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Is the Book of Acts Historically Reliable? The Negative Case.

This post will lay out the Negative case, arguing against the resolution, Resolved: The Book of Acts if Historically Reliable.   Again, I am not necessarily agreeing or disagreeing with this argument; I’m giving it as I would in a debate.

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The New Testament book of Acts is not historically reliable.  Before showing that to be the case, I want to make two preliminary remarks, both of them related to the question of what it means for an ostensibly historical account (a narrative of what allegedly happened in the past) to be reliable.

First, when readers today want to know whether the book of Acts is reliable, they mean that they want to know whether the events that it narrates actually happened in the way it describes.  Or not.  Readers are not primarily interested in knowing if he wrote his account the way other authors in his day would have done.  They are mainly interested in knowing whether his narrative happened the way he says it did.

Second, it is indeed important to know whether the author of the account had a solid and accurate knowledge of the laws, customs, and institutions of his day.  If he did not, then obviously cannot be historically reliable.  But even if he does, that in itself has no bearing on whether the stories he tells actually happened.  An author may well know that in the city of Lystra there was a temple of Zeus outside the city walls; but that has no bearing on whether what he says *happened* in that temple is historically true or not.  The affirmative side wants to argue that the fact that Luke was knowledgeable about the first century and that can easily be conceded.  Of course he did.  He lived in the first century.  Naturally he knows about it.  But that has no relevance to the question of whether the narratives he sets in the first century happened the way he says they did.

There are two major ways to check to see if Luke is historically accurate.   The first is to see if

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

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Comments

  1. RonaldTaska  March 30, 2016

    Another clear, concise, and excellent Ehrman review. Thanks.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  March 30, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, is there any point in Paul’s letters where he contradicts himself? Sometimes it’s possible to date a composition by when an author contradicts himself, giving away the natural progression and maturation of his thoughts over time.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2016

      He seems to have changed his mind about some things (e.g., when the end was coming — before he died or not); but I’m not sure there are any flagrant contradictions.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  March 31, 2016

        If you were preaching for over twenty years that the end of the world was going to arrive any minute now, I would expect that at some point you’d eventually start to question that prediction.

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2016

          Yeah, me too. But it’s amazing how many Christians still think the end is coming very soon — when these same people were saying that in the 1970s….

          • Steefen  April 4, 2016

            Talmore, the end of the Jewish world of Temple Judaism DID come to an end.

            The questioning of the prediction could only begin after the generation living in the early 30s Common Era passed away. Before those 40 years were up, the Civil War started and the Jews defeated the Syrian Legion XII Fulminata; because of these two events, the end was upon them, no need to question it. Before the limit was reached for the prediction/prophecy/or writing past events as future events, the end did come.

  3. godspell  March 30, 2016

    Of course, you could look at much more modern and secular sources for historians, and find just as many conflicts in the events they record as you do in Acts. Newspaper articles contradict each other. A story is printed, then edited, then sometimes retracted altogether.

    The author of Acts was not attempting to write a work of history. He was attempting to preserve stories he’d heard and perhaps read in earlier sources we have now lost, and to make them fit together. Those stories conflicted with each other, and he could not know which version was correct. And he was, of course, interested in telling a good story, because that’s how you get people interested in what you’ve written, which is how you win converts, and keep the ones you already have, and build a sense of community, a shared culture and history.

    This is no more invalidating Acts as a historical source than it invalidates Thucydides–who is actually attempting to write history. And yet Thucydides contradicts himself in many ways–for example, referring to the events described in the Iliad by Homer, he rejects Homer’s claim that there were a thousand Greek ships at Troy, but then uses Homer’s information about the men on those ships to estimate the size of the Greek military force. The Iliad is mythology, poetry, oral history written down long after the events that inspired it, and full of supernatural references, yet is treated as a valid historical resource by one of the first true historians whose work has survived.

    If we apply an overly strict standard to ancient sources, we lose any hope of studying ancient history, except as a collection of dusty pot shards and ruined temples. Our ancestors have bequeathed us something far more valuable–their words and ideas. Without which, we would be wallowing in a pit of pure ignorance regarding the origins of our nations, cultures, and beliefs.

    • Nigo  April 5, 2016

      The problem is though: If God inspired Luke to write down all that he wrote in the Book of Acts, then you’d expect 100% accuracy in everything he records…but clearly this is not the case. Remember, Christians generally claim that everything written in the bible was fully inspired by God, & because of that, it can be relied on as being 100% accurate…which again, it’s clearly not. The written, “fully inspired by God” accounts of Jesus absolutely guaranteeing that his…or the Son of Man’s [Second] Coming would take place before the generation standing right in front of him would pass away…that some of those standing there would not taste death until this grandiose event took place…coupled with the “fully inspired by God” things the rest of the New Testament says about the Second Coming of Christ being an absolutely certain “about to be” event. Very clearly this grandiose event never took place, which according to Deut 18:20-22 makes Jesus a false prophet. I say all this, because in my former life as a fully committed evangelical Christian, I would always use the “100% fully inspired word of God” as a defense for the complete accuracy of all it contains…even though I could clearly see that there were many contradictions, etc… which resulted in me experiencing real cognitive dissonance. So the real issue is: if Luke’s account in the Book of Acts was fully inspired by God, as Christians claim it is…then why so many discrepancies & contradictions?

  4. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 30, 2016

    Do you think Luke wasn’t aware of his own inconsistencies? Possibly, in his mind it all made sense, but when he wrote it down, he forgot what he previously wrote in the first book or misremembered some of the details?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2016

      Yes, I think he probalby wasn’t

      • Robert  April 6, 2016

        Really? You really think ‘Luke’ was not aware of some of the glaring inconsistencies in the accounts of Paul’s conversion/calling or in the ascension occurring on the day of the resurrection or 40 days afterwards, from Bethany or from Jerusalem? How could an author be so unaware of his own writings? Do you think he was just (rather mindlessly) preserving contradictory traditions rather than functionin as a true author of his work? Or do you have a different explanation or view?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 6, 2016

          People often don’t see their own contradictions! Happens a lot, I’m afraid….

  5. gavriel  March 30, 2016

    Could you say something about Luke’s possible knowledge of Paul’s letters? Perhaps dedicate a whole post to this?

  6. bobnaumann  March 30, 2016

    Do you think Luke or any of the other Gospel writers had access to Paul’s letters?

  7. mjoniak  March 30, 2016

    How would you (as the negative guy) respond to the objection that Luke is only narrating in Acts 9, but in 22 and 26 he records speeches by Paul? Surely a character in a story (Paul) is allowed to disagree with a reliable narrator (Luke) and the character can even be wrong? If speeches are recorded accurately, then it doesn’t matter if the speaker was right.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2016

      Yup, that’s possible. My view is that every time a story gets told, it changes. But that means that it can’t be historically reliable every time. That’s not a problem if historical reliability is not your concern…

      • mjoniak  March 31, 2016

        Thanks and I agree, but I meant something a bit different. We have 3 accounts of Paul’s conversion. Let’s assume they are indeed contradictory and call them A, B and C. But only A is given by Luke, in B and C he quotes speeches by Paul. Even if B and C are contradictory with A, the author only claims that A is what actually happened. B and C only tell us what Paul said at some point. Should we really see this as a contradiction?

        • Bart
          Bart  April 1, 2016

          Yup, I get it. But it would mean that the story changed from one of Paul’s versions to the next, and again when it came to Luke’s version.

  8. hammerofthegods  March 30, 2016

    It is always baffling to me how these manuscripts contained so many inconsistencies, not just with other writings, but within the same manuscript -itself-. The fact these were so obvious must mean some had to have been left in on purpose. I guess it just goes to underscore that the NT writers weren’t necessarily trying to write a logical, coherent history of events like we are used to reading these days. They had other motives and agendas on their mind, and a painstaking recreation of the facts was not of primary interest to them. Given the glaring preponderance of these inconsistencies, it is beyond belief that some Christian interpreters still insist these books were handed down by God himself and are thus immutable and perfect. On the contrary, these early Christian manuscripts are all too human.

    • godspell  March 31, 2016

      Or Christians themselves didn’t agree on what had happened–there were conflicting stories, as of course there would be in any situation like this. And no definitive way to ‘prove’ who was right.

      The author of Luke and Acts was not writing those books in a vacuum. That’s something we should never allow ourselves to forget.

  9. Jim  March 31, 2016

    Sure some sections in Acts may look a bit contrary, but it’s nothing that a dab of apologetic harmonization tonic (AHT) can’t fix. See those sticky Acts 9 and 22 sections; just pour a few drops of AHT on each page and there we go … half of Paul’s companions didn’t see anything but heard a voice and the remaining companions saw a light but didn’t hear any voice. Contradiction repaired. There isn’t any contradiction too tough for AHT, and for just three easy payments of ….

  10. dragonfly  March 31, 2016

    I thought this was a prepared speech, but you are already responding to the affirmative’s arguments – “The
    affirmative side wants
    to argue that…” Is it normal to do this at this stage of a debate? I thought that came next?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2016

      It’s common so long as you don’t engage in a specific refutation of a specific particular point, but are generally attacking the affirmative position.

  11. jrhislb  March 31, 2016

    Maybe Paul changed his views of pagans between speaking in Athens and writing Romans or he was willing to be a little bit dishonest if he thought it would win converts. Theoretically it might be Luke who gives an accurate view of his preaching, not Paul himself.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2016

      Yup, that’s certainly possible. The bit issue, as always, is whether it’s probable — in this case, that someone writing 30 years or more later has a better sense of what a person thinks than the person at the time did…..

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 31, 2016

      “he was willing to be a little bit dishonest if he thought it would win converts”

      I personally believe this encapsulates Paul’s entire mission in a nutshell. He wasn’t so much concerned with saving souls as he was with saving his own soul by hastening the parousia. This may be contraversial to say, but if you give Paul an unbiased reading it’s rather obvious that he’s a bit of a selfish prick.

      • dragonfly  April 13, 2016

        I would use the word “arrogant”.

  12. crucker  March 31, 2016

    Regarding the condemnation of Gentiles you mention in Romans 1, I’ve heard the argument that Paul here is quoting a common Jewish condemnation against Gentiles, to which Paul gives his own response to beginning in chapter 2. It was said it’s harder to see this in English, but the wording in Greek of lends more credibility to this interpretation. So under this idea, the end of Romans 1 is not actually Paul’s voice, and we don’t get Paul’s voice until he gives his response in chapter 2. How credible is this?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2016

      It’s usually thought that if Paul *is* quoting an earlier source (most scholars don’t think so; but if he is…) it is precisely because he agrees with it.

  13. jhague  March 31, 2016

    Interestingly, when I was growing up in the church, there was more emphasis on Acts than on Paul’s letters.

  14. Rick
    Rick  March 31, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, Does Acts having Jesus with the disciples for the biblically repetitive “forty days” before ascending influence opinion on its reliability? It seems everything takes 40 days (in the wilderness) or 40 days and nights (rain for the flood) or 40 years (Israelites in the desert)…. what is it with 40 anyway?

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2016

      Yup, it’s a round number in the Bible for “a long time.”

  15. Elisabeth  April 1, 2016

    I have to agree with “hammerofthegods” above – I can’t understand for the life of me how an author can contradict his own self. Is it truly just poor attention to detail and lack of intellect (requiring even poorer attention to detail and intellect on the part of anyone claiming his book is consistent, let alone divine) – or is there some cultural difference underlying it, as suggested previously, that accuracy of story details in that period, or perhaps that literary genre, was considered unimportant relative to the overall message?

    I know my own family have claimed this when faced with irrefutable contradictions in the Bible, but it seems to kind of fly in the face of divine inspiration, let alone fundamentalist ideas of ‘infallibility’.

  16. Steefen  April 2, 2016

    Wait a second.
    Not only is there room for criticism: Why wait mostly until during and after the put down of the Jewish Revolt to start writing about Jesus?

    Why would Luke wait mostly until during and after the put down of the Jewish Revolt to start writing about Paul when he was an acquaintance of Paul? One would write about a personal acquaintance before a secondary acquaintance. Why would Acts not begin with the personal acquaintance, Paul, and have the biographical information be more similar to the autobiographical information?

    Would Luke have been someone entrusted with copies of the original letters of Paul, preserving the legacy of Paul after Paul died, referencing the letters from rich, Paul’s estate? He/someone else/they certainly cared about him after “Paul” “died.”

    You often say, Matthew and John did not write the canonical gospels. Who would have preserved the legacy of Jesus after Jesus died; Why not a rich and educated Samaritan for the parable about the Good Samaritan; why not an educated Roman general because Jesus at least prayed for his daughter if not made her well; Why not the educated of a town in gratitude for relief from their troubles by Jesus’s exorcism of a possessed man?

  17. Zboilen  October 30, 2016

    Hi Bart. How do you think Luke (or whoever he was) knew all that he knew about the ancient world if he had not actually been to the places he said he was. Did he have access to maps or other historical writings that would have given him information about these places?

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