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Is Acts Reliable? The Negative Rebuttal

What follows is the “negative rebuttal” of the speech given by the “first affirmative” in its support of the resolution, “Resolved: The Book of Acts is Historically Reliable.”  If you need to refresh yourself on what the affirmative team argued, you can find it on the March 24 post, here: https://ehrmanblog.org/is-acts-historically-reliable-affirmative-argument/    In the first negative speech (yesterday’s post) the negative team argued its case, without direct reference to the affirmative side.  This, now, is the negative response to what the affirmative said (the next post in the thread will be the affirmative rebuttal to the negative side) (recall: this was a debate I staged with myself in front of my New Testament class earlier this semester.  I didn’t read this speech: I winged it.  But this is the essence of what I argued, on the negative side against the affirmative)


If you choose to go point by point through the affirmative team’s case that the book of Acts is historically reliable, you will find that they have advanced their views on very thin grounds.   The affirmative team begins by arguing that the author of Acts expresses his intention of giving a historically reliable account based on eyewitnesses.   To that we have two responses:  first, the fact that an author tries to be reliable has no bearing on whether he is reliable.   To be sure, if an author tells you that his intention is to be unreliable, then, well, you can probably count on him being so.  But just because someone wants to be reliable does not mean his account is necessarily is so.  His account has to be checked to see.

Second, the author does not actually say that he consulted with eyewitnesses to give us his account.  It is true that in Luke 1:1-4 the author indicates that the stories he is about to relate were originally given out by “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.”   But this verse is often misread as indicating that he personally consulted with eyewitnesses.  That’s not what it says.  The author never claims to have talked with an eyewitness – let alone a group of eyewitnesses.  All he is saying is that the accounts about Jesus and his followers were originally told by eyewitnesses.  That is certainly true – but it doesn’t mean that he himself knows any of these eyewitnesses.  He gives no indication that he did.

But was he himself an eyewitness?  That is what the affirmative side wants to argue, that…

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The Letters of Paul: Mailbag April 1, 2016
Is the Book of Acts Historically Reliable? The Negative Case.



  1. Avatar
    Wilusa  March 31, 2016

    I admit I can’t force myself to read Acts (I’ve always found it even more off-putting than the Gospels), but I assume it includes miracles.

    If so, do you think the author – writing long after the events he described – had “inherited” the miracle stories as parts of the tradition, and genuinely believed them?

    Or did he invent them because he knew the Gentiles he hoped to convert believed in pagan deities they thought could perform miracles or empower mortals to do so, and he wouldn’t have a chance of converting them if he didn’t claim Christianity worked the same way?

  2. Avatar
    Todd  March 31, 2016

    As you wrote: “What he (the author of Acts) says about Paul cannot be reconciled to what Paul says about himself” is, to me the most significant issue in this pro and con debate.

    I do not view Acts as a single objective history of the events described but rather is the view of the author concerning the events described from his (or their) perspective.

    By reading Paul, especially in Galatians, is see a dynamic happening between various parties to the Jesus event, as to how it grew, expanded and moved in various directions. Acts is one document dealing with the expansion of the post-Jesus event, Paul’s letters are another, other letters in the canonical NT show other points of view.

    I think we need to read these documents in that way, that the many writings contribute to one, often conflicting, narrative of what happened after the death of Jesus as it morphed into Christianity. No single writing stands alone.

  3. Avatar
    plparker  March 31, 2016

    Isn’t it true that some scholars have concluded that the we-passages were added later by someone else and were not part of Luke’s original text?

  4. John4
    John4  March 31, 2016

    Hey Bart! 🙂

    The NRSV translates Luke 1:2 as follows: “…just as they [i.e., “the events which have been fulfilled among us”] were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word….”

    To my mind, a plain reading of this English would indicate that Luke claimed to have been handed at least some stories “by those who … were eyewitnesses” to the events related in his Gospel. Do you read this English differently? Do you believe that the Greek does not carry this implication that Luke claimed to have been handed stories by those who were eyewitnesses to the events related in his Gospel? If so, how would *you* render Luke 1:2 into English?

    Many thanks! 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2016

      I’ve heard preachers say that we can trust the stories of the Gospels (or Acts) because they have come to us from eyewitnesses. But that doesn’t mean these preachers ever spoke with eyewitnesses. (And not, Luke 1:1 he refers to “us” doesn’t include himself in the “us” — it’s a collective for “people living at the time”)

  5. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 31, 2016

    Real quick, how many people took the time to wish you a Happy Easter on this blog? I know I did ! Haven’t forgot about you Mr!

    You never answered me? Why did Plato stop mid sentence at Atlantians war against Athens? Zeus gathered Olympians? Why did he stop mid sentence ? Sounds like earlier Book of Revelation to me? Which almost didn’t make it into bible, most people don’t know this but I do. Any ways that is first question. And another Zeus Ammon ? Who was this?
    And one more question Bart. Yes Paul spoke in Athens in acts saying ” City of Athens ” the first king of Athens was turned into an American eagle ? Sorry eagle? Top of American flag post, the eagle, looks like a Roman Empire eagle to me. Anyways my question is the story of Zeus. If Solon spoke with aged priest in Egypt saying Athens was before Egypt by 1000 years and spoke of Atlantis? With Poseidon laws which they did not follow and in one day and night was erased from history when Zeus gathered Olympians or sent one down ? So the story of Zeus is before this ? These aged priest, what else did they know ( just thinking out loud ). What else was on the wall ? Lol. Training for a physique competition 12-14 weeks out Bart. I have an American eagle covering my right rib cage that says infantry. So when I’m on stage they will know I’m a veteran. So will be flexing for all veterans on stage. Wish me luck Bart it’s my 1st competition ! Hope I’m staying on subject in the blog! Zeus is in acts after all. Again support your blog 100% don’t give up brother because we are not.

  6. Avatar
    Stephen  April 1, 2016

    Prof Ehrman

    You’ll be thrilled (or perhaps not) to find out that both you and Gerd Lüdemann are prominently name checked in the latest exhibition of evangelical Christian cinematic awfulness, GOD”S NOT DEAD 2 as, respectively, an agnostic NT scholar and an atheist NT scholar who do not question the historical existence of Jesus. By Lee Strobel himself no less! Of course these folks simply assume that if Jesus existed as a historical figure everything in the NT must be completely true. It seems not to have occurred to them that it might be somewhat strange to use you and Prof Lüdemann to bolster an attempt at evangelism. I’m wondering if there might not be a few people out there who’ll start speculating about an option other than mythicism or fundamentalism. (Perhaps you’ll see an uptick in your royalties for DID JESUS EXIST? in the next few months.)

    Call it masochism or perhaps trying to stay in touch with my “roots” but I find this stuff enormously entertaining although I can’t recommend this movie for its entertainment value. It’s simply a CHICK tract on steroids. Never had this kind of thing when I was a young Christian. We had to content ourselves with cheaply produced Billy Graham epics.

  7. Avatar
    DeanMorrison  April 1, 2016

    What would be a really interesting challenge Bart would be if you had to argue in the persona of one of your many opponents.

    William Lane Craig for example 😉

    That way you’d force yourself to read up on all of rhetorical tricks and devices; philosophical sophistry; appeals to (dubious) authority; crowd-pleasing antics and obfuscation.

    I’m sure that as well as doing your head in, it would require the thespian skills of Marlon Brando.

    Don’t dwell on the idea for too long – what’s the date where you are?

    P.S. If you ever were to do such a thing, don’t ever publish it on YouTube unless you want to endlessly be quoted out of context 😉

  8. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 2, 2016

    The analysis of the four “we” passages is especially helpful. Thanks.

  9. Avatar
    llamensdor  April 3, 2016

    Paul would be astonished to learn that he is considered to have created a new religion – Christianity. To suggest that he was “converted” to this religion is also erroneous. Paul’s philosophy, to the extent that he had one, was that he was appointed to bring non-Jews to the Jewish Covenant and thus to God. His major enemy was the Roman Empire, not “the Jews,” or Peter, James and the Jerusalem church. The story that Paul asked for and received a commission from the High Priest to go to Damascus and punish the Christ-followers there is simply false. Some distinguished historians have suggested that Paul had access to the priestly hierarchy because he, himself, was a Temple guard. The Temple guards were supposed to be the cream of Jewish manhood. Paul was short, bald, pot-bellied and bandy-legged—hardly the image of superior manhood.
    I believe that Paul stumbled on the Jerusalem church and was taken by their teachings, and he thought they had a good thing that would be highly saleable to multitudes, but as he told Peter and the others, this circumcision stuff and the food laws were an obstacle. If they would put those rules aside, their “church” would really grow. When Paul said these things, Peter and the others would say, “Jesus would never go for that.” When Paul protested, they told him, “We knew Jesus and you didn’t. We know his thinking and you don’t.” That was their repeated response to his proposals, which frustrated Paul to no end. Well not to no end, we know to what end.
    This is where we come to the event(s) on the road to Damascus. It’s described in different ways, but the basic idea is that Jesus appears to Paul and in fact lifts him up to heaven, and by implication tells Paul that his ideas are terrific. Paul then returns to Jerusalem and tells Peter and the others of his experience with the risen Jesus. When Peter raises the usual objections, Paul tells him, “You only knew Jesus in life, but I now know him in heaven. My knowledge supersedes yours and is superior to yours.” They argue, but finally agree that Peter will continue to preach to the Jews, and Paul will preach to the “nations,” i.e., the gentiles.
    Then there is Paul’s apocalypticism. I’m dubious about whether Jesus was or was not an apocalyptic, but I’m certain that Paul taught that the end times were upon them. That’s a great idea if you’re a preacher looking for followers. You teach them they have to follow your teaching now because the end is near and they have to accept your God before it’s too late. In other words, Paul was the Elmer Gantry/Billy Graham of his time.
    As far as contradictions in his teaching are concerned, how was he to know that people were going to collect his letters and turn them in scripture? He’s was certainly a compelling teacher and very successful. In the long run, he was far more successful than he could ever have imagined. What he actually believed is unknowable.

    • Avatar
      tcasto  April 7, 2016

      What fuels your skepticism that Jesus was apocalyptic?

  10. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  April 4, 2016

    Just want to say Athanasius and the Council of Nicea. Just want to document that I understand this now. Thank you again Bart for sharing knowledge. But I have a question the First Bishop of Athens? Where can find info on him ? Or any recommendations where I can get knowledge of this individual in Acts? Is that the only time he is mentioned? Only 1 time? Like acts 14:12 ?
    Acts 17:34 ? ( and a number of others ?) who were these others ? Just blogging is all. Thanks Bart.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 5, 2016

      I’m not sure who was the first leader of the church in Athens.

  11. Avatar
    madi22  April 14, 2016

    Bart 2 questions, firstly, Is it true that Plato wrote that in ancient Greece they spoke in some form of tongues or unknown utterances? Also healing following these experiences…i think there was something else also written how they would connect there spirit with apollos and then speak in strange tongues.
    Secondly did ancient greek mythology and beliefs exist well before genesis was written?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 14, 2016

      1. I’m not sure what you’re referring to 2. Depends when you date Genesis! It’s made up of a number of sources, and one big question is whether hte oldest one is as far back as the 10th c . BCE or not. Some scholars think yes, others no. Homer and Hesiod were probably writing in the 8th c. BCE. How far back did oral myths go? I have no idea!!

      • Avatar
        madi22  April 16, 2016

        From a scholarly perspective what actually is “tongues”. What does the bible actually say…is there really a heavenly language, or did the charismatics misunderstand scripture? Iv heard it has pagan origins (greek mythology). Was part of a Pentecostal church few years ago, never could understand why there is such opposing views on spiritual gifts until i realized how complex the bible actually is. Who’s in the right?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 16, 2016

          In 1 Cor. 12 it appears to be an unknown angelic language; in Acts 2 it is a known foreign language.

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