Sunday, 4 March 2012

The Dating of Luke-Acts and Why it Matters

St. Luke by Burne Jones
     Why do conservative scholars generally propose earlier dates for the writing of Luke-Acts, while later dates are preferred by the more liberal scholars? It depends, of course, on what assumptions are brought to the text and how the information is thus evaluated. By taking the internal textual evidence at face value rather than relying on subjective literary theory and philosophical presuppositions, what conclusions are to be drawn and how do they stand up against conflicting views from the other end of the spectrum?
     The Gospel according to Luke appears to have been completed around 59 from Jerusalem and/or Caesarea. Attention to the "we" sections in Acts reveals that the author arrived in Jerusalem with Paul in late spring 57 (Acts 20:6, 16; 21:17) and faded out of the picture for a couple of years until autumn 59 when he and Paul departed from Caesarea on the voyage to Rome (Acts 27:1-9). An extended period in Jerusalem would have afforded him the ideal opportunity to gather the necessary information for his "orderly account" (Luke 1:1-4), interviewing people like Jesus’ mother (for the unique material in chaps. 1-2), personal disciples, and other eyewitnesses. If this raises questions about the role of divine inspiration, see Biblical Inspiration in Perspective.
     Luke’s Gospel was clearly produced before the book of Acts (note "the former account" of Acts 1:1), and the historical record of Acts concludes at the end of Paul’s two-year Roman imprisonment, i.e., spring of 62. The Gospel was almost certainly not written after 62-64, since Paul quotes from Luke 10:7 in his first epistle to Timothy (5:18). The only options for those who insist on a later date are: (1) deny that Luke is the source of Paul’s quotation, or (2) date 1 Timothy much later, thereby rejecting Pauline authorship.
     The most obvious explanation for the abrupt ending of Acts is that the historical account had actually reached this point. There is no mention in Acts of the fall of Jerusalem (summer of 70), which is understandable if it had not yet occurred but is rather strange if Acts were written not long after the fact, especially considering the weighty attention given to the city of Jerusalem in Luke’s writings. There is no mention of the Neronian persecution (64-68), even though the story of Acts ends in Rome. While Luke tells of the martyrdoms of both Stephen and the apostle James (Acts 7:57-60; 12:2), there is no record of the death of the Lord’s brother James (who was killed in Jerusalem in the summer of 62), even though he is a prominent figure in Acts (cf. 1:14; 12:17; 15:13; 21:18). There is no information in Acts about the outcome of Paul’s trial in Rome or of his death. While none of these observations alone offers definitive proof, collectively they support the earlier date.
     To accommodate a later date, alternative suggestions for the ending of Acts include: (1) Luke intended to compose a third volume but never did or it has not survived (which, of course, cannot be confirmed); and (2) he fulfilled his purpose of the gospel message having reached Rome and had no reason to take the story any further. But consider this unusual feature of Luke’s writings. Despite his long-time relationship with the apostle Paul, he betrays no knowledge of the apostle’s letters or even mentions that Paul wrote letters. While this raises some intriguing questions, the further in history Luke-Acts is chronologized the more inexplicable this becomes. Colossians 4:16 is the earliest clear reference that Paul expected his letters to be circulated rather than kept in isolation in their respective localities. It is interesting that the closing of Acts and the writing of Colossians fit into a comparable time frame (early 62). By the mid-60s the Pauline writings were recognized (at least from Asia Minor to Rome) as a well-known collection and regarded as scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16).
     Why do liberal scholars insist on dating Luke-Acts much later, postulating 75 to 110 as the compositional period? A major reason, it seems, is the detailed prophetic description of Jerusalem’s destruction (Luke 13:34-35; 19:41-44; 21:20-24), which, if recorded prior to mid-70, would require the divine element of predictive prophecy. If, therefore, the Lukan documents can be dated after the fact, supernatural intervention is not required.
     Another factor that influences the later-date proposals is the presumption of Luke’s dependence on the Gospel of Mark. The further along on the chronological scale Mark is believed to have appeared, the works of Luke would therefore be even later. However, the preface of Luke’s Gospel argues against this theory. Luke seems to have been dissatisfied with the previous attempts of others to narrate the life and teachings of Jesus, prompting him to draft his own "orderly account" (Luke1:1-4). Had he known of or had access to the narrative(s) of Mark and/or Matthew, this is hard to imagine (see Synoptic Problem Part 1 and Part 2).
     If, within reasonable approximation, the Gospel of Luke is understood to have been completed by autumn 59 in Jerusalem and/or Caesarea and the book of Acts in Rome by spring 62, all the historical pieces fit neatly together. I am not suggesting that everyone who disagrees with this assessment and these conclusions is a theological leftist. But how should significantly different alternatives be regarded when they are based on unnecessary and less-than-convincing rationale? When subjectivism is equated with critical thinking, and the historicity of Luke-Acts is indiscriminately challenged, and untenable compilation theories override the integrity of scripture, and the pseudonymity of New Testament documents is assumed, and biblical authors are essentially portrayed as mindless redactors, and the possibility of divine influence is categorically dismissed, does it matter?
--Kevin L. Moore

Related Posts: Authorship of Luke-Acts, Luke's Audience

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