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The Historical Accuracy of Acts

I am circling around the ultimate question of this thread, whether Luke the gentile physician, the companion of Paul, wrote the Gospel of Luke. The first step was to show that Paul never *mentions* Luke as a gentile physician in any of his undisputed letters. The second step involves asking the question of whether *any* companion of Paul – whether Luke or someone else – wrote the books of Luke and Acts. The argument that one did is based on the “we-passages” that I mentioned in the previous post. Now I want to advance the argument by saying that I don’t think the we-passages indicate that a companion of Paul wrote Acts (or, by inference, Luke) because I think there is good counter-evidence to indicate that Acts (and Luke) were decidedly NOT written by someone who was familiar, personally with Paul.

Here I’ll reproduce my comments on it from my college-level textbook, more accessible than some of my other posts recently. The basic point I’m making at this stage is that the book of Acts is not at all reliable in its report of Paul; the implication of that will be (in a subsequent post) that a companion of Paul almost certainly didn’t write it; that in turn will mean that the “we-passages” have to be explained on other grounds; and altogether it will suggest that Luke was not written by Luke the gentile physician (or more accurately: if it was, we have no evidence of it).

So, for now, the reason for thinking a companion of Paul did not write Acts: viz, its author does not seem to have known about Paul’s life and teachings very well.


What, though, 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. for discerning the reliability of Acts we are in the fortunate situation that Paul and Luke sometimes both describe the same event and indicate Paul’s teachings on the same issues, making it possible to see whether they stand in basic agreement.


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The Accuracy of Acts: Part 2
Who Wrote Luke and Acts?



  1. Avatar
    EricBrown  September 4, 2013

    This conundrum that begins with the mysterious “we” passages in Acts reminds me of another ancient literary peculiarity of a similar nature, with which you and your blog readers may be familiar, but if not, instead may find interesting.
    In the form of the Odyssey that comes down to us, there are literally hundreds of characters introduced by name. And yet one character and only one, Eumeas the swineherd, is spoken of by the narrator in the SECOND PERSON a handful of times. It is quite odd upon reading, I can tell you. It runs a little something like this (paraphrase the idea):
    “Odysseus prepared for battle, and Telemachus prepared for battle, and you, Eumeas, you also prepared for battle”
    So I’ve puzzled over why this is, and I have a theory. I suspect that unlike the bible, Homer, being for long an oral corpus, is not subjected to textual criticism, so I may be the only person to ever bother to devise a theory, for what it’s worth.
    Eumeas enters the picture at the end of the tale, when Odysseus finally makes it back, in cognito, to Ithaca, to find his palace, his kingdom, and his wife’s virtue under siege by a group of bullying “suitors”. Eumeas doesn’t recognize Odysseus, but when tested he reveals he is still loyal to his long-absent lord. Eventually, Odysseus, his son Telemachus, and this loyal retainer enter the palace, slay the forty or so suitors, and recover the kingdom, etc.
    So why is Eumeas singled out for this second person treatment? My theory is part of the moral lesson. The oral bard who would wander about reciting this long poem certainly depended upon his host’s good graces for his meat, his pay, maybe even his head. This host, of course, would be the local chieftain or whoever, and the audience would be the chief and all of those upon whose loyalty he depended (who in those meager polities might consist primarily of the likes of swineherd/spearmen, etc). So the theory is that this is the moral of this part of the story: You listeners, right here, are of course like Eumeas, and are unshakably loyal to this chieftain over yonder with the money, who I might also add is also a handsome and generous lord….”

  2. Avatar
    fred  September 4, 2013

    Luke still could have been a part-time companion of Paul’s. Raymond Brown (An Introduction to the New Testament) said:

    ““In summary, it is not impossible that a minor figure who had traveled with Paul for small parts of his ministry wrote Acts decades after the apostle was dead, if one makes the allowance that there were details about Paul’s early life he did not know, that he simplified and reordered information (even as he did in the Gospel what he took over material from Mark), and that as a true theologian he rethought some of Paul’s emphases that were no longer apropos….”

    The evangelists put words in Jesus’ mouth to make points they considered important. Why not think that “Luke” would do the same? A companion (particularly a part-time companion) needn’t necessarily have a full and complete understanding of Paul, and even if he did – perhaps he had his own ideas or his own agenda. He does seem to have the agenda of harmony in the Church.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 5, 2013

      Yes, it’s certainly *possible*. (It’s what I used to think too.) One needs to look at the evidence and decide. I think there’s a better explanation for the we passages.

  3. Avatar
    Jim  September 4, 2013

    Since the author of Luke/Acts talks about shepherds, my question is not too far off topic. 😉 I have heard/read somewhere that there are more surviving copies of the Shepherd of Hermas from the first few centuries than any of the other NT books except for possibly the gospels of Matthew and John. Is this fact or fiction?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 5, 2013

      Fiction. But more than some of the books, depending, of course, on how one defines “first few centuries.”

  4. Avatar
    haoleboy26  September 5, 2013

    Is there any good evidence or credible theories as to where Luke got his stories about Paul? Is there any evidence he would have had access to any of Paul’s letters?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 5, 2013

      He never mentions the letters and never cites them. My guess is that he didn’t know them, or if he knew them, he didn’t use them for his account at all.

  5. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 5, 2013

    That a companion of Paul did not know about Paul’s statement about Paul not having gone to Jerusalem and, hence, about Paul’s claim of not having been influenced by the disciples, but only influenced by Jesus, seems quite significant in determining the authorship of Acts. Thanks for outlining this. I guess it also means that the author of Acts had not read Galatians. When do we think Acts was written? After Luke, around 90 C.E.? Long after Galatians was written. Hmmm? Wouldn’t a companion of Paul know about Galatians?

    Also how do you understand the author of Acts writing 3 different versions of the conversion of Paul giving different versions of whether or not those with Paul did or did not hear a voice and whether or not they remained standing or fell down with Paul?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 5, 2013

      I usually date Acts around 80-85, but it’s just a guess. And I agree, he almost certainly didn’t know Galatians.

      I suspect that he had three versions of the story about Paul, and just included them all….

  6. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  September 5, 2013

    Did your publisher and you ever decide on a final title for “How Jesus Became God.”?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 5, 2013

      Looks like it will be “How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee”

  7. Avatar
    Steefen  September 5, 2013

    I do not think the letters of Paul would have been included in the canon of the Jewish Church. Paul would have been a minor character. We at Kerygma, Highland Park United Methodist Church, just finished a Summer on Acts. Paul was at odds with the Jerusalem Church. The Jerusalem Church did not like what was going on in Antioch. They send for Paul to express their disapproval. They go back and still are not happy. Reverend Marcum said the Jerusalem Church tried to get the Gentiles to adopt the Noahide Laws (food related).

    We have the Jews in Jerusalem.

    We have the Jesus sect, Jewish and Hellenistic in Jerusalem.
    Just because the Gospels do not mention the Hellenistic Synagogue does not mean Stephen, Phillip and the five others who were selected post-Biblical-crucifixion were not active players before the biblical crucifixion.

    We have the Jesus sect in Antioch.

    We have the Jesus sect in Edessa and the Osrhoene because King Monobazus and Queen Helena were contemporaries of Jesus. Queen Helena gave gifts to the Temple and she saved Jerusalem from starvation. Aslan says Jesus was zealous about Jewish independence from Rome. The royal family of King Monobazus and Queen Helena were also zealous about Jewish independence from Rome. If Queen Helena of Adiabene could save Jerusalem from starvation and Rome did not and if Queen Helena could convert to Judaism and Rome did not, her royal family had reason to support the rebels in 67 C.E.

    Queen Helena, King Monobaz, and their son, King Izates/Izad would have been against Paul. Why? King Izates got circumcised. Queen Helena was a Nazarite not for seven years but 14 years. They would have been against what was going on in Antioch.

    Jesus, James, Queen Helena of Adiabene, King Izates of Charax-Spasini, the Hellenistic synagogue which believed in Jesus, and maybe the Therapeut (healers of souls) of Alexandria (who may or may not have done pilgrimage to the Temple and got accommodations through the Hellenistic synagogue/s) were on one side and Paul was on another side.

    Rev. Marcum said, Antioch Syria was a bitter defeat for Paul.

    The author of Acts could have been connected with the Gentiles of Adiabene. Queen Helena had a palace in Jerusalem.

    The author could have been connected with the “Gentiles” of the Hellenistic synagogue (those who lived outside of Israel or who had family tree roots outside Israel, using Hebrew scripture written in Greek–Septuagint).

    Were the Gospels and Acts composed by the Therapeaut in Alexandria at the Great Library while Jerusalem was in turmoil and ruins 67-72 C.E.? Were they composed in Rome, a peaceful place because it was the place of the victors, under Josephus’ oversight of all(?) that was published about Jerusalem?

    • Avatar
      Steefen  September 5, 2013

      Wait a second. Rev. Walt Marcum said Luke likes to smooth things over when you compare his telling of events vs. Paul’s telling of the same event.

      Why even add Paul to Acts of the Apostles? Write him out of history? Apparently, as Paul said, he was becoming great. Both Paul and Josephus have ego issues.

      Why wouldn’t they have had a meeting in Rome? Paul dies in Rome.

      Paul claimed Roman citizenship.
      Josephus was a Jew who became a Roman military leader.

      The writings of both of them survived.

      Both of them got shipwrecked.
      Both of them knew Epaphraditus.

      Paul earns Josephus’ respect with his letter to the Romans. Paul writes a letter that brings Christianity up to the heights of Virgil’s Aenid. I have a book that explains this. Rev. Marcum says it must not be a trade book but someone’s PhD thesis.

      Dr. Ehrman speaks of the Roman Church in From Jesus to Constantine.

      Unlike the Jewish Church, the Roman Church does value Paul highly, perhaps via Josephus and Epaphaditus.

      Dr. Ehrman in this blog says Luke tries to butter up to Paul by saying we travelled together.

      Maybe it is when Acts of the Apostles devotes itself to the Acts of Paul that we see the Jerusalem Church defer to the Roman Church.

      By Paul establishing himself in Rome when James could not and when the people of the Osrhoene and Adiabene took a zealous stand against Rome because Queen Helena had put in a great bid for Jerusalem, her legacy, Rome not only gets the scriptures of the Temple via Josephus but they get Queen Helen’s golden candlestick (possibly menorah).

      The Acts of the Apostles, instead of telling us the acts of 11 or 12 surviving apostles devotes a large portion to Paul. Why wouldn’t Josephus-Epaphraditus want the author of Acts to say he travelled with Paul? It is good for Paul and it is good for “Luke.”

      • Avatar
        Steefen  September 6, 2013

        The Gospel of God: Romans as Paul’s Aenid by David R. Wallace. I picked up the book when there was a Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit in Fort Worth, TX.

        Christianity needed to overcome the Salvific message of Octavian-Virgil. Paul’s Christ does that on some level.

        That is a significant contributor for the Church of Rome being successful–and successful with Gentiles.

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 6, 2013

      The Theapeutae were Jewish, not Christian, and they had no connection with the Alexandrian Library. And Josephus had no oversight over the publication industries of Rome.

      • Avatar
        Steefen  September 7, 2013

        “The Therapeutae were a Jewish sect which flourished in Alexandria and other parts of the Diaspora of Hellenistic Judaism in the final years of the Second Temple period. The primary source concerning the Therapeutae is the account De vita contemplativa (“The Contemplative Life”), purportedly by the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria (c. 20 BCE – 50 CE)”

        The Therapeutae did not meet or visit the mystery schools, universities, and Library of Alexandria?

        1. Hero/Heron of Alexandria (an inventor and contemporary of Jesus) had a wedding party trick of turning water into wine. He modified the vases for the trick.

        2. The Synoptic Gospels rely on Mark. It is convincingly shown that while Paul’s letter to the Romans aspired to top Augustus-Virgil Aenid which topped Homer’s epics (see the Gospel of God by Wallace), the Gospel of Mark used Homeric literary devices (see The Homeric Epics and the Gospel of Mark by Dennis MacDonald).

        Hm, Hellenistic overlay on a Jewish teacher. This sounds like something out of Alexandria or something from its geographical network. Luke, a Gentile physician and Therapeut is physician of the soul, and “Luke” uses Mark’s Gospel with Homeric flourishes–this sounds Therapeutic also.

        Josephus had no oversight over the publication industries of Rome?

        Josephus was and is the person to read regarding Rome’s defeat of the Jewish rebellion.
        Josephus, to use current events title, was an embedded reporter during the Jewish War.
        Josephus was granted the right to pull out the scriptures at the Temple before it was destroyed.
        Josephus took other historians to task–“Against Apion,” as an example.
        Josephus aggressively marketed his histories from Rome to beyond the Euphrates.

        Josephus was (to whatever degree self-appointed) a Jewish and Roman gatekeeper of consequence. Of course, he would give a nod to Paul who gave more importance to Jesus’ Roman crucifixion than to Jesus’ Our Father Prayer, Beatitudes, rhetorical excellence when interacting with leaders of the Roman-built, Roman client king Herod the Great’s Temple.

  8. cheito
    cheito  September 5, 2013

    My understanding of Luke and Acts is that the author wrote them for an individual named Theophilus.
    The author also claims that the information was handed down to “us” by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. (Luke 1:2)… Who were these eyewitnesses and servants of the word who related these messages to Luke? Do we know?

    Only God knows what happened to the original documents after Theophilus died or even perhaps while he was still living. Is there any record at all as to what became of the originals? And how did Luke and Acts get into the hands of the Apostolic fathers? Do we have today the same books of Luke and Acts as the The apostolic Fathers had in their possesion?

    I also understand that Luke and Acts have been altered. We don’t have the exact words written down by the first author. Would you agree this is an accurate assessment? If so, then comparing what is written in Luke and Acts to what is written in the undisputed Pauline Epistles is futile. Really a waste of time. Luke and Acts are not reliable sources so how can we ascertain any real truth about the matter? Also, perhaps, the objective for altering the words of the original author, who received his account from the eyewitnesses, was to deliberately confuse and cause doubts as to what Paul or anyone of any significance really said or did or where He traveled or stayed.

    That’s why I focus on the writings of the eyewitnesses themselves. God did not commissioned Luke to write these books. He took it upon himself to write them because he had a better witness than the others who were also writing about things they had not seen with their own eyes but only heard of by word of mouth and he wanted Theophilus to know the exact truth, as he states in Luke 1:1-3. On the other hand however God did speak to Paul personally. So Paul’s words are truly inspired by God and qualify as authentic scripture, but this is another issue and somewhat relevant to what I’m trying to relate here.

    to sum-up if we had, without any doubts, the original words of Luke and Acts then we could put together arguments as to why Luke did not write them. But since we don’t, in my opinion, it’s a waste of time attempting to do so. Its all speculation! Whoever did write these words knew the eyewitnesses who were servants of the word from the beginning and perhaps Paul was one of them. But again since it’s obvious that these documents have been altered and words, concepts and information has been added and taken away from them then we can’t know for sure.

    What do you think Dr Bartman am I making any sense?

    • Bart Ehrman
      Bart Ehrman  September 6, 2013

      I think you are far too skeptical about not having the words of the author. When books are very long, and there are lots of manuscript witnesses, you can get a very good idea of the author’s narrative, even if portions here and there are changed. The portrayal of Paul in Acts is consistent, and is veyr difficult to ascribe to scribal rather than authorial activity.

      • cheito
        cheito  September 7, 2013

        Thank you for your reply Dr Bartman. I would ask, what portions were changed? What if the very sections you’re arguing about were changed? Perhaps they focused on changing the way Acts depicts Paul.

        • cheito
          cheito  September 8, 2013

          Dr Ehrman. I realized that I’ve been calling you Dr Bartman. Please excuse me for doing so…

          We don’t really know WHEN or by WHOM Luke and Acts were altered. I’m assuming that these two books were in the possession of Theophilus first. Do we know how long he had them and with whom he shared them? After Theophilus died who owned them? Polycarp quoted from Luke and Acts. Did he have copies or the originals? Were they altered after or before Polycarp quoted from them? The changes to these books are subtle. Polycarp also quoted from Matthew and there are contradictions between Matthew and Luke which are not so subtle. In Matthew both criminals are insulting Christ. In Luke one criminal abuses Jesus verbally. The other criminal believes in Jesus. Both accounts can’t be true. Luke 23:39-41 and Matthew 27:43… Was Polycarp aware of these inconsistencies?

        • Bart Ehrman
          Bart Ehrman  September 8, 2013

          There are small changes in most verses, but most of the changes are completely insignificant and uninteresting. Nowhere among al lthe changes are the we passages deleted.

          • cheito
            cheito  September 9, 2013

            Since we don’t have the original manuscripts we can’t know for certain when the changes occurred or exactly what changes occurred. The only differences we know about are the ones in the manuscripts we do have. As for the We passages they would’ve been very easy to alter.

          • Bart Ehrman
            Bart Ehrman  September 10, 2013

            You may want to read up on textual criticism to get a sense of what is likely and what is not. If you want bibliography, well, the best place to start is with Metzger’s Text of the NT and the Alands Text of the NT. If you need more, let me know.

  9. Avatar
    Osiris  September 8, 2013

    Can anyone help me with this? I recently summarized the problem of Paul leaving Timothy and Silas behind in Berea, along with the issue about Paul not going to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles. One of my rather cocky Christian acquaintances (a Presbyterian pastor, mind you) responded with the following and I’m not entirely sure how to approach the issue:

    “There is no contradiction between Luke’s and Paul’s account of the events with respect to which companions left with Paul from Thessalonica to Athens. In short, neither Silas nor Timothy ever accompanied Paul to Athens. The two narratives convey the following series of events:

    (1) Due to persecution in Thessalonica, Paul and his companions (including Silas and Timothy) made a local move to the city next door, Berea (Acts 17:10-13).

    (2) While in Berea, Jews from Thessalonica discovered his whereabouts, and began to harass him there (Acts 17:13). Paul’s record that he “wanted to come to you [the Thessalonians]—I, Paul, more than once—and yet, Satan hindered us” (1 Thess. 2:18), fits best in this Berea period. For, it makes more sense that Paul would have wavered on multiple occasions to return to the Thessalonians when he was in the general vicinity (in Berea), than when he had sailed a great distance from the city and gone to Athens. Also, Paul’s record that he was hindered by “Satan” from returning to Thessalonica, recalls the intense persecution that he was experiencing at the hands of the Jews in Berea (Acts 17:13; cf. 1 Thess. 2:14-16). No such persecution marked out his stay in Athens. There, the problem was a matter of indifference to his message (Acts 17:16-34).

    (3) As a result of the continued persecution in Berea Paul and his company decided that it would be best for Paul, and some escorts from among his companions, to go to Athens (Acts 17:14-15). Silas and Timothy, were to remain behind (in Berea).

    (4) Upon arriving at Athens, Paul and his smaller company thought it best for Paul and a few others to remain alone in Athens (1 Thess. 3:1), while some of returned to Berea, with a command for Timothy and Silas (1 Thess. 3:1). When the two accounts are taken together, it is clear that this command had two components. First, they were to inquire one last time into the condition of the Thessalonian Christians—from whom the team had been estranged in Berea, and for whom Paul worried (1 Thess. 3:5)—and to strengthen and encourage them in the faith (1 Thess. 3:2). Second, they were to leave Thessalonica as soon as possible, in order to avoid further hostilities from their Jewish foes. On this scenario there is no contradiction, because Timothy and Silas never accompanied Paul to Athens.

    (5) Upon heeding Paul’s command, Timothy and Silas left Macedonia (Acts 18:5), the region that encompassed Berea and Thessalonica, and rejoined him Greece (1 Thess. 3:6).

    The uncharitable assumptions on which the alleged contradiction rests is that Timothy was with Paul’s smaller company in Athens when he was sent to the Thessalonians (1 Thess. 3:1), and that Paul’s command for Silas and Timothy to rejoin him in southern Greece could not have included their passing through Thessalonica. Not only are these assumption entirely unnecessary, they fly in the face of relevant observations. First, it was commonplace in the New Testament era for one to direct his companions/servants (from whom he was already geographically removed) to travel from city to city, through the agency of third party messengers (Acts 10:32-33; 11:13; 25:3; 2 Tim. 4:11). Therefore, serious Biblical historiography would have to consider the possibility that Timothy was sent to the Thessalonians from Berea by a third party in 1 Thess. 3:1, and not from Athens. Second, if Paul in 1 Thess. 3:1 had meant to indicate that Timothy had actually left Macedonia (Northern Greece/Albania), and accompanied him to Athens, we would expect him to have said “and we sent Timothy [back] to you.” But he does not say this, which leads should lead us to view this sending of Timothy as occurring in relative proximity to Thessalonica, from Berea. Third, from the side of the Acts account, the fact that Paul left his most trusted companions behind when he departed to Athens (Acts 17:14) leads an acute reader to gather that Paul had some business in mind for them to complete, prior to their rejoining him in southern Greece. Thus, even though Luke does not state exactly what their business was, it anticipates the answer given in 1 Thessalonians 3—upon Paul’s direction, they were to check up on the Thessalonian Church, and extend them encouragement (1 Thess. 3:2-6). And, the delimiter on Paul’s command for Timothy and Silas to rejoin him “as soon as possible” was, in fact, their completion of this reconnaissance.”

  10. Avatar
    Patty  April 8, 2016

    I just shared some of your insights on FB and referenced your blog. I hope I don’t have to deactivate my FB account after this.

  11. Avatar
    john76  October 9, 2018

    I just wanted to share this: Dr. Tabor shared a blog post the other day challenging the historical verisimilitude of Acts: https://jamestabor.com/two-widely-held-assumptions-about-early-christianity-that-should-be-questioned/ . If Tabor is right, and Acts is willful misrepresentation, then sophisticated hermeneutic arguments need to be put forth as to why we should trust as historical anything from the Gospel of Luke.

    • Avatar
      john76  October 10, 2018

      Luke’s pro-Roman agenda comes through loud and clear, for instance.

      • Avatar
        john76  October 10, 2018

        One last thought.

        I think we have to be careful assuming there are historical sources just because there is unique material in a Gospel. For instance, Ehrman will point to material that is unique to Luke’s Gospel and infer there is a ‘L’ source behind it. But this is a bit of a non sequiter. As Carrier points out, by analogy, there is new material about Moses in later non-canonical sources, but we wouldn’t infer this material goes back to the historical Moses. And we shouldn’t infer that just because there is mundane information in a Gospel that the mundane information is historical. Even in historical fiction there is all sorts of mundane, fictional content.

  12. Telling
    Telling  May 19, 2019

    Hi Bart,

    I have a question that I wanted to park in a relevant thread. I hope you find this one.

    I am writing a historical novel following Paul, using Acts, his letters trumping Acts where they disagree. Historians seem divided on whether Paul made just one journey to Rome where Acts ends, or a second journey after that as some historians gather from Paul’s letters. Do you have an opinion on this?

    Also, it seems that “we” comes into Acts in just a few places. Could it be that Luke joined Paul just a couple of times and got a lot of other details wrong for that reason? Any opinion on this?

    I appreciate that you take so much of your time to answer such questions.

    • Bart
      Bart  May 20, 2019

      1. My view is that he made just one trip. 2. That’s the common interpretation, and has been for many centuries, but I think it’s wrong. I have a lengthy discussion of the issue in my book Forged (or a more detailed on in Forgery and Counterforgery). I’d suggest you do a lot of reading on the book of Acts and the historical study of Paul, especially books that attempt to go into biographical detail.

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