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When and Why Was the Acts of the Apostles Written?

By Joseph B. Tyson
Professor emeritus of Religious Studies
Southern Methodist University
April 2011

The range of proposed dates for Acts is quite wide, from c. 60 CE-150 CE. Within this range of dates, three are prominent in the scholarly literature: an early, an intermediate, and a late date.

Some scholars prefer an early date, i.e., the early 60's of the first century. It is believed that Paul's arrival in Rome, described in Acts 28, must have occurred between 58-60 CE. But the author of Acts, who wrote that Paul went to Rome to be tried before the emperor, provided us with no description of the trial or its outcome. Why so? Perhaps because the book was written before the trial took place. Scholars who favor this argument may draw on the fact that the author of Acts included ample and detailed descriptions of Paul's earlier trials, and they observe that he would have done the same with the Roman trial if that had been possible. In addition, the so-called "we-sections" (those places where the first person plural pronoun is used) imply that the author of Acts was present with Paul on a number of important occasions. Scholars who favor this early date have no difficulty in identifying the author as "Luke," said to be a companion of Paul in Col 4:14; 2 Tim 4:11; Phlm 1:24.

The significance of an early date for Acts lies in the apparent advantage it gives to the historian of this period. If the author was a companion of Paul, who accompanied him on some of his travels, then those sections of Acts that deal with Paul may be regarded as eye-witness reports about him and his life. This does not, of course, carry over to the early chapters of Acts, where Paul is not present, but at least for chapters 13-28 we may be confident that we have a first-hand report. An early date for Acts has been favored by many conservative and evangelical Christians, who emphasize the eye-witness character of its contents and, on that basis, assume the historical reliability of the book as a whole.

Most modern scholars who write about Acts favor an intermediate date, i.e., c. 80-c. 90 CE, and they cite a number of factors to support this dating. The destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple by Roman armies in 70 CE is not mentioned in Acts but is probably alluded to in Luke 21:20-24. But Acts could not have been written before c. 90 CE, since the author seems to be ignorant about Paul's letters, which were not collected and circulated before that date.[1]

Several implications follow from dating Acts in this intermediate period. It becomes unlikely that Acts provides us with an eye-witness account of the life of Paul. The author is a generation removed from the time of those persons he writes about and, although he devotes sig-nificant attention to Paul, he fails to mention important things about him. For example, Paul's letters reveal that he claimed to be an apostle and that this status was vital to him. But in Acts 1:21-22 the criteria for being an apostle definitively exclude Paul from membership in this group. Further, Acts 1:13 has a list of eleven apostles, to which number Matthias is added to replace Ju-das (Acts 1:26). Acts makes it clear that the number of apostles cannot be more or less than twelve and that Paul is not included among them. It would be highly unlikely for an author who was also a companion of Paul to go to such lengths to exclude Paul from an office that he so vig-orously claimed for himself.[2]

A growing number of scholars prefer a late date for the composition of Acts, i.e., c. 110-120 CE.[3] Three factors support such a date. First, Acts seems to be unknown before the last half of the second century. Second, compelling arguments can be made that the author of Acts was acquainted with some materials written by Josephus, who completed his Antiquities of the Jews in 93-94 CE. If the author of Acts knew of some pieces from this document, he could not have written his book before that date. Third, recent studies have revised the judgment that the author of Acts was unaware of the Pauline letters. Convincing arguments have been made especially in the case of Galatians by scholars who are convinced that the author of Acts not only knew this Pauline letter but regarded it as a problem and wrote to subvert it.[4] They especially call attention to the verbal and ideational similarities between Acts 15 and Galatians 2 and show how the dif-ferences may be intended to create a distance between Paul and some of his later interpreters and critics.

Late daters of Acts agree with intermediate daters in questioning its historical value. But the chief significance of a late date for Acts takes us far beyond claims and denials of historical reliability. Its significance relates to the probable context of Acts' composition.

Proponents of an early date sometimes point out that the early 60's of the first century was a time when the Jesus movement was going into its second generation. Believers at that time may have needed some reminder of the early days, a story that would remind them of the roots of the movement and its early heroes. In defense of an intermediate date, it may be observed that the period 80-90 CE was a time when the Jesus movement had spread both geographically and ethnically. After the fall of Jerusalem, Christians may have been in need of some narrative that would explain how this movement, which claimed to be the fulfillment of Jewish expectations and prophetic scriptures, came to be a Gentile movement but was almost totally rejected by Jews.

Although these suggestions are plausible, the virtue of a late date for the composition of Acts lies in its ability to cite a known and datable historical situation which would provide a meaningful context to which Acts responds. In the first half of the second century, important Christian concepts were still in the process of being formulated. A major contributor to this proc-ess was Marcion of Sinope.

Marcion was one of the best known Christian leaders in the early church, and, in my judgment, Acts was written as, at least in part, a response to the challenge he presented.[5] It an-swers the Marcionite contentions point by point. Marcion stressed the distance between Jesus and the Hebrew Scriptures, but the author of Acts repeatedly showed that Paul and all the other Christian preachers maintained that Jesus fulfilled the predictions of the Hebrew prophets. Mar-cion claimed that Paul was the only apostle, but Acts portrays him as at one with Peter and the others, even subservient to them on some occasions, and it even defines apostleship in a way that excludes Paul. Marcion called Peter and the others "false apostles," in contrast to Paul, but Acts not only characterizes them as in total agreement with Paul but even goes so far as to attribute to Peter the first conversion of a Gentile (Acts 10:1-11:18). Marcion maintained that Paul pro-claimed a God of grace, who released humankind from the domination of the God of Torah, but the author of Acts characterized Paul as a Torah-observant Jew and a devout Pharisee. Marcion taught that Jesus brought Torah to an end, but Acts showed that the apostles and Paul agreed that some things from Torah were still to be required even of Gentile believers (see Acts 15:20).

Conceiving Acts as an anti-Marcionite text enables us to appreciate the contribution of its author. This author is not merely telling the story of the rise of Christianity, nor is he simply at-tempting to address the problem of Jewish rejection of the Gospel. He is defining the Christian movement in direct opposition to the Marcionites. For the author of Acts, belief in Jesus is in full conformity with the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures; Torah is not totally dispensed with; Jew-ish traditions are not absolutely jettisoned.

A great deal rides on decisions about the date of Acts, which unfortunately cannot be de-termined with certainty. But judgments about the probable time of its composition inevitably af-fect the ways we read the book. If we think it was an early eye-witness account, it may be read as a basically reliable story of the first Christian generation. If we think it was written toward the end of the first century, we might read it with an effort to assess the author's understanding of Christianity as a Gentile movement with Jewish roots but without Jewish believers. If we think it was a second-century text, we might regard it as an effort to counteract historical and theological teachings that challenged what the author believed to be basic to the Christian movement. This way of reading Acts would show that its author played a central role in the very process of defin-ing Christianity.[6]


[1] The contention of Edgar J. Goodspeed, that Paul's letters were collected and distributed about this time has rarely been questioned. See Goodspeed, An Introduction to the New Testament (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1937).

[2] Paul and Barnabas are called apostles in Acts 4:4, 14, but most scholars either ascribe these verses to the use of a source by the author of Acts or maintain that it does not compromise the earlier exclusion of Paul from the rank of apostles.

[3] The most comprehensive recent proposal for a late date of Acts is that of Richard I. Pervo, Dating Acts: Between the Evangelists and the Apologists (Santa Rosa, Calif.: Polebridge Press, 2006).

[4] See Pervo, Dating Acts; Heikki Leppä, "Luke's Critical Use of Galatians" (Ph. D. diss., University of Helsinki, 2002); William O. Walker, Jr., "Acts and the Pauline Corpus Reconsidered." JSNT 24 (1985): 3-23; Walker, "Acts and the Pauline Corpus Revisited: Peter's Speech at the Jerusalem Conference," in Literary Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays in Honor of Joseph B. Tyson (ed. Richard P. Thompson and Thomas E. Phillips; Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 1998), 77-86.

[5] This claim was first made by John Knox in his Marcion and the New Testament: An Essay in the Early History of the Canon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1942).

[6] I followed John Knox in pursuing this contention in my Marcion and Luke-Acts: A Defining Struggle (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006).

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