A Brief Examination of the Historical Reliability of Acts

By R.N. Carmona

The questions that are most relevant to understanding Acts is when and why it was written. To many Christians, the answer is quite simple. Despite the story-like continuation from the Gospel of Luke, they take it to be a straightforward history of Christianity’s inception. The book begins with Jesus’ ascension into heaven and continues by following the activities of the Apostles thereafter.

Without getting into the book’s more fantastical bits, e.g., Peter healing with his shadow (Acts 5:15); Paul’s healing handkerchiefs and aprons (Acts 19:12), one can cast doubt on the historical reliability of Acts. The anonymous writer of Acts and Paul sometimes write about the same events in Paul’s life and though some discrepancies are minor and even negligible, others cast doubt on its historical reliability. Bart Ehrman explains:

Paul is quite emphatic in the epistle to the Galatians that after he had his vision of Jesus and came to believe in him he did *not* go to Jerusalem to consult with the apostles (1:15-18). This is an important issue for him, because he wants to prove to the Galatians that his gospel message did not come from Jesus’ followers in Jerusalem (the original disciples and the church around them) but from Jesus himself. His point is that he has not corrupted a message that he received from someone else; his gospel came straight from God, with no human intervention. The book of Acts, of course, provides its own narrative of Paul’s conversion. In this account, strikingly enough, Paul does exactly what he claims *not* to have done in Galatians: after leaving Damascus some days after his conversion, he goes directly to Jerusalem and meets with the apostles (Acts 9:10-30).1

Erhman explains that Paul could have lied about not consulting the Apostles. In Galatians 1:20, Paul asserts that he isn’t lying. Erhman, therefore, sees this as a discrepancy stemming from the writer of Acts.

It is important to note that Paul, in the Book of Acts, is depicted differently from how Paul represents himself in the Epistles. These differences will be made clear below. To understand why there are differences between Paul in Acts and Paul in his own Epistles, we need to understand why it was written. Prior to understanding why it was written, we need to answer the question of when it was written.

I. When Was Acts Written?

Though Acts is usually dated between 80 and 90 CE, the consensus isn’t based on evidence. As Richard Pervo explains: “Scholarly consensus has dated Luke and Acts at c. 85, with a dwindling number who place the work in the 60s and a larger minority who prefer the last decade of the first century. The consensus date is a convenient compromise that seems to demand little proof.”2

Pervo goes on to explain that it is likelier that Acts was written around 115 CE for a couple of reasons. One reason is that the author shows familiarity with Paul’s Epistles and with Josephus’ Antiquities, the latter of which was written around 94 CE. The main reason, as Pervo explains, is that the author seemed preoccupied with the concerns of early second century apologists who took on the task of defending their faith against polytheists and heretical Christian factions.

II. Why Was Acts Written?

Given this, one can then answer why Acts was written. One reason it was written was to respond to critics of the so called proto-orthodox view. It was written as a response to polytheists, but more importantly, it was written as a response to heretical factions. The most prominent of these factions were the Marcionites. Robert Price explains:

Knox argues persuasively, along many lines, that Luke-Acts was a second-century Catholic response to Marcion’s Sputnik, the Apostolicon. Canonical Luke was a catholicizing expansion of the same Ur-Lukas Marcion had slightly abbreviated, while Acts was a sanitized substitute for Marcion’s Pauline Corpus. Thus it presents a Paul who, though glorified, is co-opted, made the merest Narcissus-reflection of the Twelve–and who writes no epistles, but only delivers an epistle from the Jerusalem apostles! Knox sees the restoration of the Pauline letters (domesticated by the “dangerous supplement” of the Pastorals) and the addition of three other gospels and several non-Pauline epistles, In short the whole formation of the New Testament canon, as a response to the challenge of Marcion and the Marcionite church.3

As Ehrman explained earlier, there’s a major discrepancy between the Pauline Epistles and Acts concerning how Paul acquired his message. It must be stated that though Ehrman sides with Epistles on the matter, i.e., Paul did not get his message from the Apostles, this does not mean that he believes Paul’s account, namely that he received his message directly from Jesus.

1 Peter, 1 Clement, and the Gospel of John have much in common with the Pauline Epistles. As Pervo explains, 1 Peter agrees with some of Paul’s theology; 1 Clement quotes Paul, but diverges from his theology; the Gospel of John shares much of his theology though it developed independently. This is to say that Paul’s theology isn’t unique and that it did not have to come directly from an apparition of Jesus.

III. Two Pauls?

The author of Acts, a person claiming to have been Paul’s companion, clearly isn’t attempting to discredit Paul’s claim. Yet the question still remains: why is Paul in Acts different from Paul in the Epistles? Accounts of his life are different and his theology differs in key respects. This was done because the author of Acts–both Pervo and Ehrman agree–wanted to promote unity among believers by showing that Paul, Peter, and James were in agreement. As Ehrman explains:

For Acts the whole point is that Paul, Peter, James, and in fact all the apostles were completely simpatico, totally on the same page in terms of doctrine and practice, united in every way. And so he tells the story differently from Paul. And in fact in ways that flat out contradict Paul.4

There are two contradictions that stand out. One is that Paul wants to make clear that he was on a Gentile mission. Acts, on the other hand, has Paul giving most of his sermons to Jews. Another contradiction is Paul’s theology with regards to polytheism. According to his Romans 1:18-32, polytheists were not ignorant of the one true god and thus, their idolatry was an act of disobedience worthy of punishment. On Acts 17, it’s precisely the opposite: pagans are simply ignorant of the one true god and are not to be held accountable.

Conservative scholars have argued that the latter of these contradictions can be resolved by separating the audiences Paul was addressing. His softer approach in Acts was simply a means to convert polytheists. However, there’s another, more plausible, option. Ehrman explains:

Luke, rather than Paul, is the author of the speech on the Areopagus, just as he is the author of all the other speeches in his account, as we saw in Chapter 9. This goes a long way toward explaining why so many of the speeches in Acts sound so similar to one another, regardless of who the speaker is — why, that is, Paul sounds like Peter and Peter sounds like Paul (compare the speeches of Acts 2 and 13, for example). Rather than embodying *Paul’s* view of the pagan religions, then, the Areopagus speech may embody *Luke’s* view, representing the kind of evangelistic address that he imagines would have been appropriate to the occasion.5

If one is unfamiliar with Paul’s Epistles, specifically Galatians, one would think that Paul and Peter were always in agreement. One would think that they agreed on circumcision and more generally, that they were in agreement concerning either the abolition of the Jewish law or the fulfillment of the law through Jesus. In other words, one would assume that they thought the law was no longer applicable.

However, this contrasts sharply with Galatians 2. In short, Peter was in the habit of eating with Gentiles. When Jews came to Antioch, he stopped doing so because Jews were to behave in a certain way, and this meant not eating with Gentiles. Paul strongly disagreed with Peter’s obedience to the law and argued that Peter missed the point of salvation through Christ. Here we have Peter and Paul on opposite ends of the spectrum rather than in full agreement with one another.

There’s also the fact that in Acts, Paul is not recognized or depicted as an apostle. This is at variance with what he says about himself in the Epistles. As Pervo explains: “Although the Paul of Acts is not an apostle in name, Luke and Paul agree that the missionary to the gentiles follows and identifies with his master…Acts presents Paul as a Jerusalem missionary, subordinate to the community there, a Christian preacher who has not severed his connection with the Pharisaic party.”6

Paul was no doubt an important figure in the early Christian community. If going by his own words, we see a theology that identifies a sharp delineation between the old and the new, between Judaism and Christianity. Rather than maintain a connection with Pharisees, Paul severed all ties as he didn’t promote observance of the law. His own words, which were written earlier than Acts, should take precedence. As Pervo observes:

Given their different situations and disparate outlooks, it should come as no surprise that the Paul of Acts is at considerable variance with the Paul who appears in the epistles. Luke evidently felt obliged to update Paul for the current situation. There is nothing novel about that. The same charge may be laid against Augustine of Hippo, Martin Luther, and John Wesley, to name but three from a lengthy catalogue of those motivated by Paul to erect fresh theological systems and launch new eras and movements. The real mystery, for those in quest of one, is why anyone has ever sought to prove that the Paul of Acts and the Paul of the letters thought and acted in similar ways. The obvious clue, a smoking gun if ever one was, is that the driving concern of this effort is not theology, but history. To the degree that Acts portrays not only Paul, but also Peter and James, in colors derived from the palette of Lucan theology, its historical value is considerably compromised.7

IV. Other Historical Problems

Aside from its depiction of Paul, there are other problems present in Acts that should make clear that it isn’t history. Historians have methods. Regardless of this, people who read the Gospels and Acts as history commit two fallacies that run counter to these methods. The first, coined by Richard Carrier, but noticed by others, is possibiliter ergo probabiliter (possible therefore probable).8 As Pervo observes, “[n]ot all that is possible is probable, and some probabilities are greater than others.”Related to this fallacy is the assumption that once one sets aside all the fantastical bits, whatever remains is true. This, however, ignores why a given passage was written.

When it comes to the Book of Acts, why a passage was written and by extension, why the book was written is crucial to understanding the book. Seeing it as straightforward history misses the point, which is theological and not historical. The point is no better made than by Acts 9. Acts 9 introduces us to a Christian community without telling us how or when it got there. From there, it tells us that the high priest tasks Paul with seizing these believers and bringing them to Jerusalem. As Pervo explains:

It is most unlikely that the chief priest possessed the power to interfere in the affairs of another province and have its residents extradited to stand trail for capital charges (cf. 26:10) in his court. This is a fantasy with serious historical implications. It has become the basis of the portrait of Paul the Persecutor.10

He goes on to explain that though Paul admits to persecuting Christians, e.g., Galatians 1:13, it is much more likely that his persecution was verbal and not physical. Luke prefers physical persecution because it supports a theological point. In Matthew 24:9, Jesus prophesies of Christians being brought to death. He doesn’t prophesy of Christians being opposed in debate. He doesn’t speak of polemics written against their beliefs or satire designed to debase their claims. This might go a long way in explaining why Luke preferred stories of martyrs rather than stories of Christians who couldn’t hold their own in a debate or who couldn’t address slanderous polemics and satire written against their beliefs.

Another passage with theological intents is Acts 13. The mission to Cyprus simply doesn’t read like history. It revolves around a Jewish sorcerer who goes blind and then converts to Christianity. The passage is only meant to showcase Paul’s power in Christ, so to speak. Acts is about legitimizing Paul’s ministry and also about reframing his history as partly told in the Epistles. The motivation for doing so is, once again, theological and not historical.

There are many other historical difficulties that can be discussed, e.g. Timothy’s circumcision, the improbable route from Cyprus to Derbe, Paul and Silas’ Roman citizenship, the chronology used by Luke. The point here has been to briefly discuss the historical reliability of Acts, so none of these points will be belabored here. It will prove useful to return to Acts 18 for one final example of the theological motivation in Acts.

In Acts 18 we are introduced to Apollos, who was a Christian with an outdated baptismal theology. He, in other words, preached the baptism of John and had to be corrected by Aquila and Priscilla concerning the baptism of the spirit. As stated earlier, Acts was written as a response to critics of the proto-Orthodox views. Some of the earliest so called heretical factions were gnostics. When speaking of gnostics, one should think of a diverse set of groups rather than one group. There was one thing these groups may have had in common and that becomes important in Acts 18. The gnostics were popular among women and this is because they weren’t on board with the patriarchal thinking of proto-Orthodox Christians. If Acts preserves any history, it preserves the fact that men held positions of authority in the early church. Acts 18 momentarily subverts that by having not only Aquila, but also Priscilla, correct Apollos. Priscilla was a female figure who was more than likely a literary device and a character stemming from theological motivation. She was, in other words, the proto-Orthodox answer to the gnostics or better said, one of the answers.

In the previous chapter (Acts 17), the writer of Acts makes no distinction between the male and female converts. He does, however, name two of the female converts: Damaris and Dionysius. In Acts 16, he names another female convert, Lydia. In Acts 21, the daughters of Philip are mentioned and emphasis is put on their gift of prophecy. These women are further responses to gnostics.

Given this, part of the reason Acts was written was to show that women had authority in the church and that they could also have the gifts of the spirit. It is likely that these stories were meant to dispense with the notion that the proto-Orthodox community was unpopular with women and that it had a penchant for putting men in positions of authority. Along those lines, Acts could have been meant to show a reversal of patriarchal thought, especially when one considers 1 Corinthians 14:34. Again, Paul’s Epistles were written earlier and thus, they take precedence. The notion of keeping women silent in church contradicts the stories briefly surveyed above. Aside from being yet another way the Paul in Acts differs from the Paul of the Epistles, the women in Acts are perhaps the strongest point to be made for the conclusion that Acts was written for theological reasons. If so, the Book of Acts is far from straightforward history and its historical reliability is further compromised.

Ultimately, what has been surveyed here is by no means exhaustive. This hasn’t been written to convey the idea of authority, but authorities have been cited and should be consulted on the matter. What’s clear is that Christians are wrong to claim that Acts is a history of the early church. They’re also wrong to claim that its historically reliable, for that entails much more than the previous claim. What they’re saying there is that we can extract historical facts from reading Acts. More specifically, we can extract such facts about Paul, the other Apostles, and the geography of Asia Minor in the early centuries. Yet historians wouldn’t go that far and that’s because their methods are at variance with the fallacies underlying the approach Christians and more specifically, apologists take. Acts, like the Gospels, isn’t history nor is it historically reliable. It’s a theological narrative that serves a theological purpose and it’s in the best interest of its readers to read it as such.

Works Cited

1 Erhman, Bart. “The Historical Accuracy of Acts (For members)”. Ehrman Blog. 4 Sep 2013. Web.

2 Pervo, Richard I. The Mystery of Acts: Unraveling Its Story. Santa Rosa, CA: Polebridge, 2008. 9. Print.

3 Robert M. Price, “The Evolution of the Pauline Canon,” HvTSt 53 (1997): 36-67

4 Erhman, Bart. “Paul in Acts: Part 2”. Ehrman Blog. 22 Jul 2012. Web.

5 Erhman, Bart. “The Accuracy of Acts: Part 2 (For members)”. Ehrman Blog. 5 Sep 2013. Web.

6 Ibid. [2], pp.31-32

7. Ibid. [2], p.37

8 Carrier, Richard. Proving History: Bayes’s Theorem and the Quest for the Historical Jesus. Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2012. 26-27. Print.

9 Ibid. [2], p.116

10 Ibid. [2], p.123


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