Lately I’ve been doing a big study project on the Gospels and Acts, including the chronological elements in the books.
Acts is a book that contains an astonishingly large number of chronological references.
Luke tells us a lot about St. Paul’s travels and how long they took. He not only which towns Paul visited but, frequently, how long it too to get from one to another and how long he stayed there.
These chronological references are found only in the material related to St. Paul. You don’t get them in such density in the earlier material in Acts or in Luke’s Gospel (though you do get some chronological references).
The things is . . . when you check up on the travel times Luke uses by consulting ancient travel resources like the ORBIS database, Luke is invariably right.
If he says that it took Paul two days to get from Point A to Point B then that’s a reasonable travel time for the period.
Of course, Luke was a travel companion of Paul during much of this period (as indicated by the “we” sections of Acts), but this kind of thing happens so often that it would seem to exceed the capacity of human memory.
Sure, people could memorize all the destinations and their travel times, but it would require a special effort to commit this to memory, and this would seem implausible. That suggests one of two things:
- When writing Acts, Luke used maps and the memories of his traveling companions to reconstruct all of this information.
- Luke (or someone else in the Pauline circle) kept a travel diary/itinerary.
I think the latter is more likely, and for two reasons.
First, the appearance of the chronological references is not consistent throughout all of the Pauline material. Sometimes you get travel times and sometimes you don’t. If Luke had an interest in including such material (as he clearly does) then why not reconstruct the information consistently? Why leave it out some times?
A plausible explanation is that the travel diary (perhaps because of the periodic absence of the disciple who was keeping it) was not complete and memory wasn’t enough to fill in the gaps.
It would be an interesting study to track the presence of chronological references inside and outside the “we” passages, so I’ll have to look at that.
Second, you don’t get such references in such density in the first part of Acts, before St. Paul starts his travels. This also suggests a travel diary, because if it were all reconstruction, you’d expect the same kind of references early on.
Of course, you do get some chronological references (including, e.g., St. Peter’s travel time between Joppa and Caesarea Maritima in Acts 10), but not as many.
Some things may have been remembered, some may have been reconstructed, but I still suspect that a travel diary was used in St. Paul’s journeyings.
Luke’s Main Sources
If you read Acts, you’ll see that the book primarily tracks St. Peter in the first part and then switches over to track St. Paul in the latter part.
These are the two main figures.
The focus on St. Peter is so intense in the first part that, if Luke had stopped writing with chapter 12, the book could have been called “The Acts of Peter.”
The focus on St. Paul is so intense in the second part that, if Luke had started writing with chapter 13, the book could have been called “The Acts of Paul.”
Why would he focus on these two figures?
Of course, he’s telling the story of the early Church down to his day, and St. Peter was the major figure in that. Luke was also the companion of St. Paul, but that doesn’t explain why the focus is so exclusively on these two.
The other apostles are barely mentioned, and they come into the story (at most), being mentioned as companions of Peter and Paul (e.g., John as a companion of Peter and Barnabas as a companion of Paul).
So here’s a thought: Where was Acts written from?
The book ends in A.D. 60, with Paul spending two years in Rome. Then the narrative suddenly cuts off, before we find out how Paul’s trial before Caesar ended.
That’s not a natural place to stop the narrative. If the trial had already taken place and Paul had been acquitted (as other sources suggest) then Luke would have recorded that as the triumphant vindication of Paul. On the other hand, if the trial had already taken place and Paul had been condemned (as he later was on a second stay in Rome, A.D. 67), Luke would have had the story of Paul’s glorious martyrdom to record.
This suggests that Acts was written during Paul’s stay in Rome and finished in A.D. 60.
So what sources did Luke have to draw upon?
Obviously, Paul himself–as well as the memories of other members of the Pauline circle and whatever notes they had about Paul’s missionary journeys.
That explains the Pauline material that dominates the book from chapter 13 on. But what about the St. Peter material that dominates it up to chapter 12?
Guess who else was in Rome.
Peter was there with Paul when they were martyred in A.D. 67, and other sources indicate that he spent much of the previous twenty-five years in Rome. He may have traveled some, but not as much as Paul.
That means he was likely in Rome while Luke was writing Acts, and thus he would have been a natural source to turn to for information about the early years of the Church.
The fact that we don’t get much about his activities after the Paul narrative begins is likely because he wasn’t traveling much. He spent most of his time being the pastor of the Christians in Rome, and this was a fairly uneventful time since Nero’s persecution had not yet begun (it started in A.D. 64, after Acts is over).
The fact that Peter and Paul dominate the narrative in Acts is thus likely because they were Luke’s two main sources.
There are a handful of figures in Acts besides Peter and Paul who briefly occupy the spotlight:
- Priscilla and Aquila
Each of these gets at least one story where they are the protagonist(s).
Stephen would not have been the source for his own martyrdom (chapter 7), though, because he was dead afterwards. Both Peter and Paul were present (either in Jerusalem or in the very place) for the martyrdom of Stephen, though, and either or both could have been Luke’s source about this.
Philip has a series of stories in chapter 8, and that suggests that he was Luke’s source of this material.
This Philip is probably not Philip the Zealot (one of the Twelve) but a different man–known as Philip the Evangelist–who was originally one of the Seven, along with Stephen.
According to later sources, Philip later lived at Ephesus, where he also took his four daughters who were prophetesses.
Could Luke plausibly have come in contact with him there?
You bet! Paul spends three whole years in Ephesus on one occasion, apart from visiting it on others.
So Luke could easily have spoken to Philip and learned the material in Acts 8.
Priscilla and Aquila are mentioned several times in the New Testament, and they occupy the spotlight in Acts 18, when they are staying at Ephesus and instruct Apollos in St. Paul’s absence.
They crossed paths with Paul and his companions a number of times and thus could easily have served as Luke’s source for this material.