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

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Don Stewart

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The Book of Acts 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. Within the Book of Acts are over three hundred references to people, places, events, cities, districts and titles of various officials. The question is, "How do these references match up with known history at the time?" The evidence is that the Book of Acts is a minutely accurate historical work.

The Story Of Sir William Ramsay

The basic reliability of the Book of Acts is 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 Although the New Testament Book of Acts contained a variety of eyewitness historical references, liberal critics rejected its historicity and declared it untrue.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 Attempted To Develop A Geography Of Asia Minor

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 allusions 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 Tübingen 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 that "Luke's history is unsurpassed in respect to its trustworthiness" (Ramsay, ibid. p. 81) and 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.

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.

A Supposed Error By Luke

Acts 14:1-7, for example, was in historical dispute for many years. It reads as follows.

At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders. The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country, where they continued to preach the good news (Acts 14:1-7).

The passage implies that Lystra and Derbe were cities in the district of Lycaonia but Iconium was in a different district. Paul and Barnabas went to the different district because it was safe. Later Roman writers such as Cicero contradicted the passage, asserting that Iconium was also in Lycaonia. For years this was used to show the historical unreliability of Acts.

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 from A.D. 37 to A.D. 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 time. That places the author as an eyewitness to the events.

Examples such as this can be multiplied. The conclusion is that Acts is found to be a reliable work of history that correctly depicts life in the first century A.D


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.

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