Luke and Acts
When a person puts up a tent, the first stake placed in the ground largely determines the location of the entire tent. Dating the New Testament works in much the same way. Because there are many connections between New Testament books, moving the date of one book tends to drag the dates of a number of other books along with it. Therefore, it is important to decide which book ought to be the first stake, and where on the timeline that stake should be placed. Most modern scholarship identifies the gospel of Mark as the earliest gospel, setting Mark down as the first stake for the tent and working from there. There are good reasons for doing this. However, there is also a problem with using Mark as the first stake, which we discuss in the article on Mark. For now, let us set Mark to the side. I believe that instead of Mark, the first stake should be the book of Acts.
Acts is the second of two books written by Luke, so setting a date for Acts also serves to establish the latest possible date for the Gospel of Luke. The Gospel of Luke is closely related to the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Mark, and will influence our view on their dates as well. Also, Acts describes in detail the three missionary journeys of Paul. These journeys form the backdrop for most of the letters of Paul, and help us to date them as well. Finally, if Acts is analyzed by itself, the date of writing for the book is quite obvious. It is only because Acts, like the tent in our example, is connected with other books in the New Testament, and those other books are often staked in the wrong place, that Acts sometimes is dated in the wrong time.
There is a further reason to establish a date for Luke prior to establishing a date for the other synoptic gospels, Matthew and Mark. It seems that Luke has what can be described as a "simple" origin - simple in the sense that Luke researched his work, then wrote it one time in Greek, then sent it to his friend Theophilus, and that this writing is essentially what we have as the Gospel of Luke today. Most of the New Testament books have a similar "simple" origin, but I believe the stories of Matthew and Mark are more complex. This has led to what scholars call the "synopic problem", the effort to untangle the relationship between the Matthew, Mark and Luke. The synoptic problem is discussed in more detail in the articles on Matthew and Mark.
The opening verses of Luke and Acts make it clear that these two books were written by the same individual, who we will call “Luke”, in keeping with unbroken tradition since the apostolic age. The Gospel of Luke was written before Acts, based on Acts 1:1-3, with Luke calling the gospel his “former account.” Acts takes the story of Paul up through Paul’s voyage to Rome, where he awaits trial before Caesar in about 62 A.D. Having built to this climax, the story of Acts then ends with a few verses about Paul witnessing without opposition in Rome, leaving the reader hanging as to what will happen to Paul at his trial. A first time reader who brings no presuppositions to the text would naturally come to the conclusion that the story of Paul had been brought up to date and that the trial hadn’t happened yet.
Further support for the conclusion that Acts brings the story up to date is the fact that Acts gives no hint of any knowledge of the major events that would take place within the decade. These events include the execution of James, the brother of Jesus and head of the Jerusalem church, the burning of Rome by Nero and the subsequent persecution of the Christians, and most of all, the Roman-Judean war of 66-70 A.D. One is left with the distinct impression that Acts doesn’t mention the results of Paul’s trial or any of these other events simply because they had not happened at the time the book was written.
Luke’s favorable attitude toward Rome points to a date before the persecution of Christians under Nero:
The opposition to the gospel described in Luke/Acts comes primarily from either the Jews or from citizens acting outside the law. The Roman authorities are the ones who deal fairly and put things right. There is no warning of Roman sponsored persecution, nor any direct instruction provided to the church as to how to deal with it. There is no hint in Luke that Christians will soon be thrown to the lions by the very Roman authorities who were so helpful to Paul and his companions. The most logical reason for the absence of any such hint is that Luke does not know about it, because it hasn’t happened yet. This points to a date of writing prior to the Roman persecution of the late 60’s.
James, the brother of Jesus, who is head of the church in Jerusalem, is mentioned three times in Acts (12:17, 15:13 and 21:18). In every occasion the leadership role of James is taken for granted (Peter and Paul are not considered the top leaders, as they would be later). Luke makes no effort to identify who James is, nor to differentiate him from the other figures named James; it is just assumed that the reader knows that this is the most important James around. James was executed in Jerusalem in 62 A.D. by the High Priest Ananus, who acted in the temporary absence of a sitting Roman governor. However, Luke does not seem to know this either. Perhaps this word had not reached Luke before he finished Acts, as both events apparently happened at about the same time in different places. Certainly, if James had been a figure in the distant past, Luke would have needed to differentiate which James he was talking about when he mentioned him.
At this point we should consider that although it may be important to us that Acts was written when it was, this is a modern issue and would not have been an issue in the early church period. Its significance for us is mostly because of what it does to the dating of all the rest of the New Testament, but the exact date would probably not have mattered much to the early church. This is important, because people advocating late dates for books of the Bible often suggest that there exists an element of deception on the part of the author. This deception could take the form of an author falsely claiming to be someone else – an earlier apostle. It is certainly true that deception of this sort took place with some other earlier Christian literature. However, there is simply no motivation for this to have taken place with Acts. The author of the book is technically anonymous. Strong tradition and good reasons identify the author as Luke, the companion of Paul, but Luke was a very minor figure in the New Testament church, being mentioned just three times in passing. Whether the book was written in 62, 82, or even 92 would hardly matter - it could still have been written by Luke, with close connection to Paul and the events described in the book. Therefore, there would not be any motivation for the author to make the book appear to have been written earlier than it was. So when the book closes its account in 62 and appears to have been written in 62, there is every reason to assume that it really was written then.
Working backward, it seems that Luke, who was Paul’s traveling companion, was left with little to do for two years while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea from around 59-61 A.D. He apparently used this time to research the story of Jesus, interviewing some of the eyewitnesses, and eventually produced the Gospel of Luke around 60-62 A.D., closely followed by Acts. As Luke researched his gospel, some of the material now in Matthew and Mark would have been available to him. This topic is discussed in the articles on Matthew and Mark.