To understand a debate about whether the book of Acts is historical, I first have to explain — by way or reminder or by way of … minder — what the book of Acts is actually about.  After this post I’ll lay out how I debate (with myself) whether what it says can actually be seen as historically accurate.

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 the author of Acts also wrote the Gospel of Luke.  There really should be little debate about that (although as with every historical claim, there is *always* some debate!).  You can see for yourself just by reading the first few verses of Luke and then reading the first few verses of Acts.  Acts is dedicated to the same person as Luke’s Gospel (Theophilus) and refers back to the account already written about what Jesus said and did (which is what is in Luke), indicating that this then will be a second installment.  The themes of the two books are very similar, there are lots of parallels between the two accounts, the writing style is very similar, the vocabulary is similar, the theology is similar.

And so, Luke and Acts are two volumes of the same work, a two-volume work that discusses the rise of Christianity starting (in vol. 1) with the birth of Jesus, continuing through his life, death,and resurrection, continuing then (in vol. 2) with the birth of the Christian church, continuing on through its life and experiences, and detailing its spread throughout the Roman world until it reaches the capital of the empire, the city of Rome itself.

The account picks up where Luke left off, with Jesus raised from the dead.  Jesus at the end of Luke’s Gospel instructs his disciples (after his resurrection) to stay in Jerusalem until they receive the power from on high that they will need.  In Acts we’re told they stayed in Jerusalem for forty days while Jesus proved to them “with many proofs” that he had been raised from the dead (Acts 1:3).  That has always struck me as one of the strangest verses in the entire NT.  Why would Jesus need to perform “many proofs” over forty days in order to prove to someone that he was no longer dead?  Wouldn’t he simply have to show up and talk with them?  Seems like that should do it.

But in any event, according to Acts Jesus spent forty days with the disciples proving that he had been raised.  He then instructed them to be his “witnesses” not just in Jerusalem, where they were at the time, but also throughout Judea and Samaria and on to the “ends of the earth” (1:8).  After giving this instruction, he physically ascended to heaven in their presence.  A few days later (ch. 2) came the Day of Pentecost, an annual Jewish festival, at which, on this occasion, the Holy Spirit came upon the followers of Jesus, causing them to speak in foreign languages that they didn’t know in order to preach the gospel of Christ to Jews from around the world who had come to Jerusalem from around the world, each hearing the gospel in their own native language.  This is the first miracle involving the apostles.This then is the earliest account we have of the birth and spread of the Christian church, especially at the hands of the apostle Paul.  Is it an accurate account?  That is, does it recount what actually happened, so that if you had been there, this is what you would have seen?

More was to come.  The disciples were empowered by the Spirit to heal and do other miracles, and to preach the message of Christ’s salvation.  They did so, and many thousands of Jews convert just in Jerusalem itself, all in the space of three chapters (chs. 2-4).  Eventually, though, the followers of Jesus encountered a determined opposition among the Jewish leaders, and many Christians scatter elsewhere, taking their gospel with them.

The rest of Acts deals with life and mission of the Christians, especially the apostle Paul, who starts out as an opponent of the church.  He is portrayed as a zealous Jew who is violently opposed to the Christian message and its messengers, who is active in persecuting the church, and who is present at the stoning death of the first Christian martyr, Stephen.  But then a great miracle occurs: Jesus appears to Paul and “blinded by the light” Paul realizes that Jesus really was raised from the dead, and comes to be his greatest spokesperson.  Two-thirds of the book of Acts is about Paul and his subsequent missionary work – he takes three missionary journeys – his arrest, various judicial trials, and final journey to Rome where he is to appear before Caesar to plead his case.  The book ends with Paul in house arrest in Rome, preaching the gospel to all who visit him.

This then is the earliest account we have of the birth and spread of the Christian church, especially at the hands of the apostle Paul.  Is it an accurate account?  That is, does it recount what actually happened, so that if you had been there, this is what you would have seen?  If it’s pretty accurate, is it entirely accurate?  If it is pretty inaccurate, is it entirely inaccurate?  All interesting questions!  The debate is meant to deal not with whether it’s a great story or not, but whether it replicates what happened.  And, as I indicated, it’s a debate I used to have with myself, arguing both sides against each other, in front of the class. Before showing what the arguments and counter-arguments are, I need to set out a bit more information about the book of Acts, over the course of the next two posts.

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2024-03-14T12:20:03-04:00March 12th, 2024|Acts of the Apostles|

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  1. Karlpeeter March 12, 2024 at 9:01 am

    Hi bart
    Some chrsitans have said that the gospels cannot be fake because peter or james could rebuke the false teachings . Peter died in 64 AD and i think he traveled around some part of europe like rome and Antioch acording to paul’s letter if i am not wrong. The gospels were written after peter’s death but i don’t think he could rebuke the legends even if something was wrong even if i the gospels would have been written in his time. But what are your thoughs?

    • BDEhrman March 14, 2024 at 8:05 pm

      So if someone writes something about me that is incorrect they wouldn’t be able to publish it because I would read it and tell them? You kinda wonder what people who say such things are thinking exactly.

  2. fishician March 12, 2024 at 10:04 am

    All 4 Gospels hint at doubt among the disciples (Matthew states it explicitly). Do you think Acts 1:3 is continuing that theme, that some disciples were skeptical and needed many proofs? (Tough audience!)

    • BDEhrman March 15, 2024 at 7:40 pm

      Oh yes. It’s one of the weirdest verses in the NT. He had to do many proofs for 40 days to convince them? What kinds of proofs and why would they need convincing if he was there talking with them???

  3. MiriamL613 March 12, 2024 at 10:44 am

    How to identify “the true church” based on Matthew and Acts:

    Instruction to obey the entire Torah in accordance with the Pharisees (Matthew 5:17-19, 23:2-3)

    How did this play out twenty years later?

    In Acts 21:23-25, James speaking to Paul, see the entire original structure of mid-first-century Christianity.

    “We have four men” – They were Jewish-Christians.

    “Under a vow” — They took the Nazarite vow.

    “Pay their expenses” — Haircuts and animal sacrifices.

    “Nothing in what they have been told about you” — A false rumor.

    “You yourself live in observance of the Torah” — Confirmation of Paul’s claim seen later in Acts 26:5.

    “But as for the Gentiles who have believed, we have sent a letter” — Instructing them to observe Noahide laws.
    Combining the gospel of Matthew with Acts, there is the harmony that we see in Rabbi Jacob Emden’s letter, “Seder Olam Rabbah Vezuta” (1757), which views the Jewish-Christians as fully Torah-observant and the Gentile-Christians as observing the Laws of Noah. Additional Noahide laws can be seen in 1 Corinthians Chapter 6.

    • BDEhrman March 15, 2024 at 7:44 pm

      Yup, Matthew does seem to insist that Jesus’ followers keep the law; Acts certainly portrays Paul as keeping the law. But Paul in his letters tells Gentile believers *not* to keep the law and says of himself that when among gentiles he lived like a gentile. One more sign that the NT is not internally coherent in some rather key ways….

  4. 1SonOfZeus March 12, 2024 at 12:35 pm

    Dr. Ehrman, I have some questions. Barnabas was known as who? They (Barnabas) used to drink and talk about God? Also, the “Unknown God” (Acts 17:23) what does this mean? I mainly want to know, how many more verses in the Bible is Zeus mention besides Acts 14:12?

    • BDEhrman March 15, 2024 at 7:46 pm

      Zeus is mentoined only in Acts 14:12 and 14:13 in the Bible. The altar to the “Unknown God” was a pparently a place of sacrifice to any god who whose name was unknown, to whom sacrifices were made just to make sure he wasn’t left out of the picture! You don’t want to offend a God, even if you don’t know who he is!

      • 1SonOfZeus March 15, 2024 at 9:00 pm

        Barnabas was known as Joseph? Who was Barnabas to Paul? I plan to go to Athens. I might tear up when I see the temples. I want a photo kneeling with a rose in my hand. This is shows an image of love and I am not the one in power. Barnabas was with Paul in Athens? How did they meet? I do not want to delete my membership btw.

        • BDEhrman March 17, 2024 at 3:12 pm

          Barnabas was a companion of Paul.

      • 1SonOfZeus March 15, 2024 at 11:09 pm

        I have a question. There is a gospel of Barnabas? From my understanding this introduces the idea of a book given to Jesus by the Angel Gabriel? Judas replaces Jesus at the crucifixion? Jesus has behavior similar to John the Baptist in the NT. My question is what does the Gospel of Barnabas pretty much suggest? Thank you.
        Acts 14:13 is the only verse in the Bible that has the word Zeus? Zeus is my faith, my hope, my everything. I just want to understand this verse since it is the only one that speaks of my GOD. Julius Caesar feared Jupiter, would there been more of an influence in oral traditions. One God, one son, my faith is the Olympians. Apollo is dear to my heart, and always will be. I have just questions on ACTS 14:12 since my whole existence is with Zeus.

        • BDEhrman March 17, 2024 at 3:14 pm

          There’s a medieval forgery called the Gospel of Barnabas.

          • 1SonOfZeus March 18, 2024 at 12:01 am

            Understood. Thank you. Again, as I said before I am aware of the Nag Hammadi Library. That was you Dr. Ehrman they called to inspect them? Mary’s Gospel the that was destroyed? is pretty good knowledge as well. Anyway, Just trying to wrap my head around Act 14:12-13 is the mention of Zeus. In my heart that is God. I just keep seeing Lightning influence in the bible from the throne to the unknown shining beings mentioned in the bible. I wonder who fled away when Jesus was getting arrested. He left everything material behind, including his clothes. LOL. I love the mysteries of what was said. Of course you know of my interpretations of the Gospel of Thomas. Didymos Judas Thomas, his name was Judas of course.

          • BDEhrman March 21, 2024 at 8:25 pm

            We still have the Gospel of Mary, or at least that portion of it that was discovered in teh 19th century. And no, I didn’t have anything to do with the publication of the Nag Hammadi Library. I was still a child at the time.

  5. JohnKesler March 12, 2024 at 1:48 pm

    Here are places in which Luke’s Jesus predicts the Parousia:

    Luke 21:25-28
    25 “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. 26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory.

    Luke 17:24
    24 For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day.

    Luke 9:26
    26 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words, of them the Son of Man will be ashamed when he comes in his glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

    Given the manner of the return and the accompanying events, in what way(s) did Luke mean that the rather pedestrian ascension of Jesus narrated in Acts 1:9 was “in like manner”/”in the same way” (Acts 1:11) as would be his return?

    • BDEhrman March 15, 2024 at 7:47 pm

      Apparently only insofar as that he physically went up to heaven and he will later be physcially coming down from heaven. Otherwise, not so much!

      • sLiu March 26, 2024 at 6:17 pm

        I was complimenting U as my Uncle & I raved of your commitment to healthy deBrainwashing. Where’s Jesus gonna land on his return. there is a temple. Kind of like the Satan temptations. But if he was divine why would he want the kingdoms of the world then.
        & then there is the concept he became divine after his baptism. Satan who is according to our Bible School teachings, I conclude was behind the times.
        & also what is that malarkey that U addressed in times past b/f his death that he blew on the disciples of his spirit: John 20 22-
        “Received the Holy Spirit” is to equip the disciples for their missionary work (which is dependent on the mission of the Son as stated in verse 21). This represents a symbolic promise for the gift of the Spirit fifty days later at Pentecost (Acts 2).

        Someone criticized me for not understanding allegory on an investment site!

        3) Disciples were human.
        4) new favorite verse:

  6. Duke12 March 12, 2024 at 1:52 pm

    I have heard more than one Christian podcaster more than once refer to resurrected Jesus’ appearance in Matthew 28:16-20 as occurring immediately prior to the Ascension. Yet the location given is clearly a mountain in Galilee, whereas in Luke and Acts, the Ascension is clearly described as being around Bethany near Jerusalem. Did you also think the Matthew event was moments pre-Ascension when were an Evangelical? If so, how did you reconcile the geographic differences?

    • BDEhrman March 15, 2024 at 7:48 pm

      I don’t think as an evangelical I noticed! But I probalby would have said that the appearances recorded in Luke happened soon after the ones in Matthew, and that the ascension happened after them.

  7. stevenpounders March 14, 2024 at 11:15 am

    Among NT historical scholars, is there speculation or suggestions about who Theophilus was?

    • BDEhrman March 17, 2024 at 2:24 pm

      Lots. No one can specifically identify him (it was a common name). The two principal choices are that he was an otherwise unknown, non-Christian Roman administrator, which is why he would be called “most excellent” (in which case the books are being written in part not just to explain but also to defend Jesus and the Christian movement), OR that it is a code name (it literally means “beloved of God” or “one who loves God”) for a Christian audience to instruct them on the “truth” bout Jesus and the early Xn community. I’m fairly strongly inclined to the second option, in part becuase it’s completely implausible that anyone would imagine that a Roman authority would be interested in reading such very long books about a bizarre sectarian group…..

  8. charrua March 14, 2024 at 1:32 pm

    In the continuous line between myth and history, Acts is to the right of the Gospels but still far to the left of the center.

  9. daniel.calita March 15, 2024 at 3:07 am


    1. Are there historical documents mentioning divine revelations in the ancient pagan world as we have within judeo-christian world?

    2. What is the origin of the baptism? Is it jewish? What documents do we have on it? What does it symbolize?

    3. Do you have a book or an online course taking at lenght and comparing the Gospel of John with the Synoptics? I am very curios what are the historical facts about the Gospel of Jonh

    • BDEhrman March 17, 2024 at 2:34 pm

      1. Lots. That’s what the ancient oracles in Greece were, for example. 2. Christians got baptism from John the Baptist (since he baptized Jesus); John’s baptism was in the context of Judaism, but different from other cleansing rituals we know about which were not one-time occurrences for moral inequity in light of God’s coming viesion. 3. My textbook The New Testament: A Historical Introduction goes into some lenth on this in the chapter on John.

  10. dugger69 March 15, 2024 at 3:30 pm

    I’m inclined to think that while Bezae is probably an unreliable witness overall, it may contain passages (especially in Acts) that were in the original manuscript and are found nowhere else. I wish someone would produce an English translation of the Greek part of Bezae. If one exists, I’m not aware of it.

    • BDEhrman March 17, 2024 at 3:06 pm

      I seem to recall a translation being done once, but can’t remember anything about it just now. And yes, I doo think there are some passages only in Bezae, or in Bezae and only a few Latin texts, that are probalby “original”. I deal with a bunch in my book Orthodox Corruptoin of Scripture (esp. the non-Western Interpolations)

  11. tompicard March 16, 2024 at 12:10 pm

    In Acts we’re told they stayed in Jerusalem for forty days while Jesus proved to them “with many proofs” that he had been raised from the dead (Acts 1:3). That has always struck me as one of the strangest verses in the entire NT. Why would Jesus need to perform “many proofs” over forty days in order to prove to someone that he was no longer dead? Wouldn’t he simply have to show up and talk with them? Seems like that should do it.

    I think the explanation, which mentioned before repeatedly, is that “life” and “death” have a metaphorical meaning in addition to literal, especially at Jesus’ time.

    yeah we know who is “dead” and who is “alive”. as you observe the live people “show up and talk with us” the dead don’t, but if there is metaphorical, maybe esoteric meanings, then yeah maybe we need some “proof”

    not had to reconcile.
    then of course word “resurrect” (going from death to life) would likewise entail metaphor

  12. Firefighter54 March 17, 2024 at 7:03 am

    Sorry, but I don’t read Acts 1:3 as stated above. I interpret it as Jesus is doing what he always has done, again. But I am no scholar.

  13. AngeloB March 21, 2024 at 6:21 am

    The many proofs passage is very strange indeed. How do you prove a miracle?

    • BDEhrman March 25, 2024 at 7:51 pm

      Historically, you can’t.

  14. ChimpoChimperoo March 23, 2024 at 9:09 am

    I know I’m a bit late on this topic, but the discussion about Jesus needing to prove he was really Jesus–the miracle worker and potential son of God/son of Man, leads me to give some abstract credence to some of the more bizarre conspiracy theories concerning what really happened way back in the first century CE. Could Shonfield (spelling) be partially correct in believing that perhaps the crucifixion was partially faked or that Jesus was somehow taken off the cross/stake before dying and that he was somehow rehabilitated and lived for a while? This might explain all this need to prove he was really who he said he was–a true Messiah–not just some ne’er-do-well charlatan making false claims. Therefore, he had to perform miracles to convince a doubting group of followers that indeed not only did he get rehabilitated/resurrected (after a fashion) but that he was in fact God’s anointed and could perform miracles and wonders.

    • BDEhrman March 27, 2024 at 6:32 pm

      My personal judgment based on a very long reading of all the relevant sources is that Schonfield is not at all right.

  15. 1SonOfZeus March 24, 2024 at 7:16 pm

    Right, I just wrote without doing research or clearly thinking about it. Nag Hammadi was 1945. I knew it was 1945, I dont know what I was thinking. Your not that old! My bad 🙂 My partner is your age, 65. He like to say, “young old”. Well, if they did find it in current days, I’m sure they would call you. Between you and Elaine Pagels, I feel in my heart you two are the most down to earth, true, and passionate scholars outs there. I don’t know how, but I found my way to love what you do. Thank you for what you do, as always. Only 100 years, in this life time which is a blink of an eye for eternity. You are truly making a difference. I truly believe it doesn’t matter what your faith is, you treat people kind and you will be just fine. I l love this saying I just read. “Never Stop being A Good Person, Because Of Bad People”.

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