In an online group that I’m part of, an insightful skeptic, whose identity I’ll respect by keeping nameless, fearlessly challenges the prevailing belief held by Christian apologists that Luke, the author of the third Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, deserves to be hailed as a skilled historian. This skeptic takes it a step further, boldly claiming that Luke is nothing short of “terrible.” While presenting an extensive list of objections that may initially appear overwhelming, a closer examination uncovers their inherent weaknesses. In this blog post, I analyze the arguments put forth by this particular critic, one by one.
The skeptic shotguns out 8 different arguments, with bullet points to back up his assertions.
Argument 1: Luke copies most of his account from the gospel of Mark (and/or Matthew), but makes changes at will. The changes he makes are not motivated by historical accuracy, but by theological and literary goals.
- Luke adjusts Jesus’ passion to make Jesus stoic like Socrates in the Phaedo. Luke erases any signs of emotional distress in Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane and in Jesus’ last words on the cross.
- While Mark 16:7 and Matthew 28:7, 10, and 16 have Jesus appear to his disciples in Galilee, Luke erases the Galilee appearances and has Jesus *only* appear in Jerusalem (Luke 24:33-51, Acts 1:4).
Point One: The claim that Luke deliberately adjusts Jesus’ passion to resemble the stoicism of Socrates in the Phaedo is a highly subjective interpretation. Contrary to a stoic demeanor, the portrayal of Jesus in Luke’s Gospel reveals a rich tapestry of emotions. We witness moments of profound sorrow, as exemplified when he wept over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Additionally, Jesus experiences moments of unbridled joy, as captured when the disciples return from their mission in Luke 10:21. Moreover, Luke presents Jesus displaying righteous anger, illustrated vividly when he cleanses the Temple in Luke 19:45-46. While it is true that Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus’ Passion in a slightly different manner compared to other Gospel accounts, it does not necessarily imply that Luke purposefully omits signs of emotional distress in Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane and his final words on the cross.
In Luke’s account of Gethsemane (Luke 22:39-46), Jesus indeed expresses distress and anguish, fervently praying to God and even sweating drops of blood. This portrayal highlights a sense of emotional turmoil and vulnerability in Jesus’ character.
The earliest and most reliable manuscripts of Luke’s Gospel, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, include the reference to Jesus’ sweat becoming like drops of blood. This detail is also supported by numerous other early manuscripts and enjoys the backing of the majority of textual witnesses, and is also witnessed to by Justin Martyr (Dialogue with Trypho, 103). It is worth noting, however, that a few ancient manuscripts, including some early ones like Codex Bezae and certain Old Latin translations, omit the specific mention of Jesus’ sweat becoming like drops of blood. Nevertheless, even without the explicit mention of great drops of blood, Luke’s account still conveys Jesus’ distress and anguish.
Point Two: The argument that Luke purposefully erases the Galilee appearances lacks coherence, particularly if he is attempting to closely follow Mark’s Gospel. It seems unlikely that Luke would randomly invent additional appearances and disregard the Galilee appearance mentioned in Mark. The objection overlooks the possibility that Luke had independent access to the events he wanted to convey. “Forget Galilee. Jerusalem, because, ya know, reasons” just isn’t a very compelling argument.
Additionally, during the Last Supper, Jesus informed the Twelve about meeting them in Galilee after his resurrection, as mentioned in Mark 14:28. The women’s mention of Galilee could have served as a password since only the Twelve were present at the Last Supper. Even if the men doubted the women’s word, the reference to Galilee should have hinted at the truthfulness of their message. Moreover, the message carried by the women likely extended beyond the eleven disciples, as there were larger gatherings of disciples and followers who would meet Jesus in Galilee. This larger group meeting in Galilee also helps explain the doubts expressed in Matthew 28:17, as it is plausible that some who hadn’t seen Jesus since his resurrection initially doubted but later dispelled their doubts through personal interaction with him. John’s Gospel further confirms that Jesus met his disciples both in Jerusalem and in Galilee, with distinct events described in each location. The disciples could have made the journey to Galilee after the Feast of Unleavened Bread and then returned to Jerusalem, resolving any potential confusion about Jesus’ instruction to remain in Jerusalem until receiving the promised Holy Spirit. It is reasonable to consider that Luke omitted or hadn’t yet learned about the trip to Galilee due to space limitations in his account.
Here it may helpful to remind people that harmonization is not a complex or religious task. Christians who study the gospels should not feel bullied by the suggestion that they engage in harmonization solely due to their theological beliefs, and therefore force passages together to make them fit for non-academic reasons. On the contrary, trustworthy historical sources are often harmonized by historians, especially when all the facts are taken into account. Trying to understand how these sources align with each other is a highly valuable approach to pursue.
Argument 2: Luke takes for granted a lot of the information from Mark and/or Matthew that a good historian would have treated with better scrutiny.
- Luke 23:1-24, following Mark 15:1-15 and/or Matthew 27:2-24 severely mischaracterizes Pontius Pilate, depicting him as a spineless but sympathetic and reasonable governor, deeply concerned with justice. If Luke had read Josephus’ Antiquities 18.3 or Philo’s ‘On the Embassy of Gaius’ he would know Pilate was not like that.
- 23:44-45, following Mark 15:33 and/or Matthew 27:45, says there was darkness from 12:00 pm to 3:00 pm, “over the whole land.” Yet not a single person in Palestine wrote about this or found it alarming. If Luke was a good historian, he would have recognized the problems with this account and omitted it from his gospel.
Luke would be in a position to know what he’s talking about, as he himself claims to have been present with Paul during his visit to the Jerusalem church in Acts 21, where “all the elders [including James] were present” (Acts 21:18). Moreover, Luke accompanied Paul during his imprisonment in Caesarea Maritima for a substantial period of at least two years. During this time, Luke would have had ample opportunities to interact with numerous living witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, given the proximity of Caesarea to Jerusalem (approximately 75 miles). Luke’s personal acquaintance with the Jerusalem apostles places him in a unique position to have firsthand knowledge of the accounts and testimonies regarding the nature and diversity of the post-resurrection encounters with Jesus.
Considering Luke’s demonstrated meticulousness and attention to detail, there is no justification for assuming that he was careless or credulous in his approach. It would be incorrect to assume that Luke uncritically accepted Mark’s account without questioning or scrutinizing its contents. As we delve further into Luke’s work, we will see his carefulness and discerning approach, which indicates his commitment to thorough research and accurate representation.
Point One: This objection treats Pilate as if he were a statue, incapable of being conflicted given the circumstances portrayed in the Gospels, and assumes that Josephus provides a complete understanding of his character and actions.
Point Two: This argument from silence is highly flawed. In 79 AD, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed Herculaneum and Pompeii, an event known from Pliny the Younger’s letter to Tacitus, not his histories. The silence of other historians doesn’t negate the event, as archaeological evidence confirms its occurrence.
Similarly, the expulsion of Jews from Rome in 49 AD, mentioned by Suetonius and Acts 18:2 but not by Josephus or Philo, does not render it non-existent. The absence of a solar eclipse recorded by Pliny and Seneca in Judea does not disprove the darkness during Jesus’ crucifixion, as they were not present in or near Judea at the time.
While not conclusive, it is worth noting that historians may not have been entirely silent about this darkness. Thallus, a first-century Roman historian, is mentioned by Julius Africanus, who refers to Thallus calling it an eclipse of the sun, although Julius disagrees. Thallus’ reference, if to Jesus’ crucifixion, could have come from Christian tradition. Nevertheless, the seriousness with which Julius addresses it suggests he believed the event to have occurred. Tertullian also mentions this event and that it is found in the Roman archives, possibly referring to Thallus’ writings, challenging skeptics to corroborate it. The absence of strong reasons to doubt the story based on silence, coupled with some indications of its occurrence, warrants consideration, while acknowledging that the evidence may not be unequivocally compelling.
Argument 3: Luke includes information that could not have been obtained from eyewitnesses.
- In Luke 1:24-25, Luke records the private thoughts and feelings of Elizabeth, which he wouldn’t have had access to, even if he interviewed Mary.
- Luke 22:3-6 records a secret meeting between Judas and the chief priests, and that Satan entered Judas, which Luke couldn’t possibly have known.
- Acts 1:18 records that Judas fell off a cliff headlong, which no one was around to witness.
Point One: There is no reason to discount the possibility that Elizabeth shared her private thoughts with Mary. They were relatives, and it is entirely plausible that they would have had intimate conversations about their experiences and feelings, especially after spending several months with her.
Point Two: The idea of witnessing Satan entering into someone could be Luke’s own personal deduction, not exactly a literal observation. Luke, in describing Judas’ betrayal and his association with Satan, is making a theological interpretation rather than providing a blow-by-blow journalistic account. It is important to recognize that historical writers of that time often offered their interpretations and perspectives, and Luke is no exception. Given Judas’ shocking betrayal, it’s not difficult to understand the inference. Moreover, perhaps even Jesus himself shared with the disciples this fact about Judas after the resurrection.
Point Three: In Acts, Luke records what Peter reportedly said. It is worth considering that during the period when the apostles’ knowledge about Judas’ death may have been limited, Luke’s intention in Acts could have been to faithfully transmit Peter’s words. Additionally, Acts 6:7 mentions priests who embraced the Christian faith, indicating that they could have provided additional information about Judas’ demise, which Luke could have later incorporated into the Gospel narratives that we see in Matthew. This is just one possibility, but it undercuts the objection raised.
Argument 4: Luke actually invents stories using Old Testament writings as a framework (AKA mimesis).
- Luke’s account of Jesus raising a widow’s son (Luke 7:11-16) is copied from the story of Elijah raising a widow’s son (1 Kings 17:9-24).
- The account of Peter’s vision about unclean food in Acts 10:1-15 is copied from the accounts of Ezekiel’s visions in Ezekiel 1:1, 2:8-10, 4:14, and 20:49.
Point One: The argument that history cannot repeat itself is flawed. The occurrence of similar events or miracles does not necessarily imply dependence or copying. For example, one could argue that the miracle of the fish in Luke is copying the miracle of the oil in 2 Kings 4:1-7 or the floating ax head in 2 Kings 6:1-7. While they all involve miraculous provision, they are separate events with distinct contexts. Treating the similarities as definitive proof of mimesis is highly speculative.
Point Two: The assertion that Luke used Old Testament writings as a basis for inventing stories (mimesis) and specifically copied Peter’s vision from Ezekiel’s visions is not accurate. In Acts 10:1-15, Luke recounts a unique event where Peter has a vision on a rooftop in Joppa. During this vision, a sheet descends from heaven, containing various animals, including those considered unclean according to Jewish dietary laws. A voice instructs Peter to kill and eat these animals, symbolizing the inclusion of Gentiles into the early Christian community.
While Ezekiel does have visions recorded in his book, such as in chapters 1:1, 2:8-10, 4:14, and 20:49, they have distinct contexts, themes, and messages unrelated to Peter’s vision. Notably, Ezekiel’s vision in chapter 4 involves his protest against cooking with human poop as fuel, emphasizing symbolic actions related to Jerusalem’s impending siege. Saying Luke was connecting the phrase “No impure meat has ever entered my mouth” from Ezekiel 4:14 is quite the stretch.
Therefore, there is no direct correlation between Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and any of Ezekiel’s visions.
Argument 5: Luke also invents stories about Jesus and the apostles based on Greek mythology.
- The appearance of Jesus to the disciples on the road to Emmaus is modeled after the appearance of Odysseus to Laertes at the end of the Odyssey.
- The casting of lots to replace Judas in Acts 1:15-26 is modeled after the casting of lots to select Ajax to fight Hector in Iliad 7.
- The miraculous escapes in Acts 5:17-23, 12:6-11, 16:23-28, are based on a trope of miraculous escapes also found in Greek myths: e.g. Dionysus in Euripides’ Bacchae 447–448.
- Paul’s shipwreck on Malta (Acts 27-28) is based on Odysseus’ shipwreck on Ogygia, Calypso’s island.
While it is possible to find similarities or thematic resonances between certain biblical accounts and elements from ancient literature, it is important to note that these claims involve subjective interpretations and comparisons. There is no definitive evidence to support these claims as historical or textual facts. It is worth mentioning that classicists and biblical scholars have largely rejected MacDonald’s thesis due to its tenuous and strained connections, as well as the lack of falsifiability.
A Homeric scholar has provided a response to MacDonald’s ideas, which can be found in this critique. Although the critique specifically addresses MacDonald’s book on Mark’s Gospel, if he is being careless with his analysis of Mark, it is not at all unreasonable to think that he may be making similar blunders with Luke-Acts as well.
Let’s focus on the shipwreck for now and examine the evidence that disconfirms the notion that Luke was simply imitating Homer. The account of their voyage in Acts mentions sailing along the coast of Crete near the shore when a powerful northeasterly wind, known as Euryclydon, suddenly struck them. This aligns with historical records and confirms the accuracy of Luke’s report. There is well-documented evidence of a strong northeasterly wind over Crete during the specific time of their journey, which coincided with Passover. (R.W. White. “A Meteorological Appraisal of Acts 27:5-26.” The Expository Times 113, no. 12 (September 2002), 403-407)
Furthermore, Acts 27:16 describes how the ship was blown off course towards a small island called Cauda. What is remarkable is that Cauda is located more than 20 miles west-southwest from where the storm likely hit the travelers in the Bay of Messara. This precise location aligns with the trajectory one would expect from a northeasterly wind, and it is not the kind of information one could infer without actually experiencing it. In ancient times, accurately locating islands this far out was a challenge.
Scholar Colin Hemer notes that Luke’s geographical accuracy surpasses that of other sources from the time. For instance, the encyclopedist Pliny incorrectly places Cauda (Gaudos) opposite Hierapytna, about ninety miles too far east according to reliable sources. Even the famed geographer Ptolemy, who provides latitude and longitude details, erroneously locates Cauda too close to the western end of Crete.
Ancient literature student James Smith, who was also an experienced sailor, presents a compelling argument supporting the authenticity of Luke’s account of the shipwreck in Acts 27-28, specifically suggesting it took place at the island of Malta. Smith meticulously analyzes the text of Acts, compares it with other Mediterranean shipwreck descriptions by Josephus and Lucian, and incorporates nautical knowledge about prevailing winds, soundings, and coastlines. His argument is built on numerous details that collectively point in the same direction. Here are a few examples:
- Luke’s use of the nautical term “Bolisantes” (Acts 27:28) for taking soundings aligns with the plausible period between their awareness of the breaking foam at the rocky point of Koura (about 20 fathoms) and their recognition of the breakers on a steep shoreline ahead (15 fathoms).
- In Acts 28:7, Luke refers to Publius as the “first man of the island.” Smith provides inscriptional evidence demonstrating that this was indeed an official title on Malta, adding weight to Luke’s accuracy.
Furthermore, Smith argues that Luke, the narrator of the voyage and shipwreck, was not only an eyewitness but also a landsman. Luke accurately describes the actions of the crew without fully explaining their underlying reasons or necessities. Here are a few examples:
- The phrase “chalasantes to skeuos” (27:17) reveals Luke’s observational accuracy, noting the crew’s action of dismantling unnecessary rigging. However, Luke may not fully appreciate the navigational necessity of this action for maneuvering the ship on a starboard track with the right side facing the wind.
- The crisis of despair (Acts 27:20) may have occurred when the crew realized they had likely missed Sicily and would not survive if they clung to the hope of reaching the Tunisian coast intact. Luke acknowledges the crew’s despair but does not provide specific reasons for it.
- Casting anchors from the stern (Acts 27:29) was the appropriate emergency action to prevent the ship from being broadsided by the waves and smashed stern first on the rocks. Luke reports this action without explicitly noting its unusual nature or the necessity behind it.
- When they were prepared to run the ship ashore at daylight, it was crucial (Acts 27:38) to discard all unnecessary weight, previously retained as ballast, to increase the chances of grounding the ship bow first on the beach. Luke reports this action but does not explain why the grain was kept earlier or why it is now thrown overboard.
In summary, James Smith’s comprehensive analysis, based on historical, textual, and nautical evidence, strongly supports the authenticity of Luke’s account of the shipwreck. Luke’s attention to detail, accurate depiction of actions, and consistent alignment with nautical practices further validate the credibility of his narrative. This evidence supports the reportage model and disconfirms the mimesis model.
Argument 6: Most of the general historical information about Roman Palestine Luke gets from the writings of Josephus, but the details he often gets wrong.
- Acts 5:36-37 talks about 2 Jewish rebels, Theudas and Judas the Galilean, both mentioned in the writings of Josephus (Ant. 20.97-98, Ant. 20.5.2) but Luke gets the order and chronology of both wrong.
- Acts 11:27-28 mentions a famine during the reign of Claudius that is talked about by Josephus (Ant. 20.1.3-2.5) but Luke says the famine was “throughout all the world” when it actually only affected Palestine.
- Acts 12:20-23 says Agrippa I was struck dead by an angel while seated on his throne in Caesarea, while Josephus (Ant. 19.8.2) says Agrippa was in the theater when he had a heart attack.
- Agrippa’s death in 44 ᴀᴅ (Acts 12:23) would have occurred before the famine of 47 ᴀᴅ (Acts 11:27-28), not after as Acts portrays.
Firstly, it is strange to argue that Luke was utilizing Josephus as a source while simultaneously suggesting that he failed to reconcile the apparent inconsistencies. In fact, it seems to me that these alleged discrepancies could be seen as evidence supporting Luke’s independence rather than the contrary. NT scholar Steve Mason argues that the author of Luke-Acts is dependent on Josephus, but I don’t find his argument to be compelling.
Point One: Let’s discuss Theudas first. In Luke’s account and Josephus’ account, they are actually referring to two different individuals. The Theudas mentioned by Josephus led a revolt in AD 44, while the Theudas mentioned in Acts rebelled before the census around AD 7 (see Acts 5:37). Basically, we’re dealing with two different guys named Theudas. We can be sure of this because Theudas came before Judas of Galilee, who rose up during the census. So, the Theudas that Gamaliel refers to is not the same person mentioned by Josephus.
Now, let’s move on to Judas of Galilee. Here’s the thing: there is no contradiction between Gamaliel and Josephus. Once we understand the situation with Theudas, the issue with Judas becomes clear too. The Theudas that Gamaliel talks about is not the same one that Josephus refers to. However, Josephus is actually talking about the same Judas that Gamaliel does because Gamaliel’s words were spoken around AD 33, which is much earlier than the Judas mentioned by Josephus in AD 44. So, there’s no conflict when it comes to Judas because Gamaliel and Josephus are referring to the same individual. (For more on Theudas, see this video by Lydia McGrew.)
Point Two: In Acts 11:28, οἰκουμένη (ecumene) is the word used and it means land, it doesn’t have to be translated as the “whole world.” Luke knows it was a local famine because if we read just a little further verse 30 says, “The disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” If it was the whole world, why does Paul take collections from people also suffering under a famine to help people in Judea suffering under a famine? That doesn’t make sense.
Also, Luke describes Paul explaining to Agrippa that he is bringing an offering to the poor Jerusalem saints, but in a subtle manner. Romans 15:25-26 portrays an intriguing combination of events within the same passage. Firstly, Paul mentions a collection being gathered in Macedonia, followed by a similar effort in Achaia. He further reveals his intention to travel to Jerusalem to deliver this aid to the saints there. However, in Acts 20:2-3, Paul’s return to Palestine is described without any mention of a contribution. Similarly, in Acts 24:17-19, Paul speaks of bringing alms to his countrymen but does not specify their origin. The connections between these passages are subtly indirect, indicating that there is no suspicion of copying.
To complete the overall picture, two other passages shed light on the matter. 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 reveals the collection being collected in Corinth, the capital of Achaia, for the benefit of the Jerusalem Christians. However, information regarding Macedonia is absent until we turn to 2 Corinthians 8:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 9:2, where the Macedonian churches are mentioned as actively participating in a collection for the same purpose.
Thus, the circumstances described in the two verses from Romans find support in various other passages found in Acts and the Corinthian epistles. Each of these passages offers clues or specific time references, allowing us to associate them with a particular period—namely, toward the end of Paul’s second missionary journey. This casual interlocking is best explained if Luke really did travel with Paul.
Point Three: Both accounts mention Herod’s presence in Caesarea. Both accounts mention the people referring to Herod as a god. Both accounts describe Herod’s death, albeit with different causes. It’s worth noting that while there are similarities in certain events and details, there are differences in the specific circumstances and causes leading to Herod’s demise as depicted in Acts and Josephus.
The ancients would have seen no problem with saying “an angel smote him” for not redirecting the praise to God and him dying of a heart attack. Different details and small discrepancies are what we see in historical accounts all the time. Was it his throne or at a theater? Is that really a significant issue? According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the embassy of the Jews to the Emperor Claudius took place in seed time, while Philo places it in harvest time. Clearly, both can’t be right, but the existence of such an embassy is uncontroversial. This argument is weak and does not make Luke an unreliable historian. Here’s a crazy thought: What if Josephus got his details a little off? Has that thought ever crossed the skeptic’s mind?
Point Four: In this passage, Agabus prophesies that a famine would happen. And it did, just a few years later. There’s a mention of a dispute with the leaders of Tyre and Sidon, but they were dependent on Herod for food, not the other way around. This is an entirely manufactured contradiction here.
Luke’s deep knowledge of the historical context is evident throughout his writings, showcasing his meticulous attention to detail. Tim McGrew has compiled an extensive list of factual accuracies, which further demonstrate Luke’s understanding of the times that I’ll reproduce here. By meticulously including these facts, Luke establishes his credibility as a reliable historian and bolsters the case for the historical reliability of his accounts.
These come from Colin Hemer’s extensive work, “The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History.” This authoritative source identifies numerous instances where Luke’s historical accuracy shines through, providing evidence that goes beyond what can be derived from Josephus.
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.
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).
Skeptics often dismiss detailed confirmations that support the narrative’s reliability by arguing that they could be attributed to common knowledge or added for the sake of verisimilitude, as we often find in modern historical fiction. However, the counter-argument maintains that Luke accurately portrays challenging aspects that go beyond common knowledge. This objection can be categorized as the “Wikipedia fallacy,” assuming that the accessibility to geographical, political, terminological, and other intricate facts in the first-century world was comparable to our present-day access at our fingertips.
Furthermore, the critic cannot have it both ways. If inaccuracies in historical details are seen as evidence against the historical trustworthiness of Acts, then getting them right should be considered evidence in its favor. It is inconsistent to argue that Luke’s mistakes render him an unreliable historian while disregarding the significance of his precise depiction of numerous challenging details.
When comparing the many obscure details found in the book of Acts with apocryphal tales like the Acts of Paul and Thecla, or the Acts of Thomas, the contrast in historical accuracy becomes evident. The Acts of Thomas includes some accurate details, such as mentioning King Gundaphorus, but it doesn’t provide the same level of verifiable historical information we find in Luke’s writings. The disparity in the amount of historical detail between these texts is striking. The book of Acts stands out for its meticulous attention to historical facts, while the apocryphal accounts greatly lack the same level of historical grounding.
Argument 7: In his account of the conversion and ministry of Paul, Luke contradicts information found in Paul’s own letters.
- Acts 9:10-30 says Paul met with the Jerusalem apostles right after his conversion, while Galatians 1:15-18 says he did not meet with them.
- Acts 15:1-35 portrays the Jerusalem Council as a lot more peaceful and the apostles as much more unified than Paul expresses in Galatians 2:1-10.
- Acts 16:1-3 contradicts Galatians 2:1-5 in saying it was Timothy rather than Titus who was being pressured to be circumcised, and that Paul approved of the circumcision.
- Acts 17:10-15 says Paul went to Athens alone while 1 Thessalonians 3:1-3 says Paul took Timothy with him.
Point one: Let’s read Acts 9:23-25: “When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.”
Just how long of a period is ‘many days’? Looking elsewhere, we read that ‘many days’ can be as long as three years! Take a look at 1 Kings 2:38-39: “And Shimei said to the king, ‘What you say is good; as my lord the king has said, so will your servant do.’ So Shimei lived in Jerusalem many days. But it happened at the end of three years that two of Shimei’s servants ran away to Achish, son of Maacah, king of Gath…
I’m not saying the Bible is the only source here or that Luke had this in mind. I’m just saying that in other ancient texts, “many days” can encompass three years. So what about the journey to Arabia? Luke doesn’t mention it, but that doesn’t necessarily contradict Paul’s story in Galatians. This trip may have happened within Luke’s ‘many days’ in Acts 9:23, and Luke either didn’t know about it or didn’t mention it.
One might quibble and say that Luke doesn’t sound like he knew how long Paul waited before he went to Jerusalem. But Luke might simply be leaving out unimportant details and focusing on Paul’s apostolic call to the Gentiles. He’s simply telescoping the narrative. And even if Luke wasn’t aware of the exact span of time, so what? One relatively unimportant detail doesn’t show he was unfamiliar with Paul’s mission and life.
But let’s think about this for a moment. If Acts was written by someone with no access to the story of Paul’s conversion, why did he place it on the way to Damascus of all places? Damascus doesn’t even feature prominently in the rest of Acts.
If Luke is using Galatians, he wouldn’t have put Damascus into his story while leaving out Paul’s trip to Arabia or the passing of three years. Either Luke is carefully devious to include a small detail like Damascus while being a major blunderer at the same time by leaving out the trip to Arabia. Or, this casual correspondence about Damascus shows that Luke knew about Paul apart from his letter to the Galatians.
Point Two: Circumcision was not the reason for Paul’s meeting with the Apostles, and the meeting didn’t settle the issue. What Paul actually says is that during his private meeting with the apostles, he was confronted by Jewish Christians who demanded they circumcise Titus. Paul said no, and the apostles backed him up. Acts 15 was public and was a council called to settle the matter for the church, from which a public document was issued by the apostles. Galatians 2 and Acts 15 aren’t the same meeting. To say so goes beyond the evidence, and it seems more likely that Acts 11:30 is the most plausible date for the private meeting described in Gal. 2.
Point Three: No, see above. If anything, this is evidence that the author of Acts traveled with Paul. While the pastorals are often rejected as Pauline forgeries by scholars, I find their arguments to be very weak. Let’s consider that 2 Timothy 1:5 says, “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.” 2 Timothy 3:15 gives us some more details about Timothy’s upbringing: “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.”
So Timothy was steeped in the Jewish scriptures and in the faith. These details fit well together with what we read in Acts 16:1-3: “Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”
In Acts, we learn Timothy’s father was Greek and apparently drew the line at circumcision, but his mother was a Jewish convert to Christianity. That’s why he would’ve been familiar with the scriptures since he was a child. 2 Timothy mentions his grandmother but not his father. Neither group of details seems to be in connection with the other, but the two pieces fit together very naturally and casually.
Point Four: This so-called contradiction is also pretty weak. Let’s read 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 for ourselves: “Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith.”
Paul doesn’t tell us how he arrived in Athens; all these verses say is that Timothy was with him in Athens at some point. It also suggests that Paul was in Athens for some time before he sent Timothy back. That’s why he writes, “when we could bear it no longer.”
Now let’s look at Acts 17:14-15. It reads, “Then the brothers immediately sent Paul off on his way to the sea, but Silas and Timothy remained there. Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.”
According to Acts, a message was sent back urging Timothy to join Paul as soon as possible. According to 1 Thessalonians 3, Timothy was subsequently in Athens. There is no contradiction here.
Acts doesn’t mention Timothy coming to Paul in Athens to respond to Paul’s request. Later, in Acts 18:5, Timothy comes from Macedonia to join Paul in Corinth. Thus, even within Acts, there is a gap in the chronology. We can fill in this gap by supposing that Timothy did visit Paul in Athens and later returned to Macedonia before rejoining him in Corinth. This is precisely what 1 Thessalonians 3 describes. These passages do not contradict each other; instead, they fit together seamlessly in an incidental manner that clearly wasn’t contrived.
These apparent discrepancies yet casual interlockings indicate that Luke was not copying Paul’s letters yet was also a traveling companion to Paul, contra the opinions of the late NT scholar Richard Pervo.
Argument 8: Luke also includes many accounts that are simply too improbable or far-fetched to be considered serious history.
- The account of the Census of Quirinius in Luke 2:1-5 says that every man needed to track down the hometown of his ancestors from a thousand years ago and travel there in order to register. Such an extremely impractical census is unheard of in ancient history.
- Acts 4:4 says Peter converted 5,000 people with a single speech. Even if 5,000 people could hear Peter’s speech at the same time, this one event producing so many Christians could not have gone unnoticed by contemporary writers.
- Acts 9:1-2 has Paul working with the high priest to persecute Christians. Pharisees and Sadducees were bitter enemies and did not work together.
- Acts 23:5 has Paul fail to recognize the high priest, which is extremely unlikely if Paul was a Pharisee.
- Acts 28:3-6 says Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake on Malta, but there were no poisonous snakes on Malta.
- Luke overexaggerates Paul’s credentials by having him be, not only a Roman citizen by birth (Acts 22:28), but also a Pharisee taught at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). For Paul to have been both of those is far fetched, to say the least.
Point One: Ah, the census. Every skeptic’s favorite historical “blunder.” To say that a census never required people to return to their hometowns was never done is simply false. On the contrary, here is some evidence that Rome would sometimes do so:
In the 30s A.D., as Tacitus tells us (Annals, Book VI, 41.1), a rather warlike tribe (the Clitae) residing in the Roman client kingdom of Cilicia was “pressed to conform with Roman usage by making a return of their property and submitting to a tribute.”
Furthermore, there has been a discovery of a papyrus document containing a command in Greek from the Prefect Gaius Vibius Maximus for all those in his area of authority to return to their own homes in Egypt for the purposes of a census. This census took place in 104 AD. While Luke mentions that everyone had to return to their own city, specifically stating that Joseph returned to Bethlehem due to his connection to the house and lineage of David, it does not necessarily imply that everyone had to go back to their ancestral city. Luke’s focus is on Joseph’s familial ties, suggesting that their association with Bethlehem may have persisted over time, possibly through property ownership or family connections.
Furthermore, Luke does not explicitly state that every individual in the Roman world had to journey back to their ancestral home from a thousand years ago. It’s an overreading to read it as them tracking down the hometown of one’s ancestors from a thousand years ago and traveling there.
Also, the whole idea that Luke invented the census (or moved Jesus’ birth to much later) is absurd. It is using a steamroller to crack a peanut. If Luke wanted to force Jesus to be born in Bethlehem contrary to fact, all he had to do was to have Mary and Joseph start out in Bethlehem and later travel to Nazareth. There was no need for him to invent the idea that Mary was from Nazareth and that they had to travel from there while she was pregnant, down to Bethlehem, and then back to Nazareth. And to invent a Roman census for to connect Jesus to David would be a wildly exaggerated plot device. Luke’s deliberately connecting it falsely with Quirinius and placing it at a date that is in great tension with all of Luke’s other time indicators is overwhelmingly implausible. Why would he do a thing like that? Luke didn’t have to mention Quirinius at all if he was inventing a census out of thin air.
Now, you might say, “C’mon. Luke is obviously trying to get Jesus to fulfill prophecy here!”
But Luke does not show the slightest awareness of any Old Testament passage that is fulfilled by Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. He may or may not have known of Micah 5:2, which is a famous prophecy about the Messiah coming from Bethlehem that Matthew references. But I think it’s a good principle not to attribute theological motives to the evangelists that they say nothing about. They generally aren’t shy about mentioning Old Testament parallels or fulfillments of prophecy. So why play the role of a mind reader for ancient authors for which we have no textual evidence?
With all this in mind, something else must be happening here. Numerous scholars have argued that the Greek will bear a quite different reading—that Quirinius, when he eventually became governor of Syria, made use of the records from the aborted registration that drew Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. This was Calvin’s suggestion and endorsed by scholars like George Rawlinson, Alfred Edersheim, and numerous other scholars.
The idea is that after the registration—in the narrow sense—took place, there was a hiatus; a decade later, when Archelaus was deposed and Quirinius took power in Syria and took control over Judea, this registration was used as the basis for the actual taxation. The verb εγενετο does bear the meaning “set in motion” or “come to fulfillment” in other classical writings, and it is used in this manner by Luke himself in Acts 11:28.
As for (2), a number of scholars have argued for the plausibility that Quirinius was a special legate of Augustus in Syria in or about 5 BC. This alternative would be ruled out if we read the Greek term ηγεμον as having an absolutely rigid meaning.
But we are not compelled to read it so woodenly, as Josephus routinely uses it loosely in the Antiquities, e.g. 16.9.1, 2, 5, where Saturninus (the technical governor) and his associate Volumnius (who was not the governor (Jewish War 1.17) but appears to have been a special agent of Augustus) are both referred to by this title.
Either of these approaches, denying (1) or denying (2), would completely undermine the idea of there being a major error here. There are other plausible alternatives that have been offered as well. Another option some scholars have suggested is that Luke may have been mistaken but only in a narrow sense. Luke may be interpreted as, “This was the first [of two] censuses made when Quirinius was governor of Syria,” thinking that Quirinius was hegemon of Syria twice, based upon a mistaken memory or reading of the name Quinctilius, since the hapless Quinctilius Varus was, according to Josephus, governor of Syria around this time. In that case, Luke did indeed make a mistake, but it was very limited and understandable, and it certainly did not mean he invented the census or would make him an unreliable historian.
This one is by far the most common objection to Luke and the most overplayed. Also, if he was using Josephus and being super sneaky then goofing this one up makes him a big-time bumbler. It’s hard to have it both ways. (See Lydia McGrew’s helpful video on this topic for more.)
Point Two: The absence of contemporary non-Christian accounts mentioning this event does not provide definitive evidence for or against its occurrence. This is an incredibly weak argument from silence. We do know from Josephus that during the Jewish Passover or other such feasts in Jerusalem, thousands of pilgrims would gather, providing an opportunity for speeches or public teachings to reach a sizable audience. (Wars, 2:280) There is nothing implausible about this.
Point Three: This is practicing a priori history, where we infer that something would not have been done based on our current perspective, and therefore conclude that an account stating it happened must be false. However, Acts is an early document that can be considered a historical source concerning practices of the time. To decide, based on highly indirect inference, that a practice related in Acts “would not” have happened, even in a non-miraculous portion of the account, is an attempt to do history from one’s armchair. History is empirical and requires concrete evidence. Applying such a method consistently would lead us to reject many events that undoubtedly occurred in secular history. It is not a sound way to reason, as history is filled with examples where common hatred for an out-group brings together unlikely allies.
Point Four: Ananias served as the high priest during the reign of Felix’s predecessor, Quadratus. However, he was bound and sent to Rome to give an account of some questionable activities. With Agrippa’s intervention, Ananias was allowed to return to Jerusalem, but he was not restored to his former office. Jonathan succeeded him and held the position of high priest during Felix’s reign. According to Josephus, Jonathan was assassinated inside the temple.
Following Jonathan’s death, the position of high priest remained vacant for a period until King Agrippa appointed Ismael, the son of Fabi, to the role. The events described in Acts 23 took place during this interval when Ananias was in Jerusalem and the office of the high priesthood remained unoccupied. Therefore, Ananias acted on his own authority and assumed the role of high priest, which explains Paul’s words in Acts 23:5. (See Antiquities, 20.5.3, 20.6.2, 20.8.8)
Some scholars speculate that Paul may have been sarcastic when he claimed not to know Ananias was the high priest, as he was likely aware that Ananias was not the legitimate high priest but rather a usurper. Given Paul’s tendency to use sarcasm in other instances in his letters, this interpretation aligns with his character. This particular detail is challenging to reconcile if one assumes Luke copied from Josephus without accuracy. Luke’s inclusion of this information in the account suggests his attention to detail and undermines the theory of mere copying from Josephus.
Point Five: This objection about the vipers is pretty silly. We cannot be absolutely certain about the wildlife situation on Malta 2,000 years ago. While today there are no venomous snakes on the island, it does not mean there weren’t any back then. Malta was mostly uninhabited and untouched by human civilization at the time Paul was shipwrecked. We cannot definitively say what kind of creatures roamed the island then. The historical records do not provide us with all the details we would like to have. It is possible that a small population of venomous snakes existed and got wiped out as human activity began to change the environment. Humans have a tendency to disrupt ecosystems wherever they go. Furthermore, fossil records are incomplete, and the lack of preserved remains does not prove the absence of a certain species, especially for smaller creatures like snakes.
Point Six: The information presented is not at all inherently implausible, and the passage in Acts 22:24-29, which discusses Paul’s Roman citizenship before the Tribune, serves as evidence for the reliability of the account. Dio Cassius (60.17) also supports this by mentioning that Emperor Claudius’s wife, Messalina, sold Roman citizenship, initially at a high price and later at a much lower cost. In fact, the price went down so low that the joke was one could buy citizenship for the cost of some chipped cups.
It was a common practice to take the name of the emperor upon becoming a citizen, explaining why Claudius Lysias is referred to as such. Additionally, Tarsus, the city associated with Paul, was classified as an urbs libera, not a colonia or municipium. The distinction drawn in Acts between Paul’s Roman citizenship and his Tarsian citizenship further validates the narrative’s accuracy. If someone were writing about this topic in the early 2nd century, it is unlikely that the conversation presented in the passage would be included, considering that the majority of the population had already become citizens by that time.
Although we are not told how Paul’s father obtained Roman citizenship, it could have been through manumission, for services rendered to the state, or by purchase. However, the contrast implied in the narrative would be less compelling if the citizenship were acquired through purchase. Regardless of the method, it is entirely plausible for St. Paul, a Pharisee from Tarsus, to possess Roman citizenship. It is not difficult to imagine him coming to learn under a Jewish scholar in Jerusalem.
Quantity ≠ Quality in Arguments
Whew! That was a lot and I’m sorry that this was so long. I think a quote from the 18th century bishop George Horne here is apt: “Pertness and ignorance may ask a question in three lines, which it will cost learning and ingenuity thirty pages to answer. When this is done, the same question shall be triumphantly asked again the next year, as if nothing had ever been written upon the subject. And as people in general, for one reason or another, like short objections better than long answers, in this mode of disputation (if it can be styled such) the odds must ever be against us; and we must be content with those for our friends who have honesty and erudition, candor and patience, to study both sides of the question.—Be it so.”
I understand that this may sound like shade from an 18th-century chap from across the pond, but one needs to be cautious when encountering lengthy lists of objections. While they may be simple to compile and appear impressive at first, they require more patience and time to be critically examined.
In conclusion, it is important to recognize that simply compiling weak arguments against the veracity of Luke’s accounts does not constitute a strong case in itself. The skeptic’s analysis, which presents a one-sided view by focusing solely on perceived weaknesses while neglecting positive evidence, fails to engage with the broader spectrum of information. A comprehensive and balanced evaluation of Luke’s reliability as a historian necessitates an examination of both supporting and challenging evidence, as well as an exploration of alternative perspectives. By selectively emphasizing weak arguments and ignoring positive evidence, an incomplete and skewed portrayal is presented, undermining the credibility of the assessment.
Finally, if this author was indeed this reliable, it suggests that he didn’t fabricate information and was selective in what he included. It appears that he had direct access to either actual eyewitnesses or sources closely connected to them, allowing him to record what was originally claimed about Jesus’ resurrection. Furthermore, the fact that the author was willing to endure hardships alongside Paul while he was proclaiming this message indicates a sincere and shared perspective on the physical nature of the resurrection. Considering these points, Luke-Acts presents a collection of compelling reasons to believe in the resurrection of Jesus.
Erik is the creative force behind the YouTube channel Testify, which is an educational channel built to help inspire people’s confidence in the text of the New Testament and the truth of the Christian faith. He is a homeschooling father of five and the co-owner, alongside his wife, of a home decor business located in Cedar Rapids, IA.