Was Acts really written around 150 AD?

Q.  Recently at our Bible Study someone mentioned that the book of Acts was written much later than the gospel of Luke (like about 150 AD). This was released by the Jesus Seminar — which already has my warning lights blinking. Is there any concrete evidence (like in Church history) to refute this?

Some scholars believe that there are allusions to the book of Acts in the first epistle of Clement, which is generally dated to the 90s AD.  If these are indeed allusions, they would be a “smoking gun” that positively ruled out a date of 150 AD.

Irenaeus of Lyon, who was born around 120 AD, makes definite references to the book of Acts in Against Heresies, which he likely wrote around 180 AD.  In III:12.1, for example, he offers this nearly verbatim quotation from the book: “The Apostle Peter, therefore, after the resurrection of the Lord, and His assumption into the heavens, being desirous of filling up the number of the twelve apostles, and in electing into the place of Judas any substitute who should be chosen by God, thus addressed those who were present: ‘Men and brethren, this Scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost, by the mouth of David, spake before concerning Judas, which was made guide to them that took Jesus. For he was numbered with us: … Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein; and, His bishop-rick let another take.'”  This is not definitive proof of a first-century date for Acts, but it’s highly unlikely that Irenaeus would treat Acts as so authoritative if that book had only been around for a few decades.

But I think the main evidence for the date of Acts comes from the ending of the book itself.  It leaves Paul in prison, with the outcome of his trial undetermined.  Certainly if it had been known at the time of writing that Paul had been acquitted and released, Luke would have included this information, since he takes pains throughout the book to demonstrate that Jesus’ followers are good citizens–reasonable, peaceful, and charitable–on good terms with Roman officials.  (Acts is dedicated to Theophilus and Luke addresses him as “most excellent,” using a title customarily reserved for such officials, so they are a primary audience for the book.)

In other words, what is known in historiography as the “criterion of embarrassment” (an author wants to say something, but can’t, or has to explain something difficult) makes the book of Acts itself a piece of historical evidence for its own original composition sometime during the lifetime of Paul, meaning no later than the 60s AD.

Uncial 0189, the oldest surviving parchment manuscript of the New Testament, containing a fragment from the book of Acts, dated to around AD 200

Why isn’t Galatians Paul’s first letter in The Books of the Bible?

Q. If you’re trying to place Paul’s letters in chronological order in The Books of the Bible, why isn’t Galatians first?  I was taught it was the earliest of Paul’s epistles, written around AD 49

Actually, scholars disagree about when Galatians was written.  The date depends on how the visits to Galatia and Jerusalem that Paul describes in the letter correlate with the ones described in the book of Acts.  A related issue is what Paul means by “Galatia.” If he’s speaking of Galatia simply as a province, the letter was probably written to people he visited in the southern part of the province on his first journey, or even from Tarsus before going on any of his journeys.  But if he’s referring to Galatia as the home of an ethnic group, the Galatians or Gauls, who lived in the center and north of the province, then the letter was likely written later, to people he visited on his second journey (when, as Luke tells us in Acts, “Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia“).

After considering all of the evidence and arguments, our Bible Design Group, which created The Books of the Bible, agreed that a date towards the end of Paul’s second journey made the most sense to us.  Our “Invitation to Galatians” explains:

“It’s difficult to know exactly when and where Paul wrote his letter to the churches in Galatia. He doesn’t say where he’s writing from, as he does in his letters to Thessalonica and Corinth. And while he says he’s writing on behalf of all the brothers and sisters with me, he doesn’t say who these ‘brothers and sisters’ are. Many interpreters believe that Galatians may actually be the earliest of Paul’s letters. However, its themes and language are so close to the letter he sent to the church in Rome that it is quite probable Galatians was written about the same time as Romans. This would mean he wrote it from Corinth around 56–57 AD while arranging for the offering to be sent to the poor in Judea.”

In my study guide to Paul’s Journey Letters, I offer this fuller explanation:

“The scholarly conversation about when Paul wrote this letter continues. But this study guide will follow the interpretation that it was written in Corinth, when Paul was preparing to travel to Jerusalem with the collection. Many interpreters believe that Galatians was actually written several years before this. However, certain details in the letter arguably correspond best with this particular moment in Paul’s life:
• Paul writes in Galatians that the apostles in Jerusalem asked him to ‘remember the poor,’ and that he was ‘eager’ to do this. It’s unlikely he would bring this up years before he’d actually done anything about it, but it makes sense for him to mention it in the middle of the collection.
• Paul’s language of being ‘eager’ is identical to his reference in 2 Corinthians to the ‘earnestness’ [‘eagerness’] of the Macedonians in their giving.
• Paul’s encouragement to ‘do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers’ may similarly refer to the collection.  (The Galatians were taking a collection of their own at this time.)”

The study guide also notes the similarity between the language and themes of Galatians and those of Romans—for example, the discussions of what it means to be dikaios (righteous or justified) by faith; the appeals to the example of Abraham; and the believer’s relationship to the law.

While it is possible that Galatians was written at an earlier time (this is a respected position among scholars), a setting in Corinth while Paul was arranging for the offering provides a reasonable and cohesive account of the letter that is consistent with its contents.  This is what persuaded me and my fellow editors of The Books of the Bible to place Galatians just before Romans as we worked to put Paul’s letters in their likely chronological order.

The Roman province of Galatia stretched from near the Black Sea almost to the Mediterranean Sea. One issue in dating Paul’s letter to the Galatians is whether he was writing to people in the south or the center/north of the province.  Image courtesy Wikipedia.