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The Historicity of the book of Acts (3/5)

Peter’s address: Acts 4:4

Robert Grant claimed that the population of Jerusalem was too small for 5,000 converts to Christianity.[1] Grant’s estimate of the population of Jerusalem relied on an influential study by Jeremias in 1943, [2] [3] but did not mention that Jeremias calculated a far higher population figure for festival seasons such as passover, at which he estimated Jerusalem would contain up to 125,000 pilgrims.[4]

Furthermore the lower estimate of Jeremias is significantly lower than the lowest of the moderate to high estimates made by Wilkinson in 1974 (70,398 under Herod the Great),[5] Broshi in 1976 (60,000),[6] Maier in 1976 (50,000, with three times that many during festival seasons),[7] and Levine in 2002 (60,000-70,000).[8]

Accordingly, Cousland notes that ‘recent estimates of the population of Jerusalem suggest something in the neighbourhood of a hundred thousand’.[9] Estimates for the number of Christians in the Roman empire by the end of the first century range widely from 7,500 to more than 50,000. [10] [11] [12]

Cornelius: Acts 10:1

It has been claimed that no Roman troops were stationed in Herod Agrippa’s territory,[13] and that the record of Cornelius is at least ‘historically suspect’.[14] Given the lack of inscriptional and literary evidence corroborating Acts, historian de Blois suggested that the unit either did not exist or was a later unit which the author of Acts projected to an earlier time.[15] Observing that the ‘Italian regiment’ is generally identified as ‘cohors II Italica civium Romanorum’, a unit whose presence in Judea is attested no earlier than 69 CE,[16] Smallwood observes that the events in Acts 9:32 to chapter 11 may not be described in chronological order but could have taken place after Agrippa’s death in chapter 12, and that the ‘Italian regiment’ may have been in Caesarea as early as 44 CE.[17]

Wedderburn notes this suggestion, along with the suggestion that Cornelius lived in Caesarea away from his unit.[18] Historians such as Bond,[19] Speidel,[20] Hilhorst,[21] and Saddington[22] see no difficulty in the record.

The Jerusalem Council: Acts 15

The description of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, generally considered the same event described in Galatians 2,[23] is considered by some scholars to be contradictory to the Galatians account.[24] The historicity of this account has been challenged,[25] [26] [27]and was rejected completely by some scholars in the mid to late twentieth century.[28] Recent scholarship is inclined to treat the Council and its rulings as a historical,[29] though this is sometimes expressed with caution.[30]


[1] Grant ‘A Historical Introduction to the New Testament, p. 145 (1963).

[2] Jeremias, ‘Die Einwohnerzhal Jerusalems z. Zt. Jesu’, ZDPV, 63, pp. 24-31 (1943).

[3] ‘Jeremias, for instance has estimated that there was a population of 25,000 in first century Jerusalem,’, Rocca, ‘Herod’s Judaea: A Mediterranean State in the Classical World’, p. 333 (2008).

[4] ‘Thus one would arrive at 125,000 festival pilgrims.’, Reinhardt, ‘The Population Size of Jerusalem and the Numerical Growth of the Jerusalem Church’, in Bauckham (ed.), ‘The Book of Acts in its Palestine Setting’, p. 261 (1995).

[5] Wilkinson, ‘Ancient Jerusalem, Its Water Supply and Population’, PEFQS 106, pp. 33-51 (1974).

[6] ‘This also gives a figure of around 60,000 at the time of the first Christians.’, Reinhardt, ‘The Population Size of Jerusalem and the Numerical Growth of the Jerusalem Church’, in Bauckham (ed.), ‘The Book of Acts in its Palestine Setting’, p. 247 (1995).

[7] Maier, ‘First Christians: Pentecost and the Spread of Christianity’, p. 22 (1976).

[8]‘According to Levine, because the new area encompassed by the Third Wall was not densely populated, assuming that it contained half the population of the rest of the city, there were between 60,000 and 70,000 people living in Jerusalem.’, Rocca, ‘Herod’s Judaea: A Mediterranean State in the Classical World’, p. 333 (2008).

[9] Cousland, ‘The Crowds in the Gospel of Matthew’, p. 60 (2002).

[10] Stark, ‘The Rise of Christianity’, pp. 6-7 (1996); this influential study dominates the literature, but has been questioned as it involves projecting backwards from fourth century estimates.

[11] Wilken, ‘The Christians as the Romans Saw Them’, p. 31 (1984).

[12] ‘Estimates for the number of Christians by 100 C.E. range from as low as 7,500 to upwards of 50,000 out of the approximately sixty million inhabitants of the Roman Empire.’, Novak, ‘Christianity and the Roman Empire: background texts’, pp. 12-13 (2001).

[13] Grant, ‘A Historical Introduction to the New Testament’, p. 145 (1963).

[14] ‘The reference to the presence in Caesarea of a centurion of the ‘Italian’ cohort is, however, historically suspect. If a cohors Italica civium Romanorum is meant, i.e. a cohort of Roman auxiliaries consisting chiefly of Roman citizens from Italy, then such a unit may have been in Syria shortly before 69 (cf. Hemer, Book, 164), but was one to be found in Caesarea in the time just before Herod Agrippa I’s death (cf. Haenchen, Acts, 346 n. 2 and 360); Schurer, HIstory 1, 366 n. 54)?’, Wedderburn, ‘A History of the First Christians”, p. 217 (2004).’

[15] ‘As for the Italian cohort, Speidel claims that it is a ”cohors civium Romanorum”. Speidel actually identifies a ”cohors II Italica c.R.” that was in Cyria as early as 63 CE, though it moved to Noricum before the Jewish war. As he argues, this unit could be the one called the speire teV kaloumenes Italike in the New Testament’s Acts of the Apostles. The unit is not mentioned by Josephus nor is there epigraphical evidence for it at Caesarea nor anywhere in Judea. It is possible that the unit did not exist or was a later Syrian unit displaced to a different place and earlier time.’, de Blois et al (eds.), ‘The Impact of the Roman Army (200 B.C. – A.D. 476): Economic, Social, Political, Religious and Cultural Aspects: Proceedings of the Sixth Workshop of the International Network Impact of Empire (Roman Empire, 200 B.C. – A.D. 476), Capri, Italy, March 29-April 2, 2005’, p. 412 (2005).

[16] ‘There is inscriptional evidence for the presence in Syria in A.D. 69 of the auxiliary ”cohors II Italica civium Romanorum” (Dessau, ILS 9168); but we have no direct evidence of the identity of the military units in Judaea between A.D. 6 and 41. from A.D. 41 to 44, when Agrippa I reigned over Judaea (see on 12:1), one important corps consisted of troops of Caesarea and Sebaste, KaisareiV kai Sebasthnoi  (Jos. Ant. 19.356, 361, 364f.), who did not take kindly to the command of a Jewish king.’, Bruce, ‘The Acts of the Apostles: The Greek Text with Introduction and Commentary’, p. 252 (1990).

[17] ‘”Acts” x, 1, speirh Italikh, generally identified with ”cohors II Italica c. R.,” which was probably in Syria by 69 – Gabba, ”Iscr. Bibbia” 25-6 (=ILS 9168; ”CIL” XI, 6117); c.f. P.-W., s.v. ”cohors”, 304. Jackson and Lake, ”Beginnings” V, 467-9, argue that the events of Acts ix, 32-xi are misplaced and belong after Agrippa I’s death (ch. xii). If so, the ”cohors Italica” may have come in with the reconstitution of the province in 44 (below, p. 256).’, Smallwood (historian), ‘The Jews Under Roman Rule: From Pompey to Diocletian: a study in political relations’ p.147 (2001).’

[18]Others date the incident either before Herod’s reign (so Bruce, History, 261, following Acts’ sequence) or more likely after it, unless one supposes that this officer had been seconded to Caesarea without the rest of his unit (cf. also Hengel, ‘Geography’, 203-4 n. 111).’, Wedderburn, ‘A History of the First Christians’, p. 217 (2004).

[19] ‘One of these infantry cohorts may well have been the ”cohors II Italica civium romanorum voluntariorum” referred to in Acts 10; see Hengel, Between, p. 203, n. 111.’, Bond, ‘Pontius Pilate in History and Interpretation’, p. 13 (1998).

[20] ‘Certainly after Titus’ Jewish war the Flavian emperors revamped the Judaean army, and at the same time ”cohors II Italica” seems to have been transferred north into Syria, as were ”ala” and ”cohors I” Sebastenorum of the same provincial army, yet for the time of the procurators there is no reason to doubt the accuracy of Acts 10.’, Speidel, ‘Roman Army Studies’, volume 2, p. 228 (1992).

[21]Acts 10,1 and 27,1, mentioning a cohors Italica and a cohors Augusta respectively, are quite reliable).’,

[22] ‘The ”Coh. Italica” and, possibly also, the ”Coh. Augusta” were prestigious regiments. Their operation in Judaea cannot be placed before AD 40 on the evidence available, but it is of course possible that they had been sent there before that, even under the first prefect after the fall of Archelaus.’, Saddington, ‘Military and Administrative Personnel in the NT’, in ‘Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt’, pp. 2417-2418 (1996).

[23] ‘In spite of the presence of discrepancies between these two accounts, most scholars agree that they do in fact refer to the same event.’, Paget, ‘Jewish Christianity’, in Horbury, et al., ‘The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period”, volume 3, p. 744 (2008).

[24] ‘Paul’s account of the Jerusalem Council in Galatians 2 and the account of it recorded in Acts have been considered by some scholars as being in open contradiction.’, ibid., p. 744.

[25]There is a very strong case against the historicity of Luke’s account of the Apostolic Council’, Esler, ‘Community and Gospel in Luke-Acts: The Social and Political Motivations of Lucan Theology’, p. 97 (1989).

[26] ‘The historicity of Luke’s account in Acts 15 has been questioned on a number of grounds.’,  Paget, ‘Jewish Christianity’, in Horbury, et al., ‘The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period’, volume 3, p. 744 (2008).

[27]However, numerous scholars have challenged the historicity of the Jerusalem Council as related by Acts, Paul’s presence there in the manner that Luke describes, the issue of idol-food being thrust on Paul’s Gentile mission, and the historical reliability of Acts in general.’, Fotopolous, ‘Food Offered to Idols in Roman Corinth: a socio-rhetorical reconsideration’, pp. 181-182 (2003).

[28]Sahlin rejects the historicity of Acts completely (Der Messias und das Gottesvolk [1945]). Haenchen’s view is that the Apostolic Council “is an imaginary construction answering to no historical reality” (The Acts of the Apostles [Engtr 1971], p. 463). Dibelius’ view (Studies in the Acts of the Apostles [Engtr 1956], pp. 93–101) is that Luke’s treatment is literary-theological and can make no claim to historical worth.’, Mounce, ‘Apostolic Council’, in Bromiley (ed.) ‘The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia’, volume 1, p. 200 (rev. ed. 2001).

[29]There is an increasing trend among scholars toward considering the Jerusalem Council as  historical event. An overwhelming majority identifies the reference to the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 with Paul’s account in Gal. 2.1-10, and this accord is not just limited to the historicity of the gathering alone but extends also to the authenticity of the arguments deriving from the Jerusalem church itself.’, Philip, ‘The Origins of Pauline Pneumatology: the Eschatological Bestowal of the Spirit’, Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 2, Reihe, p. 205 (2005).

[30]The present writer accepts its basic historicity, i.e. that there was an event at Jerusalem concerning the matter of the entry of the Gentiles into the Christian community, but would be circumspect about going much further than that.’, Paget, ‘Jewish Christianity’, in Horbury, et al., ‘The Cambridge History of Judaism: The Early Roman Period’, volume 3, p. 744 (2008).

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