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The Historical Reliability of Acts

Before considering the origins of Christianity, it is important to evaluate the only document in the New Testament that purports to tell the exploits of the first generation of Christians, the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts and the gospel according to Luke are generally believed to be the work of a single author. While there is no reason to doubt single authorship of these works, the traditional attribution of these to Luke, companion of Paul, is false. We also know that the work was penned a long time after the events described in it-very probably around 100 CE. [For convenience sake, we will follow convention and refer to the anonymous author as "Luke"]

So a valid question is this: if the Acts of the Apostles was not the work of a close companion of Paul and was written around 40-60 years after the events it purports to describe, how much of it is historical? We can answer this questions by considering a few things:

  • The fundamentalist fable that "Luke" is a very reliable historian is just that, a fable. We find mistakes in Luke and Acts that tell us that an uncritical acceptance of everything in Acts as historical is not the way to go.
  • However comparing some of the accounts in Acts to the eyewitness accounts of Paul and to some facts known about the first century Roman mediterranean, show that the author did have access to some reliable traditions.
  • However the author had an agenda and it is obvious that he reworked some of the traditions available to him.

In conclusion then, Acts is not a completely reliable historical documents but it does have, embedded within it, traditions that may be true or have some kernel of historical facts embedded within them. Thus in using the accounts of Acts we have to critically evaluate each and every episode to try and ascertain whether the traditions (if any) that lie behind these have any historical value.

[Indeed as we show elsewhere, the two main discoveries of modern critical historical research regarding Acts have largely negative conclusions: the speeches in the book are largely the literary invention of Luke and the presentation of Paul there contradicts the information we can get from the authentic Pauline epsitles and is therefore largely unhistorical.]

Is Luke a Reliable Historian?

That historical errors exists in Luke-Acts cannot be denied. Many of the mistakes have been treated in detail elsewhere in this website. Here we only give a summary of these and provide links to the appropriate pages for the reader.

There are numerous places in Luke-Acts where the details given contradict known historical facts:

  • According to Luke 1:5, Jesus was born during the reign of Herod the Great. Yet the reason given for Joseph and Mary's presence in Bethlehem was the "worldwide census" ordered by Quirinius (Luke 2:1). The problem is well known to historians. Herod the Great died in 4 BCE, while the census order by Quirinius has been accurately dated to 6 CE, a full ten years after the death of Herod! Attempts by fundamentalists to harmonize these account have met with failure.

  • According to Luke 3:2 and Acts 4:6, Annas was the high priest during the ministry of Jesus. Yet we know from Josephus' Antiquities 18:2:1-2 that Annas (or Ananus) was appointed high priest after the census (6 CE) and was deposed soon after Tiberius became Caesar (c 15 CE). After describing the appointment of three successive high priests in slightly more than two years, Josephus mentioned that Joseph Caiaphas was made high priest (c 18 CE). Caiphas was finally deposed by the proconsul Vitellius (Antiquities 18:4:3) around CE 36. Thus during the entire ministry of Jesus, it was Caiaphas not Annas who was the high priest. This is further corroborated by John 18:13 which states that Caiphas, who was the son-in-law of Annas, was the high priest. [1]

  • In Acts 21:38, Luke had the Roman tribune make the remark connecting Paul with an Egyptian who led 4,000 men of the sicarii into the desert. These three elements are historically unrelated as the accounts in Josephus (Antiquities 20:8:5-6,10) and Jewish War 2:13:3-5) make clear.

  • In Acts 5:36-37, Luke put into the mouth of Gamaliel a gross anachronism. He had the revolt of Judas the Galilean (datable to 6 CE) after, the revolt by Theudas (which happened around 44-46 CE). Furthermore the speech by Gamaliel is set in the early thirties (between 30-33 CE, since Paul has not yet converted-Acts 8:1). This means that Luke had Gamaliel making a remark about a revolt (by Theudas) that, at that time had yet to occur! There are detailed reasons why it is Luke and not Josephus that made these the errors.

  • Acts 11:28 mentioned a severe "worldwide famine" during the reign of Claudius. While there was a famine in Judea around 46-48 CE during the reign of Claudius, there was no worldwide famine as such. Furthermore, Acts 11:29-30 mentioned that the congregation in Antioch was able to send aid to help. This would be impossible, for if the famine was "worldwide", the congregation in Antioch would have been affected as well! Thus in generalising a local phenomena, Luke had contradicted historical facts. [2]

Apart from contradicting secular history, the account in Acts also contradicts the genuine epistles of Paul in many places. Since Paul was obviously an eye witness to his own life, here again we have instances of errors commited by Luke. [3] :

  • Acts mentioned five trips to Jerusalem by Paul while the Pauline epistles only presupposed three such trips. (Acts 9, 11, 15, 18:22, 21 versus Galatians 1:18, 2:1 and the (planned) visit to Jerusalem in Romans 15:25) [We provide a more detailed analysis of this elsewhere.]

  • In Acts 7:58, 8:3, the yet to be converted Saul was said to be in Jerusalem and took an active part in the murder (or execution-depending on how you view it) of Stephen. Yet Paul in Galatians 1:22 said that when he visited Jerusalem for the first time three years after his conversion, he was "still unknown by sight to the Churches of Judea". If Paul did take part in Stephen's murder/execution, than at least some of the early Christians would have already seen Paul in Jerusalem before his conversion. Thus the linking of Paul with the death of Stephen in Acts is definitely unhistorical.

  • Acts 10:1 -11:18 stated that the mission to the Gentiles was started by Peter, yet in Galatians 2:1-10 Paul is called to defend his mission to the Gentiles against the "three pillars" (James, John and Peter). Why would he have to defend a mission to the Gentiles when Peter had already started it?

It is therefore proven that historical mistakes and anachronisms exist in Luke-Acts. With this we can safely discard the fundamentalist myth of Luke being a very reliable historian.

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Some Reliable Tradition in Acts

That the author is not completely reliable does not mean, of course, that the book of Acts is completely unreliable. Indeed there are some points of overlap between Acts and the genuine Pauline epistles and secular history. Some examples:

  • In II Corinthians 11:32-33, Paul mentioned his escape from Damascus by being lowered in a basket through a window in a wall. Acts 9:20,24-25 also mentioned this incident in Damascus. [4]

  • In Acts 18:1-3, Paul is said to have met up with the husband and wife team, Aquila and Priscilla (also known by the dimunitive Prisca), who came to Corinth after being expelled along with other Jews from Rome following an edict by Claudius. In I Corinthians 16:9 & 16:19, Paul sent the greetings of Aquila and Prisca [who were with him in Ephesus at that time], to the people in Corinth. Thus indicating that these two were known to the people there. In Romans 16:3, Paul sent his greetings to Prisca and Aquila who were then in Rome. This squares quite well with the accounts in Acts, for it shows that Paul knew them well and that they have connections with Rome. [5]

  • Acts normally provide the titles of the officials of the Roman empire accurately. Luke correctly referred to Gallio as the Proconsul of Archaia (Acts 18:12), Publius as Protos ("first man") of Malta (Acts 28:7) and to the magistrates in Philippi as Praetors (Acts 16:20). Although here, these could be attributed to Luke's general knowledge of the period rather than him having a detailed reliable tradition regarding Paul. [6]

    [As an example, if someone were to write a work of fiction today about the second world war (about the same time period between the time Acts was written and the event it describes) and correctly describes the leader of the Unites States as President and that of Germany as Fuehrer, it does not guarantee that other items in it are true]

Thus we can conclude that while Acts may not be completely reliable, it does hold some traditions that date back to the time it describes.

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Luke's Reworking of Available Traditions

However we need to add another caveat. Even in those cases where Luke relied on tradition, he did not use them in a neutral sense but reworked them to fit his theological agenda. Let us look at a couple of examples:

  • The Damascus Escape
    The event in Damascus is described by Paul himself thus:

    II Corinthians 11:32-33
    In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.

    This is how Acts describe the same event:

    Acts 9:22-25
    Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.

    Note that according to Paul's own account, he was being persecuted by followers of King Aretas IV of the Nabateans. According to Acts it was the Jews who presecuted him. Thus Luke had used a tradition of Paul being lowered in a basket in Damascus and added his own theological spin to it-that Jews were hostile to Paul. [7]

  • The Jerusalem Council
    This is something we will look at in detail later, but here we will merely point out how Luke had twisted his sources. In Acts 15, Luke described a council in Jerusalem to resolve a problem which arose in Antioch about the need to remain within the law of Moses to be saved. James and Peter here were made to defend Paul's position (that Gentiles converts need not follow the laws of Moses). This is what Luke depicted Peter as saying:

    Acts 15:7-11
    After there has been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers. And cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us. Now threfore why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?"

    And at the end of the conference this is what, according to Luke, James said:

    Acts 15:13-20
    After they have finished speaking, James replied, "...Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood."

    Both were clearly depicted as coming out in support of Paul. Yet from Paul's own letter, an entirely different picture emerges. Here we are also told about a meeting in Jerusalem to discuss issues regarding the observance of Mosaic law by Gentile converts (Galatians 2:1-10) The dispute did not end there. For Paul related this incident which involved the very two people Luke had shown as supporting Paul:

    Galatians 2:11-13
    When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived; he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belong to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

    Paul placed this event as happening after the meeting in Jerusalem. Note that men sent by James were the ones who ordered Peter to stop his fellowship with the Gentiles over the issue of food! This shows that the meeting did not resolve the issue about gentiles and Mosaic law and that James [a] and Peter certainly did not make the statements attributed to them in Acts.

    As Burton Mack, Professor of New Testament at Claremont wrote:

    That Peter and James defend Paul's mission is a marvelous piece of fiction for every earlier scrap of evidence speaks to the contrary. [8]

    Why had Luke fictionalised an historical tradition? Simple. He wanted to show that the Christian message was intended for Gentiles from its very beginning, through Peter and James.

    From the above two examples we see that Luke's theological aims over-ride his use of traditional sources.

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a.For James, my main contention is that Luke added the italicised portion to make the Apostolic Decree sound more friendly and indeed almost "law-free". The case is strong that the decree is historical and a close analysis shows that far from supporting Paul, it advocated continued adherence and respect to the law even among gentiles.


1.Ludemann, Paul-The Founder of Christianity: p24
Williams, The Acts of the Apostles: p82-83
2.Ludemann, Paul-The Founder of Christianity: p24
Ludemann, Early Christianity According to the Tradition in Acts: p135
3.Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, Vol II: p324
Schnelle, The New Testament Writings: p240-242
4.Ludemann, Paul-The Founder of Christianity: p34-38
5.ibid: p60-61
6.Williams, op cit: p30-31
7.Ludemann, Early Christianity According to the Tradition in Acts: p118-119
8.Mack, Who Wrote the New Testament?: p230

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