The Bible as History: Minor Details in the Book of Acts

In Colin Hemer’s great work The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, the author goes to great length examining the minutia that Luke wrote into the New Testament book of Acts. Hemer makes several lists of different types of details from the book, evaluating each and listing the significance. One of the smaller lists is the following group of names that Luke includes into the historical account (numbers are verses in the book of Acts):

  • 4:6 Mention is made of the unspecified John and Alexander among the high priest’s party.
  • 12:13-17 We  note the part played by Rhoda, and the departure of Peter . . .
  • 12:20 There is named one Blastus, a servant of the king.
  • 17:34 Dionysius and Damaris are named.
  • 18:7-8 Paul’s shift to teaching at the house of Titius Justice is mentioned . . .
  • 19:29 The naming of Paul’s companions, Gaius and Aristarchus, is perhaps natural to the extent that he would have been anxious for their safety, and so a vivid touch belonging to the situation but not lending itself to theological explanation.
  • 20:4-5 Several companions of Paul are here named; most of them play no overt part in the story . . .
  • 21:8, 16 Philip the evangelist and Mnason, Paul’s hosts at successive stages of the journey to Jerusalem, are mentioned by name.
  • 28:11-13 The second Alexandrian ship is said to be called the ‘Dioscuri’, and the detailed account of its prosperously uneventful voyage is given. (p.207-209)

Hemer goes on to show that there is no reason for mentioning these names that fits into a selfish motivation from the author. There is no theological point that can be drawn from such details, no literary interest in making the story go smoother, no fictional style that requires these details, no financial gain that can be gathered by the author. Quite the opposite, actually, since including such details would be counterproductive to a good fiction writer’s story. If the book of Acts were a fable or historical novel, the amount and details in Acts get in the way; these were the days before printing presses and modern popular novels.

The justification for such details is straightforward: the author was giving a factual account of what happened, and included the names of the people who he encountered along the way, people that the readers would perhaps know.  Hemer mentions these details because of “the prominence givenn to lengthy repetitive narratives and minor episodes which are given space in what is elsewhere an extremely terse account”(p.206).

The only reasonable explanation for such details is that Luke was writing a first hand eyewitness account of what he witnessed. All reasonable accounts point toward Acts being a first rate history of first century happenings. If the Bible is proven true in the eyewitness historical accounts, we can have increased confidence in the eyewitnessed theological accounts also.

C. S. Lewis, who was a literary scholar at both Oxford and Cambridge, had this to say to those who criticized the Bible as literature:

All I am in private life is a literary critic and historian, that’s my job. And I am prepared to say on that basis if anyone thinks the Gospels are either legend or novels, then that person is simply showing his incompetence as a literary critic. I’ve read a great many novels and I know a fair amount about the legends that grew up among early people, and I know perfectly well the Gospels are not that kind of stuff. (Christian Reflections, 209)

Therefore the modern critic cannot merely wave away these details with a wave of the skeptical wand. For these to be dismissed, the burden of proof is on the critic to supply a reason for including this and all the other details in the other lists in Hemer’s book. Besides the literary issue that Hemer points out of some sections being terse and others having lengthy non-theological details, the critic must explain the lists Hemer makes, such as specialized knowledge, specific local knowledge, unstudied allusions, peculiar selections of detail, immediacy of details, idioms and cultural features, and on and on.

For more on the Bible as accurate history, see here.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
This entry was posted in Apologetics, Bible, Church History. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Bible as History: Minor Details in the Book of Acts

  1. Cleo Robbins says:

    We might finally note the manner in which incidental details of Paul’s life and activity in Acts are at times confirmed by Paul’s own letters. For example, Luke’s portrayal of Paul preaching to Jews in the synagogue first and then to Gentiles may be echoed in Paul’s own statement that the Gospel is “first for the Jew, and then for the Gentile” (Rom. 1:16, cf. 2:9). So also, Paul’s own expressed concern over “the unbelievers in Judea” to the Romans (Rom. 15:31) is filled out by Luke’s account in Acts 21:27–36. And Luke’s depiction of Paul as earning his own living while preaching (18:3; 20:34) finds confirmation in Paul’s own repeated statements to this effect (e.g. 1 Thess. 2:9; 2 Thess. 3:7ff; 1 Cor. 9:15ff).

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