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Evaluating My Debate on the Book of Acts

I have now completed my posts on the debate I had with myself in front of my New Testament class on the question of whether the New Testament book of Acts is historically reliable.   If you want to see the whole debate, just read the posts in sequence: the affirmative speech arguing Acts is indeed reliable; the negative speech arguing that it is not; the negative rebuttal of what the affirmative side said; and finally the affirmative rebuttal of what the negative side said.   In class I delivered the speeches one after the other.   When “affirmative” I was wearing a sport coat, but no cap; when “negative” I was wearing a baseball cap but no sport coat – just so students would realize that it was a “different” speaker speaking.

I have pointed out on the blog before that even though I do a lot of public debates, I often find them more than a little frustrating and frequently (in fact, almost always) ask myself, in the course of the debate, why I’m doing this to myself.   People basically hear what they want to hear, and most of the time people simply want to hear someone arguing for the position that they already hold in order to confirm to themselves that they are right.   Nearly everyone does this.  So what’s the point?  People come in, almost always, either agreeing or disagreeing with me, and almost nothing I say (or my opponent says) will change their mind.  They will simply feel confirmed by the side they already agree with.

I feel that frustration even in this debate that I have with myself.   When I finished the debate (this was a couple of weeks ago), I asked my class of 140 students which side they thought won the debate.   And about two-thirds of the class thought …

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Is Acts Historically Reliable? The Affirmative Rebuttal



  1. Avatar
    jamesrodkey  April 6, 2016

    Just a point of encouragement, Dr. Ehrman, even though debate often seems like a pointless (and perhaps masochistic) exercise: while you won’t get everyone to seriously reconsider their views, you’ll undoubtedly get some people to do so. Too many of us live in self-constructed echo chambers, insulated from views that may be contradictory (and even perhaps offensive). People who show up to your debates are at least willing to expose themselves to opposing views; I think it’s important that someone be there to articulate those opposing views, and you do a great job at it. You also help the rest of us have these conversations with people we interact with. You’ll never know exactly how many minds you’ve opened, but it’s surely a larger number than it appears on the surface.

  2. Avatar
    Greg  April 6, 2016

    I think you’ve made a good point with this post. I’d be curious to know if ancient people were satisfied with their own historical biographies as representing reality or did they always have this understanding that what they were hearing or reading had been radically adapted for entertainment purposes?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2016

      I think they understood biographies to be basically reliable, though their expectations in that direction may have been lower than ours.

      • Avatar
        godspell  April 8, 2016

        Plutarch discussed the story of Romulus and Remus having been suckled by a she-wolf quite seriously, debating it on the merits, and proposing some rather ingenious alternative theories, but still basically working from the premise of myth AS IF it was fact-based, and that he could somehow find the truth behind it, when obviously the real facts of the case (if any) were beyond the historian’s ken.

        So yes, I’d say their expectations were lower.

        Mind you, there have been instances of small children being found in the care of wild animals (perhaps one such incident helped inspire the myth), but these invariably remain feral, incapable of interacting normally with other humans, let alone founding cities that go on to conquer much of the known world.

        • SBrudney091941
          SBrudney091941  April 10, 2016

          There have been a half dozen or more feral children found. One of my undergraduate philosophy teachers had long been fascinated by them since the stories about them and at least one study of them offered fascinating glimpses into what it means to be human and the nature/nurture conversation. Some were found in India. Perhaps the most famous one in the world was the so-called Wild Boy of Averon (France). He was put under the care and study of the sociologist Itard and his writings on the boy are still available. The director FrançoisTruffaut made a film of the story in 1970 called “L’enfant sauvage” (“The Wild Child”). From what I recall most who have studied these cases agree that, unless such a child learns a language by the time they are 8-12, they never will. And they need to be found by the time they are 7-8 yrs old.

  3. Avatar
    godspell  April 6, 2016

    Okay. But it’s still better than “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” and that came out in 1982.

    Or “Killing Jesus”, which came out less than three years ago.

    Also better than any number of works you discussed in “Did Jesus Exist?”

    Modern historiography ain’t always so reliable either.

    As a historian, the author of Acts is not very much.

    But without him, we’d barely have anything to talk about with regards to the organization of the early church. Josephus simply wasn’t that interested in what the early Christians were doing. Tacitus (writing much later) saw Christians as a minor social problem, the way we see Scientologists, only much less important.

    And both have had their creds challenged by those who don’t want to believe ANYTHING was happening, other than the world’s greatest long con, aimed at convincing people there was a real person named Jesus who was crucified and then became the center of a new religion. They’ve both been challenged with regards to many other things they write about as well. Are they historically reliable by modern standards? No, but for many things they are the only game in town.

    Conflicting stories in ancient history are not unusual, and you know that as well as anyone.

    You compare and contrast and try to sift out false from true. But should we believe something happened simply because we read about it in Acts? No. If by ‘historically reliable’ you meant by modern standards, that’s something that should be made very clear. You’d get a different answer, I suspect, if you phrased the question that way.

  4. Avatar
    toejam  April 6, 2016

    Acts is early 2nd C propaganda first and foremost. I’ve come to think that its author was probably aware of Josephus’ “Antiquities of the Jews”, which would have been produced in the late 90s. I’m not sure why so many scholars still find a dating of 80-90CE to be more probable than early 2nd C.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2016

      Mainly because they aren’t convinced the author used Josephus.

      • Avatar
        Luke9733  April 9, 2016

        I’ve been meaning to ask you this for a while and I just remembered to now. A long time ago you made a comment saying: “Well, now I’m a bit ticked at myself. About a month ago I came up with what I thought was a really important argument for Luke having to be written in the first century. And I didn’t write it down. And now I can’t remember it!!! I’ll give it more thought and see if I can dredge it up.” – Did you ever remember what that argument was?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2016

          Ha! I not only don’t remember the argument — I don’t remember thinking that I had to remember the argument!!

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 6, 2016

    I have certainly heard it said many times that the Bible is much more reliable than, and much more “attested” than, any other ancient book, but that does not prove that what it says is historically accurate. The difference is “HUGE” indeed.

    I get frustrated with the “confirmation bias” as well, but every once in awhile I read on the Internet, or in an email from a friend, that someone has changed his/her mind because of something that you have written or something you have said in a youtube debate. So, it just takes time, sort of like wearing down the rocks of the Grand Canyon…. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile project because of the harm that the literal interpretation of the Bible does with regard to oppressing women, oppressing gays and transsexuals, and oppressing the study of evolution just to name a few…..

  6. Avatar
    flcombs  April 6, 2016

    I think your debates are very valuable. True like most people I have a bias, BUT I do legitimately try and have tried to study arguments and look to which ones make the most sense or are the most reliable. My bias is toward what I’ve concluded from my past study, but I’m open to arguments I haven’t heard or further exploration of those I have. For many it is the only exposure to people with actual expertise instead of their local preacher (although not all experts are good at debating – that’s a special skill). So debates may not help those determined not to change, but to those wanting to know the truth and not afraid of finding it they offer valuable exposure to new ideas and information.

    As to the historical accuracy and the context of ancient historians: Then why don’t we also consider all the other ancient documents as “true” in the same way? Aren’t there stories of Caesars healing people? Many other miracles and resurrections? So by the “accept the Bible as true by ancient standards” argument, Christians can’t reject all these other stories. Even if we accept their argument, it is still a double standard they use in rejecting other documents as true.

  7. Avatar
    mcritzman  April 6, 2016

    Personally I think it’s much easier for an outsider (with no dog in the fight) to see that the two sides in the debate are arguing two different things. In debating whether or not a diet of ice cream and hot dogs is healthy it’s much easier to see that the pro side is being misleading when they primarily argue that ice cream and hot dogs are delicious. Unless of course you really really like hot dogs and ice cream.

  8. Avatar
    magpie  April 6, 2016

    Guess you forgot to put in the part about the negative side being a yuuuge success, everybody likes you and you will make such a deal with affirmative believers that they will all vote for the negative’s authenticity. Because, you know, that you are the NT scholar with the mostest fans and the correctest views and besides, you aren’t varying shades of orange depending on who does the spray tan. Full snark here!

  9. Avatar
    spiker  April 6, 2016

    One key point that my students always find significant and enlightening is the affirmative claim that we should not hold ancient historical sources to modern standards but need to recognize that they are following the procedures of ancient times.

    How many of these folks would consider blood letting as a way to treat illness because physicians in the ancient world were in keeping with ancient standards of medicine? Better yet, would they accept the belief that veins and arteries hold air

  10. Avatar
    bbcamerican  April 6, 2016

    I know that countless times the topic of biblical inerrancy has come into discussion. As I’ve traversed my own spiritual journey, I think my view of the validity/accuracy of the Bible has changed in correlation to my belief in who/what God is or is not. In talking with other people, it’s almost as if there is a “Hierachy of Belief” in the Bible that goes something like this, at least in my experience:

    Level 1 – Inerrant Word of God – Literal interpretation
    Level 2 – Inerrant Word of God – Underlying meaning beneath literal surface
    Level 3 – Inerrant Word of God – Figurative understanding of concepts and events
    Level 4 – Errant Work of Man – “Inspired” godly men share their (imperfect) understanding of God, humans, etc.
    Level 5 – Errant Work of Man – Loosely historical accounts of the Jewish and Early Christian peoples and their beliefs
    Level 6 – Errant Work of Man – Attempt by ancient patriarchal societies to codify group norms and religious/personal behavior such as the role of men and women, respecting and treating others, etc.
    Level 7 – Errant Work of Man – A fine bit of ancient religious literature
    Level 8 – Errant Work of Man – Thanks for coming, but this really has no relevance for me anymore (if it ever did).
    Level 9 – Errant Work of Man – Because it’s narrative focuses on magic and supernatural powers and that bad people will be judged later, it leads to irrational decisions and beliefs in millions of people who might otherwise act in ways to improve our present world instead of focusing on a world yet to come.

    I think I can have respectful and meaningful discussions with folks at just about every level, except for level 1. Even if you are at level 2 or 3, you could argue that the Bible is “inerrant” in it’s message or that the meaning is not clear from a literal reading of the text. It’s still a hard sell for many, but you could make the argument. But for the Inerrant Literalists at Level 1, there’s just not much room for discussion. When the cards are laid out on the table and they refuse to admit that a spade is a spade, there’s not much further you can go there.

    Anyway, thanks for another great series of posts, Dr. Ehrman!

  11. Avatar
    Scott  April 6, 2016

    I’m glad you said this. I noticed the switch right away in the Affirmative rebuttal. I started to assume that you meant both sides to have rock-solid arguments and was worried that I was an idiot. I may still be an idiot but “in reality it is also completely irrelevant to the question being debated.”

  12. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 6, 2016

    I think one reason to it affirmative debater’s appeal to judging Acts by the historiographical standards of its contemporary historians is that he saved that argument for the rebuttal, which the negative debater had no opportunity to rebut. Is that a common strategy, to save one’s most irrelevant but persuasive arguments for the last word?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2016

      Yes, it’s a good strategy.

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  April 9, 2016

        Was there, is there usually, a question period in which you could slip in why an appeal to the standard of the “historiographical standards of its contemporary historians” is irrelevant to the proposition? Or could you clarify that issue in your original negative statement?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2016

          I couldn’t slip it in until the Affirmative brought it up, so it was in the negative rebuttal.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  April 10, 2016

            One of your opponents (I can’t remember which, so I won’t venture a name) began his affirmative case by presenting what he thought your case would be and knocking it down. Do you consider that unethical?

          • Bart
            Bart  April 11, 2016

            Yeah, pretty much.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  April 9, 2016

        Officially, debate judges are not to flow points to the affirmative or the negative that way.

        Arguments are brought up in the constructive speeches. New arguments are not brought up in rebuttals. If they are, the judge does not give points for that because the opponent, person or team, within the debate’s format is not given an opportunity to respond.

        1st Affirmative Constructive 1AC 8 minutes
        Negative Cross-Examination of Affirmative 3 minutes
        1st Negative Constructive 1NC 8 minutes
        Affirmative Cross-Examination of Negative 3 minutes
        2nd Affirmative Constructive 2AC 8 minutes
        Negative Cross-Examination of Affirmative 3 minutes
        2nd Negative Constructive 2NC 8 minutes
        Affirmative Cross-Examination of Negative 3 minutes
        1st Negative Rebuttal 1NR 5 minutes
        1st Affirmative Rebuttal 1AR 5 minutes
        2nd Negative Rebuttal 2NR 5 minutes
        2nd Affirmative Rebuttal 2AR 5 minutes


  13. Avatar
    MMahmud  April 6, 2016

    Okay…….now you have uncovered one of their tactics.

    Clarify the difference before the debate and you’ve disarmed them from their biggest weapon of obfuscation…….

    Problem solved.

  14. talmoore
    talmoore  April 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, one criterion that I use to separate “good” historians from “bad” historians is their willingness to admit ignorance. Namely, if an historian is willing to admit incomplete knowledge or to hypothesize alternative events or causes, that, to me, is a sign that the historian takes her craft seriously. But when an historian habitually expresses complete confidence in historiographic fidelity, to the point of out-right dismissing alternative explanations — or treating flat-out speculation as gospel! (pun intended) — that, to me, is a sign of an incompetent or agenda-driven historian.

    I think it’s apt you bring up Tacitus in comparison to “Luke”, because I think each man perfectly embodies this distinction. For example, in his Histories, Tacitus makes it quite clear that he’s not exactly sure of the origins of the Jewish people. He puts forth various hypotheses, some more reasonable than others — some, in hindsight, totally ludicrous — but he at least offers several options without pretending to know for sure. Meanwhile, Luke makes no effort at all to offer alternative explanations for events. He merely recounts everything as if it were, well, gospel! The level of conviction he demonstrates toward “facts” that he could not possibly know — such as Jesus’ direct lineage back thousands of years! — well, it strains all credulity. What makes the author of Luke-Acts a “bad” historian is not whether or not his research is reliable. It’s that he’s feigning a level of accuracy that’s simply preposterous.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  April 9, 2016

      Maybe Trump’s advisors’ ancestors advised Luke: “Look, we have the best facts. I mean, these facts are really terrific–really terrific–and, believe me, these come from the best people and I know many of them; they’re friends of mine.

  15. ronaldus67
    ronaldus67  April 6, 2016

    I’m willing to admit that I am also hindered by a confirmation bias in my life quite often. Nothing human is foreign to me. However, partly thanks to you, being on the “affirmative” side for almost four decades, I changed my opinion to the camp of the “negative” a few years ago. I had to overcome a lot of cognitive dissonance along the process. Don’t you agree that once your mind is set, especially at a younger age and when faith is involved, it is very hard to change your opinion even when confronted with the very best of arguments? Not to mention the possible consequences for changing one’s views radically while being part of a religious social network.

  16. cheito
    cheito  April 6, 2016

    DR Ehrman:

    We can never be sure if The book of Acts is historically accurate because we don’t know if Luke the companion of Paul wrote this book. Do we know?

    Also the book of Acts nor the gospel of Luke were written to any church but were written to a man named Theophilus. We don’t know who Theophillus is. Do we know who Theophilus is?

    We don’t know if we have the original documents that “Luke’ wrote to Theophilus. Or If he made copies of them after sending them to Theophilus.

    We don’t know what happened to Acts or the gospel of Luke after Theophilus died. We don’t know how the church fathers’ came to possess these two books. Also the accounts in Luke are different than in the other Gospels especially the arrest, crucifixion, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

    I’d like to say more but I don’t have the time now….

    What do you think?

  17. Avatar
    Steefen  April 6, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman: One key point that my students always find significant and enlightening is the affirmative claim that we should not hold ancient historical sources to modern standards but need to recognize that they are following the procedures of ancient times.

    Steefen: The procedure of ancient times? What procedure of ancient times? The procedure used by Suetonius and maybe a Josephus would be different for someone not writing imperial history. At the same time Josephus was writing imperial history, he was also writing the history of his people. Does the quality of Luke’s writing fall in the same category as Suetonius, Josephus, Philo of Alexandria? Please treat this as a non-rhetorical question because if the answer is no, Luke is not on par with his contemporary historians; hence, the Affirmative’s argument fails.

    An empire needs its historians. A failed Kingdom of God/Righteousness/Heaven has no need of historians, unless to save face. The Romans had an ongoing establishment. Jesus did not. Romans had established procedure for documenting history. Jesus did not. How do the two books of Luke compare with Community Rule and War Scroll of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the first book of Maccabees? Please treat this as a non-rhetorical question.

    Answering the two non-rhetorical questions should exhibit to students and all the quality of the historical reliability of Acts. At a certain level of quality, even for its day, Acts cannot be reliable.

  18. Avatar
    smackemyackem  April 6, 2016

    Your name came up again on Lutheran Public Radio yesterday. Basically…you dont get it.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2016

      Hmm. Well I guess it’s good to know I don’t get it. (!)

  19. Avatar
    Patty  April 6, 2016

    Well, that settles it! 2/3 of the class are dumb as rocks. I had a feeling that’s how it would end up. I would have went straight to the local bar and started drinking after they all raised their hands for the affirmative. That tells you many are going to vote for Trump too.

    The next time your debate opponent starts using rhetoric that’s irrelevant to the argument, just throat punch him. Trust me, he’ll stop. The audience may confirm their own bias, but hey, they paid good money to be there, so who cares.

    This is what you meant by keeping the standard high on the blog, right? Feel free to delete this comment. I’ll behave from now on! Really.

    • Avatar
      Patty  April 8, 2016

      The initial reaction to the majority of students voting for the affirmative might be that they’re emotionally tied to the subject matter; however, that may not be the case. My colleagues and I have dealt with similar issues of students not being able to prove a point with relevant facts. It sounds incredibly simple, but so many students cannot do this. (Neither can many adults.) Being able to understand the difference between what is relevant to an argument and what is not is a critical thinking skill that can be taught but not always acquired. It doesn’t matter what the subject is either. The best thing I have found so far to help students is by using the Backward Design Model. Part of the model is helping students get to the *right* answer using restrictive criteria. If they try to go outside of the criterion to get to the answer, we can– hopefully– catch the error and correct the misunderstanding. It may sound manipulative, but it’s really just another way to use the scientific method. It’s more comprehensive than that, and it’s very labor-intensive for the teacher, but it’s the most effective tool I’ve found so far. By the end of the lesson (in your case, debate) I’m wore completely out.

    • Avatar
      Steefen  April 9, 2016

      When one is a conservative, one has to apply willful ignorance.

  20. Avatar
    bensonian  April 7, 2016

    If we do not have the originals for the book of Acts, how do we know whether or not the book of Acts is historically accurate? In other words, were the historical discrepancies a product of early mistakes made by the copyists? On the other hand, were there even more historical discrepancies in the originals than in the copies that we have now?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2016

      We can reconstruct with a fair degree of confidence most of what Acts originally said, to the satisfaction of just about all textual scholars.

      • Avatar
        bensonian  April 23, 2016

        Is the book of Acts one of the 8 New Testament books that are authentic in that it was written by Luke?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 25, 2016

          No, it doesn’t claim to be written by someone named Luke. (Either does the Gospel of Luke!)

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