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Was Luke an Accurate Historian?
Nicholas M. van Ommeren
Doctoral Student, The Free University Huizen, The Netherlands
Are the books of Luke and Acts historically reliable? Opinions on thisquestion are divided. 1 But is this question of historical reliability very important? Is not an existential encounter with Jesus more important? 2 Should believers proclaim not the Jesus who was, but the Jesus who is? 3 As Marshall explains, the Christian faith is rooted in the historical, 4 that is, it depends on historical facts. 5 The life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus are historical facts on which the Christian faith stands. 6 That is why Luke attached so much importance to the eyewitnesses who had seen the Lord Jesus after His resurrection. They confirmed the truth of the resurrection as a historical fact.7 That is what makes the question of the historical reliability of the Gospels and Acts so extremely important. 8 As F. F. Bruce said, "This historical 'once and for allness' of Christianity, which distinguishes it from those religious and philosophical systems which are not specially related to any particular time, makes the reliability of the writings which purport to record this revelation a question of first-rate importance."9
Why have some concluded that the Gospels and Acts are historically unreliable? As far as the Gospels are concerned, the differences between the Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus have presented problems to many people. Though there are indeed differences, 10 the same question must be asked here as in any other area of study: "What do we do with the facts? How do we interpret them?" 11 For many scholars, those differences have been and still are reason to view the Gospel writers less as reliable reporters of the historical facts, and more as theologians who have adapted the historical facts to their own theological framework. 12 According to such scholars (Rudolf Bultmann, for example), we can know next to nothing about the life and personality of the Lord Jesus. 13 Marshall sees a tendency in contemporary Gospel studies to overemphasize the differences between the Gospel writers to such an extent that one can no longer see the Gospels as a reliable account of the actual events. 14 For Marshall, 15 and others, 16 however, the Gospel writers (Marshall deals primarily with Luke) are indeed historians, whose writings are historically reliable. 17 Marshall discerns two major currents in contemporary Gospel research: those who subscribe to the historical reliability of the Gospels and those who do not. 18
The Historical Reliability of the Gospels
What has led some to conclude that Acts is historically unreliable? This conclusion has been drawn from an idea contrived by the "Tübingen School" in 19th-century Germany. This school promulgated the hypothesis, among others, that the Book of Acts and the Gospels were not written until the second century. 19 As a result, the distance between the historical facts and the written record of those facts in the Book of Acts (the so-called "time-gap") became so great that it was impossible for the book to contain a historically reliable account of the facts. This has been one of the primary reasons for concluding that Acts is historically unreliable. Another reason will be given below.
The Historical Reliability of Acts
Gasque likewise discerns two currents in contemporary biblical scholarship with respect to Acts. 20 He finds that two recent commentaries on the Book of Acts, those of F. F. Bruce 21 and E. Haenchen, 22 have radically different conclusions on many points, in particular the matter of the historical reliability of the book. 23 According to Haenchen, Acts is a theological composition and not a historical work (historiography). The author of Acts, whom Haenchen places in a generation far removed from the time of the apostles, gives an image of early Christianity more as he thought it was, than as it actually was. Luke wrote more in order to do his own preaching than to reproduce the preaching of the apostles. Furthermore by telling the story of early Christianity in this way, he not only twisted the historical facts, but also added his own material as it suited his interests.
Consequently very little in the Book of Acts gives a historically reliable picture of early Christianity. 24
According to Bruce, however, the two books by Luke are actually two parts of one continuous historical work that relates the history of Christianity from its origin in the time of John the Baptist until about the year A.D. 60. Luke was trained in the strict traditions of Greek historiography, according to Bruce. Luke had access to various outstanding sources for facts relating to the events he recorded, and he was also personally present at some of them. 25 So Luke's writings are characterized by great precision in historical detail (e.g., Luke's record of the titles of Roman officials). 26
Bruce contends that it even can be demonstrated that some of Luke's sources are based on notes taken while the Lord Jesus was speaking to the people. 27 In Luke and Acts the reports of eyewitnesses are often included. The first preachers of the gospel were aware of the value of firsthand witnesses, and they appealed to them whenever possible. Moreover, it was certainly not as easy as some authors seem to think to invent words and deeds of the Lord Jesus in those days when so many of His disciples were still alive and could easily remember what did and did not happen. Also the first Christians made a distinction between what Jesus had said and what they themselves thought or felt (e.g., 1 Cor. 7:25). 28 Furthermore the disciples could not risk inaccuracies, not to mention intentional distortions of the facts, because they would immediately have been unmasked by those who were more than happy to discredit the Christian faith (the so-called "ill-disposed witnesses"). 29
The Roots of the Two Traditions
How can two internationally renowned scholars such as Bruce and Haenchen come to such radically different conclusions? Simply stated, they represent two totally different scholarly traditions. Page 63 They build on two totally different foundations and therefore come to radically different conclusions. 30 What are the roots of the two divergent traditions?
With the coming of the Enlightenment, people began to reject the historic Christian faith (also known as historic Christian orthodoxy) and with it, the divine revelation, the written Word of God. 31 At that time theologians saw the ideas of the Enlightenment as clearly anti-Christian and utterly incompatible with the Christian faith. But gradually, by the end of the 18th century, the ideas of the Enlightenment began to gain ground among the theologians. Not until the 19th century, however, did the ideas of the Enlightenment become influential.
From about the middle of the 19th century on, two currents of biblical scholarship arose, one from out of Christian orthodoxy, and the other in reaction against it. 32 Apparently those two currents clearly continue to this very day. 33
Haenchen's commentary clearly represents the antiorthodox current and has its roots in the work of F. C. Baur (1792-1860) and the so-called "Tübingen School." Baur, a fervent disciple of Hegel, was an influential theologian and his thought still exercises great influence in German biblical scholarship. He is even called the father of historical criticism.
Baur's foremost point (next to his dating of the Gospels and Acts in the second century; see note 19) is his observation that early Christianity in the time of the New Testament showed no unity. He said it was divided into two conflicting parties; the Petrine party (the Jewish party) and the Pauline party (the Gentile party). 34 This division between the Petrine and Pauline Christianity (between Jewish and Gentile Christians) is a fundamental presupposition of the Tübingen School with respect to Acts. That view is as follows: the writer of Acts was a Paulinist who desired to reconcile the Pauline party with the Petrine party through his book. In his writing he veiled as much as possible the difference between the two parties. This means therefore that the writer of Acts was not totally honest with respect to the facts. 35
Baur's influence has become great because he gathered around himself a small group of loyal and fervent disciples. The disciples who propagated and elaborated Baur's thought were Friedrich Strauss and Albrecht Ritschl. The heritage of Baur and his school is thus the undervaluation of the historical reliability of the Book of Acts as a source of information for the origin of the first churches. 36
Over against the commentary of Haenchen stands the commentary of F. F. Bruce, who represents the Christian-orthodox current and has his roots in English New Testament scholarship, with representatives such as J. B. Lightfoot (1818-89), B. F. Westcott (1825-1901), and F. J. A. Hort (1828-92), and from a later period Sir William M. Ramsay (1851-1939).
Two differences between German and English biblical studies are evident: (1) English biblical scholarship has seldom been antiorthodox in its orientation, in contrast to the Tübingen School and the current Bultmannian school. (2) English biblical scholarship has been more historically oriented (i.e., with emphasis on the classical languages, history, and archaeology) than theologically oriented. In contrast to Baur and his disciples in Germany, Lightfoot and his colleagues Westcott and Hort were trained in classical languages and history instead of in speculative philosophy and theology. 37 When Ramsay, the founder of classical archaeology in Great Britain, somewhat later (in the late 1870s) began intensive archaeological investigations, he was convinced of the accuracy of the Tübingen theories. But he was gradually forced to change his mind under the weight of the evidence yielded by the facts he discovered in the course of his investigations.
38 Ramsay came to the conclusion that Luke was a first-class historiographer and an authority on the topography, history, and society of the Asia Minor of his day. 39 In 1874 an anonymous book appeared in England 40 which, in line with the Tübingen School, challenged the historical reliability of Acts. Lightfoot took pen in hand and wrote a book 41 in which he fundamentally attacked the vision of the Tübingen School. With his many other works (commentaries on the letters of Paul and on the Apostolic Fathers), 42 he demonstrated clearly that the Tübingen reconstruction of early Christianity was only a "castle built in the sky, without any foundation in historical research." 43 In two essays Lightfoot demonstrated that Luke worked precisely with respect to the historical details. 44 Because of the work of Lightfoot, the ideas of the Tübingen School never gained supremacy in English biblical scholarship.
45 The inheritance of Lightfoot has certainly had just as much influence (if not more, at least in the Anglo-Saxon world) in Page 66 New Testament scholarship as that of Baur. 46 As far as English biblical scholarship is concerned, Lightfoot established a tradition in New Testament studies that does the following: 47
1. Combines literary criticism with honest historical research, that is,the study of classical languages, history, archaeology, and so on.
2. Emphasizes exegesis and the writing of precise commentaries rather than speculative reconstructions of supposed historical backgrounds.
3. Does not reject very easily the traditional viewpoints (i.e., ecclesiastical tradition passed down through the centuries) or rashly introduce all kinds of new hypotheses.
4. Assumes that faith and scholarship must not be separated. 48recognizes an essential unity of conviction in the apostolic church (the first Christian churches).
6. Accepts the fundamental historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles as a source of information for the earliest developments in the apostolic church.
Are the conspicuous differences between German and English biblical scholarship only a question of a difference in scholarly views? Is it perhaps only a difference between the German "Gründlichkeit" Page 67 (thoroughness) and the Anglo-Saxon pragmatism? Or is there something more behind it? Is biblical scholarship perhaps not as neutral as some have suggested? 49
A "religious antithesis" is revealed in this question of historical reliability. This antithesis is the conflict between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of Satan. 50 This conflict is seen above all in biblical scholarship. This conflict was one of the reasons Abraham Kuyper established the Free University--free from the "fatigue of the antithesis" and free from state and church. 51 Kuyper signaled then, just as Gasque does now, the negative influence of German theology(Kuyper saw in the "ethische" theology above all the negative influence of Schleiermacher and his German Vermittlungstheologie). 52 Kuyper saw rebirth (palingenesis) as decisive for the practice of scholarship: this brings division--believing scholarship stands absolutely opposed to unbelieving scholarship. 53 Page 68 This religious antithesis, which reveals itself in a struggle between believing and unbelieving scholarship, always centers on the question of the view of Scripture.
This struggle centers specifically on the question of the relationship between the Scriptures and the function of human intellect, 54 between Scripture and natural science in general, and especially between the Bible and biblical scholarship. This religious antithesis is seen in the New Testament in the Lord Jesus over against the scribes and Pharisees, Paul and other apostles over against the false teachers, and in church history in the teachers of the church (e.g., Augustine) over against the heretics (e.g., Pelagius).
Views on Historiography
Another reason many scholars no longer regard Luke (and therefore the other Evangelists as well) as an objective historian, is the modern view of historiography. 55 This view has its roots in a development in philosophy called the "New Hermeneutic." 56 This "New Hermeneutic" has also forced its way from philosophy into biblical scholarship. Rudolf Bultmann, follower of the existentialist philosopher Martin Heidegger, 57 is closely associated with this development in biblical scholarship. 58 According to this philosopher, Page 69 the knowing subject cannot be separated from the known object. Therefore a hermeneutical circle is also spoken of. 59 This entails that there is constant reciprocal influence between the subject and the object. In contrast to traditional hermeneutics, the subject cannot objectively observe the object from a distance. For modern historiography this means that the historian can never give an objective description of events.
Historiography then is not an investigation of objective facts, but an expression of the subjective impressions of the historian. 60 The historian, as "knowing subject," cannot objectively observe the historical facts, the known object. There is therefore a distinction made in modern historiography between the fact "an sich" (in itself), and the fact interpreted and described by the historian. Marshall calls this the difference between "event" and "fact."
61 Therefore in that view no absolute reliability can be claimed for the work of any historian. 62 This presupposition of modern historical science is then projected onto Luke the historian. 63 Luke could therefore never have been an objective historian, according to these presuppositions. However, according to Marshall, these presuppositions of modern historical science are grossly exaggerated. It is wrong, he suggests, to posit that objective historiography is an unachievable ideal. 64 Furthermore it is better to compare Luke as historian with historians Page 70 from his own time than to measure him by the standards of modern historical science.
It is striking that in writing his two books, Luke used a literary pattern available in his time. 65 Luke's goal was to write a history according to the standards of his time. 66 Examining the prologue of the Gospel of Luke, it is evident that Luke carefully went about his work as a historian: 67 "Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me 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 1:3-4, NIV). His goal was to construct a reliable historical account. 68 Historiography in that time was often nothing other than rhetoric. And the historical facts and circumstances were not always handled carefully. 69 Writers at that time desired to give their readers the pleasure of reading a pleasant story.
70 Josephus was an exception to this and he therefore doubted the reliability of the Greek historiographers. 71 According to van Unnik, Luke was not only a reliable, objective historian, which is clear from his striking agreements with the historiography of Josephus, 72 but Luke was also concerned with the infallibility of the facts. Luke wanted to describe the development of early Christianity. But he wanted above all to eliminate doubt as to the accuracy of the things that had been fulfilled, that is, the saving work of Christ, and desired to give assurance to Theophilus and his other readers regarding events Page 71 in Christ's life.
73 Marshall suggests that Luke's historiography must be compared not only with that of the Greek historiographers of that time and with Josephus, but also with the Septuagint and the historiography of the Old Testament. 74 A characteristic of the historiography of the Old Testament is that the Lord guides history. Leaning heavily on the Old Testament, Luke indicated that God has a plan and that He intervenes directly in history by His acts. By writing his Gospel, Luke wanted to link up to this plan of God for humanity. 75 Luke wrote under the leading of the Holy Spirit and therefore his two books were inspired by God's Spirit.
Marshall and van Unnik both point to the fact that Luke and the other Gospel writers as well, in addition to being historians, were above all evangelists. They wrote in such a way that their hearers and readers would accept Jesus Christ as their Savior. This is their ultimate purpose, which can still be easily seen in their Gospels.
Copyright 1997 by Dallas Theological Seminary and Galaxie Software
1 I. Howard Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1984).
2 Ibid., p. 34. This is the view of Bultmann: "To make faith dependent upon history would be to destroy the character of faith as faith and to substitute fallible knowledge for it." To this Marshall answers, "Basically this approach does not do justice to the biblical idea of faith. Such faith is rooted in the historical" (ibid., p. 34, italics added; see also pp. 18, 30-37, 46, 50). "History is not irrelevant to faith, but historical statements form part of the substance of faith" (ibid., p. 37). Concerning the dominant influence of existential theology Lindeboom writes, "As is perhaps already known, the actual foundation of this theology is formed by the conviction that the stories of the Bible are not important because of the facts which they record, but only because of the edification, the record of faith, and the like, which they provide" (A. M. Lindeboom, In het uur van bezinning, vol. 1: Geestelijk arm ["Spiritually Poor"] [Buijten and Schipperheijn, 1972], p. 41). All translations in this article are those of John William Medendorp unless otherwise indicated in the bibliographical information. Even Karl Barth did not wish to base faith on specific historical events: "Barth himself formulates the problem as follows: Is not the binding of faith to specific events in history the denial of the essence of faith?" (M. de Jonge, Jezus, inspirator en spelbreker [Nijkerk: Callenbach, 1971], p. 33).
3 T. Baarda, De betrouwbaarheid van de Evangeli‘n ("The Reliability of the Gospels") (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1969), p. 50. "The one who spoke and did signs then and there, is present for the church here and now through preaching. He is not to be locked up somewhere in history any more than in the grave" (ibid., p. 52). It is clear that Baarda completely follows the Bultmannian line. As Bultmann says, "Christ continues to live in the human spirit through preaching" (Rudolf Bultmann, Theologie des Neuen Testaments [T ü bingen: J. C. B. Mohr, 1953], p. 7, and "The Primitive Christian Kerygma and the Historical Jesus," in Carl E. Braaten and Roy A. Harrisville, eds., The Historical Jesus and the Kerygmatic Christ [New York: Abingdon Press, 1964], p. 42).
4 Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, p. 34.
5 "Faith is dependent on historical facts" (ibid., p. 46); "biblical faith is based upon history" (ibid., p. 37); "Pannenberg's basic contention remains inviolate: the contemporary believer must go back to history, even if it is biblical history, if he is to find the basis for his faith" (ibid., p. 36, italics added).
6 "Luke was a historian because he was first and foremost an Evangelist: he knew that the faith which he wished to proclaim stands or falls with the history of Jesus and the early church" (ibid., p. 52, italics added).
7 "The main task of the witnesses was to affirm the reality of the resurrection" (ibid., p. 43; cf. pp. 42, 50).
8 "And if it should be the case that all historical evidence was against these two facts [crucifixion and resurrection], then faith would be reduced to obstinate and irrational fantasy" (ibid., p. 46).
9 F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 5th ed. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1960), p. 8. If Christians do not defend the historical reliability of the writings of the New Testament, unbelievers have again even more means with which to suppress the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18).
10 See, for example, Baarda, De betrouwbaarheid van de Evangeli‘n, pp. 8-43.
11 A good example of this is the antithesis between evolutionists and creationists. They have the same facts available to them, but they place them within a totally different scientific framework. A good book on the nature and status of science and its method is that of A. F. Chalmers, What Is This Thing Called Science? (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1976).
12 Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, p. 13. See also J. van Bruggen, Christus op aarde (Kampen: J. H. Kok, 1987), pp. 68-69, 71-72.In this same line De Jonge wrote, "The storytellers and gospel writers who gathered, redacted, and merged them into gospels, tried to let Jesus himself speak, but in rendering his words and deeds their own reactions played a role in their rendering. . . . In doing so they composed their own gospel, no matter how much they also tried to give the good news concerning Jesus. . . . We must also take into account that much has been added, left out, or adapted to the situation in which the story functioned [the so-called 'Sitz im Leben']" ( Jezus, inspirator en spelbreker, p. 61).
13 "I do indeed think that we can know almost nothing concerning the life and personality of Jesus, since the early Christian sources show no interest in either, are moreover fragmentary and often legendary; and other sources about Jesus do not exist" (Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus and the Word, trans. Louise Pettibone Smith and Erminie Huntress Lantero [New York: Charles Scribner, 1958]), p. 8.
Baarda wrote, "Yet when we examine the words of or about Jesus in the gospels, once again the result is not very favorable for the reliability of the tradition" ( De betrouwbaarheid van de Evangeli‘n, p. 34). "But it is indeed obvious that historical research does not and cannot give a clear picture of Jesus. The number of 'facts' in the quest for the historical Jesus is reduced to a minimum" (ibid., p. 49).
"The real Jesus does not allow himself to be reconstructed through historical data. These historical details can no longer give us Jesus as he was" (ibid., p. 50). "All these examples show us clearly that we cannot speak of historical reliability in the orthodox sense of the word" (ibid., p. 83). "Nor was Luke in any position to be an objective observing historian. He was too closely involved in the preaching of the Community for that" (ibid., p. 86). In contrast to this view is that of W. C. van Unnik, Baarda's predecessor in Utrecht: "By ancient criteria there was no objection to calling a two-part work by Luke, a history. . . . Luke wanted to bring to light theasfavleia [the reliability] tw'n lovgwn and be of service to those lovgoi. . . He himself investigated meticulously in accordance with the rule of Thucydides. . . . One fact is, however, noteworthy; Luke d --- make use of the word alhvqeia, but instead prefers asfavleia. This gives a different character to his preface. The 'truth' had already been expounded by his predecessors (vv. 1-2) but he was concerned with the 'infallability' of the facts" ("Remarks on the Purpose of Luke's Historical Writing (Luke 1:1-4)," in Sparsa Collecta: The Collected Essays of W. C. van Unnik, vol. 1 [Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1973], p. 13). He continues, "Thus it is a feature of the asfavleia that it gives certainty to that which is generally accepted and recognized. . . . Also in Acts 21:24; 22:30; 25:26 where toV asfalev" is used, the word counterbalances and compensates for all kinds of conflicting statements and doubts as that which alone is completely dependable. Cadbury and Klostermann have quoted parallels from some papyri, which demonstrate clearly that the word conveys the antithesis to unreliable gossip, rumour and doubt.
This is very much to the point. Luke does not only want to preach, describe the development of Christendom or write a vindication of the Christians; he wants to remove doubt about the exactitude of tw'/n peplhroforhmevnwn, Christ's work of salvation and bring to Theophilus and other readers, the complete certainty" (ibid., p. 14).
14 "The writings of Luke have well been described by W. C. van Unnik as the storm center of contemporary New Testament study" (Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, p. 9). Also see van Unnik, "Luke-Acts: A Storm Center in Contemporary Scholarship," in L. E. Keck and J. L. Martyn, eds., Studies in Luke-Acts (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1966). "What can we know of the ministry and teaching of Jesus? Can we reconstruct the preaching and life of the early church? . . . And what is the historical place of Luke? Is he the faithful reporter of early traditions or is he refashioning the story of Christian origins in order to justify the early catholicism thought to be typical of his own era in the subapostolic church?" (Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, p. 13).
15 "At the beginning of our study in Chapter 3 we produced evidence that suggested Luke's general reliability as an historian. . . . So far as we can tell, the Lucan portrayal of Jesus is historical" (ibid., pp. 217-18).
16 E.g., van Unnik, F. F. Bruce, and van Bruggen. "Here [in the Gospels] there is no closed collection of sources, but an account of the facts offered about a beginning. . . . The intention of the Gospel writers was to relate a history which is just as real as the history of the church in which the readers see themselves included through the preaching of the Gospel. . . . Our conclusion with respect to the character of the Gospels must indeed be that they wish to be read by all believers and by all others as a reliable report of the beginning of Jesus' work as the incarnate Son of God" (Jakob van Bruggen, Christus op aarde ["Christ on Earth"], p. 71). "It was not the disciples' faith that created the stories of the resurrection, it was an event lying behind these stories that created their faith. . . . The fact created the faith" (George E. Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1974], p. 320).
17 Van Bruggen says that though the Jewish Sanhedrin had "prophecy and fact, and everything at their direct disposal (in those days), yet they buried the facts with a paid lie" ( Christus op aarde, p. 77). Thus, already then, unbelievers who did not want to believe in Him tried to bury the truth.
18 Marshall, Luke: Historian and Theologian, pp. 14-15. Either the Gospel writers speak the historical truth or they consciously falsify it"(van Bruggen, Christus op aarde, p. 66). 19 "About the middle of the last century it was confidently asserted by a very influential school of thought that some of the most important books of the New Testament, including the Gospels and the Acts, did not exist before the thirties of the second century AD. This conclusion was the result not so much of historical evidence a
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