When Was Acts Written? Not in the First Century.

Scholars Study Book of Acts as Second-Century Myth of Christian Origins

Press Release November 1, 2013

Polebridge Press recently released the final report of a decade-long study on the biblical book of Acts carried out by the Acts Seminar, a collaborative research effort led by scholars affiliated with the Westar Institute. Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report was launched at Westar Institute’s “Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies?” Conference in Santa Rosa, California, on Friday, October 25th. Members of the Acts Seminar were present to comment on the report. The Acts Seminar scholars set out to answer the questions, “When was Acts written? What historically can Acts tell us about Christian origins?”

Acts and Christian Beginnings: The Acts Seminar Report

Available from Polebridge Press

The dominant view in Acts scholarship places Acts around 85 CE, not because of any special event linking the book of Acts to that date but as a compromise between scholars who believe it was written by an eye-witness to the early Jesus movement and those who don’t. Acts and Christian Beginnings argues for a more rigorous approach to the evidence. The Acts Seminar concluded that Acts was written around 115 CE and used literary models like Homer for inspiration, even exact words and phrases from popular stories. “Among the top ten accomplishments of the Acts Seminar was the formation of a new methodology for Acts,” editors Dennis Smith and Joseph Tyson explained. “The author of Acts is in complete control of his material. He felt no obligation to stick to the sources. He makes them say what he wants them to say.”

The Acts Seminar demonstrated that the author of Acts used a collection of Paul’s letters to create a believable itinerary for Paul’s journeys throughout the Mediterranean. Previously, scholars saw the correspondence between Paul’s letters and Acts as proof that they were written in the same era. In fact, the reverse is true. Acts used Paul’s letters as a source while shying away from Pauline theology, which lost popularity in the second century.

“It’s tempting to ask, why bother reading a book we can demonstrate is not historically what it claims to be?” Tyson said. Yet Acts remains important as a window into the world of early second-century Christianity. Acts succeeded in creating a “charter myth,” a narrative constitution for the young Jesus movement. “Acts offered a major reinterpretation of Paul so powerful it hasn’t been undone until this century,” Tyson explained. “Narrative is so powerful, so effective,” Smith added. “Luke benefits from following this model. It’s good storytelling.”

Dennis Smith

Editor Dennis Smith Discusses the New Acts Seminar Report

Marcion: Forgotten “Father” and Inventor of the New Testament

Christianity owes a major debt to a man with no direct connection to Jesus of Nazareth or Paul of Tarsus – a man labeled a heretic by the forerunners of orthodox Christianity. Marcion (c. 95-165 CE) was a shipbuilder, possibly ship owner, from Pontus, a small region in what is now northern Turkey. We know little else about him, except that at some point in his career he joined the Christian community in Rome only to find himself embroiled in debate with the leadership there. Ultimately they were unable to resolve their differences, and the Marcionite community broke from other Jesus followers of that era. It is unknown how separate the communities were in practice, but in some parts of the ancient world Marcionites were called “Christians” while groups with closer ties to Judaism were called “Nazoreans.”

Jason BeDuhn gives a lecture on Marcion

Jason BeDuhn

Marcion holds a lasting legacy for Christians as the inventor of the New Testament. Jason BeDuhn, author of The First New Testament: Marcion’s Scriptural Canon, argues that Marcion not only put together the very first Christian canon of scriptures, he gave Christianity very idea of doing so. At the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? Conference in Santa Rosa, California, BeDuhn spoke about the important role Marcion played in shaping Christian identity. This begins with the relationship between Gentiles and Jews in the Roman Empire. “A good contemporary analogy is the interest some modern White Americans have in Native American religion and culture,” he said, “A similar thing was going on with Gentile fans of Judaism in the ancient world. They wanted to take on foreign spirituality and practices.” However, Jews rebelled multiple times against the Roman Empire in the second century, and Gentile Christian groups fled association with them, taking on new forms in the process.

Marcionites were pesco-vegetarians who embraced pacifism. Women held high leadership roles, at least prominently enough that critics of Marcionites complained about the role women were playing in the movement. They did not believe the god of Jesus was the god of the Jews. They believed the god of the Jews was a creator god that ruled based on judgment and violence, which Marcion argued by appealing to violent texts in the Hebrew scriptures. Marcion saw the god of Jesus as an entirely new being, a higher god who provided escape from the judgment of this world. Most importantly, Marcionites had something no other Christians had: a canon of their own scriptures.

Challenging Traditional Views of Marcion

Critics of Marcion like Tertullian and Epiphanius complained that Marcion cut and edited scripture to fit his beliefs. Biblical scholar Adolf von Harnack accepted this claim in his definitive text on Marcion, Marcion: The Gospel of an Alien God (1920). However, Tertullian and Epiphanius lived several generations after Marcion, and they assumed the New Testament they read already existed in Marcion’s era. It didn’t. Marcion’s critics were reading history backward instead of forward: there was no New Testament yet.

We tend to assume the version of Christianity we see today as inevitable, but actually there were many possible ways for Christianity to develop. Christianity may never have become a religion with a set of scriptures at all. Christians may have continued to interpret and reinterpret Hebrew scriptures, rely on oral storytelling, consider themselves Jewish, and so on. The very attitude of Marcionites setting themselves apart from Jews led them to declare a “new” testament, and that has made all the difference.

Marcion’s New Testament

What did Marcion’s version of the New Testament look like? It had two parts: the Evangelion, which was a gospel related to the Gospel of Luke, and the Apostolikon, a collection of Paul’s letters. Marcion is our first witness to six of the ten letters now considered to be authentic by modern biblical scholars. Biblical scholars came to the conclusion that only some letters attributed to Paul are authentic (most exclude 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, for example). The evidence from Marcion supports this finding. The inclusion of Paul’s letters in the New Testament was by no means certain. Rather, Marcion’s choice to include the letters succeeded in pushing other communities to do the same thing when they came up with competing canons of scripture, although it took his competitors two hundred years to establish the canon now found in Bibles today.

This is a very different way of looking at the Marcionite New Testament, and scholars will need to compare the edition reconstructed by Jason BeDuhn to determine how this changes our view of how early Christianity developed. For example, the Evangelion is much shorter than the Gospel of Luke, and it is not clear whether they were both written by the same person for different communities, or if a later editor added new material to the Gospel of Luke. Also, BeDuhn found that the Marcionite version of Romans 9-11 is completely different, yet this text has been used by some scholars as a key to Pauline theology. Regardless of how these findings eventually play out in scholarly discussion and debates, BeDuhn identifies four significant contributions of Marcion to Christian history:

The First New Testament: Marcion's Scriptural Canon

Available from Polebridge Press

  1. Christians owe the idea of a “new” testament to Marcion.
  2. Christians owe to Marcion the particular form of the New Testament.
  3. Christians owe to Marcion the prominence of the voice of Paul in the New Testament.
  4. Finally, Christians owe to Marcion a Christian identity built on a special scripture all their own.

Taming Tongues of Fire in the Book of Acts

When we read the book of Acts, we encounter a distinct movement away from the egalitarian vision of Jesus and even Paul, down the path toward Constantine and the religion of an empire. This shift comes into focus when we compare Acts to the pagan Felix Minutious, who criticized Christianity in the third century on a number of counts. In a presentation today at the Early Christianity: Heritage or Heresies? conference by the Westar Institute, Shelly Matthews, author of Acts of the Apostles: Taming Tongues of Fire (Sheffield, forthcoming), used Felix as a key to explore the social criticisms to which the author of Acts responded.

Pagan Criticism of Christians

Felix, though writing around a century later than Acts, captures well the sentiments of Greco-Roman civil society toward Christians. Among other things, Felix describes Christians as the “dregs of society,” made up of gullible women and riff-raff whispering in corners. He found it shocking that they worshiped a criminal, which was what crucifixion represented. He described them as worse even than the Jews – who were themselves viewed as rebellious rabble rousers – because at least the Jews worshiped in public places and respectable temples.

Luke is often portrayed as friendly to women, but Luke’s treatment of women is a good test case in demonstrating how he responds to criticism like that of Felix. Luke generally places intelligent women in his narrative, and even quotes Hebrew scriptures that suggest women are important to the Jesus-following movement. However, they rarely speak and are often relegated off stage. Luke does just enough to show that the women in the Jesus movement are not “gullible” but are in fact respectable women. He stops short of showing them in positions of actual power in the movement.

Shelly Matthews

Shelly Matthews

What about the claim that Christians comes from the “dregs” of society? Luke answers this critique by highlighting how many “friends in high places” Christians possess, especially key Christian leaders like Peter and Paul. In Acts 13 he even goes so far as to say the proconsul, a man who occupied an incredibly high position in Roman civil society, was a friend of Christians! This would have been difficult, if not impossible.

Then there’s the claim of secretiveness. This theme emerges repeatedly in pagan discourse about Christians. Worship in Roman society, properly carried out, was public and took place in temples. Outsiders wondered what Christians were up to, and heard rumors that whatever it was, was improper. By way of response, Luke places Peter and Paul in public spaces (mostly synagogues) where in fact they attempt to speak and are often silenced by people who are concerned for their safety. This portrayal of Paul in particular is contradictory to Paul’s own voice in his letters, where he admits to being a poor orator who struggled to debate with competing missionaries. In Acts, Paul demonstrates great prowess in oration. He is articulate and convincing. Where Paul privileges foolishness as the power of God, Acts is suspiciously drawn to portray Christians as powerful and impressive – ideal Roman citizens who could handle debate in the public square.

Ironically, Paul and Felix Minucious are two sides of the same coin. Their descriptions of Christians are virtually the same, but from positive and negative perspectives respectively. Acts is the departure from these complementary views.

“Christians Aren’t Like Jews”
Luke’s Attempt at Christian Public Relations

Another important task faced by Luke was to distance Jesus followers from Jews, who in the second century were embroiled in rebellion against the Roman Empire. It was neither safe nor prudent to be identified with Jews, yet Jesus followers could not deny a connection with Judaism. Luke solves this problem by distinguishing Jesus followers from “non-believing” Jews, that is, Jews who did not believe Jesus was the Messiah. However, this was a complicated matter because Greco-Roman culture did not simply dismiss Jews or Judaism outright. On the one hand, the Jews were rebels, but on the other, the antiquity of their religion was a source of great cultural capital. Luke seizes on both aspects in an ingenious way, a way that would have long-term consequences for Jewish-Christian relations.

Luke describes non-believing Jews as essentially functioning by mob rule, prone to violence, and rebellious. By contrast, Jesus followers embody the fulfillment of Jewish scriptures. They are the hope and wish of the scriptures. Non-believing Jews bear the weight of negative stereotypes, while Jesus followers appropriate positive stereotypes. In ancient rhetoric, repetition indicated the importance of a point; Luke provides ample repetition of these themes throughout the book of Acts.

Was there any truth to Luke’s claims that Jews acted violently toward Jesus-followers? Perhaps there was violence, and Shelly does not deny that possibility. The troubling point in Luke’s narrative is not so much that the claims of violence are inaccurate; rather, this is the only violence that appears in the book. We know Jesus was killed as a criminal by the ruling Roman government. We know the empire engaged in terribly violent action against Jews and Christians alike. Roman violence is virtually non-existent in the book of Acts, however, leaving the Jews as the primary violent force, surely not an accurate picture of the realities of the times. For Luke, the concept of divine provenance was no longer in play; God would not redeem the Jews unless they repented. Repentance in Judaism meant a return to the Law, but to Luke, it meant conversion.

The Revealing Story of Pentecost

One of the greatest challenges faced by Luke is the claim that Christians possessed the divine spirit. Spirit churches are not orderly. Think of the modern Pentecostal church – one is “slain by the spirit.” This threatens the orderly account Luke sought to provide his patron. Yet Luke did not seem to be able to just ignore this teaching, so what he does instead is try to contain it.

When we look at the Pentecost story, we see that the speech of the Spirit is not gibberish, not glossolalia in the modern sense of a unique language. Rather, when people possessed of the Spirit speak, they can be understood widely. This is the language of reason and debate, and thus respectable in the public sphere – something good Roman citizens would do. Luke also “genders the space” by privileging male voices: Peter and 11 apostles stand together and interpret the event for passersby, after having been forewarned by the risen Christ to expect the coming of the Spirit.

It is interesting that Luke claims everyone receives the Spirit, yet we don’t ever hear them speak. Luke promises an egalitarian vision in Acts 2:17b-18, where he quotes Joel saying the spirit will be poured out on everyone, but he does not fulfill it. For that, we must turn instead to Paul, Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”