Luke’s Posi­tion As A Historian

Some Chris­t­ian apol­o­gists and mis­sion­ar­ies cite A. N. Sher­win-White, who declared Luke to be a mar­velous historian.

For Acts the con­fir­ma­tion of his­toric­i­ty is overwhelming…Any attempt to reject its basic his­toric­i­ty must now appear absurd. Roman his­to­ri­ans have long tak­en it for granted.[1]

White sup­ports the accu­ra­cy of Lucan dat­ing of the census.

But what is not men­tioned is the fact that he pro­claims Lucan accu­ra­cy at the expense of Matthew :

A. N. Sherwin-White…has a note about Quirinius in which he main­tains the accu­ra­cy of Luke’s dat­ing of the cen­sus in AD 6 but con­sid­ers Matthew to be incorrect.[2]

So accord­ing to White, Matthew was wrong. Both can­not be cor­rect and White sides with Luke.

But there is anoth­er mat­ter relat­ed to Luke as a his­to­ri­an that should be con­sid­ered here in some detail. Chris­t­ian mis­sion­ar­ies and apol­o­gists often claim that Luke was a remark­able his­to­ri­an when­ev­er the his­toric­i­ty of this gospel is ques­tioned. In order to demon­strate the Gospels ? amaz­ing his­tor­i­cal accu­ra­cy” the apol­o­gists and mis­sion­ar­ies often men­tion the late his­to­ri­an Sir William Ram­sey. Ram­sey is said to be a skep­tic, who sup­pos­ed­ly believed that the Gospels were sec­ond-cen­tu­ry forg­eries and is then said to have spent thir­ty years dig­ging in Asia Minor to dis­prove the Gospels. As the sto­ry goes, he end­ed up admit­ting that the Gospels were first-cen­tu­ry doc­u­ments and that they were his­tor­i­cal­ly reli­able. Sounds like a good sto­ry, but there is no evi­dence to indi­cate that Ram­sey was a skep­tic. On the con­trary, there are good rea­sons to believe that he was always a Bible-believ­ing Chris­t­ian apol­o­gist. Ram­sey stud­ied at Oxford and an inter­est­ing point to note is that back in those days, this uni­ver­si­ty did not accept Bible skep­tics. It was a deeply reli­gious insti­tu­tion where Ram­sey had stud­ied the Old and New Tes­ta­ments. In any case, for the sake of argu­ment, let us assume that Ram­sey was a skep­tic who, at the end of his analy­sis, was trans­formed into a believ­ing Christian.

The argu­ment goes some­thing like this : Ram­sey and a few oth­er his­to­ri­ans have ascer­tained that Luke demon­strates remark­able geo­graph­i­cal accu­ra­cy”, he demon­strates a clear knowl­edge of local cus­toms” and that he presents clear polit­i­cal ideas”. Luke is also said to have referred cor­rect­ly to the provinces” estab­lished dur­ing his time and he refers to dif­fer­ent local offi­cers by their exact titles”. Last­ly, it is claimed that Luke had accu­rate knowl­edge” con­cern­ing var­i­ous local events. All this seems to have impressed a num­ber of con­ser­v­a­tive and evan­gel­i­cal Chris­t­ian schol­ars to a great degree. The Chris­t­ian apol­o­gist Nor­man Giesler declares :

In all, Luke names thir­ty-two coun­tries, fifty-four cities, and nine islands with­out error.[3]

But none of this sug­gests in any­way what­so­ev­er that Luke was inspired” by the Holy Ghost or God. All these prais­es about Luke revolve over ordi­nary mat­ters, mat­ters which we would expect any aware and knowl­edgable per­son to note or record cor­rect­ly. There is noth­ing extra­or­di­nary”, super­nat­ur­al” or remark­able” to know that Luke was able to name the cities accu­rate­ly, that he was able to men­tion the titles of offi­cers, or that he was able to name some coun­tries accu­rate­ly. None of this leads to the con­clu­sion that he was inspired”. We expect a knowl­edgable per­son to at least be aware con­cern­ing such mat­ters. That he was aware regard­ing the polit­i­cal ideas”, local cus­toms”, geog­ra­phy of the region”, titles of offi­cers” and names of coun­tries only sug­gests he was a knowl­edgable indi­vid­ual, aware of his sur­round­ings and events, one who had prob­a­bly trav­elled a lot, but cer­tain­ly not that he was inspired” or that there was some­thing super­nat­ur­al about his writings.

Sup­pose I main­tain a per­son­al diary in which I record the names of cer­tain coun­tries, names of their heads of state, names of var­i­ous cities, their may­ors, local cus­toms of my own coun­try and cer­tain infor­ma­tion per­tain­ing to the polit­i­cal ideas of the times. Then a nuclear war takes place and my area of res­i­dence is destroyed togeth­er with many oth­er places. Even­tu­al­ly, say after a thou­sand years, arche­ol­o­gists uncov­er my diary while doing their dig­gings and study the infor­ma­tion tran­scribed there­in. They do more dig­ging in oth­er areas and find oth­er pieces of infor­ma­tion, books, notes etc., which con­firm the data tran­scribed in my diary. Does this sug­gest that I was inspired” by God ? Or does it mere­ly imply that I was a per­son who was at least aware of the sur­round­ings, cur­rent events and knowl­edgable to some extent ? The lat­er is the most like­ly answer, which will explain the accu­ra­cy of the data with­in my dairy. The accu­ra­cy does not sug­gest that I was inerrant”, let alone inspired”, but this is pre­cise­ly what the apol­o­gists and mis­sion­ar­ies want us to accept when it comes to Luke or any oth­er author of the New Tes­ta­ment. But there is noth­ing amaz­ing”, mag­i­cal”, super­nat­ur­al” or extra­or­di­nary” regard­ing Luke?s accu­ra­cy on cer­tain mat­ters that would lead to the con­clu­sion that he was alleged­ly inspired”.

We know at the same time that despite his so-called remark­able accu­ra­cies”, Luke also com­mit­ted remark­able inac­cu­ra­cies, such as his error of the cen­sus of Quirnius. This proves he was an ordi­nary human being, one who could make both errors and mis­takes and had in fact did. Since the apol­o­gists and mis­sion­ar­ies still insist that Luke was inspired”, per­haps we should ask them to pro­duce extra-bib­li­cal evi­dence to prove the accu­ra­cy of Luke on his extra­or­di­nary claims.

Sure­ly the earth­quake that shook all the doors of the prison, allow­ing Paul and Silas to escape, could not have been missed by oth­ers alive dur­ing that time (Acts 16:25 – 26). How can Luke be sure that Paul did have a vision of Jesus while on the road to Dam­as­cus ? Where is the extra-bib­li­cal evi­dence to prove Paul raised Euty­chus, did no one present in the cham­bers notice and record this alleged event (20:7 – 11)?


[1] A. N. Sher­win-White, Roman Soci­ety and Roman Law in the New Tes­ta­ment, (Claren­don Press, Oxford, 1963), p. 189

[2] Don­ald Guthrie, New Tes­ta­ment Intro­duc­tion : The Gospels And Acts (Inter-Var­si­ty Press, 1966), p. 167

[3] Bak­er Ency­clo­pe­dia of Apolo­get­ics (Bak­er Books : Grand Rapids, MI 1999), p. 47Endmark

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