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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
    teg51  April 7, 2016

    Ok, very interesting post Prof. Ehrman. I would like to give my personal take on this; granted I have no professional qualifications as a scholar other than reading a lot about the subject. Nonetheless, I feel like a lot of people do take the inconsistencies in ancient texts for granted precisely because they know that these works came before the advent of the printing press. They know that the modern methods of historiagraphy cannot be applied as u mentioned in your post, and as a result they apply a lower critical standard. The way I see it (and u would probably agree to some extent),none of the central tenants required of the Christian faith are really affected by the critical method applied. by scholars; the non-fundamentalists who are decently aware and informed should know that you cant take an ancient document literal precisely because these documents in most cases, were written later through oral tradition. If you were to ask me if I believe every saying recorded as Jesus were accurate I would probably say no, although I would argue that taken as a whole, a lot of these sayings were very close to what Jesus might have said or believed. Ultimately, we can be highly critical of a lot of the details- particular sayings or perhaps even the virgin birth, but at the end of the day, I believe we can have relative confidence that the gospels portray Jesus pretty close to how he must have been. Certain events such as the crucifixion ,resurrection and last supper come straight from the apostles themselves and the main theological tenant, that Jesus is the new intercessor and savior seem rock solid from what I’ve studied.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  April 9, 2016

      As the reverend Peter Gomes once wrote (paraphrase?), “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom of God; the church came along preaching Jesus.” We do not know who wrote the Gospels so we do not know if what you say came straight from the Apostles did come from them. If he was a rural Galilean Jew who could neither write and who did not believe, as a Jew, in human sacrifice, and who knew, as a Jew that the expectation of a messiah was that he would drive out or kill the enemies of the Jews, restore the nation Israel, and usher in the Kingdom of God, was not divine in any way, and had nothing to do with personal forgiveness of sins and salvation, then no I do not think that a lot of what the Gospels have Jesus saying is stuff that he said. The belief that Jesus was the Christ in the sense that Paul or John meant “Christ” is not at all established. It’s just what Christians believe.

  2. Avatar
    tcasto  April 7, 2016

    Two thirds voted for the wrong side! Maybe you were channeling Trump (without the hat) when you presented the affirmative case. Having watched a few of your recorded debates, I can understand your frustration. People in general are not good at giving thoughtful consideration to debates. And with our countless news streams, we can dial into affirmations of our preconceptions all the time. I force myself to watch Fox News as an antidote.

    Related to your point of non sequiturs is the fallacy of causation and correlation. We have free trade agreements and we have lost manufacturing jobs, ergo trade agreements are bad. Sloppy thinking at best.


  3. John4
    John4  April 7, 2016

    OK, Bart. I *know* you don’t think that Acts is historically reliable. Neither do I. But, what about the other questions you raise? Do you believe that Acts is an excellent example of ancient historiography? Why or why not? Do you believe that Luke was a very good historian when judged by the standards of his day?

    As always, many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2016

      Yes, I think by ancient standards Acts is pretty good. If that were the question, it would be in some ways a more intriguing debate for scholars and far less interesting for most everyone else!

      • John4
        John4  April 8, 2016

        Interesting, Bart, that you find Acts historically unreliable but still “pretty good” by ancient standards. I once heard a New Testament scholar (an associate of the archaeologist Jim Strange whose name, alas, I have long forgotten) relay a complaint from a classicist. According to this Biblical scholar, the classicist remonstrated, “You [New Testament scholars] don’t believe your own sources!” Sounds to me, Bart, like you don’t believe the classicists’ sources either, lol!

        Many, many thanks! 🙂

        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2016

          Yes, of course, all the classical sources need to be (and are, by scholars) held to the same standards.

  4. Avatar
    RapidRiver  April 7, 2016

    Just a quick plug for your WNC talk:
    Blue Ridge Books will host Dr. Bart Ehrman for a discussion of his new book on Saturday, May 7 at 3:00 pm. Ehrman’s new book is entitled Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior. Dr. Bart Ehrman, the bestselling author of Misquoting Jesus and one of the most renowned and controversial Bible scholars in the world today, examines oral tradition and its role in shaping the stories about Jesus that we encounter in the New Testament.

    Throughout much of human history, our most important stories were passed down orally, including the stories about Jesus before they were written down in the Gospels. In this fascinating and deeply researched work, Dr. Ehrman investigates the role oral history has played in the New Testament and how the telling of these stories not only spread Jesus’ message but helped shape it.

    Dr. Ehrman draws on a range of disciplines, including psychology and anthropology, to examine the role of memory in the creation of the Gospels. Explaining how oral tradition evolves based on the latest scientific research, he demonstrates how the act of telling and retelling impacts the story.
    Dr. Ehrman combines his deep knowledge and meticulous scholarship in a compelling and eye-opening narrative that will change the way we read and think about these sacred texts.

    This event is free and open to the public, but seating is limited. A ticket for two reserved seats is available with the advance purchase of Ehrman’s new book. Call 828-456-6000 to purchase your copy and reserve your seats.

    Allison Lee
    Blue Ridge Books
    152 South Main Street
    Waynesville, NC 28786

  5. Avatar
    Jeff  April 7, 2016

    Off topic here: any reaction to LGBT legislation passed in your state affecting the city of Charlotte ? It seems to be an ongoing issue of scripture interpretation by conservative lawmakers. (Perhaps god cursed the TarHeels in the finals because of it?) 🙂

    BTW, just finished your latest book. Hope this starts other scholars to begin study of history as it pertains to memory function POV.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2016

      Yes, many of us — most of the faculty and students at UNC — are *very* distraught about it.

  6. Avatar
    dragonfly  April 8, 2016

    My assessment of the debate (like anyone cares). The affirmative had 3 arguments. The negative quickly dismissed the first as not relevant. The second, the negative tried to argue that the author was not a travelling companion of Paul as suggested by the “we” passages, which I think is a weaker argument. But they did point out that it doesn’t matter either way which is the important point. The archaeological evidence was easily dismissed as irrelevant too. That just leaves comparing the author to other known sources (mostly Paul). The affirmative argues that Acts agrees with Paul at every point it can be tested, the negative shows examples where it doesn’t, and also where acts disagrees with itself. The affirmative says these are only small details and don’t count. I think the whole debate comes down to whether you think you can call a book reliable that has these discrepancies. I don’t think I could say it’s reliable. of course Acts has historically accurate information, but it also has historically inaccurate information, so I couldn’t rely on it. If I was a 19 year old middle class college student from America I expect my assessment would be different and much more confused.

  7. Avatar
    nwoll  April 8, 2016

    While I agree that most people won’t change their mind by hearing a debate, I appreciate debates for several reasons. To me, the main purpose of hearing a debate is to hear an expert answer another expert so I can remember those answers next time someone who disagrees with me attempts to stump me. For example, many Christians would claim that Acts is historically accurate and now I have a better idea of how to respond to that claim. I really enjoy watching and reading your debates, Dr. Ehrman.

  8. Avatar
    JoeWallack  April 8, 2016

    Professor Ehrman, I don’t understand why you ignored the issue of Impossible Claims in this debate. We can be certain that the impossible claims in Acts are not historical and they impeach the credibility of the author regarding the possible claims. Related to this we can make a comparison to Paul’s Paul and Act’s Paul and note that Paul’s Paul is long on rhetoric and short on the impossible while Act’s Paul is long on the impossible. Just what we would expect in a non-historical work.

    The Impossible criterion is not just the most valuable one here, it is exponentially so. Why did you ignore it in the debate?



    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2016

      I chose to stick to arguments that my listeners could find convincing; once you discount miracles, precisely the people you want to reach tune you out!

      • Avatar
        JoeWallack  April 10, 2016

        So your primary objective is to convince Christians that Acts is not historical rather than determine whether or not Acts is historical.



        • Bart
          Bart  April 11, 2016

          That’s precisely not my objective! Why would you think that it was? My objective is to get students to see the best arguments that can be made for both sides and then make their own decision, even if it’s one I disagree with.

  9. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  April 8, 2016

    One of your interlocutors mentioned Theophilus. Given that the name Theophilus means “friend of God,” do any reputable scholars conclude that Theophilus was not a real person, but a literary device to address any receptive reader? My own nonscholarly sense has long leaned toward that conclusion. Is there any record of anyone named Theophilus in the 1st century CE?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2016

      Yes, I have often maintained that it was a literary device, for one who is “beloved of God” (that is, the books are written for those in the Christian community)

  10. Avatar
    Luke9733  April 9, 2016

    Are there any written accounts from that time period that would be considered reliable based on today’s standard (the standard your negative argument has stated for Acts)? Josephus contradicts himself (such as his two accounts of the unnamed Egyptian prophet) . Tacitus didn’t check to see if Pilate was a Prefect or a Procurator. He also provided wrong information in his account about the Jewish people in “Histories”.

    In their accounts of the Great Fire of Rome during Nero’s reign, Suetonius and Cassius Dio do agree that Nero orchestrated the fire, but cannot agree on if he “had it done so openly that several ex-consuls dared not lay hands on his agents” (Suetonius) or if he “sent out by different ways men feigning to be drunk, or engaged in some kind of mischief”. To complicate matters, Tacitus tells us that Nero was not even in Rome at all when the fire started.

    Would all of these sources be considered unreliable by the standard we’re using to evaluate if Acts is reliable? And if so, are there any written accounts from this time that can be considered reliable based on that standard?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2016

      If a source does not describe an event in the way it actually happened, most people would consider it not to be accurate by modern standards.

  11. Avatar
    silvertime  April 10, 2016

    If one holds to the view that the “bible” is inerrent, literal, and inspired totally by God, how can one accept the notion that its contents can be interepted by the historical standards of an earlier day and time. This view would allow no wiggle room on strict accuracy

    • Bart
      Bart  April 11, 2016

      Yes, if the Bible is completely inerrant in every way, then it would certainly pass the criteria for accuracy we hold to today!

  12. Avatar
    llamensdor  April 10, 2016

    Regarding the miracles, I kept some of them in my historical novel, “The Murdered Messiah,” because I want my readers to feel comfortable reading my version, and I believe that by omitting or discounting them I would alienate the very people I am hoping to reach.
    About debates, you probably know my favorite aphorism on this matter:
    A man convinced against his will, is of the same opinion still.
    Have you heard this before?

  13. Avatar
    silvertime  April 10, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman: Did you poll your students on their view before the debate? Given the opinions of your student body that you have expressed, I am proud that 33% thought that the affirmative won. That is progress!

  14. Avatar
    Steefen  April 11, 2016

    Does the quality of the writing of Luke (post-Temple, neo-Jesus fan who was Gentile, what?) writing fall in the same category as Suetonius (official historian of the Roman Empire), Josephus (historian of the Roman Empire and of his native people), Philo of Alexandria (philosopher whose writings include history)?

    Exemplary statement of philosophical writing containing history:
    Philo himself claims in his Embassy to Gaius to have been part of an embassy sent by the Alexandrian Jews to the Roman Emperor Caligula. Philo says he was carrying a petition which described the sufferings of the Alexandrian Jews, and which asked the emperor to secure their rights. Philo gives a detailed description of their sufferings, ~ in a way that Josephus overlooks, ~ to assert that the Alexandrian Jews were simply the victims of attacks by Alexandrian Greeks in the civil strife that had left many Jews and Greeks dead.

    I have a problem with the edited scope of Luke’s Gospel. He leaves out events upon which Jesus should have commented; for example, Jesus’ Father’s House’s Treasury being used by Pilate for the building of aqueducts.

    Back on point/question: as Philo was writing philosophy which has its own procedure, differing from history, was Luke, neo-Jesus lover, writing theology, Christology, legend, philosophy, biography and history?

    Luke is not on par with Josephus because Josephus could write an Against Apion, writing a critique of another historian. Luke does not even admit he is critiquing Paul’s autobiography.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 11, 2016

      No, Luke’s writing style is nowhere near the level of a Philo or even a Josephus.

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