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Bible Gemz 1331 - Is the Chronology of Acts of Historical Worth? (Acts Background)

January 15, 2019


For the coverage of this topic I am going to clip material from E-Sword again simply because it has a good summary of the issues. And again to point you to E-Sword as a source for answers to your questions. 



Chronology of Acts

Here we confront one of the most perplexing questions in New Testament criticism. In general, ancient writers were not so careful as modern writers are to give precise dates for historical events. Indeed, it was not easy to do so in view of the absence of a uniform method of reckoning times. Luke does, however, relate his narrative to outward events at various points. In his Gospel he had linked the birth of Jesus with the names of Augustus as emperor and of Quirinius as governor of Syria (Luk_2:1), and the entrance of John the Baptist upon his ministry with the names of the chief Roman and Jewish rulers of the time (Luk_3:1). So also in the Acts he does not leave us without various notes of times. He does not, indeed, give the date of the Ascension or of the Crucifixion, though he places the Ascension forty days after the Resurrection (Act_1:3), and the great Day of Pentecost would then come ten days later, “not many days hence” (Act_1:5). But the other events in the opening chapters of Acts have no clear chronological arrangement. The career of Stephen is merely located “in these days” (Act_6:1). The beginning of the general persecution under Saul is located on the very day of Stephen's death (Act_8:1), but the year is not even hinted at. The conversion of Saul comes probably in its chronological order in Acts 9, but the year again is not given. 


We have no hint as to the age of Saul at his conversion. So again the relation of Peter's work in Caesarea (10) to the preaching to the Greeks in Antioch (11) is not made clear, though probably in this order. It is only when we come to Acts 12 that we reach an event whose date is reasonably certain. This is the death of Herod Agrippa I in 44 AD. But even so, Luke does not correlate the life of Paul with that incident. Ramsay (St. Paul the Traveler, 49) places the persecution and death of James in 44, and the visit of Barnabas and Saul to Jerusalem in 46. About 44, then, we may consider that Saul came to Antioch from Tarsus. The “fourteen years” in Gal_2:1as already shown probably point to the visit in Acts 15 some years later. But Saul had been in Tarsus some years and had spent some three years in Arabia and Damascus after his conversion (Gal_1:18). Beyond this it is not possible to go. We do not know the age of Saul in 44 AD or the year of his conversion. He was probably born not far from 1 AD. But if we locate Paul at Antioch with Barnabas in 44 AD, we can make some headway. Here Paul spent a year (Act_11:26). The visit to Jerusalem in Acts 11, the first missionary tour in 13 and 14, the conference at Jerusalem in 15, the second missionary tour in 16 through 18, the third missionary tour and return to Jerusalem in 18 through 21, the arrest in Jerusalem and two years in Caesarea in 21 through 26, all come between 44 AD and the recall of Felix and the coming of Festus. It used to be taken for granted that Festus came in 60 AD. Wieseler figured it out so from Josephus and was followed by Lightfoot. But Eusebius, in his “Chronicle,” placed that event in the second year of Nero. That would be 56, unless Eusebius has a special way of counting those years Mr. C. H Turner (art. “Chronology” in HDB) finds that Eusebius counts an emperor's regnal year from the September following. If so, the date could be moved forward to 57 (compare Rackham on Acts, lxvi). But Ramsay (chapter xiv, “Pauline Chronology,” in Pauline and Other Studies) cuts the Gordian knot by showing an error in Eusebius due to his disregarding an interregnum with the reign of Mugs Ramsay here follows Erbes (Todestage Pauli und Petriin this discovery and is able to fix upon 59 as the date of the coming of Festus. Probably AD 59 will have to be consideredas a compromise date. 


Between 44 AD and 59 AD, therefore, we place the bulk of Paul's active missionary work. Luke has divided this period into minor divisions with relative dates. Thus a year and six months are mentioned at Corinth (Act_18:11), besides “yet many days” (Act_18:18). In Ephesus we find mention of “Three months” (Act_19:8) and “two years” (Act_19:10), the whole story summed up as “Three years” (Act_20:31) Then we have the “two years” of delay in Caesarea (Act_24:27). We thus have about seven of these fifteen years itemized. Much of the remaining eight was spent in the journeys described by Luke. We are told also the times of year when the voyage to Rome was under way (Act_27:9), the length of the voyage (Act_27:27), the duration of the stay in Melita (Act_28:11), and the times spent in Rome at the close of the book, “two whole years” (Act_28:30). Thus it is possible to fix upon a relative schedule of dates, though not an absolute one. 

It is clear, then, that a rational scheme for events of Paul's career so far as recorded in the Acts can be found. If 57 AD, for instance, should be taken as the year of Festus coming rather than 59 or 60 AD, the other dates back to 44 AD would, of course, be affected on a sliding scale. Prior to 44 AD the dates are largely conjectural. Harnack (The Acts of the Apostles, chapter i, “Chronological Data”) has worked out a very careful scheme for the whole of Acts. Knowling has a good critical resume of the present state of our knowledge of the chronology of Acts in his Commentary, 38ff, compare also Clemen, Die Chronologie der paulinischen Briefe(1893).


Historical Worth of Acts

It was once fashionable to discredit Acts as a book of no real value as history. The Tübingen school regarded Acts as “a late controversial romance, the only historical value of which was to throw light on the thought of the period which produced it” (Chase, The Credibility of Acts, 9). There are still a few writers who still regard Acts as a late eirēnicon*between the Peter and Paul parties, or as a party pamphlet in the interest of Paul. 

  • an eirēnicon is a proposal to resolve disputes and reconcile differences in order to advance peace or strength and establish unity. 

Peter is the leading figure in the early chapters, as Paul is in the latter half of the book, but the correspondences are not remarkably striking. There exists in some minds a prejudice against the book on the ground of the miracles recorded as genuine events by Luke. But Paul himself claimed to have wrought miracles (2Co_12:12). It is not scientific to rule a book out beforehand because it narrates miracles. Ramsay (St. Paul the Traveler, 8) tells his experience in regard to the trustworthiness of Acts: “I began with a mind unfavorable to it, for the ingenuity and apparent completeness of the Tübingen** theory had at one time quite convinced me.” It was by actual verification of Acts in points where it could be tested by inscriptions, Paul's epistles, or current non-Christian writers, that “it was gradually borne in upon me that in various details the narrative showed marvelous truth.” 


** The Tubingen School held the view that the historical“facts”of Scripture could not be relied upon, being extremelysubjective and in need of substantial revision. Not only that there was a reluctance to accept at face value miracles as they were recorded. There was an attempt to discount miracles as the fruit of flights of fancy on the part of uninformed minds. It is this kind of attitude which resulted in the opposition of so called modern scholarship (e.g. The Jesus Seminar) to anything which includes miracles and supernatural viewpoint. The result of the Tubingen theory was to discount anything which could not be scientifically and empirically measured and proven. 


(After the change of heart mentioned above)Ramsay concludes by “placing this great writer on the high pedestal that belongs to him” (10). McGiffert (The Apostolic Age) had been compelled by the geographical and historical evidence to abandon in part the older criticism. He also admitted that the Acts “is more trustworthy than previous critics allowed”. On the whole Acts has had a triumphant vindication in modern criticism.The moral honesty of Luke, his fidelity to truthis clearly shown in both his Gospel and the Acts. This, after all, is the chief trait in the true historian. Luke writes as a man of serious purpose and is the one New Testament writer who mentions his careful use of his materials (Luk_1:1-4). His attitude is that of the historian. He reveals artistic skill, it is true, but not to the discredit of his record. He does not give a bare chronicle, but he writes a real history, an interpretation of the events recorded. He had adequate resources in the way of materials and endowment and has made conscientious and skillful use of his opportunity. 


It is not necessary here to give in detail all the points in which Luke has been vindicated. The most obvious are the following: The use of “proconsul” instead of “propraetor” in Act_13:7is a striking instance. Curiously enough, Cyprus was not a senatorial province very long. An inscription has been found in Cyprus “in the proconsulship of Paulus.” The 'first men' of Antioch in Pisidia is like the (Act_13:50) “First Ten,” a title which “was only given here to a board of magistrates in Greek cities of the East”. The “priest of Jupiter” at Lystra (Act_14:13) is in accord with the known facts of the worship there. So we have Perga in Pamphylia (Act_13:13), Antioch in Pisidia Act_13:14), Lystra and Derbe in Lycaonia (Act_14:6), but not Iconium (Act_14:1). In Philippi Luke notes that the magistrates are called strategoı́ or praetors(Act_16:20), and are accompanied by lictors or rhabdoú̄choi(Act_16:35). In Thessalonica the rulers are “politarchs” (Act_17:6), a title found nowhere else, but now discovered on an inscription of Thessalonica. He rightly speaks of the Court of the Areopagus at Athens (Act_17:19) and the proconsul in Achaia (Act_18:12). Though Athens was a free city, the Court of the Areopagus at the times were the real rulers. Achaia was sometimes associated with Macedonia, though at this time it was a separate senatorial province. In Ephesus Luke knows of the “Asiarchs” (Act_19:31), “the presidents of the 'Common Council' of the province in cities where there was a temple of Rome and the Emperor; they superintended the worship of the Emperor” (Maclean). Note also the fact that Ephesus is “temple-keeper of the great Diana” (Act_19:35). Then observe the town clerk (Act_19:35), and the assembly (Act_19:39). Note also the title of Felix, “governor” or procurator (Act_24:1), Agrippa the king (Act_25:13), Julius the centurion and the Augustan band (Act_27:1). 


Acts 27 is a marvel of interest and accuracy for all who wish to know details of ancient seafaring.The title “First Man of the Island” (Act_28:7) is now found on a coin of Melita. These are by no means all the matters of interest, but they will suffice. In most of the items given above, Luke's veracity was once challenged, but now he has been triumphantly vindicated. The force of this vindication is best appreciated when one recalls the incidental nature of the items mentioned. They come from widely scattered districts and are just the points where in strange regions it is so easy to make slips. If space allowed, the matter could be set forth in more detail and with more justice to Luke's worth as a historian. It is true that in the earlier portions of the Acts we are not able to find so many geographical and historical corroborations. But the nature of the material did not call for the mention of so many places and persons. In the latter part Luke does not hesitate to record miraculous events also. His character as a historian is firmly established by the passages where outside contact has been found. We cannot refuse him a good name in the rest of the book, though the value of the sources used certainly cuts a figure. It has been urged that Luke breaks down as a historian in the double mention of Quirinius in Luk_2:2and Act_5:37. But Ramsay (Was Christ Born at Bethlehem?) has shown how the new knowledge of the census system of Augustus derived from the Egypt papyri clears up this difficulty. Luke's general accuracy at least calls for suspense of judgment, and in the matter of Theudas and Judas the Galilean (Acts 5) Luke as compared with Josephus outclasses his rival. Harnack (The Acts of the Apostles, 203-29) gives in his usual painstaking way a number of examples of “inaccuracy and discrepancy” But the great bulk of them are merely examples of independence in narration (compare Acts 9 with 22 and 26, where we have three reports of Paul's conversion). Harnack did not have such high regard for Luke as a historian as he now does. It is all the more significant, therefore, to read the following in Harnack's The Acts of the Apostles(298 f): “The book has now been restored to the position of credit which is its rightful due. It is not only, taken as a whole, a genuinely historical work, but even in the majority of its details it is trustworthy.... Judged from almost every possible standpoint of historical criticism it is a solid, respectable, and in many respects an extraordinary work.” That is, in my opinion, an understatement of the fact. The prejudice against Luke is rapidly disappearing. Ramsay ranks Luke as a historian of the first order.



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