Liberal scholars and skeptics often claim that the Acts of the Apostles is a work of historical fiction, riddled with contradictions and historical inaccuracies.
However, the tides are turning as archaeology has shown time and again that the author of Acts knew his stuff. Here are three examples where biblical archaeology has shed new light on the credibility of the Book of Acts and confirmed the existence of people Paul met on his missionary journeys.
In Acts 13, Saul and Barnabas embark on a missionary journey to Cyprus, where they encounter Sergius Paulus, the proconsul of Paphos. Cyprus was a culturally influenced island with ties to Greek and Roman activities.
Luke correctly labels Sergius Paulus as ‘Proconsul,’ the accurate title for a Roman ruler in Cyprus during that time. Prior to 22 BC, Cyprus was administered by ‘Propraetors,’ but its transformation into a province led to ‘Proconsuls’ appointed by the Roman Senate governing the island. Luke describes him as an intelligent man. Sergius Paulus is also mentioned in Pliny the Elder’s book Natural History, affirming his historical presence. These historical details enhance the reliability of the Book of Acts.
Several inscriptions related to Sergius Paulus have been unearthed, suggesting the prominence of the Sergii Paulii family in the Roman Empire. One inscription discovered near Soli mentions “the proconsul Paulus,” reinforcing the family’s connection to Cyprus. Another inscription from Rome, dating to the mid-40s, names Lucius Sergius Paulus as a curator of the Tiber River under Emperor Claudius. Furthermore, various inscriptions, including one featuring a “L. Sergius Paulus,” have been found near Pisidian Antioch.
These inscriptions lend historical support to the existence of the Sergius Paulus family and potentially reference the very figure mentioned in the Bible.
Remember that in Acts, it’s recounted that Sergius Paulus embraced Christianity after witnessing Paul’s prayer, which resulted in temporary blindness for his opponent, Elymas the Sorcerer. If this account were fake, it would likely have been easily and quickly exposed as a fraud. Sergius, being a Roman Governor, was obviously well-known. If he hadn’t converted to Christianity, Luke’s statement would have been debunked, especially given the unfavorable perception of Christians at the time. Surprisingly, even prominent pagan critics like Porphyry and Celsus never disputed this account. Emperor Julian the Apostate, a known opponent of Christianity in 361 AD, acknowledged Sergius Paulus’ conversion and noted that he was among the few notable figures who converted during the reigns of Tiberius and Claudius. This widespread recognition of Sergius’s conversion suggests its authenticity.
Therefore, if the historical record is accurate in this regard, it implies the truth of the associated miracle, as the two are intertwined. The miracle and conversion form a single narrative, and if one part is true, it lends credibility to the other.
2. The Gallio Inscription
During his Second Missionary Journey, the Apostle Paul spent about a year and a half in Corinth. In Acts 18:2, it’s mentioned that during the time when Gallio served as proconsul of Achaia, the Jews brought Paul before the tribunal.
The Gallio Inscription, also known as the Delphi Inscription, consists of nine fragments found in Delphi, Greece. It was written by Emperor Claudius and mentions “Junius Gallio, my friend and proconsul,” indicating Gallio’s role in guarding the cult of Apollo at Delphi.
The inscription’s date falls between January and August AD 52, during Claudius’s 26th imperial acclamation. Historians tell us that proconsuls typically started their one-year terms on May 1st. Therefore, Gallio served as Proconsul of Achaia from May 1, AD 51, to the end of April AD 52.
With this information, we can pinpoint when Paul was in Corinth: he faced the Jews and appeared before Gallio’s tribunal around the middle of AD 51. The Gallio Inscription provides a crucial fixed marker for dating Paul’s ministry and early church history.
This evidence shows that Acts was not like written in the second century, like some biblical critics have suggested. In the ancient Roman world, keeping permanent records of provincial affairs was not the norm. This is illustrated by Pliny’s experience in Bithynia, where he found no records of his predecessors despite the region being under Roman rule for a century. Interestingly, we now know more about Roman history than the Romans themselves did back then.
When it comes to the reference to Gallio’s proconsulship in Acts, the absence of his name on coins makes it highly unlikely that a later writer stumbled upon this information independently. Instead, it strongly suggests that Luke had firsthand knowledge or had access to sources closely connected to the events. This point also holds true for many other social and political details in the book of Acts.
3. The Erastus Inscription
This might seem like a side-journey, but let’s check out Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which he wrote around 52-53 A.D. while he was in Ephesus, located in Asia Minor, which is modern-day Turkey. We are certain about Paul’s location because he sends his greetings from Aquila and Priscilla in 1 Corinthians 16:19. He had met them in Corinth (as mentioned in Acts 18:1) and journeyed with them as far as Ephesus (as noted in Acts 18:26). Additionally, Paul hints at his plan to “stay in Ephesus until Pentecost” in 1 Corinthians 16:8. Keep in mind that Ephesus and Corinth are on opposite sides of the Aegean Sea.
Now, consider these two passages from 1 Corinthians:
- 1 Corinthians 4:17: “That is why I sent you Timothy…”
- 1 Corinthians 16:10: “When Timothy comes…”
From these verses, it’s evident that Timothy had been dispatched by the time of Paul’s writing. However, Paul expected his letter to reach Corinth before Timothy did. Given the geographical proximity of Ephesus to Achaia (where Corinth is located), it’s reasonable to assume that Paul sent his letter directly from Ephesus to Corinth by boat. Therefore, Timothy must have taken a more indirect overland route to Corinth than the letter.
Turning our attention to Acts 19:21-22, which describes Paul’s stay in Ephesus, we find: “After these events, Paul resolved in the Spirit to pass through Macedonia and Achaia and go to Jerusalem, saying, ‘After I have been there, I must also see Rome.’ And having sent into Macedonia two of his helpers, Timothy and Erastus, he himself stayed in Asia for a while.”
We learn that Timothy (accompanied by Erastus) indeed took an indirect overland route to Corinth from Ephesus. Notably, Acts doesn’t explicitly mention Corinth as Timothy and Erastus’ destination, making the connection quite indirect. Moreover, in Acts 20:1-4, we read:
“After the uproar [in Ephesus] ceased, Paul sent for the disciples, and after encouraging them, he said farewell and departed for Macedonia. When he had gone through those regions and had given them much encouragement, he came to Greece. There he spent three months, and when a plot was made against him by the Jews as he was about to set sail for Syria, he decided to return through Macedonia. Sopater the Berean, son of Pyrrhus, accompanied him; and of the Thessalonians, Aristarchus and Secundus; and Gaius of Derbe, and Timothy; and the Asians, Tychicus and Trophimus.”
It becomes evident that Timothy did reach Corinth, Greece, confirming our earlier inference based on subtle clues in 1 Corinthians. This casual connection is indeed indirect and serves to corroborate the historical accuracy of Acts.
OK, so back to our friend archeology. Returning to Acts 19:21-22, we find that Timothy’s travel companion is identified as Erastus. In Romans 16:23, Erastus is described as the city treasurer of Corinth. It’s worth noting that the Epistle to the Romans was written during Paul’s three-month stay in Corinth, as hinted in Acts 20:2-3. Interestingly, an archaeological discovery—a pavement slab unearthed from ancient Corinth’s ruins—states, “Erastus bore the expense of this pavement.” It’s quite fitting that Timothy, en route to Corinth, should be traveling with someone we independently know resided in the city of Corinth.
In 1929, during excavations in Corinth, archaeologists found an inscription on a large paving stone near the theater. The letters in the inscription, originally filled with bronze, stand seven inches high, although they are now hollow. Erastus appears to have been an elected official who was responsible for maintaining public buildings, street upkeep, market oversight, and managing local games, like the Isthmian Games in Corinth every two years. It’s highly probable, though not 100% certain, that this discovery is Paul’s Erastus.
The Spider-Man Fallacy?
You might encounter skeptics who downplay the significance of a first-century author like Luke accurately describing his world. They say, “Hey, just because future archaeologists find landmarks in New York City doesn’t mean Spider-Man is real!” But here’s the thing: Luke’s accuracy isn’t about superhero fantasies; it’s about historical precision.
Back in Luke’s time, they didn’t have the luxury of Googling or Wikipedia. Picture this: writing about places, politics, and obscure facts without modern resources. It’s not an easy thing to do. Acts, however, gets difficult things right.
Colin Hemer, a classical historian, meticulously outlines 84 historically verified, challenging details that Luke gets spot on in Acts 13 through 28. Luke probably didn’t travel to all those places or chat with the folks who had been there to spin some fake story.
Let’s remember, Luke wasn’t crafting historical fiction – that genre didn’t even exist in his time. If you want to see the difference, just flip through apocryphal books like The Acts of Paul and Thecla or The Acts of Thomas. They barely touch on real places, real people, or delve into those nitty-gritty details that make Luke’s work so impressive. These apocryphal works are certainly not being vindicated by archaeology.
And no, Christian apologists aren’t asserting that just because Luke got all these facts right, all the miracles are automatically true. It’s a bit more nuanced than that: If Luke is careful, honest, and faithful to the facts, then what he’s reporting ultimately traces back to what the eyewitnesses claimed. And these eyewitnesses weren’t describing everyday occurrences; they were talking about a significant miracle – Jesus, alive again, eating broiled fish in their presence, and allowing them to see his hands and feet. Let’s face it, making up such a claim to a hostile audience wouldn’t be a smart move, unless you’re aiming to get yourself in serious trouble.
There you have it – these are three remarkable archaeological discoveries that affirm the historicity of Acts, dispelling notions of it being mere fiction.
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.