Sunday, March 07, 2021

The Historical Reliability of the Book of Acts in the Age of Wikipedia

 

 Introduction

I have lived during the transition from a world in which detailed historical information was typically bulk housed in my local library to now being available with the press of a thumb on a small plastic gizmo. The time saving benefits are immeasurable: having instant access to the time my local pizza parlor closes, the tedious details of my favorite movie, or the entire biography of an eighteenth-century playwright. Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia,” or, “Wiki,” tends to be the source instantly occurring in basic web-searches. Its anonymously written entries (sometimes by multiple authors!) have seeped deep into the zeitgeist of popular culture, baldly accepted as being as reliable as the dusty set of encyclopedias whose entries were written by specialized scholars.

True, Wiki is helpful with common knowledge facts. The acquisition of immediate information though should be tethered with the modern proverb, “just because it’s on the Internet, does not mean it’s true!”  For an explicit example of the folly of immediate gratification of instant cyber-knowledge, I set Google with the search criteria of the broad category, discrepancies in the Book of Acts. Out of the returned search results of about nine million hits, in the top three were links to Wikipedia and its overtly secular sister, “rationalwiki.”

This paper will examine Google hit #2, Wikipedia’s “Passages of disputed historical accuracy” found in their entry, “Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles.” It will be demonstrated that the entirety of the Wiki entry is fraught with a biased worldview which evaluates the details of history with a skewed skeptical lens. It will be shown that their title words, “historical reliability” means in essence, historical unreliability. Wikipedia is soaked in the underlying assumption that the only thing one can know with certainty about the Book of Acts is that one cannot know anything with certainty. Wiki stands in direct antithesis to Luke’s overt goal of providing historical and theological certainty of the early church (Acts 1:1-4).

 II.  Inherent Article Bias

Before delving into the actual disputed Acts passages presented by Wiki, it is necessary to have a careful look at the overall entry that sets the stage they appear on. Whoever wrote the article clearly falls in the scholarly tradition of skepticism coming to fruition in the 19th-century German Tübingen school.[1]  

The article opens mentioning that Acts does contain some accurate historical details. It immediately adds the qualifier that Acts is not accurate in its depiction of Paul, “both factually and theologically.” Only two paragraphs in, Wiki informs its readers that the “Paul” presented by Luke is not “generally prefer[ed]” by “scholars,” substantiated only by a source simply saying, “When it comes to the ‘life of Paul,’ the modern scholarly consensus is that Paul’s letters are to be given priority over Acts in any historical reconstruction.”[2] This amounts to the philosophical determiner of history being a simple headcount rather than any sort of detailed analysis. The false crescendo of this underlying presupposition comes later when Wiki ironically says, “By 2017 consensus had emerged among scholars that the letters of Paul are more reliable for information about Paul than Acts,” but substantiates this with merely, “citation needed.

 On the one hand, the Wiki entry gives the traditional view that Luke was a contemporary “follower of Paul,” but then with the other says, “However, most scholars understand Luke–Acts to be in the tradition of Greek historiography.” This statement is offered as a contrast with Luke’s assertion that his historiography was written to provide “certainty” (Luke 1:4).  This seemingly innocuous comparison is substantiated and fleshed out only in an endnote to a New Testament scholar who holds that while Luke was personally associated with Paul, his work as a historian is riddled with error.[3] Thus, “the tradition of Greek historiography” is a tradition of trivial correct historical facts mixed with misinformation and personal agendas.   

Regarding the sources Luke may have used to compile Acts, Wiki provides nothing definite. Wiki highlights an author’s comment that Luke’s use of previous historical sources was a “seriously distorted” series of “stringed together” stories by the time it reached him.[4] This assertion presents a true sense of irony: Wiki has, in a few paragraphs, strung together a number of poorly substantiated biased facts, and this one in particular lacks any documentation!

 Wiki also sets the stage with a brief discussion on the textual traditions of the Book of Acts.  While they conclude that the shorter Alexandrian text tradition of Acts is preferred, their underlying point presents dissonance by questioning whether Luke’s writings can be trusted in their current form. Of the Book of Acts Wiki says, “the differences between the surviving manuscripts are more substantial than most.” What is left out is the fact that the existence of a substantial manuscript tradition does not speak against the reliability of a source, but rather is that tool which allows the original to be substantiated by a comparison of the existing manuscripts.        
           
In a seeming attempt to balance out their overt skepticism, Wiki does present a section dedicated to historically accurate details found in Acts. These examples though are followed by a series of disclaimers set in the form of scholarly opinion: Acts does get some basic things historically correct but is still not to be completely trusted. Scholars cited suggest using “caution”: be skeptical of the history of the early church. That skepticism includes taking seriously the ‘hallucination theory” of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, that Acts may have been written early but Luke did not know Paul, etc. This negativity is mixed with scholars positive to the veracity of some of the tedious details of Acts and its early composition. The entire section amounts to a cacophony of opinion rather than any sort of meaningful presentation of the accuracy of the Book of Acts.  

 III. Passages of Disputed Historical Accuracy

 In comparison to the nine passages Wiki deems historically accurate, six examples are offered. While the offering of three more positive proofs for the historicity of Acts may seem generous, the differences in presentation is striking. Wiki’s historically accurate passages are put forth as simple one sentence snippets with little or no documentation. Of the six negative examples, each is given a full paragraph explanation with plenteous documentation. The positive passages are given one overall hyperlink in the table of contents while each disputed passage has its own so readers can immediately be brought to the content. Let us review each disputed passage.

A.    Acts 2:41 and 4:4 – Peter’s Addresses

The first example involves alleged discrepancies with statistics and venue amplification. Acts 2:41 says Peter’s sermon at Pentecost resulted in three thousand conversions and Acts 4:4 records an additional five thousand.  According to Wiki, these extraordinary numbers are impossible because Jerusalem only had a population of 25-30,000 people.

In response, the extraordinary need not be deemed impossible from a presuppositional Biblical worldview. Logically, if the overall population was as is claimed, this does not necessarily render Luke’s conversion tally inaccurate. It coincides with Luke’s emphasis that the effectual work of the Holy Spirit was being poured out, miraculously.

Wiki’s numbers though need not be confidently assumed.  First, to determine the population of first-century Jerusalem involves, at the very least, estimating from ancient primary sources. Josephus records 6,000 Pharisees living in Jerusalem in the mid first century[5] and that 1,100,000 Jews died during the 70 A.D. siege of Jerusalem with 97,000 taken captive.[6]   Tacitus numbers the population at the time of Rome’s invasion as 600,000.[7]  While these numbers differ, Josephus and Tacitus are at least unified in having a population well over 25-30,000.  Second, Wiki is offering statistical certainty without any meaningful examination. Their statistic of 25-30,000 has its genesis in outdated nineteenth century scholarship.  For instance, an 1847 book, Ancient Topography of Jerusalem by James Ferguson went after the veracity of the numbers provided by Tacitus and Josephus. He arrives contrarily at an estimate of 23,000 – 37,000, saying, “which I do not think it at all probable that Jerusalem could have contained as a permanent population.”[8]  His determination has been debated, but not in any way favorable to his small numeric conclusion. Modern studies in archaeology are producing numbers much higher: 50,000, 80,000, 100,000, 200,000.[9]  

Wike also disputes the method which produced the large number of converts recorded by Luke. Wiki says (via Grant), “Peter could not have addressed three thousand hearers without a microphone.”[10] First, there is no physical reason why a person could not stand in front of three thousand and address them. Second, Luke does not specify the exact spot of the sermon or what natural sound surroundings could have been utilized. Third, Wiki ignores that the feat of speaking to large crowds previous to contemporary electronic amplification certainly did occur: Charles Spurgeon once spoke to an audience upward of 20,000 without modern sound equipment. Fourth, Luke says that it was not simply one sermon at one time: “And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them” (Acts 2:40).

B.     Acts 5:33-39: Theudas

Whereas the accuracy of Josephus was left out of the previous example by Wiki, this one relies on his description of the Jewish rebels Judas and Theudas. The purported discrepancy is that Luke made a chronological error when presenting Gamaliel’s account of Theudas followed by Judas. Even though put in the same order, Josephus ultimately presents their chronology reversed: Judas’ revolt occurred around 6 A.D., Theudas between 44 – 47 A.D. The discrepancy further insists the later revolted after the date of Gamaliel’s speech recorded by Luke.  

Wiki says the discrepancy rests on the assumption that Luke and Josephus were referring to the same Theudas. A plausible answer is to first assume Luke and Josephus are referring to the same Judas “who rose up in the days of the census” (Acts 5:37) during the census of Quirinius (Ant. 20,5,2), but to not assume the same Theudas is being mentioned. In this alternate scenario, neither Luke nor Josephus has committed an historical error. Luke’s Theudas, according to Gamaliel, “claim[ed] to be somebody” (Acts 5:36). Josephus says Theudas was a magician claiming to be a prophet (Ant. 29,5,1). Theudas was a common name at the time and is representative of similar names, used interchangeably: Theodotus, Theodosius, Theodorus.[11] Luke’s Theudas was previous to Judas and that documented by Josephus’s was after.

C.     Acts 10:1 Roman Troops in Caesarea

This discrepancy asserts no Roman troops (an Italian regiment or “cohort”) were stationed in Caesarea during the reign of Herod Agrippa (41-44), therefore Luke is in error in his description of the Roman Centurion Cornelius, “a centurion of what was known as the Italian Cohort.” Wiki bases the discrepancy on a “lack of inscriptional and literary evidence” and insinuates that Luke either made it up or “projected” Roman troops back to an earlier time.  

Surprisingly, Wiki offers a solution. They highlight that Acts 9:32-11 may be out of chronological order (taking place after Herod’s death), therefore only calling into question Luke’s accuracy in the sequence of events. For those who trust Luke, this amounts to a non-solution solution: Luke may be accurate on the one hand, but inaccurate on the other.  

Wiki concludes by noting a few historians “see no difficulty here” but hide any hint of their considerations in footnotes: Cornelius may have lived in Caesarea away from his troops and there is a record of “troops of Caesarea and Sebaste” between A.D. 41-44 (the later solution taken from F.F. Bruce). In essence, Wiki appears to realize there is not an actual discrepancy; rather there is an ambiguity in the historical presence of Roman troops in Caesarea during the time period in question.  Consulting Bruce, Wiki left out that “the soldiers making up an auxiliary unit were usually provincials, not Roman citizens… awarded Roman citizenship when their period of service had expired.”[12] There is therefore no legitimate basis for doubting Luke’s account.

D.    Acts 15: The Council of Jerusalem

Wiki presents the old conundrum that the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 is the same event of Galatians 2. Fleshed out in footnotes, if the two chapters from different Biblical books are referring to the same thing, there is “the presence of discrepancies between these two accounts,” “open contradiction,” and “There is a very strong case against the historicity of Luke's account of the Apostolic Council.” The only aspect Wiki will allow is there actually was a Jerusalem Council but to grant its historical existence only with “caution.”

There are two plausible solutions. Some attempt to harmonize Acts 15 with Galatians 2. For instance, Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown sees Acts 15 as “a simplified and less acrimonious report.”[13] F.F. Bruce takes four pages in his commentary on Acts to smooth over the accounts.[14]The New Bible Commentary avoids mentioning the discrepancies between the chapters and simply exegetes both together (as do a number of conservative sources).[15] This method moves closest to special pleading. The more plausible solutions is to not assume Acts 15 and Galatians 2 are documenting the same event. Rather, Galatians 2 should be harmonized with Acts 11:29-30. Robert Cara says this harmonization explains Paul’s refusal to circumcise Titus (Ga1. 2:3) and his circumcision of Timothy, the latter being circumcised after the declarations of the Council meeting of Acts 15.[16] This solution places the writing of Galatians in AD 48 and the Acts 15 council a year later.

E.     Acts 15:16-18: James’ Speech

This discrepancy challenges the quotation of Amos 9:11-12 by James during the Jerusalem Council. The text James cited is from the Greek Septuagint. James “presumably spoke Aramaic” so, posits Wikipedia, it would be unlikely for him to have cited the text in this linguistic form.

This criticism is a discrepancy based on assumptions rather than solid historical facts or external evidence of an actual discrepancy. First, Wikipedia refutes itself by mentioning the obvious: “Although Aramaic was a major language of the Ancient Near East, by Jesus's day Greek had been the lingua franca of the area for 300 years.” There is no reason why James be limited to one language and one Bible translation. Second, Wiki assumes Lukean deceit before considering theological implications:  James could have had a theological motivation for using the Greek text for its emphasis on “all the Gentiles” rather than the Hebrew, “all the nations.”

F.      Acts 21:38: The sicarii and the Egyptian

This discrepancy insists that Luke made an error when he quoted the Roman Tribune asking Paul if he was “the Egyptian” rebel who led Assassins into the wilderness. The error arises because Luke miscited Josephus who described two different groups and different events: The Assassins (the sicarii) and also an Egyptian rebel who led followers to the Mount of Olives. Luke carelessly morphed these two together.

First, this discrepancy assumes that Luke via the Roman Tribune was citing historical fact, but it could be just as easily assumed that Luke was recording what the Roman Tribune said, however erroneous it was. Paul does not answer the question directly, but rather simply affirms who he is... perhaps because the question was factually ridiculous. Second, if Luke and Josephus are referring to the same “Egyptian,” the discrepancy rests on Josephus documenting thirty thousand while Luke documents four thousand. But “The tendency of Josephus to exaggerate especially in regard to numbers is well noted by scholars.” [17]  Could it not be Josephus in error rather than Luke?  The editors of The Works of Josephus point out,  

Accordingly Josephus, Antiq. 20.8.6, agrees well with St. Luke; for as he there says nothing of so great a number as 30,000, so he says that the number slain by Felix, when he subdued them, was no more than 400, and 200 taken prisoners. These smaller numbers much better agree to 4000 than to the 30,000.[18]

 

IV. Conclusion

As has been demonstrated, there are plausible solutions to each discrepancy put forth by Wikipedia. For Acts 2:41 and 4:4, the numeric discrepancies are solved via more recent historical inquiries. It is within the realm of possibility that large groups of people did hear what was preached, without modern-day equipment.  For Acts 5:33-39, the discrepancy rests on using Josephus to interpret Luke (whereas in the previous discrepancy, his history was avoided because it would have substantiated Luke). The solution comes by treating both Luke and Josephus as being accurate though not necessarily referring to the same Theudas. Acts 10:1 is resolved by demonstrating Wiki did not actually prove a certain discrepancy. Simply because there is not yet “inscriptional and literary evidence” does not mean that an Italian Regiment was not in Caesarea. There is no negative evidence suggesting Luke was in error, like an extra-biblical inscription saying, “there were no Roman troops in Caesarea A.D. 41-44.”  

Acts 15 is resolved by harmonizing it with Acts 11:29-30 rather than Galatians 2.  Acts 15:16-18 is the weakest of Wiki’s discrepancies, arguing ridiculously that James only spoke Aramaic and could not have cited the Greek Septuagint. The discrepancy amounts to conjecture rather than a meaningful presentation of proof. Finally, Acts 21:38 once again rests solely on choosing the accuracy of Josephus over Luke (while the editors of Josephus grant his “30’000” terrorists was an exaggeration).

We now live in a different era of information dissemination. One hundred years ago, the tedium involving possible discrepancies in the book of Acts was often confined to books, journals, and newspapers. Now, almost anyone has direct access to information to plug into their worldview, however erroneous it may be. It might seem ridiculous to take the effort to refute a source that has no bonafide credibility or responsibility. Wiki’s authors are anonymous and the content of the entries are subject to change at a whim.  But this is now where the battles for the soul are often being fought. Christians must never underestimate how the enemy works. The enemy no longer needs to wait for a book of antibiblical sentiment to be published. He can do immediate damage, on a much broader scale, in a matter of moments, by the push of a button on a smart phone. Being able to defend the faith “in the arena” now means entering the cyber-arena, being ready to demonstrate flawed history and underlying biases in popular culture, particularly those found in the most popular Google hits on any given subject.  

Endnotes

1. Van Ommeren, Nicolas M. “Was Luke an Accurate Historian?” Bibliotheca Sacra, 148. 1991, 60.

2. Hornik, Heidi J.; Parsons, Mikeal C., The Acts of the Apostles through the centuries (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 2017), 10.

3. Robert Grant, A Historical Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1963), 145. “Luke evidently regarded himself as a historian, but many questions can be raised in regard to the reliability of his history.”

4. Richard Heard, An Introduction to the New Testament (London: A and C, Black, 1950), 138. “But it remains doubtful whether Luke had yet formed his plan of writing Acts when he was in contact with [Silas and Paul], and in his narrative in the early part of Acts he seems to be stringing together, as best he may, a number of different stories and narratives, some of which appear, by the time they reached him, to have been seriously distorted in the telling.”

5. Josephus, F., The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged (Philadelphia: J. Grigg, 1825), 9.

6. Josephus, F., The Works of Josephus: With a Life Written By Himself, Volume 4 (New York: A.C. Armstrong & Son, 1889), 169.

7. Ibid.

8. James Ferguson, An Essay on the Ancient Topography of Jerusalem (London: John Weale, 1847), 52


9. See the extensive comparative lists found in Richard Bauckham, The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1995), 241-242.

10. Grant, 145.

11. A.T. Robertson, “Points of Chronology in Luke’s Writings,” The Methodist Quarterly Review 70 (January, 1921), 147.

12. F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1988), 202.

[13] Raymond E. Brown, An Introduction to the New Testament (New York: Doubleday, 1996), 306.

[14] F.F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1964), 298-302.

[15] Guthrie, D. (ed.). The New Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1970), 991.

[16] Michael J. Kruger (ed.), A Biblical – Theological Introduction to the New Testament (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016), 154.

[17] Janeway, B. “Is the Acts of the Apostles Historically Reliable? Part 2 of 2,” Chafer Theological Seminary Journal Volume 5, 5(2), 72.

[18] Josephus, F. The Works of Flavius Josephus (London: George Virtue, 1841), 972.


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