‘Paul lived in Rome two whole years’. The Mysterious Ending of Luke-Acts

‘Paul lived in Rome two whole years’.
The Mysterious Ending of Luke-Acts

Non-specialist readers, as well as academics, are baffled by Luke’s final glimpse of his hero, Paul, in Rome.  We know from Paul’s Pastoral Letters that both Paul, and his companion Luke were alive and active for some time after those those ‘two whole years’.  The key question is: why doesn’t Luke tell us about those extra years, but just leaves Paul in prison?

Indeed, as I will propose, Paul’s three last letters explain Luke’s ‘mysterious ending’ of his epic two-volume narrative.

Luke’s reference to Paul’s two year ‘house arrest’ in Rome awaiting Caesar’s trial implies at least two things.  The first is that Luke was close at hand for him to know of the timespan of this imprisonment, and the second is that Paul was then released.  Had Paul been executed at the end of those ‘two whole years’ Luke would surely have told us. In any case, since the Roman authorities in Judea did not find against him it is likely that Nero Caesar would not have found against him.  Which law of Rome had he broken?  Clearly Luke intends us to know about Paul’s circumstances, namely that he had been released.

This is also confirmed in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, written from the Praetorian Barracks in Rome.  Paul wrote to the Philippians during the ‘two whole years’ and he clearly expected to be released and to come to them in Macedonia (Phil. 1:25-26).  Thus evidence from Luke and Paul independently confirms that Paul was released after the initial two year imprisonment in Rome.

For his part during those two years Luke would have been actively gathering texts and researching for his planned, major two-volume ‘orderly account’, as he had most likely been doing in Palestine during the previous three years, when Paul had been in prison in Caesarea.  Those five years in total would have provided Luke with opportunity to speak to key people in Palestine and Italy, as well as to collect texts he would employ in a chronicle that would span the seventy years between the birth of John the Baptist and the ‘two whole years’ of Paul’s incarceration in Rome.

If, as I believe, Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome shortly after the martyrdom of Peter in 64, it would at last provide Luke with a precious, Peter-authorised account of the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to the resurrection.  This would provide the narrative ‘spine’ for the first ‘book’ of ‘the works and words’ of the historical Jesus.

This would connect well with Paul’s comment to Timothy: ‘Luke alone is with me’ and his pointed instruction, ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry…..When you come, bring…the books (biblia, ‘written scrolls’) and above all the parchments (membranas, ‘blank sheets )’. Paul knew his own end was near, so that Mark’s ‘usefulness’ to him would not be for some kind of ongoing ministry partnership.  More probably it somehow related to Mark’s relationship to the ‘books and the parchments’ that Luke would use in writing Luke-Acts (see Luke 1:1-3).

To return to our mystery, we ask again: Why didn’t Luke tell us about what happened to Paul after those ‘two whole years’?  I think the answer is staring us in the face.  It is that Luke doesn’t need to tell us.  The information has always been there for us to discover.  Where might that be?  It is there in Paul’s three Pastoral Letters, especially the third and final letter, Second Timothy.  From those letters we can piece together Paul’s movements between his release (in c. 62) and his death (in c. 64).

Luke was aware of the contents of that third Letter, as noted above, and indeed may have contributed in some way to its contents, as C.F.D. Moule suggested many years ago (The Birth of the New Testament; London, A & C Black, 1973, pages 220-221 )

In any case, Luke had his own reasons to end his epic in the way he did.  During those ‘two whole years’ Luke shows us Paul ‘proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus’.  Clearly that is the vision Luke is leaving with his readers, to pick up the gospel baton from Paul and to run with it into the next generation.  For Luke to merely have narrated Paul’s brief spell of freedom back in the east and ended with his execution might have seemed to him something of an anticlimax.  In any case, for those interested to know about Paul after the ‘two whole years’ it is all there in those three letters, in particular the third.

Paul Barnett?9 January, 2015