The historical record of Acts concludes with Paul having been incarcerated in Rome for two whole years (Acts 28:30), with no information about the outcome of his trial or of his death. If, at the time of writing, the apostle was still confined to house arrest and his future still uncertain, the abrupt ending is understandable. There was nothing further to report.
Although weighty attention in Luke’s writings is given to Jerusalem, nothing is said of the fall of Jerusalem (summer of 70), presumably because it had not yet occurred. 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 (1:14; 12:17; 15:13; 21:18).
Despite Luke’s long-time relationship with 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. 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).
Paul’s correspondence to Timothy and Titus, unlike his other extant writings, do not fit the framework of Acts. The simplest explanation is that they were penned after Acts was completed, thus comprising the final documents in the Pauline corpus. Near the end of his two-year detention in Rome, the apostle was anticipating probable release (Philem. 22; Phil. 1:19, 25-26; 2:24). That he did stand trial before Caesar is presupposed by the divine promise of Acts 27:24, and Paul later speaks of his “first defense” and deliverance (2 Tim. 4:16-17). It would appear that he did in fact regain his freedom and traveled to places like Macedonia, Greece, Asia Minor, Crete, and possibly also to Spain (1 Tim. 1:3; 3:14; Tit.1:5; 3:12; 2 Tim. 4:13, 20; cf. Philem. 22; Rom. 15:28). Imprisoned again at Rome, he writes his final apostolic manuscript as he anticipates almost certain death (2 Tim. 1:16-17; 2:9; 4:6-8). According to early and consistent tradition, during Nero’s reign Paul suffered martyrdom, which would have been no earlier than summer of 64 and no later than summer of 68.
On the night of 18 July 64 a fire broke out in Rome, and five days later at least three of the city’s fourteen sections were destroyed. Nero blamed Christians for the disaster and instigated brutal hostilities against them that lasted until his suicide on 9 June 68 (cf. Tacitus, Annals 15.38-44; Suetonius, Life of Nero 16.2). It is unclear whether the persecution began immediately or took about a year to actuate; the excesses of the brutalities appear to have been diminishing by 67 (see Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 3.1.3; 2.25.1-8; I Clement 5.1-7; the Acts of Paul; the Acts of Peter; and John Chrysostom, Oppugnatores Vitae Monasticae 1.3).
Provenance, Destination, and Dates of the Pastorals
Spring 62 (the close of the Acts narrative and completion of the prison epistles) would be the earliest possibility for Paul’s release from his first incarceration in the imperial city. His second Roman imprisonment and subsequent death would be no later than summer 68, allowing up to six years for further travels, evangelistic endeavors, and writing projects.
Prior to his initial arrival in Rome, he had expressed his desire to take the gospel as far west as Spain, soliciting the support of the Roman Christians (Rom. 15:23-29). Although unforeseen circumstances altered the original plan, it is entirely possible that he went on to achieve this goal. It would have taken less than a week to sail from Italy to Spain. Clement of Rome, near the end of the first century, affirms that Paul preached the gospel in the extreme west of the Roman Empire, which at the time would have included Spain (I Clement 5.1-7). The second-century Muratorian Fragment (lines 38-39) and Acts of Peter take Paul’s Spanish journey for granted, as do the fourth-century testimonies of Cyril of Jerusalem and John Chrysostom.
Paul had also made tentative plans to return to the provinces of Macedonia and Asia (Phil. 2:24; Philem. 22). While the order of events is uncertain, Titus accompanied him to Crete and was left there to continue this work (Tit. 1:4-5). Paul also traveled to the west coast of Asia Minor, leaving Trophimus in Miletus (2 Tim. 4:20b) and Timothy in Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3). While in the vicinity he may have followed through with his plans to visit Philemon in Colosse (Philem. 22) before heading to the port city of Troas (2 Tim. 4:13). From Troas it was a day’s journey across the Aegean Sea to Macedonia (cf. Acts 16:11), where Paul surely fulfilled his wish to see the brethren in Philippi (Phil. 1:24-26; 2:24).
From Macedonia (most likely) Paul wrote 1 Timothy, sending the letter to Ephesus (1 Tim. 1:3); he hoped to join Timothy again in Ephesus but understood he might be delayed (1 Tim. 3:14-15; 4:13). On his way to Nicopolis Paul wrote his letter to Titus, sending it to the island of Crete (Tit. 1:5; 3:12). The location of Nicopolis is uncertain, since different cities shared this same name in various places. It is possible that this particular Nicopolis was in Thrace (near the borders of Macedonia) or in Cilicia, but more likely in the province of Epirus in northwestern Greece (see BDAG 673). The apostle wanted Titus to join him in Nicopolis, where he planned to spend the winter (Tit. 3:12); sometime afterwards Titus would head north to Dalmatia (2 Tim. 4:10) in the southern region of the ancient province of Illyricum (cf. Rom. 15:19). Paul may have also made a trip to Corinth while he was in the area (2 Tim. 4:20a).
There is no way of knowing for sure how long this limited period of freedom was for the apostle, but composing the letters of 1 Timothy and Titus would have been no earlier than 62 and not much later than 64. At some point Paul ended up back in Rome as a prisoner and wrote 2 Timothy (2 Tim. 1:8, 16-17; 2:9). He implies that his upcoming trial is the second one, and this time his death seems imminent (2 Tim. 4:6-8, 16). Luke is presently with him as Tychicus is sent to Ephesus (no doubt to deliver the letter), and Paul requests Timothy and Mark to join him before the onset of winter (2 Tim. 4:9-21). Onesiphorus, who had ministered to Paul in Ephesus, arrived in Rome for a visit (2 Tim. 1:16-18), whereas others were not as loyal (2 Tim. 1:15; 4:10). Reportedly the apostle was executed in Rome near the end of Nero’s reign (64-68) and his corpse buried in the Ostian Way (Caius, Disputation Against Proclus; Eusebius, Eccl. Hist. 2.25.5-6; Jerome, De Viris Illus.). The writing of 2 Timothy, therefore, would fit into this timeframe.
Implications for World Evangelism
Around the time the historical narrative of Acts comes to a close, Paul claims that the gospel has been preached in all the world (Col. 1:5-6, 23). While there may be a hyperbolic element here, the extent of the gospel’s proclamation seems to have been much greater than what is specifically documented in the New Testament. One cannot escape the fact that the message of Christ is universal in scope (Mark 16:15), and its incredibly widespread dissemination in just three decades cannot be denied.
One might argue that by the time Colossians was written, the Great Commission had been fulfilled. Yet the letters to Timothy and Titus, verifying the continued evangelistic efforts of Paul and his coworkers, demonstrate that the task was far from finished. The book of Acts is structured according to six general time periods, each of which ends with a summary statement of the progress made (6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:30-31). If these six periods are symbolically relevant, seeing that the number seven represents completeness, Acts ends with the Lord’s work unfinished.
The final period of the missionary enterprise did not end with Paul’s imprisonment or even his death. In fact, it has still not ended. The story continues. You and I are part of it. As long as there are unsaved people on the planet, especially those who have never heard the good news of Jesus Christ, the Lord’s cause must carry on, even until the end of the age (Matt. 28:20).
--Kevin L. Moore
*Prepared for the 2018 FHU Lectureship.