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

23 replies
    • Cassandra says:

      Yeah, that particular reviewer has written ugly reviews of several of our books, yet the scholars who contribute to the Acts Seminar all hold degrees in biblical studies or a related field from accredited universities. That said, anyone who wants to check their background and qualifications can look up the editors and contributors in the Westar Fellows directory (https://westarinstitute.org/membership/westar-fellows/fellows-directory/) and their individual faculty pages at the various institutions where they teach or hold emeritus status.

        • Cassandra says:

          Sean, without speaking for the Acts Seminar contributors themselves, I can offer at least one comment that may be helpful. The reviewer makes a pretty revealing statement when he claims, “The New Testament in its entirety knows nothing of that destruction [of the Jerusalem Temple].” Basic New Testament scholarship dates most books of the New Testament after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, including the Gospels. This isn’t unique to Westar scholars. If he’s starting from the premise that the New Testament was all written within a generation of Jesus’ death, he’s going to find very few legitimate biblical studies scholars to back him up. I find it hard to trust his other information in light of that comment.

          My guess is the Amazon reviewer is a believer who doesn’t like the fact that Westar scholars don’t take NT writers at their word. Westar provides an explanation of the critical scholarship practiced in the Seminars.

          • Ian Stubbs says:

            Thanks. I’m inclined to agree with you and, anyway have ordered the book. Thei thesis sounds fascinating and I look forward to reading it. I have greatly valued the work of the JS and Westar over many years.

          • Cassandra says:

            Glad to hear it, Ian. I hope we’ll see more reviews over time that offer a wider range of opinions (whatever those may be).

      • Solstice says:

        That EM Cooper guy is probably a good insight to attitudes of the days when Blasphemy/Heresy laws were enforced by capital punishment. Go to the American Amazon.com and his subsequent posts contain stuff like:

        “You will know, I think, that it is no light matter to disparage the Word of God and to portray its Author as either a liar or a fool. Those who do such things stand in immense peril of their souls. They laugh now and mock those who believe the Scriptures, but their time is very short”

  1. Rex A E Hunt says:

    I find it interesting that E M Cooper has read two large books, one 370 pages, the other 440 pages, almost as immediately (within a day or two) as they have come off the press, and could then offer an authentic and scholarly review of both. Perhaps a clue lies in the book he/she (because this person’s profile only lists ‘England’) suggests between the two Westar books – Panin’s book on The Inspiration of the Scriptures. Me thinks this is not a scholar but a propagandist for fundamentalism! And should be regarded as such.

  2. Robert says:

    While the review in question is quite baseless on most counts, his comment on Gallio and Tiberius (if that is indeed what is printed in the book) is accurate. If so, it is a factual inaccuracy, not a matter of scholarly disagreement. It may be an issue that was overlooked in the editing process.

    I have yet to see the book to verify anything for myself, but am hoping to pick one up at the SBL annual meeting. It looks quite good!

    • Cassandra says:

      Robert, doesn’t the inscription read “Tiberius Claudius”? Not a criticism, just wondering if this merits a query to the authors for confirmation. Glad to hear we might see you at the booth at SBL!

  3. Erlend says:

    How would the recent work of Sean Adams’ “The Genre of Acts and Collected Biography” effect this reading? He offers an alternative, and having read his book I would say compelling and rigorously researched explanation for the features and soruces of Acts that this book seems to argue differently. Another book that he just edited with MIchael Pahl ‘Issues in Luke-Acts’ also seems to anticipate many of these points and reaches a different conclusion. Certainly an interesting debate going on anyway. I just ordered your book from Amazon however and look forward to comparing the arguments.

    • Cassandra says:

      Erland, I’ll be interested to hear what you think. I haven’t read Adams, but Joe Tyson did say at the conference last week was that classifying Acts into a particular genre now proves difficult. One term thrown around was “charter myth,” for example.

    • Cassandra says:

      Solstice, both of your questions actually did feature in the conversation at the last Christianity Seminar meeting, extending beyond the Acts Seminar Report celebration. There was not a final decision reached. The general consensus was 50/50 that Luke and the Marcionite NT go back to an “ur-Luke” of some kind, so more discussion is needed on that point.

      Regarding the location (without affirming a particular author’s identity), a small number of scholars will willing to say Acts was probably written in Ephesus, while the majority said they don’t know and it needs more research. There will be a follow-up report on the meeting results in The Fourth R (Westar’s magazine), and hopefully at least one update ahead of that on the blog.

  4. arnoldo says:

    Thanks, in the first century perhaps apostolic succession was not a primary concern for those expecting an imminent apocalyptic event. Towards the second century it makes sense that the focus of concern would shift towards apostolic succession.

    • Cassandra says:

      It’s fair to say that just that one example alone wouldn’t hold enough weight to push Acts into the second century, but in the context of the various other examples offered by the Acts Seminar, it certainly contributes.

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