Lecture 2: Acts - Sources | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 2: Acts - Sources

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Acts: Sources

Let’s talk next about the sources of Acts. Where did this information and material come from for the author of the Book of Acts? One area where the material came from was from the “we” sections. In the “we” sections, he didn’t have to get any source; he was there. He could have written from his own eye witness experience. So in the Book of Acts, some of this material came from Luke’s personal eye witness of that.

But there are a lot of incidents where he was not present. He was not present at Paul’s conversion; he was not present at Pentecost; and so forth. How did he get this? Did he just make up stories? Well, remember the author had contact with Paul. Do you think that somebody who accompanied Paul for many, many months and years might have heard how he was converted once? He would get this material from Paul, so Paul would have been a source. In Chapter 21:8, in one of these “we” sections, we read that the “we” party comes to the home of Philip: “On the morrow we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the Evangelist, who was one of The Seven, and stayed with him.” Well, he has a natural historical interest, and he has looked at all these things from the beginning. He would have asked Philip and would have learned about the choosing of The Seven to assist in the offering, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. He knows Philip, and he could have heard that material from Philip himself. In 21:17, “And when we had come to Jerusalem the brethren received us.” So now he has access to the leaders of the church in Jerusalem, and to the information available there; and to Pentecost, what happened there – he has access to these accounts. When Luke was in Jerusalem for months, what did he do? If he talked to the people in the church, did he simply talk about the weather, or would he have talked about the things that had happened? And he has an interest in historical issues, so he has access to the Jerusalem materials.

Tradition also associates Luke with the city of Antioch, and we have material from the Antioch church in the Book of Acts as well. So we have his personal contacts with leaders of the church which would have provided all sorts of information in that regard. There also seems to be a possibility that he knew John Mark. In Acts 12:12 he says something about the church in Jerusalem. He says, “When Peter realized that he had been freed from his imprisonment, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying.” He makes a specific reference to the church in Jerusalem meeting in the home of Mary, and mentions that she’s the mother of John Mark, suggesting that he knew John Mark, and maybe he had access to his [i.e., Mark’s] Gospel when he wrote his [i.e., Luke’s].

Now as a historian, Luke has good credentials. In the opening prologue of Luke, Luke writes in a way that any ancient historian would have been proud to write. “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eye witnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.” Now any historian would say that the man claims to be writing carefully, he used sources, he’s had contact with the eye witnesses, he writes carefully, he writes ‘so that you may know the truth of these things’, he’s making claims to be a good historian. And, when the Book of Acts begins, he carefully outlines what he has written in the Book of Luke, as I read already: “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up from us.” That’s exactly what the Book of Luke is about.

When we get to look at the Book of Acts, we find a number of interesting things. For instance, we find that this man has a broad range of geography (he mentions 32 different countries in the Book of Acts; he mentions 54 different cities; 9 different islands). The man must be knowledgeable. Some 95 different people are mentioned. And when he mentions various people, he uses different names and titles to describe them. For instance, some are called chief magistrates, city officials, proconsuls, magistrates, rod-bearers, asiarchs, town clerks, chief men, governors, tribunes – various titles. In the 17th Chapter of the Book of Acts, the title “polytarch” is used to describe the rulers of a particular city. This is in verse 6, and takes place in Thessalonica: ”And when they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some of the brethren before the city officials ….” The Greek word here is “…before the polytarchs”. Up to the early part of the 20th century, no such title had ever been found in all the literature. No one had ever heard of a polytarch. And people made fun of this, and said that Luke was simply making up a title for some people here. When the 20th century came, they discovered an archaeological fragment of a monument, in which it refers to the polytarchs of Thessalonica. Now how does someone like Luke know that the specific title (an unusual title) of the town officials in Thessalonica were the title “polytarchs”? Well, he was an eye witness, and he’s a good historian.

When I was doing my doctoral work, I lived in the city of Freehold, New Jersey. If someone said, “I know that city. My dad and I lived there with my family for several years,” I probably would believe him. But if he said, “Not only that, my father was a Freeholder,” then I knew he lived there, because the council members of the people of Freehold were called Freeholders. To know that, you have to be from Freehold. To know that the officials in Thessalonica are “polytarchs”, you’d have to be one who was there.

The navigational description in Acts 27 is described by some as the best navigational description of sailing in the first century found anywhere in literature. Accurate formed, describing to us about the attempt to save the ship, how they tried to protect that way, how they tried to bring a kind of calm by pouring oil in the water and so forth, very, very careful.

So William Ramsay was a New Testament scholar who sought to demonstrate as his dissertation, his doctoral work, that the author of Luke/Acts could not have been someone who lived in the 1st century, but had to be a 2d century person. Because, he argued, the Gospel and the Book of Acts were written in the middle of the 2d century, in about 150 AD. And he said he would demonstrate this by going to Asia Minor, (to Turkey ) and tracing the description of journeys that we have here and test these out with regard to the archaeological evidence. And so he did, and notice that he starts out with a negative bias. He wants to prove that Luke could not have written Luke/Acts. It had to have been written by somebody removed 100 years from the events, and he would demonstrate this by the inaccuracy of the material we find in the Book of Acts.

What happened, however, was that as he began to study the material, he became convinced of the accuracy of the Book of Acts -- that it was written by Luke, an eye witness, in the 1st century. And so William Ramsay turned around from being one who questioned and doubted the material, to one who became an advocate of Lucan authorship, and of the historical reliability of the material. So the Book of Acts is good material, helpful material that is useful for understanding the life of the early church, and we have good evidence for that in the life of Sir William Ramsay.

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