Is the book of Acts historically reliable, in comparison to its own Greco-Roman writing culture? Many tables are included, to answer the question.
Let’s ask a few more questions.
Does Acts even claim to be a history? Does it reflect the cultures and geography of its times, or is it like the later second and third century “Acts” which are relatively disconnected from their cultures? Is Acts an edifying Greek novel?
Let’s look at the evidence, which must be read cumulatively.
This table orients us to the basic timeline in the eastern Roman empire (the Greek east) and early Christianity.
HISTORIC EVENTS IN ROMAN EMPIRE AND EARLY CHRISTIANITY AND PAUL
|Unit||Year||Contemporary History||Year||Early Christianity / Paul|
|1||26||Pilate as Prefect||26/27||Public appearance of John|
|2||27||Sabbatical Year (27/28)||27/28||Public appearance of Jesus|
|3||28||28/29||Public death of John|
|5||30||30||Crucifixion of Jesus|
|6||31||Fall of Sejanus||31/32||Martyrdom of Stephen|
|7||32||Death of Tiberius||Conversion of Paul|
|8||33||33/34||Paul in Jerusalem|
|9||34||34-42||Paul is Syria and then Cilicia|
|11||36||Recall of Pilate|
|12||37||c. 37||Designation “Christian” in Antioch (Hellenist Mission)|
|15||40||Death or Aretas IV|
|16||41||Death of Caligula||41/42||Death of James, son of Zebedee|
|17||Disturbances in Antioch||Peter leaves Jerusalem|
|18||42||41/42 Hunger in Rome|
|19||43||42/44||Paul in Antioch|
|20||44||Death of Agrippa I|
|21||Dearth in Judea (44-49)||44/45||Antiochene collection|
|22||45||Fadus as Procurator in Judea||45-47||Paul and Barnabas in Cyprus and S. Galatia|
|23||46||Tiberius Alexander as Procurator|
|25||48||Jewish Disturbances in Antioch||48||In Antioch (Gal.?)|
|26||Cumanus as Procurator||Council in Jerusalem|
|27||49||Felix as Procurator||49||Paul in Macedonia|
|28||Roman Edict about Jews||49/50||Paul in Thessalonica|
|29||50||50||Paul in Corinth (Gal.? 1 Thess.)|
|30||51||Gallio in Achaia||51||Paul before Gallio|
|31||Hunger in Rome||51/52||Paul in Syria|
|32||52||52/55||Paul in Ephesus|
|34||54||Death of Claudius||54/55||1 Cor., Phil.? Phlm.?|
|35||55||Sabbatical Year (51/52)||55||Paul in Troas|
|36||55/56||In Macedonia (2 Cor.)|
|37||56||Egyptian agitator||56/57||Paul in Corinth (Rom.)|
|38||57||57||Paul in Jerusalem|
|39||58||Roman taxation unrest||57-59||Caesarea imprisonment|
|40||59||Festus as Procurator in Judea||Phlm.?|
|41||60||59||Paul to Rome|
|42||60-62||Paul in Rome|
|Riesner, p. 322|
Next, this list below could go on and on. Further, some of the elements are obvious (e.g. no. 2 and 3), but we should not take them for granted. Many contemporary texts get these obvious things wrong or simply don’t care about them (see the COMPARISONS section, below). A final general impression: It is clear that earliest Christianity flows out of Judaism early on, but as Christianity moves out to the Roman provinces, it broadens. Acts reflects this change. Many other contemporary or later texts in the Greco-Roman world do not even try cover a historical development (see the COMPARISONS section, below).
Let’s now look at the data in Table 2.
PARALELLS BETWEEN ACTS AND ROMAN EMPIRE,
JUDAISM, AND ISRAEL
|1||Preface conforms to other prefaces in history writing (1:1-2)|
|2||Jerusalem is the capital or center of Judaism and Israel in the province of Judea (1:4, etc.)|
|3||Judea and Samaria and Galilee are geographical regions in Israel and located and described correctly (1:8; 8:1, 5, 9, 9:31; etc.)|
|4||Baptism or ritual cleansings were done in Judaism and now Christianity (1:22; 10:37; 13:24; 18:25)|
|5||John and his baptism is referenced, indicating his continuous influence in Judaism and now early Christianity (1:22; 10:37; 13:24; 18:25; 19:3, 4)|
|6||Date of Pentecost is right, relative to Passover (2:1)|
|7||The regions and provinces listed in 2:9-11 are all correct|
|8||Jerusalem temple exists (2:46; 3:1, etc.)|
|9||Pilate ruled over Judea (3:13: 4:17; 13:28)|
|10||Sadducees were a major group in Judaism (4:1; 5:17, etc.)|
|11||Pharisees were a major group in Judaism (5:34, etc.)|
|12||Ananias and Caiaphas were priests (4:3)|
|13||The Jewish council was called the Sanhedrin (4:15; 5:21, 27, 34, 41, etc.)|
|14||Teachers of the law accurately describes a class of leaders in Judaism, indicating the continuity from Jesus’s ministry and beyond (4:5; 5:34; 6:12; 23:9)|
|15||Flogging was a punishment (5:40; 16:23; 22:24-25)|
|16||Synagogues existed (6:9; 13:14-15; 13:42; 14:1; 17:1-2, 10, 17; etc.)|
|17||Naming the Pharisee Gamaliel, mentor of Saul / Paul, is correct (5:34)|
|18||Circumcision was important in Judaism and influenced earliest Christianity (7:8; 10:45; 11:2; 15:1, 5; 16:3, etc.)|
|19||Candace is the name of the queen-mothers of the Ethiopians and dynasties are named after her (8:27)|
|20||Chariots / wagons were used (8:28-30)|
|21||Chariots / wagons had drivers (8:38)|
|22||Ethiopian eunuch fits historical narrative more than fictions portray Ethiopia (8:27)|
|23||Letters authorizing arrests of Jews in Damascus fits the council’s authority (9:1-2; see 22:5-6)|
|24||Military commanders are titled correctly (10:1; 22:24-25; 24:23; 27:6; etc.)|
|25||Roman officers had attendants (10:7)|
|26||The flat roof where Peter prayed before lunch is accurate (10:9)|
|27||Large houses, even in Jerusalem, had courtyards protected by a gate (12:13)|
|28||Agrippa sitting on a judgment throne or seat is accurate (12:21; cf. 18:12, 17, 17; 25:6, 10, 17)|
|29||Agrippa putting James to death and imprisoning Peter fits Agrippa’s character (12:7-12)|
|30||Peter’s escape through Jerusalem conforms to topography (12:7-12)|
|31||Jailers or guards who allowed prisoners to escape were executed (12:19: 16:27-28)|
|32||Josephus confirms Agrippa died after public adulation (12:19-23)|
|33||Sergius Paulii existed, says archaeology (13:7)|
|34||Men and women were called “prominent” and “first” (13:5)|
|35||Proconsuls had attendants (13:7)|
|36||There really were “synagogue rulers” (13:15; 18:8, 17)|
|37||God-fearing Gentiles were interested in Judaism and synagogue services (13:43, 50; 16:14; 17:4; 17:17; 18:7)|
|38||Iconium was ethnically Phrygian rather than Lycaonian (14:6)|
|39||Lystra had people speaking local dialect (14:11)|
|40||Zeus and Hermes are paired in Mystra, which fits their religious culture (14:12)|
|41||Food associated with or sacrificed to idols was done in the pagan world (15:20, 29)|
|42||Strangled and undrained meat was eaten in the pagan world (15:20, 29)|
|43||Sexual immorality was practiced in the pagan world (15:20, 29)|
|44||Cilician Gates leads to Derbe before Lystra (16:1)|
|45||The name Province of Asia is accurate (16:6; 19:10, 22, 26-27, etc.)|
|46||Philippi was a Roman colony and leading city in the district of Macedonia (16:12)|
|47||Thyatira was famous for purple goods (16:14)|
|48||Jailers existed (16:23-36)|
|49||Flogging Roman citizens was illegal and scared the officials of Philippi when they flogged Paul and Silas (16:37-40)|
|50||Prominent men and women existed (17:4, 12)|
|51||Politarchs were called by this title in Thessalonica (17:6)|
|52||Epicurean philosophers really did exist in Athens (17:18)|
|53||Stoics congregated near Areopagus (17:18-19)|
|54||Athens really was full of idols (17:16)|
|55||Quoting Greek poets indicates Paul’s education in Tarsus (17:28)|
|56||Priscilla and Aquila were expelled during edict of Claudius (18:2)|
|57||In 27 B.C to A.D. 15, Achaia was combined with the province of Macedonia and Moesia to form one imperial province, governed by the proconsul (18:8, 12, 19:21)|
|58||Paul appearing before proconsul Gallio fits precisely Gallio’s life (18:12)|
|59||Vows in Judaism were taken (18:18; 21:23)|
|60||Alexandria, Egypt was a center of great learning, which is confirmed in Apollos’s superior rhetorical skills (18:24, 28)|
|61||The name Tyrannus is attested in Ephesus (19:9)|
|62||Ephesus was a center of magical and occultic practices (19:18-19)|
|63||Silversmiths in Ephesus made idols and other religious objects (19:23)|
|64||The huge temple to Artemis existed (19:27, 35)|
|65||The theatre in Ephesus was large enough to contain a huge crowd (19:29)|
|66||The rulers being called Asiarchs in Ephesus is accurate (19:31)|
|67||The town clerk is accurately titled grammateus (19:35)|
|68||Title hē theos (feminine article + masculine noun) for the goddess Artemis appears in inscriptions in Roman Ephesus (19:37).|
|69||The courts and proconsuls being available were accurately described in Ephesus (19:38)|
|70||Penalty for Gentiles entering Jerusalem temple was death (21:28)|
|71||Roman cohort was stationed in Antonia Fortress, to suppress disturbances (21:28)|
|72||Soldiers descended down steps from Antonia Fortress (21:35, 40)|
|73||Egyptian Jewish false prophet’s activity from the standpoint of the narrative world is accurate (21:38)|
|74||Tarsus was a “no mean” city in Cilicia or a great center of learning and culture (21:39; cf. 9:11, 30; 11:25; 22:3)|
|75||Acquiring citizenship under Emperor Claudius was frequent and cheaper at the end of his reign (22:28)|
|76||The nomen Claudius fits recent citizenship acquired under Claudius (23:26)|
|77||Ananias is the right high priest for the date (23:2)|
|78||Felix’s tenure fits the right timeframe (23:24)|
|79||Sadducees and Pharisees were at odds with each other, doctrinally (23:6-8)|
|80||Antipatris is the right military stop from Jerusalem to Caesarea (23:31)|
|81||The area of Antipatris was more Gentile, so the soldiers could be dismissed from escorting Paul (23:31)|
|82||Drusilla, about 18-19 years old, was married to Felix at this time, in contrast to her and his earlier marriages (24:24)|
|83||The name and time of Porcius Festus are correct (24:27)|
|84||The presence of Bernice with Agrippa II fits this period, in contrast to the time when she had been married (25:13)|
|85||Rome is the capital of the empire, where the Emperor ruled (25:25; 28:14, 16)|
|86||The description of the storm at sea is realistic (27:13-44)|
|87||Example: the wind translated as the “Northeaster” is an accurate name (27:14)|
|88||The chief citizen of Malta is correctly titled “first” (28:7)|
|89||Goddess Justice is correctly named (28:4)|
|90||Castor and Pollux were twin gods (28:11)|
|HT: Keener, pp. 20-22. I added many of my own parallel data. The list could be lengthened. Example: the name Theophilus (1:1) is attested in inscriptions, so the name is not symbolic (“friend of God”). He was probably the patron of Luke who paid for the production of Luke-Acts. Early in Acts, when the church was situated in Jerusalem, the preaching was very Jewish. Later in Acts, when Christianity was expanding throughout the Roman empire, it dropped some Jewish elements, but not entirely. Still, Christianity was adaptable to its cultural “ecosystem.” Luke keeps track of this gradual shift.|
Here is a summary of the regions and cities for Paul’s (and Barnabas’s) first missionary journey:
PAUL’S (AND BARNABAS’S) FIRST MISSIONARY JOURNEY (12:25-14:28)
|Bock, p. 485, modified
The geography and names of cities are correct.
PAUL’S SECOND MISSIONARY JOURNEY (15:36-18:22)
|4||Unnamed city||Opposite Mysia|
|Bock, pp. 587-88
Luke omits the names of some cities because of his sources or because he simply omitted some details. In every case, he is accurate in his names of the cities and regions when he actually mentions them. No errors here.
PAUL’S THIRD MISSIONARY JOURNEY (18:23-21:16)
|4||Unnamed cities||Macedonia and Greece|
|Bock, p. 640
Luke omits the names of some cities because of his source or because he simply omitted some details out of his choice. Example: in no. 18, Luke does not name Jerusalem (of all places). He assumes the reader would know that Paul and his team arrived at their final destination. But an omission is not a contradiction. And in every case, the geography and names of the city is accurate, when he names them.
PAUL’S JOURNEY TO ROME (27:1-28:16)
|Cities and Other Geographical Features||Region or Province|
|1||Jerusalem||Judea (region is unnamed)|
|2||Antipatris||Judea (region is unnamed)|
|3||Caesarea||Judea (region unnamed)|
|4||Sidon||Phoenicia (region unnamed)|
|6||Cnidus||Asia (region unnamed|
|10||Phoenix (but did not land there)||Crete|
|11||—||Cauda Island (but did not land there)|
|12||Syrtis||Libya (unnamed but did not land there)|
|13||—||Adriatic Sea: between Italy and Greece and far south at time of Luke’s writing|
|14||Estate of Publius, “first man” of Malta||Malta (Island)|
|15||Syracuse||Sicily (Island, unnamed)|
|16||Rhegium||Southern Italy (unnamed)|
|17||Puteoli||Italy (region unnamed)|
|18||Forum of Appia||Italy (region unnamed)|
|19||Three Taverns||Italy (region unnamed)|
|20||Rome||Italy (region unnamed)|
|This is my own table, after BTSB map, p. 2007. (Acts says the first ship came from Adramyttium, in northern Asia, Western Turkey, which they boarded in Caesarea; this is another little datum that colors Luke’s narrative.) Most regions are unnamed in the fourth journey, but most of them are named elsewhere in Acts. Also, there is no requirement that an historian name every region, when they are well known, like Jerusalem, Judea; Syracuse (a Greek city established long ago), and Sicily; and Rome, Italy. He named them before (e.g. Italy in 27:1). Or there is no need to name them when they are extra data points that do not rapidly move the narrative forward. Luke condenses things, as many historians did in the Greco-Roman world. But when he does actually name them, he is correct.|
Recall that Herod had executed James, son of Zebedee, one of the twelve apostles. Then Herod imprisoned Peter and was about to execute him, until an angel helped Peter escape. Then Herod went to the seacoast town of Caesarea, where the embassy of two other coastal towns, Tyre and Sidon, met him.
HEROD’S DEATH IN JOSEPHUS AND ACTS
|Unit||Josephus, Ant. 19:343-50||Acts 12:21-23|
|1||Agrippa was in Caesarea||Agrippa was in Caesarea|
|2||Games in theater in honor of Caesar; no mention of embassy||The embassy from Tyre and Sidon meet, and a theatre is likely the main place, because the populace of Caesarea is also present|
|3||No mention of Agrippa’s speech before he is struck, but Josephus inserts one afterwards (19:347)||Agrippa is speaking when he is praised|
|4||Flatterers acclaim Agrippa as divine||Flatterers acclaim Agrippa as divine|
|5||Agrippa just struck afterwards||Agrippa is struck (by an angel) just afterwards|
|6||Because he did not deny the acclamation||Because he did not give glory to God|
|7||He suffered stomach pains for five days||He was eaten by worms|
|8||He died||He died|
|Josephus’s version is longer, but there is nothing wrong with Luke’s shorter version, posing no problem for his historical reliability. Just the opposite. Josephus and Luke are remarkably close. The original story must have been remembered, since it was so unusual. So both historians mutually confirm that they recorded the main points accurately.
Keener, p. 324, slightly edited
Here is a table explaining Paul’s conversion, his five visits to Jerusalem, and his death in Rome, collating the best of scholarship.
YEARS OF PAUL’S CONVERSION, VISITS TO JERUSALEM,
SECOND MISSIONARY JOURNEY, AND DEATH
Conv = Conversion
J I = First Jerusalem Visit;
J II = Second Jerusalem Visit
J III = Third Jerusalem Visit
M II = Second Missionary Journey
J IV = Fourth Jerusalem Visit
J V = Fifth Jerusalem Visit
F. L. Arrington’s Commentary on Acts;
M. A. Hubaut’s book on Paul;
J. Becker’s book on Paul;
Bruce’s Commentary on Acts;
S. J. Kistemaker’s commentary on Acts;
E. Dassmann’s history of early Christianity;
H. D. Saffrey’s book on Paul;
M. F. Baselz’s book on Paul;
S. Légasse’s book on Paul;
D. A. Carson, D. Moo, and L. Morris’s Introduction to the New Testament.
Source: Riesner, p. 27.
Let’s look at competing genres, beginning with the later “Acts,” written in the mid-to-late second and third centuries: the Acts of John, the Acts of Peter, the Acts of Paul, the Acts of Andrew, and the Acts of Thomas. It is easy to see why scholars reject them as canonical. In Acts of John, a young man repents by cutting off his private parts and throwing them before his adulteress-mistress (Destruction of the Temple of Artemis 53). Necrophilia is described (Drusiana and Callimachus 70). In the Acts of Thomas, a demon has sex with a woman (Fifth Acts 42). It may be true that these “apostles” travel from city to city, but the books stray far from history and biblical morality, as if they do not even try to root their stories in time and place. There is no eyewitness testimony. These Acts are fake and diabolical fakes (I’m not afraid to say it in the “Age of Tolerance”).
The other competing genre is the Greek novel. Here the events and people seem real. Typically, the young hero and heroine are arranged to be married, but they are separated and are compelled to go on adventures, before they are reunited, and they live happily ever after. They travel to cities with accurate names (e.g. Ephesus, Aphrodisias, Syracuse, Alexandria, or Tyre), islands (e.g. Lesbos or Chios), regions (e.g. Egypt, Syria or Phoenicia), people with the right title (e.g. first man, law clerk, shepherds, priestesses) and events (e.g. shipwrecks, confronting pirates, slave markets, meeting realistic, average people). But these characters also dance with nymphs. The strong point in these novels is verisimilitude (literally “truth-like”). They couch these charming fictions in real-life scenarios and scenery to give them the air of realism. The audiences who heard them read out loud could relate and no doubt smiled and chuckled and sometimes felt the drama in these fictional stories.
However, the big difference between the Greek novel and our Book of Acts is seen in their intention, sources, and technique.
The intention of the novelists was to provide entertaining fictional stories. When people gathered around to listen to the stories read aloud, they knew what they were getting. They were not about to hear Thucydides or Polybius, both of whom wrote what for the audience had to be boring ancient history. These novels succeeded because the novelists intended to entertain their audiences.
The novels’ sources were the imagination of the writer; an expert could tell us whether there were earlier fictions, but then this would still be proto-entertaining fictions from the imagination of the earlier writers.
Their technique is to invent entertaining plots and characters and events from their imagination.
By contrast, in Acts the intention, sources and technique were different.
The intention was to write a true account of the growth of the early church. No fiction. Luke’s Acts may have been entertaining as a collateral intention, but the description of the growth of the church and the events that happened in Jerusalem and the rest of their world was intended to be true. Those things actually happened. The above tables, cumulatively, reveal this intention.
The sources for Luke are (1) the accounts from the participants themselves, particularly Acts 1-8 and the earliest church in Jerusalem. Even the preaching fits the context of very religious Jerusalem, steeped in the law and Bible prophecy; (2) Paul himself; (3) Luke was with Paul and his team (in the “we” sections), so he was an eyewitness in some segments of his own book.
The technique is to conform to the standards of ancient histories, with all sorts of true data laid out in the above tables. Peter and Paul and the twelve (eleven + Peter!) apostles actually lived. They are not fictions. Paul’s speeches conform to his epistles, though differences do exist because Paul wrote epistles, while Luke records or summarizes live discourses. Peter’s speeches in the first five chapters conform to the early preaching of Jesus and even John the Baptist: the resurrection, repentance, forgiveness of sins, and the Lordship of God’s vindicated and ascended Messiah. Paul really did go on his three missionary journeys. He really did go as a prisoner to Rome. These data points, which are far more rooted in true events than the novels are (even the long novels), actually happened.
Novels: Fictional stories. Realistic people in realistic settings. But non-existent lives.
Acts: True account. Real people in real places. Real, existent lives.
Despite what postmodern hyper-skepticism claims, reality and the intention and sources of an ancient author or story matter.
OBJECTION AND REPLY
But before we get the the SUMMARY section, let’s answer an objection about history and supernatural claims contained in Acts. How can a true historian include them?
The reply is that supernatural claims happen in time and place and real people make these claims. They can and should be included and investigated. And yes, other historians in classical, Hellenistic, and Greco-Roman worlds also include them. Historians, even today, after the Enlightenment (c. 1600-1800+), who write about the growth of a religion better have a chapter covering the miraculous claims of this religion. They would be negligent if they did not have at least one chapter on them.
Yet it is true that Luke believes in them, but his belief does not take away from the thousands of tiny historical data points that make his writing belong to the history genre. Many of us today investigate supernatural events and conclude that some of them happened. They do not make us fiction writers. So why can’t Luke include them and conclude they happened?
In my translation and commentary on Acts, I came to nickname Luke “the Omitter” or “the Condenser.” Historians in his time gave themselves permission to omit or include data as the writers saw fit. Luke often omits the obvious because it would be redundant to include them. He requires the readers to fill in the gaps. Yet he does, naturally, provide other smaller details which support the historicity of his account. In short, I cannot give full reasons why he omits and includes data. I accept the fact, however, that he does omit and include data, yet this does not move his account into another genre like novel.
Now let’s allow two prominent historians of the classical world (ancient Greece and Rome) to offer their verdict on Luke’s historical reliability and standing among ancient historians.
Rainer Riesner (p. 326) quotes from two prominent German historians, who were not always friendly towards the NT and its production.
Theodor Mommsen was considered the greatest classical scholar of the nineteenth century. He writes:
“The numerous small features—features not really necessary for the actual course of action, and yet which fit so well there—are internal witnesses of his [Luke’s] reliability.”
Next, the late great classical historian and NT scholar F. F. Bruce, in his commentary on Acts (1990, p. 27), calls Eduard Meyer the “greatest” twentieth-century historian of the classical world. Meyer acknowledges that in classical histories, contemporaneous eyewitnesses were rare. He contrasts this rarity with early Christianity:
For Christianity, however, we have … the completely inestimable advantage—one hardly otherwise available in the case of great spiritual movements—of having access to a portrayal of the beginning stages of its development directly from the pen of one of its coparticipants. That alone ensures for the author an eminent place among the significant historians of world history.
Bruce goes on to say (p. 32) that other modern historians sometimes rely on the Book of Acts for some data points because it is the only source of information for the Greek East during this time in the Roman empire.
Finally, let’s appeal to a NT commentator and historian who wrote a five-volume commentary on Acts. After naming some criticisms of Luke, Craig Keener writes:
In general, however, and by the usual standard of ancient historiography, Luke’s treatment of history fares quite well: he normally writes ‘contemporary history,’ that is, about recent events, and external sources regularly confirm most of his information that can be tested. More recent history was considered more verifiable than the distant past, and especially the earliest mythical period. Sources closer to the events were also recognized as more apt to be accurate.” (p. 6)
Keener goes on to say of minor variations in the accounts of ancient historians: “Apart from external polemic and responding apologetic, however, most did not find minor variations a matter of concern” (p. 7).
Commentators I used—who are not hyper-skeptical—agree that Luke wrote Acts as a history. To demonstrate this was the purpose of the above tables, read cumulatively.
For me, it is easy to conclude that Luke in his book of Acts wrote a reliable and accurate historical account of the growth of the early church from about A.D. 30 to 62-65.
That link shows how Acts and other NT writings, specifically Paul’s epistles, agree numerous times. Luke in his Acts gets things right.
Bock, Darrell L. Acts. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Baker Academic, 2007.
Bruce, F. F. Acts. Rev. ed. Eerdmans, 1988. (I also use his earlier work Acts of the Apostles: Greek Text with Commentary, Eerdmans, 1951, 1952, 1990, 3rd ed.).
Keener, Craig, S. Acts. New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge UP, 2020.
Riesner, Rainer. Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy, Theology. Trans. Douglas Stott, Eerdmans, 1998.
Schnabel, Eckhard, J. Acts. Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Zondervan, 2012.