When was the book of Acts written, and what difference does it make?
Understanding when the book of Acts was written allows us to determine when many other New Testament books were composed.
Acts is the second of a two-volume work, with part one being the gospel of Luke. In fact, many Biblical scholars often refer to these two texts as a single unit: Luke-Acts. At the beginning of Luke’s Gospel we read:
“Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”
As the above passage tells us, Luke carefully investigated “everything from the beginning” in order to create an accurate account. Whether or not we can determine a correct date range for Luke’s writings depend in part on how accurate his account is.
Sir William Mitchell Ramsay (1851–1939) was a Scottish archaeologist and New Testament scholar who initially approached the biblical texts, particularly the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline Epistles, with skepticism. He initially doubted the historical accuracy of these texts but was led to a different conclusion after extensive archaeological research, especially in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), where many of the events described in the Acts and the Epistles took place.
Ramsay’s investigations led him to conclude that the author of the Luke was a very accurate historian. His work showed that the details in the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel of Luke, including references to cities, islands, and local officials, aligned remarkably well with what was known from historical and archaeological records. In particular, Ramsay was struck by the precision with which Luke described events and locations, down to the correct titles of various public officials in different places and times.
Ramsay’s work bolstered the view that the New Testament could be considered a reliable historical document, at least in terms of the geographical and social contexts it describes. He went from skepticism to defending the reliability of the New Testament, particularly the works attributed to Luke.
While many of the details in Luke and Acts can be verified, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it was written close the the time period of the events it records. Unfortunately, Biblical writings do not contain a copyright date, like a modern book do and so there is a wide range of opinion on when Acts was written.
Even so, we can be confident that it was composed in the early to mid-60s. Here are a few ways that scholars are able to reach that conclusion:
Chronological Indications in Luke-Acts
Interestingly, one of the most helpful indicators for dating Acts in this time frame actually comes from what the text does not say. Scan the chapter headings in your Bible and you’ll quickly see how much content Luke devoted to events surrounding both Jerusalem and the Apostle Paul.
The fact that Acts makes no mention of the fall of Jerusalem (which happened in A.D. 70) or the death of Paul (somewhere between 62 and 67) leads us to conclude that these events hadn’t happened yet.
When the book of Acts ends, Paul is still very much alive. It ends with these verses regarding Paul and his house arrest: “He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.”
So what does this tell us?
Imagine reading an account of John F. Kennedy that covered his family, his upbringing, and his election but made no mention of the Cuban missile crisis or his assassination in Dallas, TX. You would quickly conclude that the book was written before these things occurred.
Similarly, the fact that Luke does not include information on the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple or the death of Paul shows us that prior to both of these events.
Another important factor is that Acts also contains information which would be rather anachronistic if the account was written much later than A.D. 62.
For instance, details in Acts indicate that Judaism is still considered a legal religion, which was not the case after a failed attempt by the Jews to remove themselves from Roman rule in A.D. 66. The “Great Revolt” of this time period is what led to the destruction of the Temple and Jewish religious/political life in A.D. 70.
Despite the fact that Luke was not inclined to record the date of his writings, the omitted and included details give us enough information to be confident in dating the composition of Acts in the early to mid-60’s.
Why It Matters
Knowing who wrote the book of Acts and when it was written helps us understand the book’s purpose and content. We often use information regarding the cultural and political climate in which New Testament authors wrote to focus on important themes within a particular work.
For example, if we were certain that the author wrote during a time when the early church was experiencing great persecution, we could be more likely to pick up on portions of the text that aim to encourage Christians enduring such persecution.
By knowing the approximate date and understanding the historical events associated with that time period, we can more accurately determine the purpose for books in the New Testament.
Perhaps more importantly, however, is that an early date of composition indicates that New Testament writings are both accurate and reliable. In general, scholars are less inclined to give credence to a text that is written hundreds of years after the events that it records. Too much time between an event and the written record often allows error and embellishment to creep in.
Acts, however, can be shown to have been written about 30 years after the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We have established that Luke was written prior to Acts, and can put this gospel even closer to the actual events.
Even though we cannot be 100% certain, it is also believed that the gospel of Mark predates that of Luke, giving us an even earlier written account about the life of Christ. By understanding when the book of Acts was written, we can work backwards and determine that the Gospels were written very shortly after the events they record.
As believers, we know the New Testament to be the inspired and trustworthy Word of God. Understanding when the gospel accounts were written can give you a starting point to demonstrate their reliability to someone who may be skeptical about their claims regarding Jesus.
These methods for dating the book of Acts can be a helpful way to navigate that conversations and gently and respectfully “make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you” (1 Peter 3:15).