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Can we trust New Testament history?

Sir William Mitchell Ramsay did not. He was a 19th century English historian and writer who believed that the historical accounts in the Book of Acts were written in the mid-2nd century AD. Ramsay was sceptical of Luke’s authorship and the historicity of the Book of Acts, and he set out to prove his suspicions. He began a detailed study of the archaeological evidence, and came to a remarkable conclusion: the historical and archaeological evidence supported Luke's 1st Century authorship and historical reliability. He wrote: "(There are) reasons for placing the author of Acts among the historians of the first rank" (Sir William Ramsay, "St. Paul the Traveller and the Roman Citizen", page 4). Ramsay became convinced of Luke's reliability based on his accurate description of historical events and settings. He wasn’t the only scholar to be impressed by Luke: "One of the most remarkable tokens of (Luke's) accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned… Cyprus, for example, which was an imperial province until 22 BC, became a senatorial province in that year, and was therefore governed no longer by an imperial legate but by a proconsul. And so, when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Cyprus about AD 47, it was the proconsul Sergius Paulus whom they met" (F.F. Bruce, 'The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?', page 82). Many of the details of Luke’s account have been confirmed by archaeological discoveries.

Quirinius: Luke wrote that Joseph and Mary returned to Bethlehem because a Syrian governor named Quirinius was conducting a census.

  • Luke 2:1-3

Discoveries in the 19th century revealed Quirinius (or someone with the same name) was also a proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC to the death of Herod. Quirinius’ name has been discovered on a coin from this period, and on the base of a statue erected in Pisidian Antioch.

Erastus: In Romans 16:23, Paul wrote: ‘Erastus, the city treasurer greets you.’ An inscribed pavement discovered in Corinth in 1929 confirmed his existence and his status as a high public official (see below and zoomed in verson).

The pavement in Corinth inscribed with the name of ERASTUS.
Main picture: Ktiv CCA-5 4.0 via Wikimedia and insert Metzer Collection.

Lysanias: Luke described a tetrarch (co-ruler) named Lysanias and wrote that this man reigned over Abilene when John the Baptist began his ministry.

  • Luke 3:1

Two inscriptions have been discovered that mention Lysanias by name. One of these, dated from AD 14–37, identifies Lysanias as the tetrarch in Abila near Damascus.

Iconium: In Acts 13:51, Luke described this city in Phrygia. Some ancient writers (like Cicero) wrote that Iconium was located in Lycaonia, rather than Phrygia, but a monument was discovered in 1910 that confirmed Iconium as a city in Phrygia.

Politarchs: For many centuries, Luke was the only ancient writer to use the word politarch to describe ‘rulers’ of the city. Sceptics doubted that it was a legitimate Greek term until nineteen inscriptions were discovered. Five of these were in reference to Thessalonica - the very city in which Luke was claiming to have heard the term. See picture below.

  • Acts 17:6,8
"Politarch" one of nineteen uses of the term. Photograph from Trustees of British Museum.

Pontius Pilate: For many years, the only corroboration we had for the existence of Pontius Pilate (the governor of Judea who authorised the crucifixion of Jesus) was a very brief citation by Tacitus. In 1961, however, a piece of limestone was discovered bearing an inscription with Pilate’s name. The inscription was discovered in Caesarea, a provincial capital during Pilate’s term (AD 26–36), and it describes a building dedication from Pilate to Tiberius Caesar.

Sergius Paulus: In Acts chapter 13, Luke identified Sergius Paulus as a proconsul in Paphos. Sceptics doubted the existence of this man and claimed that any leader of this area would be a ‘propraetor’ rather than a ‘proconsul’. But an inscription was discovered at Soli in Cyprus that acknowledged Paulus and identified him as a proconsul.

Sergius Paulus inscription. Photograph by David Padfield.

In addition to these archaeological discoveries, there are many other details recorded in the Book of Acts which corroborate its historical accuracy. Luke describes special features of the Roman world confirmed by other non–Christian historians:

  1. He correctly describes two ways to gain Roman citizenship.
    • Acts 22:28
  2. He includes an accurate explanation of provincial penal procedure.
    • Acts 24:1-9
  3. He correctly describes the procedure for invoking one’s Roman citizenship, including the legal formula, "de quibus cognoscere volebam".
    • Acts 25:16-18
  4. He provides an accurate description of being in Roman custody and the conditions of being imprisoned at one’s own expense.
    • Acts 28:16 and Acts 28:30-31

Where the New Testament narrative can be tested by archaeological evidence, it has passed the test with flying colours! At the beginning of his Gospel account, Luke set out his intentions: "... to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."

  • Luke 1:4

Today we can share that certainty.

With acknowledgements to J. Warner Wallace

Original picture from:

Writer of Cold-Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. Presents 10 principles of cold-case homicide cases and using them to investigate the claims of the New Testament gospels.
Author The Editor
Source Light on a New World reprint from Volume 33.4

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