Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Early External Evidence For An Early Date For Luke-Acts

I think the best explanation for the ending of the book of Acts is that the events at the close of the book are the last significant events of church history that occurred before Luke published his work. So, it was published in the early to mid 60s.

Contrary to the popular view in modern scholarship that Acts 1:8 explains why the book ends where it does, I see no reason to go to 1:8 to discern the scope of Luke's work. If you want to know why Luke ends Acts where he does, don't go to a statement made by Jesus several verses into Acts. Rather, look at the opening of Luke's gospel and the opening verses of Acts that come before 1:8. Luke's interest is as broad as "the things accomplished among us" (Luke 1:1) and "all that Jesus began to do and teach" (Acts 1:1). There's an implication that Acts would address what Jesus went on to do and teach, including through the apostles and the church. There's no suggestion that the scope of Luke's work is as narrowly defined as what Jesus addresses in 1:8.

Besides, Luke knew that Rome wasn't "the remotest part of the earth" (1:8), and his narrative goes beyond the time when Paul reaches Rome or first starts teaching there. If Luke were writing in the late 60s or later, and Acts 1:8 defined the scope of what he was writing, why didn't he extend the narrative to Paul's work in Spain or something else that would represent "the remotest part of the earth" more than Paul's work in Rome would? Given all that Luke says in Acts about people from many parts of the world who were influenced by the apostles, he knew that the Christian message had already been taken to Rome and regions further away. Or if Luke wanted to focus on apostolic activity in Rome for some reason, Peter's work there could have been discussed, for example. Unlike Paul, Peter was one of the disciples directly addressed in Acts 1:8. So, citing 1:8 to explain why Acts ends where it does is problematic even if we ignore the broader scope of Luke's work implied by the opening verses of Luke and Acts.

Much more could be said about evidence for an early date for Acts, but what I want to focus on in this post is some external evidence that's been neglected. There seems to be a large majority, perhaps universal, view among the early external sources that Luke and Acts were written early, while Paul was still alive. See, for example, sections 2:22, 3:4, and 6:25 in Eusbeius' Church History and section 7 in Jerome's Lives Of Illustrious Men.

Most significantly, consider the implications of 1 Timothy 5:18. The passage seems to cite Luke's gospel as scripture. For a discussion of the evidence, see George Knight III, The Pastoral Epistles (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2000), 233-235 and Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2012), 205-207. Notice that 1 Timothy not only cites Luke as scripture, but even does so without any apparent expectation that such a citation would need to be explained or defended.

I think Paul wrote 1 Timothy. But let's assume, for the sake of argument, that he didn't. The document is still an early source. Whoever wrote 1 Timothy apparently thought it was credible to place the publication of Luke's gospel in Paul's lifetime.

Thus, the tradition that places Luke's writings early, even as early as the time of Paul, didn't just exist in later centuries. Rather, it can be traced back to a document and audience that most scholars have dated to the first century.

By contrast, what external evidence could be cited to support a later date for Luke and Acts? Objecting that we don't have more external evidence for an early dating doesn't explain the evidence we do have, and it doesn't explain the lack of external evidence for the alternative.

Update On 12/6/16: Here's another article I've written on evidence for an early date for Acts.

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