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Is the Book of Acts Historically Reliable? Smoke and Mirrors.

In my next post I will be staking stake out the “negative” side on the debate I had with myself in class, arguing against the resolution, Resolved: The Book of Acts is Historically Reliable.  I have already made the affirmative case; in the negative I will argue that the book is not reliable (that first speech was a set speech, prepared without reference to anything the affirmative side said).  I will then give a negative refutation of the affirmative’s first speech, and I will end with an affirmative rebuttal of the negative’s two speeches.

Before I do all that, however, I need to take a time-out and explain one negative counter-argument that would take too much space if it were simply part of a longer post laying out the negative position.

The affirmative side in the debate argued that based on archaeological evidence Luke can be shown to have presented accurately the laws, custom, and geography mentioned or alluded to in the book of Acts:  there really was an Areopagus where philosophers gathered, as mentioned in Acts 17; Thessolonica really did have local rulers called politarchs; Lystra really did have a temple of Zeus located outside its city walls.   That all sounds very impressive in the abstract, that Luke’s account can be and has been verified by significant archaeological discoveries.   The negative side of the debate, however, maintains that this information is completely irrelevant to the issue.

The reason is this:

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Is the Book of Acts Historically Reliable? The Negative Case.
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  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 29, 2016

    I don’t want to anticipate your arguments, but clearly Acts was not written as fiction–whoever wrote it clearly believed it was true, even though he could not have witnessed all (any?) of the events described. So it does actually count for something that this person was well-informed about events of the day, and the settings he was writing about. That’s a basic qualification for writing any work of history, but as I’m sure you’re going to point out, it’s not the only qualification. Not that anyone was qualified by modern standards back then. If we apply modern standards to ancient history, we might as well stop talking about ancient history altogether.

    • SBrudney091941
      SBrudney091941  March 30, 2016

      You wrote, “clearly Acts was not written as fiction–whoever wrote it clearly believed it was true.” I think that, at most, we can say he wrote it as though it were true and in such a way that the reader would think it was true. Ever read John Grisham or other fiction writers whose novels are filled with accurate detail? Totally believable.

  2. Avatar
    Judith  March 29, 2016

    Could hardly wait for this, knowing it could never be as persuasive. Ha!!!

    • Avatar
      Judith  March 29, 2016

      P.S. We know that’s not even the debate but it’s a done deal already.

  3. Avatar
    Pattycake1974  March 29, 2016

    To be continued again! Ugh! You’re killing me.

  4. talmoore
    talmoore  March 29, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, Carl Sagan used to say, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” (Though this notion was not new to Sagan, for it goes back to Enlightenment figures such as Hume and Laplace.) I would only add to that the inverse: “Ordinary evidence can only support ordinary claims.”

    I bring this up to point out that each bit of evidence we find must be weighed against the likelihood of the claim it is purporting to support. One extreme example might be that the terrorist attacks on New York City on 9/11 were an “inside job”. That’s an extraordinary claim — that a government would willingly murder its own citizens — not impossible, but certainly extraordinary. Now let’s say that I were to offer as evidence for this claim that New York City exists. Is it extraordinary that New York City exists? Not at all. It’s a very ordinary fact. Indeed, one can say it’s proof of nothing other than that New York City exists.

    But let’s look at a more subtle example. Did a certain historical figure exist? Let’s say Jesus? Now, this is one of the issues I have with Mythicists, because they conflate the extraordinary claim that Jesus was God with the rather mundane claim that Jesus the man actually existed. Would it be extraordinary if Jesus were actually God? Most definitely. We don’t see a lot of God-men in our daily lives. That would require extraordinary evidence to support such a claim. Would it be extraordinary if Jesus the man actually existed? Not in the slightest. We see human beings coming into and out of existence on a regular basis. Claiming that a person existed is not an extraordinary claim. That isn’t to say it requires no evidence to support such a claim, but the evidence itself need not be extraordinary. It can be as ordinary as the claim itself — like, say, a letter written some two decades after the purported death of said human being.

    Which brings me to the claim that the Book of Acts is historically reliable. We need to first separate out the more extraordinary claims in Acts from the more mundane claims in Acts. Examples of extraordinary claims in Acts are the faith healings by various apostles, or the claim that Ananias and Sapphira died merely by telling a lie (presumably as divine retribution). These are not things we experience in our daily lives (people dying merely from lying), so they require extraordinary evidence to believe. In fact, when we do experience such extraordinary events they almost always turn out to be the product of rumor, legend or trickery. The rather more mundane claims in Acts — such as that the Areopagus existed or that there was a temple to Zeus outside Lystra — are so non-extraordinary that it wouldn’t require any extraordinary evidence to accept the possibility that they are factual. Certainly, some archaeologists were skeptical that there might be a temple outside of a city’s walls, but it certainly isn’t unthinkable. The requisite evidence can be decidedly ordinary.

    I believe it’s this proclivity to conflate ordinary claims with extraordinary claims that makes some people suseptible to believing the absurd. It’s like thinking that just because New York City exists then it’s reasonable to think that 9/11 was an inside job. What do you think?

    • Avatar
      godspell  March 30, 2016

      Faith healings, in and of themselves, do not constitute such extraordinary claims–science has studied faith healings, found some validity to the whole mind over matter thing. If we read that a blind man was given sight, or the dead came back to life, obviously we don’t believe that in any rational way.

      But could someone in poor health feel better after an encounter with some inspiring person who told them they were healed? We know this actually does happen. We don’t entirely understand how. Mind over matter is not a scientific explanation any more than “God did it.” Jesus himself would tell people he’d healed that they had healed themselves, through believing–we do not, of course, hear the stories of people he tried to heal who failed to improve, but his explanation would certainly have been that they did not have faith. Nor do we know how these people felt later, after Jesus or a disciple of his had left the vicinity of the healed person.

      Your main point is absolutely correct–you can’t read ancient history without coming across extraordinary claims. Hyperbole was just part of how people expressed themselves back then.

      Has it really changed so much? Looking at politics today, I feel that might be a large exaggeration. HUGE. 😉

  5. Avatar
    Petter Häggholm  March 29, 2016

    Someone (Matt Dillahunty?) coined a standard response to this argument in debates with apologists, the Spider-Man reply: Future archæological evidence of New York is not good evidence for the existence of Spider-Man, no matter how many incidental details of the setting the comic may get right.

  6. Avatar
    gavriel  March 29, 2016

    But if we compare this with Mark’s knowledge of Palestinian geography, his alleged geographic blunders are often held against the reliability of his Gospel. Even if such information is beside the point, don’t you think the author’s proficiency in such matter tends to strengthen or weaken the general confidence one has in that author and should in a careful way be carried over to the stories which are more relevant?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2016

      I think if he is *inaccurate* in such matters that it matters a lot. But if he is accurate it has no bearing on whether the stories he tells actually happened or not.

      • Avatar
        gabilaranjeira  April 8, 2016


        I know I am comparing different aspects with this question (reliability of stories versus a person’s existence), but isn’t the inscription the bears Pilate’s name found in Caesarea often used to corroborate the existence of Jesus?

        I completely understood the analogy you made above. It makes a lot of sense, obviously, as does everything else you write. But as an ignorant outsider of scholarship, it feels like archaeology can be used or dismissed depending on the point one is trying to make. Is that true?


        • Bart
          Bart  April 10, 2016

          Unfortunately, the Pilate inscription makes no reference to Jesus, so it doesn’t indicate anything about his existence either way.

          I’d say some archaeological finds are extremely useful for establishing historicity; others are ambiguous. It’s completely a case-by-case matter.

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 29, 2016

    A good and helpful example.

  8. Avatar
    llamensdor  March 29, 2016

    Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard use similar arguments in their book, “Killing Jesus,” which they insist is a history book. They begin with the fantasy of Herod ordering the slaughter of Jewish male children under two years old, the wise men, the star and the babe, etc. But they weave in actual historical data about the Roman empire, e.g., the assassination of Julius Caesar on March 15, 44 BCE. What makes this datum relevant–forty years before the birth of Jesus–is unclear. They play this trick time and again, providing reasonably accurate information about Roman history interwoven with events described in one or another of the gospels. The reader is supposed to think, “Wow this stuff about Tiberius is pretty accurate, the stories about Jesus must be, too.” It has certainly worked; they’ve sold a couple million books without presenting any original research or authentication.

  9. Avatar
    Steefen  March 29, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, we are both past debaters. Do you really skip the defining of terms that comes before 1AC or 1NC?

    Historical: concerning past events, significantly relevant to the veracity of the acts performed in the Acts of the Apostles, preferably acts performed by the apostles (including Paul)

    Would you agree with the term above and how it is defined? There’s room for improvement when dealing with someone like me who has been away from policy debating for a while.

    What term/s would you define and how would you?

    Thank you,

  10. SBrudney091941
    SBrudney091941  March 29, 2016

    Same can be said of any fiction writer who uses his or her knowledge of places, etc. Think of John Grisham. He even knows a lot about the legal system, how litigation works, how the prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges operate. On the other hand, many questions raised about the historicity of the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus’ “trial.” C.G.F. Brandon’s book The Trial of Jesus of Nazareth, for example, is fascinating in this regard.

  11. Avatar
    john76  March 29, 2016

    For anyone who is interested, one of Canada’s top magazines, “Maclean’s,” just published an article about whether Jesus existed or not. Here is the article: http://www.macleans.ca/society/life/did-jesus-really-exist-2/

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  March 30, 2016

      Very interesting – thanks for posting the link!

      I don’t agree with the mythicists – I remember Bart having spelled out claims of theirs, to support their comparisons with Apollo and other gods, that I was sure were wildly inaccurate. But I am wondering whether the evidence supports all the things Bart accepts as “gist” memory. (Years ago, I imagined incidents in the lives of more than one preacher with the common name “Yeshua” might have been conflated into one.)

    • Avatar
      Steefen  March 30, 2016

      Thank you. This should encourage Dr. Ehrman. I didn’t read the article yet, but in an early post, he said he wasn’t getting enough media attention.

      Dr. Ehrman, do you do Book Festivals–I’m thinking LA Times Book Festival? You’ve talked about NPR. Haven’t you done Book TV? Have you done Charlie Rose?

      • Bart
        Bart  March 31, 2016

        I don’t really get invited to the festivals too much. When I do get invited, of course I go.

    • Avatar
      dragonfly  April 1, 2016

      I bet Bart never expected a journalist to use his new book to promote Carrier’s!

    • Avatar
      Phrygia  April 26, 2016

      Bart, were you interviewed for that Maclean’s story? Can you respond to what he said about Pilate?

      “But that wasn’t what all early Christians thought. The apocryphal Gospel of Peter says King Herod signed the death warrant. Others who thought Jesus was nearly 50 when he died believed that happened in the 40s of the first century, long after Pilate had been recalled to Rome. The Nazorians, an intriguing sect of Torah-observant early Christians discussed by a fourth-century scholar, believed Jesus died a century before the canonical Gospels, around 70 BCE. (And, since they were descended directly from the first followers of Christ, called Nazarenes before they became known as Christians, the Nazorians cannot be easily dismissed. The Babylonian Talmud, composed by the fifth century, notes the same.)”

      I would guess those all come from much later sources. And I’m skeptical that anyone can say the first Christians were called Nazarenes. I think the review has some good stuff, but it gets sloppy in some areas.

      • Bart
        Bart  April 28, 2016

        I’m not famiiliar with the Maclean’s story (or even what it was!).

  12. Avatar
    smackemyackem  March 29, 2016

    Was listening to Issues Etc. on Lutheran Public Radio the other day. They had Dr. Montgomery on as a guest who gave a rebuttal to your recent book interview. He said your main problem was that you never had proper apologetics training when you were a christian. I only mention this because you have said before that you get accused of this. Chalk up another one.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 30, 2016

      How funny. When I was an evangelical, I was *super* into apologetics. I took an entire semester course on it at Moody Bible Institute, and I devoured all the main books, not just in that class but outside of it, from C. S. Lewis, to Josh McDowell, to … John Montgomery!!!

    • Avatar
      Michael Sommers  April 17, 2016

      Proper apologetics training: “Here is how to twist the facts and logic to fit your beliefs.”

  13. Avatar
    fishician  March 29, 2016

    But Dr. Ehrman, I read a book called “Gone With The Wind.” Then I found out there really was a War Between the States, and there really was a city called Atlanta, and there really were plantations, and a state named “Georgia” and there was such a thing as slaves. Doesn’t that prove the story was true?!

  14. Avatar
    Kazibwe Edris  March 30, 2016

    doctor ehrman

    i am currently reading you written discussion with licona

    you wrote

    “Let me explore briefly just one of those differences to show you why the accounts seem to be truly at odds with one another. Do the disciples meet Jesus in Galilee or do they never leave Jerusalem? In Mark’s Gospel, the women are told to tell the disciples to go to meet Jesus in Galilee. But they never tell them. So, it’s not clear what Mark thinks happens next: Did no one ever hear? Surely, someone heard, since Mark knows the story!”

    so is it possible mark could have heard it 40 years after jesus’ death? so he is telling his audience that they never heard the empty tomb story before because some unknown women told me (mark) that they kept their mouth sealed because they were afraid?

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