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The Book of Acts: An Overview

Now that I have explained at some length how the debates work in my Introduction to the New Testament class, I can talk a bit about the debate that I staged in front of the class.   The class debates that the students themselves will participate in start next week – one a week for three weeks.   I’ve always thought that for students to see how a debate is supposed to work, they need to observe one in action.  So I like to have a debate in front of the entire class to give them an idea.  The problem is that most years (well, virtually every year) it is hard to find someone who is willing to debate me.  And so, I debate myself.

The topic that I usually debate has to do with the NT book of Acts and whether it can be trusted to give a historically reliable account of the work of Paul and the other apostles after the death of Jesus.  The specific resolution is this:  “Resolved: The Book of Acts is Historically Reliable.”

In order to make sense of the debate, and of how I can argue for both the affirmative side of the resolution (yes Acts is reliable) and the negative side (no it is not), I need to provide, here, a bit of background that the students already have coming into the class.    (In future posts I’ll lay out my affirmative and negative arguments concerning its historical reliability.)

The first four books of the NT are Gospels, followed then by the book of Acts.  The Gospels each, in their own way, present accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.  The book of Acts picks up where the Gospels drop off, by describing the activities of Jesus’ disciples after he is raised from the dead and then ascended into heaven.

One key fact to bear in mind is that …

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The Literary Artistry of the Book of Acts
How Are Manuscripts Discovered

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Comments

  1. plparker  March 21, 2016

    How do you deal with the issue of whether or not debating two sides of a question is itself unethical? Should a person argue a position in a debate that is contrary to their own beliefs? Isn’t that immoral? Isn’t it like the criticisms of the sophists in Ancient Greece, who would argue any side of any question for a fee?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      No, I don’t think it’s at all immoral, so long as it’s an academic exercise where you are required to take a stand, as opposed to, say, a real debate in which you are allegedly advancing your views.

    • VEndris  March 25, 2016

      I think it helps one keep her/his biases in check. I am as turned of by an academic atheist who refuses to admit that a theist might have a good argument as I am by an evangelical inerrantists who does the same thing. I think Bart does a very good job of being fair to the other side. In my opinion, this is one of his strongest qualities.

  2. GreggL10  March 21, 2016

    This sounds like an fascinating debate, one I wish I could hear. Is this in any of the Great Courses you have done?

    I guess one question would be whether the stories told–excluding the miracles–make sense to historians of the ancient world. One example I have been puzzled by is the reference in Acts 17 of an altar to an “unknown god” that evidently some people worshipped. Are there any other independent sources that clarify what this was?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      There were so many altars to so many gods, that it is usually thought that this would not have been overly strange. It’s simply someone setting up an altar to make sure that the God not otherwise known receives his due.

  3. plparker  March 21, 2016

    Another topic that I find people who are new to debate struggle over is what kind of style or demeanor to adopt when debating. Is it appropriate to adopt a critical, negative, sarcastic, angry style of delivery? Isn’t that how we have arguments with our siblings or peers? Isn’t this activity like that? Or for people who are very conflict-averse, isn’t this what makes them most uncomfortable about standing up and disagreeing with their opponent in a debate? You aren’t angry with the other guy. You don’t want to hurt them or criticize them. How do you get comfortable debating them?

    I’d be interested in your advice to this concern often expressed or implicit in a new debater’s discomfort over debating.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      I’m not sure I have good advice, since I’m not sure I practice what I preach! But I think a good sense of humor has a better overall effect than angry cynicism.

      • plparker  March 22, 2016

        One of the suggestions I make to young people about debate is to imagine giving your argument/debate speech to your favorite grandparent or to an authority figure you respect like the senior pastor at your church. How would you speak to them, to politely disagree with something they have said? Try to adopt that style of speaking in your debate. You don’t have to show anger to be a good debater.

        Bart I think you do a particularly good job in complimenting your opponent when you start, and pointing out areas of common agreement. I think this is another way to adopt a friendly but firm speaking style for presenting your argument. But I agree, it is very hard not to become a bit sarcastic when your opponent has said something stupid.

  4. Judith  March 21, 2016

    Now there’s a way you can make a pile of money for the blog, Dr.Ehrman. Set up a lottery. Whoever wins can join the class to watch the debate. (Maybe next year or whenever the blog grows to twice its number?)

  5. Omar6741  March 21, 2016

    Can we see a video of “Ehrman vs. Ehrman”?
    As a suggestion, you could get in one other friendly scholar to debate you in front of the class.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      I wish there were one!

      • sashko123  March 24, 2016

        Would someone need to pay you double your rate to hear that? Actually, that WOULD be an interesting debate! It might be one of the best examples of an online debate in which both sides bring their best arguments!

  6. Omar6741  March 21, 2016

    Could I ask you for the *two* best books you know of that support the reliability of Acts, and the *two* best books you know of that deny the reliability of Acts?
    For non-specialists, reading two high-quality books on each side of a debate is a good way to get to know the shape of the scholarly discussion.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      A lot of the best discussions are in articles, such as P. Vielhauer’s “On the Paulinisms in Acts.” A commentary by someone who sees Acts as historical: I Howard Marshall. By someone who has more doubts: Joseph Fitzmyer.

  7. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  March 21, 2016

    We’re getting to the good part!

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  March 22, 2016

      I see several people have brought up recording your self-debate and maybe the class debates. Is that allowed at UNC? That’s always been an ordeal in schools that I’ve work with even at the college level. Some instructors won’t even allow audio recording lectures anymore.

  8. WimV  March 22, 2016

    I have a question related to Paul’s mission to Lystra, but that takes us to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. Upon Paul and Barnabas’ arrival in Lystra and after Paul has healed a cripple, the locals think they are witnessing a theoxeny, i.e. Zeus has come in the form of Paul and Hermes in the form of Barnabas. Since a theoxenic visit would scare the locals – because it’s the gods come to test their hospitality – they start preparing sacrifices for these supposed gods to avoid punishment.

    The locals believing they are witnessing a town visit by Zeus/Jupiter and Hermes/Mercury in disguise seems to be a reference to the myth found in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” where these same two gods visit a town full of “wicked” people and are only welcomed in by one poor old couple, Baucis and Philemon, who host them according to the Greco-Roman custom of hospitality toward strangers. The old couple is then told to flee into the mountains because the town will be flooded as a punishment, which it subsequently is. This story by Ovid sounds very similar to the biblical story of Sodom and Gomorrah where two angels come to visit the town of Sodom and are welcomed in by Lot and his wife, after which the angels tell Lot and his wife to flee to the mountains because the town will be destroyed by fire from the sky.

    I think it is generally accepted that Ovid (who lived around the time of Jesus) got a lot of his material for “Metamorphoses” from Nicander of Colophon’s lost work “Heteroeumena”, but that Ovid also changed many of the stories considerably, so it isn’t clear whether the story about Sodom and Gomorrah may have borrowed from an older version of Zeus&Hermes visiting Baucis&Philemon (which may go back to Nicander and earlier), or whether Ovid’s version borrowed from the Sodom and Gomorrah story, or whether both the biblical story and the Zeus&Hermes visiting Baucis&Philemon story separately trace back to an older theoxenic myth. A tell-tale sign that the biblical story may have borrowed from the Greeks is that Lot and his wife are told by the angels to flee into the mountains (an instruction also present in the Baucis and Philemon story), which only seems to make sense when you want to survive a flood (as in the Baucis and Philemon story) and not fire that rains down from heaven (as in the Sodom and Gomorrah story).

    Do you have any opinion on which story may have influenced which story? And does the event described in Acts provide any clues?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 22, 2016

      There were lots of stories of divinities visiting humans leading to judgment, so I’m not sure one of these has to be literarily dependent on the other.

      • WimV  March 22, 2016

        For what it’s worth (and apologies for the length), I reckon there is more than just a passing similarity between Ovid’s “Baucis and Philemon” and Genesis Chapter 19.
        In both stories:
        -Two divine beings arrive at a town
        -They conceal their identitities
        -They receive hospitality and shelter from only one household
        -The household prepares a feast for the visitors
        -The disguised divine beings disclose their true identities by performing a miracle (a wine pitcher that keeps refilling in “Baucis and Philemon”, and the wicked townsmen being struck blind in Genesis)
        -The divine visitors pronounce judgement on the town for its wickedness
        -The household is offered immunity
        -The hosts are told to flee to the mountains
        -The visitors escort their hosts to this higher ground
        -The wicked are submerged in a lake in “Baucis and Philemon” and come under a “rain” of fire in Genesis
        -Lot’s wife looks back to watch / Baucis and Philemon look back to watch
        -A favour is given to the hosts: the city of Zoar is spared in Genesis, and Baucis and Philemon are granted priesthood and their wish to die together
        -Lot’s wife undergoes a metamorphosis (she turns into a pillar of salt, which I think is the only human metamorphosis in the Bible) / Baucis and Philemon undergo a metamorphosis when they die together (they turn into trees)

        In both stories an etiology is offered for the particular geographical features of a region: a wasteland with presumably a human-like pillar of salt and a town that has oddly been spared (Zoar), and a marshland with human-like trees and a temple in the middle that has oddly been spared (Baucis and Philemon’s cottage is transformed into a temple).

        A similar case can be made for Genesis 18 and Ovid’s story about Hyrieus in his work “Fasti”:
        -Three divine beings (Yahweh and two angels / Jupiter, Mercury and Neptune) arrive at Abraham’s tent / Hyrieus’ cottage
        -The visitors’ true identities are concealed
        -The old Abraham / old Hyrieus offers them hospitality
        – Abraham and Sarah / Hyrieus prepare(s) a feast that includes a slaughtered calf / ox
        – Yahweh / Jupiter discloses who he really is
        – Abraham and Sarah desire a child, but Sarah is infertile / Hyrieus wants a child, but his wife is dead
        – Yahweh promises Sarah a child and Isaac is born / Jupiter and his companion gods perform a miracle by urinating on the ox hide and ten months later Orion is born

    • mjordan20149  March 22, 2016

      Jung would say that these stories are part of the “collective unconscious.”

    • Eric  March 28, 2016

      Alternative explanation of Lot feeling “to the mountains” might be to emphasize that Sodom and Gomorrah (evil) were “cites of the plain” — tilled agricultural (evil). “Good” people (i.e. the myth-progenitors of the Hebrews) were pastoralists, who dwell in hills etc. Of course this interpretation echoes the sacrifices of Cain (fruits of the earth -rejected) and Abel (herded animal, I believe – accepted).

  9. godspell  March 22, 2016

    Do we know which one was written first? That is to say (in modern terminology), is Acts a sequel or is Luke’s gospel a prequel?

  10. talmoore
    talmoore  March 22, 2016

    Dr. Ehrman, I think the Book of Acts is arguably the most important, yet least understood book in the entire NT canon; namely because it’s *the* (putative) account for the formation of Christianity itself. Acts begins, in fact, the moment that Jesus’ disciples realize that everything they’ve known, everything they’ve experienced up until that point has been mistaken. Once Jesus is arrested and executed the disciples were forced to rally, re-evaluate and re-assess pretty much everything they believed. So, yeah, that’s the point that Christianity truly began in my eyes.

    As for the reliability of Acts, I’ve always had a nagging question about it of which I have yet to find a satisfying answer. Around chapter 20 the author starts using the first-person plural. I’ve noticed that most scholars (and I assume you are included) are dismissve of the possibility that the rest of the book is a genuine first-person account. I figure this is for various reasons: anachronisms, exaggerations, contradictions, etc. But I notice that the last seven chapters begin to get really bogged down in minutiae — I mean to the point where valuable parchment space is getting wasted. I could see any editor worth her salt taking a red pencil to those last chapters (God forbid!). An example to illustrate what I’m talking about. Chapter 23, verses 31 to 33. One would expect the author to write something to the effect of: “Paul and the letter were delivered to the governor in Caesarea”. Thus whence the prolixity of those three verses? Another example. Chapter 27, verses 2 to 8. Seriously, what the heck is up with that passage?!? The exact same number of lines have been devoted to this banal, superfluous passage as the very same author’s account of Jesus’ arrest (Luke 22:47-53), and, yet, one would think that Jesus’ arrest would be, far and away, much more worthy of such detail! I’ve read that some scholars think that these later chapters of Acts were written in detail to give them an air of authenticity, but I must say I find that tough to swallow. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 23, 2016

      There are four “we” passages in Acts (starts in ch. 16); they cut in and out without warning. I’ll talk about them in a later post. But I agree, the tenor of the book really starts to change in the final third….

  11. RonaldTaska  March 23, 2016

    Forty days of “proofs” does seem strange indeed. Thanks for pointing that out. Keep going! I am especially interested in how in the world you argue for the historical accuracy of Acts.

  12. Robert  March 23, 2016

    I don’t defend the historical accuracy of the book of Acts, but if a debate question is well formulated, there should be adequate evidence and argumentation on both sides of the question. One should be able to sincerely, credibly, and persuasively argue both sides of the question. Thus debate is not only a method for discovering the truth, but also a rhetorical training exercise.l and a team sport. Thus, for those of us who (rightly, I think) do not entertain the idea that Acts is reliable history, how might the debate question be better formulated so that one could sincerely, credibly, and persuasively argue both sides of the question?

    What would be a more scholarly formulated proposition? Maybe not for undergraduates in the Bible Belt, but for serious debaters who want a better formulated question, how might you improve upon the debate question?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 24, 2016

      Ah, there’s plenty of evidence, and things to say, on both sides. I think in fact this *is* a hotly debated topic.

  13. Omar6741  March 24, 2016

    Professor Ehrman,
    Speaking of the story of Christianity coming to Rome, can I ask you what your opinion is of the reference in Suetonius’ “The Twelve Caesars” to the expulsion of Jews by Claudius because they were continuously “creating disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus”. Historians date these events to 49CE (and some earlier to 41CE).
    This is puzzling because on the one hand this seems to be a confused reference to disputes about Christ; on the other hand, it is hard to explain how nascent Christianity, a Jewish movement from a small province of the Roman east which started off with no concept of a mission to the Gentiles, was significant enough to cause disturbances in Rome at a time when even the most active of the movement’s travelling apostles to the Gentiles, Paul, had not reached there. Is it likely that followers of Jesus were already in Rome and in enough numbers to be able to cause disturbances leading to expulsions?
    Can I ask what is your view of the identity or nature of the “Chrestus” to which Suetonius refers, in ,light of this puzzle?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 25, 2016

      I’ve never been able to decide the issue, but my sense is that it would be odd indeed if there were so many Christians in Rome in the days of Claudius that it led to riots in the streets. Chrestus was a common name; maybe he was a trouble maker….

      • Omar6741  April 5, 2016

        That makes sense. However, if Chrestus was a trouble maker, wouldn’t it have been easier just to execute him in Rome and end the trouble that way? That’s what happened to another “Chrestus” in Palestine, so why don’t we hear about this here?
        Thanks!

        • Bart
          Bart  April 6, 2016

          I think the problem wasn’t Chrestus so much as the riots caused by Chrestus.

  14. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 25, 2016

    So that’s who’s on your mobile user home page picture ( Plato? )

    • Bart
      Bart  March 26, 2016

      Me and Sarah!

      • Josephsluna
        Josephsluna  March 26, 2016

        No, your mobile profile picture looks like Plato and Jesus. At his first unversity ( the academy that was Shut down for paganism ) that is the picture and you a fan ? So you know Solon who spoke with the priest in Egypt so it was passed down to Athens 9600bc the teachings of Poseidon but the teachings of Zeus. Fun fact, Zeus tested your hospitality? Well I would show you great hospitality! And do you know why Plato stopped mid sentence when he spoke of Zeus gathering of all Olympians? Who was all Olympians? So Romans emperors and kings bowed to Jupiter ? Why ? Just blogging is all.

      • Pattycake1974
        Pattycake1974  March 26, 2016

        You’re both wrong. That’s Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

  15. bobnaumann  March 30, 2016

    In Acts Jesus spends 40 days before he ascends, but in Luke it appears he ascends on Easter evening. How can this be the same author?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 31, 2016

      You’d be amazed at how the same person can tell different stories about the same event. Or in this political season, maybe none of us would be amazed.

  16. Phrygia  April 2, 2016

    Hello, Dr. Ehrman. Why do you think Paul’s death is not included in Acts?

    And related to that, which deaths of the Apostles are best documented?

    TIA.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 3, 2016

      I think in large part it’s because the whole point of Acts is that Paul’s mission could not be stopped by any human force. Maybe I’ll include this question on the weekly mailbag. On the apostles: we have pretty good evidence to suggest that James son of Zebedee, Peter, and Paul were all martyred, but not much information beyond that.

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