Is the Book of Acts Reliable?
(Note: We apologize that certain German vowels didn’t translate onto this site).
The book of Acts is of critical importance in the contemporary debate about the historical Jesus. The reason for this is straightforward. Those who deny that the original, historical Jesus made divine claims for himself, performed miracles and rose from the dead must argue that all of these features of the Gospel portrait are later legendary accretions. The original disciples, it is claimed, didn’t see Jesus as divine. The Christian church began as a small, loosely defined, Galilean social experiment following the teachings of this wise master (recorded not so much in the Gospels as in “Q” and “the Gospel of Thomas”—see Finding an Alternative Jesus and The Jesus Seminar and the Reliability of the Gospels). The view that Jesus was God on earth came later, it is argued.
For this view to be accepted, the book of Acts must be judged as being totally unreliable. For Acts depicts the history of the early Church as being from the start a largely unified and dynamic force, centered on an exalted view of Christ. Indeed, the differences between the portrait of the early Church provided in the book of Acts and the revisionist understanding of liberal scholars could hardly be greater. Hence, if the liberal scholars are close to being correct, Luke’s narrative history must be judged as being almost totally devoid of historical value. (1) It must be, as they in fact contend, a very late piece composed largely of Christian lore by someone who was not close to the original Jesus movement. (2) Conversely, if Luke’s narrative can in fact be shown to be rooted in reliable history, then there is no possible way that the liberal view of Jesus can be close to the truth.
So the all important question is, who is to be trusted here? And this question largely reduces down to the question of the historical reliability of Acts. (3) It is a question that can only be settled by an examination of the concrete evidence, something that is frequently lacking in many contemporary literary-critical approaches to Acts. (4) Are there historical grounds for supposing that this work provides for us a more trustworthy account than the liberal reconstruction?
I shall in this essay argue for an affirmative answer to this question. We have, I contend, remarkably good grounds for accepting the portrait of the early Church in Acts as being quite reliable. And these same grounds constitute further proof that the liberal view of the historical Jesus as originally non-supernatural is fundamentally flawed.
The Author of Acts
As with all the Gospels, the traditional authorship of Acts is unanimously attested to in the early Church. Luke, the “beloved physician” and companion of Paul (Col. 4:14; cf. Philemon, 24; 2 Tim. 4:11), composed Acts as the second volume of his two volume work. The first surviving explicit references to Luke as the author of Acts come from the second century. Irenaeus, Clement of Alexander, Tertullian and Origen all attest to his authorship, and they do so in incidental ways showing that in their day the point needed no argumentation. His authorship is also attested to in the Muratorian fragment and the Anti-Marcionite prologue of Luke. (5) The antiquity and unanimity of this witness must impress us. So must the fact that there is no discernable ulterior motive on the part of the tradition for naming Luke as the author: he certainly plays no prominent authoritative role in the early Church.
Internal considerations of the work give us no reason to doubt the trustworthiness of this tradition. It is almost beyond doubt that the author of Acts is the same as the author of the Third Gospel. (6) His opening reference to his “former book” and his renaming his primary reader as “Theophilus” is itself almost enough to establish as much (1:2, cf. Luke 1:1–4). The close similarity and style of both works also points to the same conclusion. (7) And the overall distinctive outlook of the two works are essentially the same. Both works, for example, share a distinctive universal scope, a sympathetic treatment of women, a concern for Gentiles, a similar apologetic tendency, and an identical christology. A host of other more incidental considerations also indicate that one author wrote the two works as a two volume set. (8)
It is also clear from a straight forward reading of the text that the author of Acts was at times a companion of the apostle Paul. This further attests to Lucan authorship as well as for the general reliability of his narrative. His detailed knowledge of Paul’s life, corroborated by Paul’s own letters but evidencing no dependence on them (see below), already points in this direction. But the most impressive indication of his companionship with Paul is the incidental way the author switches from the usual first person singular to the first person plural at certain junctures in his narrative (16:10–17; 20:5–21:18; 27:1–28:16). (9) Such switches are too subtle and too infrequent to constitute a fictitious apologetic ploy or to be seen as mere literary convention. (10) And attempts to postulate an earlier written source to explain them are speculative and create unnecessary theoretical sources: a move, as we have seen, that always weakens any hypothesis. (11) Nor is there a shred of literary evidence to support such a view. (12)
The frequent attempts to override this evidence by appealing to supposed discrepancies between Paul and Luke’s theology are not convincing. (13) First, even if certain differences in theological perspective are granted, it is not clear why this would in and of itself preclude seeing Luke as a disciple and companion of Paul. Companions frequently share different perspectives on matters, and disciples frequently do not fully capture the depth of their mentors. (14) But secondly, the supposed differences are all minor when the different purposes of Acts and Paul’s Epistles are taken into consideration. While Luke certainly has a driving theological interest, he is writing as a historian. One should not, therefore, expect of him the sort of theological insight and precision one finds in Paul.
Hence, for example, when Luke paraphrases Paul as saying “Through him [Christ] everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses” (13:39), one should not press him too far and suppose that he is saying, in contradiction to Paul, that people could nevertheless be justified from some things by the law of Moses. This is, as Robinson notes, a “typical ‘lay’ summary of a theologian’s position: inadequate in precision of statement…but sufficient in general intention.” (15) As such, it constitutes no basis for overriding the literary evidence from Acts that Luke was indeed an occasional companion of Paul.
Nor are the facts that the Paul of Acts was willing to have Timothy circumcised (16:3) and to participate in a temple ceremony involving four men taking a Nazarite vow (21:23ff) evidence that Luke’s portrait essentially contradicts the “real” Paul who clearly broke from Judaism, and especially from the practice of circumcision (Gal. 5:6; 6:15). For while the Paul we find in the Pauline epistles was certainly opposed to finding any salvific significance in Jewish rites, he nevertheless was extremely flexible on matters of social propriety (1 Cor. 9:19–23; Rom. 14:5–23).
We find, therefore, no convincing arguments against, and a number of convincing arguments for, the traditional view that Luke, a companion of Paul, authored this work. And this is very significant for our estimation of the reliability of the work. It means, in a nutshell, that the author of Acts was a close follower of Paul, and thus was clearly in a good position to “carefully investigate everything from the beginning” (Luke 1:3). (16) And this already entails that any revisionist account of the early Church that must suppose that this work is fundamentally unreliable in its portrayal of the early Church is going to have to go to great lengths to prove it. But this, as we shall see, is very difficult to do.
The Date of Acts
Of some consequence to our assessment of the historical value of Acts is the date we assign to it. While one can theoretically hold to a later date for this work and yet regard it as being quite reliable, it is nevertheless true that one’s estimation of the historical value of this work (and usually of any work) tends to diminish the later it is dated from the events it records. Establishing an early date is important, as Hemer has argued, because one’s dating of this work “influences the formulation of questions, and excludes inapplicable lines of argumentation.” More specifically, “[t]heories of tradition-historical reinterpretation by the early church tend to require time, and to become more difficult with early datings.” (17) Hence, the earlier this work is understood to have been written, the more difficult it is to assume that the traditions it embodies underwent significant transformation. And hence, the more likely it is that it conveys reliable history.
Response to Second Century Datings
Liberal scholars often date Acts in the early to mid-second century. (18) This radical tradition goes back to F. C. Bauer who postulated such a late date for Acts primarily because it fit his dialectical understanding of the early Church. In his view, “Luke” was the major synthesizer of the previously antagonistic Petrine and Pauline branches of Christianity, and such a synthesis could not be understood to have occurred until the mid-second century. (19)
More recent scholarship within this tradition has not altogether abandoned Bauer’s view—Acts is frequently seen as an example of the kind of “early catholicism” found in Ephesians (also dated very late) and among the second century Apologists (20) —but the emphasis now tends to be on the political climate presupposed in Acts. In a word, Luke is throughout his narrative clearly concerned to present the Roman government in a positive light and to show that Christians, unlike the Jews, present no threat to them (e.g. Acts 5:33–9; 13:7, 12; 16:35–39; 18:12ff; 24:1–26, 32; 26:32; 27:3, 43; 28:30ff). The same may be said of his first volume in which Jesus is portrayed as encouraging the paying of taxes (Luke 20:20–25) while at his trial Pilate is exonerated and the Jews blamed (23:1–25). This apologetic agenda, it is argued, makes more sense in the mid-second century than it does in the first.
There is, in my estimation, a host of considerations which, if taken together, count decisively against this view. First, the view does not square easily with the above mentioned literary evidence that we are in Acts hearing from a companion of Paul. Nor does it easily account for the remarkably detailed accuracy exemplified in this document concerning matters in the mid-first century, a point to be discussed below. Nor does it readily explain other internal factors (e.g. Luke’s abrupt ending in A.D. 62)—again, to be discussed below—that also point to an early dating. Nor does it explain why no use is made of the writings of its central figure, Paul, for on the supposition that we are dealing with a late apologetic for Paul one might have expected his (now circulated) writings to be at least referred to. (21)
Neither is it necessary to postulate a late date to explain Luke’s “catholicism,” for the postulation of a radical break between Pauline and Petrine communities that Luke is supposed to have mended is itself an unwarranted postulation. (22) And, finally, the supposition of a mid-second century date for this work cannot readily explain the likelihood that this work is quoted by various authors as authoritative prior to 120. It is, for example, arguable that 1 Clement 2:1 (A.D. 96) refers to Acts 20:35; that the Epistle of Barnabas 19:8 (A.D. 100?) cites Acts 4:32; that Ignatius (A.D. 110) cites Acts 1:25; and that Polycarp (A.D. 120) refers to Acts 2:24 and 10:42 in 1:2 and 2:1 respectively of his epistle. Unless the proximity with the Acts passages can be accounted for another way, a first century date for this work seems to be required.
Even more fundamentally, however, I see no reason to accept the supposition that Luke’s apologetic purpose only makes sense in the mid-second century. As Bruce points out, “Any period of tension between church and Roman state might serve” to explain Luke’s apologetic purpose. And the mid-first century is just as good a candidate for such a period as is the mid-second century. (23) The supposed parallels between the second century Apologists and Acts do not tip the scales decisively in favor of the latter. For it is, first of all, not at all clear how much should be made of such supposed parallels: some scholars have argued that the enormous differences in motive, style and content between Acts and the Apologists render all commonalties largely coincidental. (24) But, secondly, even if the parallels are granted, there is no reason to rule out the possibility of understanding Acts to be a precursor to the (later) works of the second century Apologists. (25)
Finally, placing Acts in the second century must be seen as being more speculative than placing it in the first, if only because we know much less about the general relationship of the Church with the state in the second century than we do in the first. While we certainly know of local persecutions against the Church and of local governors trying to arrive at a policy about them (e.g. Pliny), we cannot confidently assert what the situation was like in the locale of the author of Acts, assuming he wrote in the second century. The evidence is in fact ambiguous enough that H. Koester actually argues for a second century dating of Acts on the basis of how peaceful the Church-state relations were at the time! (26)
The Ending of Acts and the Fall of Jerusalem
By contrast, the evidence for a mid-first century dating is quite strong. One fact that strongly impressed A. Harnack, and a number of scholars after him, is that the narrative of Acts breaks off abruptly with the trial of Paul at Rome. Given the centrality of Paul to this work, this is difficult to explain except on the supposition that Paul had not yet been martyred when Luke wrote his narrative. (27)
It is sometimes responded that such a “happy ending” fits Luke’s apologetic purposes. But it is certainly difficult to suppose that Theophilus, or any later reader, would have been very impressed with Luke’s intentional glossing over the obvious truth that Paul, along with “a vast multitude” of believers (Tacitus), were mercilessly martyred under Nero.
Another response has been to argue that, while Luke doesn’t end his work with Paul’s martyrdom, the prediction of Acts 20:25 shows that he is nevertheless aware of it. But it is not at all clear that 20:25 is a prediction of Paul’s death or just an indication of Paul’s missionary resolution. And even if it were the former, this does nothing to explain why Luke would omit the fulfillment of this prophecy in his own work. (28) The less frequent responses that the original ending of Luke has been lost, or that Luke had intended a third volume, are even weaker. (29) In reality, they only serve to demonstrate how desperately some explanation for Acts’ abrupt ending is called for. (30)
Related to this, not only is Paul’s martyrdom not mentioned, but the deaths of Peter and James are omitted as well. This is surprising in light of the fact that Luke is quick to note the earlier martyrdom of lesser figures such as Stephen (7:57–59) and James the brother of John (12:2) while Paul, Peter and James are, obviously, key figures throughout Luke’s narrative. (31) The omission of James’s death is particularly significant, for according to Josephus, it took place at the hands of the Sanhedrin against the Roman authorities. If part of Luke’s apologetic scheme is to say that it is unbelieving Jews, not the Roman government, that constitute the real enemies of the Gospels, then “[n]o incident could have served Luke’s apologetic purpose better”—had he known about it.” (32)
We may, in fact, go further and say that the total absence of any allusion to Nero’s persecution or the Jewish Roman war—though Luke is elsewhere interested in church/state and Jewish/Roman relations—is likewise difficult to explain except on the supposition that Luke was writing before these events took place. One particular facet of this omission stands out as most remarkable: namely, Luke’s omission of any reference to the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple.
For an author whose narrative is centrally structured around Jerusalem (Luke 24:13; Acts 1:8) and who makes frequent mention of the Temple (Acts 2:46, 3:1–2, 8, 10; 5:20–25, 21:28–30, etc.), this omission is most surprising. For an author who took the time to mention the much less significant expulsion of the Jews from Rome under Claudius (18:2), this omission is indeed astounding. And for an author who is interested in how persecutions of the Church helped spread the Gospel around the world (e.g. 8:1–4), this omission comes close to being inexplicable—except on the supposition that he had no knowledge of these events!
But what presses this point even further is the recognition that the Jesus of Luke’s first volume prophecies the destruction of this temple (21:6). (33) Since one of the driving motifs of Acts is to show how the ministry of Jesus was continued and fulfilled in the life of the Church (Luke 1:1–4, Acts 1:1–2), Luke’s failure to record how this central prophecy of Jesus’ was fulfilled is difficult to explain unless we suppose that he was writing before its fulfillment. These considerations, taken together, strongly suggest a date of composition sometime before the fall of Jerusalem, the start of the Jewish-Roman war, and even before Nero’s persecution in A.D. 62. (34)
Several other pieces of internal evidence from Acts point in the same direction. First, a significant portion of Luke’s theological vocabulary appears very primitive. His reference to the Jews as “the people,” to the eucharist as “breaking of bread,” and to Sunday as “the first day of the week” (instead of “the Lord’s day,” Rev. 1:10. Didache 14:1) is arguably evidence for the primitiveness of his sources. (35) And while a great deal of caution must be exercised in talking about a “developing christology”–full blown “high” christologies exploded onto the scene immediately after the resurrection event–one should nevertheless point out that at least Luke’s way of expressing his christology appears very Semitic, and very archaic. His use of “son of man,” “servant of God,” and “Christ” as christological titles are particularly noteworthy, for such titles quickly dropped out of common usage (and “Christ” functioned as a proper name) and would, therefore, be much more out of place in the second century than they would be in the middle of the first. (36)
Second, the issues that Luke addresses in Acts, and the way he addresses them, suggests a pre-70 time of composition. His portrayal of the Holy Spirit falling on different groups of people (Jewish, ch. 2, Samaritan, ch. 8, and Gentile, ch. 10) and his clear division between Palestinian and Hellenistic Jews (ch. 6) fits in better with the situation before the fall of Jerusalem than afterwards. So too, his positive portrayal of the Temple and of the Pharisees squares best with a pre-70 A.D. dating, as does his portrayal of the terms of Gentile admission into church fellowship. Moreover, his concern for Jewish-Gentile co-existence, mediated by the food requirements of the apostolic decrees, makes much less sense after A.D. 70 than before.
On top of this, Colin Hemer notes a number of other incidental considerations of Luke-Acts which generally strengthen a pre-70 dating. (37) These include: 1) “the prominence of the popular assemblies rather than administrative councils in city life”; 2) “the importance of Roman citizenship and the status of dual citizenship”; 3) “an early phase in the history of Roman provincial administration, exemplified in Paul’s trial experiences”; 3) “a tone and feel of civic life which finds its nearest parallels in the first century writers Strabo, Josephus and Dio Chrysostom”; 4) “provincial terminology appropriate to the period preceding Vespassian’s reorganization in A.D. 72;” and 5) “reference to the sicarii (21:38), as suiting the period between Felix and the fall of Jerusalem.”
When all of this is combined with the general accuracy of his account, to be discussed shortly, the case for dating Acts in the 60s and for seeing it as written by a close follower of Paul appears very solid. Such a supposition, of course, reeks havoc with the customary critical datings of all the New Testament documents, as Robinson realized. (38) For if Acts is to be dated in the 60s, the Gospel of Luke must also be dated in the 60s (shortly before Acts). And if Luke used Mark, this work must be earlier still. And this simply does not allow enough time for many of the operative assumptions in much New Testament critical scholarship to work. But this, clearly, constitutes no grounds for dismissing the arguments for the early date of Acts—unless one has no concern for avoiding vicious circularity. (39)
At the very least, all of this is enough to judge the position of Mack and Crossan that Acts is largely a second century collection of Christian lore as being quite implausible. And this, we maintain, already implies that the perspective of Acts on the early history of the Church is more likely to be accurate than are their speculative reconstructions.
Luke and Other Ancient Historians
No one disputes that Luke’s two volume work is driven by strong theological concerns. Like the Gospels (including his own), Luke is, in Acts, telling the creationist-monotheistic story of how the story of Israel has climaxed in the story of Jesus and is being carried out in the story of the Church. (40) But we must resist the modern ill-conceived assumption that this theological interest in any way precludes a healthy historical interest. Rather, as Wright insists, Luke’s theological story “only means anything if it takes place within public, world history.”(41) As I. H. Marshall has argued, Luke is both a theologian and a historian. Indeed, “Luke can be properly appreciated as a theologian only when it is recognized that he is also an historian.”(42)
His prefacetory remarks to his two volumes (Luke 1:1–4) tell us this much, for they place him squarely within the ranks of other ancient historians. (43) Following ancient historiographical literary convention, Luke tells Theophilus that he is seeking to write reliable history (“an orderly account,” 1:3) by “carefully investigating” reliable sources (“handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses,” 1:2). Neither Josephus, Thucydides, Lucian, Tacitus or Suetonius ever expressed a historical interest more clearly. (44) And the evidence indicates that Luke carried out his historical intention very well. (45)
The first piece of evidence that bolsters one’s confidence in the historical accuracy of Luke’s record is that it is, at a number of significant points, corroborated by other ancient sources, especially Josephus. Thus, Luke’s unusual account of the sudden death of Agrippa I (c. A.D. 44) is confirmed in detail (and even in theological interpretation!) by Josephus (12:20–23, cf. Jewish Antiquities [henceforth Ant.] 19:344–49). His report of a major famine “in the days of Claudius” is also confirmed by Josephus (11:28, cf. Ant. 220:101), as is his naming of Ananias as high priest (c. A.D. 47) (23:2; 24:1, cf. Ant. 20:103) along with his record of an unknown Egyptian prophetic revolutionary who led thousands to their death (21:38, cf. Jewish War, 2:261). (46)
Similarly, Luke’s identifying Gallio as proconsul of Achaia in A.D. 51 has been confirmed by a discovered inscription at Delphi (18:12). His report of Claudius’ expulsion of the Jews from Rome around A.D. 49 is referred to by Suetonius (Life of Claudius, 25:4). His incidental reference to Felix as Roman procurator along with his Jewish wife Drusilla is corroborated both by both Josephus and Tacitus (24:24, cf. Ant. 20:131–43, History, 5:9, Annals, 12:54). His identification of Festus as Felix’s successor is likewise confirmed by Jospehus and Suetonius (Ant. 20:182; Claudius, 28). And his mentioning of Agrippa II and Bernice, elder sister of Drusilla and widow of Herod, is again corroborated by Jospehus (25:13, cf. Ant. 20:145).
This degree of confirmation concerning public figures and events is impressive. This is not, of course, to suggest that there are no points of tension between Luke and these other ancient sources. (47) So much is to be expected in analyzing parallel accounts of any two ancient (or modern) historical sources. But the number of apparent contradictions are relatively few and can be readily explained without impugning the basic veracity of any of the ancient authors.
Two Historical Problems
The two most difficult discrepancies perhaps warrant our brief attention, if only because they are regularly appealed to as evidence of Luke’s untrustworthiness. First, Luke’s report of Gamaliel’s reference to an uprising led by Theudas before an uprising led by Judas apparently stands in tension with Josephus who locates Theudas’ uprising a good 40 years after Judas’ revolt (5:36, cf. J. A. 20:97ff) Does this mean that Luke is mistaken? (48) Once could, of course, just as easily apply this argument in the other direction—it is Jospehus who is in error—but, in fact, neither recourse is necessary. When we consider how common a name Theudas was at the time, and how frequent uprisings were during this tumultuous period (as both Luke and Josephus attest, 21:38, cf. Ant. 17:269), the likelihood that we are dealing with two different revolutionaries with the same name is apparent. (49) Indeed, Josephus himself mentions four men named Simon in a space covering 40 years, three named Judas within the space of 10 years, and two different people named Jesus within the span of 40 years who were all instigators of rebellion. (50)
Given this situation, and given that “Luke’s background information can so often be corroborated,” Hemer’s conclusion seems reasonable: “it is wiser to leave this particular matter open rather than to condemn Luke of a blunder.” (51)
A second, and even more noteworthy, problem concerns Luke’s naming Quirinius as governor of Syria at the time of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:2). Crossan in particular cites this as evidence of Luke’s untrustworthiness, (52) though, unfortunately, he never discusses the other evidence in Luke’s two volumes which might argue in an opposite direction. In any case, Quirinius is only known to have held this office from A.D. 6–9, hence about 10 years after the time of Christ’s birth. Does this imply that Luke was mistaken? (53)
First, even if this (and the previously mentioned) “mistake” were granted, this wouldn’t warrant any negative conclusion about Luke’s general reliability. If he were generally unreliable, it’s difficult to explain how he got so many other details in his narrative right (more on this below). But secondly, given Luke’s otherwise demonstrable reliability, it seems appropriate to exercise some caution before concluding that Luke was here mistaken. This is not special pleading. It is the sort of courtesy extended to all historical documents that give us other reasons for placing any degree of trust in them.
There are two possible ways of accounting for this apparent error of Luke. First, we learn from Tacitus (Annals 3:48) and Florus (Roman History, 2:31) that Quirinius led large military expeditions in the eastern provinces of the Roman empire a decade before his holding the governor’s office in A.D. 6. He thus obviously held some significant leadership position at this time. It is not unlikely, therefore, that Luke, in using the general participle hegemoneuo, is referring to this “governing” position, or possibly even to an official joint rule, at this time prior to his becoming formal governor in A.D. 6. Ramsey, in particular, was convinced that this was the case. (54) Moreover, two Latin inscriptions, discovered by Ramsey, seem to suggest that Quirinius held some sort of joint office in Northern Syria while heading up his military expeditians. (55)
A second possibility is to translate Luke 2:2 as: “This census was before that which Quirinius, governor of Syria, held.” (56) There is no doubt that Luke’s construction, prota geneto hagemoneuontos, can bear this meaning, though it is admittedly more awkward than the standard translation. Still, in light of Luke’s otherwise accurate record of official titles and reigns (see below), it is not unreasonable to accept it, alongside the first explanation, as a possible way of reconciling Luke’s account with known history.
In any event, the degree to which Luke’s narrative about first century events is corroborated by other sources must evoke a good bit of confidence in his record. It is the kind of accuracy one might expect by a careful researcher, close to the events, writing in the mid-first century, but not at all what one might expect from a collector of Christian lore in the second century.
Luke’s Knowledge of Titles, Geography, and Customs
More impressive than his grasp of major figures and events, however, is Luke’s accuracy in recording the various titles of various officials in the mid-first century. “Experience shows,” writes Stephen Neill, “that nothing is more difficult than to get titles exactly right.” (57) If this much is true generally, it was all the more true in the very complex, ever changing, political-religious Greco-Roman world of the first century. The status of provinces along with the titles of their officiates changed with some regularity. (58) We cannot, therefore, help but be impressed when Luke drops a host of names and titles within his record and, almost without exception, indisputably gets them right. A quick survey of the confirmed evidence must presently suffice.
The governors of senatorial provinces in Cyprus (13:7), Achaia (18:12), and Asia (19:38) are accurately termed “proconsuls” (anthupatoi), whereas those over imperial provinces such as Syria and Judea are correctly termed hagemon (Luke 2:2?; 3:1; Acts 23:24; 26:30). (59) Relatedly, Herod is not called “king” of Galilee, but “tetrarch” (Luke 3:1; Acts 13:1), while other members of the Herod family, Agrippa I and II, are properly titled “king” (basileus, 12:1; 25:13).
Similarly, Luke notes, quite incidentally, that Phillipi is a Roman colony (16:12) whose magistrates are therefore called “praetors” (stratagoi) and whose attenders are called “lictors” or “serjeants” (rabdouxoi) (16:35). In Thessolonica (17:6), however, the chief authorities are called “politarchs” (politarxai), a term not found elsewhere in extant literature but six times confirmed by archeological findings in Thessalonica. “Exactly the right title is used at exactly the right time and place,” concludes Neill. (60)
With a similar unpretentious display of accuracy, Luke portrays the “town clerk” (grammateus) of Ephesus (19:35) as functioning as the liaison officer between civic administration and the Roman government in the province of Asia as well as taking part in the town assemblies (19:39). His portrayal of the Ephesian Artemision is likewise accurate in detail (19:35), and his specific naming of the head of the artisans of the temple (texnitai) as “Demestrus” can only bolster our confidence in his account. So too, Luke’s naming of “Publius” as the “chief official” of the island of Malta (to proto tas nasou) can hardly be thought to be fabricated, especially in light of the fact that he demonstrably got his title right (28:7).
Sir William Ramsey, who himself was won over from an earlier low estimation of Acts by evidence such as this, sums up the matter well when he writes:
The officials with whom Paul and his companions brought in contact are those who would be there. Every person is found just where he ought to be: proconsuls in senatorial provinces, asiarchs in Ephesus, strategoi in Philippi, politarchs in Thessolonica, magicians and soothsayers everywhere. (61)
We would hardly hold it against a writer if he occasionally got such matters confused, even if he was writing relatively close to the events and was in other regards quite reliable. That Luke consistently gets them right, therefore, cannot help but bolster our confidence in his overall historical ability.
What has also impressed a good number of scholars is the manner in which Luke accurately portrays the political regions, the geography, roadways, and various means of travel of the mid-first century. (62) The frequent, and very understandable, errors on such matters found in other contemporary historians such as Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, Strabo, and even Josephus are almost wholly absent from Luke. (63) For example, Luke correctly identifies Lystra and Derbe as “Lycaonian cities” (Acts 14:6), though this was commonly mistaken by later writers (e.g. Hierax, c. A.D. 50). (64) And he correctly does not locate Caesarea within Judea (12:19), owing, presumably, to its unique status as a “city state” over and against other local regions. (65)
One other example on this matter is especially noteworthy. Many scholars have long been impressed with the wealth of knowledge about localities and about ship travel in the mid-first century evidenced in Luke’s account of Paul’s shipwreck in chapter 27. (66) This chapter constitutes the most detailed passage in the entire work and has been called “one of the most instructive documents for the knowledge of ancient seamanship.”(67) While the literary form of this passage has been convincingly argued (by Dibelius and others) to be influenced by similar famous “lost at sea” accounts (e.g. Jonah, the Odyssey), the accuracy of its many incidental, meticulous, nautical details suggests not only its historicity, but its having been composed by an eyewitness (it is the third “we” passage in the work). (68) Luke’s thorough description of the three ships involved, of precise references to geography, and of life at sea are all as accurate as they are vivid. With Hemer, we conclude that “these inconsequential details are hard to explain except as vivid experiences recalled at no great distance in time.” (69)
Luke’s ability to correctly capture the cultural textures of various regions has also been noted. His above mentioned depiction of Ephesus as steeped in magic and centered on the temple of Diana (19:18ff) is an example of this. His portrayal of the Athenians with their insatiable intellectual curiosity and love for open debate (Acts 17:21ff) in contrast to the highly pagan and superstitious crowds of Lystra (14:8–18) also squares with everything we know about these locales in the first century. So too, his general portrayal of the easily excited and quite intolerant crowds of Jerusalem—in marked contrast to (say) the more eclectic melting pot atmosphere of Antioch (11:19–30)—is remarkably “true to life.” (70) And he consistently evidences a knowledge of Jewish customs and beliefs within Jerusalem (e.g. 3:1, 8:27. 21:27–40, 24:6, 13). “He gets the atmosphere right every time.” (71)
Finally, a number of scholars have made a very solid case that Luke’s accounts of the very diverse and highly complex legal matters of the various regions he’s concerned with is altogether accurate. Luke’s various references to the nature of Roman citizenship, to Roman, Greek and Jewish judicial procedures, to the right to appeal to Caesar, to the various relationships between magistrates of various states and between cities of various sizes, etc. all square with what we know about Roman law in the first century.(72) It was on the basis of evidence such as this that Sherwin-White, who is widely considered to be the ablest historian of ancient Roman law in our time, concluded:
[T]he confirmation of historicity [in Acts] is overwhelming…any attempt to reject its historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted. (73)
Among a plethora of examples that could be given, one might in particular note Luke’s account of Paul’s trials in Jerusalem and Caesarea (21:27–26:32). Here, Luke accurately depicts the precise legal arrangements between Jews and Romans, and the somewhat tenuous internal legal system of the Roman government itself in the region of Judea during this tumultuous time. Indeed, he even correctly captures the particular situations of the main players of his narrative. As Hengel argues, the entire passage,
fits admirably into the strange—one might almost say macabre—milieu in Judea in the time of the last procurators: Felix, under whose long administration the political situation worsened to an acute degree, Fesus, Albinus and after them Gessius Florus. (74)
And thus he concludes,
in my view the account must ultimately derive from an eyewitness. It demonstrates the political uncertainty in Judea toward the end of Felix’s period of office…His knowledge of conditions in Judea during roughly the last fifteen years before the outbreak of the Judean war and his special concern [in Luke] with the destruction of Jeruslem [sic] show how he was affected by these events and stood relatively close to them; this makes it impossible to date his work in the second century. (75)
In light of all of this evidence, it is difficult to see how any contemporary account of the development of the early Church—especially ones such as Mack’s and Crossan’s that seek to lay out a theory that is radically at odds with this work!—could fail to seriously wrestle with Acts. However one dates Acts, and however one estimates its theological agenda, the work clearly deserves to be taken seriously.
Acts and the Pauline Epistles
One final dimension of Luke’s narrative warrants our brief attention, and this concerns the way in which his material intersects with material from Paul’s epistles. While there are, predictably, points of tension between these two sources, a judicious comparison nevertheless leads to the conclusion that Luke had a substantial knowledge of Paul’s life and activity. The complete lack of any reference to Paul’s epistles—a fact, we might note, that is more surprising on a late dating of Acts than it is on an early dating—suggests that this information is independent of these writings. (76) The incidental way in which such material filters into Acts also makes points of cooperation between these two sources all the more impressive. Again, a brief summary of the matter must presently suffice. (77)
To begin with, Luke’s record that Paul’s original name was Saul (7:58ff) squares well with Paul’s own testimony that he belonged to the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5), since Saul was the most famous name associated with that tribe. (78) His portrait of Paul as a Pharisee (23:6; 26:5) who persecuted the earliest Christian communities (8:3ff, 9:1ff, etc.) is explicitly confirmed by Paul’s own testimony to this effect (Phil. 3:5ff; Gal. 1:13; 1 Cor. 15:9). Moreover, his conversion near, and later escape from, Damascus (9:1ff, 24–25) is corroborated by Paul’s own record—though there are enough differences here to demonstrate the independence of Luke’s account. (79)
Similarly, Paul’s association with, and later break from, Barnabas is recorded in both sources (Acts 11:25ff, cf. Gal. 2:1ff; Acts 15:36ff, Gal. 2:13)—though the reasons given for the breakup differ. Both sources also mention Paul’s later association with Silas and Timothy (Acts 16:11ff; 1 Thess. 1:1, 2; 2 Cor. 1:19). And Luke’s above mentioned detailed account of Paul’s shipwreck (ch. 27) finds corroboration in Paul’s own account (2 Cor. 11:25).
In the same fashion, while there are significant gaps in Luke’s highly abbreviated narrative, and while there are several aspects of Paul’s own account of his earliest travels that are difficult to square with the portrait in Acts, it is nevertheless true that the general chronology of Paul’s missionary activity in Acts is confirmed by Paul’s own accounts in his epistles. (80) Hence, for example, the general sequence of visits to Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, Corinth, Ephesus, Macedonia and Achaia in Acts 16:12–20:2 is completely substantiated by Paul’s own record (1 Thess. 2:2; 3:1; 1 Cor. 2:1ff; 16:8; 2 Cor. 1:16; 9:2; 12:14; Rom. 15:26). So too, Paul’s intent to go to Rome after his visit to Jerusalem in Acts (19:21) squares with Paul’s own statement to this effect (Rom. 15:22ff), though Luke apparently did not know of Paul’s private aspirations to go from there into Spain (Rom. 15:24). He perhaps was aware, however, that the visit to Jerusalem involved a relief fund (Acts 24:17).
We might finally note the manner in which incidental details of Paul’s life and activity in Acts are at times confirmed by Paul’s own letters. For example, Luke’s portrayal of Paul preaching to Jews in the synagogue first and then to Gentiles may be echoed in Paul’s own statement that the Gospel is “first for the Jew, and then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16, cf. 2:9). So also, Paul’s own expressed concern over “the unbelievers in Judea” to the Romans (Rom. 15:31) is filled out by Luke’s account in Acts 21:27–36. And Luke’s depiction of Paul as earning his own living while preaching (18:3; 20:34) finds confirmation in Paul’s own repeated statements to this effect (e.g. 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7ff; 1 Cor. 9:15ff).
Even if disputable points of tension remain, the extent of corroboration Paul’s letters provide for the material we find in Acts is impressive. We again find that insofar as we are able to cross check Acts against other sources of information in the mid-first century—this time, with Paul’s letters—it comes out looking remarkably good. And this cannot help but to reinforce our overall positive estimation of Luke’s ability to relate generally accurate history.
This does not, of course, in any way minimize the importance of understanding the theology of Luke, his use of sources (insofar as this is knowable), his literary conventions, etc., which recent works on Acts have emphasized. Nor does it establish the reliability of Luke on every matter on which he speaks. (81) But it does imply that one should exercise some caution in drawing from these studies any conclusion that suggests that Luke is not also interested in history, and that he reports it very well. And this further implies that, if and when errors on Luke’s part are to be posited, the burden of proof is on the critic to demonstrate such. (82)
The thrust of the argument of this essay is that we have good grounds for regarding the history of the early church provided for us in Acts as being basically trustworthy. If Luke is so accurate in matters of Roman imperial and senatorial provinces, we cannot easily dismiss his narrative about (say) the day of Pentecost as a piece of Christian lore. If he was astute enough to catch the right titles of various officials, we cannot readily write off his narratives of (say) Peter and Paul as being of little historical value. And if he is demonstrably accurate in his recording of various legal proceedings of various locales, we cannot quickly dismiss his record that the early Church was, from the start, united in its proclamation that Jesus was the Son of God who was crucified and rose again from the dead.
What also counts decisively in Luke’s favor is that his portrait of the early Church squares well with the evidence of early Christian belief found in Paul’s and Mark’s writings. Luke’s understanding that the early Church from the start proclaimed a crucified and risen savior is precisely what the evidence from Paul’s epistles implies. His portrait of the early Church as being essentially unified and as networking together also squares perfectly with the evidence discovered in Paul’s writings. And the understanding of Jesus Christ in both Acts and Paul’s epistles lines up well with the portrait of Jesus Christ provided for us in Mark (and, of course, from Luke’s own gospel), a portrait that we have every reason to believe derives from an authoritative eyewitness. (83)
The available data, in a word, allows us to conclude from these three witnesses that the earliest followers of Jesus understood him as being anything but a Cynic-sage. On the basis of his teachings, his deeds, his life, his death, and especially on the basis of his resurrection, they from the start believed that he was the Son of God. And, as Luke and Paul testify (and other sources attest), this conviction led to a zealous missionary explosion that covered the entire Mediterranean world within a century, a fact that is itself difficult to account for on any scheme that fundamentally discredits their testimony.
For the liberal, skeptical view of the historical Jesus to be accepted, all of this evidence must be overturned. Paul, Mark, and Luke must be judged—against the evidence here given—as being unreliable guides to who the historical Jesus was, and what the earliest Christians believed about him. To arrive at the “true” picture of Jesus and the early Church, in other words, these earliest records of Jesus and the early Church must all be rejected. This is, to say the least, unusual historical procedure.
And what is the evidence available that justifies this radical move? We have “Q,” a hypothetical document; the Gospel of Thomas, a second century gnostic-tending work; Secret Mark, an obscure second-hand, second century fragment; and the Cross Gospel (the Gospel of Peter), an extracted narrative from a second or third century Apocryphal Gospel. And even these are only of use when accompanied by circular methodological procedures, highly questionable dating techniques, disputable assumptions about the Hellenistic climate of Galilee, and very speculative conclusions drawn from a very speculative redaction of the hypothetical document, “Q.” Paul, Mark and Luke are to be traded in for this (see Finding an Alternative Jesus).
It is not, in my estimation, a good trade. Its only “advantage” is that it allows for a naturalistic historical Jesus, whereas taking the New Testament documents seriously brings us face to face with an unavoidably supernatural Jesus. But, while we may concede that coming to grips with a Jesus who refuses to fit into our twentieth century naturalistic categories can be difficult—in this sense the natural Jesus is perhaps an “advantage”—fidelity to the facts simply shuts down this option. The price tag attached to the natural Jesus is simply too high!
Hence, I submit that the only Jesus of history we can know, if we restrict ourselves to the evidence, is the disturbing Jesus reflected in Paul’s epistles and Mark’s gospel, and who gave rise to that disturbing Christian community reflected in Luke-Acts. The earliest followers of Jesus proclaimed him to be the Son of God, and basic historiographical reasoning suggest that they were right!
(1) The same holds true for all revisionist accounts of the early church. Harnack, who himself “converted” away from a late dating and low estimation of the historical value of Acts, reflects the centrality of this work in one’s overall understanding of the early church, including all the documents of the New Testament, when he states: “All the mistakes which have been made in New Testament criticism have been focused into the criticism of the Acts of the Apostles” (Adolf von Harnack, Luke the Physician, trans. J. R. Wilkinson [London: Putnam’s, 1907], 3).
(2) This view of Acts is not so much argued in Crossan’s and Mack’s works as it is presupposed (see e.g., LG, 234–35; HJ, 432), though Crossan does make occasional use of it in his own reconstruction of several early traditions (e.g. HJ, 201, 401, 414).
(3) For Mack and Crossan’s account to be accepted, however, not only must their view of Acts be accepted, but their marginalized view of Paul and fictitious understandings of Mark as well. My earlier critiques of these latter positions thus already constitute arguments against their revisionist understanding of early church history.
(4) The contemporary trend among historical-critical approaches to Acts is to focus on an analysis of Luke’s theology, literary conventions, “creativity,” and use of sources, and to do this on the assumption that he is not on the whole conveying reliable history. The literary and source-critical approaches of H. Conzelmann, The Theology of St. Luke, trans. G. Buswell (1955; reprint, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1982) and E. Haenchen, Die Apostelgeschicht neu obersetzt und erklort (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1956) have been especially influential in the last few decades. For an excellent critical review of the history of the historical-critical approach to Acts, see W. W. Gasque, A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles, 2nd ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1989 ).
(5) F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text With Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 1–2.
(6) A. C. Clark attempted to argue against this in his The Acts of the Apostles (Oxford: Clarendon, 1933), but few have followed him. He was effectively answered by W. L. Knox, The Acts of the Apostles (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1948), 2–15, 100–09. See also on this issue I. H. Marshall, The Acts of the Apostles (Sheffield: JSOT, 1992), 98, and Shulz, “Die apstolische Herkunft Evangelien,” QD 145 (Freiburg/ Basel/ Vienna: Harder, 1993), 243–91. Also on this issue see Hemer’s excellent argument for Lucan authorship in Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, ed. C. H. Gempf (Tubingen: Mohr, 1989), 308–34, 413–4. This latter work constitutes the most recent, and certainly the most compelling, comprehensive argument for the historical reliability of Acts. For a summary and appreciative review, see W. W. Gasque, “The Historical Value of Acts,” Tyndale Bulletin 40 (1989): 136–57.
(7) See B. E. Beck, “The Common Authorship of Luke and Acts,” New Testament Studies 23 (1976–77): 346–52; J. M. Dawsey, “The Literary Question of Style—a Task for Literary Critics,” New Testament Studies 35 (1989): 48–66; and especially C. J. Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 30–33.
(8) For example, Luke alone records Jesus’ appearance before Herod Antipas (23:7–12), a fact also mentioned in Acts (4:27).
(9) See M. Hengel’s discussion in Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, trans. J. Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 66–67; Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic Setting, 312–14; idem, “First-Person Narrative in Acts 27–28,” Tyndale Bulletin 36 (1985): 79–109; J. H. Cadbury, “‘We’ and ‘I’ Passages in Luke-Acts,” New Testament Studies 3 (1956–57): 128–32, and P. Barnett, Is The New Testament Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), 141–42.
(10) See V. Robbins, “The We-Passages in Acts and Ancient Sea Voyages,” Bible Review 20 (1975): 1–14.
(11) It also leaves unexplained why a later author would not have named the author of this source if it was regarded as carrying extra authoritative weight; Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, 4. It should, however, be noted that even among those who argue along these lines, Acts can still be viewed as containing reliable historical information. See, for example, G. Lindemann, “Acts of the Apostles as a Historical Source,” in The Social World of Formative Christianity and Judaism: Essays in Tribute to Howard Clark Kee, eds. J. Neusner, et al. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 109–25; idem, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1989).
(12) So argued A. Harnack, Luke the Physician, 25–120. Cf. J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976), 87. Indeed, Hengel and others have argued that the amount of geographical and cultural-political detail in the “we” passages is greater than other parts of Luke’s narrative. See his Between Jesus and Paul, trans. J. Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 97–128. Even M. Dibelius who largely pioneered the source critical approach to Acts, and who dated Acts in the 90s, held on this basis that the author was a companion of Paul. See Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, trans. M. Ling, ed. H. Greeven (London: SCM, 1956), 104. A number of other arguments have at various times been put forth to prove Lukan authorship, but they are extremely tenuous. Something may yet be said, however, for the old argument of Hobart, Ramsey, and Harnack that the vocabulary of Acts (and the Gospel of Luke) has more technical medical terms than one would normally expect, thus suggesting that it was written by a physician (Col. 4:14). See W. K. Hobart, The Medical Language of St. Luke (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1954 ); W. M. Ramsey, Luke the Physician and Other Studies in the History of Religion (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908), 1–68; A. Harnack, Luke the Physician, ed. W. D. Morrison, trans. J. R. Wilkinson (New York: Putnam, 1907); and T. Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament, rev. 2nd ed., ed. and trans. J. M. Trout, et al. (New York: Scribner, 1917). While the argument won credence among scholars at the beginning of this century, it has largely fallen into disfavor since H. J. Cabury’s thorough study, The Style and Literary Method of Luke (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1928). See also Cabury’s “Lexical Notes on Luke-Acts. II. Recent Arguments for Medical Language,” Journal of Biblical Literature 45 (1926): 190–209. For more recent defenses, however, see A. T. Robertson, Luke the Historian in the Light of Research (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1977), 90–102; and W. G. Marx’s cautious assessment in “Luke the Physician, Re-examined,” Expository Times (1971–80): 168–72.
(13) In addition to sources cited below, see Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 244–307, and J. Jervell, The Unknown Paul: Essays on Luke-Acts and the Early Church (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1984).
(14) See Hengel’s discussion in Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, trans. J. Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979), 67.
(15) Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 87. See also Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, 66–67. One must, of course, also give Luke a good deal of leeway in the rather free way he composed his “speeches,” a customary practice by ancient historians. See F. F. Bruce, “The Acts of the Apostles: Historical Record or Theological Reconstruction?” Aufstieg und Niedergang der romischen Welt, ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase, 25:3 (New York; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1985), 2582–88; Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, Appendix 1: “Speeches and Miracles in Acts,” 415–43; idem, “The Speeches of Acts: I. The Ephesian Elders at Miletus,” Tyndale Bulletin 40 (1989): 77–85; and idem, “The Speeches in Acts: II. The Areopagus Address,” Tyndale Bulletin 40 (1989), 239–59. The complex discussion concerning the extent to which these speeches reflect the general theology of Luke and/or how much they reflect the perspectives of the authors they’re attributed to cannot here be entered into, and is of little consequence. For classic discussions representative of the former position, see M. Dibelius, “The Speeches in Acts and Ancient Historiography,” in Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, ed. H. Greeven, trans. M. Ling (London: SCM, 1956), 138–96; and U. Wilckens, “Die Missionsreden der Apostelgeschichte: Form-und traditions-geschichtliche Untersuchungen,” WUNT, Vol. 5 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1961). For discussions more representative of the latter position, see Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles; H. I. Marshall, Luke Historian and Theologian, 72ff.; Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 415–43.
(16) So argues Bruce, “Historical Record or Theological Reconstruction?” 2593. See also J. A. Fitzmyer, “The Authorship of Luke-Acts Reconsidered,” in Luke the Theologian: Aspects of His Teaching (New York: Paulist, 1989), 1–26 and M. A. Powell, What Are They Saying About Acts? (New York: Paulist, 1991), 36.
(17) Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 409.
(18) See, e.g. H. Koester, Ancient Christian Gospels: Their History and Development (Philadelphia: Trinity, 1990), 334; J. C. O’Neill, The Theology of Acts in Its Historical Setting (London: SPCK, 1961), 1–28, and J. T. Townsend, “The Date of Luke-Acts,” in Luke-Acts: New Perspectives from the Society of Biblical Literature, ed. C. Talbert (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 47–62. On the whole, however, this once popular position now has few followers. Robertson sums up the matter succinctly when he notes: “It may now be stated definitely that the second-century date for the Gospel and Acts has been abandoned save by a small number of exceedingly radical critics,” Luke the Historian, 30.
(19) See F. C. Baur, Paul, the Apostle of Jesus Christ (London and Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1876), 4ff.
(20) See, for example, E. Kasemann, “Ephesians and Acts” in Studies in Luke-Acts: Essays Presented in Honor of Paul Schubert, ed. L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966), 288ff. On the parallels between Acts on Justin Martyr as evidence for a mid-second century date, see O’Neill, The Theology of Acts.
(21) W. G. Kummell, Introduction to the New Testament, trans. A. J. Mattill, Jr., 14th rev. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1966), 186; Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 377; Powell, What Are They Saying? 36–7.
(22) K. Lake argued against Bauer on this basis in The Earlier Epistles of St. Paul (London: Rivingtons, 1914), 116. See also L. Morris, “Luke and Early Catholicism,” Westminster Theological Journal 35 (1973): 121–36.
(23) See Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, 10.
(24) Bruce, “Historical Record or Theological Reconstruction?” 2599.
(25) E.g., C. K. Barrett, Luke the Historian in Recent Study, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970), 63; N. T. Wright, New Testament and the People of God (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992), 376; Bruce, “Historical Record or Theological Reconstruction?” 2598. By way of comparison, it used to be argued that Luke was to be dated after Josephus on the basis of supposed parallels with this work. See, for example, F. C. Burkitt, The Gospel History and Its Transmission (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1907), 109ff. The work of A. Plummer at the beginning of this century against this view, however, was generally regarded as decisive, and hence few endorse this argument any longer. See A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to St. Luke, ICC (Edinburgh: T & T Clarke, 1901). For discussions, see Robertson, Luke the Historian, 32ff., and Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 94–99
(26) H. Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, Vol. 2, History and Literature of Early Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress; Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 1982), 308–23. This perhaps also reveals the ambiguity in discerning Luke’s motive in his portrayal of the Roman government. Is he reflecting a peaceful relationship with the government, or trying to remedy a hostile relationship with the government?
(27) A. von Harnack, Date of the Acts and the Synoptic Gospels (New York: Putnam, 1911), 95–96. So argues W. Manson, “The Work of St. Luke,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 28 (1944): 403; Robertson, Luke the Historian 34ff.; R. T. France, Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1986), 120–21. Hemer cautiously endorses this argument as well in his Acts in Hellenistic History, 383–408. In view of Luke’s apologetic purposes, some earlier commentators argued that Acts was composed in preparation for Paul’s defense. See J. I. Still, St. Paul on Trial (New York: G. H. Doran, 1923), and G. S. Duncan, St. Paul’s Ephesian Ministry (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1929), 97ff. While there is much in Acts that would certainly be superfluous to such an endeavor, as Bruce argues (Acts of the Apostles, 15), there is nothing decisive against locating the time of Acts’ composition during this period.
(28) Robertson, Luke the Historian, 35. Harnack utilizes Acts 20:28 in an interesting (but questionable) way in arguing for a dating of Acts in the early 60s. See his Date of Acts, 103ff.
(29) The argument that Luke intended a third book was once popular, but is now generally dismissed. Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 385ff.; Robertson, Luke the Historian, 35–36.
(30) For a discussion on the significance of the ending of Acts for locating a date for its composition, see J. A. T. Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 89–91.
(31) So argues J. P. Moreland, Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker Book, 1987), 153; Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 89–90; Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 377–78.
(32) Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 89. Cf. Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 377–78. Also note that James’ successor, Symeon, is not mentioned either in Luke or any of the Gospels. This, according to Robinson, is inexplicable unless these documents pre-date James’ death. See Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 106.
(33) The same problems arise when interpreting this apocalyptic discourse as a vaticinium ex eventu as accompanied this interpretation concerning Mark’s apocalyptic discourse, upon which it depends if we assume Luke used Mark. Sometimes Luke’s (disputed) addition to Mark’s discourse in 21:20—“when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies”—is taken to mean that Luke is clarifying Mark’s prophecy by adding a detail that could not have been known before A.D. 70. We again cannot rule out that Jesus had either the natural foresight or the supernatural capacity to anticipate the future. But, in any case, the phrase is vague and common enough that it hardly serves as proof of a post-70 A.D. date. See Robertson, Redating the New Testament, 33ff.
(34) See H. Staudinger, The Trustworthiness of the Gospels (Edinburgh: The Handsel Press, 1981), 9. Indeed, it has been argued that Luke’s irenic stance toward the Roman government is best understood in an atmosphere prior to Nero’s persecution. Cf. Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 377.
(35) Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, 17. Interestingly enough, however, Bruce opts for a dating of Acts in the “late 70s or early 80s” (18), though this later dating, in his view, does not adversely affect his estimation of this work’s reliability.
(36) See Hengel, Acts and Earliest Christianity, 63, cf. 106; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 153; Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 381–2. Accounting for the primitive terminology of Acts was in part responsible for Harnack’s “conversion” to an early dating of Acts. See his, Date of Acts, 104–07.
(37) Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 380.
(38) Robinson, Redating the New Testament, 9.
(39) France’s comment may be to the point: “It is tempting to suggest that the early date has failed to find widespread acceptance not because it is unconvincing in itself but because the results of its acceptance would be too uncomfortable!” Evidence for Jesus, 120–21.
(40) On the theology of Luke, see Wright, New Testament and the People of God, 378–84; Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, 60–66; I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, as well as (from a more liberal perspective) J. C. O’Neill, The Theology of Acts, 2nd ed. (London: SPCK, 1970). Cf. R. Maddox, The Purpose of Luke-Acts (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1982), who locates Luke’s primary interests in ecclesiology and eschatology while providing an excellent case against the reading of Luke as “an early catholic.”
(41) Wright, New Testament and the People of God, 383. See M. Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, 2ff., as well as his Acts and Earliest Christianity, 67–68.
(42) Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, 18.
(43) See L. C. A. Alexander, “Luke’s Preface in the Context of Greek Preface-Writing,” Novum Testamentum 28 (1986): 48–74; H. J. Cadbury, “The Knowledge Claimed in Luke’s Preface,” Expository 8, 24 (1922): 401–22; Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, 28–30; Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 322–28.
(44) For general positive comparisons between Luke and other ancient historians, see C. K. Barrett, Luke the Historian in Recent Study (London: Epworth, 1961), 9–12; F. Plumacherm, “Lukas als hellenistischer Schriftsteller,” Studien zur Umwelt des Neuen Testaments 9 (Gottingen, 1972): 80ff; I. H. Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, 54–57; Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, 2–5, 106, 132; Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity, 60–62; L. C. A. Alexander, “Luke’s Preface in the Context of Greek Preface-Writing,” Novum Testamentum 25 (1986): 48–74.
(45) Indeed, Eduard Meyer, arguably the greatest classical historian in the twentieth century, maintained that Luke should be regarded as one of the greatest historians of classical antiquity on the basis of the evidence. E. Meyer, Ursprung und Anfange des Christentums, I (Stuggart; Berlin, 1921), 2ff. Hengel notes that Meyer’s conviction “will seem mad to some ‘historical-critical’ commentators—if only, perhaps, because they are so unfamiliar with ancient history writing and its problems,” in Between Jesus and Paul, 2. On Luke’s corroboration with other sources, see C. J. Hemer, “Luke the Historian,” Bulletin of the John Ryland’s Library 60 (1977–78): 28–51; Hemer, “Paul at Athens: A Topographical Note,” New Testament Studies 20 (1973–74): 341–50; Hemer, “Observations on Pauline Chronology,” in Pauline Studies, D. A. Hagner and M. J. Harris, eds. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 3–18, and especially, Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic Histories, ch. 5. Much of what follows is indebted to the work of Hemer, Bruce, Hengel, Barnett, Robertson, as well as the earlier scholars, Harnack, Ramsey and Sherwin-White.
(46) The number of persons killed is much larger in Josephus than in Acts, perhaps owing to Josephus’ bias against revolutionaries.
(47) For a helpful discussion of the issues, see Robertson, Luke the Historian, ch. 13. Luke has frequently been criticized for not providing more specific fixed reference points to date events within his narrative (only in Luke 3:1). While this is true, it must also be said that he is no worse in this regard than other ancient historians who in general did not share our modern concern for dating (178).
(48) As argued, for example by R. P. C. Hanson, Acts (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 86, though Hanson’s overall estimation of Acts on matters of history is quite positive.
(49) Hemer points out that Theudas was an affectionate form of Theodotus, Theodurus, Theodotion, and other such very common names in Jewish culture. Acts in Hellenistic History, 162, n 5.
(50) Robertson, Luke the Historian, 170.
(51) Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 163.
(52) Crossan, JRB, 21.
(53) See H. R. Moehring, “The Census in Luke as an Apologetic Device,” in Studies in the New Testament and Early Christian Literature: Essays in Honor of Allen P. Wikgren, ed. D. E. Aune, Nov. T. Supp. 33 (Leiden: Brill, 1972): 144–60.
(54) Robertson, Luke the Historian, 127–29.
(55) The translations of these inscriptions, however, is debated. See C. Blomberg, “Quirinius,” in International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) as well as his The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1987), 195–96; See also Robertson, Luke the Historian, 128.
(56) See F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Leicester: InterVarsity; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988 ), 87, and Barnett, Is the New Testament Reliable? 149–50.
(57) Neill, S., and Wright, N. T. The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861–1986 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 153–4.
(58) Luke correctly identifies six senatorial provinces (Achaia, Asia, Crete and Cyrene, Cyprus, Bithynia and Pontus, and Macedonia), six imperial provinces (Cappadocia, Cilicia, Egypt, Galatia, Lycia, and Pamphylia), and eight Roman colonies (Phillipi, Corinth, Lystra, Pisidian Antioch, Ptolemais, Puteoli, Syracus, and Troas) though only Phillipi is named as such. Getting this much correct is impressive enough. But to correctly identify various administrative personnel with their differing precise titles within these various regions goes well beyond this in terms of establishing credibility.
(59) Achaia had been made an imperial province in A.D. 15, but was reverted to a senatorial province in A.D. 44. The room for error here for a later writer would be significant.
(60) Interpretation of the New Testament, 153. Cf. Barnet, Is the New Testament Reliable? 151.
(61) The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (New York: Hodder and Stroughton, 1915), 96–97.
(62) See Ramsey’s succinct presentation in “Roads and Travel [in the N.T.],” in Hastings Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 5, 375–402, as well as his more extensive treatment in The Church in the Roman Empire (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979 ), chs. 2–8. See also J. Moffatt, An Introduction to the Literature of the New Testament (New York: Scribner, 1911), 304; J. D. Lightfoot, Essays on Supernatural Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1889), 291–305; and A. Harnack, The Acts of the Apostles, trans. J. R. Wilkinson (New York: Putnam, 1909), ch. 2.
(63) See Hengel’s discussion in Between Jesus and Paul, 97ff. While Luke’s geographical information on Rome and Asia Minor is excellent, his knowledge of the geography of Palestine is not as precise. See ibid., 97–128, as well as Marshal’s Luke: Historian and Theologian, 69–71, who explicitly address problems in Luke’s geography of Palestine.
(64) Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, 319ff.; Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 111, 228–30.
(65) Hengel, Between Paul and Jesus, 114.
(66) J. Smith’s old but exhaustive treatment of this chapter in his The Voyage and Shipwreck of St. Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1970 ) remains one of the best. For a meticulous recent discussion of the passage, see Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 132–52, as well as 388–90.
(67) Bruce, quoting H. J. Holtzmann, “Record or Reconstruction?” 2578. Cf. his Acts of the Apostles, 508.
(68) For Dibelius’ treatment, see his Studies in the Acts of the Apostles, trans. Mary Ling, ed. H. Greeven (London: SCM, 1956), 107.
(69) Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 389.
(70) Robertson, Luke the Historian, 187.
(71) Bruce, Acts of the Apostles, 33. For specifics on Luke’s demonstration of local knowledge, and issues that surround various passages, see Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 105–58.
(72) The work of A. N. Sherwin-White has in particular been influential in this regard. See his Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1963), 172–89, passim, as well as Robertson, Luke the Historian, ch. 15, 190–205 and Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, 97–128.
(73) Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law, 173.
(74) Hengel, Between Jesus and Paul, 119–20.
(75) Ibid., 120–21. On the accuracy of Paul’s trial, see Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, 390–404.
(76) See Hengel, Acts and Earliest Christianity, 66. See Hemer, Acts in Hellenistic History, ch. 6.
(77) See A. J. Mattill, Jr. “The Value of Acts as a Source for the Study of Paul,” in Perspectives on Luke-Acts, ed. C. H. Talbert (Danville, VA: Association of Baptist Professors of Religion, 1978), 76–98.
(78) Bruce, “Record or Reconstruction?” 2580.
(79) Luke, perhaps in keeping with his apologetic interests, says that Paul escaped because of a conspiracy to kill him by local Jews, whereas Paul only mentions that “the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.” There is no contradiction here, as has sometimes been supposed. Indeed, the two accounts complement one another inasmuch as Luke tells us what Paul does not: namely, why the governor wanted to arrest Paul in the first place.
(80) Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem (Gal. 1:18–20), his trip to Syria and Cilicia (Gal. 1:21), and his private meeting with the three Jerusalem leaders (Gal. 2:2–10) are the most difficult pieces of information to fit into Luke’s portrait. Still, there are a number of plausible ways of reconciling the accounts, all of which have the advantage of squaring with Luke’s otherwise demonstrable historical veracity. While the issue is frequently discussed, little of significance has been added to Machen’s thorough treatment in The Origin of Paul’s Religion (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1925), 71–105, 144–47. For more recent discussions, see Robertson, Luke the Historian, 171–74 and C. H. Talbert, “Again: Paul’s Visits to Jerusalem,” Novem Testamentum, 14 (1967): 26–40.
(81) Though H. J. Cadbury is certainly not giving Luke’s demonstrable accuracy enough due when he will not allow Luke’s reliability on depicting the “local color” of various regions to count in favor of his general reliability. See The Book of Acts in History (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1955), 120. If accuracy on such points as these doesn’t evidence “general reliability,” what does?
(82) Against C. H. Talbert, for example, who argues that, “Today the burden of proof rests on anyone who would read Acts as other than theology” [viz. as containing reliable history]. See his essay, “Luke-Acts” in The New Testament and Its Modern Interpreters, ed. E. J. Epp and G. W. MacRae (Philadelphia: Fortress; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989), 311. While the consensus of modern New Testament scholarship is in Talbert’s favor, the evidence, we have seen, is not.
(83) For a comprehensive defense of these claims, see P. Eddy and G. Boyd, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007) and G. Boyd, Cynic Sage or Son of God? Recovering the Real Jesus in an Age of Revisionist Replies (Downer’s Grove, IL: Bridgepoint, 1995).
The ReKnew Manifesto exists to encourage believers and skeptics alike to re-think things they thought they already knew – hence our name, Re-Knew. I am currently working through the theology of the Manifesto in a series of posts that began a couple of months ago. Over the last few posts, we have been looking at the…
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