Here is an interesting question I received about a Christian apologist’s argument that the book of Acts must be written by an eyewitness, a view that I think is completely wrong. It’s one of those arguments that has no bearing on anything when you actually think about it, but until someone points out the flaw, it’s hard to see it — or I assume so since so many people get taken in by this sort of thing.
It comes in a book called I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, a title which, I have to say, is a clear indication of how well informed the book will be. But that would be an entire post of its own. Here I’ll focus on the question raised:
One thing about the reliability of the book of Acts I’m constantly encountering when researching popular apologetics is Frank Turek’s argument in his book I Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist. In it he quotes a Colin Hemer, who apparently chronicled the last 16 chapters of Acts for facts that could be confirmed by archaeology and ended up with 84. Many of these are insignificant, but others seem to be things “only an eyewitness could know,” like the location of a sailor’s landmark or sea approach to a city. Craig Blomberg has one similar for John, with mentions like “going up to Jerusalem” being the correct geography for the city, or “coming down” for western Galilee, etc, only being things a local/eyewitness would know.
My question is: are these legitimate arguments for the gospels being eyewitness or is there something I’m missing?
I very much appreciate this question: it’s by someone who is honestly seeking an answer based on what a seeming authority has said, giving an argument that sounds so convincing at first sight. But I do NOT appreciate Frank Turkey or Colin Hemer for making the argument, since surely they know better. If they do know better, shame on them for trying to dupe others. If they don’t know better, would someone please tell them to start thinking more clearly?
OK, so here’s the deal. The last 16 chapters of Acts deal principally with the missionary activities, arrest, and judicial proceedings against Paul. This is where people have acquired most of their knowledge of Paul’s life as a Christian apostle since he gives so little biographical information in his own surviving writings. This part of Acts is where you learn how Paul engaged in his mission in Thessalonica, Philippi, and Corinth, confronted philosophers in Athens, made his trip to Jerusalem for the Apostolic Council, ended up traveling to Rome to face trial, etc. etc. Without these chapters, we would know very little or nothing about a good deal of these things, and many more besides.
But do we actually know all of this, or is it possible that some (much?) of it is legendary rather than historical? The traditional answer is that Acts was written by an eyewitness, a person who accompanied Paul on his missionary journeys. The presumption is that if it was written by an eyewitness, then the accounts almost certainly must be historically accurate. I won’t be going into that issue here (of whether eyewitness = accurate), but if you have ever known an eyewitness to an event who got it completely wrong (and if you’re a sentient human being, I bet you have known at least one!) you can immediately see at least one aspect of the problem.
The reason for thinking Acts was written by an eyewitness is that in four passages in these chapters, the author moves from talking about what “they” (Paul and his companions) were doing to about what “we” were doing. It sounds like he’s including himself in a number of the events as one who was there. The natural conclusion: he was an eyewitness.
It’s a sensible way of reading these passages, but in other posts, I’ve explained why on closer examination it’s a problem. Maybe I’ll cover that ground again, because it is a really interesting issue. I will say that for well over a century critical scholars have adduced good grounds for thinking that the book was not written by an eyewitness (in case you’re wondering: almost all these scholars have been committed Christians). The book by Turek wants to re-assess the situation to argue that in fact it was. Fair enough. But this argument for it? Yikes.
The argument is that if these chapters get so many facts right in its description of where Paul went, the actual things he would have seen there, and so on, then they must have been produced by an eyewitness. Who else would know all this stuff (which can be shown to be accurate)? Just as when the author of John’s Gospel indicates that when Jesus traveled from the north he nonetheless went “up” to Jerusalem. Who would know that except an eyewitness? Only if you go to Jerusalem do you realize that you have to go “up” to it because it’s elevated from the surrounding area. Right?
OK, let’s think about that. It’s true that you do have to go “up” to Jerusalem even when you approach it from the north. I myself knew that and said so … for twenty years before I ever went to Jerusalem. Was I saying so because I was an eyewitness to Jerusalem? No, I was saying it because I knew about that. So what’s the argument for my having to be any eyewitness to Jerusalem, let alone to anything that actually happened there?
Well, you could say that I knew that only because I heard it from eyewitnesses. First of all, that’s not true. In fact, I heard it from lots of people, none of whom was an eyewitness. Second, even if I had heard it from an eyewitness, that would not make *me* an eyewitness. Let alone make me accurate.
But let’s go to the book of Acts. If you can show that the account knows where certain places actually were, and knows details about what were in those places, and landmarks, and so on: doesn’t that show the author must have been with Paul on his journeys?
Uh, why would it show *that*?? Wouldn’t it just show that he knew about these locations and what was in them? Wouldn’t you get precisely the same kind of narrative if this was someone who had traveled a good bit himself, or knew others who had, and pieced it all together?
Let me illustrate the problem. Suppose in 2000 years someone uncovers a story that describes an event that happened to Professor Bart Ehrman in March 2016. Professor Ehrman taught at the University of North Carolina which was located in a college town named Chapel Hill. That semester he was teaching his course on the New Testament in a large lecture classroom in a building called Hamilton Hall. On the afternoon of March 14, Professor was just leaving his office in Carolina Hall to take the three-minute walk to his classroom, when he heard a massive explosion, and going out of his building he saw that Hamilton Hall had been destroyed in an explosion, killing 172 people. Later investigators discovered that it had been caused by a gas leak.
Now, this future researcher who has uncovered the story decides to look into the archaeological record to see if the account is accurate. He learns that way back then there really was a state called North Carolina and sees that archaeologists had indeed uncovered a town called Chapel Hill, where there really was a university. More than that, they had excavated the university and had found Carolina Hall and – mirabile dictu – there was an actual map of the campus in the ruins. It turns out one of the major lecture rooms for large classes was a short distance away, within eyesight, in Hamilton Hall. Just as in the story!! Moreover, the records of all the professors from the early 21st century were discovered, and there was a fellow named Bart Ehrman who did indeed teach courses on something called the New Testament and was teaching one such course in Spring semester, 2016.
BINGO! This story MUST have been written by someone who was a companion of Bart Ehrman who was there to see all these things! How else would he have had all this information about NC, Chapel Hill, the university, Hamilton Hall, Carolina Hall, Bart Ehrman, and a class on the NT that particular semester? And that means Hamilton Hall really was destroyed by an explosion caused by a gas leak, right?
Uh, well, no. Millions of people know about NC, and the existence of Chapel Hill, and that there is a university there. Hundreds of thousands know about both Carolina Hall and Hamilton Hall, and have a general sense of their proximity, and that some fellow named Bart Ehrman teaches NT there. Why would the account of the gas leak-explosion have to be written by someone who was there at the time? Or even someone who knew me? Or someone who observed the event?
The event, by the way, did not happen. Would the fact that it was written by someone who knew the geography of the place have any bearing at all on the question of whether it happened? You can know the facts of a place and tell a story about it. The facts may be true, but the story not.
There are lots and lots and lots of legendary and fictional accounts that have come down to us from the ancient Greek and Roman worlds. Many, many of them mention place names and features of the places that can be verified. In no instance does that mean that the accounts were written by eyewitnesses to the events described, let alone that the events actually happened. And so why does someone like Turek use an argument like this? Because he very much wants to convince people that they can trust the book of Acts, and evidently this is the best he can do.
I’m not saying that because of this Acts is unreliable historically. I’m saying that if someone wants to argue it is, they need to come up with good arguments instead of completely irrelevant ones. I do understand that if the author had gotten all the geographical information wrong it could be relevant to whether the account was accurate or not; my argument is that getting that kind of information right is not. If Christian apologists don’t see the difference – then I’m afraid I can’t help them. 😕