In my book, Cold Case Christianity, I attempt to evaluate the gospel accounts with the same criteria used by jurors to assess the reliability of eyewitnesses in a criminal case. In California, jurors are encouraged to ask themselves, “How well could the witness see, hear, or otherwise perceive the things about which the witness testified?” In essence, jurors must determine whether or not a witness was even present and able to see what it is they say they saw! For those of us who are examining the gospel accounts, this means we’ve got to answer the simple question, “Were the gospel written early enough to have been written by people who were actually present for the life and ministry of Jesus?” This is a critical question in evaluating the reliability of the New Testament gospels, and I think the Books of Acts is the key to the answer.
I make a much more elaborate and cumulative case for the early dating of the gospels in Cold Case Christianity, but a portion of this case revolves around Luke’s omission of three important deaths in the Book of Acts: the deaths of Paul, Peter and James. A recent listener to the Stand to Reason “Please Convince Me” Podcast recently wrote: “Firstly, perhaps such historical events were simply beyond the scope of the author of Acts? It has been suggested that the author may have been aware of the aforementioned events, but he chose instead to end his account thematically with the Gospel finally reaching the heart of Gentile civilization, Rome… Is it really viable to suggest that these possibilities are less reasonable than the early dating hypothesis?” One of the evidences in the Book of Acts that makes the omission of Paul, Peter and James’ death so powerful is the inclusion of two other deaths in the narrative: the deaths of Stephen and James, the brother of John:
When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of da young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.
Now about that time Herod the king laid hands on some who belonged to the church in order to mistreat them. And he had James the brother of John put to death with a sword.
As important as Stephen and James, the brother of John, were to the early Church, it can hardly be argued that Paul, Peter and James, the three most important Christian leaders of the first century and the primary characters of the Book of Acts narrative, would not be considered important enough to describe their deaths. Is it possible (viable) that Luke “may have been aware of the aforementioned events, but chose instead to end his account thematically with the Gospel finally reaching the heart of Gentile civilization, Rome?” Of course it’s possible, because anything and everything is possible. But it’s not reasonable. And as I’ve described in my book, the difference between what’s possible and what’s reasonable is critically important to jurors. Jurors are instructed that they are not to spend time “speculating” in their jury deliberation about what’s possible, but to consider instead what is reasonable in light of the evidence. The inclusion of the deaths of Stephen and James (the brother of John), make the exclusion of the deaths of Paul, Peter and James (the brother of Jesus) powerful evidences for the early dating of Luke’s work. The most reasonable inference from the omission of these deaths is that Luke wrote his narrative prior to their occurrence.