, then the rationale for an early 60s date is weakened. And there is such an explanation: whether Paul (or any messenger of the gospel) dies or not in bringing the message is not as relevant as the message being proclaimed, which is exactly where Acts ends. The message reaches Rome as God had promised Paul. In Acts, we have martyrs for the faith such as Stephen and those who are merely persecuted. In each case, the gospel message is shared (Bruce 1990: 13). This is Luke’s key point. It must be admitted that this argument for an early date has some force. The question is whether it is compelling enough in light of other factors that also are at work in determining the date of Acts.
Critics of a date in the 60s, or at least the early 60s, note that abrupt endings occur elsewhere in the canon and do not impact dating. For example, Mark’s Gospel likely does not develop the resurrection appearances—a surprise—and such an omission is the clear choice of its author. So how much can one make of such an argument (Fitzmyer 1998: 52)? It may well be that the death of Paul is alluded to delicately in Acts 20:24–25. But the real reason for objecting to this date is that it requires an early date for Mark’s Gospel, which most place, at the earliest, in the 60s as well (Fitzmyer 1998: 53). A late-60s date or a post-70 date for Acts escapes this objection.
Those favoring a late date tend to base it on the fact that Acts follows Luke’s Gospel and then argue that Luke’s Gospel was written in a post-70 setting. This view depends more on how Luke’s Gospel is dated than on evidence from Acts. The key to this discussion is whether Luke’s treatment of the Olivet Discourse and its focus on the city of Jerusalem more than the temple reflect a post-70 perspective, something that is also debated. In addition, those holding this view appeal to allusions to Israel’s house being desolate or the unique description of Rome’s forces surrounding Jerusalem in Luke 19:41–44. The argument is that these texts with their unique details about how Jerusalem was put under siege require that Jerusalem had already experienced judgment, which means a date after AD 70. Since all these passages that are invoked for the date of Luke’s Gospel appear in prophetic contexts, the possibility of prediction cannot be excluded; this renders their use for dating problematic, especially when it is possible that Jesus saw Israel headed for covenantal judgment because of its rejection of his message, something taught in Jewish sacred texts (Bock 1994a: 17).
Those who favor an AD 80–100 date also refute the idea that the book could be later in origin, such as AD 115–30, because its theology does not reflect the period of the early second century.
A decision here is difficult. In favor of an early date are the use of Paul in Acts and the lack of explicit development of the fall of Jerusalem. For a date after AD 65 but before AD 90 stands the connection of Acts to issues tied to the date of the Gospels and details in Luke. For reasons argued in Bock 1994a: 17, I do not find the post-70 dating of Luke on the basis of eschatological texts convincing, but the relationship of Acts to the dating of the Gospels is an important factor for this topic. The latter would tend to favor a date in the late 60s. Marshall (1980: 46–48) speaks of a “towards AD 70” date. This date is suggested by the lack of explicit reference to AD 70 and by the lack of any effort to draw upon the “legacy” of Paul in contrast to Acts’ focus on Paul’s own ministry activity. Luke might even be writing when he can sense the approach of Jerusalem’s defeat by Rome. Either Acts is written so much after AD 70 that these issues are no longer worth noting, because they are a given, or it is written before it. On balance, the latter is more likely.
Darrell L. Bock, Acts (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 25–27.
In a historical book such as Acts, which constitutes the main document on primitive Christianity, the date of production is clearly of considerable importance. As so often in problems of dating New Testament books, the prior decision regarding authorship will naturally affect the presuppositions with which the subject is approached. Moreover, in this case, the decision already reached regarding the date of the third gospel will clearly have an influence on the date of Acts, since this book must be dated subsequent to Luke. Our present approach will be first to treat the subject of date in the light of the traditional position concerning authorship, and then to discuss alternatives. If, of course, the conclusions regarding date demand a period too late to make the traditional authorship possible, it would require a fresh consideration of the latter problem.
There are three main proposals: first, before A.D. 64, secondly, A.D. 70–85, and thirdly, a second-century date. They will be considered in this order.
a. Arguments for a date before A.D. 64
(i) The absence of reference to important events which happened between A.D. 60 and 70. The fall of Jerusalem is nowhere referred to and, although it is not decisive that Luke must have hinted at it if it had already occurred, there is a strong presumption in favour of this opinion. It would have been difficult for him to avoid some allusion to it, although it must be recognized that the destiny of Jerusalem would not have appeared so tragic to the Christian church as a whole as it would to the Jewish people. At the same time it is not without significance that Luke in his gospel centres more attention on Jerusalem than do his fellow synoptists.2
Another event of importance was the persecution of the church under the Emperor Nero. This precipitated so great a crisis that it is difficult to imagine that the earliest Christian historian could have ignored it so completely if he wrote after the event. Although the geographical area affected was confined to Italy, it is still astonishing that Luke makes no mention of it in ending his story at Rome. The only other possibilities would be to suppose that Acts was written after such an interval that the grim details of the horror had faded from the author’s mind, or else that he was unaware of it. It might just conceivably be argued that the author would have no cause to mention it, in which case it could be discounted as a factor affecting dating, but probability is on the side of a date before it.4
A further event of less widespread importance, but one which might well have interested Luke, was the martyrdom of James, the Lord’s brother. In fact Luke mentions two early martyrs: James, son of Zebedee, and Stephen. Moreover, the description of James’ position as president of the Jerusalem church and the care with which Luke describes his relationships with Paul show that the author regarded him as a key figure in primitive Christian history.
Yet all these three suggestions are arguments from silence and must be used with reserve.
(ii) The absence of reference to the death of Paul. The abrupt ending of Acts has for long been an enigma. The author leaves his readers with a description of Paul, a prisoner at Rome, but enjoying considerable liberty to preach and teach. Yet there is no indication about what happened to Paul after this. The reason for the abrupt ending is subject to various interpretations and these must be carefully examined in considering its effect upon the dating.
1. The author records all he knew. If, at the time of writing, Paul was still in his own hired house awaiting further developments, the abruptness is at once explained. There was nothing else to report.
2. The author did not wish to mention the outcome of the trial. It is suggested that he knew of Paul’s death, but that it was no part of his purpose to close with this. Such a procedure would, in fact, draw too much attention to the man, whereas Luke’s purpose was to describe rather the progress of the gospel. It has even been suggested that to conclude with Paul’s death would hint at a parallel with the conclusion of the gospel with its climax in the passion story and that it was to avoid this that Luke omits all reference to it.3 But this latter motive would not be applicable if the gospel and Acts were conceived as a continuous narrative, and in any case the author regarded the passion of Jesus as the beginning and not the end of the real work of Jesus in the world. It is not sufficient, on the other hand, to propose a theory of the author’s intention without supplying an adequate motive for the intention, and it may be questioned whether this condition has been fulfilled. It seems incredible that an author should devote so much space to relating the details of the trial of Paul and then leave the reader wholly in the dark with regard to its outcome.2
3. The author intended to write a third volume. On the analogy of the connection between the gospel and Acts it has been proposed that Luke had in mind another volume which would have related the subsequent history of Paul and his associates, and this has had the support of some notable scholars. It would, of course, get over the difficulty of the abrupt end of Acts, but such a desirable end is achieved only by the postulation of an entirely hypothetical volume which has left no trace in Christian history. The theory admittedly does not demand that the proposed volume should have left any trace, for it does not demand that Luke actually wrote the third instalment.4 It would suffice that the author intended to write it. But Acts does not give the impression that it was written as part of a continuing series. The gospel has reached Rome and this forms a natural climax to the history of the primitive period. There is something to be said for the objection that it is difficult to imagine what a third volume would have contained in order to have reached the same spiritual stature as the two former volumes. Moreover the great amount of space devoted to Paul’s trials is unintelligible as an introduction to a further narrative of the same kind. In other words, it is easier to assume that Paul’s trial was still in progress than that the author has in this way drawn his second book to a close in anticipating a third volume. While the suggestion cannot be ruled out, it cannot be said to be very convincing.
The silence of Acts regarding the death of Paul may, therefore, be said to raise a presumption in favour of an early date. But one objection to this conclusion needs to be noted. In Acts 20:25 some scholars find clear evidence that the author knew that martyrdom crowned Paul’s Roman imprisonment. But if this passage preserves the genuine tradition of Paul’s address to the Ephesian elders, it is capable of being interpreted as a presentiment on Paul’s part without necessitating the presumption that it must have been fulfilled. After all, Paul’s plans, according to Romans, were to turn westwards towards Spain and he evidently at that time had no intention of revisiting Ephesus.2 The Pasoral Epistles, if dated after the end of Acts, presuppose that he did. Those scholars who claim to fit the Pastoral personalia into the Acts structure would not see these epistles as being in conflict with the Acts 20 reference. Those who dispute an early date for Acts almost invariably regard the Pastorals as non-Pauline and for them the line of argument lacks validity.
(iii) The primitive character of the subject-matter. It is significant that the major interests of the author of Acts are those prevalent in the earliest period of church history, but which were not so relevant in later times. The Jewish-Gentile controversy is dominant and all other evidence apart from Acts suggests that this was a vital issue only in the period before the fall of Jerusalem. Even by the time of Paul’s later letters it had ceased to be a burning issue. Moreover, the question of Gentile inclusion was taken for granted when once the universal character of the Christian church had been established. Again, the preoccupation with food requirements in the report of the decisions of the Jerusalem Council points to an early stage of Christian development. Before the fall of Jerusalem all these factors were of vital significance.
(iv) The primitive nature of the theology. Supporting evidence of a more incidental character, but nevertheless highly significant, is found in the theological language. The whole book gives the impression of primitiveness. Such titles for Jesus as ‘the Christ’, ‘the Servant of God’, ‘the Son of man’, reflect primitive tradition. Equally primitive are the description of Christians as ‘disciples’, the use of λαός for the Jewish nation, and the reference to the first day of the week when Christians met together to break bread. Either the author writes early enough to be in direct, living touch with actual eyewitnesses, or he possesses such remarkable historical skill that he is able to reproduce with clear fidelity the primitive climate of thought. The former alternative is the more credible.
(v) The attitude of the state towards the church. Luke is at pains to demonstrate the impartiality of the imperial officials regarding Christianity. In no case is it the Roman officials who persecute the church. The local government at Ephesus is represented as distinctly helpful towards Paul and his companions, while the cause of persecution against the church is in every case the intrigues of the Jews. This is precisely what might be expected before Nero’s persecution in A.D. 64, but subsequent to that date the imperial officials would be more suspicious of Christianity and less inclined to treat it under the general concession to Judaism as a religio licita. The concluding word in Acts (ἀκωλύτως) is significant in this respect, for it forms a fitting climax to Luke’s design to show the unhindered progress of the gospel.
(vi) The relation of Acts to the Pauline epistles. It is universally admitted that the author of Acts shows little or no acquaintance with Paul’s epistles and it may reasonably be claimed as a consequence that Acts must have been published before the collection of the Corpus Paulinism, or at least before this collection had much general circulation. There are differences of opinion as to when the collection was made, but this circumstance favours as early a date as possible for Acts. Those who consider that the collection was actually prompted by the publication of Acts assume a period, subsequent to Paul’s death, during which he was neglected, and this automatically excludes an early date for Acts, but the whole theory is open to challenge.2
b. Arguments for a date between A.D. 70 and 85.
The major reason for preferring this to the earlier date is the author’s use of Mark. It has already been shown that the dating of Luke generally takes as its starting point the date of Mark as A.D. 60–69 and assumes that Luke has adjusted the vague reference in Mark 13 to ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ to the more specific ‘surrounded with armies’ through his knowledge of the details of the siege. In other words, Luke is supposed to have written after A.D. 70. In that case Acts would clearly need to be dated later still. Reasons have already been given why this widely accepted dating of Luke may be challenged, and if the gospel is dated as early as A.D. 60 (see discussion on p. 130 f.) this would suggest an early date for Acts and would be in keeping with the argument already given for a date before A.D. 64. It is a doubtful method of dating early books to use a particular interpretation of the one available datum and then to build a superstructure of other books upon it. It will be clear that if a predictive element in the ministry of Jesus is allowed the whole basis of this generally held dating collapses.
It should nevertheless be noted that not all who accept the traditional authorship of Luke date the book before the fall of Jerusalem. If Luke is the author and it is deemed necessary to date his gospel after A.D. 70, the upper limit for the dating of Acts is restricted only by the probability of Luke’s life-span, which is very difficult to estimate. It would certainly not be impossible for Luke to have written Acts any time up to about A.D. 85 but it could hardly have been much later. A date between A.D. 70 and 85 is, therefore, preferred by the majority of scholars.
E. J. Goodspeed produced a list of additional reasons for a date as late as A.D. 90 for Luke–Acts, which were mainly inferences from the contents. Late features, according to him, can be seen in certain literary characteristics, in the infancy interest, in the resurrection interest, in the doctrine of the Spirit, primitive miracles, cessation of the Jewish controversy, interest in psalmody, church organization, primitive glossolalia, the inferences from 20:25, 38 that Paul is dead, Paul’s heroic stature, the emergence of the sects, lack of acquaintance with Paul’s letters and the historical background of a successful Gentile mission. Quite apart from the questionable character of some of Goodspeed’s inferences (e.g. that Paul is dead from Acts 20:25, 38), it is by no means clear that any of the points he mentions requires a date any later than the early sixties. In any case he accepts Lucan authorship and supposes that the author collected his material long before his book was actually published.
c. Arguments for a second-century date
Earlier critics of the Tübingen school popularized a second-century dating for Acts because their reconstruction of the history demanded it. The reconciliation tendency of the author to patch up the Petrine Pauline clash required a considerable time interval to develop. But the subjective character of this kind of criticism has assured its doom and the dismissal of the historical reconstruction of this school of thought has caused a general disinclination towards a second-century dating. But there are still some arguments which are advanced in support of this dating.
(i) The relation of Acts to Josephus. The fact that both Acts (in the speech of Gamaliel, 5:36) and Josephus refer to a rising under a Jew named Theudas has given rise to the theory that the author of Acts consulted Josephus’ Antiquities while writing his history. If this deduction is correct Acts must be dated after A.D. 94. An alleged contradiction between Josephus and the gospel has already been cited in discussing the dating of Luke (see p. 127 f.), and a similar contradiction is suggested here. Acts places the rising of Theudas before the rising of Judas the Galilean, but the latter happened in the time of Augustus, while Josephus dates the former at a period subsequent to Gamaliel’s speech. There are two possible explanations. Either one of these reports must be wrong, or else the Theudas mentioned by Luke was not the Theudas mentioned by Josephus. Most scholars prefer the former alternative and generally presume that the historian in error must be Luke. But the author of Acts almost certainly did not consult Josephus, for had he done so he would surely not have made so obvious a blunder. Moreover, it is no more self-evident that Acts must be wrong and Josephus correct than vice versa. It is, of course, possible that two rebellions were instigated by men named Theudas, since this was a fairly common name, but such a theory is none too convincing without corroborating evidence.
(ii) The relation of Acts to second-century writers. Some scholars have gone much farther than Josephus and have found affinities between Acts and the second-century Church Fathers. It has been maintained that Justin shared the same theological outlook as Acts although he makes no literary use of the book. But theological affinities are a precarious method of assessing dating, for the theory that Acts and Justin’s works were both produced about the same time is certainly not the only explanation of the relationship, nor is it even the most reasonable, for it raises far more problems than it solves.2 It may be assumed that Acts was linked with the third gospel almost from its inception, in which case it would be inconceivable for Marcion to have been acquainted with Luke and not Acts. But it would have been equally improbable for Marcion to have chosen as his one gospel a book which was clearly not of ancient standing. All the evidence points to an arbitrary rejection of Acts by Marcion on the same grounds as those on which he rejected the remaining gospels.
A second-century dating of Acts which gained such favour among earlier critics is not likely to be reinstituted by any argument based on theological affinities, in view of the strong traditional testimony against such a theory. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine that the strong impression Acts gives of recording factual details, particularly in the latter part dealing with Paul’s activities, is the work of a second-century writer. It is far less credible to regard the book as the product of a writer’s historical imagination than it is to regard it as the record of one who was in close proximity to the events he relates—which would be the case with a first-century dating
Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (4th rev. ed.; The Master Reference Collection; Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), 355–365.