Acts touches on the Jerusalem temple many times, but there is no such notice of this particular last days-type event in Acts. The most ‘normal’ explanation for this is that Acts was written before 70AD.
62AD: The year in which the Book of Acts was written?
By Colin Green
- Website: Getting to the Truth of Things
When was the New Testament’s Book of Acts written? And when was the Gospel of Luke written? (These two questions go together, since both were written about the same time by the same author, the gospel first – this being the normal consensus of secular scholars). Scholars usually have it that 70-90AD is the date range for when they were written. As for exactly when inbetween those years, it’s all a bit arbitrary. Still I have been content to accept that consensus unquestioningly for many years. And then I started to look at the actual evidence. And I discovered that other scholars, on doing so, had changed their minds and decided these books were written before 70AD. Harnack long ago is a famous and eloquent case of this. Liberal scholar J.A.T. Robinson did too. What led these erudite men to ruffle the feathers of the establishment? Was I prepared to change my mind?
“‘Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar’” (Acts 27:24)
It is clear from those words that Luke has made Caesar central to the latter part of his story.
Now, I won’t lunge straight in at 62AD. First, some evidence that Acts was written by 68AD at the latest. This comes from exploring a question that is not really about trying to date the book at all: simply,which of the Caesars was it who figures in the overarching story to the end of Acts, the story at the time Paul was headed towards a trial in Rome? Luke doesn’t say the personal name of this crucial Caesar. The reason why he doesn’t say so is simple. It is because Luke tellingly just casually assumes that his readers know that this important emperor is Nero without having to play guessing games. He does so in the way that you would do if writing while Nero is still the living emperor, and here are a few things that illustrate it.
We know Luke’s practice elsewhere. For the context of former emperors he does give their personal names in little side notes: Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1 “In those days Caesar Augustus”); Tiberius (Luke 3:1 “year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar”); and Claudius (Acts 11:28 “This happened during the reign of Claudius”). If you know your history, the sequence of the five emperors in the era covered by Luke’s Gospel and Acts is as follows: Augustus (27 BC – AD 14), Tiberius (AD 14-37), Caligula (AD 37-41), Claudius (AD 41-54), Nero (AD 54-68). Luke’s little notes are each meaningful. The first and second give a historical context for Christ’s birth and moment of starting his ministry. The Claudius reference serves to prove that Paul’s co-workers are on God’s side, uttering prophecy that comes true. Naming emperors is something Luke does when there is significance to attach to it.
So Luke has consigned the first four Caesars to the past, as at his time of writing, and even given three of them a name-check, serving as historical markers for his story. Make no mistake: if Luke as a writer were looking backwards from some time after 70AD, there would have been at least five more emperors in the meantime, and Luke would have needed to provide context for the latter part of Acts (eg “these were the days when Nero was emperor”). This makes it very difficult to understand why any post-70AD Luke would not give the emperor’s personal name in a note.
As for Caligula’s reign, AD 37-41 is a period for which little or no information is recorded in the Book of Acts about anything at all.
As for Claudius’ reign, it makes its mark in the story: ‘There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome’ (Acts 18:2). So Claudius is still emperor until around the time of Acts 18:2. Nero’s reign overshadows the latter part of Acts much more than that.
But what of the fifth emperor, Nero? Was he past or present at the time when Luke was writing? His significance is much much greater to the story than the others, but Luke never name-checks him.
So, we’ve had Augustus, Tiberius and Claudius. We’ve had ‘Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome’. But Luke gives no such detail when it comes to ‘You must stand trial before Caesar’ – why doesn’t he say? We have the answer.
Whereas Luke gives the impression of the others being past reigns at the time he was writing, this is precisely the impression that Luke never gives about the reign of Nero Caesar, the living emperor of the crucial final chapters of Acts, leading towards Paul’s trial in Caesar’s court. Of course, this impression is so subtle that it would only really make contextual sense with someone reading it while Nero is still alive, their present emperor.
- Needless to say, Luke is not doing a massive treatise on the life and times of Roman emperors, and doesn’t have to do a complete roll-call. But in the books of the New Testament, the three Caesars named by Luke are named by no-one else. This naming is something that only Luke is interested in doing, so it’s obvious that he cares about such details more than any other gospel writer does. In each case, he provides a little bit of historical context by inserting a note giving Caesar’s personal name. Yet Luke never makes a little side-note to give the personal name of the more crucial Caesar who is mentioned simply as ‘Caesar’ in speech after speech, page after page, of the latter chapters of Acts. The name: Nero. Why doesn’t Luke insert a little note to identify the Caesar referenced in the crucial dialogue and speeches as Nero, as he has been wont to do?
- It’s not just a question of an interest in mentions of a ‘Caesar’ in speeches. Naturally, in dialogue and speeches, his contemporaries refer to him just as ‘Caesar’, and not all of these necessarily are of sufficient importance to need a comment. But why does Luke, telling the story of Paul being headed towards Caesar’s court, not add a non-speech side note to say that the Caesar he keeps referencing in speeches is Nero Caesar?
Another thing that illustrates this is that whilst Luke has previously in Acts named a past emperor as active, Claudius (Acts 18:2), scholars know that Luke has moved on in the story to reference the next crucially relevant emperor, but does so without distinguishing him from the previously mentioned Caesar. It’s not Claudius; but if you didn’t know your history, that wouldn’t occur to you. Claudius is the only one name-checked in Acts. There is significance in that a reader could be confused by it. If you were not well informed, the modern casual reader would easily get it wrong trying to name this crucial emperor – you might guess it was Claudius if you just went by the text of Acts. Luke’s casual assumption that his readers are not ignorant or confused, and know which unnamed emperor Paul is expecting to meet – Nero – is easily explained by it being common knowledge among Luke’s contemporary readers. They knew the name of the living emperor.
To reinforce the point, why, unlike the other Caesars who have a place in Luke-Acts, does Nero go unnamed, even though he is the emperor referenced more than any other?
- Of course, an author might give personal names for past and present emperors, but when the author always
- the personal name where one particular Caesar is repeatedly referenced, and where this would be inconsistent with what the author is generally doing in terms of adding notes about emperors, then you are in the realms of a living emperor unless there is unusually strong evidence to explain away the inconsistency.
- In summary then, the most ‘normal’ non-theological explanation for Luke’s inconsistency in not adding a note to give the personal name of this crucial much referenced emperor, is this: Luke does not do so because he is referring to the then-living emperor whose name was universally known – Nero is still alive, still emperor, at the time he is writing. No contextual explanation is therefore called for, as his contemporaries reading this would understand the reference. That is the generation it was written for. And as Nero died in 68AD, this means that Acts was written no later than 68AD.
For comparison of the naming pattern: any current British Prime Minister can be referred to in conversation as the “Prime Minister” and the identity will be unmistakable even without giving the name (currently the PM is Teresa May, as I write, so anyone today saying “the Prime Minister thinks…” means her). But an ex-Prime Minister always has to be named and sometimes put in context to avoid mis-identification: “former Prime Minister Tony Blair” or “when David Cameron was the Prime Minister”).
How do we narrow it down to about 62AD? Of the arguments for this, the strongest comes about from trying to answer a different question which is not really about dating at all (again). The question: why does Luke choose to end the story of Acts where he does, not telling us a thing about Paul appearing in Caesar’s court, after a great big build up towards it? It’s the climax that never comes because Luke closes the book there. As Harnack once expressed, eight chapters build up to nothing. Why?
Make no mistake: Acts really does build up in style to the appearance of Paul before the Imperial Court. Indeed, there is a series of legal hearings heading in the direction of Rome. What’s more, Jesus and an angel in turn prophesy his trial will happen at Rome/before Caesar (Acts 23:11, 27:24). That impels the reader to expect to read of the great trial: Jesus and the angel prophesied it, so it has to be scheduled in reality, this is under heaven’s control. Luke describes several hearings in turn, and these are building up towards the great moment of the Imperial hearing. But the story stops dead just before it gets there.
Yes, Luke has a neat theological point, tying up the ending to his book in a ribbon and a bow, and some commentators want us to believe that that is enough of an explanation for the whole ending. But Luke would do that anyway wherever the story ended. And why the anti-climax? As Mauck observes, Luke “has no reason after pointing and leading his readership to a climactic trial to blithely omit the culminating event of the book” (John W. Mauck, Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defence of Christianity, Nelson, 2001).
The most ‘normal’ non-theological explanation is that the next episode had not happened yet at the time of Luke writing. Acts was thus likely completed about 62/63AD, prior to the impending Imperial trial (Mauck, 42-3, 176). Why is such a precise date available? Well, it’s in the detail Luke gives: he mentions Festus’ role; and Festus was appointed in 59 or 60AD, so the two years mentioned in Acts 28:30 end in 62 or 63AD (Mauck, 48).
A similar argument was expressed long ago by Harnack whom Mauck quotes: “The more clearly we see that the trial of St Paul, and above all his appeal to Caesar, is the chief subject of the last quarter of Acts, the more hopeless does it appear that we can explain why the narrative breaks off as it does, otherwise than by assuming that the trial had actually not yet reached its close. It is no use to struggle against this conclusion.” (Harnack, Date of Acts, 96f.)
It is not as if Luke even primes us to know what the result of the legal proceedings will be. Nero’s court could not yet have ruled on Paul’s case: “if Nero had already ruled on Paul’s guilt or innocence, then the ruling of the emperor would have been by far the single most important event to the faith declaration [if the reader were a Christian]. The ruling and, indeed, all of Acts would need to be explained in the context of that ruling” (Mauck, 217). So it is not a book written for Christians some years after the trial in Rome, it is a book written before the ruling, around 62AD.
It may be possible that conditions were never properly met for a trial to take place, but if so, Luke definitely did not see that coming, as he primes the reader to think that a supernatural prediction means that Paul will stand trial before Caesar. Luke says that one condition to be satisfied is for the accused to be able to face their accusers face to face (Acts 25:16), but what if his accusers never travelled to Rome to finish the job? Could that mean the trial never came, which would have taken Luke by surprise? So whether the trial had an important result, or the trial never took place, it looks like Luke just didn’t know either way. This fits with Acts being written before it was resolved either way.
Acts 20:22-23 has foreboding about going to Jerusalem (with no mention of Rome). Paul in Miletus says, ‘I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.’ The narrative goes on to show us that Paul leaves Jerusalem alive, having been handed over by the Jews to the Romans.
Acts 20:38 says, “What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.” This is another reference to Paul’s foreboding about going to Jerusalem, where he survives. Paul is explicitly not prophesying his death, as he firmly states: “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” So there is foreboding, but not of death but of imprisonment in Jerusalem.
More interesting is Acts 21:10-14, quoted here at greater length, where Paul is leaving Miletus, and does fear death in Jerusalem:
“After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this waythe Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”
In Acts 28:27-29, it is clear that Paul went to Rome because he expects fairer treatment from Romans than from his fellow Jews: “I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. The Jews objected, so I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar.” Elsewhere, from place to place, Paul has been running the gauntlet. But now in Rome, there is optimism, and Paul is expecting the Romans to keep up their good treatment of him. There is no shadow of doom and death hanging over these words: the message is that he has escaped Jerusalem and the Romans are trusted to continue to spare Paul from the Jews. And more or less there, Acts ends.
It’s perhaps worth adding that the ending of Acts was not written to curry favour with Romans decades later (as some suggest). Pointless to end with optimism with Paul in Rome, as if that would impress later Roman officials, if the officials already knew that that they (or their predecessors in office) had executed Paul. It would be an own goal to walk the story right up to the trial in Nero’s court, as if to make Christians look good fellows, if they knew Paul had subsequently been found in the wrong in Rome’s eyes and worthy of death. If the intention was to show Romans that Christians were living in good standing with Rome, this was not a sensible path to lead the Roman reader up.
- John A T Robinson wrote a few decades back (but has this ever been expressed better?) that the tradition of Paul’s execution in Rome is apparently unknown to Luke: “If the outcome of that trial (or a subsequent one) was already known, it is surely incredible, as Harnack says, that no foreshadowing or prophecy of it after the event is allowed to appear in the narrative… Yet the only hint he gives of [Paul’s] ultimate fate is that ‘imprisonment and hardships’ await him and that his friends at Miletus would ‘never see his face again’ (20.24f, 38)” (Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 1976, chapter 4).
There are counter-arguments claiming that Acts does foreshadow Paul’s execution in Rome. I will address these further down below.
So far: the way that Luke leaves unsaid the name of the Emperor to whom Paul is headed is explained by Luke writing whilst Nero was the living emperor; the fact that the story stops dead before it gets to the trial is explained by Luke writing whilst awaiting the trial; the fact that Luke’s is optimistic about Paul’s future is explained by Luke writing before Paul’s execution. Next, we see Luke is writing in a world in which Sadducees and Pharisees were still debating each other, which is explained by Luke writing before the 70AD destruction of Jerusalem.
- 1) The Sadducees.
- ‘The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.’ (Acts 23:8)
- If Luke-Acts were written some time after 70AD (scholars suggest around the 90s, remember), then something doesn’t make sense about the Sadducees. It’s that Luke reports the views of the sect of the Sadducees in the present tense: ‘the Sadducees say/are saying’. It’s as if the Sadducees are still substantially around, and as if their views are a live issue while Luke is writing. That fits before 70AD, but not very well after 70AD. The views in question are on the resurrection. Thus Acts 23:8: ‘The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.’ (Also, Luke 20:27: ‘Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him’.) What’s the problem? Well, the Sadducees more or less disappear from the map of history after 70AD. They were an elite Jewish party, closely connected with control of the temple, and politically influential. That all ended when the Romans wreaked devastation on Jerusalem – no more temple, no more influence, no more party of the Sadducees. In fact not so much as a single historical text written by the Sadducees has survived, such is their obliteration. Whereas the Pharisees may have survived in a sense by being part of the root of the Jewish rabbinic movement, the party of the Sadducees was finished. You would expect a post-70AD Luke, writing to Theophilus about them, to switch to the past tense, resulting in something like ‘the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection’ rather than the sense of ‘they do not believe in it’. The question of their non-belief in the resurrection was no longer even a live issue because of their demise. Secondly, there is absolutely no sense of foreboding hanging over the Sadducees in the narrative, as if Luke knew they were doomed. It seems that Luke is writing at a time when Sadducees were still debating these views. The inference to be drawn is that Luke was writing before 70AD wiped out their party. After that, the Talmud written a couple of centuries later has reference to them, but that cannot be treated as an accurate reflection of the first century. All that is left of them is notes in Josephus, and the present tense presentation of their views in the New Testament. This point is not as strong as those above, as Josephus uses past and present tenses when talking about the views of the Pharisees and Sadducees, and we know he was writing after 70AD. See:http://penelope.uchicago.edu/josephus/ant-18.html But the force of Luke’s presentation is very much more that this was still a live debate at the time of writing.
2) The murder of James, the leader of the Jerusalem church and the brother of Jesus, in 62AD. You would never know from Acts that in 62AD there would be the murder of James by Jewish authorities in Jerusalem acting outside the powers granted to them by Rome. When James is spoken of in Acts, he is dominant, never less than happily in full charge of the Jerusalem church. There is not so much as even a hint of foreboding, no prophecy of his ignomious removal. If Luke had heard of James’ murder, there is not a hint of it in the way he portrays James in Acts. According to John A T Robinson, “No incident could have served Luke’s apologetic purpose better, that it was the Jews not the Romans who were the real enemies of the gospel. Yet there is not a hint of James ever falling foul of the Jewish authorities, unlike his namesake, James the brother of John (Acts 12. if.)” (Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 1976, chapter 4). Although it would be a strain on the narrative to drag it back from Rome to Jerusalem, if the murder of James would have helped to show that the Christians were the innocent party, this would have strengthened the case for Paul’s innocence too – a big theme of Acts. I wouldn’t insist that Luke should have included in this book. What is striking at least is that there is no sense of doom hanging over James, the way Luke speaks of him. He is a major figure in Acts, and it would be strange if Luke knew of his murder for that not to show through in some way, some foreshadowing, an oblique reference to his fate, or a tone that knows that all will not be well. There is none of it. Acts was thus likely written by 62AD.
3) Expecting a fair hearing in Rome. Acts assumes Paul will get a reasonably fair hearing in Caesar’s court, something no Christian in Rome would suppose after the Neronian persecution of Rome’s Christians in 64AD (told of by Roman historian Tacitus). Acts thus likely pre-dates the 64AD persecution (Mauck, 42). (It might be added that here is Luke telling of Paul in Rome, the centre of world power, just a couple of years before fire ravaged it, and Luke seems blissfully unaware that this was coming on the city where Paul was. Never mind the Neronian persecution this is even bigger! The Great Fire Of Rome for goodness sake! You would never know from Luke that he had the slightest idea that such a thing could be a short time away.)
4) No comparison with the Jewish revolt in 66AD. Acts could have strengthened its key theme of Paul’s peaceful innocence at the hands of Jewish mobs, if, for example, Luke contrasted Paul’s peacefulness with the violent Jewish revolt of 66-70AD. They are just a few years apart. They are in the same decade. But no such comparison is made. Acts thus likely pre-dates the 66-70AD revolt (Mauck, 42, 153 n. 10).
5) The Jerusalem temple and Jesus. Stephen’s speech (see Acts 6) labours a theological point about Jesus himself, rather than the temple, being the new centre of Jewish religion (Stephen’s speech is actually the longest of 29 speeches in Acts), but the extensive and complicated labour of the speech would be a bit over-the-top for a reader post-70AD for whom the competition was over, as the temple was already a ruin cast down into the ashes (Mauck, 42, 76, 80).* Why not just give a little prophetic statement that the fall of the temple will make Jesus the only remaining true focus? Because Luke gives so much time to Stephen trying to make the point, Acts likely pre-dates the 70AD destruction of the temple. As Mauck also says, “If Jerusalem had already been destroyed by the time Acts is written, the narrative of Acts affords dozens of reasons and opportunities to allude to it” (209). “See Acts 5:42, 7:48-50, 24:6” (212 n.16a).
- 6) Sitz im Leben (this means the context at the time Luke was writing): still on the fall of the Jerusalem temple, a digression to Luke’s Gospel pays off. Jesus in the gospels predicts its fall with dire warnings. In relating this, Luke displays some animus towards the temple. Allow me to explain how this sits perfectly with a pre-70AD occasion for Luke expressing it. Luke had reason to have such animus. The prospect of the fall of the temple could have appealed to him, something to wait for. There is a scholarly consensus that Luke was writing with sympathy for Paul. According to Luke, his friend has been almost brutally murdered in the temple. So it’s little wonder that Luke-Acts spends more time displaying negativity about the temple, and imagining its future more darkly than other gospels do. Rejections of Jesus and Paul are major focal points in Luke-Acts. (Jesus’ dire warnings would have resonated strongly with Paul’s sympathisers, seeing their hero rejected like Jesus in Jerusalem.) If we form a view of the best historical-critical reading, was it the case that the occasion for Luke describing dire warnings about the temple in Luke-Acts was when the author was deeply affected by Paul being nearly murdered in the temple? His message:, there will be bad consequences for the temple. In this, we have a naturalistic explanation for the writing of the verses. That is, “Reject our man, who was sent by God, and see what will happen to you!” Of course, the impact of that sentiment on dating Luke-Acts is that it tends it towards being a Sitz im Leben close to the time of Paul’s anguish and pre-70AD. There is no clearer Sitz im Leben.
What is given too little attention by scholars is how the New Testament authors feltabout the temple, not just what they thought about it. Sentiment, not just ideas, plays a huge part in the development of a movement. Sentiment about Israel’s temple is a case in point. Jesus came to transform the nation, but once it had clearly rejected his message, how did sentiment in his movement change? One of the rising currents in sentiment was a bold demonstrative anger towards the temple elite. Once Jesus had done his very physical demonstration in the temple, turning over the tables of the money-changes, this surely released something in the disciples. All the gospels feature such a scene. It gave them licence to stop being respectful of the temple’s elite, and to openly court conflict with it. We see that in Luke’s Acts, where Peter and John wilfully ignore official instructions to stop preaching about Jesus within the temple. They treated it as if they owned it. We see similar courting of conflict when Stephen is killed for speaking out against the temple. Something had given them licence to speak and act disruptively against the temple’s Jewish leaders, and the Gospels trace that attitude back to Jesus. Every word uttered against the temple is a manifestation of that licence, such that they could now give vent to negative attitudes towards it that had previously been kept in check by Jewish social order. (By way of a comparison, in Britain in 2018, one might consider how there has been more strident anti-EU sentiment after the Brexit vote than before it, as if the vote gave licence to attitudes which many people previously did not feel free to express.) We may see Luke’s animus towards the temple similarly released by the near-death of his friend Paul in the temple, and he gives vent to that by foregrounding Jesus issuing dire warnings about the temple in his Gospel.
7) The temple and prophecy. Where the author of Acts can laud the final fulfilment of prophecy to help his arguments, he does. So why doesn’t Acts do so regarding the temple (as he easily could do if writing after 70AD)? For example, in Acts 11:28, Agabus’s prediction of famine is supplemented with the narrator’s explicit backward-looking comment that this prediction was fulfilled in the reign of Claudius (“One of them named Agabus stood up and began to indicate by the Spirit that there would certainly be a great famine all over the world. And this took place in the reign of Claudius.”); but there is no backward-looking comment from Luke about the fall of the temple fulfilling early Christian predictions of the temple’s doom. The simplest reason for Luke not opportunistically seizing upon this is that it hadn’t happened yet when Luke was writing. So it is likely the writing pre-dates 70AD.
Digression: As impressive as Agabus’ prediction of famine might be, imagine how impressive it would have been if Luke could have recalled someone predicting the Great Fire of Rome of 64AD, and then Luke could have said “And this took place in the reign of Nero.” Luke doesn’t show signs of knowing of any disaster befalling the Roman Empire other than a famine. The impression one has is that Acts was written before 64AD.
8) The temple’s fall and the last days. The early Christians were anticipating some kind of last days ending to the era they lived in, and the fall of Jerusalem’s temple to the gentiles was an ending as big as they come in their era (for Jews/Christians that is – obviously if you were in Rome, then the Great Fire would have seemed a major event!). If you followed Jewish religion and had thoughts about the ‘last days’, you couldn’t ignore the fall of the temple. It was an event that demanded eschatological interpretation, acknowledgement, and explanation by Jewish and Christian writers of post-70AD if they touched on the subject of the temple. Acts touches on the Jerusalem temple many times, but there is no such notice of this particular last days-type event in Acts. The most ‘normal’ explanation for this is that Acts was written before 70AD.
In summary of these points, there is just nothing in the narrative – no literary device lending any atmosphere of foreboding – that would suggest that the author of Acts has any knowledge of these epoch-defining events: the 62AD murder of James; the 64AD Great Fire of Rome and the persecution in Rome; the 66AD revolt; the executions of Peter and Paul; the 70AD fall of the temple which ended the ruling elites such as the party of the Sadducees; or even just the premature death of Nero in 68AD which may have seemed good news to some Christians. (It was by suicide, by the way.) There was plenty to think about if you were a Christian post-70AD believing you were living in ‘the Last Days’, so it’s almost inconceivable that Luke would have no Last Days meaning to offer about any of it – unless of course none of these things had happened yet, because Luke was writing in 62AD.
Of course, what I’m not saying is that Luke should have written up all these stories of the deaths of James, Peter, Paul, Nero, and all these other things. That is asking Luke to write a different book, and there’s no reason why he should. So there is no advantage to be claimed there. But what I do say is that if Luke was writing after 70AD and aware of all of these things, it’s weird that it does not cast some kind of shadow over the way he writes about them all. There’s not so much as an ominous tone, or oblique reference to these things. By way of contrast, you know through much of Luke’s Gospel that Jesus has already died even before Luke has told the story of his death. (Likewise, the end of John’s Gospel gives a very strong hint that it was written after the death of Peter.)
In fact, for the work of an author whose themes incorporate Peter, Paul, Jesus’ brother James, Jerusalem, Rome, Caesar, the tone of Acts just doesn’t fit with someone who knew that within a decade tragedy and disaster, premature death and destruction, befell them all. It’s just not there in Luke’s tone. The tone of Acts is blithely unaware of all of these tragedies. Talking about James with no hint in his tone, or any passing remarks, of any knowledge that James was murdered not too long after the events he describes, is typical of the whole problem. Apart from some animus to the temple and some Jewish antagonists, Luke’s tone is blissfully urbane. It is just not the tone of someone who knew what unpleasant and premature ends befell his protagonists. It is also an urbane tone towards Rome that simply has no place after the breakout of violence against God’s people in the later first and second centuries, as testified to by Pliny, Tacitus, and indeed the book of Revelation.
Revelation’s tone about the Christian dead is far from urbane. It’s tone towards Rome (the city on seven hills) is likewise far from urbane. From 64AD onwards, first century Christians couldn’t all feel that Rome was necessarily benevolent. Revelation has the anguished desperation for justice of someone who is really aware that people have been meeting premature and unpleasant ends.
And if Luke thought these were the ‘last days’, such a disastrous sequence of things would demand some theological interpretation – I don’t mean telling all the stories – but some interpretation insofar as these characters are part of his story.
J.A.T. Robinson again, referring to the broader range of events of the 60s of the first century detailed above: “One could never guess from Acts what was to break within a few years” (Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 1976, chapter 4).
Given that Luke takes meaning from fulfilment of a prophecy of a famine, the fact that he takes meaning from none of the above is telling. He simply did not know about it all because it hadn’t happened yet.
TWO MORE ARGUMENTS AGAINST LATE DATING
1) A very late date is most unlikely because the accuracy of minor details such as of people and places in the Book of Acts adds up to overwhelming evidence of authorship closer to the time and place of the setting of Acts. Examples can be seen here.
2) A very late date is unlikely because of the “we” and “us” passages in Acts. These are where the author is present at events (as in “we did this”, “we went there”). These have no more ‘normal’ non-theological explanation than that the author was actually present in those places at those moments. Luke Timothy Johnson (even though he goes for a later dating) persuasively argues the narrator of the “we” passages really was a companion of Paul. Johnson makes these points about the authenticity of the “we”, of the author being a companion of Paul:
sometimes the author is without Paul. In some places, “we” excludes Paul, distinguishing Luke’s group from Paul: so it is not as if the narrator is saying “we” just to make an emphatic noise about his relationship to Paul. And it also means that the “we” passages cannot be dismissed as a literary device to give Paul’s perspective.
the “we” is not ever-present in the book, so it has the ring of truth. For example, the “we” drops off at Philippi and reappears later, in a way that is just matter-of-fact and sporadic – not the mark of someone bigging up his attachment to Paul (Luke Timothy Johnson, cited in Early Christian Writings.)
that Acts (and with it Luke’s gospel) is of a later date that gives grounds for being more sceptical of the contents of both Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts; and
that very late dating removes the possibility of the author being a companion of Paul, adding to the grounds to be more sceptical of its contents.
“As the soldiers led him away, they seized Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country, and put the cross on him and made him carry it behind Jesus. A large number of people followed him, including women who mourned and wailed for him. Jesus turned and said to them, “Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children. For the time will come when you will say, ‘Blessed are the childless women, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’”
This prophesies dark days. Some suppose it is about the fall of Jerusalem, but this is an assumption. In any case, Jesus has already prophesied that fall earlier in Luke’s gospel, so it adds little. There are more weaknesses to this argument for late dating, which I assess in detail in another post.
And it has long been known that Luke’s prophecies of Jerusalem’s destruction are products of Old Testament prophetic language, showing no actual knowledge of how things unfolded in 70AD. Far from it! (See C.H. Dodd, “The Fall of Jerusalem and the ‘Abomination of Desolation’” in The Journal of Roman Studies, Vol. 37, Parts 1 and 2 (1947), 47-54. This article has never been bettered on the question of Luke’s lack of acknowledgement of 70AD events, to my knowledge.)
Acts 20:22-23: Paul in Miletus says, ‘I am going to Jerusalem, not knowing what will happen to me there.’ But this is only about Jerusalem.
Acts 20:29: Paul says, “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” But that says nothing about Paul’s fate: Paul is still only on his way to Jerusalem, where he survives.
Acts 20:38: “What grieved them most was his statement that they would never see his face again.” But this is still only a reference to Paul’s foreboding about going to Jerusalem, where he survives. And Paul is explicitly not prophesying death, as he firmly states: “I only know that in every city the Holy Spirit warns me that prison and hardships are facing me.” Not death, then.
Acts 21:10-14: “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.”” This is still only a prophecy about what will happen to Paul in Jerusalem. Paul says he is ready “to die in Jerusalem”, but Luke tells us that Paul survives in Jerusalem. So this is explicitly not a prophecy of Paul’s death.
Absolutely none of this can be taken to indicate that, surviving Jerusalem, Paul will be killed in Rome. In fact the emphasis on Jerusalem without reference to Rome indicates that at the time of writing, the author did not realise that an accurate prophecy would have been of death in Rome. The author did not yet know that Paul would die in Rome: “if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Caesar!”; “Do not be afraid, Paul. You must stand trial before Caesar”; “I was arrested in Jerusalem and handed over to the Romans. They examined me and wanted to release me, because I was not guilty of any crime deserving death. The Jews objected, so I was compelled to make an appeal to Caesar.” Elsewhere, from place to place, Paul has been running the gauntlet. But now in Rome, there is optimism about Paul’s future. There is no shadow of doom hanging over these words: the message is that he has escaped Jerusalem and the Romans are trusted to continue to spare Paul from the Jews. And more or less there, Acts ends. Luke’s seeming unawareness of the bad news that Paul was executed by the Romans in Rome is telling. So, far from a successful argument for a later dating, the notes of foreboding centred on Jerusalem (not on Rome) actually undermine later dating – they point to a date no later than about 62AD.
The internal evidence for dating Acts to 62AD has some dating precision, stronger – it may be noted – than internal evidence in the gospels themselves for when they were written. So dating Acts becomes a cornerstone of dating both itself and Luke’s gospel. Therefore it is unsurprising that it is contested ground. The minority view towards 62AD deserves a proper hearing again.
that Luke, unusually for him, leaves never-mentioned the name of the Emperor to whom Paul is headed
that the story, with an unexpected anti-climax, stops dead before it gets to Paul’s trial
that Luke is optimistic about Paul’s future
that Luke is writing in a world in which Sadducees and Pharisees were still debating each other
the 62AD murder of James
the 64AD Great Fire of Rome
the persecution in Rome
the 66AD revolt
the 70AD fall of the temple which ended the ruling elites such as the party of the Sadducees
no hint of the death of Nero in 68AD which may have seemed good news to some Christians
the abundance of highly accurate first century data unique to Luke
the apparent authenticity of the ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages
The single simple solution of Luke writing in 62AD accounts elegantly for all of the above. But if we were to try to force the date of the writing post-70AD, then we need to justify lots of individual solutions – some of them complicated – for so many varied things. How would that be preferable? Occam’s razor surely favours the plausible explanation that accounts for all the data with the greater simplicity.
Arguments for Luke’s Gospel being written after 70AD: how do they rate?
In another post, I set out clear arguments for why Luke’s Gospel and his Book of Acts would have been written by about 62AD. However, most biblical scholars today take the view that Luke’s Gospel must have been written after 70AD. This post puts that opinion, and its best arguments, to the test. (NB: I am not trying to argue about all the gospels here. This post is only about Luke’s Gospel.) The boundary set by 70AD is simple: this is the year when the Roman army overran Jerusalem’s defences and destroyed the city and the temple. That is an undisputed historical fact. Which side of that line does Luke’s Gospel fall? Before or after? Does Luke show that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen, rather than its fall being something that Luke was waiting to happen?
A few words about method. Secular historians will look at an issue like this and seek naturalistic explanations for why a book was written and why it says what it does, an explanation that works in purely human terms. Their given task is to explain the world as if God didn’t exist. That is how their job is done in the modern era. This makes their work of little interest to many Christians, who don’t see the point of such work. But what I’m interested in is to ask whether the majority secular reading is even the best naturalistic reading.
First, for ease of reference, here are five key passages in Luke which are at the heart of scholars’ arguments for a late date:
Luke 13:1-9 suggests the Jews still had time to repent:
‘Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (emphasis added)
Luke 13:33-35 is full of foreboding for Jerusalem, because it has rejected Jesus, without saying what will actually happen: ’”In any case, I must press on today and tomorrow and the next day—for surely no prophet can die outside Jerusalem! Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate.”’ (This should not be assumed to be a reference to the temple, since it says ‘your’ house, not ‘God’s house’ or ‘my Father’s house’. ‘Your house’ could just mean the nation of Israel, and the saying may mean that the spiritual state of Israel is hopeless.)
Luke 19:41-44 suggests time was running out: ‘As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.’ (emphasis added)
‘Some of his disciples were remarking about how the temple was adorned with beautiful stones and with gifts dedicated to God. But Jesus said, “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.”’
‘“When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of punishment in fulfillment of all that has been written. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. They will fall by the sword and will be taken as prisoners to all the nations. Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.’ (emphasis added – note the mountains here are a positive image and in the next passage they are a negative image)
Luke 23:27-31: ‘A large crowd of people was following Jesus, including some women who were sad and crying for him. But Jesus turned and said to them, “Women of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children. The time is coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the women who cannot have children and who have no babies to nurse.’ Then people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us!’ And they will say to the hills, ‘Cover us!’” For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”’ (emphasis added)
Clearly, the fall of Jerusalem was a big deal for Luke, more so than for the other gospels. But all the biblical gospels show a keen interest in the Jerusalem temple, repeatedly mention it, never forget it. This is unlike most apocryphal Christian literature of the following centuries which for most part show little or no interest in it.
Here are seven arguments assessed for a post-70AD dating of Luke’s Gospel.
1) Post-70AD arguments: stories of predictions coming true should be assumed to be fictional and after-the-fact
So the argument goes, the balance of probabilities is that people get predictions wrong most of the time, and so stories of people getting predictions right are suspect, especially if they have religious meaning. (Even more so if some people hold this to be so-called ‘prophecy’.) Therefore, in this case, the default naturalistic position, prior to the commencement of evidence analysis, would be that Jesus didn’t predict the fall of Jerusalem. That’s the argument. Therefore when Luke tells the story of Jesus predicting the fall of the temple, it should be assumed that this was made up after the temple fell, after 70AD. And so, Luke wrote about it after 70AD. That’s the case in brief.
That’s not all. It’s not unusual for a scholar (in virtually any field!) to have a further default position, which is not to entertain anything which disputes a default position! The default position is therefore in a double-lock. That tends to be the status quo until another scholar whom they respect has a go and has recently published something questioning the default with a new line of evidence analysis. Scholars might then be persuaded that there is evidence that merits re-opening the case.
Of course, if everyone in the field tried to cling onto a default position without any of them ever being willing to entertain new evidence analysis, then they could be forfeiting the claim to being scientific in their approach. Because it’s not just that they are not inclined to change their minds; it can be that they are also inclined to think that there is nothing to research, nothing to consider. And closed minds limit the advancement of science.
It would be like saying that as we have Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, there is no value in measuring the earth’s gravitational ‘pull’ on the moon, because scholars agree that gravity is there, and it’s not worth doing anything specifically new. That is unscientific. It would not do to say a consensus about gravity will suffice instead of testing earth’s ‘pull’ on the moon, if that is the issue under investigation. If you care to know what’s there, you test on a case by case basis.
When one analyses evidence, the position can shift dramatically for or against the default.
Counter-argument 1: assessing the odds
So evidence analysis commences, and we will see how the arguments rate for Luke’s Gospel being written after 70AD. First of all, since we are looking for a naturalistic reading, I will adopt the word ‘prediction’ rather than ‘prophecy’, preferring a word commonly used in a naturalistic sense.
The odds of a prediction – an accurate one to boot – having been made have to be assessed rather differently when you weigh them as words of an up-and-coming Jewish prophet in first century Israel during a time of political unrest under enemy occupation, with strong views about the temple leadership and an interest in apocalyptic Jewish prophets (e.g. Jeremiah). Apocalyptic sayings tend to focus on the worst case scenario. It’s a genre thing. For such a figure as Jesus to do as Jeremiah did centuries before, who predicted the fall of Jerusalem, is not out of character for such a figure. And that it should come true is hardly miraculous in the circumstances. The likelihood of Jesus predicting disaster can’t be judged on the general principle that most predictions don’t come true, religious or otherwise. The balance of probabilities shifts appreciably when specific first century Judean context comes into view.
The odds of an author writing such a thing also have to be assessed differently if the author has animus, and reason to have animus, against the Jerusalem temple as he found it in his day. I mean Luke, and I mean that the prospect of the fall of the temple could have appealed to him. I will come back to that.
For both of those reasons, it is reasonable to think that a prediction about the temple falling could easily have been made before 70AD. Such warnings more clearly evoked Israel’s past rather than the future anyway. Narratives of the 7th century BC fall of Jerusalem and its temple were hardwired into the Jewish psyche. Scars from the disastrous fall of centuries previous haunted the Jewish imagination. They were just the sort of dark memories you would invoke, as if modelling oneself on a Jeremiah, if you were to speak woes upon the country’s elite. And it’s not unlikely Jesus did exactly that.
The fortunes of the temple were a big deal of national interest, and some Jews took particular interest in it. And Jesus in the gospels is clearly one of them. I go into the reasonableness of this prediction in another post here.
Counter-argument 2: doing history better
Expanding on that, I have two particular points to make here.
- i)Is it ‘prophecy’?
As mentioned, I want straight away to dispense with the idea that Jesus’ words are meant to be some kind of supernatural ‘prophecy’. There’s nothing innately supernatural about a political prediction of a not unlikely military defeat. Such predictions are commonplace even today. Luke never claims it’s a ‘supernaturally’ made prediction or that defeat would be a ‘supernatural’ event either. A political prediction is not intrinsically supernatural. Ironically both conservatives and liberals err into judging the text on the flawed basis of a supposed ‘supernatural’ theme. This creates a huge distraction. Viewing readings here as a contest between naturalism versus supernaturalism is a mistake. It simply distorts readings of what the issues in this text are: highly political warnings. There is nothing obviously supernatural in Jesus’ words, which are simply warnings wrapped in Old Testament language. After all, one hears dire predictions in mainstream media every day, some quite explicit, currently about the likely consequences of Brexit or the Trump Presidency; but I don’t need to interpret these media predictions as supernatural prophecies, and I won’t, even if some of them might come true. Ditto for Jesus’ warnings in this case. Set that distorting issue of supernatural prophecy aside, and the text is easier to read.
- ii)Are we projecting our knowledge onto Luke?
Another distorting problem is that we can look at the text through our historically aware post-70AD viewpoint. We know that Jerusalem fell. But we shouldn’t rush to project that onto Luke as if we know that Luke was aware as we are.
2) Post-70AD arguments: Luke writes things that must have been written after 70AD, doesn’t he?
The cornerstone of this argument is to say that Luke shows his hand and gives away that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen already when he was writing. Those arguing this, to justify their position, cite the scriptures above. e.g. Some take Luke 23:27-31, interpreting it as something that would have been written only after 70AD when Jerusalem was destroyed, made up by the author, not spoken by Jesus.
In it, Jesus speaks on his way to die upon the cross. All scholars make a reasonable inference that these words comprise a warning of trouble and strife for Jerusalem especially: “Women of Jerusalem, don’t cry for me. Cry for yourselves and for your children”. This shows us a Jesus (and a Luke) who took a personal interest in the waning fortunes of Israel and Jerusalem. Luke alone sees fit to include these words, unlike the other gospel writers. For that reason, sceptical scholars are apt to say that Luke was thinking about the fall of Jerusalem in a way that sets him apart from the other writers. Luke seems to make a bigger deal of the fate of Jerusalem that the other gospels do. From this, scholars infer that the author had something in mind more than was in the basic story he had received of the death of Jesus, the extra thing being that he knew that Jerusalem had fallen. But does this rather mysterious sounding and ambiguous passage really warrant dating the book post-70AD?
Counter-argument 1: “what will happen …?”
One problem for those who opt for later dating is Jesus’ question in it: “What will happen…?” Translated differently, you could put it, “what will become of the dry branch?”
What will cause the women’s sorrow? Jesus falls short of saying anything specific. It literally works as an open question. “What will happen…?” means “What will happen…?” It sounds like, “Be warned, be ready, wait and see.”
It shows no cleverness about events, and does not, on the face of it, mean “Look what happened!” It relies for meaning on its ambiguous ‘dry’ metaphor, not resembling factual reporting: “For if people do these things when the tree is green, what will become of the dry branch?” It is deliberately ambiguous and open-ended about specifics. If “what will happen…?” alone were all we had to go on, we would lean towards it dating to before 70AD, not after 70AD.
Counter-argument 2: “what will happen …?” is typical of the vagueness
This stands or falls on whether you think the references are so descriptive of the fall of Jerusalem that they cannot have been written before 70AD. But the case for that is not overwhelming. Of the five passages, three are so vague that they could be about anything, if we were not projecting a particular perspective onto them. They are Luke 13:1-9, 13:33-35, and Luke 23:27-31 with its ‘dry branch’. The vague descriptions in Jesus’ words are insufficient evidence for supposing that Luke was writing with historical awareness of 70AD. Typically of these three passages, the “what will happen?” passage does not stipulate whether it refers to one particular event, or just more broadly a time of trouble and strife, in the shadow of the rejection of Jesus. Jesus is here talking in Old Testament language (e.g. Hosea 10:8), not describing some scene like a reporter might.
The signs in the passages are that Jesus’ grim fate will bear grim consequences for Jerusalem. If issued pre-70AD, they serve as a shrill warning to Jerusalem (more on this later). Jesus’ words also give meaning to suffering. That is so, whether it is a suffering anticipated, or one that has happened by the time Luke was writing, or is unfolding at the time the Gospel was being written. Whichever it is, the words link trouble in Jerusalem with the rejection of Jesus. It is left ambiguous as to precisely what suffering Jesus’ words refer to in “what will happen?” but it is natural to associate it with the other passages. But trying to find particulars in this vagueness is not scientific. It is like trying to read tea leaves.
Conclusion: at best, you can say that this “what will happen?” passage could be argued either way, but it is insufficient to be determinative for early or late dating of Luke’s Gospel.
3) Post-70AD arguments: a siege is mentioned
So this boils down to two of the five passages: Luke 19:41-44 and Luke 21:5-6, 20-24. Late-daters think they have a smoking gun in that Luke’s outline bears some resemblance to what Titus did to Jerusalem in his siege of 70AD.
Counter-argument: there’s nothing unique about the siege in Luke
The passages depict that Jesus has now gone into a mode of waiting for the temple to fall, and imagining it. But again much of this is vague, a warning rather than factual reporting. Did the Judeans go to the mountains as Jesus advised? We don’t know. It is more Jeremiah than newsflash. In any case:
- Yes, in Luke, we have mention of a siege of the city, but after all, what else would tackle a walled city but a siege?
- And Luke’s Gospel predicts the city’s destruction at the hands of the Romans, but after all, who else would be conducting such a campaign but the Romans?
- And Luke predicts the slaughter and capture of Jews, but really, what else would happen to those in a conquered walled city?
Quite what kind of imagined defeat of a walled city by the Romans would of necessity exclude those elements is never explained by late-daters, and as such this does not meet any reasonable test for dating the Gospel post-70AD. The skimpy outline detail in Luke is applicable to almost any conquest of a walled city in the near east in antiquity. As said, Jesus is simply depicted as waiting for the temple to fall, and putting his imagination to it, which would appeal to the author Luke as we shall see. Whereas, if it were ex eventu, it is strangely vague.
Luke’s description is also coated in the sort of religious language you find in the Old Testament, which did in fact influence how Luke wrote generally, rather than relevant detail.
Have sceptics really done comprehensive evidence analysis of Luke 21:5-36? Luke’s work shows no actual detailed knowledge of the who what when of 70AD and its preceding siege whatsoever. Luke seems blissfully unaware that the siege of 70AD began during the Jewish festival of Passover, which would have been replete with meaning for him. He seems unaware that during the siege, Jews committed atrocities against each other, which would have fitted the apocalyptic tone of judgment. It appears no-one told Luke that his description should be adjusted to reflect the fact that the temple was destroyed by fire. He seems clueless about the detail that it was preceded by a ruthless purge by the Romans of Jesus’ beloved Galilee.
If you look at Josephus’ spectacular account of the burning of the temple, it is plain to see that Luke’s account has nothing of the kind:
“…the Jews … in order to prevent the distemper’s spreading farther… set the northwest cloister … on fire… and thereby made a beginning in burning the sanctuary.
…the soldiers … put fire to the gates; and the silver that was over them quickly carried the flames to the wood that was within it: whence it spread itself all on the sudden, and caught hold on the cloisters.
… those that guarded the holy house fought with those that quenched the fire that was burning the inner [court of the] temple.
… While the holy house was on fire… because this hill was high, and the works at the temple were very great, one would have thought the whole city had been on fire…”
What extraordinary detail to go unspoken by Luke. It is much more apocalyptic sounding than the tumbling of stones, and could have suited Luke’s telling of the story quite nicely. Anyone who thinks that it was after 70AD that Luke got his story about the destruction of the temple should have doubts about that, really shouldn’t be too sure at all. As for other interesting details, nothing in Luke would give you any clue that Caesar (Vespasian) was present when the temple was on fire (but Josephus tells us that he was). Luke only imagines armies.
Why isn’t there more of a good fit? Where is the proper consideration of all these issues when late-daters assert that Luke’s knowledge is what makes the Gospel post-date 70AD?
4) Post-70AD arguments: historical-critical view
Some readers may be unfamiliar with the historical-critical approach. This is particularly to do with looking for a human explanation for a text, as if God does not exist. It is common for scholars to take the view that one of the reasons for the inclusion of material in a gospel is that its content mirrored the current experiences of the Christians who heard and read that gospel, making it particularly relevant to them at that moment in time. In other words, if we can match the tenor of the passage with another historical moment, that could help date the book. I’m not saying that the historical-critical approach is an exact science. (See Eta Linneman’s critique of it.) But it is worth asking a question: if this method is used, does scholars’ usual reading stand up as the most convincing result of applying this method?
By way of expanding the question, why was it relevant to speak of the rejection of Jesus and his message, by his fellow Jews, in such anguished and apocalyptic terms, waiting for Jerusalem to fall or looking back on its fall? What author or audience felt that way, at the time of its composition, such that the drama would resonate?
What would occasion Luke to include in his Gospel something (so dramatic) that the other gospels don’t include (other than the possible reason of Luke being the only one who knew the material)? Why was it special to Luke to speak of fall-out from the rejection of Jesus by his fellow Jews in such highly-charged terms? In short, what fresh moment gave the author the impetus to write it down?
Scholars who date the Gospel post-70AD infer that these verses are indicative of a post-70AD Christian audience who are interested in the theme of rejection. Since in this view there is nothing sure to anchor the date, scholars arbitrarily date the gospel anywhere between 70AD and 100AD. Here, the occasion post-70AD becomes very speculative. We should note that, for such a rejection by Jews in this era, there is scant evidence. We don’t have any strong evidence of rejection by Jews after 62AD (the death of James), except for tensions that manifest in second century Christian texts and third century rabbinic texts.
Sceptical scholars conjecture that unknown Christians were experiencing unknown rejection by unknown Jews in some unknown moment. I know I’m harshly characterising this view, but that is the essence of it.
Counter-argument 1: this is weak
This does not provide an identifiable impetus for writing these verses at all. That, unfortunately, is what comes of a priori dating post-70AD. Layer upon layer of inferences can become a house of cards. Why was the fall of Jerusalem a big deal for this Gospel’s audience, say, 20 or 30 years after it fell? It’s an important question. After all, we don’t see explicit anxiety over the fate of Jerusalem in any other Christian literature of the first hundred years of Christianity, only In Matthew, Mark and Luke. There is no good evidence base for the historical-critical approach to hang a hat on post-70AD, so it has to imagine one.
Side-note: Dating the Gospel post-70AD of course drives further inferences. Either that Luke, the companion of Paul, was still alive post-70AD. Or that the Gospel was written by someone else who was not a companion of Paul and was living and writing post-70AD, and indeed some scholars really do make such an inference founded on the prior inferences, so that Luke and Paul are removed from any direct connection with the author of Acts (as well as the Gospel)! Actually, we know nothing at all of Luke’s life after the end of the narrative in Acts other than that he finished writing it up. We know so very little at all of church history post 62AD (where Acts breaks off) to the early second century – it is one of the least recorded in church history – that all assumptions about a post-70AD Gospel are awash with thinly grounded speculations, of which we should be cautious. As thin as this is, it is attractive to some scholars who want the door of doubt pushed wider ajar so that they can march their own innovative historical narrative through it, with late dating and author-guessing and imagined situations: reconstructed histories are in vogue. But it is not wholly convincing as an occasion for the writing of the verses.
Counter-argument 2: what about a pre-70AD occasion?
Also undermining the force of the post-70AD case, the fact is that it was possible to be agitated about the fate of Jerusalem before or after its destruction, so what is to be determinative for dating?
What if there is a clearer occasion that could have existed for the writing of these words? Let’s return to the historical-critical approach. Given that the passage is about Jesus being rejected and its consequences for Jerusalem, could it have appealed to the gospel’s first audience because they too, or Christians whom they knew, were – like Jesus – being rejected by powers in Jerusalem, and Jerusalem was deserving of consequences? Such an occasion would be a harsh lived experience of Christians there. Do we know of such an occasion?
Yes, we know of one (more than one, actually) in Luke’s text. However highly or lowly we rate the historicity of Acts, there is a clear parallel of the suffering of Jesus and the suffering of Christians who, like Jesus, felt their message, and they themselves, got rejected by fellow Jews in Jerusalem. No mistake: Christians unquestionably saw it that way. Parallels in persecutions within Luke-Acts are a key theme on page after page.
This is promising ground for understanding the text better, if the historical-critical approach is valid. Our author Luke describes in Acts a significant Christian – one especially significant to him – who equated his own suffering with Jesus’ suffering. That is to say, his message was rejected in Jerusalem and he personally suffered harm for it. This was Paul. We know that he felt acutely grieved that Jewish people were not listening to him. (See for example Paul’s words in Romans on the gospel not being heeded by Jews. See also the similar message from the closing paragraphs of Acts. In particular, Paul is rejected in Jerusalem at its most holy site, the temple.)
Luke is able to use this for his own agenda. There is a scholarly consensus that Luke was writing with sympathy for Paul. According to Luke, his friend has been almost brutally murdered in the temple. So it’s little wonder that his Gospel bears more negative sentiment about the temple, and predicts its future more gloomily than the other gospels do. Rejections of Jesus and Paul are major focal points in Luke’s Gospel and Acts. The parallel is striking. As evidence of this, see Acts 21:10-14, where Paul is leaving Miletus fearing death in Jerusalem:
“After we had been there a number of days, a prophet named Agabus came down from Judea. Coming over to us, he took Paul’s belt, tied his own hands and feet with it and said, “The Holy Spirit says, ‘In this way the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem will bind the owner of this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” When we heard this, we and the people there pleaded with Paul not to go up to Jerusalem. Then Paul answered, “Why are you weeping and breaking my heart? I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” When he would not be dissuaded, we gave up and said, “The Lord’s will be done.”
The story has clear echoes of Jesus being handed over by Jews to Gentiles for execution in Jerusalem, after ignoring the pleadings of his disciples not to go there, with people weeping over his apparent fate. So this is just like the gospel story of Jesus. Paul says he is ready “to die in Jerusalem”. Like his hero, Jesus.
Clearly, Luke sees and draws out the parallel. And the fate of Jerusalem hangs in the balance in such moments according to Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ dire warnings would have resonated strongly with Paul’s sympathisers, seeing their hero rejected like Jesus in Jerusalem.
So, if we form a view of the best historical-critical reading, was it the case that the occasion for the above verses being written was a time when the author’s ears were ringing from the sound of Paul’s anguish at the rejection of himself by his fellow Jews, and when the author was deeply affected by Paul being nearly murdered in the temple? Such an occasion fits all the facts. The implication here is that for rejection of Jesus and Paul, there will be bad consequences. Thus, we have a naturalistic explanation for the writing of the verses. That is, “Reject our man, who was sent by God, and see what will happen to you!”
Of course, the impact of that on dating Luke’s Gospel is that it tends it towards being an earlier Sitz im Leben – closer to the time of Paul’s anguish and pre-70AD – rather than later and further removed from Paul’s time.
Conclusion: at best, you can say that the historical-critical approach could be argued either way, but it is insufficient to be absolutely determinative for early or late dating of Luke’s Gospel. If anything, it is better provided with a literary context by a pre-70AD dating.
What is given too little attention by scholars is how the New Testament authors felt about the temple, not just what they thought about it. Sentiment, not just ideas, plays a huge part in the development of a movement. Sentiment about Israel’s temple is a case in point. Jesus came to transform the nation, but once it had clearly rejected his message, how did sentiment in his movement change? One of the rising currents in sentiment was a bold demonstrative anger towards the temple elite. Once Jesus had done his very physical demonstration in the temple, turning over the tables of the money-changes, this surely released something in the disciples. All the gospels feature such a scene. It gave them licence to stop being respectful of the temple’s elite, and to openly court conflict with it. We see that in Luke’s Acts, where Peter and John wilfully ignore official instructions to stop preaching about Jesus within the temple. They stride around the temple as if they own it. We see similar courting of conflict when Stephen is killed for allegedly speaking out against the temple. Something had given them licence to speak and act disruptively against the temple’s Jewish leaders, and the Gospels trace that attitude back to Jesus. His example authorised them to conduct a campaign of dissent against the temple elite. Every report in Luke-Acts of a word against the temple is a manifestation of that licence, such that they could now give vent to negative attitudes towards it that had previously been kept in check by Jewish social order. (By way of a comparison, in Britain in 2018, one might consider how there has been more strident anti-EU sentiment after the Brexit vote than before it, as if the vote gave licence to attitudes which many people previously did not feel free to express.) Their sentiment had turned against the temple elite who nevertheless were hanging on to power, whereas Jesus had been executed. We may see Luke’s animus towards the temple similarly released by the near-death of his friend Paul in the temple, and he gives vent to that by foregrounding Jesus issuing dire warnings about the temple in his Gospel, and by giving prominence to the stories of Peter and John defiantly preaching Jesus’ name in the temple, and Stephen’s execution.
It is thus easy to see how a pre-70AD situation for the writing of Luke-Acts is entirely in tune with sentiment displayed in the text.
5) Post-70AD arguments: lack of attestation of Luke’s Gospel being read for decades after 70AD
From the fact that there is no direct attestation of Luke in other extant writings before the mid-second century, an argument from silence is made that the gospel was not written till then.
Counter-argument: tiny pool of witnesses
However, this is from a tiny pool of witnesses (basically fragments of Papias, one letter from each of Clement, Polycarp and Barnabas, and a few from Ignatius). It is nowhere near as powerful as the arguments from silence about what is not said within the text of Luke-Acts, regarding key events and details of persons of the 60s that are absent in Acts. What is not said in Acts particularly points to pre-70AD authorship.
6) Post-70AD arguments: writing after Josephus
An old argument for a later date is that Luke cribbed off Josephus’ Jewish War and his 93AD workAntiquities of the Jews, and thus can only have been writing much later than 70AD. Both of course were writing about events in first century Israel.
Counter-argument: it doesn’t look like Luke did
If Luke did copy Josephus, then why does he not get it ‘right’ when Luke tells of the same events as Josephus: his version of events has discrepancies compared to Josephus. The classic quote on this is from Emil Schurer back in 1876! “Either Luke had not read Josephus, or he had forgotten all about what he had read.” (Schurer, “Lucas und Josephus,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 19, 582-83). It would be too much extra length for this post to be plunging deep into this pool of evidence and analysis, but, instead, relevant comments can be found here. A sceptical notion that Luke was a writer of later times merely cribbing off Josephus is patently false, as abundant evidence to the contrary exists – not least, Luke has a good deal of highly accurate information of first century life and times which is actually absent from Josephus’ work, and examples can be seen here.
7) Post-70AD arguments: re-writing Marcion’s Gospel
Here’s another suggested argument for late dating. Second century church fathers Irenaeus and Tertullian understood that the heretic Marcion, in the first half of the second century, cut a copy of Luke’s Gospel into a shorter version for use in his church. (Marcion was a church leader whose heresy was that he rejected the Old Testament and its God.) The radical suggestion by revisionist scholars today is that the truth is the opposite of what the witnesses say, and that actually Luke’s Gospel is a rewrite of Marcion’s Gospel. And thus, Luke was written later, sometime in the second century. (A further implication of this is that the autobiographical first person ‘we’ passage in Acts would be fake, since Paul’s travelling companions could not feasibly be alive writing mid-second century.)
This is an interesting fringe view. It is one of those instances where scholars’ literary criticism is like the ‘art’ of reading tea-leaves and some of the conclusions that scholars try to draw are about as firm. Its primary problem is that it has no sound evidence base. Marcion’s gospel is lost to the ravages of time, and all we have is reconstructions of bits of it, and the reconstructions are based on quotes in Tertullian and Epiphanius which may have been done from memory inaccurately and from different versions of Marcion’s gospel. And it gets worse. With such an uncertain evidence base, scholars are unable to agree on just about anything. Some suggest that Marcion just cut bits from Luke’s Gospel (because Irenaeus and Tertullian say so and they lived in the same century as Marcion, so they should at least be given a hearing, and it’s an easy conclusion to jump to). Other scholars suggest that Luke’s Gospel is a second century expanded rewrite of Marcion’s (the fringe view stated above). Others suggest that both Luke and Marcion had common source(s).
Actually, this last suggestion seems to best fit the evidence, such as we have it. It is truthful to Luke’s statement (Luke 1:1-4) that other unfinished gospel materials were given to him and that he expanded/collated them (into our longest gospel), which allows us to say a couple of things: Luke says these versions were given to him but he never says they were destroyed – we might call part of this material ‘proto-Luke’. So proto-Luke was around as well as Luke’s Gospel, judging by Luke’s testimony. And it was proto-Luke that Marcion edited to be his own Gospel. This is not a million miles away from the witness of Irenaeus and Tertullian – i.e. Marcion edited more or less the same text that Luke had used before he did. It is easy to see why the church fathers looked at Marcion’s Gospel and thought “Ah! He’s used Luke!” So this is consistent with Luke’s witness and partly consistent with the church fathers’. It is also consistent with what some scholars today find. That is to say, some of Marcion’s Gospel happens to look like a deviation from Luke whereas sometimes Luke looks like a deviation from Marcion, but you can’t have it both ways, and a simpler solution is that both are probably deviations from proto-Luke. Again sometimes Luke’s differences seem unlike deviations from Marcion, and Marcion’s differences seem unlike deviations from Luke in all probability, but both could be deviations from proto-Luke. So, what is really happening is probably that both had been editing a version(s) of the first century text ‘proto-Luke’ which was still circulating, Luke in the first century according to his own witness and Marcion in the second century.
In this light, arguing a late date for Luke from this evidence is not robust.
Side note: The earliest direct witness to the problem is Irenaeus who wrote that Marcion “mutilates the Gospel which is according to Luke” (Irenaeus Against Heresies, I.27.2). And Tertullian: “Marcion seems to have singled out Luke for his mutilating process…” (Tertullian, Against Marcion, IV.2). Tertullian adds: “that Gospel of Luke which we are defending with all our might has stood its ground from its very first publication; whereas Marcion’s Gospel is not known to most people”.
In any case, problems with the theory of Marcion coming before Luke’s Gospel are myriad. Apart from the fact that it doesn’t really explain all the evidence, why on earth would Christians bother to rewrite Marcion’s gospel when they already had others of their own (e.g. Matthew, Mark and John)? If they wanted an anti-Marcion gospel (so some suggest), they had one in the form of Matthew (it is especially honouring of the Old Testament), so why not just use that? Why didn’t they just treat Marcion’s as an apocryphal gospel? Why not just dismiss it as they did other apocryphal gospels? If they rewrote this one, why didn’t they rewrite other apocryphal gospels too, if rewrites of them were a worthwhile cause? It’s a problematic base from which to argue for late dating of Luke.
Seven arguments for late dating have been assessed there. You might be forgiven if you got the impression that Luke’s Gospel has been subjected to sustained assaults to date it post-70AD. But none of these late-date arguments is determinative. None of them is able to bear the weight of late dating.
The most compelling data for dating, and this all points to a pre-70AD authorship, is that which provides dating for Luke’s Acts (the most compelling of this data is outlined in my post regarding dating of Acts). The majority of scholarship pays little attention to this data. Of course, dating Acts to pre-70AD entails a pre-70AD date for Luke’s Gospel too, since one author wrote both, Luke first, Acts second. (This sequence of authorship is more or less undisputed by scholars, but most are reluctant to ascribe pre-70AD dating to either.)
The state of affairs being as we have seen, you have to ask what else could be driving scholars to a late dating? Is it based on data, or is it that a preference for a naturalistic worldview – working for the cause of eschewing narratives about miracles as false – pushes scholars into trying to date the gospels as far away from the lifetime of Jesus (and the apostles) as they reasonably can? In other words, they don’t want the books written too close to the time of Jesus and the apostles because that would put the gospel miracles in a different light. Worldview has a good deal to do with it.
What strikes me is that it seems no Christian voices other than Jesus were predicting the fall of Jerusalem. No-one in the church seems to have stuck out their neck to say that, except by way of repeating Jesus. And only three biblical gospels highlight Jesus saying it (Matthew, Mark and Luke). It is virtually unique to the voice of Jesus in early Christian literature to agonise over the fate of Jerusalem specifically. You don’t see it in the epistles of Paul or other early Christian letters inside and outside the New Testament. This in itself suggests that it was of more concern to Jesus pre-70AD than to the broader church before or after 70AD. (That this was a preoccupation mainly of Jesus rather than of the church holds true whether or not a gospel was written before or after 70AD.)
This seems to make it all the more plausible to me that it is Jesus in particular we are hearing when we read predictions of the fall of Jerusalem.
It also seems to me that Luke, more than other gospel authors, is especially interested in waiting for Jerusalem to fall, making us imagine its deserved fate, calling out that the sky is going to fall in, so to speak. He seems to display some animus towards it. He links the crisis to the fatal rejection of Jesus which he clearly parallels to the near-fatal rejection of his friend Paul who was almost murdered in the temple. It is no surprise in that light that negative feeling towards the temple rises more to the surface in Luke’s Gospel than in other gospels. This all relates to pre-70AD situations. There is certainly nothing here to date Luke’s Gospel post-70AD unless we are a priori committed to that.
Late-daters sometimes say that the gospels were actually written to explain why Jerusalem was destroyed. But why then is there an absence of any other literature trying to make such an explanation in the whole first hundred years of Christianity? One has to explain why no-one else was trying to make such an explanation if they thought a Christian explanation ought to be published. Why is it only in the gospels? Why does such a message not come in the name of anyone in the church? Why is it only in Jesus’ voice? A simpler explanation is that Jesus predicted the fall and the gospels merely highlight it.
What to make of Jesus’ shrill words? Do they just give meaning to suffering, or are they also warnings? It is in situations of mortal danger rather than post-mortem situations that shrill warnings resound with more meaning. It is not necessary to be quite so shrill after a house has burned down as it is before it burns down. So the tone of it could be suggestive of a pre-70AD date as much as, if not more than, a post-70AD date. The shrill tone would be relevant to the atmosphere during the war of 66-70AD or even of the pre-66AD tension leading towards the war, just as much as, if not more than, the atmosphere after the war was over.
It is simple enough to read the verses as a fraught warning recorded in the tense atmosphere of the 60s of the first century with Christians having experienced decades of rejection and difficulty, and Jerusalem’s elite being problematic, a warning with a shrill tone that asks its audience to listen before it is too late.
On that basis, a good argument can be made that this warning was published to be heard while Jerusalem and its temple were still standing and its leaders were deaf to apocalyptic warnings.
A point oft-made but worth reiterating is that Luke makes a big deal of waiting for the temple to fall, but then does not capitalise on it. Writing post-70AD, an author at least might try to score the point about Jesus being right about trouble for Jerusalem by saying “and this came to pass when…” or else at least describe it with some meaningful detail to an audience who would be in the know as to what happened in 70AD: e.g. that the siege began during Passover, or that Jews committed atrocities against each other during it, or that it was preceded by a purge in Galilee. But Luke doesn’t do that. He doesn’t score the point. This is difficult for late-daters to explain away. If a gospel were post-70AD, you would expect it to either capitalise on the point or more or less just avoid the issue or prediction/fulfilment altogether. Notably, the one biblical gospel almost universally agreed to be post-70AD by a couple of decades – John’s Gospel – more or less just avoids the issue altogether. It shows virtually no explicit interest at all in the fall of Jerusalem and the temple – no prediction. So talking about the fall of Jerusalem was not intrinsically a feature of gospel-writing post-70AD. It would however seem intrinsic to pre-70AD gospel writing to make the point that they were waiting for the fall of Jerusalem. Depicting Jesus as waiting for the temple to fall, and imagining it, conveys this.
Footnote: Is Luke 2:1 an anachronism?
Here is another question that is pertinent for dating Luke’s Gospel. (I overlooked this one when originally writing this post.)
The NIV translation of the Bible, among some others, takes the liberty of translating Luke 2:1 to the effect that a “census” was conducted across the Roman Empire. But did that really happen? And are there any implications if it never happened?
If we think that Luke 2:1 is claiming a census took place, then there could be implications for dating Luke’s Gospel. Here’s why. While there is a historical record of an Empire-wide census in 74AD, there isn’t of one earlier (although that is not in itself conclusive). So where could Luke have got the idea of such a census from? Does it mean that the 74AD census gave him the idea of imagining a census in the year of Jesus’ birth? Well, if so, that means that Luke wrote his Gospel sometime after 73AD. But there is already a heap of ‘ifs’ here. Let’s step back and unpick the overlapping issues.
The devil is in the detail, and the assumptions of translators. In Luke 2:1, the specific Greek words matter. These words report a decree to REGISTER i.e. “apographesthai” (not literally “census”) ALL THE WORLD i.e. “pasan ten oikoumenen” (not literally “the Roman Empire”). That’s all we have to go on in the verse. Let’s break this down, because this could simply be a mistransation, and it wouldn’t be the first time that an exegetical problem has been thrown up a mistranslation or a misunderstanding.
Following the traditions of translators, speculating on what “register” means, is problematic. Clearly, we can’t absolutely assume without evidence that “register” means “census” (NIV), or “pay taxes” (KJV), or “register loyalty to Augustus” (see this suggestion). The last suggestion seems to me the most consistent with the historical period. But perhaps the safest translation is to leave it ambiguous as “register”, admitting that we can’t confirm what was meant by Luke to have been registered.
• “ALL THE WORLD”
The Greek word for ‘world’ here is oikoumenen. We can’t absolutely assume it means “the whole geographic world”, and similarly we can’t absolutely assume the NIV’s interpretation that it means all of “the Roman Empire”, or that it just means “all Judea”. The question is, whose “oikoumenen” is it in Luke’s mind, given that the only illustrative example he gives merely takes a single couple to Bethlehem? The safest translation is perhaps just “world”, admitting that we can’t nail down whose “world” is intended. But clearly, at least, Luke would not intend the literal whole physical world because he will have known that that went beyond Caesar’s jurisdiction.
CONCLUSION: All we are strictly left with as an accurate translation is “register all the world”. That’s how I would translate it, with a footnote to say that we don’t know what that means; and mentioning the notable suggestions of translators and exegetes. The ESV translates it more or less the same way: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
If there are three options, and we wanted for some reason to select something anachronistic (“census” being probably anachronistic), we need a good rationale for why we would select that in this specific case (NIV translators ought to take note!).
In short, if we were to start from the presumption that Luke has made a mistake, we would have to choose which mistake – a pre- or post-70AD mistake based on Luke misapplying an awareness of Imperial oaths or paying taxes, or a post-73AD mistake of Luke misapplying an awareness of an Empire-wide census.
My tentative conclusion is that this is about a registration to do with making an oath to Augustus, as the best fit with the text and the period (with people being registered for this purpose in Judea and probably wider afield). If it is about an oath to Augustus, then Luke may be correct about it having happened. We know that this was a practice in the era of Jesus’ birth. On that basis, I lean towards that.
A sceptic might still think, even if it is about an oath, that it is a mistake made by Luke pre- or post-70AD, but there would be no certain way of knowing which. So that does not help to date this gospel anyway.
I don’t think we can date Luke’s gospel from Luke 2:1 – we might try to, but we shouldn’t press our conclusions about it too firmly into service, when we don’t even know the correct translation and meaning of it.