The Historical Reliability
of the Acts of the Apostles

© Spotlight Ministries, Vincent McCann, 2003
www.spotlightministries.org.uk



In times past, and present, the book of Acts has been subjected to some of the most severe criticism in regards to its historical value; for this reason it has rightly been called "the storm centre of modern New Testament study."1 The Tubingen School asserted that the book of Acts was merely a piece of propaganda literature written in the early second century and completely unreliable as an historical document.2 Kummel believes that Acts misses the basic criteria of other historical documents and boldly asserts that it is not a true historical work and that its author was not the first Christian historian.3 Other scholars, such as Ludemann, tend to view Acts as a combination of both historical fact and unhistorical tradition.4 But despite these assailing comments, the book of Acts still stands as an accurate and trustworthy historical document, especially in the light of contemporary scholarship and archaeological discoveries.

Any examination of the book of Acts is incomplete without some reference to Luke's original purpose for writing as recorded in Luke 1:1-4. Luke's first volume, the Gospel of Luke, is actually the real preface to Acts as well as the Gospel itself.5 The first thing that should be observed is that Luke does indeed claim to be writing an accurate historical account of the life of Christ in the preface to his Gospel, and there is general agreement amongst scholars that Luke intends this statement to extend to his second volume.6 Carson, Moo and Morris have observed how some scholars say that those who claimed to be historians in ancient times were well known for writing from their own biased agenda and therefore cannot be trusted to give an accurate historical account.7 But it should be noted that although it is true that some 'historians' did write more fiction than fact, the best ancient writers were careful to give an accurate presentation of the facts in much the same way that would be expected of modern historians.8 Luke deserves to be placed amongst these ancient historians and only differs from modern historians because he does not set out to present every historical detail but is deliberately selective, choosing to concentrate only on events relevant to the growth of the Church.9 Like the Gospel, the second volume of Luke's history is dedicated to Theophilus who is addressed as "most excellent" (1:1-3). Bruce observes how it has been suggested that because the name Theophilus means 'dear to God', it is simply being used by Luke to refer to the Christian reader in general, and not to a specific historical individual as such.10 However, Bruce continues to point out that this is unlikely for two reasons. Firstly, the use of the title "most excellent" suggests an individual (c.f. 23:26; 24:3; 26:25), and secondly, the literary style in which Luke writes his dedication bears striking resemblance to other historical documents of antiquity.11

It has often been observed that from Acts 16:10 onwards, Luke writes in the first person plural form (16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16).12 Although the most obvious explanation of these particular occurrences is that the material was written by an eyewitness to these events, various efforts have been made to explain these passages otherwise.13 Marshall observes how scholars such as Robbins have suggested that Luke used the word "we" as a mere literary device in the context of sea voyages to give the impression that the writer was experienced in travel and therefore competent as a writer.14 But as Marshall continues to note, such an interpretation seriously brings the honesty of the writer into question.15 A more plausible explanation is that the use of the first person plural sections in the second part of Acts suggests the use of participation by the writer to the events described. This is certainly how Luke's original readers would have evaluated it.16 As for some the earlier chapters of Acts, when Luke is describing the events in the life of Paul, it should be remembered that as a travelling companion to the apostle he would have had immediate access to the information recorded in 9:1-31; 11:25-30; 12:25- 28:31.17 For the rest of Luke's sources Guthrie offers the following explanation. It is known from Colossians 4:10, 14 that Luke was with Mark when Paul wrote this particular letter and could certainly obtained much useful information from him regarding the early growth of the Church. Due to the reference in Acts 12:12 of a prayer meeting in the house of Mark's mother, it is reasonable to assume that this home was a regular meeting place for local Christians and the apostles. On account of this, Mark would certainly have been well aquatinted with much, if not all of the events that preceded the council of Jerusalem.18 Therefore, as one who knew Mark and was a travelling companion with Paul, Luke was certainly in a position to write a reliable and trustworthy historical account of the growth of the early Church.

Those who regard the book of Acts as non-historical often point to the difficulties between the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:1-29 and the writing of Paul in Galatians 2:1-10.19 Although Luke's account of the council is straightforward, the main difficulty arises when it is compared with what appears to be the same event as described by Paul in Galatians.20 In Galatians Paul is speaking about his second visit to Jerusalem after his conversion, but in Acts Luke says that it was his third.21 This difficulty has long been recognised by biblical scholars and there are several explanations offered to resolve it.22 Bruce considers that the difficulties arise because the authors are actually speaking about two entirely different occasions. He arrives at this conclusion by observing how the discussion reported by Paul in Galatians differs from Acts because it centres around missionary activity; the issue of circumcision is only marginally alluded to; and no mention is made of appeasing table fellowship amongst Jews and Gentiles.23 Probably the most significant difference between the conference of Galatians 2:1-10 and council meeting in Acts 15:1-29 is that the former was held in private while the latter was held publicly, before the Jerusalem Church.24 Wainwright also agrees with Bruce in these differences and recognises a more consistent pattern with Galatians 2:1-10 in Acts 11:27-30.25

Despite the difficulties between the above texts it should be recognised that the writings of Paul and Luke are in general harmony with one another, rather than in diversity.26 In fact Luke's ability as a historian is further strengthened when the two writers are compared because he gives specific details regarding Paul. For example, Paul claims to belong to the tribe of Benjamin (Rom. 11:1; Phil. 3:5); Luke says his name was "Saul" (7:58), the name of the most distinguished member of that particular tribe. Paul says he was trained as a Pharisee (Phil. 3:5; Gal. 1:14); Luke says that he trained under Gamaliel, one of the most eminent Pharisees of the day (22:3). Paul said that he persecuted Christians (Gal. 1:13); Luke says that he had them put to death (Acts 8:1).27

Probably one of the most convincing arguments for the historicity of Acts is the way that Luke presents information that has shown itself to be accurate from the field of archaeology (some of which will be examined below).28 Details are given of titles, names, various groups of officials, descriptions of the customs and practices of widely differing places; and other historical events are referred to, the result being "a masterpiece of historical accuracy."29 The historian who presents such details has to do it carefully so that they are not shown to be inaccurate. Luke shows himself as accurate every time. 30

Titles used in Acts to describe various authorities have been proven to be correct. McDowell observes how some scholars assumed that Luke's use of the word 'politarchs' (17:6), as a title for civil authorities in Thessalonica was thought to be an inaccurate description since the word was not known to exist in classical literature.31 However, more recent discoveries have shown Luke to be perfectly accurate in his use of this word, since some nineteen inscriptions were discovered that make use of the title, five of which are used in specific reference to Thessalonica.32 The title "chief man" is also an accurate description used by Luke to describe the Roman governor (Publius) of Malta where Paul was shipwrecked (28:7). This official title has been archaeologically attested with the discovery of two Maltese inscriptions, one in Greek and the other in Latin.33

Acts specifically mentions individuals by name and is accurate in describing their positions in society as well as their surrounding circumstances. For example, the proconsul, Gallio is named in Acts 18:12-16. He governed over Achaia and was also known as the brother of Seneca, the famous Roman philosopher and tutor of Nero.34 In ancient Delphi a letter of the Emperor Claudius indicates that Gallio must have become Proconsul of Achaia in A.D. 51.35 Achaia was a Senatorial province from 27 B.C. to A.D. 15, and also from A.D. 44 onward.36 It is particularly interesting to note that Luke accurately calls Gallio by his official title, "proconsul of Achaia." By doing this, Luke departs from his usual custom of calling countries by their general titles and instead of referring to the province of Achaia by the more ordinary name of Greece he does not call Gallio the proconsul of Greece but of Achaia.37 Luke's mention of the Agabus' prophecy of a great famine extending over all the world, being fulfilled in the days of Claudius Caesar (11:27-30) has also been proven to be an historically correct reference when compared with other ancient writings. For example, the historian Suetonius spoke of frequent famines transpiring under Claudius (A.D. 41-54), Eusebius speaks of famine in Greece, and Tacitus, along with Dion Cassius, both make reference to two famines in Rome at this particular time.38 In addition to these sources, Marshall notes that Josephus describes how Helena of Adiabene contributed towards helping the hungry of Jerusalem by sending corn in A.D. 46.39

Archaeology has shown the book of Acts to be accurate in its references to commerce. For example, Acts 16:11-15 records how at Philippi, Paul and his companions converse with some of the cities local women, one of whom is specifically named as "Lydia...a purple merchant from the city of Thyatira..." The womans name is a reminder that Thyatira was situated in the ancient kingdom of Lydia; a place that was well known for the manufacturing of purple dyes extracted from the juice of the madder root.40 In addition to this, there is also inscriptural evidence to show that the trading in purple dye was prevalent in Philippi at this time.41

McDowell has noticed how Luke has often been accused, by some, of presenting inaccurate information. The statement that Lystra and Derbe were in Lycaonia and Iconium was not (Acts 14:6) was considered to be wrong by archaeologists and consequently unreliable as an historical source.42 Their reasons for coming to these conclusions were based primarily on the writings of Cicero and the elder Pliny who refer to Iconium as being in Lycaonia.43 Although Xenophon, writing in 401 B.C. does say that Iconium was "the last city of Phrygia" the earlier statements by Cicero and Pliny were given more serious consideration on account of them living much nearer to apostolic times.44 However, archaeologists were eventually led to conclude that Luke's implication in Acts was indeed correct. This change of thought occurred when Sir William Ramsay (who originally held to the Tubingen theory)45 discovered inscriptions that clearly revealed that Phrygian was spoken in Iconium right up to the end of the second century. The statements by earlier writers were simply speaking of Iconium as being in Lycaonia in a general sense on account of it being situated near the Lycaonian frontier and therefore partook in the fortunes of that region.46 Luke was therefore correct in referring to Iconium as a Phrygian city in the first century.

The book of Acts proves itself to be historically reliable from archaeology when presenting various religious activities and practices that were common to Luke's first century environment. While at Athens Paul makes reference to the people being "very religious" (Acts 17:22). Thompson notes how other ancient writers such as Sophocles, Pausanias, and Josephus also made similar observations.47 The idol that bore the inscription "to an unknown god" (v. 23) is of interest. Although this inscription has not yet been discovered in Athens,48 Pauanias, who visited the city in 150 A.D. gives a thorough account of the religious activity of the Athenasians in his book Description of Greece and mentions "alters of the gods named unknown."49 The practice of exorcism is another area for consideration. Thomson observes how Luke's description of attempted exorcism by the Jewish Seven Sons of Sceva in Acts 19:13-16 is in accordance with Jewish practices prevalent in the first century.50 Often, the practice was associated with various magical rites and practices whereby the sacred name of God would be pronounced.51

Probably one of the most significant archaeological discoveries supporting the historical reliability of Acts was unearthed by the architect, J.T. Wood. Inspired by the story of the silversmiths of the Ephesian goddess Artemis in Acts 19:23-41, Wood began a work of excavation in May 1863 which eventually led to the discovery of the Temple of Artemis. Beneath 25 feet of soil and rubble Wood's first significant discovery was a magnificent pavement, the bases of colossal pillars, and cylinders adorned with sculptures in honour of Artemis.52 From the remains of the temple itself, it has been calculated that it was about 343 feet long and 164 feet wide, and contained one hundred columns over six feet in diameter.53 During excavation, evidence was unearthed that revealed that the interior of the temple (measuring seventy feet wide) was lavishly decorated with brilliant colours, gold and silver.54 The altar, where it was thought the principal statue of Artemis stood behind, was twenty feet square.55 It was beneath this altar that one of Wood's own countrymen, David G. Hogarth, discovered a large array of statues of the goddess made from bronze, gold, ivory, and silver, thirty five years after Wood's initial discovery.56 It is quite possible that these were the very statues that were crafted by the silversmith's of Artemis as described by Luke in Acts 19: 23-41.57 Luke records how these craftsmen, influenced by Demetrius, were led to respond to the threat that Paul's preaching had on their livelihood with the words: "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" (vv. 28, 34). There are in existence several ancient inscriptions proving that these particular words were commonly used in the practice of devotion and prayer.58 The great theatre where the Ephesian people rioted was situated on the slope of Mount Pion and capable of holding about 24,500 people.59 The ruins that can be seen today represent a later reconstruction than what existed in New Testament times although the basic structure was essentially the same as what existed in Paul's day.60

From the very outset, Luke, as an eyewitness and travelling companion of the apostle Paul, presents himself as one whose desire is to give an accurate and trustworthy historical account of the events relevant to early Christianity. Despite some of the apparent theological difficulties that have been raised, such as the differences between Acts 15:1-29 and Galatians 2:1-10, scholars such as Bruce and Waiwright have demonstrated that satisfactory explanations can be given. In the field of archaeology Acts has been confirmed as historically reliable time and time again. Many of Luke's references to names of individuals, their positions in society, their titles, and surrounding historical situation have been archaeologically confirmed. In addition, details of commerce, religious activity's and practices are mentioned, all of which are faithful to the context of the first century milieu and not in contradiction to it. It was on account of such evidence that Ramsay, after thirty years of study, concluded that "Luke is a historian of the first rank" and "should be placed along with the very greatest of historians."61



ENDNOTES

1 I.H. Marshall, Luke-Historian and Theologian (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1984), 13.

2 J. Munck, The Anchor Bible, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 31 (New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1986), LV.

3 W.G. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, revised edition (London: SCM Press, 1987), 161- 162.

4 G. Ludemann, Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1989), eg. 30, 48. Throughout his entire work Ludemann, although generally recognising Acts as historical and certainly an important theological document, tends to be doubtful as to its indisputable reliability as an historical work.

5 J.R.W. Stott, The Message of Acts (Leicester: IVP, 1990), 22.

6 Ibid.

7 D.A. Carson, D.J. Moo, and L. Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Leicester: Apollos, 1992), 207.

8 Ibid. Carson , Morris and Moo cite Polybius, Lucian and Thucydides as ancient historians who were concerned to present facts as accurately as possible and who disapproved of exaggeration and sensationalism.

9 S.J. Kistemaker, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990), 4.

10 F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts, revised edition (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 29.

11 Ibid., 29-30. Bruce notes striking similarities between the opening words of Luke's second volume and the works of Josephus. "Epaphroditus" is named as the individual to whom Josephus dedicates his Autobiography, Jewish Antiquities, and his two volume work Against Apion. At the beginning of Against Apion volume 1, Epaphroditus is called "most excellent of men" (Ap. 1:1); and the second volume of the same work is introduced with the words: "By means of the former volume, my most honoured Epaphroditus, I have demonstrated our iniquity." (Ap. 2:1).

12 I.H. Marshall, Acts (Leicester: IVP, 1983), 38.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 38-89.

15 Ibid., 39.

16 Ibid.

17 D. Guthrie, New Testament Introduction , revised edition (Leicester: England, 1990), 389.

18 Ibid.

19 E. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971), 462-468. Haenchen clearly favours Paul's letter "as the only real record we possess," over Luke's version in Acts which he claims "does not possess historical value."

20 Bruce, 282.

21 F.V. Filson, A New Testament History (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1975), 218.

22 Ibid. A thorough treatment of these texts is beyond the scope of this essay. Several possible interpretations are offered by Filson. 218- 230.

23 Bruce, 283.

24 Ibid.

25 A.W. Wainwright, A Guide to the New Testament (England: Epworth Press, 1965), 175.

26 M.A. Powell, What Are They Saying About Acts? (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 89.

27 Ibid.

28 F.F. Bruce, New Bible Commentary, 3rd. ed. (Leicester: IVP1989), 970.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 J. McDowell, Christianity: A Ready Defence (San Bernardino: Here's Life Publishers Inc., 1991), 111.

32 Ibid.

33 Bruce, Acts, 499.

34 W. Keller, The Bible As History (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), 368.

35 M.F. Unger, Archaeology and the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), 245.

36 F.F. Bruce, Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? (London: IVP, 1943), 82.

37 Bruce, Reliable, 82.

38 J.A. Thomson, The Bible and Archaeology (Grand Rapids: The Paternoster Press, 1962), 379.

39 Marshall, 204.

40 Bruce, Acts, 311.

41 Ibid.

42 McDowell, 109.

43 Ibid.

44 Bruce, Acts, 272.

45 McDowell, 108.

46 Bruce, Acts, 272.

47 Thompson, 389.

48 Despite no archaeological discovery of this inscription in Athens similar ancient inscriptions have been found elsewhere. In 1909 an inscription was discovered at Pergamum bearing the words "to gods unknown." Another on a Roman altar, dating from the late first century B.C. and reads: "Sacred to a god or goddess." Unger, 238.

49 Unger, 238.

50 Thomson, 396.

51 Ibid., 397. Thomson observes how Ephesus, in particular, was well known in the ancient world for its association with magic. This is also confirmed by the use of the word "deeds" in verse 18 which is used in a technical sense and appears to allude such practices.

52 W. Keller, The Bible As History (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956), 366.

53 Thompson, 400.

54 Ibid.

55 Ibid.

56 Keller, 366.

57 Ibid.

58 Thompson, 400.

59 Unger, 254-255.

60 Ibid.

61 W. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 1915, 81, 222. Cited by Bruce, Commentary, 970-971.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Bruce, F.F. Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? London: IVP, 1943.

Bruce, F.F. New Bible Commentary, 3rd. ed. Leicester: IVP1989.

Bruce, F.F. The Book of the Acts, revised edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989.

Carson, D.A., Moo, D.J. and Morris, L. An Introduction to the New Testament. Leicester: Apollos, 1992.

Filson, F.V. A New Testament History. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1975.

Guthrie, D. New Testament Introduction, revised edition. Leicester: England, 1990.

Haenchen, E. The Acts of the Apostles. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971.

Keller, W. The Bible As History. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1956.

Kistemaker, S.J. Acts. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1990.

Kummel, W.G. Introduction to the New Testament, revised edition. London: SCM Press, 1987.

Ludemann, G. Early Christianity According to the Traditions in Acts. London: SCM Press Ltd., 1989.

Marshall, I.H. Acts. Leicester: IVP, 1983.

Marshall, I.H. Luke-Historian and Theologian. Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1984.

McDowell, J. Christianity: A Ready Defence. San Bernardino: Here's Life Publishers Inc., 1991.

Munck, J. The Anchor Bible, The Acts of the Apostles, vol. 31. New York: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1986.

Powell, M.A. What Are They Saying About Acts? New York: Paulist Press, 1991.

Stott, J.R.W. The Message of Acts. Leicester: IVP, 1990.

Thomson, J.A. The Bible and Archaeology. Grand Rapids: The Paternoster Press, 1962.

Unger, M.F. Archaeology and the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982.

Wainwright, A.W. A Guide to the New Testament. England: Epworth Press, 1965.


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