On the Historical Accuracy of the Book of Acts

By Tim McGrew

Here are some of the details that Luke gets right in Acts that cannot be derived from Josephus. Most of these can be found in Colin Hemer’s magisterial work, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History.

1. A natural crossing between correctly named ports. (Acts 13:4-5) Mt. Casius, which is south of Seleucia, is within sight of Cyprus.

2. The proper port (Perga) along the direct destination of a ship crossing from Cyprus (13:13)

3. The proper location of Iconium in Phrygia rather than in Lycaonia. (14:6) This identification was doubted because it challenges some sources reflecting boundary changes from a different date, but the ethnic inclusion of Iconium in Phrygia is confirmed by the geographical distribution of Neo-Phrygian texts and onomastic study.

Historical Accuracy of the Book of Acts

4. The highly unusual but correct heteroclitic declension of the name Lystra. (14:6) This is paralleled in Latin documents.

5. The Lycaonian language spoken in Lystra. (14:11) This was unusual in the cosmopolitan, Hellenized society in which Paul moved. But the preservation of the local language is attested by a gloss in Stephanus of Byzantium, who explains that “Derbe” is a local word for “juniper.” Hemer lists many other native names in the Lystra district.

6. Two gods known to be so associated—Zeus and Hermes. (14:12) These are paralleled epigraphically from Lystra itself, and the grouping of the names of Greek divinities is peculiarly characteristic of the Lystra district.

7. The proper port, Attalia, which returning travelers would use. (14:25) This was a coasting port, where they would go to intercept a coasting vessel, by contrast with Perga (13:13), a river port.

8. The correct order of approach (Derbe and then Lystra) from the Cilician Gates. (16:1; cf. 15:41)

9. The form of the name “Troas,” which was current in the first century. (16:8)

10. The place of a conspicuous sailors’ landmark, Samothrace, dominated by a 5000 foot mountain. (16:11)

11. The proper description of Philippi as a Roman colony, and the correct identification of its seaport as Nea Polis, which is attested both in manuscripts and in numismatic evidence. (16:12)

12. The right location of the Gangites, a small river near Philippi. (16:13)

13. The identification of Thyatira as a center of dyeing. (16:14) This is attested by at least seven inscriptions of the city.

14. The proper designation for the magistrates of the colony as strategoi (16:22), following the general term archontes in v. 19.

15. The proper locations (Amphipolis and Apollonia, cities about 30 miles apart) where travelers would spend successive nights on this journey to Thessalonica. (17:1)

16. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica. (17:1) This is attested by a late 2nd AD inscription. (CIJ 693)

17. The proper term (“politarchs”) used of the magistrates in Thessalonica. (17:6) See Horsley’s article in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, in loc.

18. The correct implication that sea travel is the most convenient way of reaching Athens, with the favoring “Etesian” winds of the summer sailing season. (17:14-15)

19. The abundant presence of images in Athens. (17:16)

20. The reference to a synagogue in Athens. (17:17) See CIJ 712-15.

21. The depiction of philosophical debate in the Agora, which was characteristic of Athenian life. (17:17)

22. The use of the correct Athenian slang word for Paul (spermologos, “seed picker,” 17:18) as well as for the court (Areios pagos, “the hill of Ares,” 17:19)

23. The proper characterization of the Athenian character. (17:21) This, however, might be attributed to common knowledge.

24. An altar to an “unknown god.” (17:23) Such altars are mentioned by Pausanias and Diogenes Laertius. Note also the aptness of Paul’s reference to “temples made with hands,” (17:24), considering that Paul was speaking in a location dominated by the Parthenon and surrounded by other shrines of the finest classical art.

25. The proper reaction of Greek philosophers, who denied the bodily resurrection. (17:32) See the words of Apollo in Aeschylus, Eumenides 647-48.

26. The term “Areopagites,” derived from areios pagos, as the correct title for a member of the court. (17:34)

27. The presence of a synagogue at Corinth. (18:4) See CIJ 718.

28. The correct designation of Gallio as proconsul, resident in Corinth. (18:12) This reference nails down the time of the events to the period from the summer of 51 to the spring of 52.

29. The bema (judgment seat), which overlooks Corinth’s forum. (18:16ff.)

30. The name “Tyrannus,” which is attested from Ephesus in first-century inscriptions. (19:9)

31. The shrines and images of Artemis. (19:24) Terracotta images of Artemis (=Diana) abound in the archaeological evidence.

32. The expression “the great goddess Artemis,” a formulation attested by inscriptions at Ephesus. (19:27)

33. The fact that the Ephesian theater was the meeting place of the city. (19:29) This is confirmed by inscriptional evidence dating from AD. 104. (See OGIS 480.8-9.)

34. The correct title “grammateus” for the chief executive magistrate in Ephesus. (19:35) This is amply attested in inscriptional evidence.

35. The proper title of honor “neokoros,” commonly authorized by the Romans for major cities that possessed an official temple of the imperial cult. (19:35) See Wankel, Die Inschriften von Ephesus, 300.

36. The term “he theos,” the formal designation of the goddess. (19:37) See the Salutaris document, passim.

37. The proper term (“agoraioi hemerai”) for the assizes, those holding court under the proconsul. (19:38)

38. The use of the plural “anthupatoi,” (19:38), which is either a remarkable coincidence of expression or else a deliberate reference to the fact that at that precise time, the fall of AD 54, two men were conjointly exercising the functions of proconsul because their predecessor, Silanus, had been murdered. See Tacitus, Annals 13.1; Dio Cassius 61.6.4-5. This is one point where Ramsay’s work has been superseded in a way that reflects great credit on Luke’s accuracy.

39. The “regular” assembly, as the precise phrase is attested elsewhere. (19:39) The concept is mentioned repeatedly in the Salutaris inscription, IBM 481.339-40 = Wankel 27, lines 468-69.

40. The use of a precise ethnic designation, “Beroiaios.” (20:4) This is attested in the local inscriptions.

41. The employment of the characteristic ethnic term “Asianos,” meaning “Greeks in Asia.” (20:4) Cf. IGRR 4.1756, where the Greeks honor a Sardian citizen with this designation (lines 113, 116).

Christian Apologetics Alliance BLOG Banner

Visit the Christian Apologetics Alliance Here


Resources for Greater Impact

IDHEFTBAA book standing w SHadowI Don’t Have Enough Faith To Be An Atheist (Paperback)

Cold Case Christianity Book angled pages

Cold-Case Christianity (Paperback)

Free CrossExamined.org Resource

Get the first chapter of "Stealing From God: Why Atheists Need God to Make Their Case" in PDF.

Powered by ConvertKit
5 replies
  1. barry says:

    I don’t see your point in asserting the historical accuracy of the book of Acts. That book is represented by two different textual traditions, and with Metzger and others admitting scribes had a tendency to modify texts for perceived contradictions or inaccuracies, it is only to be expected that a book which has undergone textual modification for 2000 years would likely be “inerrant”.

    Then the other problem is your incorrect assessment of biblical priorities. The New Testament never even once teaches any doctrine that the bible is inerrant “in the originals” as you so qualifiedly believe, yet you present this clear non-essential of the bible to the world as if it was a test of salvation or orthodoxy.

    In Acts 15, Luke also devotes far more space to recording the apostolic side of the Judaizer debate than to recording what the Judaizers themselves had argued. He represents their position with absolutely nothing but a short summary statement, repeated once. That’s a valid argument that Luke’s bias goes beyond normal authorial bias, and nobody should apriori trust the accuracy of his uncorroborated claims anymore than they should accept uncorroborated claims from the Nazis or the Jews about what happened in Hitler’s concentration camps. Luke obviously had an agenda, and while that doesn’t mean he necessarily spoke untruthfully, it DOES rationally justify the skeptic to withhold trust in the author’s uncorroborated claims.

    And unfortunately for you, nothing is a greater scholar’s nightmare than the question of whether Luke’s version of Paul’s life can be reconciled with statements of Paul himself in his own epistles.

    As a spiritually dead disciple of the devil, I suggest that a better approach for you would be to just obey that which Paul and Jesus explicitly taught, and quit misrepresenting your speculations about what was never taught, as if they are things Jesus wants you to highly prioritize. The only things he wants you to highly prioritize are the things he explicitly taught, and bible inerrancy isn’t on that list, and the specific form of bible inerrancy you espouse (inerrancy “only in the originals”) is not even expressed or implied anywhere in the entire bible.

    If you seriously believe the word of God has magical properties as Hebrews 4:12 and Isaiah 55 assert, then the most powerful and perfect weapon you could ever make use of, would be the bible ALONE, and yet, by your arguments for biblical inerrancy, you clearly don’t believe the bible “alone” is sufficient for faith and practice. After all, the “bible” doesn’t say anything about how many Greek manuscripts there are, or how its authors conform to universally accepted criteria of historiography, etc, etc. The bible “alone” is NOT what you believe. You clearly do NOT think it “sufficient” to just quote the word of God.

    So be honest with yourself, by being more accurate in what you really believe, and confess that you believe “the bible PLUS apologetics arguments” are sufficient for faith and practice.”

    Reply
  2. Ben says:

    Barry,

    You did not engage any of McGrew’s points, instead focusing on issues that he did not even mention In particular, there is absolutely nothing in the blog post about inerrancy or textual criticism, and McGrew himself is known to resist talking about inerrancy even elsewhere. For example, in a podcast earlier this year (where he talks with Bart Ehrman), he specifically said that he is “weary” of inerrancy, and that inerrancy is a “non-issue” for him.

    The above blog post is instead about historical issues that Acts gets right, which are not found in Josephus. This is plainly stated in the first sentence. I didn’t see anything in your comment that addressed this issue.

    So, I hate to say it, but your comment comes off as little more than a random and uniformed rant against inerrancy directed at no one in particular. It seems to me very counter-productive.

    Reply
    • barry says:

      Then read my first paragraph. I sufficiently challenged McGrew’s main point, the fact that I included a discussion of inerrancy doesn’t erase the direct attack on McGrew’s point that I made.

      And in paragraphs 3 and 4, I set forth reasons to be skeptical of Luke’s accuracy on two fronts: his clearly biased account of the Council at Jerusalem, and the scholar’s nightmare of trying to reconcile Luke’s statements about Paul, with Paul’s own statements, both of which problems leave the door wide open to the possibility that Luke erred. The apostolic response to the Judaizers in Acts 15 would be laughably inadequate had Luke honestly reported all that a serious Judaizer would have argued. Luke is clearly “choosing to exclude” matters that, had he included them, would have shown the apostolic solution to be a dismal failure. Jesus clearly supported obeying the entire law even down to the last little bit (Matthew 5:19), and the last I checked, Exodus 12:48 was still part of the law. You don’t obey Exodus 12:48, you are least in the kingdom of heaven, it’s that simple. Without more, it remains possible that Luke was dishonest in the same way the modern-media are, in their selective reporting and ability to word things in a way that is not directly false, but still leaves the reader with a false impression.

      My comments about inerrancy still beat back those reading Christians who might prioritize bible inerrancy more highly than McGrew, and of course, I knew there was a reading audience here, and I didn’t oppose McGrew solely for McGrew’s information, but for the benefit of the others reading this blog.

      If you think my observations about Acts’ textual inconsistencies and Luke’s credibility have problems, feel free to point out why.

      Reply
  3. Steven Avery says:

    Nice article.

    There is a funny element about the Josephus issues. If you are leaving open the possibility that Acts was written post 90 AD, then really you are close to falsifying the NT by chronology of Luke, writting 50 years after the Gospel, and he never could have attained the accuracy we see. Plus where would be the c.62 AD execution of James by the Sanhedrin, the destruction of the Temple and the later apostolic martyrs?

    So let’s do the full-orbed apologetics and include the overlap with Josephus stories as part of Luke’s accuracy in Acts. Since we believe, and should unabesdedly defend, Luke writing almost 30 years before Josephus.

    Maybe later, I’ll give Barry a response :).

    Thanks!

    Reply
  4. Steven Avery says:

    Now, lets take the first attempt of Barry:

    “…. the book of Acts. That book is represented by two different textual traditions, and with Metzger and others admitting scribes had a tendency to modify texts for perceived contradictions or inaccuracies, it is only to be expected that a book which has undergone textual modification for 2000 years would likely be “inerrant”.

    This shows a great ignorance of the actual textual history. The 1000 or so Greek manuscripts are all close, and they are close to the Latin and Syriac mss. The other “textual tradition” is essentially represented by one ms. Codex Bezae. Thus the logical conclusion is that in one limited time and area, there was a little scribal creativity. With 99% of the mss agreeing, this is a red herring. And the mss we have from 400-800 AD match the mss we have today, so the claim of some large-scale “textual modification for 2000 years” simply shows that Barry is ignorant of the subject matter.

    (To be fair, there is an occasional important verse, like Acts 8:37, that has a salient split, but that does not affect the textual line historicity.)

    Steven

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *