Thursday, April 9, 2009

Is the Book of Acts historically reliable?

The Historical Reliability of Acts
Dennis Ingolfsland

The historical story of Paul’s ministry in the Book of Acts has been vigorously challenged by the critics. Over a century ago, for example, an archaeologist named William Ramsey wanted to prove that the Book of Acts was all fiction. He went to the Middle East and began following the journeys of Paul as described in the Book of Acts. He became so impressed with the book’s historical accuracy, he ended up getting saved!

Still, radical critics charge Luke, the writer of Acts with historical inaccuracy. They have to do this, of course, because in order to spread their own revisionist versions of how Christianity spread, they have to discredit the earliest actual historical account of the spread of Christianity which is the Book of Acts.

So let’s put Luke on trial. In the essay below, the Prosecution is charging Luke with wide-scale historical inaccuracy. The Defense is defending Luke’s reliability.

The following is not really intended to approximate an actual trial of course. It is merely a pedagogical effort to take a complex topic that many would consider boring, and attempt to make it a bit more understandable and a little less boring to the average reader.

Prosecution opening statement
The Prosecution will show that the writer of Acts has made such egregious historical errors that he cannot be trusted as a reliable historian.

Defense opening statement
The Defense will show that the Prosecution simply does not have a case and that Luke’s reliability can be demonstrated over and over again.

Prosecution witnesses
The Book of Acts tells of a rebel named Judas the Galilean who lived in the time of “the census.” Luke places this census in the time of Herod the Great at roughly 4-6 BC and says that before this time there was another rebel named Theudas (Acts 5:36-37). In other words, according to Luke, Theudas lived before Jesus as born.

The problem is that according to the testimony of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus[1] the rebel Theudas led a revolt during the time of the Roman governor, Fadus, who ruled from AD 44-46. In other words, Luke places Theudas 40 or 50 years earlier than Josephus does, proving that Luke was historically inaccurate.

Defense witnesses’ response
The evidence simply does not prove that Luke was inaccurate. Perhaps Josephus was the one who made the error. After all, there is good reason to believe that Luke was writing as much as 20 years closer to the events than Josephus. Or perhaps there was more than one Theudas. Josephus refers to several rebels named “Simon” for example, so it is entirely possible that there was a second Theudas as well. In fact, there are at least 9 people that we know of in ancient historical/archaeological sources who were named “Theudas.”[2] It is entirely possible that the Theudas in Acts was either a descendant of the first Theudas or was named in honor of the first Theudas. The bottom line is that the prosecution has not proven that Luke was in error. They have simply assumed that Luke was in error.[3]

Prosecution witnesses
According to Acts 21:38 a Roman commander asked Paul if he was “the Egyptian” who led 4,000 men in revolt. Contrary to Luke, Josephus says this Egyptian rebel led 30,000 men in revolt. Luke is obviously in error.

Defense witnesses’ response
First, it is obvious that Luke is not just making this story up since Josephus confirms that there was, in fact, an Egyptian rebel who led a significant revolt some time before Paul was arrested.
Second, Luke was simply recording what the Roman commander said about this Egyptian rebel.

If the Roman commander was wrong about the numbers, Luke cannot be charged with error for accurately reporting what the commander said.

Third, Scholars who study Josephus know that he has a tendency to exaggerate his numbers. In fact, if this Egyptian really had 30,000 troops as Josephus suggests, he would have been a significant threat to Roman power in the area. Most scholars would agree, however, that Luke’s figure is much more likely. The discrepancy between Luke and Josephus certainly does not prove that Luke was wrong. In fact, it tends to show that Luke was more accurate than Josephus.[4]

Prosecution witnesses
According to Luke, Paul was once sent out by the Sanhdrin, the Jewish governing body headed by the High Priest, to arrest Christians. In Acts 23:5-6, however, Luke says that when Paul was later on trial before the Sanhedrin, Paul didn’t even recognize the High Priest! If Paul was really sent out by the High Priest to arrest Christians, how could Paul not recognize the High Priest? Luke is obviously in error.

Defense witness response
They didn’t have television, newspapers, the internet or photographers in Paul’s day and Paul had not been in Jerusalem for about five years before his trial. Even when Paul was in Jerusalem about five years earlier, he was not on good terms with the religious leadership and there is no evidence that he saw the High Priest at that time. For example, just because someone travels to Washington does not mean they saw the President!

In fact, it had been about twenty-five years since Paul had been among the high echelons of Jewish leadership in Jerusalem and there had been several High Priests since that time. All of this, combined with the fact that many scholars think Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” was bad eyesight, makes it perfectly understandable why Paul may not have recognized the High Priest.[5]

Prosecution witnesses
In Acts 27:27 Luke says Paul was traveling to Rome on a ship with 276 people on board. This is an obvious historical error since ships at that time were too small to carry that many people.

Defense witness response
The idea that ancient ships were too small to carry 276 people is refuted by the fact that Josephus claims that he was on a ship with 600 people on board! As we have seen, however, Josephus is prone to exaggeration. But even if there were really only half as many people on Josephus’ ship, it would still have had more passengers than the one Paul was on! There is no reason to suspect Paul of error.[6]

Prosecution witnessesIn Acts 28:3, Luke says Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake on the island of Malta. This is an obvious fabrication since there are no poisonous snakes on Malta.

Defense witnesses’ response
It has been almost 2,000 years since the time of Paul. The Prosecution is apparently assuming that it is impossible for a species on a relatively small island to become extinct or exterminated during that time. Such an assumption is preposterous and shows the desperation of the Prosecution in their attempt to discredit Luke’s reliable testimony.

Prosecution witnesses
Probably the biggest historical problem of all is not in the Book of Acts, but in Luke’s Gospel (the same author wrote Acts and the Gospel of Luke). The Gospel of Luke, 2:1-2 says, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

Luke places this registration or census around the time of Herod’s death in 4-6 BC. While there was a Roman census in AD 6, history knows of no Roman census in 4-6 BC. Luke is obviously in error.

Defense witnesses’ response[7]

Although Luke was writing about a census which took place around the time of the birth of Jesus in 4-6 BC, there is reason to believe that Luke also knew of this later census in AD 6. When Luke describes the census at the time of Jesus’ birth, he says it was the “first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Luke apparently knows of more than one census administrated by Quirinius and it appears that Luke is deliberately distinguishing this “first” census in 4-6 BC from a later census in AD 6.

Historians know of three other Roman censuses in this period. Just because Luke is the only one who records a registration or census in 4-6 BC is no reason to doubt Luke. We don’t automatically charge other ancient historians with historical inaccuracy when they are the only source for an event. All the libraries in the world wouldn’t hold descriptions of all the events that have been lost to history! The Prosecution’s argument is an argument from silence and simply does not prove that Luke was in error.

Prosecution witnesses
In Luke 2:1-2, Luke says that Quirinius was the governor of Syria when this census took place. We know that Quirinius was the governor of Syria when the census of AD 6 took place, but he was not the governor of Syria at the time of the supposed census around the time of Jesus’ birth in 4-6 BC. Luke is seriously in error.

Defense witnesses’ response[8]

Quirinius was appointed governor of Syria from AD 6-9. It is true that we have no record of Quirinius being governor of Syria in 4-6 BC. But lack of historical record simply does not prove Luke was in error. As mentioned earlier, all the libraries in the world wouldn’t hold descriptions of all the events that have been lost to history!

About all we know of Quirinius’ activity before AD 6-9 is that he was a Roman consul and was victorious in battles in South Galatia, so it is entirely possible that he had been governor of Syria twice (Like, for example, Demetrius II who was king of Syria twice; in 145-140 BC and again in 129-126 B.C.). Or perhaps Quirinius had been temporarily reassigned from his position to fight in South Galatia and then restored when the battles were over. We simply don’t know, but lack of evidence is no reason to charge Luke with historical error.

Imagine, for example that two thousand years from now all of the surviving sources for General David Petraeus--except one--say that General Petraeus was the commanding general in Iraq in 2007, and was then promoted in 2008 to the commanding general of U.S. Central Command (USCENTCOM) which oversees U.S. military in 20 countries. Imagine that only one surviving source says that General Petraeus was the commanding general in Afghanistan in 2010 and that source doesn't mention USCENTCOM or Afghanistan.

Two thousand years from now skeptics, like our modern biblical critics, would no doubt say the one source is wrong. We know, they would argue, that General Petraeus was commander in Iraq in 2007 and commander at USCENTCOM in 2008. It is just inconceivable, they would say, that General Petraeus would be "demoted" (rather than retiring, resigning, or being fired) from commanding 20 countries back to commanding the war in just one country.

As we know, however, the critics would be wrong! As unlikely as it may seem to future critics, that is exactly what happened. The point is that just because Luke is the only source that says Quirinius was governor of Syria in 4BC does not make Luke wrong.

Second, Luke’s phrase “first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria” could be translated “registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Luke may simply be saying that the census he is referring to occurred some time before Quirinius became governor of Syria in AD 6-9. In other words, Luke may be distinguishing the census that occurred around the time of Jesus’ birth in 4-6 BC, before Quirinius was governor of Syria, from the one Quirinius administered in AD 6 while he was governor of Syria.[9]

Whatever the case, lack of evidence is not proof of historical error and the defendant, Luke, should be assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The Prosecution has offered no such proof of guilt.Prosecution witnesses

Even if there was a Roman census in 4-6 BC, it would not require Joseph to travel to Bethlehem. Luke is obviously making this up.

Defense witnesses’ response
“The problem of Joseph returning to Bethlehem may be explainable on the principle that sometimes the Romans allowed a census to be taken on the basis of local customs, which in a Jewish culture would require ancestral registration.”[10]

Prosecution witnesses
Even if Joseph did make such a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census, it is highly unlikely that he would have taken his very pregnant wife on such a long trip. Again, Luke is simply making this story up.

Defense witnesses’ response
The argument that Joseph wouldn’t have taken his pregnant wife along is weak. In a first century Jewish culture, immorality was a very serious offense and there were still people who thought Mary and Joseph had been immoral. So maybe Joseph feared for her safety if he left her alone in Nazareth. Maybe Joseph just didn’t want to miss the birth. Maybe he planned to relocate to Bethlehem or nearby Jerusalem for a few years. Maybe, in a world without modern medicine, they were not as concerned about a pregnant woman traveling as modern people might be. Whatever the case, the fact is that we simply cannot pontificate with any certainty on what a first century Jewish husband and wife would or would not have done in such a case, and it is entirely out of line to accuse Luke of historical error on this point.

Prosecution witnesses
Roughly 22% of the content of Acts consists of speeches. In the ancient world, speeches were simply made up and placed on the lips, so to speak, of the speaker. We know this because the 5th century B.C. historian, Thucydides wrote of his own history books saying, “I have put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasions…” Over 1/5th of the Book of Acts is, therefore, pure fabrication.

Defense witnesses’ response
The prosecution is correct that Thucydides said, “I have put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion…” but they leave out the rest of the sentence. The entire quote is,

I have put into the mouth of each speaker the sentiments proper to the occasion expressed as I thought he would be likely to express them, while at the same time I endeavored, as nearly as I could, to get the general purport of what was actually said (emphasis mine).

In other words, Thucydides did not just create speeches out of thin air; he tried to accurately provide a summary in his own words of what was actually said. The practice of freely inventing speeches was not accepted in the ancient world. In fact, it was strongly condemned by Polybius as early as the 2nd century BC.

The prosecution’s argument also ignores strong evidence showing that ancient people actually had a system of shorthand, that Jewish students sometimes took notes of their Rabbi’s lessons or speeches and then committed them to memory. Luke’s speeches are undoubtedly summaries of what were originally much longer speeches, but to assume that the speeches were, therefore, entirely fabricated is just an unwarranted assumption. It is not evidence of historical error by Luke.

All of these egregious historical errors show that Luke was not a very reliable historian. The prosecution rests its case.

The case for the Defense
When someone gives testimony to detectives, the detectives will often seek to verify that testimony from other sources to check on the reliability of the witness. We can do the same thing by checking on the testimony of Luke, the writer of Acts.[11]

In Acts 4:6 Luke refers to Annas the high priest and Caiaphas. Josephus confirms that Annas had indeed been the high priest and continued to be highly revered even after the Romans replaced him with his son-in-law, Caiaphas. Not only are the existence of Annas and Caiaphas verified, but Luke’s testimony about them is entirely consistent with what we know of them.[12]

In Acts 11:28 Luke refers to a famine during the time of the Roman emperor Claudius who reigned from AD 41-54. The Roman historian Suetonius verifies the fact of these famines during the time of Claudius and attributes them to persistent droughts.[13] Luke’s report of the famine checks out as accurate.

In Acts 12:20-24 Luke says that Herod Agrippa I died after allowing himself to be worshipped as a god. Both the existence and manner of death of Herod Agrippa I are confirmed by Josephus[14] who gives an even more detailed account.[15]

In Acts 13:7 Luke says that Paul met with the Proconsul Sergius Paulus on Cyprus. Ancient sources confirm that Cyprus was indeed a proconsular province at that time, and that Paphos was where the proconsul lived. In fact, the family name of Sergius Paulus has even been attested in ancient Cyprian sources. Luke’s testimony turns out to be accurate.[16]

In Acts 14:12, Luke says that the people of Lystra wanted to worship Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes. The grouping of these two gods in this region has been verified in ancient inscriptions.[17] In fact, the ancient poet Ovid tells a story about how the people in this region were punished for not recognizing the gods who once came to them. When the people of Lystra saw Paul doing miracles, they assumed that the gods had come back. The story told by Luke in Acts 14 fits perfectly with the religious background of the people in area of Lystra. Luke even gets small details right.

In Acts 16:1 Luke indicates that Paul traveled to Derbe and Lystra. Coming from his home church in Antioch through the Cilician Gates, Derbe and then Lystra is the order in which Paul would have arrived at these cities.[18] Acts 16:2 says that Timothy was known in Lystra and Iconium. That Timothy was known in Lystra and Iconium but apparently not in Derbe is understandable since Lystra and Iconium were geographically close together whereas Derbe was farther apart.[19] It is especially on tiny, irrelevant details like these that some writer of fiction would be likely to mess up the details. Luke gets it right.

In Acts 16:11-12 Luke says that Paul sailed from Troas, to Samothrace, to Neapolis, to Philippi. Luke’s geography here is accurate. Samothrace was a 5,000 foot mountain rising out of the sea, and was, therefore, a perfect natural landmark for sailors traveling between Troas and Neapolis. From Neapolis it was just a short trip inward toward Philippi which Luke accurately calls a Roman colony. Luke is accurate on all counts.

According to Acts 16:13, after Paul got to Philippi he went outside the gate and met with some worshipers by the river on the Sabbath day. Sure enough, there is a small river just outside of Philippi. At this river, Paul met a woman named Lydia who was from Thyatira and a seller of purple goods. At least seven ancient inscriptions confirm that Thyatira was a center of dying, including purple dye.[20]

In Acts 17:1, Luke says that Paul traveled through Amphipolis and Apollonia on his way from Philippi to Thessalonica. This is also geographically accurate. These towns were all on the ancient Roman road called the Egnatian Way, and Amphipolis and Apollonia would have been perfectly located places to rest for the evening.[21] These are just the kinds of irrelevant details a fictional writer could have easily gotten wrong. Luke gets them right.

According to Acts 17:6, the Greek word for the city authorities in Thessalonica is “politarchs.” This has been confirmed as historically accurate title for authorities in that city. According to Acts 17:16, when Paul got to Athens he found that the city was full of idols. This fact has also been confirmed both by ancient literature and archaeology. Even the fact that there were idols to “unknown gods” has been confirmed.[22] Once again, Luke is right on all counts.

In Acts 17:17-18 Luke’s assertion that Paul reasoned in the marketplace with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers is entirely consistent with what we know of ancient Athens where philosophic debate was characteristic of Athenian life.[23] According to Acts 17:18 the word used for Paul by his opponents in Athens was “spermologos” (Literally “seedpicker;” figuratively used for a gossiper or babbler). Ancient inscriptions show that this was “characteristically Athenian slang”.[24] When Paul addressed the Athenians, Luke records him as quoting one of their poets. The quotation has been verified as genuine and is attributed to Epimenides.[25]

In Acts 18:2 Luke tells of how Aquilla and Pricilla came to Corinth and began working with Paul because an edict of Emperor Claudius expelled Jews from Rome. The Roman historian Suetonius confirms the historicity of this edict and the time period fits the time when Paul was ministering in Corinth.[26] Acts 18:12 says that Paul was brought before the “bema” or judgment seat of Gallio who was the Roman proconsul in Corinth. Ancient sources confirm that Gallio was in fact the proconsul in Corinth at the same time Paul was there.[27] The site of this judgment seat can still be seen in the ruins of Corinth today.

In Acts 19:9 Luke indicates that Paul taught daily in the Hall of Tyrannus. As it turns out archaeologists have discovered that the name Tyrannus is attested in first century AD inscriptions from Ephesus.[28] Acts 19:29 refers to a theater in Ephesus. This large amphitheater can still be seen in the ruins of Ephesus to this day.[29] Acts 19 also refers to the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus. Ancient inscriptions with the name “great goddess Artemis” have been discovered[30] and the ruins of this Temple can still be seen in Ephesus today. Again, Luke is accurate on all counts.

In Acts 21, Luke says that Paul was nearly killed when he was falsely accused of bringing Gentiles into the inner courts of the Temple. According to Josephus, it was a capital offense for Gentiles to enter the inner courts of the Temple. In fact, Archaeologists have even discovered signs warning Gentiles that if they entered the sacred inner courts of the Temple they would only have themselves to blame for the ensuing death.[31]

In Acts 21:38 Luke refers to an Egyptian who had recently stirred up a revolt. The existence of this Egyptian rebel is verified by Josephus.[32]

In Acts 23:2, Luke says Paul was brought to trial before the Jewish high priest, Ananias. Ananias was in fact the high priest at the time of Paul’s trial in Jerusalem.[33] In Acts 23, Luke also tells of how the Roman soldiers took Paul, who was under arrest, from Jerusalem to Antipatris to Caesarea. This is geographically accurate. Antipatris was the natural stopping-point on the way from Jerusalem to Caesarea.....”[34]

According to Acts, once in Caesarea, Paul had to stand trial before the Roman governor, Felix. The fact that Felix was the Roman governor ruling from Caesarea is confirmed by Josephus.[35] In Acts 24:24, Luke says Felix was married to a Jewish woman named Drusilla. This is also verified by Josephus.[36] In Acts 24:27 Luke says that after two years Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus. We know that Felix was in fact succeeded by Porcius Festus.[37]

In Acts 25:13 Luke indicates that King Agrippa II and Bernice came to Caesarea to meet with Felix. We know from ancient sources that Bernice was the sister-consort of Agrippa, and sister to Felix’s wife Drusilla.[38]

In Acts 27:6-7, Luke says that the ship Paul was on during his voyage to Rome came to Myra in Lycia. Luke says it was there that they got on a ship from Alexandria sailing to Italy. The fact is that Myra was a primary port for ships filled with corn traveling from Alexandria to Italy.[39] In Acts 27:8, during Paul’s voyage to Rome, Luke says they came to Fair Havens, near Lasea. Hemer comments that, “The locations of 'Fair Havens' and the neighboring site of Lasea are well attested, though obscure places unlikely to be known to any who had not made such a voyage”.[40] Back in Paul’s day they did not have Mapquest or Google Earth and they couldn’t just drive down to the local public library or convenience store to pick up a map. Only someone who had actually made these journeys was likely to get all the geographical details right. Luke gets them right.

In addition to all this there are many cases in which Luke’s historical accuracy can be verified from first hand accounts in Paul’s letters.[41]

Prosecution closing arguments
The Prosecution has provided numerous examples of factual historical errors in Luke’s testimony. The Defense has succeeded in showing only that Luke is accurate on many occasions. Someone may be accurate on many occasions, however, but when we catch them in a lie, or in this case, historical error, the rest of their testimony becomes suspect as well. This is especially true in the case of Luke who reports many miracles which the modern mind simply cannot accept, and which further demonstrate that Luke’s accuracy simply cannot be trusted.

Defense closing arguments
We now come down to the very crux of the whole issue: Miracles. Make no mistake about it. If Luke’s writings contained no miracles, the prosecution would not even bother to attack his testimony. This is because there are no ancient historians (or modern ones either) who are 100% accurate 100% of the time. Yet the prosecution would not throw out the testimony of ancient historians like Herodotus, Thucydides, Livy, Tacitus, or Josephus simply because they made some historical errors. These historians are regarded as generally accurate and reliable even though they make occasional errors.

Similarly, in the modern world, while accusations of bias and inaccuracy against CBS news, for example, may cause us to view their news more critically, we do not doubt everything they report just because they mess up some time. Most of what they report can be factually verified. Just because Luke has been accused of a few minor inaccuracies is no reason to doubt his overall reliability as a historian, especially in light of all the times he can be demonstrated to be reliable.
On the other hand, however, the prosecution’s attempt to prove Luke was unreliable failed completely! They were unable to prove a single error. At best, what the prosecution showed was that in a few cases we don’t have enough information to make a judgment either way, but in no case did their arguments prove Luke was in error.

The evidence presented by the Defense, however, just scratches the surface of historical evidence for the reliability of Acts covered by Colin Hemer in his 482 page book, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. If Luke were simply some novelist making up a good story there were dozens, if not hundreds of places in which tiny mistakes could have easily crept in, and yet Luke’s accuracy even in little details is remarkable, especially since Luke lived in a day when they did not have the internet for research and the few libraries they had were nothing like the modern research libraries of today. There are hundreds of reasons to accept the historical reliability of Luke, and no good reasons to doubt him. The Defense rests its case.

[1] Josephus, Antiquities
[2] Bauckham, Richard. Jesus and the Eyewitnesses. Grand Rapids : Eerdmans, 2006, 86.
[3] Hemer, 162.
[4] Hemer, 97-98, 126-127.
[5] Hemer, 192.
[6] Hemer, 149
[7] For most of this discussion I am indebted to Darrell Bock’s excellent analysis in his commentary on Luke. Bock, Darrell. Luke 1:1-9:50. Grand Rapids : Baker, 1994, 903-909.
[8] For most of this discussion I am indebted to Darrell Bock’s excellent analysis in his commentary on Luke. Bock, Darrell. Luke 1:1-9:50. Grand Rapids : Baker, 1994, 903-909.
[9] See Bock, Darrell. Luke 1:1-9:50. Grand Rapids : Baker, 1994, 203.
[10] Bock, Darrell. Luke 1:1-9:50. Grand Rapids : Baker, 1994, 905.
[11] The evidence below comes from The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History by Colin J. Hemer. Winona Lake, IN : Eisenbrauns, 1990. Colin Hemer was an expert in Greco-Roman history and, at the time of his death in 1987, was a research fellow at Cambridge University in England, one of the most prestigious universities in the world. The information was compiled by Matt Pierce, one of my students in April 1998.
[12] Hemer, 108.
[13] Hemer, 164.
[14] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews. 19.8.2.
[15] Hemer, 166.
[16] Hemer, 108-109, 227.
[17] Hemer, 111, 230.
[18] Hemer, 111.
[19] Hemer, 111-112.
[20] Hemer, 113-114.
[21] Hemer, 108, 115.
[22] Hemer, 116.
[23] Hemer, 116.
[24] Hemer, 117.
[25] Hemer, 118.
[26] Hemer, 119, 167-168.
[27] Hemer, 168-169.
[28] Hemer, 120, 234.
[29] Hemer, 121.
[30] Hemer, 121-122.
[31] Hemer, 126
[32] Hemer, 170.
[33] Hemer, 128.
[34] Hemer, 128.
[35] Hemer, 128.
[36] Hemer, 130, 172-173.
[37] Hemer, 130.
[38] Hemer, 131,173, 238.
[39] Hemer, 134.
[40] Hemer, 136.
[41] Hemer, 190-193.