For centuries, the historicity of the book of the Acts has been questioned and criticized, prompting historians to label it "the storm center of modern New Testament study." Many scholars have suggested that the Acts were written as a means of religious propaganda, rendering the work historically unreliable. Others view the Acts as a blend of historical facts and unhistorical traditions.
While the argument continues in present time, the book of Acts has withstood the test of time, holding its ground as an accurate and reliable historical work, particularly as a result of many recent archaeological findings.
An unknown pastor once described his unquestioning faith in Jesus Christ by saying: "Even if some archeologists were to find the bones of Jesus tomorrow, I would still believe in Jesus Christ as my Savior and Lord!" While faith draws its life and strength from a place far beyond history, and even from heaven itself, Christian faith is strongly linked to history.
In one passage of the book of Acts, Paul says, "If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless...." Paul is referring to the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, which was an actual historical event. Because Jesus died and was resurrected in historical times, the stories of Jesus are considered to be real historical documents, rather than fiction or myths.
Luke understood the importance of the historicity of Christian faith when writing the Gospel According to Luke and the Book of Acts. The Gospel According to Luke deals with the earthly ministry of Jesus and Acts deals with His heavenly ministry in creating the Church. In Luke 1:1-4, he begins his story:
Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught."
This passage sets Luke apart from many ancient historians, who often concentrated more on the rhetoric than the historical accuracy of their stories. Unlike these ancient writers, Luke was concerned with crating a book that did not change facts or make up stories to make his work more believable or impressive. Instead, he focuses on creating a historically accurate document, and stakes the claim that he has "investigated everything carefully from the beginning." This can be seen as evidence that the book of Acts is founded on real historical events.
The Gospel of Luke
In the Gospel of Luke, which is a preface to Acts, Luke says that he is writing an accurate and reliable account of Jesus' life. He continues to stress this point in the preface and historians believe that he means for this statement to extend to his later volumes.
Many scholars believe that historians of the past based their findings on their own beliefs and agendas. Therefore, these historians are often viewed as untrustworthy sources of history. However, while many ancient historians tended to write fiction, many others took great measures to provide reliable and accurate information. Many modern scholars view Luke as one of the more reliable ancient historians.
Luke, in his writings, tends to be selective of his material, stressing only events that show how the Church grew in ancient times, rather than going into great detail about everything that happened during Jesus' time.
Scholars who criticize the accuracy of Acts have questioned Luke's statements because they tend to contradict the writings of Paul in Galatians. For example, when Luke describes the council, he talks about his third visit to Jerusalem, while Paul says its is his second. Other scholars argue that the two writers my have been speaking about two different occasions, and point out that, while there are some discrepancies between their works, the two authors are usually harmonious in their stories.
In Acts, the Ascension takes place in Jerusalem, while in Matthew and Mark it is in Galilee. All the accounts, however, agree that it did take place on a mountain. In Acts the Ascension happens 40 days after the Resurrection, when Jesus appears repeatedly to his followers. In Matthew and Mark, there is no indication of this time period between the Resurrection and the Ascension.
Some Gospel writers were not aiming at historical accuracy; they were more concerned with getting the message across. However, Luke took great care to make that his facts were accurate.
Luke is considered one of the most reliable sources of Acts because his information matches archaeological data. When he presents names, locations, official information, and customs, the details match the findings of archaeologists. He also describes his stories in such detail that they leave no question as to what he is referring to. His information proves accurate most of the time.
Many scholars seem to demand too much from Acts, even more so than they would from any other ancient document. The book of Acts presents a long history in such a short space, so it is inevitable that things get left out. This does not mean that it is a fictional work.
Brief History of the New Testament
One of the most famous groups of New Testament critics is the Jesus Seminar, which is made up of scholars who meet bi-annually to vote on accuracy of the words and acts of Christ as written in the New Testament. According to this group, the New Testament was written by religious leaders decades after Jesus lived, so it cannot be trusted as an authentic account of Christ's life.
However, this group has been sharply criticized for its beliefs by many other scholars, who point out that there is a large problem with the Jesus Seminar's way of thinking. Nearly all scholars believe that Christ was crucified. However, after the Jesus Seminar removes most of Jesus' teachings from the New Testament, it is nearly impossible to explain what happened. If the Jesus Seminar's findings are indeed correct, then Jesus would be a Jew who has no Jewish roots, and His people would have never bothered to quote him.
When comparing Acts to historical findings, the amazing accuracy that characterizes the text is apparent. Luke's two New Testament documents, Luke and Acts, make up more than 25% of the New Testament. Within these volumes, Luke is very specific with reference to historical data including persons, places, and titles.
Regarding the accuracy of Luke as a historian, author F.F. Bruce writes:
One of the most remarkable tokens of his accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned in his pages. This was by no means such an easy feat in his days as it is in ours, when it is so simple to consult convenient books of reference. The accuracy of Luke's use of the various titles in the Roman Empire has been compared to the easy and confident way in which an Oxford man in ordinary conversation will refer to the Heads of Oxford colleges by their proper titles -- the Provost of Oriel, the Master of Balliol, the Rector of Exeter, the President of Magdalen, and so on. A non-Oxonian like the present writer never feels quite at home with the multiplicity of these Oxford titles. But Luke had a further difficulty in that the titles sometimes did not remain the same for any great length of time; a province might pass from senatorial government to administration by a direct representative of the emperor, and would then be governed no longer by a proconsul but by an imperial legate (legatus pro-proetore).
In Acts, Luke talks about 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 Mediterranean islands. In addition, he lists 95 people by name, 62 of which are not named anywhere else in the New Testament. Additionally, Luke displays great familiarity with the constantly changing political conditions of the Roman world. References to Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Quirinius, the Herods, Felix, and Festus are mentioned in Acts, as well. In not one of these accounts has there been a proven error.
Some Bible critics have accused Luke of making mistakes errors, suggesting that his accounts were careless. However, the discoveries of archaeology have shown otherwise in every instance.
For the most part, all scholars look at the New Testament with skepticism. However, it is necessary to allow ancient historians some slack when reviewing their works. If ancient historians can prove trustworthy in cases where they can be tested, often they are viewed as trustworthy sources even in cases where they cannot be tested.
According to Eric Lyons, "Archaeology is one of many disciplines that can be used to prove the historical accuracy of Scripture. Time and again, it has helped confirm the Bible's references to people, places, and dates.
In the last one hundred years, archaeologists repeatedly have…