Acts of the Apostles put to the test

The historic credibility of the New Testament documents are often questioned by sceptics, and although historians (both conservative and liberal) have widely settled the issues in favour of a generally Christian narrative, there are yet people who utterly refuse to accept any historic interpretation of the facts that doesn’t already match their presupposed world-view. With that in mind people can only outline the evidence and leave the rest up to God and the freewill of the doubting sceptic. That evidence in its most convincing form comes to us for reading the book of Acts.

Luke includes eyewitness details. (While Luke may not have been an eyewitness to many New Testament events.) In the second half of Acts, for example, Luke displays an incredible array of knowledge of local places, names, environmental conditions, customs, and circumstances that befit only an eyewitness contemporary of the time and events.

Classical scholar and historian Colin Hemer chronicles Luke’s accuracy in the book of Acts verse by verse. With painstaking detail, Hemer identifies 84 facts in the last 16 chapters of Acts that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological research. As you read the following list, keep in mind that Luke did not have access to modern-day maps or nautical charts. Luke accurately records:

1. The natural crossing between correctly named ports (Acts 13:4-5)

2. The proper port (Perga) along the direct destination of a ship crossing from Cyprus (13:13)

3. The proper location of Lycaonia (14:6)

4. The unusual but correct declension of the name Lystra (14;6)

5. The correct language spoken in Lystra-Lycaonian (14:11)

6. Two gods known to be so associated-Zeus and Hermes (14:12)

7. The proper port, Attalia, which returning travellers would use (14:25)

8. The correct order of approach to Derbe and then Lystra from the Cilician Gates (16:1; cf. 15:41)

9. The proper form of the name Troas (16:8)

10. The place of a conspicuous sailors’ landmark, Samothrace (16:11)

11. The proper description of Philippi as a Roman colony (16:12)

12. The right location of the river (Gangites) near Philippi (16:13)

13. The proper association of Thyatira as a center of dyeing (16:14)

14. Correct designations for the magistrates of the colony (16:22)

15. The proper locations (Amphipolis and Apollonia) where travelers would spend successive nights on this journey (17:1)

16. The presence of a synagogue in Thessalonica (17:1)

17. The proper term (“Politarchs”) used of the magistrates there (17:6)

18. The correct implication that sea travel is the most convenient way of reaching Athens, with the favoring east winds of summer sailing (17:14-15)

19. The abundant presence of images in Athens (17:16)

20. The reference to a synagogue in Athens (17:17)

21. The depiction of the Athenian life of philosophical debate in the Agora (17:17)

22. The use of the correct Athenian slang word for Paul (spermologos, 17:18) as well as for the court (Areios pagos, 17:19)

23. The proper characterization of the Athenian character (17:21)

24. An alter to an “unknown god” (17:23)

25. The proper reaction of Greek philosophers, who denied the bodily resurrection (17:32)

26. Areopagites as the correct title for a member of the court (17:34)

27. A Corinthian synagogue (18:4)

28. The correct designation of Gallio as proconsul, resident in Corinth (18:12)

29. The bema (judgement seat), which overlooks Corinth’s forum (18:16ff.)

30. The name Tyrannus as attested from Ephesus in first-century inscriptions (19:9)

31. Well-known shrines and images of Artemis (19:24)

32. The well-attested “great goddess Artemis” (19:27)

33. That the Ephesian theater was the meeting place of the city (19:29)

34. The correct title grammateus for the chief executive magistrate in Ephesus (19:35)

35. The proper title of honor neokoros, authorized by the Romans (19:35)

36. The correct name to designate the goddess (19:37)

37. The proper term for those holding court (19:38)

38. Use of plural anthupatoi, perhaps a remarkable reference to the fact that two men were conjointly exercising the functions of proconsul at this time (19:38)

39. The “regular” assembly, as the precise phrase is attested elsewhere (19:39)

40. Use of the precise ethnic designation, beroiaios (20:4)

41. Employment of the ethnic term Asianos (20:4)

42. The implied recognition of the strategic importance assigned to this city of Troas (20:7ff.)

43. The danger of the coastal trip in this location (20:13)

44. The correct sequence of places (20:14-15)

45. The correct name of the city as a neuter plural (Patara) (21:1)

46. The appropriate route passing across the open sea south of Cyprus favoured by persistent Northwest winds (21:3)

47. The suitable distance between these cities (21:24)

48. A characteristically Jewish act of piety (21:24)

49. The Jewish law regarding Gentile use of the temple area (21:28) (Archaeological discoveries and quotations from Josephus confirm that Gentiles could be executed for entering the temple area. One inscription reads: “Let no Gentile enter within the balustrade and enclosure surrounding the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will be personally responsible for his consequent death.”)

50. The permanent stationing of a Roman cohort (chiliarch) at Antonia to suppress any disturbance at festival times (21:31)

51. The flight of steps used by the guards (21:31, 35)

52. The common way to obtain Roman citizenship at this time (22:28)

53. The tribune being impressed with Roman rather than Tarsian citizenship (22:29)

54. Ananias being high priest at this time (23:2)

55. Felix being governor at this time (23:34)

56. The natural stopping point on the way to Caesarea (23:31)

57. Whose jurisdiction Cilicia was in at the time (23:34)

58. The provincial penal procedure of the time (24:1-9)

59. The name Porcius Festus, which agrees precisely with that given by Josephus (24:27)

60. The right of appeal for Roman citizens (25:11)

61. The correct legal formula (25:18)

62. The characteristic form of reference to the emperor at the time (25:26)

63. The best shipping lanes at the time (27:5)

64. The common bonding of Cilicia and Pamphylia at the time (27:4)

65. The principal port to find a ship sailing to Italy (27:5-6)

66. The slow passage to Cnidus, in the face of tropical north-west wind (27:7)

67. The right route to sail, in view of the winds (27:27)

68. The locations of Fair Havens and the neighbouring site of Lasea (27:8)

69. Fair Haven as a poorly sheltered roadstead (27:12)

70. A noted tendency of a south wind in these climes to back suddenly to a violent northeaster, the well-known gregale (27:13)

71. The nature of a square-rigged ancient ship, having no option but to be driven before a gale (27:15)

72. The precise place and name of this island (27:16)

73. The appropriate manoeuvres for the safety of the ship in its particular plight (27:16)

74. The fourteenth night-a remarkable calculation, based inevitably on a compounding of estimates and probabilities, confirmed in the judgement of experienced Mediterranean navigators (27:27)

75. The proper term of the time for the Adriatic (27:27)

76. The precise term (Bolisantes) for taking soundings, and the correct depth of the water near Malta (27:39)

77. A position that suits the probable line of approach of a ship released to run before an easterly wind (27:39)

78. The severe liability on guards who permitted a prisoner to escape (27:42)

79. The local people and superstitions of the day (28:4-6)

80. The proper title protos tes nesou (28:7)

81. Rhegium as a refuge to await a southerly wind to carry them through the strait (28:7)

82. Appii Forum and Tres Tabernae as correctly placed stopping places on the Appian way (28:15)

83. Appropriate means of custody with Roman soldiers (28:16)

84. The conditions of imprisonment, living “at his own expense” (28:30-31)

Is there any doubt that Luke was an eyewitness to these events or at least had access to reliable eyewitness testimony? What more could he have done to prove his authenticity as a historian?

Roman historian A. N. Sherwin-White says, “For Acts the confirmation of historicity is overwhelming….Any attempt to reject its basic historicity must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted.” Classical scholar and archaeologist William M. Ramsay began his investigation into Acts with great scepticism, but his discoveries helped change his mind. He wrote:

“I began with a mind unfavourable to it [Acts]… It did not lie then in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely; but more recently I found myself often brought into contact with the book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities, and society of Asian Minor. It was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvellous truth.”

Indeed, Luke’s accuracy in Acts is truly amazing. Now, here’s where sceptics get very uncomfortable. Luke reports a total of 35 miracles in the same book in which he records all 84 of these historically confirmed details.

(Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek’s I don’t have enough faith to be an atheist. Pages 256, 257, 258, 259 and 260.)

Ending the classical historian’s awesome list Geisler and Turek also remind the reader how this same document, which is entirely trustworthy on minor details, also contains miracles. So with regards to the things we can test, namely people and places, Luke proves his work impeccable, which leads to the question, upon what grounds are we denying Luke’s historic narrative concerning things we can’t judge (miracles) when what we can judge is so trustworthy?! The answer can only be one, it’s rejected on the grounds that the sceptic refuses to accept any explanation of history that doesn’t already involve naturalism, the sceptic rules out any supernatural explanation in advance regardless of where the evidence may point to after an impartial investigation. Walter Martin in his kingdom of cults helps in understanding good history:

‘The American Banking Association has a training program that exemplifies this aim of the author. Each year it sends hundreds of bank tellers to Washington in order to teach them to detect counterfeit money, which is a great source of a loss of revenue to the Treasury Department. It is most interesting that during the entire two-week training program, no teller touches counterfeit money. Only the original passes through his hands. The reason for this is that the American Banking Association is convinced that if a man is thoroughly familiar with the original, he will not be deceived by the counterfeit bill, no matter how much like the original it appears.’

The author himself isn’t writing on history directly, instead he’s commenting on cult Christianity. Nonetheless it’s exactly false history that leads people into following cult teachings, teachings which regardless of the cult deny the divinity of Jesus as the One true God of Scripture, for which the cult follower follows an imitation Christ rather than the authentic Messiah, the Messiah who we find in the Gospels and book of Acts. It’s an understanding of the Bible and proper history that leads people into trusting books like the book of Acts, through which we ultimately embrace the Jesus Christ of New Testament Scripture. Returning lastly to the book of Acts, and after having read its 84 historically accurate facts (as listed above), what more might Luke have written about?

“Brothers and fathers, listen now to my defence.” When they heard him speak to them in Aramaic, they became very quiet. Then Paul said: “I am a Jew, born in Tarsus of Cilicia, but brought up in this city. I studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors. I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today. I persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, as the high priest and all the Council can themselves testify. I even obtained letters from them to their associates in Damascus, and went there to bring these people as prisoners to Jerusalem to be punished. “About noon as I came near Damascus, suddenly a bright light from heaven flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice say to me, ‘Saul! Saul! Why do you persecute me?’ “‘Who are you, Lord?’ I asked. “ ‘I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom you are persecuting,’ he replied.


 ― T. C. M

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