Thursday, February 10, 2011

On the authenticity of the Gospels and Acts

Skeptics have attempted to cast doubt on the authenticity of the Gospels and Acts for centuries. When the arguments are examined in detail, however, they crumble in the face of the evidence. The first issue has to do with dating the Gospels and Acts. Skeptics have alleged that the Gospels and Acts were written much later than traditionally believed. It is noteworthy that in recent decades the tide has shifted in the direction of the traditional dating simply because of the evidence.

To begin the examination, we need to start by looking at the dating of Acts and the historical confirmation of it. Even the vast majority of skeptical scholars agree that Acts was written by the same person as the Gospel of Luke, and the prefaces indicate they are a two-part work. Thus Luke can be dated to the same period as Acts. Some skeptical scholars have claimed that Acts was written in the second century or later even though it describes events between approximately 30-60 AD. This conclusion is not based on evidence, but rather on assumptions. The assumption is that there must have been a significant time gap to allow for the development of what the skeptic believes were myths and legends. The question is, how does this conclusion fit with the evidence? The answer is that it doesn't.

A.N. Sherwin-White devoted a series of lectures to the evidence that Acts was a first-century work. Sherwin-White was not a Christian apologist, but a Roman historian. Among the evidence cited by Sherwin-White is the correctness of the charges against Paul in his trail before Felix and Festus. Sherwin-White shows that the charge of stirring up strife was normal under the existing system of the period as reflected in a letter from Claudius to the Alexandrines which contains similar language to the charge against Paul. Although this detail was considered unhistorical by many scholars, Sherwin-White concludes that “the narrative of Acts is using contemporary language.” Likewise in his handling of the status of the province of Cilicia and Felix’s decision to hear Paul’s case in Acts 23:34-35, Luke shows “remarkable familiarity with the provincial and juridical situation in the last years of Claudius.” Other examples include the situation in Acts 24:18-19 when the Asian Jews who brought charges against Paul withdrew, giving Paul a valid technical objection against them, properly corresponding to the offence of destitio. Acts also correctly handles the appeal of Paul as it would have been done under the rule of provocatio, which differed in many ways from the later procedure of appellatio which would have been in effect in the time period when critics believe Acts was written. Sherwin-White remarks that in this the author of Acts “has the advantage over some modern critics.” Sherwin-White’s conclusion? “The agnostic type of form-criticism would be much more credible if the compilation of the Gospels were much later in time, much more remote from the events themselves, than can be the case.”

Archaeologist Sir William Ramsay stumbled upon this same conclusion almost by accident. He was conducted field research in Asia minor, and had been thoroughly indoctrinated with the view that Acts was a second-century work. But Ramsay discovered that one of the many errors that Luke had been charged with was not an error at all. It had long been held that the statement in Acts 14:6 that Paul and Barnabas fled from Iconium to the province of Lycaonia was nonsense, since Iconium was believed to have been in Lycaonia. Writing in the second century as was supposed, the author of Acts simply was using outdated and incorrect information. However, Ramsay shows in great detail that in fact at the time of Paul’s journeys, Iconium was part of Phyrigia and not of Lycaonia as the critics had believed. His subsequent research showed that in fact Acts was a remarkably accurate book. On issue after issue, Luke was right and the critics were wrong.

The instances of skeptical malpractice with regard to Acts can be multiplied over and over. Critics of Acts have had a history of seizing upon difficulties and arguments from silence to buttress their claims that Acts was written late, only to be refuted by later evidence. An example is given by Adolf Deissmann, who commented on the claim by critics that Luke’s use of kurios as a title for the Roman Emperor in Acts 25:26 reflected the development of a later period. However, it was discovered that this title was used for the Emperor as far back as the Ptolemaic period in Egypt and the East, and the usage became widespread under Nero. Deissmann comments that “the insignificant detail, questioned by various commentators, who, seated at their writing-tables in Tübingen or Berlin, vainly imagined that they knew the period better than St. Luke, now appears thoroughly credible.”

Sherwin-White made the observation that Roman historians had long since taken for granted the basic historicity of Acts “even in matters of detail.” This is not to suggest that he endorsed or even commented on the element of Acts that critics find objectionable – namely the miracle stories. In fact his comments had to do with the historical setting, and the fact that the evidence simply precludes a late-dating for Acts which all of the skeptical theories require. He also makes the point that the skeptical methods that have been applied to the New Testament simply don't work in the field of Roman antiquities. But critics who make use of these skeptical methods are not usually historians. W. Ward Gasque similarly observed that as a general rule it was theologians and not historians who questioned the basic historicity and dating of Acts. These theologians were ideological descendents of the Tübingen school in Germany. As a result, continental scholars have differed substantially from British scholars in regard to the historicity of Acts. The evidence, however, is on the side of Acts. Recent efforts to discredit Acts by arguing that it was not written as historiography, a view championed by Richard Pervo, has gained very little acceptance from scholars. Pervo simply fails to engage with the historical evidence in any meaningful way.

The external evidence is overwhelming that Acts was written by someone from the same time period as the events it describes. That the writer was a sometimes travelling companion of Paul also has considerable internal and external support. Scholars almost universally agree that the writer of Acts did not have access to Paul’s letters, but nevertheless numerous parallels and congruencies with Paul’s letter even in small details which are inexplicable as simply coincidence. That the Gospel has been universally attributed to Luke leaves the skeptic with an insurmountable problem: if these books were forgeries, why would they be attributed to such an obscure figure in the church who was neither an apostle nor, as far as we know, an eyewitness to the events of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection? The simple answer is they wouldn’t. Forged gospels, such as the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas, or the Gospel of Mary were attributed to apostles or important church figures.

The oft-repeated claim that we don’t know who wrote the Gospels is simply bunk. The skepticism towards these books is based on methods that simply don’t fly in any other field except New Testament studies, and are universally based on a priori rejection of the miraculous. Such theories do not stand up to the evidence.


kilo papa said...

Hey John,

When might you have a post explaining the belief that forgiveness for our supposed transgressions against the invisible man in the sky can only be accomplished by the spilling of blood from a barbaric,revolting, disgusting, sickening human sacrifice in the Middle East desert 2000 years ago?

There are more than thirty references to the "blood" of Jesus in the New Testament. You won't find that many references to love or to treating women with respect or to condemning slavery.

The blood soaked central doctrine of Christianity is the most Cro-Magnon bunch of lunacy ever concocted by the human mind in the entire history of mans existence on earth. Any thinking,rational person should be beyond embarrassed to admit to believing such stone age idiocy and to accepting the absurdly primitive book of mythology called the bible as well.

Good god! man!! Get your mind out of the stone age!

John Fraser said...


If you would care to address any point of substance, I'd be happy to respond. Perhaps since you posted a comment on a thread having to do with the evidence for the authenticity of the Gospels and Acts, you could have a go at anything in the actual comment. If, on the other hand, you simply want to post your general discontent with Christianity or with religion in general, I'd recommend going back to Dawkins's website and posting your bile there.

kilo papa said...

I actually came across your nuttery on Vinnys website.

If you're interested in insightful
critiques on the "evidence" for the "authenticity" of the Gospels or Acts you should do yourself a favor and log on to Those very subjects are frequently discussed in detail and the lone Jesus nutter who used to post there has been rather silent lately so maybe you could take his place. I miss having those really good laughs!

Oh, and if you hadn't brought your deluded, walled off from reality mind over to interrupt a thoughtful discussion on Vinnys blog then I wouldn't be bothering to post here in your land of Jesus fruitcakes.

John Fraser said...


I notice a distinct lack of substance in your comments, but you are good at name-calling. Are you over 18 years old? You don't act like you are, so I'm just curious. I'm not really interested in getting into schoolyard spats with some immature internet hack. If you have something of substance to add to the discussion, feel free. This is now my second invitation to you to do so. There won't be a third - I have no interest in this kind of "discussion," although I see it often enough from fans of people like Richard Dawkins.

Steven Avery said...

Hi John,

Thanks, good article.

I came here after noticing your discussion about A. N. Sherwin-White at

The suggestion above to post on Vridar, Neil Godfrey's blog, is worthless. Since Godfrey simply (snips) and (trashes)posts that refute his his assertions.

Yours in Jesus,
Steven Avery
Bayside, NY

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My ministry in Hungary involved teaching theology and training Hungarian church planters. I have a great interest in apologetics as well as missions.