The Credibility of the Book of Acts

By Wayne Jackson

Liberal critics of the Bible have frequently alleged that the book of Acts is not a reliable document from the standpoint of history. F.C. Baur (1792-1860) of Germany popularized this view more than a century ago. This notion, however, has been thoroughly discredited.

Sir William Ramsay (1851-1939), a British scholar, initially questioned the historicity of Acts, but after years of literally digging up the evidence in archaeological explorations, Ramsay became convinced that Acts was so remarkably accurate in its details that the whole of it must be considered trustworthy. He wrote:

I had read a good deal of modern criticism about the book, and dutifully accepted the current opinion that it was written during the second half of the second century by an author who wished to influence the minds of people in his own time by a highly wrought and imaginative description of the early Church. His object was not to present a trustworthy picture of facts in the period about A.D. 50, but to produce a certain effect on his own time by setting forth a carefully coloured account of events and persons of that older period. He wrote for his contemporaries, not for truth (The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979, 37-38).

After much on-site investigation, though, Ramsay wrote:

The present writer takes the view that Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness. At this point we are describing what reasons and arguments changed the mind of one who began under the impression that the history was written long after the events and that it was untrustworthy as a whole (81).

J.B. Lightfoot was one of the greatest scholars of his day. Fluent in seven languages, he made vast contributions to the literature of the New Testament. In one of his works defending the supernatural character of the New Testament, he said of the book of Acts:

[N]o ancient work affords so many tests of veracity; for no other has such numerous points of contact in all directions with contemporary history, politics, and topography, whether Jewish, Greek, or Roman (Essays of the Work Entitled Supernatural Religion, London: MacMillan, 1889, 19-20).

In more recent times, Henry J. Cadbury, the liberal scholar of Harvard University, authored a volume titled, The Book of Acts In History, (New York: Harper & Bros., 1955) in which he introduced many examples of the amazing accuracy of Luke’s second letter to Theophilus.

Luke records an abundance of details, and this allows the careful student to check the ancient historian for credibility. For instance, the physician/historian mentions 32 countries, 54 cities, and nine Mediterranean islands. In addition, he alludes to 95 different people, 62 of which are not mentioned by any other New Testament writer. Twenty-seven of these are unbelievers, chiefly civil or military officials (Bruce Metzger, The New Testament – Its Background, Growth, and Content, Nashville: Abingdon, 1965, 171-172). The book of Acts definitely will stand the test of historical examination. Consider the following.

  • Did ancient readers generally read aloud (8:30)? Yes.
  • Why would it take two days to sail from Troas to Neapolis, yet five days to accomplish the return trip (16:11; 20:6)? Because of prevailing winds in that region.
  • Was Sergius Paulus a “proconsul” (13:7)? Yes, though 68 years earlier the same position would have been occupied by a “propraetor.”
  • Did “tanners” customarily live by the seaside (10:6)? They did, because tanners used seawater in tanning hides, and the sea breezes diffused the stench of their trade.

There are two categories of data in the Bible — that which is “checkable” empirically, and that which is not “checkable.” For example, one cannot demonstrate in a scientific way that sins are removed at baptism (Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). On the other hand, there are many segments of scripture that are checkable in terms of the historical information.

Details in this sacred document are checkable—over and over again—and they pass the test of historicity with flying colors. This fact provides us with absolute confidence that other parts of the Bible must be presumed to be reliable as well. Can it be demonstrated otherwise? We believe not.

We can place our trust in the Scriptures!

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.