Did Luke Write the Book of Acts?

The testimony of the early Christian church is virtually unanimous in ascribing the authorship of Acts to Luke, the companion of Paul and writer of the third Gospel. Some skeptics, however, claim that Luke is probably not the author of Acts because the theology of Paul, as presented in Acts, does not agree with the theology of Paul, as presented in Paul’s own letters. If Luke was Paul’s companion, how could he have so badly misrepresented Paul’s theology?

Darrell Bock, in, presents the skeptical case and then argues why the skeptical case is, in fact, not convincing.

The mismatch is said to involve issues of natural law, Jewish law, Christology, and eschatology (Vielhauer 1966). First, some pit Acts 17 and its openness to seeing God in creation against Romans 1, which seems to imply the revelation of God in creation is only enough to form a basis of our guilt before God. Second, they contrast Luke’s lack of discussion about the role of the cross in salvation with Paul’s emphasis on it. Third, critics say Luke has an adoptionistic Christology, where Jesus becomes Son of God during his earthly life. Fourth, some note how little Luke speaks about the end times, in contrast to Paul who emphasizes it.

Responses to this line of argument are plentiful (Ellis 1974, 45– 47; Bruce 1976; Fitzmyer 1998, 145– 47). First, Romans 1 no less than Acts 17 says creation testifies to God, but the issue is that Romans 1 points out that people (in this case, polytheists) resist this testimony and refuse to glorify God or show him gratitude (Rom 1: 21). The different settings of these two passages are important; Acts 17 represents Paul’s reaching out in an evangelistic setting, asking people to consider God, while in Romans 1 he is concerned with explaining the rejection of God and humanity’s guilt.

Second, Luke does note the cross briefly in two texts (Acts 20: 28; Luke 22: 18– 20). The second text is disputed in terms of textual criticism, but the disputed portion is likely original.

Third, Luke’s Christology is not adoptionistic (Moule 1966, 159– 86; Gathercole 2006). Jesus appears as Son from the very start of Luke (Luke 1: 30– 35).

Fourth, Luke has an end-time theology, as the Acts 3 speech shows.

Finally, the issue of how the law is viewed between Luke-Acts and Paul’s writings is more complex, but the key is to see what Paul himself says, namely that he is a Jew to the Jews and a Greek to the Greeks (1 Cor 9: 19– 23). So his approach varied depending on the circumstance, and this may account for different approaches seen between these bodies of writing.

Bock notes that there are also non-theological differences between Acts and Paul’s letters that are used to argue against Lucan authorship.

“One such challenge to Lucan authorship notes that Paul presents himself as an apostle (e.g., Rom 1: 1), while Luke does not name him in this light (Haenchen 1987, 112– 6). Another says Luke presents Paul as a miracle worker and great orator, whereas Paul does not present himself as either of these things. However, Paul is a miracle worker according to his own material (Rom 15: 18– 19; 1 Cor 5: 4– 5; 2 Cor 4: 7; 12: 9, 12; 1 Thess 1: 5). While he lays no claims to being an orator, his letters are evidence of his rhetorical skills. In addition, Heanchen’s description of Luke’s portrayal of Paul as an orator is exaggerated; Luke has Paul failing to persuade the Athenians (Acts 17), failing to keep Eutychus awake (20: 7– 12), and giving Festus the impression that he has lost his mind (26: 24). Paul’s hesitancy about his own gifts in spots reflects his humility (Eph 3: 1– 9).

Finally, critics claim that the cause of Paul’s persecution differs between Acts and the Pauline epistles. They say that in the book of Acts, Paul is persecuted over the issue of resurrection, while in the Gospel of Luke it is because he rejects the Law. However, this ignores the cause of Paul’s arrest in Acts 20 and also reflects a reductionism that highlights only one key reason from each work. Also, the different emphases may indicate a difference between the point Paul most wanted to stress and the point an interested observer (Luke) most wanted to stress. These differences of emphasis give depth to the portrait of Paul and his ministry and do not indicate a contradiction. In his letters Paul focuses on how Jesus saves through justification by faith, while Luke focuses on who does the saving in Acts. Nonetheless, Luke clearly has Paul speak of salvation through faith in Christ during his Pisidean speech (see Acts 13: 13– 41, esp. vv. 38– 39).

One final issue is the lack of citation of Paul’s letters in Acts. Bruce (1990, 52– 59) argues that Acts was written too close to the time of Paul’s letters for them to have been used, and that the issues about missions that are prevalent in Acts are distinct from the issues treated in Paul’s letters. Two issues that do overlap are circumcision and Paul’s relationship to the community in Jerusalem. These accounts also can be reconciled, especially if one sees Acts 15 taking place after Galatians 2 (Witherington 1998, 88– 97).

So, given these arguments, is there substantial doubt as to Luke’s authorship of Acts? Not in Bocks’ opinion.

In conclusion, the strongest point in the case for Luke being the author of Luke-Acts is the evidence of early church testimony. The issues that arise from a comparison of Luke-Acts to the Pauline letters do not reach the level of overturning this testimony. In fact, explaining how the early church came to mention Luke consistently as the author when other, better-known candidates existed suggests it must have had a strong reason for identifying him as author.