Who Wrote the Book of Acts? (And When Was Acts Written?)

Marko Marina Author Bart Ehrman

Written by Marko Marina, Ph.D.

Author |  Historian |  BE Contributor

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Date written: November 17th, 2023

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily match my own. - Dr. Bart D. Ehrman

Within the history of the New Testament, the Book of Acts remains an enigmatic puzzle waiting to be solved. As we delve into the fascinating world of biblical scholarship and historical inquiry, we find ourselves confronted with a captivating conundrum: Who wrote the Book of Acts, and when did they set pen to parchment?

This seemingly straightforward question opens Pandora's box of intrigue and debate. Buckle up as we embark on a quest to uncover the secrets, the contradictions, and the enigma that shroud the authorship and dating of this biblical masterpiece.

Before we begin, it’s imperative to emphasize that the Book of Acts is the second of the two volumes written by the same author. The first is the Gospel of Luke - an early theologically motivated biography of Jesus.

Who Wrote the Book of Acts (And When Was Acts Written)

A Short Introduction to the Book of Acts

The Book of Acts is a sequel that describes the spread of Christianity during the first generation of Jesus’ followers. In a sense, it begins from Jerusalem and the ascension of Jesus and ends with Rome - the center of the Roman Empire. 

Why was Acts written? The whole purpose of the work is to show how Jesus’ initial message was spread within the harmony of his apostles and other disciples from the Jewish to the Gentile world.

Who was Acts written to? As is the case with most of the New Testament documents, the Book of Acts was written for a specific community of Christians living outside of Palestine. French New Testament scholar Daniel Marguerat explains in his Commentary that “the author of Luke-Acts can be located in the eastern part of the Mediterranean - without being able to specify the place better.”

The Authorship of the Book of Acts According to Traditional Theory

Both Luke and Acts are dedicated to the same person named Theophilus (Lk 1:1-5; Acts 1:1-3). Who was Theophilus? Theophilus was a common name in the Roman Empire, attested both in Greek papyri and inscriptions. 

Therefore, as Joseph Fitzmyer notes, there is “no reason to doubt his existence as a real person to whom Luke dedicates his two-volume composition.” He was, obviously, Luke’s friend, but the lack of other information prevents us from knowing more about him.  

The dedication to the same person strongly suggests that Luke-Acts were written by the same author. Furthermore, the similar style of writing, theology, and the use of the same expressions serve as another indicator that the same author was behind both writings. 

Recognizing the literary unity of the Gospel and Acts, the Church attributed both of these works to Paul’s traveling companion and a physician named Luke. Luke appears in Philemon 24 as Paul’s “fellow worker” (συνεργός). 

Moreover, in Colossians (4,14) he is mentioned as a beloved physician (ὁ ἰατρὸς ὁ ἀγαπητὸς). 2 Tim 4:11 also speaks of him as Paul's only remaining companion. Interestingly enough, later Christian tradition equated Luke with an unnamed brother mentioned in 2 Corinthians 8:18. 

Was Luke an apostle? He wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles chosen by Jesus during his ministry, but his connection to Paul made him an important figure in the early Christian world.

How do we know that Luke wrote Acts? As it turns out, modern scholarship reveals something quite different. What exactly? Let’s find out! 

Scholarship on the Authorship of the Book of Acts

When trying to determine the sources for the authors of the Bible, historians base this on internal evidence and external attestations. Regarding the former, it’s important to note that the Book of Acts is anonymous. As Delbert Burkett observes, both Luke and Acts “nowhere explicitly identifies its author”. 

In that sense, they differ not only from the major biographical works of antiquity (e.g. Herodotus Histories; Thucydides History of Peloponnesian War) but also from the Pauline corpus in the New Testament which bears the name of the author. 

Looking only at the internal evidence, we can conclude that the author was highly educated and well-versed in Greek rhetorical devices. The excellent way in which he uses Koine Greek, the common language of the Roman Empire, has often led people to think that he was a pagan convert to Christianity.

However, his knowledge of the Septuagint (A Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the rules of Jewish exegesis point to someone familiar with the Jewish tradition. The author of the Book of Acts, therefore, could have been a “God-fearer” (A pagan sympathizer of Hellenistic Judaism) who upon hearing stories about Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection converted to Christianity.

We-Passages in Acts?

Most of the text of Acts is written in third-person narration. However, in several passages (16:10-17; 20:5-15; 21:1-18; 27:1-28:16), the narrator suddenly shifts to the first-person perspective. In these sections, he describes the missionary journeys of Paul and his associates. 

Does that mean that the author of Acts was Paul’s traveling companion as well? 

According to most scholars, that’s highly unlikely. The lack of internal evidence, the existence of contradictions between Acts and Paul’s undisputed letters, and the late external attestations suggest this theory is unlikely to be true.

So, how do we account for “We-passages”? Why did the author suddenly shift to a first-person narration? There are two main theories among critical scholars:

1. The first theory suggests that the “We-passages” derive from the earlier travel-narrative source written by someone who traveled with Paul.

However, literary analysis casts some doubts. In his Commentary, Michael Wolter notes: “All attempts to reconstruct from them a source reworked by the author of Acts run aground on the fact that the linguistic character of the ‘We-passages’ is identical to that of the surrounding texts of Acts.”

2. The second theory which seems to me to be more likely suggests that these passages are to be understood as a literary device of the author who wanted to enhance its appeal and credibility.

After a careful examination, William Campbell concludes: “The fact that Acts provides no information and, indeed, by writing anonymously and constructing an anonymous observer, actually withholds information about a putative historical eyewitness, suggests that the first person plural in Acts has to do with narrative, not historical, eyewitnessing.”

External Attestation: Late and Unconvincing

It’s true that Church tradition universally agrees that Luke wrote the Book of Acts. However, the problem is that the earliest external attestation dates to the late part of the 2nd century (e.g. Irenaeus and Tertullian).

Neither Marcion (c. 140 C.E.) nor Justin (c. 150 C.E.) mentions Luke as the author of the Book of Acts. Unfortunately, Papias’ opinion (c. 120 C.E.) on the matter hasn’t reached us. Eusebius, who quoted Papias’ claims on Mark and Matthew chose not to include his views on Luke. Perhaps because he didn’t like what Papias had to say. We’ll never know!

Did You Know?

Roman physicians used a variety of medical treatments and remedies. These included herbal medicines, dietary recommendations, bloodletting, surgery, and various forms of physical therapy. They also believed in the importance of maintaining a balance in the body's fluids (such as blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile) to maintain health.  Roman physicians made some advances in surgical techniques, particularly in the treatment of wounds and fractures. They used surgical instruments and practiced techniques such as setting broken bones. 

In The Reception of Luke and Acts, Andrew F. Gregory meticulously analyzed all the possible evidence that would indicate earlier examples of external attestations. Finally, he concludes: “We have seen that all the early evidence that is sometimes alleged to indicate the reception of Acts is inconclusive… None has been sufficient to disprove Campenhausen’s judgment that Acts isn’t at all attested in the period before Irenaeus.”

Furthermore, the earliest manuscript evidence of the title dates to post-Irenaeus time. It comes from the so-called Papyrus Bodmer XIV which scholars date to the beginning of the 3rd century. 

So, who wrote the Book of Acts? Both the lack of internal evidence and late external attestation work against the traditional theory!

But, above all, the notable discrepancies between the Lucian portrait of Paul and the apostle's thoughts developed in his undisputed letters make it difficult to think that the author of the Book of Acts was Paul’s companion.

How do we know Luke wrote the book of Acts

The Book of Acts in Comparison to Paul’s Undisputed Epistles

If the author of the Book of Acts was a traveling companion of Paul you would expect a great deal of agreement in their description of the events that unfolded after Jesus’ death. However, that’s not what you get! Let’s take a look at a couple of examples.

#1 - Who Accompanied Paul in Athens?

Paul’s missionary journeys are fascinating. But they also reveal certain contradictions and problems. The author of the Book of Acts explicitly claims that Paul went to Athens alone (17:10-15). However, in 1 Thessalonians, Paul describes his journey to Athens and claims that Timothy was with him there (1 Thess 3:1-3).

#2 - When did Paul go to Jerusalem?

Before his conversion, Paul was known as a Jewish persecutor of the first Jesus’ followers. However, on the road to Damascus, he experienced something extraordinary (a vision of a resurrected Jesus) that prompted him to become a follower of Jesus.

In his Epistle to Galatians (1:15-18), Paul asserts that he visited Jerusalem and met Peter, James, and John three years after the experience of the resurrected Jesus. But the author of Acts claims that several days after the conversion Paul went from Damascus to Jerusalem (9:10-39)

#3 - To whom did Paul Preach?

The final example is related to Paul’s public ministry. In contrast to the Book of Acts where most of Paul’s public speeches are addressed to the Jewish audience, the undisputed letters suggest that Paul’s ministry was focused on the Gentile audience. 

Furthermore, what did Paul think about polytheistic religions? It depends on whether you are reading Acts or his epistles. In the former case, Paul explicitly claims that pagans are ignorant of the existence of one true God. In other words, it’s not their fault. They weren’t informed enough. 

But in the Epistle to Romans, Paul’s perspective on paganism is radically different. Pagan worship of idols is explained as a wilful act of disobedience. They have purposefully rejected the monotheistic message and for their mistake, God will punish them (Rom 1:18-22). 

As Dr. Ehrman notes in The New Testament, in “virtually every instance in which the Book of Acts can be compared with Paul’s letters in terms of biographical detail, differences emerge”. It’s highly unlikely, therefore, that a companion of Paul wrote Acts.

The only possible solution to avoid the problem of discrepancies is to argue that the author of Acts traveled with Paul but didn’t understand his theology and message. But that’s, in my opinion, highly unlikely.

Who Was Luke? Internal Clues

Even though we are not sure about the exact identity of the author, small clues within the text of Acts can provide us with some answers. First and foremost, the historical context assumed both in Luke and Acts reflects the third generation of Christians close to that of Pastoral letters. Paul’s farewell speech (Acts 20:25-32) only confirms this assessment. 

Furthermore, the author of the Book of Acts emphasizes the rejection of the “good news” by the Jewish community. This is practically inconceivable if the Acts were written while the dialogue between Christianity was still open.

It’s after 70. C.E. and the destruction of the Jewish Temple that the Judaism vs. Christianity conflict escalates. Moreover, the abundant use of the epithet "the Jews" in a derogatory sense (starting from 9:23) implies that, at the time of the writing, Judaism and Christianity were institutionally separate.

When Was Acts Written? Dating of the Composition

The question of when was Acts written is necessarily entangled with the composition of the Gospel of Luke. Since we know that the Gospel of Mark was one of the sources for Luke, we can be certain that Luke’s Gospel was written after 70 C.E. Moreover, Luke alludes to the destruction of Jerusalem (LK 21:20) which happened in 70. C.E.

Being the second part of the same volume (Luke-Acs), most scholars believe the Book of Acts was composed between 80 and 90 C.E. However, it’s worth mentioning that some scholars believe that Acts displays literary dependence on Flavius Josephus’ works (c. 100 C.E.). If that’s true, Acts could have been written at the beginning of the 2nd century.

Summing up Conclusion

In the quest to answer the question "Who wrote the Book of Acts," we've journeyed through biblical scholarship, historical context, and the intriguing web of evidence.

While the author's identity remains elusive, the discrepancies between Acts and Paul's letters challenge traditional beliefs. The book continues to be a captivating enigma in the history of Christianity, inviting further exploration and debate.

The origins of Christianity are filled with captivating facts and interesting mysteries. To solve some of them, join Dr. Ehrman’s exciting courseThe Unknown Gospels”. As a renowned historian of early Christianity, Dr. Ehrman provides answers to some of the most interesting questions surrounding Jesus’ life and the formation of a new religion.

Marko Marina

About the author

Marko Marina is a historian with a Ph.D. in ancient history from the University of Zagreb (Croatia). He is the author of dozens of articles about early Christianity's history. He works as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Zagreb where he teaches courses on the history of Christianity and the Roman Empire. In his free time, he enjoys playing basketball and spending quality time with his family and friends.

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