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).

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