The Acts of the Apostles (Acts) is a New Testament book that helps us to understand early Christian beliefs and practices. But when was it written? Was it produced during the lifetime of the witnesses who engaged with Jesus of Nazareth and the Apostles? Or was it composed much later by an individual or individuals unconnected with the events? If it can be argued that Acts is an early text, then its closeness to the events and its eyewitness testimony both give credibility to the miracles that it documents.
Also, did the Apostle Paul’s companion Luke write it? If so, that places its author within the circle of those who participated in the events being reported. Further, if Acts is early, then by extension the Gospel of Luke should also be dated within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses and given the same credibility as Acts. The gospel was composed first.
Historian Colin J. Hermer lists various reasons for accepting the traditional composition date for Acts. This date is around AD 62, only 30 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. This publication date would place the extensive research and writing of Acts well within the lifetime of many eyewitnesses of Jesus and the events in the early church and Paul’s missionary journeys.
In this blog I will focus mainly on the nine arguments themselves, tho I do mention one skeptical response.
The nine arguments supporting the early authorship of Acts are:
- Omission of the fall of Jerusalem in Acts
- No Mention of the Jewish-Roman War in Acts
- No Mention of the Deteriorating Relations between Emperor Nero and the Christian church in Acts
- No Mention of the Martyrdom of James in Acts
- Lack of knowledge about Paul’s Letters in Acts
- The Abrupt Ending of Acts
- Sense of immediacy in Later Chapters of Acts
- Undesigned Coincidences Between Acts and Paul’s Letters
- Author’s Specialised Knowledge is Evident in Acts
Some of these arguments for the early dating of Acts rely on arguments from silence. I will assess this approach of argumentation next.
Assessing the Historical Argument from Silence
The argument from silence is a probabilistic type of argument and is used as a ground for inferring a conclusion. There is disagreement over the effectiveness of the argumentum ex silentio for assessing historical arguments. For example, while one historian describes this as “nothing more or less valid than the universally valid method of historical investigation,” another claims the argument is weak at best. It is important when using this approach to form a strong argument, as weak arguments of this type are common.
Tim McGrew observes three steps that must be present for a strong version of the historical argument from silence:
- the event in question would almost certainly have come to the notice of the author in question.
- the author would have recorded or given evidence of the fact had they been aware of the event in question.
- the works in which this was recorded would have survived to the present era and come to the notice of contemporary scholars.
He gives the example of Bergen in Norway. Archaeological digs have uncovered evidence of a major fire there between 1225 and 1230 AD. Various Annals document the history of this region, but do not mention any fires between 1198 and 1248. Which evidence – the archaeology or the documentation – should take precedence? Archaeologists and historians working together agreed that the archaeological evidence takes precedence. Clearly, the writers of the Annals did not record the fire that has left physical evidence of its occurrence. This suggests the writers did not have “recording fires” as a goal in their writing. So, in our list of three steps above, step 1 is probably satisfied, but step 2 was probably not satisfied because it was not important for the writer to record the fire.
This example from Bergen shows us that we must be very careful before drawing an argument from silence, and we must take all the data into consideration before making an inference. An argument can fall down on any of the three steps above. It seems that in the Bergen case, the argument from silence fails at step 2.
Next, we will discuss the arguments supporting a dating of Acts to around AD62.
Omission of the Fall of Jerusalem in Acts
In AD 70, the Roman army besieged the city of Jerusalem, centre of Jewish resistance in the Roman province of Judea. After a brutal five month siege, the Romans destroyed the city and the Jewish Temple. This was a major turning point in Jewish history because the Temple was central to 1st century Jewish and early Christian culture and life. Historian Josephus records the horror of the fall of Jerusalem.
As the flames went upward, the Jews made a great clamour, such as so mighty an affliction required; and ran together to prevent it. And now they spared not their lives any longer, nor suffered any thing to restrain their force, since that holy house was perishing, for whose sake it was that they kept such a guard about it.Flavius Josephus, Of the War – Book VI
The stated purpose and content of Acts is that it is a work of history. Acts 1:1 continues the intentions of Luke’s Gospel to “draw up an account of the things fulfilled among us … handed down … by eyewitnesses.”Authors in the late first century who know this area would have been painfully aware of the events Josephus describes.
It is interesting to note that many other significant events in the life of the fledgling church are recorded in Acts. For example:
- the Jewish authorities and their persecution of the Apostles Peter and John (Acts 4-5)
- persecution of the church by Saul (Acts 8)
- scattering of some people from the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8)
Given the effect the fall of Jerusalem would have had on the lives of the Jewish and Christian population there, it is hard to think of a reason why the author of Acts would not have mentioned this highly significant and unique event – the destruction of the Temple. Consequently, this is a very unlikely omission by the author. This would suggest the fall of Jerusalem had not happened while the book was being written.
Interestingly, Luke’s gospel does appear to refer to the fall of Jerusalem. During a discussion about the beauty of the Temple, Jesus says:
“As for what you see here, the time will come when not one stone will be left on another; every one of them will be thrown down.”
Some skeptical scholars do not believe that Jesus could supernaturally know about the destruction of the temple. Consequently, they use this verse as evidence that Luke’s gospel was written after AD 70. However, if miracles do occur, there is no need to date Luke after AD 70.
So – do miracles occur? While skeptics will quickly oppose the notion of the occurrence of miracles, I have yet to hear a convincing argument disproving the possibility of the supernatural. These arguments tend to cut the ground from under their own feet.
For example, David Hume’s attempt is mired in circular argumentation. He assumes miracles cannot happen to argue that they do not. Unfortunately, there are volumes of documented miracles from Hume’s time, as well as earlier and later in history. Further, Anthony Flew’s argument that one-off miracles are not permitted also disallows some important events that are recognised by believing and unbelieving scientists. For example, the origin of the universe and the origin of life on earth. Further, if one-off events (miracles) must always be overturned by the normal flow of events, no new scientific discoveries could ever be made. For these and many other reasons, the skeptical argument against miracles cannot disallow the occurrence of miracles. Skeptics therefore cannot reasonably require that Luke 21:6 points to a date of composition for Luke’s gospel beyond AD 70.
No Mention of the Jewish-Roman War in Acts
Tensions between the Jews and Romans were the precursor to the fall of Jerusalem. These tensions are dated to AD 66, and we would expect this to be mentioned in Acts if it had already occurred because again, it was significant and relevant to the church and the local community and would have been important to the author of Luke-Acts.
No Mention of Deterioration in Relations between Emperor Nero and the Christian Community in Acts
There are many facets to this highly significant period in the life of the early Christian Church. In his Annals, Roman historian Tacitus records Nero’s persecution of the Christians in various brutal ways. And he pinned the cause of the fire in Rome on the Christians. This is dated to the mid to late AD 60s. It is not mentioned in Acts, suggesting it is yet to occur while Acts is being written.
If the author of Acts recorded earlier persecution by the Jewish authorities, and persecution by the Roman authorities, why not this Roman persecution that was happening close to home? Again, given the significance of these events, it is hard to see why the author of Acts would not have mentioned Nero’s persecution if it had already occurred. This suggests it had not yet occurred while Acts was being written.
No Mention of the Martyrdom of James in Acts
In his Antiquities, Josephus records the Sanhedrin’s killing of the Apostle James around AD 62. This would be an important event in the history of the Christian church as it involved the death of one of their first leaders. The omission of this event suggests it had not happened yet while the author was researching and writing.
The Author of Acts Does Not Appear to Know About the Apostle Paul’s Letters
If Acts was written later in the 1st century, surely the author’s research would have included reading the Apostle Paul’s letters and informing his account with the details recorded in there. However, there is no evidence this was the case from the Acts text.
Now, it is possible that the author simply didn’t have access to these letters. The 1st century was not an information-rich age like ours is today. Yet at a time when these documents were being copied and distributed amongst the earliest churches, it seems reasonable to assume he would have known about the existence of the letters from the people he was interviewing as part of his research. If Luke is the author, and he is a companion of Paul, you would think he would know about some of Paul’s letters.
This is a weaker argument from silence compared to the previous two. But silence on the letters may suggest an early date for the research and writing of Acts, perhaps prior to the wide distribution of some of Paul’s letters. The fact he doesn’t mention them suggests the author’s research happened around the time Paul was writing his epistles.
The Abrupt Ending of Acts
There is a suddenness about the conclusion to Acts. The Apostle Paul makes his final journey to Rome and arrives after surviving a shipwreck. Paul is awaiting the outcome to his appeal to the Roman emperor. Through other writers of the time (1 Clement 5, Eusebius) it is recorded that Paul is released in AD 62 only to be reimprisoned and executed a few years later. Acts reports none of this important detail. It seems the author writes up to his understanding of contemporary events, without knowing what the outcome for Paul would be.
Also, scholars have noted the parallels the writer of Luke-Acts seems to draw between the lives of Jesus and Paul. If the author had been aware of Paul’s martyrdom, they would have reported it in Acts to draw the parallel even closer. Its omission suggests it had not happened yet, and the author recorded as much as he could based on prior known events.
A Sense of Immediacy in the Later Chapters of Acts
The early chapters report events in an indirect way, while the later chapters (e.g. Acts 27 – 28) report things more immediately. This suggests that the author relied on eyewitnesses testimony for the early parts of the book, and switched to his own memories for the events he was personally involved in.
Undesigned Coincidences Between Acts and Paul’s Letters
While Acts does not seem to use Paul’s letters as a source, nevertheless it reports events that are consistent with those letters. For example, Paul’s ministry in Macedonia is reported in Acts 16 and 19, and also in Romans 15 and 2 Corinthians 8 and 11. Multiple documents separately attesting to the same event is an undesigned coincidence and a mark of historicity.
Specialised Knowledge is Evident in Acts
The author comes across as someone who is well acquainted with the region. For example:
- topography of Jerusalem is shown (Acts 1:12, 19 and 3:2,11)
- knowledge of the Roman military guard and other Roman terms are clearly shown (Acts 12:4)
- Cyprus is correctly described as a proconsular province
- The part played by Troas in communication is acknowledged
- Acts 13 – 28 show an intimate knowledge of local circumstances. There are many “we” passages in the later chapters of Acts
Implications of the Dating of Acts on Luke’s Gospel
These arguments for the early research and composition of Acts also by implication support an early date for Luke’s Gospel since the style of writing demonstrates the same author wrote both works.
Placing both of these works at an early period in the first century, around AD 62, means the author researched and wrote within the lifetime of the eyewitnesses. This, therefore, gives further support to the original Christian belief in Jesus’ death and resurrection, as these are prominent in both works. This was not a later idea imposed on 1st-century events.
Authorship of Luke-Acts
The church fathers Papias and Irenaeus lived at a time near the events reported in Luke-Acts. Given that Luke’s Gospel was essentially distributed anonymously, as it didn’t have the author reported on the front of the scroll, its authorship would have been part of the oral testimony that accompanied copies of the document.
The traditional authorship of Luke, Mark, and Matthew’s gospels are affirmed by Papias and Irenaeus. Matthew was written by the disciple of that name, Mark was written by John Mark as a memoir of Peter, and Luke was a close companion of the apostle Paul. We do not know for certain that this traditional authorship is correct, but this tradition has a definite ring of truth about it; “Why would Christians as early as the second century ascribe these otherwise anonymous Gospels to three such unlikely candidates if they did not, in fact, write them?”
I have presented nine arguments for the early authorship of Luke-Acts. Five of these are arguments from silence. How well do these arguments meet McGrew’s three steps? I would argue that it is highly likely that arguments 1 to 4 easily meet step 1. Argument 5 is less certain. Although I think it is likely Paul’s letters would have come to Luke’s attention. I would suggest all five arguments meet step 2 because the importance of the events, and the relevance of Paul’s letters, mean Luke would have very likely referred to them during his research and writing. Finally, all five arguments easily meet McGrew’s step 3. Acts is an important early work. At the time of writing, the earliest copy of Acts is found in P45. The Chester Beatty Papyri are dated to the third century and preserve much of the four gospels, and Acts itself.
I have shown how nine arguments together argue for the early authorship of Acts at around AD 62. I think together these meet the criteria laid down by McGrew for a strong argument. Some of these events have a very major significance to everyone living in this 1st-century Jewish/Christian community. To suggest that the author would not record them because they were not relevant, seems unlikely. Given that there is an incremental quality to these arguments, taken together, this forms a strong argument suggesting research and authorship of Acts prior to the important events that are not mentioned, at around AD 62.
 Normal L. Geisler, The Big Book of Christian Apologetics, (Baker Books, 2012), 10-12.
 Reference 2 in The Argument from Silence, Timothy McGrew, DOI 10.1007/s12136-013-0205-5.
 Reference 4 in McGrew.
 Flavius Josephus, Of the War – Book VI, accessed 24th May 2022, https://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/war-6.html.
 Luke 1:1, Acts 1:1, NIV.
 Luke 21:6, NIV
 Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals, accessed 24th May, 2022, https://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44.
 Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the New Testament Countering the Challenges to Evangelical Christian Beliefs, (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2016), 14.
 Ibid., 16.
 Craig Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?”, mentioned in Kenneth Richard Samples, God Among Sages Why Jesus Is Not Just Another Religious Leader, (Baker Books, 2017), 61.
 Papyrus 45, Wikipedia, accessed 25th May, 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papyrus_45.