Is the Book of Acts Historically Reliable? Many Scholars Don’t Think So.

6 Reasons You Should Preach through Acts : 9Marks

My review of Lord or Legend, part 4, by Gregory Boyd and Paul Eddy:

There are at least seven major problems with the contention that the Gospels can be understood as historicized fiction.

…(Reason 5) To accept the version of early church history offered by legendary-Jesus theorists, we must also accept that the version of church history given in the Book of Acts is largely false. While it would take us too far astray to discuss this matter in this work, there are many reasons to conclude that the Book of Acts is a remarkably reliable piece of ancient historiography.

—p. 44

Gary: Why don’t these conservative Christian authors tell their conservative Christian readers that the historical reliability of the Book of Acts is highly disputed? They could do that, and then go on to explain why they believe the book is historically reliable. This is what really annoyed me when I first began investigating the reliability of the Bible. My conservative Christian pastors never gave me an honest view of Bible scholarship. They blamed any scholarly divergence from conservative Christian positions on “liberals”. They never mentioned the fact that most scholars belonging to the largest conservative Christian church on the planet, the Roman Catholic Church, agree with “the liberals” on many issues related to the authorship and dating of the Gospels and the Book of Acts!

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (not exactly a liberal, anti-supernatural, anti-miracle organization) regarding the author of the Book of Acts, on their website:

“Luke’s” consistent substitution of Greek names for the Aramaic or Hebrew names occurring in his sources (e.g., Lk 23:33Mk 15:22Lk 18:41Mk 10:51), his omission from the gospel of specifically Jewish Christian concerns found in his sources (e.g., Mk 7:123), his interest in Gentile Christians (Lk 2:30323:6384:163013:283014:152417:111924:4748), and his incomplete knowledge of Palestinian geography, customs, and practices are among the characteristics of this gospel that suggest that Luke was a non-Palestinian writing to a non-Palestinian audience that was largely made up of Gentile Christians.

Gary: Doesn’t sound to me like the good bishops think the author of Acts was a reliable historian!

NT scholar Bart Ehrman wrote a fascinating series of posts on this topic. Here is an excerpt: (To read the full post, click here)

What about the book of Acts, “Luke’s” account of the history of the early Church, which features Paul as one of its chief protagonists? For a historically reliable account of what Paul said and did, can we rely on Luke’s narrative?

Different scholars will answer this question differently, some trusting the book of Acts with no qualms, others taking its accounts with a grain of salt, and yet others discounting its narrative altogether — that is, discounting its *historical* credibility for establishing what Paul said and did, not necessarily discounting its importance as a piece of literature. My own position is that Acts can tell us a great deal about how Luke *understood* Paul, but less about what Paul himself actually said and did. 

…Paul is quite emphatic in the epistle to the Galatians that after he had his vision of Jesus and came to believe in him he did *not* go to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles (1:15-18).  This is an important issue for him, because he wants to prove to the Galatians that his gospel message did not come from Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem (the original disciples and the church around them) but from Jesus himself.  His point is that he has not corrupted a message that he received from someone else; his gospel came straight from God, with no human intervention.  The book of Acts, of course, provides its own narrative of Paul’s conversion.  In this account, strikingly enough, Paul does exactly what he claims *not* to have done in Galatians: after leaving Damascus some days after his conversion, he goes directly to Jerusalem and meets with the apostles (Acts 9:10-30).

It is possible, of course, that Paul himself has altered the real course of events in order to show that he *couldn’t* have received his gospel message from other apostles because he never consulted with them.  If he did stretch the truth on this matter, though, his statement of Gal 1:20 takes on a new poignancy — “In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie” — for in fact his lie in this case would have been bald-faced.  It is probably better, then, to see the discrepancy as deriving from Luke, whose own agenda affected the way he told the tale.  For him, as we have seen, it was important to show that Paul stood in close continuity with the views of the original followers of Jesus, because *all* the apostles were unified in their perspectives.  Thus he portrays Paul as consulting with the Jerusalem apostles and representing the same faith that they proclaimed.

And so the big question: would a companion of Paul really not know the sequence of events that Paul considered to be of such vital importance?

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End of post.

5 thoughts on “Is the Book of Acts Historically Reliable? Many Scholars Don’t Think So.

  1. I have, in the past, found several places in Acts that would seem to indicate that whomever the author was, he wasn’t really a close companion of Paul.

    For example, in the story of the stoning of Stephan, Luke writes that the “false witnesses” that were brought against Stephen “laid their cloaks” at the feet of Saul, then went to join in the stoning. Luke seems to want to imply strongly that the false witnesses knew Saul, and therefore, they left their cloaks with him to watch over.

    To me, that story sounds like something that somebody saw, as a spectator. It smacks of “speculation” (ie, “it looks like Saul must have known those guys”). But, if Luke really knew Paul, he’d know that Paul knew those false witnesses (if Paul did, in fact, know them), and wouldn’t just “imply” or “hint at the possibility” that maybe Paul knew them. I figure he’d just come out and say “Saul knew the false witnesses, and approved of what they did”. But with Luke just “implying” that Saul might have known those witnesses, it seems he’s not really sure whether Saul did or didn’t. I would just think a close companion of Paul would know – from Paul – what really happened. I mean, if Luke was really writing from his personal experience with Paul, then why would he need to rely on someone else’s “observation” of what happened at the stoning of Stephen?

    There are some other things in Acts that make me think Luke really didn’t know Paul, or, if he did, he only knew Paul for a short while, and maybe not terribly closely.

    Like

    1. @ polyscarps etc

      Still waiting to see if you have the integrity to offer an hinest reply.

      So, back to the question: why would anyone put their faith (trust) in such a collection of highly suspect, often erroneous documents, thus, ostensibly giving the bible a ‘Free Pass’?

      In fact, why do you ?
      Surely you are not afraid to tell us the reason?

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Gary: Doesn’t sound to me like the good bishops think the author of Acts was a reliable historian!”

    A catholic university professor once told me that the church existed before the bible, so Catholics are not afraid to criticize the bible, as the church and its traditions, councils, leaders, etc are a guide for Catholic Christians. Protestants, on the other hand, have nothing to fall back on if they lose confidence in the Bible, so they will sometimes use tortured logic and reach questionable conclusions in order to keep the Bible either error free or at least reliable enough that they can keep their doctrines. ( I’m paraphrasing as the conversation took place 25 years ago and my memory is not as good as that of the writer of Acts -hehe).

    Liked by 1 person

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