Sunday, March 05, 2006

Dating the Acts of the Apostles

Those of you who have been here a bit have no doubt noticed that while I'm not a big fan of theology, I'm quite tempted toward historical speculation concerning the scriptures. I make no pretentions that I have stumbled upon "long lost truths" or am able to reveal the final word on what has been argued for centries; I simply do it because that's my preferred way to study the scriptures, especially the historical ones.

If there is an historical book in the Bible, certainly the Acts of the Apostles is it. For those of you who are not familiar with Luke's second book, I'll give a quick intro, though I have to warn you that what follows will probably be of little interest to you.

The Acts recounts the first 30 or so years of Church history. Beginning with Jesus' assumption into Heaven, it follows the spread of Christianity from its origins as a 150-member strong sect of Judaism in Jerusalem to the Apostle Paul awaiting trial in Rome ca. 62 ad. It recounts how Christianity expanded to include Samaritans (half-Jews) and eventually welcomed into its arms the gentiles who would eventually take it over in a very real sense. Looking back from today, Acts is something of a baton handoff in history, a bridge between where Christianity had its Jewish roots to where it laid down the European roots that would eventually bring Europe back from the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Acts is a sequel to Luke's Gospel - both being dedicated to the same man, Theophilus, and both obviously the work of the same hand - and is famous for its careful treatment of places, titles, and especially pronouns. And while having been occasionally accused of inaccuracy, Acts has actually been the foundantion of many archaeological discoveries and has always been shown to be precise when the chips are down. It's no wonder archaeologist Sir William Ramsay called the author of Luke/Acts "an historican of the first rank," for whenever digging in the ground has been able to answer questions about Luke's nomenclature, it has consistently resolved them in Luke's favor. If there's one book upon which I base my belief in the historical accuracy of the Bible, Acts is it. Or at least Acts is the starting point.

But when was it written? Asking anyone that date will reveal more about the answerer than the book: dates are given from the mid 70s ad to the mid second century, because it is not mentioned by name in any of the extant chuch fathers until about 177. But the plethora of answers and reasons simply illustrate that no one knows for certain. And while the answer may not have any theological import, I think it has historical import.

But I am inspired by the character of Sidney Wang, the Charlie Chan ripoff character from Neil Simon's 1996 masterpiece movie "Murder by Death." When a moose head on the wall gives three detectives a significant clue, Milo Perrier (based on Christie's Hercule Poirot) responds that he does not like it one bit.

"I like it," replies Wang. "But do not understand it."

And it's the "not understanding" that drives me to a date of Acts far earlier than most biblical scholars.

Studying Luke is a lesson in precision. For example, Luke says explicitly that the cities of Lystra and Derbe were in Lycaonia, contradicting both Pliny and Cicero. Yet Luke was proven correct once the cities were excavated. He has also been proven correct in unusual Roman titles, and several sites have excavated exact places he spoke of (e.g. the theatre at Ephesus.) It is that kind of precision that I expect from Luke, and yet when I do not find it, I conclude there must be a reason why. And I like it, though I do not understand it.

Up to Acts 12, Peter has been the main mover in Acts, if not in the Church itself. He is the first to baptize non-Jews and must answer for it to a church full of Jews who never expected things to get that far. Eventually he is imprisoned by King Herod and miraculously escapes. Luke says of that (in Acts 12:17) that Peter "left and went to another place." Certainly there is not a more purposefully vague sentence in all of historical literature. It may be exactly this that dates Acts for us, and I'll return to the reason later.

Once Peter disappears from Acts, the book is dedicated to the three missionary journeys of Paul, with whom Luke travels. The fact that Luke was an eyewitness to many of these events has served as sufficient reason for many scholars to ignore what happened to Peter.

Yet Peter is around. He appears once in Jerusalem, when the first Christian council decided that gentile Christians need not embrace the Mosaic law (Acts 15). He appears in Antioch, in a faceoff with Paul over the same issue (Gal 2). And he is eventually crucified in Rome (ca. 64 ad) under the same Neronian persecution that takes Paul's life, after serving as - by Christian "tradition" (not quite the same as history) - the first bishop of Rome, later promoted to and as the first Pope. Why is he not mentioned? And why does Acts end with Paul preaching the gospel rather than suffering the same martyrdom that he visited on Stephen in Acts 7?

I think the reason that he is not mentioned is the same reason Luke says (otherwise inexplicably) that Peter "went to another place." Peter is, due to his escape from prison, a fugitive. He is on the lam. In Peter's first epistle, he says to his fellow believers that "she who is in Babylon greets you," though there has long been a question of whether Peter was in the literal Babylon (unlikely, since it had been mostly destroyed) or in someplace named a spiritual Babylon, with Rome being most likely location. In other words, Peter remained vitally important to the growth of the church, yet his actual location was a closely guarded secret.

Take that back to Acts. Peter and Paul had met on several occasions, the last of which was not mentioned by Luke. Peter was in Rome, the very place that Paul was headed, yet he is not mentioned by Luke. Peter is not mentioned in the last 10 years' worth of territory covered by Acts. Paul does not greet Peter in his epistle to the Romans, though he mentiones a whole chapter of others. The probable reason? Peter's location was a carefully guarded secret.

Now if we accept that as a fact, then certain things fall into place. Peter may have been a fugitive, but after his death in 64 in Rome, his prior movements would not have demanded secrecy. In fact, if it were written after 64 ad, there would be every reason to show how Peter, who in Luke's Gospel denies Christ, paid the ultimate price for his rediscovered faith. If it were written after 64 ad, there would be every reason to show how Paul, who persecuted the Church in Acts 7-8, eventually gave his life for what he had previously denied. Both would have been a valuable witness to Theophilus, the recipient of the Acts. In other words, Acts was written the way it was, hiding the location and activities of its original main character, Peter, because it was still important that his location remain a secret, therefore it was written before 64 ad.

If it was written before 64ad, there's no reason not to conclude that it was written in 61ad, right when the book ends, and that Luke completed it and sent it off at the very time he placed Paul for "two full years in his own rented quarters" in Rome. What happened in 64 ad, that the pillars of the church to whom were assigned both the Jews and Gentiles (Gal 2:7) were both martyred in the same city, was not mentioned because by that time the Acts of the Apostles had already assumed its final form and was circulating among the churches.

I like it, but do not understand it fully, though I'm happy to make a preliminary theory, taking into account that Sidney Wang was also apt to speak before thinking things through completely.

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