Now, this is a good time to bring up another possibility, and another common accusation by skeptics. They suggest that since so-called “Pauline” Christianity became dominant, this is the version that is reflected in the gospels and the book of Acts. They argue that these books were written significantly later, at least 30 years and perhaps as many as 100 years after the events supposedly happened, which was plenty of time for the stories to have been fabricated or altered to fit Paul’s theology.
Therefore, let’s briefly consider when the Acts of Apostles was likely to have been written. This is useful to know, because it is clearly the second work of the same writer as the gospel of Luke. Both are written to a certain Theophilus. If we can figure out when Acts was written, we can get an upper limit for when the gospel of Luke was written.
Most scholars believe that the so-called “authentic” letters of Paul – Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon – are probably the earliest Christian writings, written just two or three decades after Jesus, and before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.
However, when it comes to the Acts of Apostles, many of the same scholars give it a later date, usually at least 50 years from the time of Jesus. They use three main arguments for a later date. First, the gospel of Luke, which must have been written before Acts, describes the fall of Jerusalem, so it needs to be dated after this event. Second, it uses material from the gospel of Mark, so must be dated after Mark. Third, they argue that Acts depends on the historian Josephus, so needs to be dated after the works of Josephus, which were written after the destruction of Jerusalem.
Let’s briefly consider the strength or weakness of these arguments. The gospel of Luke certainly alludes to the fall of Jerusalem. For example, as Jesus approached the city, the gospel writer has him predicting its downfall: “And as he drew near, seeing the city, he wept over it, saying that ‘if you knew, even you, and surely in this your day, the things for your peace – but now, it has been hidden from your eyes. For days shall come upon you, and your enemies will throw siegeworks against you, and surround you, and press you from every side. And they will level you and your children in you, and they will not leave a stone upon a stone in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.’” 1
Just a few chapters later, Jesus says: “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by encamped armies, then know that her desolation has drawn near. Then let those in Judea flee to the mountains, and those in the midst of her depart into the country, and those in the country not enter into her. For these are days of vengeance, for all the things written to be fulfilled. But woe to the pregnant ones and to the suckling ones in those days! For there will be great distress upon the land, and indignation on this people. And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led captive into all the nations; and Jerusalem will be trampled by the nations, until the times of the nations are fulfilled.”2
Since the things Jesus supposedly said here happened so accurately, scholars tend to assume they must have been written after the event, and put into Jesus’ mouth by the author of the gospel. The skeptical position tends to eliminate, by default, the possibility that Jesus was indeed a prophet and therefore could say those things before the fall of Jerusalem.
However, several prophecies similar to this already existed in Jewish scripture. For example, according to the book of Deuteronomy, curses would come upon the nation of Israel for being unfaithful to God, culminating in a fierce nation besieging them, shutting them up in their cities, and causing them to eat their own children. Finally, they would be scattered among the nations.3 In that regard, Jesus was simply pointing out the consequences of their unfaithfulness to God.
After Israel came out of Egypt and made a golden calf, Moses wrote that God told him: “Look! My messenger will go before you. And in the day of my visitation, I will visit their sin upon them.” 4 Jesus was saying that God’s curses, and his day of visitation, were due to come upon them.
Other prophecies indicated the timing of those things. For example, the book of Daniel indicated that the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple would occur in the days of the Romans.5 In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus is said to have explicitly mentioned the prophet Daniel as foretelling an abomination of desolation, linking it to the time in which to flee Judea.6
The author of the gospel of Luke seems to have been writing his gospel with a Greek audience in mind, or more specifically “Most Excellent Theophilus,” so he may have been using an interpretation that Jesus had given to his disciples, rather than referring directly to Daniel’s prophecies, which may have been unfamiliar to his intended audience.
In other words, Jesus could have easily said those things before the fall of Jerusalem, because exactly the same themes were already written in Jewish scripture, particularly in the books of Deuteronomy and Daniel.
Jesus even uses the same language as the prophets. For example, Isaiah wrote: “The spirit of my Lord YHWH is upon me, because YHWH anointed me to declare good news to the meek. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and freedom to the ones bound; to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God.” 7 The gospel of Luke has Jesus reading from this passage in a synagogue, up until the part about “the year of YHWH’s favor,” and saying it was fulfilled in his day.8 If Jesus really did this, then he likely believed the “day of vengeance” was yet to come upon Jerusalem.
The prophet Daniel also mentions a “time of distress, such as has not occurred since becoming a nation until that time; and at that time your people will escape, everyone found written in the book.” He also mentions an “indignation” against God’s people and the holy covenant.9 Jesus is probably alluding to these prophecies.
“Letter To The Jews” showed how Daniel’s prophecy foretold the rise of the Roman empire, identified several Caesars including Julius, Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Nero, and foretold how Nero would die, along with the time of distress that would follow his death.10 Jesus likely held to this same view of Daniel’s prophecies. For example, while many modern scholars believe the “abomination of desolation” in Daniel’s prophecy took place in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes, Jesus likely viewed it as prophecy that had yet to be fulfilled.
In other words, a skeptic doesn’t even have to believe that Jesus was a prophet for him to have said those things before the fall of Jerusalem. Perhaps he was one of the few who saw the writing on the wall, as it were; especially if he was considered to be a holy man, as even many skeptics are prepared to accept.
The prophecy in Daniel chapter 9 indicated that the Second Temple, and the city of Jerusalem, would be destroyed again within a time period that was on the verge of expiring in Jesus’ day; and even Judaism accepts that this prophecy refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans, although they don’t believe Jesus himself was part of the prophecy.11
Despite this, skeptical scholars assume that Jesus couldn’t have said these things before the fall of Jerusalem, which came true with such accuracy, implying that the author of the gospel of Luke, who attributes these statements to Jesus, is either mistaken, or is deceiving his readers. But my point is, Jesus was simply referring to already existing prophecy. It is those prophecies that predicted the destruction of Jerusalem, and even the most ardent skeptic can’t deny that the books of Deuteronomy and Daniel were written well before Jesus came on the scene.
The second argument for a later date for the Acts of Apostles, is that the author of Luke apparently relied on the gospel of Mark. This isn’t a very strong argument, because scholars also differ on when Mark’s gospel was written. It merely shifts the dating problem to a different gospel.
Besides, these scholars choose to discount Church tradition, and the testimony of people who lived far closer to the gospel age, who say that Mark’s gospel was written by Mark, an associate of Peter, and having Peter’s approval; and that the gospel of Luke was written by Luke, a companion of Paul. Both apostles are said to have been executed prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. We have to wonder why scholars, living a few thousand years later, think they know better than people who were living mere decades after the writing of the gospels.
Many scholars also argue that Matthew, Mark and Luke draw from a common source, perhaps an earlier collection of Jesus’ sayings. If Jesus was considered to be a teacher and rabbi, some of his disciples probably would have written down a collection of his sayings for their own reference, even before the gospels were compiled, as was true for disciples of other teachers.
However, if Luke was the author of the gospel bearing his name, and he had really followed all things accurately from the start as he claims, then he could have also spoken to eyewitnesses, to get much of the material not found in the gospel of Mark, such as Mary’s story about the birth of Jesus – that is, assuming he didn’t just make it up. In other words, Luke may have used the gospel of Mark as a reference, but he may also have been drawing on earlier sources and eyewitness accounts.
Whatever the case, the alleged dependency on Mark, which may simply be a case of both gospels drawing from common sources and testimonies, doesn’t argue strongly for any particular date. But assuming the author of Luke isn’t simply fabricating the extra material, he would probably need to speak to eyewitnesses such as Jesus’ mother Mary, in order to compile the material not found in Mark. And it is usually preferable to speak to living eyewitnesses rather than dead ones, which would then favor an earlier dating. Even if some of the eyewitness stories are delusions, deceptions or exaggerations, the author may still be accurately reporting what he is being told, rather than being the source of any fabrications.
The third major argument used to support a later date, is the claim that Acts is dependent upon the historian Josephus.
Now, there are certainly parallels. For example, Josephus describes the death of Herod Agrippa in some detail, while the author of Acts covers it fairly briefly. In Josephus’ version, Agrippa was at a festival. On the second day, he entered wearing a garment of shiny silver, and the people were so awestruck by the gleaming that they proclaimed him to be a god, which Herod didn’t reject. He then saw an owl sitting on a rope over his head. He already had an owl experience before in his life, and he recognized it as a bad omen. He then fell ill from a pain in his belly, and died five days later.12
The version in Acts is much shorter. On a certain day, King Herod clothed himself with a royal garment, sat down on the judgment seat and began addressing the people. The crowd shouted, “A god’s voice, and not a man’s!” Instantly an angel of God struck him, because he didn’t give the glory to God, and he was eaten up with worms and died.13
The author’s motive for mentioning the event is completely different from that of Josephus. The purpose of Josephus’ huge work Antiquities Of The Jews, consisting of twenty books, was to give a complete history of the Jews. Therefore, for Josephus, Agrippa’s death was part of this history.
However, in the book of Acts, the author was outlining the early history and development of the Christian church, and in a much briefer style than classic historians such as Josephus. Herod is mentioned because he mistreated some of the congregation, put the apostle James the brother of John to death, and imprisoned Peter. Shortly after, Herod himself dies because an angel of God struck him.
The first point here is: the Christian community wouldn’t have needed a historian to tell them what happened to Herod Agrippa, the ruler who had just killed one of their apostles. They simply needed to have taken a mild interest in current affairs. The manner of Herod’s death, so soon after he had killed James, would have certainly caught their attention. Indeed, many of them would have naturally assumed it was divine vengeance for the murder of the apostle.
Second, Josephus says Herod saw an owl, as an omen of his fate, while the book of Acts says an angel struck him. If the author of Acts was relying on Josephus, surely he would have been more consistent with the historian. Of course, the skeptic could say that the author was putting a Christian spin on the event. But then, why didn’t he just come out and say that Herod’s death was divine retribution for the death of the apostle?
Instead, the account in Acts is in agreement with Josephus that Herod was struck for not rebuking the crowd over their claim that he was a god. However, I do think it’s fair to say that the author of Acts is hinting at divine retribution, by describing Herod’s death so soon after his execution of James.
Either way, if the author was a contemporary of these events, he wouldn’t have needed Josephus’ account. In fact, it is much more likely he was drawing from the Christian community’s own opinion on the death of Herod, which involved an avenging angel, and worms just to emphasize the point. Nevertheless, his version doesn’t contradict Josephus. Herod saw an owl because he had already seen it before, and it was an omen of his fate. Yet, according to Josephus, Herod recognized his illness as being from God. The author of Acts adds the detail, not found in Josephus, that the one who struck him was an angel, and that his illness involved worms.
I have shown that the arguments in favor of a later date for the writing of Acts are fairly weak. They assume Jesus couldn’t have predicted the fall of Jerusalem, even though Jewish prophecies in Deuteronomy and Daniel do precisely that, written well before Jesus was born. They assume that the gospel of Luke depends on the gospel of Mark, but the dating of Mark relies on the same or similar arguments, which creates circular reasoning. They also assume a dependency on Josephus, which in turn assumes that Christians couldn’t possibly know what was happening around them in the world, except by reading what a historian wrote later on.
Ultimately, scholars who are skeptical of the Christian story prefer a later dating for the gospels and the book of Acts, because then it is easier for stories to be fabricated or altered, without the actual people involved being able to answer back. But if these accounts were written within the lifetimes of the people and events they talk about, the accounts could be easily refuted or challenged if they were inaccurate.
However, the internal evidence strongly suggests that Acts was written before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, and therefore within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses it draws upon.
In the latter half of the book, Paul appeals to Caesar, and then several chapters tell of his journey to Rome, which is where he is to stand trial. The book ends with Paul under house arrest in Rome, so we are given no indication of the outcome of the trial, or of Paul’s fate.
According to historians, highly significant events for Christians took place around this time, or shortly afterwards. Josephus reports that James the brother of Jesus was brought before the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem and handed over to be stoned to death.14 If the author of Acts was relying on Josephus, he would have likely included this in his narrative, as he did with the deaths of Stephen and then James the brother of the apostle John.
However, if the author really was Luke, and he had accompanied Paul to Rome, he may not have been aware of events in Jerusalem, or at least not enough to write a detailed narrative about them. After Paul had appealed to Caesar, the author of Acts was focused on telling the account of their journey to Rome, including their shipwreck on the island of Malta, and what happened when they finally arrived at Rome.
There was also a great fire in Rome, in July 64AD. According to Tacitus, people suspected that Nero was the cause, so in order to banish this belief, Nero blamed the Christians. An arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty, and upon their information, an immense multitude were convicted. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs, or were nailed to crosses, or burnt by flame, to illuminate Nero’s gardens by night.15
Yet there is no mention of these things in the Acts of Apostles, or of the most significant event of all, from both a Jewish and a Christian viewpoint – namely, the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD.
Some have argued that the author ends his account where he does to highlight the fact that Jesus’ assignment to his disciples, and especially to Paul, had been accomplished. The gospel had been preached from Jerusalem to Rome, the very capital of the empire. This is a fair point. Even so, the book of Acts records the deaths of certain people along the way, such as Stephen, and James the brother of John at the hand of Herod, and then how Herod died from worms. Why not round off the account by including the death of Paul, and then of Nero, the emperor who had him executed?
According to the narrative in Acts, Paul had returned to Jerusalem after a missionary journey to the nations, and some of the people stirred up trouble for him, leading to him being taken into custody by the military commander. Paul was able to speak to the people about what had caused him to become a Christian, and then he was brought before the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. After this, Jesus himself stood by him and said: “Take courage! For as you have testified about me in Jerusalem, so you must also testify in Rome.” 16
Paul had testified to both the people of Jerusalem and their rulers. The implication is that he was to do the same in Rome. He was also able to speak before governors Felix and Festus, high priest Ananias, and even King Agrippa. Paul appealed his case to Caesar, so he could testify about Jesus before the emperor in Rome. But the book doesn’t tell us the outcome.
Furthermore, during Paul’s shipwreck on their way to Rome, the author records Paul as saying that an angel had told Paul not to fear, because he must stand before Caesar.17 Yet the book of Acts ends without him having stood before Caesar! In other words, we can’t know, at least from this book alone, whether Paul was able to stand and testify about Jesus before the Roman emperor.
However, if Acts had been written significantly later than the events it describes, the addition of a few more chapters would be enough to cover the events that led to the deaths of the apostles, including Paul, perhaps with a few lines about how Nero met his death, declared an enemy of the state, not long after his brutal execution of Christians, just as Acts reported on Herod’s death shortly after he put the apostle James to death. It would certainly be a fitting end to the early Christian story. Nero, the first imperial persecutor of Christians, dying a shameful death after having killed both Peter and Paul. Something like this would also corroborate the angel’s words about Paul having to stand before Caesar.
Instead, we don’t know, at least from the book of Acts, how Paul’s trial ended, or even if there was a trial. We are treated to elaborate details about Paul’s legal defenses before the people of Jerusalem, the Jewish Sanhedrin, governor Felix, and King Agrippa, but all of these are merely a prelude to his trial in Rome before Caesar. But on that, there is complete silence, which is completely out of character for the author and his style of narration.
I think the simplest explanation is that Luke was the author of both the gospel of Luke and its sequel, the Acts of Apostles, as Christian tradition claims, and that his second book was completed, somewhat prematurely, either before those later events took place, or at least before Luke could include them in his narrative. I suppose it’s fair to say that Luke wrote a satisfactory ending, covering Paul’s two years of house arrest. Perhaps he intended to add more later, once he knew the outcome of Paul’s trial; but if he was an associate of Paul, maybe he suffered the same fate as Paul.
The name Luke only appears a few times in the New Testament. He is mentioned in the second letter to Timothy, where Paul is a prisoner and is about to die, and that only Luke is with him. He is also mentioned in Philemon, and in Colossians as “the beloved physician.” 18
Luke’s gospel is addressed to “Most Excellent Theophilus,” and “Most Excellent” (kratiste) is the same word used by Paul’s opponent to address Roman governor Felix, and that Paul himself later used in addressing governor Festus.19 The implication is that “Most Excellent” Theophilus was an official of some kind. The book of Acts is also addressed to Theophilus.
According to Christian tradition, Paul was executed in Rome by Nero, and according to Tacitus, many other Christians died in Rome during Nero’s persecution. Unfortunately for him, Paul had appealed to the emperor who would go down in history as the first imperial persecutor of Christians. If Paul’s associate Luke was the author of the Acts of Apostles, and if Luke had also been killed by Nero, this would certainly explain the missing details from his book!
Either way, the omission of so many valuable details about the Christian story after Paul’s house arrest, and of Paul’s trial, is strong evidence that the writing of Acts was finished, intentionally or not, before Paul’s death, perhaps in the early 60’s AD, and certainly before the fall of Jerusalem.
As another line of evidence, the book itself suggests that the writer was one of Paul’s companions. About halfway through, the account switches to “we,” and is used periodically from then on.20 This would make sense if the author accompanied Paul on some of his travels, including his journey to Rome. It would also explain why so much of the second half is focused on Paul. In that case, the author would be a contemporary of the events he was writing about.
By contrast, skeptical scholars have to assume deception when they date it later. They assume the author put words into Jesus’ mouth about the destruction of Jerusalem, thus implying the author was a liar, or that he wanted to make Jesus appear to be a prophet. They also assume he relied on Josephus, even though the events that Acts and Josephus have in common contain significant differences. They assume he couldn’t have known about the death of Herod without seeing it in the writings of Josephus.
The reason skeptics prefer a later date is because if Acts was written so soon after the events it describes, this would push back the dating of the author’s first book, the gospel of Luke, to before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD, and would therefore put it in the same generation as those who heard Jesus.
This would make it much harder for fabricated stories to be inserted into the gospel. However, skeptics need there to be a sufficient interval of time, in order to allow for the alleged insertion and fabrication of the parts they choose not to believe.
1 Luke 19:41-44. 2 Luke 21:20-24. 3 See Deuteronomy chapter 28. 4 Exodus 32:34. 5 Daniel 9:26,27. 6 Matthew 24:15,16. 7 Isaiah 61:1,2. 8 Luke 4:16-21. 9 Daniel 11:30,36; 12:1. 10 See “Letter To The Jews”, chapters 29 and 30 at lettertothejews.com 11 Daniel 9:24-27. 12 Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book 19, Chapter 8, Section 2. 13 Acts 12:21-23. 14 Josephus, Antiquities Of The Jews, Book 20, Chapter 9, Section 1. 15 Tacitus, Annals, Book 15, Chapter 44. 16 Acts 23:11. 17 Acts 27:23,24. 18 2 Timothy 1:8; 2:9; 4:6,11; Philemon 24; Colossians 4:14. 19 Acts 24:3; 26:25. 20 Acts 16:10,11.
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