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Is Acts Historically Reliable? The Affirmative Rebuttal

I have been (intermittently) discussing the debate that I had with myself in front of my New Testament class on the resolution, Resolved: The Book of Acts is Historically Reliable.  So far I have indicated what the Affirmative side argued in favor of the resolution; what the Negative side argued against the resolution; and what the Negative side said in its rebuttal to the first Affirmative speech.  NOW, at last, I can indicate what the Affirmative side said in its rebuttal to the two Negative speeches.   Recall: in this post I’m not indicating what I really thing; I’m indicating what I would argue if this were the side I was required to argue (and what I did argue in class that day).  Here it is:

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Despite what the negative side has maintained, we remain convinced that the New Testament book of Acts is historically reliable.

The first point to stress is that it is of utmost importance that we not impose modern standards of historical accuracy on an ancient text.  Of course the author of Acts did not follow the historiographic methods that developed in European circles of the 19th and 20th centuries.  He was a first-century author, and as such he followed first-century historiographic techniques.  He can scarcely be faulted for that!

And by the standards of his own day, Luke was a superb historian.  As we have seen…

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Evaluating My Debate on the Book of Acts
Is Acts Reliable? The Negative Rebuttal

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Comments

  1. talmoore
    talmoore  April 5, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, one thing that apologists do that always rubs me wrong is when they try to use one accurate part of scripture to “prove” that another part of scripture is accurate. Both Christian and Muslim apologists are guilty of this fallacious tactic. For instance, your hypothetical debator is suggesting that since the author of Acts was accurate in his description of the temple to Zeus in Lystra, then that proves that Acts is an accurate account. Muslims do the same thing with the Qur’an all the time, e.g. suggesting that since Muhammed describes the sky as a “ceiling” then he must have been privy to some kind of supernatural knowledge about the atmosphere — which, of course, is a total non-sequitur.

    The same can be said about Acts. Is it so extraordinary that the author of Luke might know when and where Agrippa the Great died? Not at all. Where and when a king dies would have been a rather big deal back then and would probably have been part of the common folk history, like, for example, how most people today have a general knowledge of Kennedy’s assassination. Nothing about it suggests extraordinary knowledge. On the other hand, when the author of Acts recounts Peter’s escape from prison after being arrested by Agrippa’s soldiers, he gives a moment-by-moment account as if he were there — meanwhile we must accept the fact that a) the only person there is Peter (and the purported angel), which means the story itself can only originate from the very person it happened to (automatically making it suspect), and b) even within the narrative itself Peter claims it was like a “dream,” (or a false memory, perhaps?) which makes the story even more suspect. The fact that Agrippa had soldiers who could have arrested Peter (an historically plausible event) does nothing to support the veracity or accuracy of Peter’s fantasical escape. Each event must be accepted or rejected according to a different standard of evidence.

    • cjcruz  April 13, 2016

      The classic example here is that Spiderman comics depict many aspects of New York City accurately, but that doesn’t prove…etc. I don’t think it’s a direct parallel, but it’s an easy soundbite to use.

  2. spiker  April 5, 2016

    As someone who once believed in the Bible and until recently still held to certain assumptions about its veracity,
    I’m always struck by just how terrible Christian apologetics really are. You’d think someone would be like, wait a minute, we can do better than speculation, white washing and confusion. One wonders if Craig Keener has come up with something more substantial.

  3. Eric  April 5, 2016

    Interesting! In your affirmative rebuttal, you rely on an argument to make Acts “reliable” that precludes its inerrancy (as Paul’s theology couldn’t be “contextual” for literalists). So while the fundamentalist, of course, wants to root for the affirmative, he doesn’t like where this argument is going!.

  4. Brokenbyclouds  April 5, 2016

    I hope your students have an appreciation for how lucky they are to attend your classes. I would have loved this class if this is what you do.

  5. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  April 5, 2016

    Quick question Bart,
    NT
    Romans 1:3

    3concerning His Son, who was born of a descendant of David according to the flesh he wasn’t talking about King Solomon or he was have said it specifically ? He knew who David was so he must of knew of King Solomon ? Saying Jesus as well was from King David? Jesus part from Solomon ? He starts with Christ Jesus and Christ which means messiah ‘most people don’t know this but I do. Not many last names then.

    So this means Jesus was from King David ?I know about the ring and queen of shebia etc they can not be authenticated by the way ? They really existed ? King solomons temple same blue prints as Roslyn chapel ? I know of the city of Ophir and all that that’s easy. My question is. What was Paul saying here in Romans 1 that Jesus was from David which went back to Enoch? And book of Enoch ? The watchers etc… This authentic? Just thinking out loud.

    So Paul is saying Jesus bloodline went all the back to Enoch ? Noah ? Adam and Eve ? What about Genesis 3:8 ? Again just thinking out loud…..please clarify this for me. Thanks Bart!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2016

      Yes, in Paul’s view Jesus could trace his line back to David.

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  April 6, 2016

        Ok thanks Bart. Just wanted to clarify. Kind of a big deal.

  6. Jamescbell  April 5, 2016

    Bart – thanks so much for this. The ‘debate format’ is really good. It must work well in class. Often, on some particular issue (whether related to NT scholarship or anything else) I find myself reading one side of an argument by one author and find it compelling in isolation. Then, I read the opposing side by a different author at a different time and find that compelling in isolation, too! The problem is knowing how to weigh up the arguments for myself when they are set out in different ways and in different frameworks or using different language so that they slightly talk past each other without directly engaging in the same terms.

    The great thing about the debate format is that you get to hear the best possible cases on either position, laid side by side, in a way that forces them to engage with each other and talk in the same language. It’s a really good way of helping the reader/observer tease out what she or he really thinks.

    Thanks again.

  7. toejam  April 5, 2016

    Bizarro-Ehrman said: “We shouldn’t expect an ancient historian to get every tiny detail right in every single account”

    Good luck getting Justin Bass, Kyle Butt or James White etc. conceding even something like that!

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2016

      Justin might come half way with me on that, but not the other guys.

  8. ask21771  April 5, 2016

    off topic question what are the odds of the shroud of turin being jesus actual burial cloth

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2016

      About zilch.

      • ask21771  April 6, 2016

        how so?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 8, 2016

          It’s been proven to be a medieval forgery.

          • ask21771  April 8, 2016

            if you’re talking about the carbon dating, it’s been disputed

          • Bart
            Bart  April 10, 2016

            Not by any real expert.

  9. Michael  April 5, 2016

    Bart, after the UNC loss last night, I’m shocked that you submitted a blog post today. How are you doing? Are you OK? Did they put you on suicide watch? 🙂

  10. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  April 5, 2016

    And one more thing ?
    Rev 21:5
    Psalm 2:4
    Not the same person ? Of course not…. But Psalm ( Old Testament ) 2:4 He on the throne laughs ? Only God that laughs on the Thorne is Zeus. Do you know of any other GOD that sat on the throne that laughed out loud ? He who sat on throne in Rev is a big mystery I guess…. Rev 4:10? More than elders? They had crowns? They were Royalty in heaven Just blogging is all. And one more thing. If a person had a quote on quote halo above their head ? What happens when they put a crown on, their halo disappears?

  11. Todd  April 5, 2016

    I am being persuaded by your affirmative argument. Let’s see if the negative team can do as well.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2016

      Ah, they did their thing already! See the earlier posts (and today’s).

  12. heccubus  April 5, 2016

    Bart, you point out frequently that Paul seemingly had almost no knowledge of Jesus or his teachings. On the other hand the author of Luke and Acts seems to know quite a bit about the subject. If Luke were truly a companion of Paul how would it be be possible for him to know so little about Jesus?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2016

      I suppose you would have to argue either that Paul did know a lot more or that Luke acquired his information *after* being with Paul

      • SBrudney091941
        SBrudney091941  April 9, 2016

        Is the most effective response to such questions that the earliest manuscripts were anonymous and we do not know who wrote the Gospels, including Luke-Acts? I’ve heard the claim about anonymity in regard to the Gospel mss but not about Acts. The same deal, right?

  13. SidDhartha1953  April 6, 2016

    You have mentioned the Areopagus in Athens, the politarchs of Thessalonica, and the altar to Zeus outside the city walls of Lystra as examples of what archaeology can and cannot confirm about the reliability of Acts. Might an apologiist like your affirmative debater argue, 2,000 years hence, that The DaVinci Code is a reasonably reliable source on Europe of the early 21st Century? Brown mentions lots of real places and institutions. I don’t recall if he mentions any real people of the 20th or 21st centuries.

  14. Patty
    Patty  April 6, 2016

    Do you think the stoning of Stephen really happened? Could you explain why it is or isn’t an accurate account?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2016

      No, I don’t think so. There is no mention of it elsewhere and it fits perfectly well with Acts own agenda.

      • Patty
        Patty  April 8, 2016

        What about the Day of Pentecost? A real event or no?

  15. RonaldTaska  April 6, 2016

    This was a very interesting series. Thanks so much for sharing it. The differences between Luke and Paul may be mostly with small details, but if these writings were inspired by God, then surely God should have gotten these details correct. What happened to the Divine Editor??? I know. I know, One possible common reply is that isn’t it wonderful that God chose to express His Word using humans who make mistakes? So the debate goes….

  16. Matt7  April 6, 2016

    This idea of not applying modern standards of historical accuracy to an ancient text is very problematic. It’s like saying we can’t judge the ancient manuscripts as being inaccurate copies because we’re using modern copying standards in assessing them. Of course we’re using modern standards, because our standards have improved (dramatically) over the past two thousand years.

  17. Judi  April 7, 2016

    I do not have your book, hope to soon. I do have a question . Even if Jesus linage was back to David, Was he appointed to be King by the people, as for King Saul hearing a voice and having the prophet or priest tell Saul to go back to bed , that it was god taking? What made David with all his sins better than Saul? I really would like to know for I do not get the point , or what the big deal is ? As for Paul , I do think he had his own agenda , but is account on the way to Damascus is told three times and they appear radically different to me.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 8, 2016

      Samuel anointed David to be king; in the book of 1 Samuel it’s because Saul failed to do his divinely appointed tasks properly.

      • MarkGrago  July 27, 2016

        Dr. Ehrman, you should do a debate with Dr. Craig Keener on the Book of Acts. That would be the ultimate!

    • dragonfly  April 10, 2016

      My understanding is the editor of Samuel was loyal to David and opposed to Saul. That’s why Saul is criticised and punished for officiating over a sacrifice, but David does the same thing without any problem. David seems to do no wrong no matter how immoral he behaves.

  18. Judi  April 8, 2016

    Thank you,was Paul of the Tribe of King Saul and would there have been a age old dispute of Kingship?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 10, 2016

      Paul was a Benjaminite. Kings in Judah were to come from the line of David.

  19. Judi  April 10, 2016

    Paul was compelled to get rid of the followers of Jesus at first, and seems to even disrespect his own renown teacher who told his pupils to leave the movement alone. Is there any inference that he may have been influenced by offspring of Judah’s other, Tamar bore Perez and Zerah?

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