The Apostle Peter said that, “we did not follow cleverly devised stories when we told you about the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in power, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.” (2 Peter 1:16 NIV) Unlike the other religions of the world, Christianity is a religion that is based on eyewitness testimony. The Apostles were all eyewitnesses to Jesus’ resurrection, the very thing on which Christianity stands or falls. Another excellent example of eyewitness testimony is the Acts of the Apostles. This book chronicles the early years of the church by focusing on the ministries of Peter and Paul.
The author of this book is most likely, if not certainly, Luke the evangelist. This is determined decisively by comparing the opening verses in Acts to the opening verses in the Gospel of Luke. In the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, the author appears to be writing to a person named Theophilus. Acts also begins with a note to Theophilus and makes reference to the author’s “former account,” which is most likely the Gospel of Luke.
Luke has an excellent reputation among classical historians for reporting accurate information. As Dr. William Lane Craig has said, Luke is one of the Biblical authors “who writes most self-consciously as a historian. 1” Archaeologist Sir William Ramsey has said that “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy…[he] should be placed along with the very greatest of historians. 2” A. N. Sherwin-White has said that, “for Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming. Any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd.3” Accordingly, in this paper I will demonstrate that the book of Acts should be understood to be an accurate investigative report of the goings on in the first century.
According to William Lane Craig, the Gospel of Luke and Acts “are really one work and are separated in our Bibles only because the church wanted to group the Gospels together in the New Testament4.” So regardless of the name of the author, it is demonstrable that whoever wrote the Gospel of Luke also wrote the Acts of the Apostles. In the preface to the Gospel of Luke, he writes: “Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Luke 1:1-4. NIV)
Luke wrote these words in classical Greek, such as was used by the classical Greek historians5. Beginning in verse five, Luke switches to a more common Greek, probably to relate better to his readers. But by beginning his Gospel in classical Greek, he has identified himself as a historian. In verse three Luke assures us that he “carefully examined everything from the beginning” in order to produce this “orderly account.” How did he do this?
In chapter 16 of the book of Acts, when Paul reaches Troas (modern day Turkey), Luke suddenly switches to using the first person plural. Rather than say that “Paul got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called him to preach the Gospel to them,” Luke specifically says that “we, got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the Gospel to them!” What this means is that when Paul reached Troas, Luke met him there. So Luke has now joined himself with Paul and his group of evangelists. In chapter 21 Luke accompanies Paul to Jerusalem where they “went to see James, and all the elders were present.” (Luke 21:18) As Colin Hemer has said in his book, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, “these are the passages which lend themselves to the prima facie judgment that the writer is claiming to have been present on the occasions described.6”
It can also be demonstrated that the book of Acts was written very recently after the events it describes thereby reducing the chance that Luke could have forgotten or embellished details. To begin with, it has already been shown that Luke was actually on the scene of many of the events he records in Acts. Luke subtly claimed this when he used he wrote in the first person. Usually in historical research, when an author claims something, he is given the benefit of the doubt. Unless we can find good reason to believe that Luke was lying (and no reasons are forthcoming) we can take it at face value that he was there. This means that Acts had to be written during the lifetime of a person who was alive and old enough to travel with Paul during his ministry.
Secondly, consider Stephen. He was a very minor character in the book of Acts. The first time he is mentioned is in chapter 6 and then he gets killed in chapter 7. One would think that since Luke spent so much time explaining the details of Stephen’s death (he devotes all of chapter 7 to it) then he would also devote at least the same, if not more attention to the deaths of more major figures in the book of Acts, such as Peter, James, or Paul. Interestingly there is no mention in the book of Acts of any of these deaths. In fact James is seen in Jerusalem alive and well in chapter 21 with Paul and the Elders (not to mention Luke). Paul continues to be the focus of the narrative all the way to the very end of the book, with no mention of his death. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that if Acts were written after the deaths of Paul, James, or Peter then their deaths would have definitely been part of the narrative. Since they are not part of the narrative, we can conclude that Acts was written before they died. Historians have established that Peter died in AD 67, Paul died in AD 65, and James died in AD 62. And let us not forget that Jerusalem was destroyed in AD 70 (another major event for which there is no mention in Acts). We can therefore conclude that Acts was written no later than AD 62. This means that the book of Acts was written no more than 13 years after Luke arrived on the scene with Paul during Paul’s second missionary journey, which occurred in AD 497, and only 2 years after the final scene in Acts (Paul’s stay in Rome) which occurred in AD 608.
This early dating for the book of Acts is at odds with the commonly accepted date of AD 70 for the Gospel of Mark. Most New Testament scholars (virtually all liberal New Testament scholars) date the Gospel of Mark on or around AD 709 because; in chapter 13 Jesus appears to predict the destruction of the temple. Since the temple was destroyed in AD 70, and since believing that Jesus could predict the future is difficult for most liberals, it is hypothesized that Mark having witnessed the destruction of the temple has anachronistically put this prediction on the lips of Jesus. If the book of Acts was written before AD 62 (as I have just demonstrated), and since the Gospel of Luke is the prequel to the book of Acts, and since Luke used the Gospel of Mark as a source (according to Markan Priority10), then it is impossible that Mark was written as late as AD 70. On the other hand, if Mark was written in AD 70, then Acts could not have been written in AD 62. This shows that the dates of these two books are the dividing line between liberal and conservative scholars. Liberal scholars tend to hold an anti-supernatual bias and therefore conclude that Jesus could not have predicted the future as Mark purported him to do in chapter 13 of his Gospel. Conservative scholars who lack that bias see that Mark could not have been written that late because of the apparent early date of Acts. Both hypotheses cannot be true.
In several off the cuff comments in the Book of Acts, Luke demonstrates that he had knowledge that only someone intimately acquainted with the circumstances would know. For example, just before he meets with Paul in chapter 15, Luke says that Paul sailed from Cilicia to Derbe and then to Lystra. Derbe and Lystra are neighboring cities and if he was sailing from Cilicia, he would have reached Derbe first since it was closer to the shore. Here Luke demonstrates his geographical knowledge. In Acts 16:11-15 we meet a woman from the city of Thyatira named Lydia who was “a dealer in purple cloth.” According Colin Hemer, Thyatira was actually a center of purple dyeing. “[This] is attested in at least seven inscriptions of the city.11” Here we have evidence that Lydia was not an invention of Luke. In Acts 17:23Luke mentions Paul’s comment about the “alter to an unknown god.” Alters with this description are also mentioned by Pausanias12. In Acts 20:14-15 Luke describes his travel journey with Paul from Assos, to Mitylene, to Chios, to Samos, to Miletus. According to Dr. Hemer, “The sequence of places mentioned in these verses is entirely correct and natural.13” As William Lane Craig has rightly said, “Given Luke’s care and demonstrated reliability…this author is trustworthy.”
One very interesting fact about the book of Acts is its abrupt ending. Such an ending is uncharacteristic of Luke given the way he nicely wrapped up his Gospel in Luke 24. This abrupt ending suggests what I have already demonstrated, that Luke’s writing had finally caught up with the present. Since the final scene in the book of Acts has been dated to AD 60, and the completion of the book of Acts has been dated to AD 62, then Luke most likely wrote the entire book of Acts during the time period he describes in Acts 28:30, “For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him.”
It is difficult to exaggerate the incredible level of detail and accuracy of Luke. Not only are Luke’s writings useful to historians in determining the details of events that occurred in ancient history, it also testifies to God’s desire for His people to have an accurate account on which they can rest their faith in Him.
For more articles and material by Brian, please visit www.knowitstrue.com.
- William Lane Craig, “The Evidence For Jesus.” Leadership U, http://www.leaderu.com/offices/billcraig/docs/rediscover2.html, (accessed December 16, 2011).
- William Ramsay, The Bearing Of Recent Discovery On The Trustworthiness Of The New Testament, 1915, 222
- Adrian Nicholas Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament, 189.
- William Lane Craig, On Guard: Defending Your Faith with Reason and Precision. Grand Rapids: David C. Cook, 2010, 192.
- Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, Edited by Conrad H. Gempf (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1989), 312.
- Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum and Charles Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. (Nashville, Tennessee, B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 400
- Michael A Harbin, The Promise and the Blessing: A Historical Survey of the Old and New Testament, (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 2005), 530.
- John Shelby Spong, The Great Resurrection Debate: William Lane Craig vs John Shelby Spong, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_BTjAVNHWac, 51:45 (accessed 12/14/2011).
- J. Ed Komoszewski, M. James Sawyer, Daniel B. Wallace, Reinventing Jesus: How Contemporary Skeptics Miss the Real Jesus and Mislead Popular Culture. (Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2006), 22-23.
- Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, Edited by Conrad H. Gempf (Tubingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1989), 116.
- Ibid, 117.
- Ibid, 125.