What If Luke Had a Third Book in Mind All Along?
A lot of people have found the ending to the book of Acts strangely unsatisfying. It’s not an unhappy ending, but it leaves Paul under house arrest in Rome, and it leaves the reader wondering what happened to him.
Some have defended it as an appropriate ending considering the point that Luke was seeking to make. Some think that Luke wrote Acts up to the current situation and never updated it. Others have supposed that he was interrupted before he could finish it.
George Edmundson proposed the trilogy theory in 1913. He suggested that Acts 28:30-31 was the end of the book but not the end of the story. Luke was “setting it up for the sequel,” as we would say.
An Ending Meant to Provoke Curiosity
Edmundson pointed to the overlap between the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts. Both books describe Jesus’ ascension into heaven. The Gospel of Luke contains a brief summary while Acts goes into more detail.
In fact, if the Gospel of Luke was the only book of the New Testament that you had ever read, you might think that Jesus’ resurrection and ascension were on the same day. Acts lets us know that they were separated by forty days, and relates some of the conversation Jesus had with His disciples before going into heaven.
Now compare the ending of Luke with the ending of Acts. Both endings describe ongoing activity, as if Luke were setting a scene.
Luke 24:50-53 (ESV):
Then he [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
Acts 28:30-31 (ESV):
He [Paul] lived there [in Rome] two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.
The Gospel of Luke ends with the disciples “continually in the temple blessing God.” Of course, we know that Luke wants to encourage us to continue on to the book of Acts to see what happens next.
But imagine that Luke never got the chance to write the book of Acts. People would be asking the same things about the ending of Luke as they ask about the ending of Acts:
“Why did he end it that way?”
“Is that how he meant to end it?”
What the Third Book Would Have Been About
Edmundson’s thesis also explains another unusual thing about Acts: Peter drops out of the picture halfway through the book.
There is a lot about Peter in the first half of Acts. After that, it’s all about Paul.
Edmundson proposed his thesis in a series of lectures which became a book called The Church in Rome in the First Century. His study of early church history had convinced him of the following three things:
- Peter was the most influential leader of the early church in Rome.
- Peter was active in Rome during Paul’s travels in Turkey and Greece, which are recounted in the second half of Acts.
- Luke wrote the book of Acts while in Rome, and he wrote it with Roman believers in mind.
If these conclusions were correct, why would Acts have said nothing about the history of the church in Rome and Peter’s involvement there. Wouldn’t Luke’s readers have be interested in this?
Edmundson’s answer: Luke was saving that for part three of his trilogy.