Is Luke a Trustworthy Historian?
Archaeologist William Ramsay's personal account of why he abandoned his earlier radical views and came to regard Luke as one of the greatest historians who ever lived.
In 1915, Sir William M. Ramsay wrote a book titled, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament in which he explains that, though he initially believed the book of Acts was a late second-century document of little or no historical value, over time he was forced to abandon this view because of the evidence he encountered throughout the course of his career as an archaeologist working in Asia Minor. The text below is an abridgment of material taken primarily from Ramsay’s introductory chapters. If you would like to read his book in its entirety, you can find it here.
The following pages [present] the gist of what I had learned in the struggle of life and the study of books.1 The work that marked itself out for me in Asia Minor was to study the art, history, and antiquities of the country. Everything that fell between the dawn of history and the final conquest by the Turks lay within my period…2 New Testament subjects did not enter [into my field of vision when I first began my work]. It was generally understood at that time, in 1880 and the years immediately following, that these fell under the heading of “Religion,” and should be kept apart from the kind of historical study on which I was engaged. Everything in the department of “Religion” ought to be reserved for theologians, and mere scholars kept aloof from it.
In 1880-1883 I considered the time almost lost that was spent in copying Christian inscriptions; they were outside my province, and while a sense of duty made me take copies of them, yet I grudged the moments thus spent…This naturally produced a prejudice against the whole class; but in the progress of discovery, new groups of Christian inscriptions gave a different character to the subject,3 and many were found of the highest historical and religious importance.
Among other old books that described journeys in Asia Minor, the Acts of the Apostles had to be read anew. I began to do so without expecting any information of value regarding the condition of Asia Minor at the time when Paul was living. I had read a good deal of modern criticism about the book, and dutifully accepted the current4 opinion that it was written during the second half of the second century by an author who wished to influence the minds of people in his own time by a highly wrought and imaginative description of the early Church. His object was not to present a trustworthy picture of facts in the period about A.D. 50, but to produce a certain effect on his own time by setting forth a carefully colored account of events and persons of that older period. He wrote for his contemporaries, not for truth. He cared naught for geographical or historical surroundings of the period A.D. 30 to 60. He thought only of the period A.D. 160-180, and how he might paint the heroes of old time in situations that should touch the conscience of his contemporaries. Antiquarian or geographical truth was less than valueless in a design like this: one who thought of such things was distracting his attention from the things that really mattered, the things that would move the minds of men in the second century.
Such was the commonly accepted view in the critical school about 1870 to 1880, when I had been studying modern opinions. It is now utterly antiquated. There is not one point in it that is accepted. Everything is changed or discarded. But about 1880 to 1890 the book of Acts was regarded as the weakest part of the New Testament. No one that had any regard for his reputation as a scholar cared to say a word in its defense. The most conservative of theological scholars, as a rule, thought the wisest plan of defense for the New Testament as a whole was to say as little as possible about Acts.
I began then to study Acts in search of geographical and antiquarian evidence, hardly expecting to find any, but convinced that, if there were any, it would bear on the condition of Asia Minor in the time when the writer lived.5 If he knew the country at first-hand, the knowledge might show itself in his narrative; but any knowledge that might appear would be what the writer knew by experience: he would not dream of spending energy on revivifying forgotten details of long-past history and antiquities.
The first thing that made me begin to doubt the judgment which I had formed, or rather, had accepted from others, about the late origin of “the Acts of the Apostles” was a discovery regarding the geographical statement in Acts 14:5, “They fled (from Iconium) to the cities of Lycaonia and the surrounding region.” In these words it is implied that Paul and Barnabas fled over a frontier into Lycaonia, i.e. the border of Lycaonia lay between Iconium and Lystra, and Iconium was not in the country called Lycaonia. This piece of information is purely a matter of geography; it has no bearing on religion and on the Church questions of the second century. It is technical, narrow, and in a sense external to the narrative, which as one might think would run equally well although this detail were absent. As the point is a technical one, it needs some technical explanation, which leads us amid the minutiae of Anatolian topography; but here at least the soil, though dry, offers firm footing, when one takes the trouble to get hold of the fact.6
The evidence of Cicero, who visited Iconium, seemed clear. He speaks of Iconium as being in Lycaonia almost exactly a century before Paul visited it. Some other authorities agree, but the testimony of one witness like Cicero seemed sufficient. Then to speak of fleeing from Iconium into Lycaonia, when we take Iconium as the chief city of Lycaonia, is as if one were to speak of going from Richmond into Virginia, or from London to England. The expression does not ring true. Suppose a tramp came to ask for help and told a pitiable story of his sufferings at the hands of an infuriated crowd of rioters in Chicago, and said that he had barely succeeded in boarding a freight train and getting away into the State of Illinois, you would feel at once that he was inventing a story, and that he never had7 been in that part of the world, or he would know that Chicago was itself in Illinois; and you would conclude that his story as a whole was false, because he was evidently inventing the story of the train; and you would probably dismiss him as an impostor.
Just in the same way it was understood that this detail of the journey of Paul and Barnabas was deliberately invented by the writer (who was under a false impression about the situation of Iconium and the frontier) with the intention of imparting to the story plausibility…I adopted this argument from others, but I made it my own by believing it and judging it accordingly. We are all equally condemned for bad critical method and wrong judgment.
It seemed, therefore, to others and to myself then, that the author of Acts…had attempted to impart the semblance of local exactitude to a story which he was writing up: he had not before him any narrative of the facts resting on real personal acquaintance: yet he does assume the show of first-hand knowledge. He sometimes uses the first person, as if he had been present at certain incidents of the history. He does, beyond all question, convey the impression that his story depends throughout on the very best and most unimpeachable evidence.
Here in Acts 14:5, we have a test case: at this point, it seemed to me, when I began this study of Anatolian geography, that the story had been proved to ring false. The author of the book imparts a piece of topographical information incidentally, as his narrative hurries on; but the information is false.8
The first perception of the truth came from…Justin Martyr. Justin was tried with several other Christians at Rome in A.D. 163. One of these, a slave named Hierax, when asked who his parents were, replied: “My earthly parents are dead; and I have been brought here (a slave) torn away from Iconium of Phrygia.”…This evidence supports and confirms Luke: Iconium was not in Lycaonia, and Paul, when going to Lystra, crossed the frontier into Lycaonia. There is abundant testimony to the same effect…9 It remains, therefore, plain and certain that the writers of the Imperial time do not as a rule assign Iconium to Lycaonia, and that the most authoritative of them call it a city of Phrygia.10
The inference from these facts, as just stated, was plain. This passage [Acts 14:5] is correct: the boundaries mentioned are true to the period in which the action lies: they are not placed through the mistaken application by a later author of ancient statements to a time when they had ceased to be pertinent: they are based on information given by an eyewitness, a person who had been engaged in the action described. The reader, if he reads the narrative rightly, can see with the eyes and hear with the ears of a man who was there and witnessed all that happened.
The reversal of our judgment, then was complete. We had imagined that this detail was a blunder due to stupidity or ignorance or misplaced ingenuity on the part of the author: it has now been found to show excellent knowledge and the minute accuracy which comes from the faithful report of an eyewitness and participator in the action.
Now the condemnation which, as soon as it was tested in respect of one detail, had been proved hasty and false, evidently could not be relied on in respect of other details without being tested. Fresh examination of the whole question was needed. The reasons and grounds for our unfavourable judgment regarding the book of Acts11 must be reconsidered. Prejudice must be set aside. Ignorance of the circumstances of every event must so far as possible be replaced by knowledge through fuller study. Every condition had to be revalued. Every point had to be scrutinized again.12
The question among scholars now is with regard to Luke’s credibility as a historian; it is generally conceded that he wrote at a comparatively early date, and had authorities of high character, even where he himself was not an eyewitness. How far can we believe his narrative? The present writer takes the view that Luke's history is unsurpassed in respect of its trustworthiness. At this point we are describing what reasons and arguments changed the mind of one who began under the impression that the history was written long after the events and that it was untrustworthy as a whole.13
When Acts is read from this point of view, as the real travels of real men along roads or overseas, it becomes vivid in the highest degree.14 In many details Luke’s narrative is confirmed by other evidence, some previously known, some more recently discovered. In other details no confirmation is known, but no contradictory evidence exists that will stand investigation; and the supposition of his accuracy ought to be admitted universally, at least as a “working hypothesis.”
One could not but notice that the ordinary non-theological scholars quoted the writings of Luke without hesitation for facts of Roman antiquities. Scholars who aimed simply at collecting facts, and had evidently no bias either for or against him, seemed to regard him as a sufficient authority, whereas the theological scholars, who came with a strong bias on certain issues, looked on him as utterly untrustworthy.
Further study of Acts 13-21 showed that the book could bear the most minute scrutiny as an authority for the facts of the Ægean world, and that it was written with such judgment, skill, art, and perception of truth as to be a model of historical statement. It is marvelously concise and yet marvelously lucid.15
In an earlier period it was possible for scholars with a fixed idea prepossessing their minds to maintain that the action described in those chapters was often improbable, because little corroboration or illustration could be found. Since 1890-1900 that period has come to an end. The comparative dearth of illustrative examples was due solely to want of knowledge, and to the failure to comprehend the real character of the recorded illustrations. Incidents and passages in the previously known documents began to assume a new aspect in the light of recently discovered facts. Everything had to be studied afresh.16
You may press the words of Luke in a degree beyond any other historian’s, and they stand the keenest scrutiny and the hardest treatment, provided always that the critic knows the subject and does not go beyond the limits of science and of justice. Too often, when one reads some foolish criticism, the words of Shakespeare rise in one’s memory, that here is “folly doctor-like controlling skill.”17
This was the way that brought me to the study of Luke and Paul and the New Testament generally, when I found that my prepossessions and preformed opinions were wrong.18 The…discovery of new evidence, partly by others, partly by myself, changed the judgment…of one who had aimed at truth and lived for truth. I [no longer] follow the prevailing tendency of German criticism of the New Testament. It is wrong because it is narrow, and because it judges from erroneous premises and unjustifiable prejudices, and one welcomes any signs of a return to a saner and better informed judgment.19
Acts may justly be quoted as a trustworthy historical authority…Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy; he is possessed of the true historic sense…He seizes the important and critical events and shows their true nature at greater length, while he touches lightly or omits entirely much that was valueless for his purpose. In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.20
For Further Study
Can We Trust Luke’s History of the Early Jesus Movement?, Shane Rosenthal
On Faith & History, Shane Rosenthal
How to Detect Deception, Shane Rosenthal
Authenticating the Fourth Gospel, Shane Rosenthal
Authenticating the Book of Acts, featuring Lydia McGrew
What Did The Earliest Christians Believe?, featuring Dennis Johnson
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Sir William M. Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament (Hodder & Stoughton: London 1915), page v.
Ibid., p. 35
Ibid., p. 36
Ibid., p. 37
Ibid., p. 38
Ibid., p. 39
Ibid., p. 40
Ibid., p. 41-42
Ibid., p. 55-56
Ibid., p. 58
Ibid., p. 79
Ibid., p. 80
Ibid., p. 81
Ibid., p. 83
Ibid., p. 85
Ibid., p. 87
Ibid., p. 89
Ibid., p. 31
Ibid., p. ix
Ibid., p. 222