Historicity of the book of Acts (4)

The historicity of Acts is taken seriously (though not accepted completely), even by highly regarded critical scholars such as Gerd Lüdemann,1 Alexander Wedderburn,2 Hans Conzelmann,3 and Martin Hengel.4 Furthermore, recent modern studies are far more positive in their assessment of the historicity of Acts than many previous critical commentaries.5

Acts 1:1-14: Visions of Christ

Lüdemann acknowledges the historicity of Christ’s post-resurrection appearances, 6 the names of the early disciples,7 women disciples,8 and Judas Iscariot.9 Wedderburn says the disciples indisputably believed Christ was truly raised.1011 Conzelmann dismisses an alleged contradiction between Luke 13:31 and Acts 1:3.12 Hengel believes Acts was written early13 by Luke as a partial eyewitness,14 praising Luke’s knowledge of Palestine,15 and of Jewish customs in Acts 1:12.16

Acts 1:15-26: The New Apostle

Lüdemann is sceptical with regard to the appointment of Matthias, but not with regard to his historical existence.17) Wedderburn ridicules the theory that denies the historicity of the disciples,1819 Conzelmann considers the upper room meeting a historical event Luke knew from tradition,20 and Hengel considers ‘the Field of Blood’ to be an authentic historical name.21

Acts 2: Pentecost

Lüdemann considers the Pentecost gathering as very possible,22) and the apostolic instruction to be historically credible.23 Wedderburn acknowledges the possibility of a ‘mass ecstatic experience’,24 and notes it is difficult to explain why early Christians later adopted this Jewish festival if there had not been an original Pentecost event as described in Acts.25 He also holds the description of the early community in Acts 2 to be reliable.26 27

  1. A German critical scholar and atheist who he expresses extreme scepticism of the New Testament record of Christ in ‘The Great Deception: And What Jesus Really Said and Did’ (1999). []
  2. A critical scholar with what he describes as ‘a more than somewhat agnostic view of the evidence for the nature of the resurrection and its implications for Christian faith’, Wedderburn, ‘A history of the first Christians’, p. 17 (2004). []
  3. A German critical scholar sceptical of much of the gospels and Acts, and who did not believe them to be inspired. []
  4. A German critical scholar with a sceptical attitude to the gospels and Acts who nevertheless writes ‘after Josephus and Philo’s two historical writings, the Acts represents the most important source for the history of Judaism between Herod and A.D. 70.’, Hengel, ‘Early Christianity as a Jewish-Messianic, Universalistic Movement’, in Hengel & Barrett, ‘Conflicts and Challenges in Early Christianity’, p. 28 (1999). []
  5. At the same time it must be admitted that such indictments against Luke as a historian are not so firmly based as is sometimes claimed. (1) Although study of Acts as history continues to be plagued by a relative dearth of corroborative evidence, whether literary or physical, recent examination of that evidence by C. J. Hemer has encouraged a much more positive assessment of the historical reliability of Acts (see also Hengel). (2) The sometimes spectacular accounts of healing in Acts (e.g., Acts 5:15; 19:11–12) have given some scholars pause in accepting the whole as an historically faithful account. However, in the wake of postmodern epistemology and in light of increasing criticism of the biomedical paradigm for making sense of non-Western accounts of healing (see, e.g., Hahn), such miraculous phenomena—previously understood as expressions of duplicity, mental pathology, superstition, fantasy and/or a prescientific worldview—are not so easily dismissed and have begun to be reexamined for their sociohistorical significance.’, Green, ‘Acts of the Apostles’, in Martin & Davids (eds.), ‘Dictionary of the Later New Testament and its Developments’ (electronic ed. 2000). []
  6. ‘”There were in fact appearances of the heavenly Jesus in Jerusalem (after those in Galilee)” (ibid., 29-30)”’, Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ‘Acts and the History of the Earliest Jerusalem Church’, in Cameron & Miller (eds.), ‘Redescribing Christian origins’, p. 164 (2004); he attributes the appearances to hallucination. []
  7. ‘”The names of the disciples of Jesus are for the most part certainly historical[”].’, Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ibid., p. 164. []
  8. ‘[“]The existence of women disciples as members of the earliest Jerusalem community is also a historical fact” (ibid., 31).’, Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ibid., p. 164. []
  9. ‘”The disciple Iscariot is without doubt a historical person… [who] made a decisive contribution to delivering Jesus into the hands of the Jewish authorities” (ibid., 35-36).’, Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ibid., p. 165. []
  10. ‘Whatever one believes about the resurrection of Jesus,5 it is undeniable that his followers came to believe that he had been raised by God from the dead, that the one who had apparently died an ignominious death, forsaken and even accursed by his God, had subsequently been vindicated by that same God., ’ Wedderburn, ‘A History of the First Christians’, p. 17 (2004). []
  11. ‘Whether they expected it or not, they came to believe that God had in fact raised Jesus and this was for them a truly revolutionary conviction.’, ibid., p. 17. []
  12. ‘According to this verse Jesus seems to appear only to the apostles (for Luke, the Twelve), while the parallel in 13:31* says he appeared to all who went with him on the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. The contradiction is not a serious one, however, nor is there any real difference between the forty days mentioned in this text and the ἡμέρας πλείους, “many days,” of 13:31*.’, Conzelmann, Limber (trans.), Epp, & Matthews (eds.), ‘Acts of the Apostles: A commentary on the Acts of the Apostles’, Hermeneia, p. 5 (1987). []
  13. ‘That makes it all the more striking that Acts says nothing of Paul the letter-writer. In my view this presupposes a relatively early date for Acts, when there was still a vivid memory of Paul the missionary, but the letter-writer was not known in the same way.’, Hengel & Schwemer, ‘Paul Between Damascus and Antioch: the unknown years’, p. 3 (1997). []
  14. ‘Contrary to a widespread anti-Lukan scholasticism which is often relatively ignorant of ancient historiography, I regard Acts as a work that was composed soon after the Third Gospel by Luke ‘the beloved physician’ (Col. 4:14), who accompanied Paul on his travels from the journey with the collection to Jerusalem onwards. In other words, as at least in part an eye-witness account for the late period of the apostle, about which we no longer have any information from the letters, it is a first-hand source.’, ibid., p. 7 []
  15. ‘So Luke-Acts looks back on the destruction of Jerusalem, which is still relatively recent, and moreover is admirably well informed about Jewish circumstances in Palestine, in this respect comparable only to its contemporary Josephus. As Matthew and John attest, that was no longer the case around 15-25 years later; one need only compare the historical errors of the former Platonic philosopher Justin from Neapolis in Samaria, who was born around 100 CE.’, ibid., pp. 7-8. []
  16. ‘The term ‘a sabbath day’s journey’, which appears only here in the New Testament, presupposes an amazingly intimate knowledge — for a Greek — of Jewish customs.’, Hengel, ‘Between Jesus and Paul: studies in the earliest history of Christianity’, p. 107 (1983). []
  17. ‘”One is… inclined to challenge the historicity of the election of Matthias… This does not mean, though, that the Jerusalem Christians Matthias and Joseph were not historical figures” (ibid., 37).’, Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ‘Acts and the History of the Earliest Jerusalem Church’, in Cameron & Miller (eds.), ‘Redescribing Christian origins’, p. 166 (2004 []
  18. Yet is such a theory not an act of desperation?21 Is it not in every way simpler to accept that the Twelve existed during Jesus’ lifetime and that Judas was one of them?’, Wedderburn, ‘A History of the First Christians’, p. 22 (2004). []
  19. ‘The presence of some names in the list is, in view of their relative obscurity, most easily explained by their having indeed been members of this group.’, ibid., p. 22. []
  20. A local tradition about the meeting place can still be detected. The upper room is the place for prayer and conversation (20:8*; cf. Dan 6:11*), and for seclusion (Mart. Pol. 7.1). The list of names agrees with Luke 6:13–16*.’, Conzelmann, Limber (trans.), Epp, & Matthews (eds.), ‘Acts of the Apostles: A commentary on the Acts of the Apostles’, Hermeneia, pp. 8-9 (1987); he nevertheless believes the waiting for the spirit is a fiction by Luke. []
  21. The Aramaic designation Akeldamakc for ‘field of blood’ has been correctly handed down in Acts 1:19; this is a place name which is also known by Matthew 27:8′, Hengel, ‘The Geography of Palestine in Acts’, in Bauckham (ed.), ‘The Book of Acts in its Palestinian Setting’, p. 47 (1995). []
  22. ‘Although doubting that the specification “Pentecost” belongs to the tradition, Lüdemann supposes, on the basis of references to glossolalia in Paul’s letters and the ecstatic prophecy of Philip’s daughters (Acts 21:9), that “we may certainly regard a happening of the kind described by the tradition behind vv.1-4 as very possible.”’, Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ‘Acts and the History of the Earliest Jerusalem Church’, in Cameron & Miller (eds.), ‘Redescribing Christian origins’, p. 166 (2004 []
  23. ‘”The instruction by the apostles is also to be accepted as historical, since in the early period of the Jerusalem community the apostles had a leading role. So Paul can speak of those who were apostles before him (in Jerusalem!, Gal. 1.17)” (40.)’, Lüdemann quoted by Matthews, ibid., p. 166. []
  24. ‘It is also possible that at some point of time, though not necessarily on this day, some mass ecstatic experience took place.’, Wedderburn, ‘A History of the First Christians’, p. 26 (2004). []
  25. ‘At any rate, as Weiser and Jervell point out,39 it needs to be explained why early Christians adopted Pentecost as one of their festivals, assuming that the Acts account was not reason enough.’, ibid., p. 27. []
  26. Many features of them are too intrinsically probable to be lightly dismissed as the invention of the author. It is, for instance, highly probable that the earliest community was taught by the apostles (2:42)—at least by them among others.’, ibid., p. 30. []
  27. ‘Again, if communal meals had played an important part in Jesus’ ministry and had indeed served then as a demonstration of the inclusive nature of God’s kingly rule, then it is only to be expected that such meals would continue to form a prominent part of the life of his followers (Acts 2:42, 46), even if they and their symbolic and theological importance were a theme particularly dear to ‘Luke’s’ heart.47 It is equally probable that such meals took place, indeed had to take place, in private houses or in a private house (2:46) and that this community was therefore dependent, as the Pauline churches would be at a later stage, upon the generosity of at least one member or sympathizer who had a house in Jerusalem which could be placed at the disposal of the group. At the same time it might seem unnecessary to deny another feature of the account in Acts, namely that the first followers of Jesus also attended the worship of the Temple (2:46; 3:1; 5:21, 25, 42), even if they also used the opportunity of their visits to the shrine to spread their message among their fellow-worshippers. For without question they would have felt themselves to be still part of Israel.’, ibid., p. 30. []

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