An Embarrassing Complication

In Colin Hemer’s landmark book The Book of Acts In The Setting Of Hellenistic History, Hemer evaluates the New Testament book of Acts, slicing and dicing it twelve ways to Sunday. He puts the book under the trained microscope of a first-rate historian, and the resulting work is detailed, critical, and as objective as any work ever produced on the history of any of the New Testament books. Hemer’s work is no emotional argument, but rather takes the cold-blooded tone of an academic historian. He asks every question, turns over every rock, and does not shy away from any critical issue.

Chapter 5 wrestles with the historical details mentioned in Acts. Hemer deals with the difficulties of trying to accurately date Acts from the details within it, the correlation between Acts and the New Testament epistles, details of differences between textual traditions, peculiar selections of detail by the author, idioms found in the narrative, details that cannot be checked, and more. In the conclusion to the chapter, Hemer states the following, first proposing a what a critic might claim: 

It could be argued that the admitted accuracies of detail in Acts no more support historicity than do accuracies of setting in a parable. The story of the Good Samaritan, for instance, is set on a real road between real places . . . it is clear that there would have been an inn at a suitable point en route . . . But none of us would want to argue for the ‘historicity’ of that story. It would be an error of genre criticism even to try. . . May not this be the case with Acts also, that local colour, and vivid gleams of real life, may be embedded in a matrix of different texture, like currants in a cake?”(p.220)

So to this point Hemer has stated what is arguably the brunt of the popular skeptics’ and critics’ argument: that whatever the accurate details found in the New Testament, it does not prove that the events actually happened. We are told by the critic of Christianity that just because the book of Acts, or any other book in the New Testament, mentions real places, it does not prove any of the events actually happened. But Hemer answers his own question, as he continues:

But there is no convincing analogy. Acts still purports to be a narrative of what happened. Even if we take it to be teaching couched somehow in narrative form, the character of the mixture is still very different from that of a parable or masal. To suggest for instance that the historical components are there to give topicality or verisimilitude to Paul as lay-figure of Lukan theology seems forced beyond all probability. . . A more satisfactory view must be one which brings the history and theology together. Where a polarized separation of these aspects is made, the tendency seems to be to downplay the historical component of the narrative in such a way that the accuracies of detail become nothing more than an embarrassing complication. It poses a problem why Lukan theology should have been incarnated in an ostensibly historical narrative in the first place. (p.220)

In other words, to those who try to say that Acts is primarily religious dogma couched in an invented historical novel, the numerous accurate historical details become rather awkward to explain. We can try to sweep the historical details under the rug, but eventually the pile of details becomes larger than the rug, and the whole scheme is given away.

Lest anyone think Hemer makes these statements without taking the time to deal with the minutiae of Acts, please look at the book before you try to sweep even more under the rug. Hemer spends large sections of the book corroborating many dozens of details, all with the appropriate references. The bibliography alone is worth the price of the book.

The hardened skeptics will be quick to remind us that historical accounts still do not present a case that will convince them. Perhaps not. But Hemer’s book does give us a solid response to the arguments given to us by the skeptic and critic, the wild statements made that Acts is a mere religious parable, a late invention made by power-hungry church leaders, a quickly slapped together book that makes swiss cheese of historical detail. Hemer’s book takes such statements by the critics and points out a rather embarrassing pile of accurate historical complications.

I suggest that it is best to read the New Testament like you would a newspaper or any other account by an eyewitness of an event.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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