The Historicity of the book of Acts (1/5)

How historically accurate is the book of Acts? Current scholarly attitudes range widely; [1] German theologian Adolf von Harnack’s extreme criticism has been discredited, [2] but Ramsay’s views [3] are considered exaggerated, [4] and Sherwin-White’s praise [5]  is qualified. [6]

Professor of Religion Charles Talbert judges Acts to be consistently accurate with regard to many details: [7] [8]

  • Thessalonican city authorities called politarchs (Acts 17:6, 8)
  • Grammateus is the correct title for the chief magistrate in Ephesus (Acts 19:35)
  • Felix and Festus called procurators (Acts 23:24, 26; 24:27)
  • Centurion Cornelius, tribune Claudius Lysias (Acts 10:1; 21:31, 23:36)
  • The title proconsul (Greek anthypathos), used for the governors of two senatorial provinces (Acts 13:7-8; 18:12)
  • The prohibition against Gentiles in the Temple’s inner court (Acts 21:27-36)
  • The function of town assemblies (Acts 19: 29-41)
  • Soldiers in the tower of Antonia descended stairs into the Temple precincts (Acts 21:31-37)

Historian Justin Taylor describes the accuracy of Acts positively, [9] and lists many examples.

  • Trial scenes throughout Acts [10]
  • Reference to Phrygo-Galatia (Acts 16:6; 18:23) [11]
  • The voyage from Troas (Acts 16:11-12) [12]
  • Lydia a historical figure (Acts 16:14) [13] [14]
  • Magistrates named correctly (Acts 16) [15]
  • Paul objects to a beating without examination (Acts 16:37) [16]
  • A  synagogue in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1) [17]
  • Jason before the city rulers (Acts 17:5-9) [18]
  • Jews in Berea (Acts 17:10) [19]
  • Athens full of idols (Acts 17:16) [20]
  • The Athenians’ curiosity (Acts 17:21) [21]
  • Paul on the Areopagus (Acts 17:19) [22] [23] [24]
  • The ‘unknown god’ (Acts 17:23)[25] [26]
  • Paul’s visit to Athens (Acts 17:16-33) [27]
  • Jews expelled from Rome (Acts 18:1-2) [28]
  • Gallio the governor of Achaia (Acts 18:12) [29]
  • The tribunal of Gallio (Acts 18:12-16) [30]
  • Events in Ephesus (Acts 19:28-41) [31]
  • Paul’s appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11-12) [32]

[1] ‘British scholarship has been relatively positive about Acts’ historicity, from Lightfoot and Ramsay to W.L. Knox and Bruce. German scholarship has, for the most part, evaluated negatively the historical worth of Acts, from Baur and his school to Dibelius, Conzelmann, and Haenchen. North American scholars show a range of opinion.’, Setzer, ‘Jewish Responses to Early Christians: history and polemics, 30-150 C.E.’, p. 94 (1994).

[2] ’It is difficult to acquit Harnack here of an exaggerated hypercriticism. He offers a lengthy list of inaccuracies (Acts pp. 203-31), but most of the entries are bizarrely trivial:’, Hemer & Gempf, ‘The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History’, p. 7 (1990).

[3] ‘Over a hundred years ago, the British archaeologist Sir William Ramsay set out to disprove the historicity of Acts, but, after extensive work, particularly in Turkey, became convinced of the book’s reliability and converted to Christianity.’, Blomberg, ‘From Pentecost to Patmos: An Introduction to Acts Through Revelation’, p. 15 (2006).

[4] ‘Ramsay no doubt put the point much more strongly than many of his contemporaries would have been prepared to accept, and he was capable of making assertions about Luke’s historical accuracy which went beyond what could be shown by the available evidence.’, Marshall, ‘The Acts of the Apostles: an introduction and commentary’, p. 34 (1980).

[5] ‘For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Yet Acts is, in simple terms and judged externally, no less of a propaganda narrative than the Gospels, liable to similar distortions. But any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.’, Sherwin-White, ‘Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament’, p. 189 (1963).

[6] ‘he is quite willing to believe Luke made mistakes.’, Marshall, ‘The Acts of the Apostles: an introduction and commentary’, p. 36 (1980).

[7]Talbert, ‘Reading Luke-Acts in its Mediterranean Milieu’, pp. 198-200 (2003); ‘There are certainly points at which the contemporary color of Acts can be challenged, but they are few and insignificant compared to the over-whelming congruence between Acts and its time and place.’, ibid., p. 201.

[8] However, Talbert also notes ‘There is widespread agreement that an exact description of the milieu does not prove the historicity of the event narrated.’, ibid., p. 201.

[9] ‘The narrative of the Acts contains many details which can be related to information from other sources and help build up a picture of the Roman provinces of Macedonia and Achaia in the middle of the first century of our era. Valuable light is cast on Roman institutions in the provinces, civic life in Greek cities and Roman colonies, economic and social realities, communications, religion, especially Judaism.’, Taylor, ‘The Roman Empire in the Acts of the Apostles’, in ‘Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt’, p. 2437 (1996).

[10] ‘In fact, the “trial scenes” in Acts reflect well enough the proceedings of the Roman legal system. The magistrates at Philippi impose on Paul and Silas the standard penalty for vagrant undesirables (Acts 16,22-23.36). Those at Thessalonica receive a bond for good behavior (17, 9).’, ibid., p. 2491.

[11] ‘Now “Phrygo-Galatian country” describes admirably the region of Antioch-by-Pisidia and Iconium which Paul and Barnabas evangelized during the previous journey: both cities belonged to the province of Galatia, but the native culture and population of the region were Phrygian.’, ibid., p. 2439.

[12] ‘Samothrace is the highest island of the Aegean, and so presents a landmark for which a boat sailing from Troas to Neapolis would naturally make. The distance from Troas and Samothrace is a good day’s sailing with a favourable wind; a further day would normally bring the vessel to Neapolis; in Acts 20,6, the return from Neapolis to Troas took five days.’, ibid., p. 2442.

[13] ‘Lydia seems to have been a historical person.’, ibid., p. 2448.

[14] ‘The opinion also of G. Lüdemann, Das fruhe Christentum nach den Traditionen der Apostelgeshichte. Ein Kommentar, Göttingen, 1987, p. 190.’, ibid., p. 2448.

[15] ‘It would not be surprising if Greek speakers at Philippi continued to call the principal magistrates of their city strathgoi, even after the official title had become duumviri. Naples provides a parallel; it seems that the title of the pre-Roman magistrates – dhnarcoi – continued to be in use for the duumviri of the colony. In that case, the us in Acts of the term strathgoi for the duumviri would indicate the author’s local knowledge and also illustrate the persistence of pre-Roman tradition in the colony of Philippi.’, ibid., p. 2453.

[16] ‘The point in the first case is that as a Roman citizen he should have been given a proper trial before suffering corporate punishment. It would be logical if the law gave such protection to a citizen, at least in this period when citizenship was still a relatively uncommon privilege outside Italy.’, ibid., p. 2456.

[17] ‘Several inscriptions attest the presence at Thessalonica of Jews and even of Samaritans. They appear to date from the Later Roman Empire, but there is no reason to doubt that a Jewish community existed already in the 1st century of our era. In fact an inscription dating from the 1st century or shortly after was found at Thessalonica with a dedication to Qew Uyistw kat’ epitaghn IOYES. SCRÜRER believes that the last word would be an attempt to render the Tetragrammaton. This inscription can then be classified with some probability as Jewish and so attest a Jewish presence at Thessalonica in or soon after the 1st century.’, ibid., p. 2459.

[18] ‘In the continuation of the episode at Thessalonica, vv. 5-9, Paul’s opponents mean to drag him and Silas before the dhmoV and in fact they bring Jason and others before the politarcai. Several inscriptions from Thessalonica have the word dhmoV for the assembly of the citizens. It would be reasonable to give it the same sense in Acts 17,5 and not simply to take  it as the equivalent of ocloV (“crowd”) in v.8. This was the official title of the assembly, as can be seen from the frequent formula introducing civil legislation: h boulh kai o dhmoV… (The Council and the Asembly…). The title politarcai is very well attested for certain magistrates at Thessalonica.’, ibid., p. 2460.

[19] ‘For the presence of Jews at Beroea we have two epitaphs dating from the period of the Later Roman Empire.’, ibid., p. 2463.

[20] ‘A suggestion can even be made regarding a particular part of the city where such a description would have been especially apt: the north-west corner of the Agora, where visitors in ancient times found themselves in a veritable forest of Herms, those plinths surmounted by the head of Hermes which were characteristic of Athens.’, ibid., p. 2465.

[21] ‘Curiosity was indeed a well known characteristic of the Athenians.’, ibid., p. 2465.

[22] ‘It seems then that there is no difficulty in supposing that Paul was brought before the council of the Areopagus to answer for the doctrines which he was teaching.’, ibid., p. 2465.

[23] ‘Others point out that the account in Acts is not perfectly coherent.173 It is true that certain details of the scene might better suit a discussion than a judicial process:’, ibid., p. 2470.

[24] ‘On the other hand, one need not think that Paul underwent a formal trial before the Areopagus; it could have been merely an informal preliminary enquiry.’, ibid., p. 2470.

[25] ‘It is altogether likely that Athens too had an altar dedicated qeoiV agnwstoiV, and indeed, as we shall see, literary evidence supports this supposition.’, ibid., p. 2470.

[26] ‘It is clear that in the 1st century of our era there were several altars in and near Athens which could be described as altars of “unknown gods,” whether they were inscribed agnowstoiV qeoiV or qewn or were without inscription.’, ibid., p. 2470.

[27] ‘We have seen that it is possible to locate with surprising precision the events narrated in Acts 17,16-33 in the course of Paul’s stay in Athens,.’, ibid., p. 2491.

[28] ‘We appear to have here a point of contact between the Book of Acts and the known chronology of the ancient world. In fact three ancient historians, two pagan and one Christian, mention a punitive action taken by the emperor Claudius against the Jews at Rome; the difficulties begin when one tries to reconcile the three texts among themselves and with that of Acts.’, ibid., p. 2478.

[29] ‘An inscription found at Delphi mentions Gallio as proconsul. It records a letter from the emperor Claudius which indicates a date for the proconsulate of Gallio and hence of St. Paul’s visit to Corinth at that time according to Acts.’, ibid., p. 2484.

[30] ‘It is evident that the magistrate enjoyed a very large discretion for determining whether the affair interested the law or not. This is precisely what Acts describes as taking place before the tribunal of Gallio.’, ibid., p. 2486.

[31] ‘Later, at Ephesus (Acts 19,28-41) the leading role in civic life apparently played by the grammateuV and his association with the Asiarchs correspond exactly with what is known of the political life of the city.’, ibid., p. 2491.

[32] ‘The 3rd century  jurist Paulus explains that the former right of the citizen to appeal to the people had become a right of appeal to the emperor.’, ibid., p. 2456.


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  1. […] much thank to Bible Apologetics for all the work done there (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). They led me to my own book case (pics added) or my Logos […]

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