One of the great issues of
conflict between critical New Testament scholars and conservative
Christian apologists is that of the date of Luke and Acts. They are
probably the work of a single author whom tradition names Luke and tries
to identify with the colleague of Paul so named in Colossians and 2
Timothy. I would also include the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and
Titus) as his work and the third section of a tripartite work intended to
be read together.
Conservatives would like to date
Luke's gospel (like all the others) very early in the first century so as to
reduce the time span between the death of Jesus and the writing of the gospels.
This, in turn, would (they think) make it less likely for the gospels to have
been corrupted with legends and spurious sayings.
Some still hold to the arguments
of Adolf Harnack, a liberal in some ways, a conservative in others, who said
Acts must be written before Paul's trial and execution by Nero in 60 AD, since,
after a long narration of Paul's preaching, travels, persecutions, and sermons,
the martyrdom of the Apostle to the Gentiles would surely have been recorded if
it had already happened. Since it does not appear in the book, the argument
runs, Luke must have penned Acts (and by implication his gospel) before 60 AD,
"only" 30 years after Jesus.
The other day a friend, sort of an
absentee member of this group down in South Carolina, called and told me a
correspondent had asked him whether the silence of Acts not only as to the
execution of Paul but also those of Peter and James the Just, as to the War with
Rome and the subsequent fall of Jerusalem did not imply it had been written
before these events after all. My friend, Ed Babinski, wondered what I might
have to say on the issue. I decided to address his question in this forum this
morning. And in doing do, I hope you will see more than a purely academic issue
here. I certainly do.
Two preliminary considerations:
first, we are not really sure when, where, and how Peter, Paul, and James the
Just met their deaths. James' martyrdom seems to be the most secure. Both
Josephus and Hegesippus, a Jewish and Jewish Christian historian respectively,
recount the death of James at the hands of Annas and the Sanhedrin as well as
the popular ire raised by the events. This would make James' death about 60 AD.
But when we come to Paul and Peter, all we have is the probably
pseudepigraphical 1 Clement. It says that after many godly deeds, both Peter and
Paul were delivered up to death under Nero because of "jealously." I believe
that this must be a reference to the fictitious traditions we find in the Acts
of Paul and other apocryphal Acts, in which the apostle enrages pagan husbands
by telling the Christian wives not to have sex with them any longer. These
jealous husbands suspect the apostles of seducing their wives, the apostle's
groupies, so they deliver up the "sorcerer" to the authorities to get them out
of the way. These are late and apocryphal legends, historically worthless. Yet
otherwise we cannot be sure whether Paul died as a martyr at all, much less
under Nero. The same goes for Peter.
Second, I believe there is ample
evidence for a second-century date for Luke-Acts. For one thing, both works
share great similarities with the increasingly legendary apocryphal Christian
writings of that era. We have in Luke's gospel a scene straight out of the
apocryphal infancy gospels when Mary and Joseph obliviously leave the boy Jesus
behind in Jerusalem, suddenly notice it and retrace their steps to the holy city
to look for him, and finally find him in the temple, having a discussion with
the elders and scribes.
Acts is quite similar both to the
Christian apocryphal Acts and to the Hellenistic Romances which flourished in
Luke-Acts has much in common with
the apologetics of the second-century apologists both in style and substance.
Also as to agenda, as Luke battles against Gnostic Christology and for the
notion of apostolic succession, both second-century issues.
Luke is unknown to Papias in the
mid-second century, though he comments on Mark and Matthew. Acts seems first to
be mentioned by Justin Martyr in 150-175 AD, though there is no word-for-word
quotation, and both may simply be using the same theological jargon. Marcion is
said to have used an abridged form of Luke in about 140 AD, but this is probably
typical late-dating of "heretics," so as to segregate them as far as possible
from the age of the apostles. This would imply Luke's existence just after the
end of the first century. But as John Knox has shown, what Marcion used was more
likely an earlier version of what would later be dubbed Luke. Marcion did not
call it by any author's name. Our Luke would seem to be a "sanitized" version,
rewritten pretty extensively by church authorities. Acts was first written at
this time in order to introduce the institutional church as of equal importance
to Jesus. "Luke" seems to know of Marcion, especially in 2 Timothy, and to
revise Marcion's own gospel in such a way as to make it seem to undercut
Marcionite instead of supporting him. This would place these writings in the
Acts also utilizes the
second-century characters Simon Magus and the prophesying daughters of Philip.
Luke also seems to have used
Josephus as a source, which again places Acts in the early-to-mid- second
Okay, is it true Luke does not know of Paul's martyrdom? No. Acts plainly
anticipates Paul's death and even has Paul both warned by prophets not to go to
Jerusalem and warning his followers that they will not see him alive again (Acts
19). In fact, his whole progress toward Jerusalem where he is tried by various
petty officials, including a Herodian King and a Roman Procurator, is
intentionally representative of Jesus' own passion narrative.
Does Luke know of Peter's death?
He never mentions it in so many words, but you will nonetheless find Peter's
passion narrative somewhat disguised in chapter 13. What happens there? It is
Passover. He is condemned by Herod Agrippa I in alliance with Pharisees. Peter
is kept in a cell chained to a soldier. An angel appears and severs the chain
and frees Peter. This is a winking reference to Peter's own citation of Psalm 16
as a prediction to the resurrection of Jesus: "The pangs of death could not hold
him," as if "pangs" denoted "chains," not pains. Even so, the chains of Herod
cannot bind Peter. He escapes them and death by angelic deliverance. His prison
cell was like the tomb of Jesus, especially since the cell was on death row. And
for the angel to come free Peter recalls how an angel appeared in Gethsemane to
"strengthen him" and for two of them to appear at the empty tomb, presumably to
roll away the stone. Also, that Peter is surrounded by Roman guards who faint
and flee away at the angelophany, is just too much like Matthew's guards at the
tomb of Jesus. They, too, faint dead away when the angel appears. And as soon as
Peter is freed, like Jesus, he goes at once to his followers where they are
meeting clandestinely praying for him. A woman, Rhoda the maid, brings the news
of a living Peter to them, but her words, like those of the women at the tomb,
convince no one, seeming instead like female hysteria. Peter does gain admission
to their midst, and like Jesus again, he is first taken for a ghost. Once he
convinces them, he departs "to another place" (like Jesus leaving for heaven),
leaving word to be conveyed to James. Then Luke brings him back on stage in
Jerusalem in chapter 15 simply to have him second Paul's motion as to the
acceptability of the Gentiles to God, just as the Risen Jesus appears throughout
Acts to Paul in order to make suggestions or to encourage his disciples. So I
think Luke did know of Peter's passion narrative but slightly disguised it.
Similarly, I think Luke knew of
the death of James. As Robert Eisenman has argued, Luke seems to have
manufactured the martyr Stephen by cobbling together elements from the passion
narrative of Jesus (the charge that Jesus would come again to destroy the
temple) and that of James as we read it in other ancient sources. For instance,
the singular reference to Jesus as the Son of Man, never used by any Gospel
character referring to Jesus, but used by James in connection with his
martyrdom: "Why do you ask me concerning the Son of Man?"
This has become Stephen's seeing
the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God to welcome Stephen to heaven
from his sufferings. And Paul's involvement in the lynchmob stoning of Stephen,
impossible as Luke describes it, parallels a scene in the Pseudo-Clementines
where Paul leads a raid on James in the temple!
Luke certainly knows the all
of Jerusalem during the Jewish war against Rome in 70 AD, since in chapter
21 of his gospel he has altered the symbolic wording of Mark 13 ("When you
see the abomination of Desolation standing where he ought to be, flee to
the hills...") to the more historically specific phrasing "When you see
Jerusalem surrounded by armies besieging her walls, run for the hills..."
The speech he puts in the mouth of Gamaliel in Acts 5 seems to be derived
from a hasty reading of Josephus's accept of the various rabble-rousers
leading up the disastrous revolt against Rome. Josephus mentioned Judas of
Galilee before mentioning the historically earlier character Theudas the
Magician. Luke seems to have misunderstood what Josephus was doing and
concluded he meant that Theudas (40 AD) was earlier than Judas of Galilee
(6 AD). This means he knew where Josephus was headed: the war with Rome,
which Luke therefore knew of. The clear tendency of Stephen's speech in
chapter 7 is to explain what misbehavior would shortly lead to the
destruction of the temple.
So in every case there is ample
reason to suspect that Luke did know of all these grim events but purposely
transformed them. Why would he do that? It is of a piece with his whole
apologetical tendency. He tries to create an official history of the church to
serve as a charter for ecumenical reconciliation, or at least co-existence, in
his own day when the Christian movement was being ripped apart by factions. In
Acts, he is not writing what actually happened but rather what he hoped would
happen. He wrote not a work of description, but of prescription.
[Robert Wilkins, The Myth of
In other words, Luke, and the
church that has followed him, were so concerned to maintain a front, to hide the
dirty linen, they had actually repressed the various traumas that had troubled
them in the early days. This is no real surprise. Organizations ofd all kinds do
the same thing today.
And it's not only organizations.
Individuals do the same. When organizations do it, we call it "public
relations." When individuals do it, we call it "repression" and "neurosis."
Neurosis doesn't just mean "not quite as crazy as 'psychosis'." It has a
specific, technical meaning. A neurosis is when you have experienced some sort
of trauma, or emotional wound, and it is was so painful that, instead of dealing
with it you have simply buried it. Consciously you have forgotten it, as when
Lovecraft's protagonists say that "mercifully, they have blotted out the details
of what ever horror they had seen." But subconsciously, knowledge, a sort of
guilty knowledge that you fear to face, continues to fester. You fear to "reopen
old wounds," for fear they would only start bleeding more freely than before.
But that is precisely what you
ought to do! You need to clean that wound, or it will never really heal. And you
will feel the results of not washing it out and dressing it. Freud calls it "the
return of the repressed." What you have forgotten will make its presence known
by means of unpleasant symptoms that at first seem to have nothing to do with
the old trauma. How could they seem to have anything to do with it? You have
tried your best to forget all about it!
Unaccountable anxieties and ticks,
inappropriate behavior, arbitrary rages or depressions begin to sprout. You are
puzzled, confused; why is this happening to me? Neurotic symptoms are like
dreams: since you will not consciously recognize what your problem is, your
subconscious is trying to communicate with you in the only way left to it: in a
sort of game of charades and puns. "Get it? Get it?" This is why psychoanalysis
examines dreams and Freudian slips. Often another can see about you what you
cannot. And if you can be helped to recognize both the fact of repression and
the thing repressed--in short, to face it, the symptoms may fade away, having
done their job.
Often neurotic symptoms take the
form of a repeating loop of behavior. For instance, if you were once betrayed or
disappointed, you may forever after unwittingly relive the past, refusing or
being unable to trust anyone again. In this way you are only perpetuating the
effects of that original trauma. Perhaps real love or friendship is being
offered you this time; you cannot bring yourself to set your armor aside, even
though there is no threat this time. You are playing the present as if it were
the past, the particular past moment that you have consciously forgotten (or
minimized). All you know is that your seem afraid to love.
Or it may be that an
unacknowledged problem with your opposite-sex parent has soured your
relationships with the opposite sex ever since. But you don't realize the true
nature of the problem. Not knowing the origin of the problem, how could you know
Paul says that in the eschaton,
the final fulfillment of things, "we shall know even as we are known," and then,
as Revelation says, every tear shall be wiped away. If we can be brought to
self-knowledge, though it be painful, it is necessary surgery and we will be
glad of it.
Now this is no less true of the
neurotic repressions of organizations. An organization fosters a whitewashed
image of itself because, not only does it not want outsiders to see its warts,
its flaws. But actually, outsiders can see them all too plainly anyway! As in an
individual neurosis, the flaws remain hidden only to the one whose problems they
are! "Why do you not cast out the log that is in your own eye? Then you will be
able to help your neighbor rid himself of the splinter in his own." Think, for
instance, of the tobacco industry. Oh what a tangled web we weave when we
practice to deceive!
We start with the fundamental
false step of self-deception. Then every subsequent step must maintain that lie.
And soon one no longer recognizes what truth is! This is what the East Europeans
found during the Dark Age of Communism: they were so constantly and massively
lied to by the government, they came to despair of truth. Everything the
government said had to be more propaganda. That's all there was to be said! In
the nature of the case, it couldn't have been true. I have come to feel that way
about our own government. It is not cynicism but rather a simple matter of
epistemology. It makes no sense to award a prize to the truest lie!
Or think of the liberal
establishment's neurosis of Political Correctness, of "Sensitivity" and
Affirmative Action. All these are systematic strategies of denial. The crippled
person is hardly helped by redefining his handicap with the euphemism
"challenged." The poor student is not helped by dumbing down the curriculum so
that no one can excel, as when in Montclair they decided to eliminate advanced
placement reading groups so that no one would have to bear the stigma of being
inferior. Next, doctors will stop prescribing medicine and will just lower
standards of health so that no one will have to be called sick! I am waiting for
AIDS victims to be christened a "legitimate minority," as if having this plague
were no different from having more or less melanin in your skin.
And this is the situation of the
Church as well. Because it represses the truth about its own past, its clay
feet, its humble origins as a merely human organization, because it makes its
figurehead a god, and because its leaders hide behind the cloak of that god's
supposed infallibility, organized religion is in a severe state of denial and
repression. It no longer even knows what the church is. The end justifies the
means. It is not exactly hypocrisy: they simply do not know the difference
anymore! Lying and butt-covering have become a way of life!
The theological euphemism for this
crippling affliction is "orthodoxy," "apologetics," defending the faith. In
other words, refusing to face the real problem, as in a dysfunctional family.
Someone tries to bring up the problem, but everyone else refuses to see it and
instead scapegoats the one who does see. "What are you trying to do? Start
This is why the Church has
insisted on both an orthodox party line that everyone must agree to, or be
damned to Hell. This is why everything must be taken on faith, not reason. This
is why every rational-sounding argument of apologetics is merely an
after-the-fact justification, a rationalization, of something really held on
quite different grounds, those of emotional commitment. This is why heretics
must be silenced, as repressive groups (interesting that we use that particular
word to describe them!) like fundamentalism and Catholicism have always
ostracized and persecuted "heretics."
And this explains both the
desperate need for critical analysis of Christian origins and the desperate
refusal even to open the question. Some of you saw that power of desperate
denial at work last week, in the vociferous reactions to my Borders talk on the
Historical Jesus. This is why "Acts-grinders" like Ward Gasque try to safeguard
the veracity of Acts and the gospels, to ignore the symptoms and signals left by
the biblical authors, the contradictions and loose ends in the text that refused
to be completely erased, that cry out silently for honest self-examination. And
for healing of the fatal cancer of self-deception.
Only in this way, the way of
honest self-criticism and self-disclosure, can religion ever emerge from its
reactionary straitjacket of dishonesty, rationalization, and intolerance. Albert
Schweitzer announced that he would settle for nothing less than an unblinking
scrutiny of the historical Jesus and Christian origins. He would have nothing to
do with "the crooked and fragile thinking of Christian apologetics." Because
that is repression. That is neurosis. That is a corruption of truth by those who
fear it will destroy them, and so slowly destroy themselves. This is what is
both so tragic and so insidious about Christian apologetics, really
spin-doctoring and damage control.
That is what Luke practiced in his
white-washing account of Christian origins, and that is what apologists for
Luke's accuracy (or that of the Bible generally) are doing. The results are not
pretty, any more than the results of an alcoholic who staggers along in the
obliviousness of denial while those around him suffer its results.
Robert M. Price, April 18, 1996