Acts is historically reliable because its anonymous author says it is

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by Neil Godfrey

[T]he author of the book of Acts explicitly tells us that he was concerned and committed to present a historically accurate account of the history of the early church. The author of Acts, of course, was the author of the Gospel of Luke, and the preface to Luke served as the preface to the entire two-volume work.  In that preface (Luke 1:1-4) the author tells us that he had “followed all things closely” and that he based his account on reports from “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word” – that is from those who were personally involved in the events he narrates and those to whom they told their accounts.  Moreover, he stresses that his ultimate concern is to provide an “orderly account” of all the things that had happened.  And so it was clearly his intention to write a historically accurate account.  That in itself does not prove that he did so, but it does prove that this was his goal.  He was not writing fiction but what he understood to be historical fact.  — Bart Ehrman, Is Acts Historically Reliable? The Affirmative Argument.

Okay, that is the opening argument of an affirmative side of a debate. But it’s presented by “a critical scholar”. How can even a critical scholar come up with such a facile and naive argument for a work being written with the goal of genuine historical accuracy? Presumably Ehrman will in the reply of the Negative team respond with a bit more common sense, but how could a critical scholar even present something so naive as we read above in the first place? That is an argument of pure and simple apologetics. It has no place in a critical analysis of any literature.

A critical analysis obviously begins with the context and identity and motivation and audience and circumstances of the writing of the text. Only an anti-intellectual apologist would even suggest that we should apply a “hermeneutic of charity” and believe the unknown author’s words unless and until we are hit smack in the face with a reason not to. A critical scholar could argue an affirmative case without resorting to such puerile nonsense.

Next, Bart Ehrman like so many others in his academic guild is also closing his eyes to uncomfortable published scholarship that refutes his interpretation of the phrase “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word”. Does anyone know of a scholarly rebuttal anywhere to an article by John N. Collins published in 2010? For details see

Ehrman also just blithely claims as unquestionable fact that the same author wrote both Luke and Acts despite critical arguments to the contrary or at least offering more nuance. Again, this is not the way a critical scholar is (or should be) expected to conduct a serious debate.

I won’t pay to read the rest of Ehrman’s debate. He is putting out bait for readers to do so but he is clearly opposed to the very idea of open-access of public research or simply doesn’t understand it. I give to charities of my own choosing and find Ehrman’s attempt to be different and opposed to public access of his knowledge to be old fashioned at best, snobbish, elitist and deplorable at worst.

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Neil Godfrey

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13 thoughts on “Acts is historically reliable because its anonymous author says it is”

  1. The terms “fiction,” “fact,” and “historically accurate” are all anachronisms imposed by Ehrman on a work that neither uses these terms, nor has concepts corresponding to them. Notice how easily Ehrman morphs “Luke’s” language — “events that have run their course among us, just as the original eyewitnesses and ministers of the word trasmitted them to us” — into “those who were personally involved in the events” etc. I am not at all convinced that events which run their course among us by being “transmitted” to us by ministers of the word means the same thing as that personal eyewitnesses to actual events are describing what they saw to us.According to the OED, the word “fact” derives from Latin “factum,” a thing done, deed; past participle of facere, to do; but is said there not to appear in English until the 16th century. We are at a disadvantage, because we are not speaking demotic Greek, but when we use our modern English, we distort the cultural context of what had a meaning different from ours. The term “historically accurate” has no meaning applied to an ancient text, because the ancients (Greek, historia) had a concept that was not the post-Enlightenment concept of (factual) “history.” Historia simply referred to tale-telling, and of course Luke does not even use that term, much less one that did not exist in his time.

  2. Ehrman is presenting a series of posts about teaching his students debating, using the historicity of Acts as an example. He will, as you correctly identity, present the negative case.

    In formal debating you’re not necessarily allocated a side you agree with, but you still have to make the best case you can. That’s what’s happening here.

    1. Ehrman presents himself as an authoritative teacher and critical scholar. A best case for the historicity of Acts should be based on critical standards and not naive apologetics. He is failing his readers and making a mockery of his discipline. And he can’t break his habit of charging money for doing so.

      1. The essay is behind a paywall, but please tell me that that’s just the intro and that he actually presents a case in there.

        Because if that’s actually a substantial portion of his argument then either he’s setting up a strawman to debate against, or the case for Luke’s historicity is far worse than I’d ever imagined. If its just the intro to get his students into the mood then it’s giving them a bad example to work from but if there’s a lot of substantial work after it then it might not do too much damage.

    1. I can appreciate that, though Bart seems to be enjoying a lot of rhetoric at present.

      He had previously blogged (23 March 2016 ie. the previous day) –

      “The first thing to stress is that Acts – like all histories – is highly restrictive in what it talks about. It is not a comprehensive history and makes no pretense of being a comprehensive history. The title “The Acts of the Apostles” was given it by later readers and scribes. The author himself (whoever he was) does not give it a title. And this particular title is not particularly apt, for one very important reason: most of the apostles do not figure in the account at all. This is a narrative of some (very few) of the activities of Peter (and to a lesser extent John), the main character of chapters 1-12, and of Paul, the main character of chapters 13-28.

      The other apostles figure in on the margins and usually only as a group. Most of them are not even named, let alone discussed.” — http://ehrmanblog.org/major-themes-in-the-book-of-acts/

  3. There is no scholarly reason to treat the “Acts of the Apostles” any different from “The Acts of Paul and Thecla.” Both books were widely acclaimed in the early church. The latter was called out by one of the church fathers, but it still managed to attract authenticity for centuries (and probably still does in some churches). Any real distinction between any of these early “lives of the apostles” I find quite arbitrary. They seem to me to fit into the genre of romantic Christian fiction. They treat of the same themes. Use the same language. Have similar heroes and villains. The Acts needs to be seen in context. It is most definitely not history in any sense of the word. It reports stuff (like the other so-called histories) that never happened. It contains some whopping internal contradictions and is clearly a product of rehash of bits from Paul’s letters, Josephus and a fertile imagination. Also this idea that all ancient historians set the bar this low is nonsense. Josephus for one complained about the lurid and false stories that were circulating about Nero. Seutonius went to the public registers to discover when and where Caligula was born, which proved Pliny wrong. Euhemerus used documentary evidence and monuments to argue his case.

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