When Was Acts Written?

ZA Blog on January 12th, 2018. Tagged under ,.

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When was Acts written

This post is adapted from Darrell Bock’s Theology of Luke and Acts online course.

To determine when Acts was written, we need to evaluate the evidence from both Luke and Acts, because the two books were written together, with Luke appearing slightly before Acts.

At first glance, it seems that the book of Acts was written around the same time of the last events it describes. The story ends; Luke writes the book. That’s the date.

For this reason, many people place Acts in the early 60s, because this coincides with the date of Paul’s imprisonment in Rome.

But why couldn’t Luke have written the book later?

It is possible Luke’s story isn’t really about Paul. Instead, it’s about the gospel arriving at Rome. In this view, it’s not important what Paul does after the gospel makes it to Rome; Paul’s imprisonment isn’t a factor in dating Acts.

This is a reasonable view, and it means Acts could have been written much later.

Let’s take a look at how we might come up with a date for Acts.

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Why we need to start with Luke

Because Acts and Luke go together, we need to look at when Luke was written. To determine when Luke was written, the first thing we need to do is evaluate when the other Synoptic Gospels—Matthew and Mark—were written.

Why do we need to do this?

Because the most common view is that Luke used material from Mark, and we’re fairly certain that Mark was written sometime from the mid-50s to around AD 70. Here’s why: Mark assumes the church is suffering persecution or anticipates that possibility, making a date in the 60s plausible. Such a date fits the time of the persecution by Nero.

So if we know roughly when Mark was written, and we know Luke was written after Mark. The question, then, becomes how long after Mark Luke would have been written.

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Earliest and latest possible dates for Acts

We can also give some fairly firm early and late dates—in other words, dates that are so early and so late that Acts that it wouldn’t have been possible for Acts to have been written. We can find these early and late dates using evidence from Luke and Acts, as well as looking at remarks from the church fathers.

  • The earliest date Acts could have been written would be within a few years of the last recorded event in Acts, which takes place probably in AD 62.
  • The latest date Acts could have been written would have been immediately prior to the first references to the book from other literature. Irenaeus (Haer. 3.13.3; 3.15.1) contains some indisputable citations, as does Justin Martyr in Dial. 103.19. They were writing around AD 160, so that the latest possible date is around AD 160.

That gives us a range of possible dates between AD 60 and AD 160.

Was Acts written in the second century?

Let’s take a look at possible evidence for a date near the end of that range—in other words, in the second century.

On a comparison of Luke with material from Marcion, Josephus, Justin Martyr, and the Pseudo-Clementines, some scholars offer a date in the early to mid-second century.21

There are three reasons this is unlikely:

  1. The tone of Acts does not really fit the tone of other documents of this period, such as 1 Clement (AD 95) and Ignatius (AD 117).
  2. In addition, it is unlikely that such a late work would ignore Paul’s letters as much as Acts does.
  3. Finally, possible allusions in 1 Clement 5.6–7 (to Acts 26), 2.1 (Acts 20:35), and 18.1 (Acts 13:22) argue against this date.

These allusions move the latest possible date from the mid-second-century limit down to the mid-90s.23

That limits our range from around AD 60 to the mid-90s.

5 reasons scholars argue for 80–90

Scholars usually give five reasons why Acts might have been written between AD 80 and AD 90:

  1. The picture of Paul as a hero figure needs time to emerge.
  2. The portrait of churches like Ephesus requires a period before the Domitian persecution of the mid-90s. If the church was undergoing intense persecution, it seems Acts would have noted it.
  3. Some assert that the theology is late, even “early catholic.”
  4. Luke is said to be after Mark, which, as we’ve seen, was written in the mid to late 60s.
  5. The Lucan apocalyptic discourses with their description of the siege of Jerusalem and their focus on the city presuppose the fall of Jerusalem, which happened in AD 70. That’s an argument for dating Acts after AD 70.

Let’s take a look at why each of these arguments shouldn’t necessarily convince us of a date in the 80s or 90s.

1. The picture of Paul as a hero needed years or decades to emerge.

The suggestion that Paul needs time to emerge as a hero is not clear. His letters and Acts agree that he was a central figure in the church who generated some following and controversy.

But Paul’s letters show that James gained respect rather quickly. Why could the same not be true for Paul?

In other words, it is not necessary for years or decades to elapse for Paul to emerge as the hero in the story of Acts. Acts could have been written early and still portrayed Paul as a hero.

2. Acts does not describe churches under intense Roman persecution

The churches in Acts are not undergoing heavy Roman persecution, which means Acts could have been written any time before Domitian ruled in 81–96. (It also puts the date of Acts outside of Nero’s persecution in 64.)

This makes a date in the 80s or 90s less likely.

3. Some assert that the theology is late, even “early catholic.”

The debate about “early catholicism” in Luke-Acts continues, but it is by no means clear that Luke’s theology reflects a “late” theology. I. Howard Marshall has written about this in Luke: Historian and Theologian.

4. Luke was written after Mark, which is dated to the 60s.

The suggestion that Luke follows Mark is likely (even if one thinks Matthew, not Mark, is the first gospel in order).

How quickly would Mark have been in circulation and thus accessible to Luke, especially if Luke had associations with major leaders of the church?

The argument that time needed to pass for Mark to gain stature is similar to the argument that Paul as a hero figure needed time to develop.

Luke sought out whatever materials were in circulation (Luke 1:1). Since he mentions several such documents, “quasi-canonical” status was not a prerequisite.

Even though Mark was written in the 60s, this does not require many years or decades to pass for it to qualify as a document Luke would have used. Luke could have been written much sooner after the initial circulation of Mark.

5. Lucan apocalyptic discourses assume a date after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70

The most central argument is that the eschatological discourses—where Jesus predicts destruction—assume a post-70 date. That’s because the temple, along with the city of Jerusalem, was destroyed in AD 70.

Here is what Jesus says in 19:41–44:

As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”

And here is what Jesus says in Luke 21:20–24:

“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.”

These texts detail the siege and focus on the city of Jerusalem rather than on the temple alone, as the accounts in Matthew and Mark do.

But is Jesus referring to war and destruction in general, or is he referring to a specific event that, for Luke’s audience, happened in recent memory—the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70?

C. H. Dodd wrote that “war” language in the discourse is possible for Jesus before 70, because the language fits ancient military operations against Israel, as well as parallels descriptions in the Septuagint of the sacking of Solomon’s temple in 586 BC.

But Philip Esler, author of Community and Gospel in Luke–Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology strongly disagrees.

Esler argues that the details of these discourses cannot be attributed simply to “what inevitably happens in war,” because some of the features, such as building a circumvallation, total destruction of the city, and the marching off of all the captives, were not inevitable results of war.” In other words, he says that Jesus isn’t predicting an event that will happen in the future, he is referencing an event that, for Luke’s audience, has just happened.

But In making the critique, Esler misses a key point of the Old Testament connection: The Old Testament judgment was exercised because of covenant unfaithfulness. The point is the theology of risk Israel had because she was in need of returning to covenant in Jesus’ view. The parallel of Jerusalem’s total destruction, with siege and total defeat, could be expected as a covenantal act of God. Severe unfaithfulness could be seen to portend severe judgment.

In this view, it is not necessary to appeal to Jerusalem’s fall in AD 70 to determine when Acts was written.

In addition to this, a very good reason for dating Luke and Acts before AD 70 is that the fall of Jerusalem is not directly referenced anywhere in the text. That the fall is alluded to here is strictly an inference.

To sum up: the prediction of Jerusalem’s fall is one that Jesus was capable of making solely on the basis of his knowledge of how God acts to judge covenant unfaithfulness.

Thus, a major argument for a date in the 80s–90s does not work. Although a date in the 80s is popular and possible, it is not the most likely.

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Why Acts was likely written in the 60s

This leaves another possibility, a date somewhere in the 60s.

Reasons for this date include the following:

  1. The picture in Acts that Rome, knowing little about the movement, is still deciding where Christianity fits.
  2. Failure to note the death of either James (AD 62) or Paul (ca. late 60s).
  3. The silence about Jerusalem’s destruction, even in settings where it could have been mentioned editorially (e.g., Acts 6–7 [the Stephen account], 21–23 [Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem]).
  4. The amount of uncertainty expressed about internal Gentile-Jewish relations, especially table fellowship, which fits a setting that parallels the Pauline letters that deal with similar tensions (Romans, Galatians, 1 Corinthians 8–10, and Ephesians).

This last reason is most significant and has not been developed enough in the discussion to date. Acts presupposes a racially mixed community, which in turn suggests an earlier date, not a later one. Details about the law, table fellowship, and practices that may offend (Acts 6:1–6; 10–11; 15) also suggest an earlier time frame.

That the Gentile mission still needs such vigorous and detailed defense further suggests this earlier period, since by the 80s the Gentile character of the Christian movement was a given. That believers need reassurance in the midst of intense Jewish pressure fits an early date as well.

When in the 60s was Acts written?

Now we’ve narrowed our likely date of Acts to the 60s. But can we narrow it even further?

Was Acts written in the early 60s

It’s possible Acts was written in the early 60s, but not likely. Here’s why.

The last event Luke discusses is Paul’s imprisonment in Rome. This imprisonment took place in the early 60s. The claim by those who stress this factor is that Acts was written just after this, in the early 60s.

It’s true that this is possible, but it assumes that Luke cares about Paul’s fate in Rome, when it may be that he is only concerned about the word of the gospel getting to Rome.

It’s worth asking: is Acts really about Paul, or is it really about the Gospel getting to Rome?

Given this uncertainty about what the ending indicates, a date somewhere later in the 60s is more likely than one in the early 60s.

Luke left the end of Paul’s career open-ended because that is where matters stood when he wrote, although it is possible he simply left the end of the Acts story here because the gospel getting to Rome shows the entry of the word into the key city of the Gentile world.

If this note of triumph is all that concerned Luke, then the end gives us no help on dating.

Was Acts written in the 60s?

That Paul’s death is not mentioned in Acts may be an indication that it is the early to mid-60s rather than the last third of the 60s, when it would have been more likely Paul had died.

Was Acts written in the late 60s?

Others suggest that texts such as Luke 11:49–51 presuppose the start of the struggle with Rome and offer a date in the later 60s.

This text says:

Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ 50 Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all.

To get a 60s date for Luke, all the Synoptic Gospels need to be placed before the destruction, since his gospel is often seen to be the third one written. We are fairly certain Mark was written in the 60s. We also know that both Matthew and Luke incorporate material from Mark. And we know Luke was the last of the three Synoptic Gospels to be written.

In other words, to defend a date in the 60s requires a fairly tight window for the production of each of the Synoptic Gospels.

So, given all the evidence, when was Acts written?

Sometime in the late 60s—enough time for Mark to have been written and circulated—but not after AD 70.

Learn more by signing up for Darrell Bock’s Theology of Luke and Acts online course.

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This post is adapted from material found in Darrell Bock’s Theology of Luke and Acts online course.

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