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The date and authenticity of the Acts of the Apostles is crucial to the historicity of early Christianity and, thus, to apologetics in general.
- If Acts was written before a.d. 70 while the eyewitnesses were still alive, then it has great historical value in informing us of the earliest Christian beliefs.
- If Acts was written by Luke, the companion of the apostle Paul, it brings us right to the apostolic circle, those who participated in the events reported.
- If Acts was written by a.d. 62 (the traditional date), then it was written by a contemporary of Jesus, who died in 33.
- If Acts is shown to be accurate history, then it brings credibility to its reports about the most basic Christian beliefs of miracles (Acts 2:22), the death (Acts 2:23), resurrection (Acts 2:23, 29–32), and ascension of Christ (Acts 1:9–10).
- If Luke wrote Acts, then his “former treatise” (Acts 1:1), the Gospel of Luke, should be extended the same early date (within the life-time of apostles and eye-witnesses) and credibility.
The Testimony of a Roman Historian. While New Testament scholarship, long dominated by higher criticism has been skeptical of the historicity of the Gospels and Acts, this has not been true of Roman historians of the same period. Sherwin-White is a case in point (e.g., Sherwin-White).
Another historian added the weight of his scholarship to the question of the historicity of the book of Acts. Colin J. Hemer lists seventeen reasons to accept the traditional early date that would place the research and writing of Acts during the lifetime of many participants. These strongly support the historicity of Acts and, indirectly, the Gospel of Luke (cf. Luke 1:1–4; Acts 1:1):
- There is no mention in Acts of the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70, an unlikely omission, given the content, if it had already occurred.
- There is no hint of the outbreak of the Jewish War in a.d. 66, or of any drastic or specific deterioration of relations between Romans and Jews, which implies it was written before that time.
- There is no hint of the deterioration of Christian relations with Rome involved in the Neronian persecution of the late 60s.
- The author betrays no knowledge of Paul’s letters. If Acts were written later, why would Luke, who shows himself so careful of incidental detail, not attempt to inform his narrative by relevant sections of the Epistles. The Epistles evidently circulated and must have become available sources. This question is beset with uncertainties, but an early date is suggested by the silence.
- There is no hint of the death of James at the hands of the Sanhedrin in ca. 62 recorded by Josephus (Antiquities 220.127.116.11).
- The significance of Gallio’s judgment in Acts 18:14–17 may be seen as setting a precedent to legitimize Christian teaching under the umbrella of tolerance to Judaism.
- The prominence and authority of the Sadducees in Acts belongs to the pre-70 era, before the collapse of their political cooperation with Rome.
- Conversely, the relatively sympathetic attitude in Acts to Pharisees (unlike that in Luke’s Gospel) does not fit well in the period of Pharisaic revival after scholars of Jamnia met, ca. 90. As a result of that meeting, a phase of escalated conflict with Christianity was led by the Pharisees.
- Some have argued that the book antedates the coming of Peter to Rome, and also that it uses language which implies that Peter and John, as well as Paul himself, were still alive.
- The prominence of “God-fearers” in the synagogues in Acts would seem to point to the pre-Jewish War situation.
- The insignificant cultural details are difficult to place with precision, but may best represent the cultural milieu of the Julio-Claudian Roman era.
- Areas of controversy within Acts presuppose the relevance of the Jewish setting during the temple period.
- Adolf Harnack argued that the prophecy placed in Paul’s mouth at Acts 20:25 (cf. 20:38) may have been contradicted by later events. If so it presumably was penned before those events occurred.
- Primitive formulation of Christian terminology is used in Acts which fits an early period. Harnack lists christological titles, such as Insous and ho kurios, that are used freely, whereas ho Christos always designates “the Messiah,” rather than a proper name, and Christos is otherwise used only in formalized combinations.
- Rackham draws attention to the optimistic tone of Acts, which would not have been natural after Judaism was destroyed and Christians martyred in the Neronian persecutions of the late 60s. [Hemer, 376–82]
- The ending of the book of Acts. Luke does not continue Paul’s story at the end of the two years of Acts 28:30. “The mention of this defined period implies a terminal point, at least impending” (Hemer, 383). He adds, “It may be argued simply that Luke had brought the narrative up to date at the time of writing, the final note being added at the conclusion of the two years” (ibid., 387).
- The “immediacy” of Acts 27–28:
This is what we have called the “immediacy” of the latter chapters of the book, which are marked in a special degree by the apparently unreflective reproduction of insignificant details, a feature which reaches its apogee in the voyage narrative of Acts 27–28.… The vivid “immediacy” of this passage in particular may be strongly contrasted with the “indirectness” of the earlier part of Acts, where we assume that Luke relied on sources or the reminiscences of others, and could not control the context of his narrative. [ibid., 388–89]
Other Support for Historicity. The traditional argument for historical veracity based on “undesigned coincidences” is a debatable concept. However, the following may be seen as a more refined development of that approach. The book of Acts contains:
- Geographical details that are assumed to be generally known. It remains difficult to estimate the range of general knowledge that should be expected of an ancient writer or reader.
- More specialized details that are assumed to be widely known: titles of governors, army units, and major routes. This information would have been accessible to those who traveled or were involved in administration, but perhaps not to others.
- Local specifics of routes, boundaries, and titles of city magistrates that are unlikely to have been known except to a writer who had visited the districts.
- Correlation of dates of known kings and governors with the ostensible chronology of the Acts framework.
- Details appropriate to the date of Paul or Luke in the early church, but not appropriate to conditions earlier or later.
- “Undesigned coincidences” or connective details that connect Acts with the Pauline Epistles.
- Latent internal correlations within Acts.
- Independently attested details which agree with the Alexandrian against the Western texts. Since there are differences between textual families, independent corroboration can help determine when changes were imported into the textual tradition of Acts. A secondary reading may refer to conditions of a later period, and so indirectly help discriminate time periods.
- Matters of common geographic knowledge, mentioned perhaps informally or allusively, with an unstudied accuracy which bespeaks familiarity.
- Textual stylistic differences that indicate Luke’s use of different sources.
- Peculiarities in the selection of detail, such as the inclusion of details that are theologically unimportant but that may bear on historical concerns.
- Peculiarities in details from “immediacy” that suggest the author’s reference to recent experience. Such details are not so readily explained as the product of longer-term reflective editing and shaping.
- Cultural or idiomatic references that suggest a first-century atmosphere.
- Interrelated complexes combining two or more kinds of correlation. Such a range of connections makes it possible to accurately reconstruct a fragment of history from the jigsaw of interlocking bits of information.
- Instances where new discoveries and expanded knowledge shed more light on the background information. These are of use to the commentator, but do not bear significantly on historicity.
- Precise details which lie within the range of contemporary possibilities, but whose accuracy cannot be verified.
Knowledgeable Author. Some examples of the first three categories illustrate how such connections help place Luke’s writing and analyze its accuracy. Acts reflects a thorough understanding of what was generally known in a.d. 60, what might be called specialized knowledge of the world in which Paul and Luke traveled, and accurate knowledge of the locales they visited.
Common Knowledge. The emperor’s title “Augustus” is rendered formally ho Sebastos in words attributed to a Roman official (Acts 25:21, 25), whereas “Augustus,” as the name bestowed on the first emperor, is transliterated Augoustos in Luke 2:1. This distinction may be illustrated from other texts as well.
General facts of navigation and a knowledge of the empire’s corn supply are part of the narrative of the voyage of an Alexandrian ship to the Italian port of Puteoli. The state system of supply was instituted by Claudius. These are samples of a large body of trivia. Luke appears in general to be careful in his rendering of common places, and numerous small points of terminology could be illustrated from the inscriptions reproduced. Luke thinks it necessary to explain some terms to his reader but not others. Points of Judean topography or Semitic nomenclature are glossed or explained (Acts 1:12, 19), whereas basic Jewish institutions are not (1:12; 2:1; 4:1).
Specialized Knowledge. Knowledge of the topography of Jerusalem is shown in 1:12, 19, and 3:2, 11.
In 4:6 Annas is pictured as continuing to have great prestige and to bear the title high priest after his formal deposition by the Romans and the appointment of Caiaphas (cf. Luke 3:2; Antiquities 18.104.22.168–35; 22.214.171.124).
Among Roman terms, 12:4 gives detail on the organization of a military guard (cf. Vegetius, de Re Milit. 3.8); 13:7 correctly identifies Cyprus as a proconsular (senatorial) province, with the proconsul resident at Paphos.
The part played by Troas in the system of communication is acknowledged in 16:8 (cf. Section C, pp. 112f., 16:11). Amphipolis and Apollonia are known as stations (and presumably overnight stops) on the Egnatian Way from Philippi to Thessalonica, as in 17:1. Chapters 27–28 contain geographic and navigational details of the voyage to Rome.
These examples illustrate the range of places and contexts in the narrative of which Luke possesses information. The author of Acts was well traveled in the areas mentioned in the narrative or had access to special sources of information.
Specific Local Knowledge. In addition, Luke manifests an incredible array of knowledge of local places, names, conditions, customs, and circumstances that befits an eyewitness contemporary recording the time and events. Acts 13–28, covering Paul’s travels, particularly shows intimate knowledge of local circumstances. The evidence is strongly represented in the “we-passages,” when Luke was accompanying Paul, but extends beyond them. In some cases, specific local knowledge must be discounted because evidence is not available. Some scholars also find Luke’s remarks occasionally to be at odds with existing knowledge (for example, in the case of Theudas). Numerous things are confirmed by historical and archaeological research.
- A natural crossing between correctly named ports (13:4–5). Mount Casius, south of Seleucia, stands within sight of Cyprus. The name of the proconsul in 13:7 cannot be confirmed, but the family of the Sergii Pauli is attested.
- The proper river port, Perga, for a ship crossing from Cyprus (13:13).
- The proper location of Lycaonia (14:6).
- The unusual but correct declension of the name Lystra and the correct language spoken in Lystra. Correct identification of the two gods associated with the city, Zeus and Hermes (14:12).
- The proper port, Attalia, for returning travelers (14:25).
- The correct route from the Cilician Gates (16:1).
- The proper form of the name Troas (16:8).
- A conspicuous sailors’ landmark at Samothrace (16:11).
- The proper identification of Philippi as a Roman colony. The right location for the river Gangites near Philippi (16:13).
- Association of Thyatira with cloth dyeing (16:14). Correct designations of the titles for the colony magistrates (16:20, 35, 36, 38).
- The proper locations where travelers would spend successive nights on this journey (17:1).
- The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1), and the proper title of politarch for the magistrates (17:6).
- The correct explanation that sea travel is the most convenient way to reach Athens in summer with favoring east winds (17:14).
- The abundance of images in Athens (17:16), and reference to the synagogue there (17:17).
- Depiction of philosophical debate in the agora (17:17). Use in 17:18–19 of the correct Athenian slang epithet for Paul, spermologos, and the correct name of the court (areios pagos); accurate depiction of Athenian character (17:21). Correct identification of altar to “an unknown god” (17:23). Logical reaction of philosophers who denied bodily resurrection. Areopogites the correct title for a member of the court (17:34).
- Correct identification of the Corinthian synagogue (18:4). Correct designation of Gallio as proconsul (18:12). The bema (judgment seat) can still be seen in Corinth’s forum (18:16).
- The name Tyrannus, attested on a first-century inscription (19:9).
- The cult of Artemis of the Ephesians (19:24, 27). The cult is well attested, and the Ephesian theater was the city meeting-place (19:29).
- Correct title grammateus for the chief executive magistrate and the proper title of honor, Neokoros (19:35). Correct name to identify the goddess (19:37). Correct designation for those holding court (19:38). Use of plural anthupatoi in 19:38 is probably a remarkably exact reference to the fact that two men jointly exercised the functions of proconsul at this time.
- Use of precise ethnic designation beroiaios and the ethnic term Asianos (20:4).
- Implied recognition of the strategic importance assigned to Troas (20:7–13).
- Implication of the danger of the coastal trip in this area that caused Paul to travel by land (20:13). Correct sequence of places visited and correct neuter plural of the city name Patara (21:1).
- The appropriate route passing across the open sea south of Cyprus favored by persistent northwest winds (21:3). The proper distance between Ptolemais and Caesarea (21:8).
- Purification rite characteristic of pious Jewish (21:24).
- Accurate representation of the Jewish law regarding Gentile use of the temple area (21:28).
- The permanent stationing of a Roman cohort in the Fortress Antonia to suppress disturbances at festival times (21:31). The flight of steps used by guards (21:31, 35).
- The two common ways of obtaining Roman citizenship (22:28). The tribune is impressed with Paul’s Roman rather than Tarsian citizenship (22:29).
- The correct identifications of Ananias as high priest (23:2) and Felix as governor (23:34).
- Identification of a common stopping point on the road to Caesarea (23:31).
- Note of the proper jurisdiction of Cilicia (23:34).
- Explanation of the provincial penal procedure (24:1–9).
- Agreement with Josephus of the name Porcius Festus (24:27).
- Note of the right of appeal by a Roman citizen (25:11). The legal formula of de quibus cognoscere volebam (25:18). The characteristic form of reference to the emperor (25:26).
- Correct identification of the best shipping lanes at the time (27:4).
- Use of the commonly joined names of Cilicia and Pamphylia to describe the coast (27:4). Reference to the principal port at which to find a ship sailing to Italy (27:5). Note of the typically slow passage to Cnidus in the face of a northwest wind (27:7). The locations of Fair Havens and neighboring Lasea (27:8) and correct description of Fair Havens as poorly sheltered for wintering (27:12).
- Description of the tendency in these climes for a south wind to suddenly become a violent northeaster, the gregale (27:13). The nature of a square-rigged ship to have no option but be driven before a gale correctly stated (27:15).
- Precise name and place given for the island of Clauda (27:16). Appropriate sailors’ maneuvers at the time for a storm (27:16–19). The fourteenth night judged by experienced Mediterranean navigators, to be an appropriate time for this journey in a storm (27:27). The proper term for this section of the Adriatic Sea at this time (27:27). The precise term, bolisantes, for taking soundings. The position of probable approach of a ship running aground before an easterly wind (27:39).
- Correct description of the severe liability on guards who permitted a prisoner to escape (27:42).
- Accurate description of the local people and superstitions of the day (28:4–6).
- The proper title protos (tes nesou) for a man in Publius’s position of leadership on the islands.
- Correct identification of Rhegium as a refuge to await a southerly wind to carry a ship through the strait (28:13).
- Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae as stopping-places along the Appian Way (28:15).
- Common practice of custody with a Roman soldier (28:16) and conditions of imprisonment at one’s own expense (28:30–31).
Conclusion. The historicity of the book of Acts is confirmed by overwhelming evidence. Nothing like this amount of detailed confirmation exists for another book from antiquity. This is not only a direct confirmation of the earliest Christian belief in the death and resurrection of Christ, but also, indirectly, of the Gospel record, since the author of Acts (Luke) also wrote a detailed Gospel. This Gospel directly parallels the other two Synoptic Gospels. The best evidence is that this material was composed by a.d. 60, only twenty-seven years after the death of Jesus. This places the writing during the lifetime of eyewitnesses to the events recorded (cf. Luke 1:1–4). This does not allow time for an alleged mythological development by persons living generations after the events. The Roman historian Sherwin-White has noted that the writings of Herodotus enable us to determine the rate at which legends develop. He concluded that “the tests suggest that even two generations are too short a span to allow the mythical tendency to prevail over the hard historic core of the oral tradition” (Sherwin-White, 190). Julius Müller (1801–1878) challenged the scholars of his day to produce even one example in which an historical event developed many mythological elements within one generation (Müller, 29). None exist.
- W. L. Craig, The Son Rises
- J. Müller, The Theory of Myths, in Its Application to the Gospel History, Examined and Confuted
- C. J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, C. H. Gempf, ed.
- A. N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament
- Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999).
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