Freedom had been hunted round the globe; reason was considered as rebellion; and the slavery of fear had made men afraid to think. But such is the irresistible nature of truth, that all it asks, and all it wants, is the liberty of appearing.
~ Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, 1791 ~

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The historical reliability of the book of Acts

As a Christadelphian I heard over and over again how Luke was apparently a first class historian and therefore we could trust both his gospel and the book of Acts. But is the book of Acts really reliable as a historical source? I don't think so, and this article explains one of the reasons why.

In this article I will give just one example that I think raises some important questions about the New Testament. The example I will focus on is that of the events surrounding Paul's conversion and early ministry.

According to Acts

In the book of Acts, we first meet Paul in Acts 7:58, which deals with the stoning of Stephen. Paul is referred to as "Saul", which was simply his Hebrew name ("Paul" was his Greek/Roman name).

Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Acts 7:58 NRSV

As we follow Paul on his travels, take special note of the places Paul is said to have visited, the length of time he stayed there, and the details of what happened there.

The above event took place in Jerusalem. This is emphasised at the start of chapter 8, which sees Paul persecuting believers throughout Jerusalem.

That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Acts 8:1-3 NRSV

The next time we hear of Paul is in Acts 9:1, where he is requesting permission from the high priest to go to Damascus and bring the believers back to Jerusalem. Chapter 9 then provides an account of Paul's vision on the road to Damascus and his later conversion in Damascus. Paul is then visited by Ananias, is baptised, and restored to health. He then spends several days in Damascus with the disciples, and even begins preaching in the synagogues.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.” All who heard him were amazed and said, “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?”
Acts 9:19-21 NRSV

Next there is a gap of "some time" - the book of Acts does not specify how long exactly.

After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
Acts 9:23-25 NRSV

From there it appears he travelled to Jerusalem briefly before travelling to Tarsus (his home town according to Acts 22:3).

When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
Acts 9:26-30 NRSV

While in Tarsus, Paul is visited by Barnabas, who takes him to Antioch, where they remained for 1 year.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for an entire year they met with the church...
Acts 11:25 NRSV

After this Paul returned to Jerusalem with Barnabas. However, chapter 13 begins with Paul and Barnabas back at Antioch, and this is now the start of Paul's first missionary journey. This first journey sees Paul travelling to Seleucia, Cyprus, Perga, Antioch (in Pisidia), Iconium, Lystra, Derbe, then back to Pamphylia, Perga, and on to Attalia, before heading "home" to Seleucia and Antioch in Syria. Acts 14:28 says they stayed at Antioch "for some time".

In Acts 15 we have the account of the Jerusalem Council, where a conflict arose relating to Gentiles being uncircumcised. Actually it appears that certain individuals came from Judea to Antioch and began the conflict there. Paul and Barnabas then travelled to Jerusalem in response to debates with these people from Judea.

Then certain individuals came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to discuss this question with the apostles and the elders. So they were sent on their way by the church, and as they passed through both Phoenicia and Samaria, they reported the conversion of the Gentiles, and brought great joy to all the believers. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.
Acts 15:1-4 NRSV

Thus, Paul comes to Jerusalem to discuss this matter with the other disciples, and the event becomes known as the Jerusalem Council (or Conference).

In summary, Paul's movements according to Acts are listed below:

  • Jerusalem, persecuting the church (Acts 7:58; 8:3)
  • Damascus, following conversion, where he remained for "some time" (Acts 9:19-21)
  • Jerusalem, speaking boldly and arguing with the Hellenists
    (Acts 9:26-29)
    • Introduced to apostles, who were afraid of him
  • Tarsus (Acts 9:30)
  • Antioch for 1 year, with Barnabas (Acts 11:25)
  • Jerusalem, with Barnabas (Acts 12:25)
  • Antioch, with Barnabas (Acts 13:1)
  • 1st missionary journey throughout Asia Minor (Acts 13 & 14)
  • Antioch "for some time" (Acts 14:28)
  • Phoenicia and Samaria (Acts 15:3)
  • Jerusalem, welcomed by the church, apostles and elders (Acts 15:4)

Now we turn to Paul's account of the same entire period, from his conversion until the Jerusalem Council.

According to Paul

In Galatians 1, Paul recounts the story of his conversion, but also several times emphasises that he did not receive the gospel from a human source, but rather he received it via revelation.

For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. 
You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.
Galatians 1:11-17 NRSV

It's interesting that Paul did not mention anything about the vision on the road to Damascus, except perhaps a vague reference where God "called me through his grace". Again he insists that he "did not confer with any human being", despite Acts 9 having mentioned him being "with the disciples in Damascus" and preaching in the synagogues for several days.

Paul says he was in Damascus for 3 years, before returning to Jerusalem to visit Peter (Cephas).

Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord’s brother. In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!
Galatians 1:18-20 NRSV

It is clear that Paul really wants to stress the details of this, probably to assert his independence from the other apostles. He is trying to establish his own credentials as an apostle, saying that he did not learn his gospel from any other disciples, hence the strong language. However, already we are starting to see differences compared to the accounts in Acts.

Acts mentioned no such visit to Arabia and instead has Paul leaving Damascus secretly due to the Jews plotting to kill him. This does not align with Paul saying he returned to Damascus for 3 years before going to Jerusalem.

Moreover, he specifically says he did not see any other apostle in Jerusalem except James and Peter, which differs from the account in Acts which says he not only spent time with Barnabas, but also "attempted to join the disciples", spoke "boldly in the name of the Lord", and "argued with the Hellenists" (Acts 9:26-29).

Meanwhile, Paul continues...

Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.
Galatians 1:21-24 NRSV

Note that Tarsus is the capital of Cilicia, and Antioch is in Syria, so this does align roughly with Acts 9:30 and 11:25. However, he then says he was "still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea" and that they had only heard rumours about him. How could this be possible if he had previously been speaking "boldly in the name of the Lord" and "arguing with Hellenists" in Jerusalem (Acts 9:26-29)? Not to mention being introduced to the apostles by Barnabas.

Paul's account continues in chapter 2...

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up in response to a revelation. Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.
Galatians 2:1-2 NRSV

Finally after 14 years, Paul visits Jerusalem with Barnabas, but insists the visit was in response to a revelation. Acts 15:2 suggests the visit was rather in response to debates with "certain individuals" from Judea who were trying to get Gentiles to be circumcised.

According to Paul, it is only at this point, "in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders" where he checked that his gospel was correct.

Then Paul starts talking about what he did in Jerusalem, in a way that sounds very much like the Jerusalem Council. However, he also makes the following comment about being the apostle to the Gentiles:

On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel for the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel for the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter making him an apostle to the circumcised also worked through me in sending me to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.
Galatians 2:7-9 NRSV

This is really strange when compared to Acts 15:7.

After there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, “My brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.
Acts 15:7 NRSV
So who really was the apostle who would preach to the Gentiles? I guess it depends who you ask.

In summary, Paul's own account of his movements are listed below:

  • Jerusalem, assuming that is where the persecution he mentioned took place (Gal 1:13)
  • Damascus (Gal 1:17)
  • Arabia - immediately after conversion (Gal 1:17)
  • Damascus, for 3 years (Gal 1:17-18)
  • Jerusalem, to visit only Peter and James, stayed for 15 days
    (Gal 1:18-19)
  • Syria (possibly Antioch) and Cilicia (possibly Tarsus) (Gal 1:21)
    • still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea (Gal 1:22)
  • Remained in Syria/Cilicia for 14 years (Gal 2:1)
  • Jerusalem, for the Jerusalem Council (Gal 2:1)

For reference, I have repeated the Acts summary here:

  • Jerusalem, persecuting the church (Acts 7:58; 8:3)
  • Damascus, following conversion, where he remained for "some time" (Acts 9:19-21)
  • Jerusalem, speaking boldly and arguing with the Hellenists
    (Acts 9:26-29)
    • Introduced to apostles, who were afraid of him
  • Tarsus (Acts 9:30)
  • Antioch for 1 year, with Barnabas (Acts 11:25)
  • Jerusalem, with Barnabas (Acts 12:25)
  • Antioch, with Barnabas (Acts 13:1)
  • 1st missionary journey throughout Asia Minor (Acts 13 & 14)
  • Antioch "for some time" (Acts 14:28)
  • Phoenicia and Samaria (Acts 15:3)
  • Jerusalem, welcomed by the church, apostles and elders (Acts 15:4)

Which account is (more) historically reliable?

I have demonstrated that these two accounts of Paul's travels are contradictory and cannot be reconciled (although many have tried and you will easily find fundamentalists who have come up with all manner of ways to twist the narratives to make them fit).

So now we have a decision to make. Is the book of Acts more reliable? Or should we take Paul at his word? Or perhaps Acts is correct on some points and Paul on others? Or maybe they're both wrong...

Bart Ehrman writes the following:

The basic point I’m making at this stage is that the book of Acts is not at all reliable in its report of Paul; the implication of that will be (in a subsequent post) that a companion of Paul almost certainly didn’t write it; that in turn will mean that the “we-passages” have to be explained on other grounds; and altogether it will suggest that Luke was not written by Luke the gentile physician (or more accurately: if it was, we have no evidence of it). (there are 2 parts to this article, worth reading in full)


In summary, my purpose in writing this article was not to claim that there is no historically reliable material in the book of Acts. There are many details in the book of Acts that can be verified against external sources, such as place names, names of government officials, and so on. However, this does not mean that Acts is a historically reliable text in its entirety either. Far from it.

What this article demonstrates is that there is stark disagreement between the book of Acts and the writings of Paul, and hopefully this will prompt readers to embark on more research into the subject.

It is my view that one's beliefs should conform to the available evidence, rather than simply dismissing the evidence or pretending it doesn't exist.

Many believers do accept the discrepancies listed above and remain convinced that the Bible was divinely inspired despite the product of that inspiration (however it was achieved) containing factual errors.

However, I struggle to understand the purpose in an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving god inspiring the writing of a text that appears to be a historical account but is not actually historically accurate. In other words, why would God intentionally mislead readers?

Once again we find a text that is at odds with the "divinely-inspired" hypothesis, but fits the "non-inspired" hypothesis like hand-in-glove. This is a pattern you can find right throughout the Bible.