Tuesday, 7 August 2007


Joel Kontinen

I. Introduction

The 19th century witnessed a remarkable rise of scepticism towards biblical inerrancy. German scholars such as W. de Wette and F.C. Baur doubted the historical reliability of Acts. Baur’s successors at Tübingen regarded Acts as a fictitious work of a Paulinist writing after AD 100. More conservative scholars, however, were not persuaded by their arguments, and men like J.B. Lightfoot and Sir William Ramsey[1] restored belief in the reliability of Acts with considerable success (Bray 1996, 567–576).

Although few present-day scholars share the scepticism of the Tübingen school, the genre of Acts is still being debated. Scholars have attempted to classify Acts into various ancient Greek and Roman literary genres (Palmer 1993, 1–2).

This paper examines the historical reliability of Acts. The genre of the book has a decisive effect on this issue. Section II discusses the views of some scholars about the genre of Acts. Section III examines Acts on the basis of first-century Greco-Roman writings and artefacts as well as biblical sources. The final section assesses the evidence.

II. The genre of Acts

The author of Acts uses the word logos ("word”, “speech”, “message “or “story” according to Gilbrandt 1984, 494, vol. V), [2] to describe the first part of Luke-Acts.[3] Nonetheless, this categorisation does not settle the genre.

Scholars have suggested various genres for Acts. It has been classified as a novel, biography, scientific treatise, and historical monograph.[4] G.E. Sterling proposes that the genre of a book should be defined by analysing the “content, form, and function of a text” (1992, 14, quoted in Palmer 1993, 15).

A. Acts as a novel

R. Pervo classifies Acts “among the historical novels of antiquity” (Palmer 1993, 3). While Acts is full of adventure, this does not necessarily nullify its historical reliability.[5] Although a novel is usually understood to be fictional, “the novel in antiquity is in fact a form of history” (Gabba 1983, 15, quoted in Palmer 1993, 3). It would be almost impossible to conclude that the author’s primary objective was to provide entertainment.[6] Luke 1:4 seems to rule this out: Luke is writing, “that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.”[7]

B. Acts as a biography

C. Talbert has compared Luke-Acts with Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Philosophers. He suggests that the work is mostly a biography (Alexander 1993, 31–63). While the Gospel of Luke might to some extent resemble a biography,[8] the author does not mention Jesus or the word bios (life) in the preface. Greco-Roman rhetorical conventions necessitated the announcement of the topic at the beginning. Acts seems to be more concerned with deeds than with lives. The stories involving the main characters (Peter, Stephen, Philip and Paul) begin in medias res with few biographical details.[9] Biography does not seem to be a plausible genre for Acts.

C. Acts as a scientific treatise

Having compared the prefaces of Luke and Acts with ancient works written e.g. by Galen and Hero of Alexandria, L. Alexander argued that Luke-Acts resembles a scientific treatise (Palmer 1993, 21; Witherington 1998, 14–15). [10] Witherington suggests that since Luke[11] is said to be a physician in Colossians 1:14, he was probably conversant with the style of contemporary scientific treatises (1998, 15).

‘Scientific treatise’ is not the best choice of genre for Acts. As its name implies, Acts is concerned with certain kinds of deeds and not with the “study of medicinal plants, diseases, and the like” that ancient scientific treatises dealt with. Moreover, scientific treatises did not employ historical narration (ibid., 15).

D. Acts as a historical monograph

The term ‘historical monograph’ is a modern invention. It refers to an ancient work examining a particular issue, often during a certain period, either of any length or of limited length (Palmer 1993, 4–5). Acts fits this description, as it describes the geographical expansion of Christianity within some thirty years.

Luke 1:1–4 suggests that the ensuing narration (diegesin) is a historical work. Aristotle defined history as “the investigations (historiai) of those who write about the deeds” (Rhetoric 1.1360A.35 quoted in Witherington 1998, 13). A sequel to the “former book” dedicated to the same high-ranking official (Theophilus), Acts is a historical monograph. Both Luke and Acts meet the requirements for Greek history writing laid down by Herodotus (Witherington 1998, 13).

Contrary to the assumption that ancient historians freely fabricated data, some Greek historians seemed to have been meticulous with their facts and use of sources.[12] “For the Greek historian the hallmark of true istoria was personal observation (autopsia) and participation in events, travel, inquiry, the consultation of eyewitnesses” (ibid., 27). Luke meets these requirements. He followed the example of the more assiduous Greek historians such as Polybius and Thucydides.

One of the criteria for classifying a work as a historical monograph is a “selective focus of writing”, an item mentioned by the Roman historian Sallust (Palmer 1993, 11). Acts meets this criterion well. It would probably not be too far-fetched to conclude that we would expect the historical monograph to be historically more reliable than the other genres discussed above.

III. Acts and first-century evidence

The main evidences roughly contemporary with Acts are Greco-Roman texts and artefacts and Paul’s writings. The works of Josephus will be discussed within the first category.[13]

A. Greco-Roman evidence

First-century Greek and Roman sources corroborate much of the geographical, religious and political[14] details mentioned in Acts. Luke knew the roads and sea routes; he was aware of details, e.g. that Lycaonian was spoken at Lystra and that Philippi was a Roman colony. He knew which cities had a Jewish synagogue and what the titles of the local officials were in each city. Luke used the correct title for the magistrate at Thessalonica (politarkhes)[15] and chief magistrate at Ephesus (grammateus ). In some instances he even knew local slang words: spermologos (babbler) in 17: 8 was Athenian jargon,[16] eurakylon (northeaster)[17] mariner-speak in 27:14 (Hemer 1989, 108–158).

Luke was aware of the proper way to address a procurator; kratistos in 24:3 is the correct form of address. He seems to have known the privileges of a Roman citizen and that since the time of Nero the emperor was referred to as ó kurios. The description of the voyage to Malta and the shipwreck reflects first-century conditions, which speaks in favour of the we-passages being eyewitness reports. The use of the word barbaroi (28:2) reveals that he was aware of the cultural distinctions within the Roman Empire (ibid.).[18]

In a few instances Luke’s account departs from other historical works, especially Josephus.[19] Some expositors favour Josephus’ version in the Theudas episode (Acts 5:36). According to Josephus, Judas the Galilean (Acts 5:37) rebelled before Theudas, whose insurrection occurred some ten years after the events described in the fifth chapter of Acts.

Nikolainen suggests that Luke could not have known the precise details of Gamaliel’s speech, as the apostles were put outside when he spoke (1985, 55–56).[20] However, some scholars give Luke the benefit of the doubt and believe there were two different Theudases.[21]

B. Paul’s writings

Some scholars have questioned the Acts narrative on Paul’s early post-conversion years as Galatians 1 and 2 seem to provide a slightly different view.[22] Wenhan (1993, 226) nevertheless points out: “There is no significant, proved discrepancy between Acts and the Pauline epistles.”

The minor differences are basically comparable to the varying viewpoints chosen by the evangelists in depicting Jesus’ ministry. [23]
Wenhan concludes that the scholars who doubt the veracity of the portrait Acts paints of Paul “must appeal to general impressions rather than to proven discrepancies with the epistles. Other scholars will judge that the cumulative evidence suggests that Acts is a well-informed historical narrative” (ibid., 254).

The differences between Paul and Luke have to do more with emphasis than with substance. While Paul wrote ad hoc letters to address problems in churches, Luke was writing church history, resulting in a different viewpoint.

IV. Conclusion

The preface of the Gospel of Luke promises that the ensuing narration will be a well-researched “account of the things that have been fulfilled among us” based on eyewitness reports. The “second book” is a meticulous rendering of the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to Rome. Many details attest to its accuracy. Not all facts can be corroborated by external proofs. However, so much has been seen to be factual that there is no reason to doubt the historicity of the rest of the book (Keener 2002, 16).

The facts speak for themselves. Sir William Ramsey (1851–1939) began his investigation into the reliability of Acts as an advocate of the Tübingen hypothesis. However, the more he studied the issue, the less he trusted his premise. He eventually concluded “that Luke was one of the most accurate historians who ever lived, and that his account of events in Acts was entirely trustworthy” (Bray 1996, 575). This should not be a surprise, as we would expect Scripture to be inerrant. After all, Jesus says that God’s “word is truth” (John 17:17).

V. Reference List

Alexander, Loveday. 1993. Acts and Ancient Intellectual Biography. In The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. Vol. 1: Ancient Literary Setting, ed. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke, 1–29. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Bray, Gerald. 1996. Biblical Interpretation Past and Present. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Feldman, Stephen and Nancy E. Roth. 2002. The Shorter List: The New Testament Figures Known to History. Biblical Archaeology Review 28, no. 6: 34–37.

Gabba, Emilio.1983. Literature. In Michael Crawford, ed. Sources for Ancient History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Quoted in Palmer, Darryl W. Acts and the Ancient Historical Monograph, 13. In The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. Vol. 1: Ancient Literary Setting, ed. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Gilbrandt, Thoralf, ed. 1980–1984. Novum.Uusi testamentti selityksin. Edited in Finnish by Matti Liljeqvist, Valtter Luoto and Pekka Nieminen. Vols. I–V. Vantaa: Raamatun Tietokirja.

Hemer, Colin J. 1989. The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, ed. Conrad H. Gempf, 108–158. Tübingen: J.C.B. Mohr.

Keener, Craig S. 2002. Acts as History and Theology. Graduate Study Guide. Springfield, MI: Global University.

Nikolainen, Aimo T. 1985. Apostolien teot. Jyväskylä: Kirjapaja.

Palmer, Darryl W. 1993. Acts and the Ancient Historical Monograph. In The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. Vol. 1: Ancient Literary Setting, ed. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke, 1–29. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Sterling, Gregory E. 1992. Historiography and Self-Definition. Josephos, Luke-Acts and Apologetic Historiography. Leiden: Brill. Quoted in Palmer, Darryl W. Acts and the Ancient Historical Monograph, 13. In The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. Vol. 1: Ancient Literary Setting, ed. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993.

Tenney, Merrill C. 1985. New Testament Survey. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Wenham, David. 1993. Acts and the Pauline Corpus II. The Evidence of Parallels. In The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. Vol. 1: Ancient Literary Setting, ed. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke, 1–29. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Winter, Bruce W. and Andrew D. Clarke, eds. 1993. The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting. Vol. 1: Ancient Literary Setting. ed. Bruce W. Winter and Andrew D. Clarke, 1–29. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.

Witherington, Ben III. 1998. The Acts of the Apostles. A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.


[1] Ramsey has occasionally been dismissed as a ”mere” apologist. Bray (1996, 577) admits that Ramsey ”sometimes stretched the evidence in ways which were unhelpful.” However, on the whole Ramsey seems to have been a scrupulous scholar. He began examining Acts as a liberal and only changed his view after being confronted with the evidence. See the discussion at the end of this paper.
[2] Several modern Bible translations render it simply as “book”.
[3] He uses the expression Ton proton logon… in Acts 1:1.
[4] The word limit set for this paper prohibits the discussion of apologetic historiography, which resembles but is not identical to the historical monograph. See Palmer 1993, 15–21.
[5] Lord Byron (1788–1824) wrote, “Truth is strange, Stranger than fiction.” (The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, s.v. “Lord Byron”).
[6] We should keep in mind that while different authors might have different goals in mind, the primary function of a novel is to entertain.
[7] As most scholars accept the unity of Luke-Acts, this obviously also applies to Acts.
[8] After all, it deals with the life of Christ. However, it is mostly concerned with a very limited part of that life, viz. the rather brief public ministry that is described in chapters 4–24.
[9] The readers are told almost nothing about the early years of the characters.
[10] Her work is mainly on the preface in Luke 1:1–4. However, as the preface in Acts 1:1–2 points back to the Gospel of Luke, this suggests similarity of genre between the books.
[11] It is assumed in this paper that Luke is the author of both the gospel bearing his name and Acts. Although Acts does not disclose the writer’s identity, both internal and external evidence suggest that he is the most probable candidate. Tenney (1985, 176–179) mentions the following evidences for Lucan authorship of Luke-Acts: the “we” passages in Acts point to a travelling companion of Paul, both works are addressed to Theophilus, the author was well versed in Greek and was obviously a Gentile, and the early tradition holds Luke as the author. Witherington adds that the “earliest extant manuscript, p75, of the first volume of Luke-Acts has at its end the ancient title Euaggelion kata Loukan“ (1998,56).
[12] Polybius, for instance, criticised a colleague for inventing speeches (Witherington 1998, 33). Although Roman historians did not value observation as much as the Greeks, they also eschewed the fabrication of data. Cicero pointed out that history’s first law was “that an author must not dare to tell anything but the truth” (De oratore 2. 62, quoted in Witherington 1998, 25–26).
[13] The word limit prohibits a discussion of Jewish religio-political writings, such as the Maccabees.
[14] A good example of this is a first century stone with the inscription Sergius Paulus and his title proconsul. The stone was found near Paphos in Cypros (Feldman and Roth 2002,37).
[15] This has been corroborated by writings found at Thessalonica (Gilbrandt 1982, 291, vol. 3).
[16] Aristophanes, for instance, uses the word in Birds (Hemer 1989, 117n39).
[17] Although some scholars have erroneously suspected the genuineness of this word, the Latin term euroaquilo has been found in a North African wind-rose (ibid., 141).
[18] Punic inscriptions have been found on Malta (ibid., 152), verifying Luke’s observation that the islanders were non-Greeks.
[19]However, Luke and Josephus agree on the marriage of Felix and Drusila and the name of Felix’ successor Porcius Festus (Hemer 1989, 130).
[20] However, as Witherington writes, ”Josephus should in all probability not be seen as a measuring rod or as a source for Luke, especially in matters of chronology” (1998, 239). He states that Josephus had a “track record on rearranging episodes and on various chronological matters ” (ibid, 238).
[21] After all, Theudas was a rather common name and Josephus, for instance, mentioned “four Simons within forty years and three Judases within ten years as instigators of rebellion!” (Witherington 1998, 239).
[22] It is basically a question of how much time passed between Paul’s conversion and his introduction to the apostles at Jerusalem and the date of Paul’s visit mentioned in Galatians 2:1, “Fourteen years later…” Probably the best solution is to regard this visit as the one mentioned in Acts 11:30, a suggestion first proposed by W. Ramsey in 1895 (Bray 1996, 575.)
[23] Paul’s letters shed more light on his missions itinerary and his fellow-workers described in Acts. Moreover, Paul’s outreach strategy in Acts resembles his statement in Romans 1:16. In each new city he began his preaching at the local synagogue (cf. Wenham 1993, 244).