Reviews of

Dating Acts in Its Jewish and Greco-Roman Contexts

In Bloomsbury, Book of Acts, Daniel B. Glover, Dating NT, Karl L. Armstrong, Luke-Acts, Paul on September 17, 2021 at 3:00 pm

2021.9.15 | Karl L. Armstrong. Dating Acts in Its Jewish and Greco-Roman Contexts. LNTS 637. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2021.

Review by Daniel B. Glover, Lee University.

Karl L. Armstrong’s new monograph, Dating Acts in Its Jewish and Greco-Roman Contexts, presents what he calls a new, historiographic approach to identifying the date of Acts. Bucking both current and longstanding trends in Acts scholarship, Armstrong argues for a precise date of 64 CE, a date during the reign of Nero and preceding the death of Paul, the famed fire of Rome, and the Jewish War (66–70 CE). Armstrong is revivifying an older position in Acts scholarship but also leveling new arguments in its favor. What follows is perhaps the strongest, most comprehensive case yet offered for an early date for the Acts, and, for that reason, deserves a detailed, substantive engagement as is offered later in this review.

Following an introduction (chapter 1) that surveys the status quaestiones of the date of Acts and raises the problems that will be discussed in greater detail throughout the book, Armstrong offers an overview of contemporary historiographical approaches (chapter 2), bemoaning the lack of such interest in NT scholarship more broadly. This chapter helpfully introduces a variety of approaches to historiography, and Armstrong leans heavily upon post-structuralism as his guiding framework. These early chapter, which emphasize historiographical approaches, cast suspicion towards the efficacy of narrative or literary approaches to illumine historical questions such as date and context.

Chapters 3 and 4 deal with Luke/Acts and its sources. Beginning with the “travel document,” which scholars have thought to underlie the “we-sections,” Armstrong argues that reconstruction of this document should be expanded to include the “Western” we of 11:28, thus locating Lukan participation in the narrative events much earlier. The use of “we” indicates not only a source but also that Luke, identified in the prologue’s “I” (Luke 1:1–4), is a participant in these events. (Armstrong does not seriously consider that this “we” may be a literary fiction or a minimal editorializing of sources.) Armstrong also argues that Luke relied upon Barnabas (and perhaps other companions of Paul) as a source for the Antiochene material in Acts 11, 13. By contrast, Armstrong argues that Luke did not use the letters of Paul as a source, and any perceived overlap with the sources (which Armstrong takes pains to deny) is due to Luke’s history as a companion of Paul. With respect to Josephus, Armstrong takes two apparent parallels and attempts to demonstrate that the differences between these accounts speak against theories of literary dependence. (More on this second point below.)

Chapters 5–8 focus on the end of Acts, which one may regard as the primary motivation for Armstrong’s early dating of Acts. For Armstrong, it is inconceivable that Luke, if one regards him as historically reliable (and Armstrong offers a few reasons why one should), would fail to mention the death of Paul, the fire of Rome, and the destruction of Jerusalem. Since Luke never narrates these events, Armstrong argues scholars have offered no compelling reason why Luke would have omitted them. In addition, since the “Western text” never expands on these points in spite of its tendency towards expansion, these data indicate an early date for Acts.
The volume ends with a conclusion summarizing the argument and a companion appendix discussing textual variation in the ending of Acts, complementing his chapter on the ending of Acts in the “Western” tradition (chapter 7).

In my view, Armstrong’s monograph offers two major contributions to NT study and scholarship on Acts in particular. First, Armstrong is entirely correct that the “consensus” date for Acts stands on very shaky ground indeed. There is little to no justification for the date range of 80–90 CE. In this respect, Armstrong stands side-by-side with scholars such as Tyson, Pervo, Mittelstaedt, and others who argue the “consensus” date is more of a compromise (or perhaps shot-in-the-dark) than the conclusion of a rigorous historical inquiry. Second, Armstrong attempts to provide a more circumspect historiographical method for identifying the date of Acts. Armstrong is right to critique the ill-defined and sometimes-dubious approach of recent scholars (e.g., Pervo) working on the date of Acts. In these two respects, Armstrong is not only to be commended but thanked for his service to the guild.

In other respects, however, Armstrong’s argument needs refining. First, Armstrong relies upon a source-critical analysis that, he claims, is better informed by textual criticism than his interlocutors. Yet Armstrong continues to defend a clearly-defined “Western” text of Acts (and the Gospels!) even in spite of recent advancements in textual criticism that have called into question the existence of a “Western text.” While he appeals to Epp’s category of “clusters,” Armstrong’s text-critical arguments require a discrete text-type, not textual clusters that speak towards certain theological tendencies, as Epp describes. Without the ability to push the Western text back to the first century, textual criticism seems to lose some of its relevance for adjudicating issues of date and context of composition. On this subject, Armstrong claims that because the “Western text” tends to expand, it is surprising that its scribes never expand upon Paul’s death, the destruction of Jerusalem, or the fire of Rome and subsequent Neronian persecution, leading him to conclude that this text-type must have arisen before those events occur. While Armstrong is right to notice that the D-text tends towards expansion, text critics have not usually identified historical expansion as a prominent tendency of the D-text.

Armstrong’s chapter on Acts (non)use of the Pauline epistles and Josephus also contains some problems. Here, Armstrong’s primary interlocutor is Pervo, whose arguments for Lukan dependence on Paul’s epistles are, to be sure, problematic in some respects, but this focus leads to a neglect of more recent and compelling treatments of this topic, such as Ryan Shellenberg (JBL 134, no. 1 [2015]) and Heikki Leppä (Finnish Exegetical Society, 2011), whose more careful arguments are not addressed. The same is true of Armstrong’s discussion of Luke’s use of Josephus. Armstrong neglects major works from scholars such as Steve Mason (2nd ed. 2002), who deal not only with shared historical details between Luke and Josephus but structural and editorial elements as well, which are among the most convincing source-critical arguments. Armstrong offers only two case studies of Luke/Josephus overlaps, for which Armstrong offers alternate explanations. The near-exclusive focus on Pervo and Tyson overlooks recent and quite different research on the sources of Acts and dating of Acts involving more robust historiographical approaches, such as social memory theory (as, e.g., Backhaus’s recent article in ZNW 108, no. 2 [2017]).

Several Lukan omissions, namely the death of Paul, the fire of Rome, and Jerusalem’s destruction, comprise the heart of Armstrong’s case. While there is a case to be made (though rejected by Armstrong) that Paul’s death is foreshadowed in Acts, Armstrong is correct that omitting them entirely is surprising if Luke intended to write an objective, historical narrative. But several assumptions underlie this claim that involve both Luke’s historical scope as well as his aim. Armstrong’s claims that Luke could not have neglected to mention these details had he known about them generates several salient questions: Where should Luke have stopped his narrative? If after the death of Paul, would that have served his apologetic purpose? If after the fire of Rome, would that have supported his purpose? If after Jerusalem’s destruction, how would that further Luke’s purpose? Armstrong’s rejection of narrative or literary analysis to aid our pursuit of historical problems is most evident here, and it is difficult to surmise how Luke’s narration of these events would have helped his apologetic and theological project.

In sum, Armstrong’s new monograph is at once iconoclastic and invigorating. It will undoubtedly revitalize a neglected topic in the study of Luke/Acts, and it should be read with care by all dealing with this subject in the future. In my view, he has made the strongest case for an early date of Acts yet offered. While Armstrong rightly raises doubts about the typical date for Acts and the need for more methodologically-consistent historiographical approaches, the case for pushing Acts earlier rather than later still faces several difficult obstacles, and it may seem better to look towards a later date to explain these features.

Daniel B. Glover
Lee University
dglover [at]

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