Thursday, September 17, 2009

Acts: Authorship, Date and Purpose

Testimony in early church history is very straightforward that Luke, the beloved physician and traveling companion of Paul, wrote the third gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.

The evidence in the text supports this tradition:
-Based on Luke 1:1-4, the author was not an eyewitness but was associated with eyewitnesses of Jesus' life and ministry.
-Based on Acts 1:2, the author was not an apostle.
-The author joined Paul at Troas in Acts 16:10, the first use of "we" in the book.
-The style and quality of the Greek suggests the author was well educated.
-The author includes himself in the company of Paul during the Roman imprisonment at the conclusion of Acts.

Using Paul's epistles written during this time (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon), we can compare who was with Paul during this imprisonment, and eliminate those mentioned by name in Acts from the list of potential authors (since the author simply refers to himself in the first person ("we"). That process very quickly leaves only a handful of people who could have written the book, with Luke the obvious choice.

Luke is mentioned by name only three times in the NT (Col. 4:14; Philemon 24; 2 Tim. 4:11). From Colossians 4:14 we learn that Luke was a physician, and since Paul did not list Luke in the group of Jewish companions in Col. 4:11, we can infer that Luke was a Gentile. And of course this matches what we deduced earlier: the author was a well-educated man who was not an apostle but who was associated with them.

The Book of Acts ends with Paul's imprisonment in Rome for two years, which based on other factors of chronology must be dated around AD 62. At that point the book abruptly ends, making no mention of the crucially important events that followed quickly:
  • the outcome of Paul's trial
  • the fire in Rome in AD 64 and subsequent Neronian persecution
  • the martyrdom of Peter and Paul around AD 67
  • the destruction of the temple in AD 70
The simplest explanation for these omissions is that the book was written before the took place. Consequently, my view is that Luke-Acts was written very early, around the year AD 62.

Luke-Acts is written to the "most excellent Theophilus" (Luke 1:1-3). Other than the fact that such a description - "most excellent" - was used of one with social standing, nothing is known of the recipient of Luke-Acts. Based on Luke 1:1, where Luke speaks of what has happened "among us," it is possible that Luke is including Theophilus in the Christian movement. Some have suggested that Theophilus was a recent convert, and that Luke was writing (at least in part) to explain the movement he had recently joined.

As we discussed last week, Acts is doubly parallel. It is parallel in its entirety with the gospel of Luke, and its two halves (Acts 1-12 and 13-28) are parallel to each other. So the content of Acts is clearly written with a view to showing the continuation of the work of Jesus in the lives of His disciples, and to show that Paul was following the same course of ministry as Peter.

But what prompted Luke to write this book? I would like to suggest that while Acts serves many purposes, the specific occasion that prompted its writing was Paul's trial. This book served as a virtual legal brief in preparation for Paul's trial at Rome, exonerating the Christian movement in general, and Paul's ministry in particular.

In the first half of Acts, Luke shows that the early believers were held in high regard by the populace (2:47), and that opposition was limited to the Sadducees (4:19-21; 5:17-18). This all changed with the trial and murder of Stephen, which was precipitated by "false witnesses" (Acts 6:13). At the end of the first half of the book, James was murdered by Herod Agrippa, and Peter imprisoned, only to miraculously escape, while Herod was struck down by God (as even Josephus reported).

In the second half of Acts, Luke is insistent that Paul's ministry followed the law, and that for the most part the disturbances that clouded his ministry were caused by the same kind of disgruntled Jews who harassed Christians in Acts 1-12. Notice these key episodes:
  • In 16:20-21 Paul and Silas were beaten and jailed in Philippi after casting out an unclean spirit. When the magistrates ordered their release the next day, Paul refused to leave until his rights as a Roman citizen were acknowledged, striking fear in the hearts of the magistrates, who apologized to Paul for his treatment.
  • In 18:12-17 the proconsul Gallio refused to hear the case brought against Paul by Jews in Corinth, dismissing their complaints as arguments over Jewish law.
  • In 19:35-40, the town clerk of Ephesus quelled a riot that was sparked by Paul's preaching about idolatry by insisting that the proper legal process be followed.
  • In 21:33-39 and 22:24-29, the commander in charge of the garrison in Jerusalem rescued Paul from a mob and learned that Paul was a Roman citizen (which caused him to be alarmed since he had threatened to beat Paul).
  • When a plot to murder Paul was uncovered in 23:12-22, the commander (who is finally named - Claudius Lysias), wrote a letter to the governor in Caesarea in 23:26-30 explaining the need to transfer Paul (while admitting that Paul had done nothing worthy of punishment).
  • In 24:10-21, Paul defended himself against his accusers before Felix, challenging his accusers to name any charge against him that would stick (other than his defense of the resurrection).
  • In 25:6-12, Paul again declared his innocence (this time before Festus), and invoked his right as a Roman citizen to appeal his case to Caesar.
  • In 25:13-22, Festus explained the case to Agrippa and Bernice, admitting that Paul was innocent.
  • In 26:30-32, Festus, Agrippa and Bernice concurred that Paul did nothing deserving imprisonment.
Virtually every page of the record of Paul's ministry recounts Gentile officials rendering verdicts in Paul's favor.This accumulated record would have been invaluable in Paul's trial in Rome.


  1. Shane Scott, I remember you from Cincinnati Bible Seminary! I was doing a Google search on authenticity of the Gospels and your blog popped up. This is REALLY good stuff you're posting. Keep up the good work. I'll check back in on a regular basis!

  2. Here's a totally random comment - I saw you on Conan last night!!

  3. Shane, I just found that you moved your blog, I'm glad I did. Also, it doesn't seem any Jews were upset at Paul in Acts 16, but that is probably b/c there weren't enough to even make a synagogue. Are there any other accounts in Acts of Gentiles upset with Christians w/o the Jews instigating it?

  4. Read several posts on your blog today. It is great to see someone standing for the truth. It seems to be becoming more rare.