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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Amazing Historical Accuracy of the Bible

Don Stewart :: Is the Book of Acts Historically Accurate?

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Is the Book of Acts Historically Accurate?

The Amazing Historical Accuracy of the Bible – Question 13

One of the most important documents in the New Testament is the Book of Acts. This work connects the ministry of Jesus Christ with the actions and beliefs of the early church. There are a number of issues that are crucial to consider regarding this book. These include: why the Book of Acts is important in New Testament study, the evidence for an early date of this work, the importance of an early date for Acts and evidence that the author of Acts was an accurate historian.

Why the Book of Acts Is Important

Luke, the author of the Gospel that bears his name, also wrote the Book of Acts. These two works make up a larger percentage of the New Testament than the writings of the Apostle Paul. This makes the historical accuracy of his writings very important.

The Book of Acts, written after the Gospel of Luke, chronicles the history of the early church from its beginnings on the Day of Pentecost to the Apostle Paul arriving in Rome waiting to appeal to Caesar.

The Book of Acts is unique among the New Testament writings in its numerous historical references. Indeed, within the Book of Acts there are over three hundred references to people, places, events, cities, districts and titles of various officials. With so many references of a historical nature, there are many chances to see if this work matches up with known reality.

The question before us therefore is, “How do these references found in the Book of Acts match up with known history at the time?” We will discover that the Book of Acts is a minutely accurate historical work.

Evidence for an Early Date to the Book of Acts

One conclusion the evidence leads us to is the early composition of Acts. There are numerous reasons for dating the Book of Acts before the fall of the city of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. They include the following:

1. There Is No Mention of the Fall of Jerusalem

The fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 is not mentioned or even alluded to in the Book of Acts. This seems incredible if it had actually occurred before Acts was written. Since Christians saw the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple as vindicating the prophecy of Jesus, it would be unthinkable not to record these events if they had already occurred. Yet there is not even the slightest hint in Acts that Jerusalem had fallen, or was about to fall.

2. The Ending of the Book of Acts Assumes Paul Is Still Alive

The Book of Acts closes with Paul in Rome awaiting his appearance before Caesar. Since Paul is the main character of the last half of the Book of Acts, we would expect something to be written about his death had it occurred by the time the Book was written. Acts records the death of one of the apostles; James, the brother of John, the Son of Zebedee.

Though James is an insignificant character in Acts, his death is recorded. This strongly indicates that the main character, Paul, is still alive when Acts was composed. Otherwise we would expect his death to be recorded.

3. Paul’s Farewell Words to the Ephesian Elders May Have Been Mistaken

A statement of Paul, that Luke records in Acts 20, may be another indication of an early date of Acts. There is an apparent discrepancy between this statement of Paul to the Ephesian elders and what happened later in history. Luke records Paul’s farewell words to them as follows:

And now I know that none of you to whom I have preached the Kingdom will ever see me again. (Acts 20:25 NLT)

Luke then went on to record what happened thereafter:

The thought of not seeing Paul again hurt them most of all. Then they took Paul to the ship. (Acts 20:38 God’s Word)

Paul clearly told these people that he believed he would never see them again. However, it seems that Paul was released from his imprisonment in Rome and made a further missionary trip before his eventual martyrdom. At the time, he made the statement to the elders in Ephesus he assumed that he would never see them again.

Yet it seems that he was released and made his way back to Ephesus. If this is the case, there would have been no reason for Luke to record the previous words of Paul if indeed he saw the Ephesians again. The simplest answer is that Luke wrote before Paul was released from prison and returned to Ephesus. He would not have known, at that time, that Paul would have been able to see these people again.

4. There Is No Hint of the Jewish War Having Begun

The years A.D. 66-70 were difficult ones for the Jews. The Jewish war with the Romans began in A.D. 66, culminating in the destruction of the city and the temple in A.D. 70. They were oppressed by Rome from A.D. 66 and thereafter. However, in the Book of Acts, the Jews are the oppressors rather than the ones who are being oppressed. This would not have been the case after A.D. 66. There is nothing in Acts that indicates the deterioration of the relationship between the Jews and the Romans.

There is more. Luke concludes the Book of Acts with Paul citing the prophecy of Isaiah concerning the hardening of the hearts of the Jewish people:

But after they had argued back and forth among themselves, they left with this final word from Paul: “The Holy Spirit was right when he said to our ancestors through Isaiah the prophet, ‘Go and say to my people, You will hear my words, but you will not understand; you will see what I do, but you will not perceive its meaning. For the hearts of these people are hardened, and their ears cannot hear, and they have closed their eyes—so their eyes cannot see, and their ears cannot hear, and their hearts cannot understand, and they cannot turn to me and let me heal them.’ So I want you to realize that this salvation from God is also available to the Gentiles, and they will accept it.” (Acts 28:25-28 NLT)

But Luke never records any reference to the judgment they received at the hands of Rome. Again, this is consistent with an early date of the composition of Acts. Had judgment occurred on the Jews at that time, the fulfillment of this prophecy would have been noted. Since it was not, we assume the judgment had not taken place.

5. Luke’s Use of the Word Christ

In the Book of Acts, Luke uses of the word “Christ” in a way that is more primitive than Paul. In both Luke and Acts, the term “Christ” had not yet become a proper name; instead the term meant “the Messiah.” Later, Christ became a proper name for Jesus; Jesus Christ.

These facts give strong indication that the Book of Acts was composed at a relatively early date in the history of the church.

Important Implications If the Book of Acts Was Written Early

If the Book of Acts was written before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, this would have a number of important implications for New Testament study. They include the following things:

1. Some Eyewitnesses to the Events Would Still Be Alive

The document would have been composed during the eyewitness period when both friendly and unfriendly eyewitnesses would be able to evaluate it. Jesus died and rose again in the year A.D. 33. If Acts was composed before A.D. 70 then many of the eyewitnesses to the events would have still been alive. Since the New Testament documents were publicly read out loud to the congregations, this would allow those hearing the work to evaluate its trustworthiness.

2. There Would Not Have Been Enough Time for Legends to Occur

If the Book of Acts was written before A.D. 70, then there would not have been enough time for legends about Jesus to occur. Legends take at least two generations to develop. Here we are dealing with the same generation in which the events took place. There was no time for legends.

3. An Early Date of Acts Has Implications for Dating of the Gospels

The early date of Acts would have implications for the dating of the gospels. If Acts was written before A.D. 70, then the gospels can be dated at an early time. Acts is the second half of the Gospel of Luke. Obviously, Luke would have had to have been composed before Acts. This puts him well into the eyewitness period.

4. The Accounts Should Be Taken Seriously

The miracle stories contained in the New Testament would have to be taken seriously. These accounts would have been composed during the eyewitness period and the stories would have been circulated while participants were still alive. If this is the case, there was no fear of what was stated being contradicted. One does not circulate a document and then have it read out loud if the content could be proven false.

5. Acts Would Be a First-Hand Account of Events

If written early, Acts would give a first-hand accurate account of what the early church believed and how they practiced their beliefs, as well as how they were treated by unbelievers. It would give us firsthand knowledge of events.

6. This Would Lend Credence to Accepting the Miracles

There is something else. If the writer proves to be accurate in the details he records, this gives further reason to believe the miraculous stories. If the people existed, the places were real, and the practices fit what we know of the world at that time in history, then it adds great credibility to the miraculous events contained in the accounts.

We should not assume that the author is meticulous in his accuracy in recording minute historical details, while inaccurate in recording the miracles that occurred. An author is either accurate or inaccurate. If he is accurate on the things that can be verified, this gives us reason to assume he is also accurate of events that cannot be verified.

While it is true that a writer may put together a completely accurate setting for writing a fictional story, or an historical novel, this was not Luke’s purpose. He set out to write a historical account of what actually occurred as he stated in his prologue:

It seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed. (Luke 1:3-4 RSV)

Luke wanted to record the “exact truth.” Since Luke specifically set out to write history, not fiction, then his work should be tested for its historical reliability.

Evidence That Demands a Verdict: the Testimony of James Smith and William Ramsay

Two of the more important people in the study of the history of the Book of Acts are James Smith and Sir William Ramsay. Their experiences are highly instructive and their stories can be summed up as follows:

The Experience of James Smith

In the middle of the nineteenth century, an amateur yachtsman of thirty years’ experience named James Smith conducted a study on Paul’s last voyage. He retraced the route that was recorded in the Book of Acts. He made the following observations about Luke’s description of that voyage:

His [Luke’s] style? though accurate, is unprofessional. No sailor would have written in a style so little like that of a sailor; no man not a sailor could have written a narrative of a sea voyage so consistent in all its parts, unless from actual observation. This peculiarity of style is to me, in itself, a demonstration that the narrative of the voyage is an account of real events, written by an eyewitness. The geographical details must have been taken from actual observation, for the geographical knowledge of the age was not such as to enable a writer to be so minutely accurate in any other way (James Smith, The Shipwreck of St. Paul: with Dissertations on the Life and Writings of St. Luke and the Ships and Navigation of the Ancients, 3rd ed. (London: Longmans, Green), xxx.

Smith’s work is very significant when one considers the historical accuracy of Acts. The fact that he concluded the author of the account of the shipwreck had to have been an eyewitness to the events is important. If the writer was so meticulous as to be correct in his recording of even insignificant details of a sea voyage, what does that tell us about the remainder of what he wrote? It would seem to indicate that the author was concerned on getting all the details right.

The Story of Sir William Ramsay

The basic reliability of the Book of Acts can also be illustrated in the story of Sir William Ramsay. In the nineteenth century, it was widely believed that the New Testament was an invention of the second-century church. Sir William Ramsay provides us with an example of how an honest scholar of history can change his perspective when faced by incontrovertible evidence from history and archaeology. Ramsay began his historical research toward the end of the nineteenth century. He was taught that the New Testament was not written in the first century and was not historically reliable. Although the New Testament Book of Acts contained a variety of eyewitness historical references, liberal critics rejected its historicity and declared it untrue. Ramsay, therefore, rejected the testimony of Acts.

Ramsay, Originally a Skeptic about the Historical Accuracy of Acts, Changed His Mind Because of the Evidence

As a young historian, Ramsay was determined to develop an independent historical/geographical study of first-century Asia Minor. He assumed the Book of Acts was unreliable and ignored its historical references in his studies. The amount of usable historical information concerning first-century Asia Minor, however, was too little for him to proceed very far with his work. That led him, almost in desperation, to consult the Book of Acts for any help possible.

Ramsay discovered that it was remarkably accurate and true to first-century history and topography. Ramsay testified to what changed his mind:

I may fairly claim to have entered on this investigation without prejudice in favour of the conclusions which I shall now seek to justify to the reader. On the contrary, I began with a mind unfavourable to it, for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the theory, had at one time quite convinced me. It did not then lie in my line of life to investigate the subject minutely, but more recently I found myself brought into contact with the Book of Acts as an authority for the topography, antiquities and society of Asia Minor. It was gradually borne upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth. In fact, beginning with a fixed idea that the work was essentially a second century composition, and never relying on its evidence as trustworthy for first century conditions, I gradually came to find it a useful ally in some obscure and difficult investigations. (Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1962, p. 36)

Ramsay’s study led him to conclude the following:

Luke’s history is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthiness. (Sir William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1962, p. 81)

He also said:

“Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements trustworthy... this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.” (Sir William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discoveries on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1953, p. 222)

From the evidence gathered by Ramsay, we discover that Luke, author of the greatest portion of the New Testament (Luke and Acts) and an eyewitness of many events during the growth of the first-century church, was a careful historian. This can be illustrated by the following:

There Was a Supposed Error by Luke in the Book of Acts (Acts 14)

Since many historical details, national boundaries, and government structures in Asia Minor were different in the second century from what they had been in the first, it is reasonable to conclude that the actual author of Luke and Acts was a first-century author, not a second-century one. Acts 14:1-7, was in historical dispute for many years. It reads as follows:

The same thing happened in Iconium when Paul and Barnabas went into the Jewish synagogue and spoke in such a way that a large group of both Jews and Greeks believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So they stayed there for a considerable time, speaking out courageously for the Lord, who testified to the message of his grace, granting miraculous signs and wonders to be performed through their hands. But the population of the city was divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles. When both the Gentiles and the Jews (together with their rulers) made an attempt to mistreat them and stone them, Paul and Barnabas learned about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding region. There they continued to proclaim the good news. (Acts 14:1-7 NET)

The passage says that Lystra and Derbe were cities in the district of Lycaonia, but Iconium, the city in which he and Barnabas were persecuted, was in a different district. Paul and Barnabas went to this different district because it was safe from the persecutions they were experiencing in Iconium.

However, later Roman writers, such as Cicero, contradicted the passage, asserting that Iconium was also in the district of Lycaonia. Therefore, fleeing to the cities of Lystra and Derbe would not have made Paul and Barnabas safe from the people of Iconium. For years, this was used as an example to show the historical unreliability of Acts. The writer did not know that these cities were all in the same district.

Ramsay Discovers That Luke Was Not in Error

In 1910, however, Sir William Ramsay discovered an inscription declaring that the first century Iconium was under the authority of Phrygia, A.D. 37-72. It was only during these years that Iconium was not under the authority of Lycaonia. Not only did this discovery confirm the accuracy of the statement in Acts 14, it showed that whoever wrote this passage knew what district Iconium was in at that short period of time. That places the author as an eyewitness to the events.

Because of evidence like this, Ramsay concluded that Acts was written by an eyewitness to the events: Luke.

Conclusion: the Book of Acts Is a Trustworthy Record of the Early Church

The conclusion is that Acts is found to be a reliable work of history that correctly depicts life in the first century A.D. Therefore, the accounts it records are factual. This includes the miraculous deeds done by the apostles of Jesus as they were spreading His message to the entire world.

Summary – Question 13
Is the Book of Acts Historically Accurate?

The New Testament Book of Acts contains some of the historical highlights of the early church. From the evidence that is available we can conclude that the writer of the Book of Acts, Luke, was a meticulous historian.

His account fits with what we know of the people, geography and events of first century Asia Minor. Therefore, the history that it records should be trusted.

Are the Four Gospels Historically Accurate? ← Prior Section
What Conclusions Can Be Made about the Historical Accuracy of the New Testament? Next Section →
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