Unjustified Skepticism: The Reliability of Luke’s Testimony

The New Testament contains the most well-attested ancient texts in existence, yet its factual reliability is a matter of high controversy. The predominant reason? The books record supernatural happenings. Skeptics with a pre-commitment to materialism are philosophically compelled to reject any and all testimonies that allege divine activity– miraculous healings, resurrections, and the like. In other words, since the New Testament records such things, the entire collection is suspect and shouldn’t be taken seriously as a compilation of historical documents.

But is this justified? Shouldn’t it be the other way around? If an ancient document withstands the pressures of scholarly scrutiny when it comes to historical details, if there are many early manuscripts still in existence that can be compared with one another and with our modern translations to demonstrate faithful transmission, and if independent facts can place the original writing of the document very close to the events it records, it seems only reasonable that we should at least carefully consider any supernatural happenings described in the text.

The typical rebuttal to this is that our everyday experience doesn’t include supernatural phenomenon and such happenings would violate the laws and regularities of nature. Therefore, supernaturalism is false and the New Testament isn’t reliable. This is a textbook example of begging the question. By definition, a supernatural occurrence is an anomaly; it stands out because it isn’t what we would predict based upon current scientific knowledge. However, that says nothing about whether or not a supernatural event is possible or could have happened in the past. I see no difficulty in the idea that God can work in the natural world either through the laws and regularities He has ordained or by their temporary suspension. To say that our cosmos is a self-contained, closed causal system that is never acted upon from “outside” is to make a philosophical statement, since science cannot, by definition, prove that immaterial, transcendent intervention in the world has never occurred or doesn’t continue to occur, detected or undetected.

My central argument here is that rejecting Scripture based on the fact that it testifies to events inexplicable by the natural sciences isn’t justified. It is reasonable to be open-minded about supernatural content, based on the demonstrable integrity of the remainder of the book.

With all that said, we can consider test cases from the New Testament. I am particularly fascinated by the writings of Luke, which include the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, so I’ll use those for this discussion. (Click here for a bit of background on Dr. Luke.)

Historical Veracity of Luke and Acts

When an ancient historical document is evaluated for accuracy, it is compared with other surviving historical records to check for potential corroboration of the alleged facts. The books of the New Testament are subjected to this scholarly scrutiny and fare quite beautifully. Using Luke’s writings a test case, here are some of the pertinent facts:

1. We know that Acts was written as a sequel to the Gospel of Luke. Therefore, if we can give Acts an early date, it’s reasonable to assign the Gospel of Luke a slightly earlier date.

2. The oldest surviving fragments and manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke and Acts (dating to about 200-250 A.D.) as well as the large numbers of somewhat later manuscripts translated into many languages, give New Testament scholars a high degree of confidence that our best modern translations are faithful to the original autographs (originally penned documents). Don’t let anyone fool you with that ridiculous telephone game argument, which shows complete ignorance of the dynamics of textual transmission and textual criticism.

3. Acts, being a record of the birth of the Church and its early history, is conspicuously silent on major (even earth-shattering) historical events that we have extra-biblical records of. These include: 1) The severe persecution of Christians by the emperor Nero, which began around 64 A.D. This was a gruesome, horrific episode in early Church history, yet Acts doesn’t mention it at all. 2) The Roman-Jewish War, which began in 66 A.D. 3) The fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. It’s absurd to think that the fall of a central city for Christendom would not make it into the first historical account of the Church. 4) The martyrdoms of James (61 A.D.), Paul (64 A.D.), and Peter (66 A.D.) Surely Luke would mention the execution of early Christianity’s key leaders. The best explanation for why Acts of the Apostles is silent on all of these crucial events is that it was written before they occurred, which places the writing of Acts (and by default, Luke) in the mid-first century, A.D. at the latest. This means, of course, that the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written very close to the time of the events they describe. 

4. The Gospel of Luke is accurate on fine historical details. For example, Luke 3:1-2 says, “Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip was tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene”. Now, back in the 19th century, this passage caused scholars to doubt the accuracy of Luke’s gospel, because although there was a ruler in history named Lysanias, he was killed by Mark Antony in 36 B.C., a half-century before the events Luke is referring to. But later, in the very same province near Damascus (in today’s modern Syria), an inscription was discovered that spoke of a tetrarch named Lysanias who was ruling during the time frame precisely consistent with Luke’s account. It is significant that, in addition to the time frame, Luke got both the title and the name of the individual correct.

5. Acts is accurate on fine historical details. For example, Acts 18:11-2 says, “But while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him before the judgment seat.” Note that our best estimate for when Paul arrived in Corinth is based upon the expulsion of the Jews by Claudius in the year 49 A.D. This puts Paul arriving in Corinth sometime around 50 A.D., and then Achaia in 51 A.D. So, what we need to corroborate the veracity of this passage is evidence that Achaia had a proconsul named Gallio in the year of Paul’s trial.

The title of the leader of a province in Rome depended upon whether the province was senatorial or imperial. If it was senatorial, the leader was called a proconsul, but if it was imperial, the leader was called a legate. Achaia went through three different phases. From 27 B.C. to 15 A.D. it was a senatorial province, from 16 A.D. to 44 A.D. it was an imperial province, and then from 44 A.D. onward, it was a senatorial province again. This means that a leader in 51 A.D would indeed have been called a proconsul. What about the name of this proconsul?

gallio

Gallio Inscription at Delphi

Well, in the early 20th century, a limestone inscription (thought to have been attached to the outer wall of the Temple of Apollo) was uncovered in Delphi, Greece. It is a letter from Claudius to the city of Delphi, naming Gallio as the friend of Claudius and proconsul of Achaia. The dating of the inscription (between April and July of 52 A.D.) places the beginning of Gallio’s tenure as proconsul in July of 51 A.D. Luke got it all correct. 

Conclusion

The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are accurate on fine historical details, they were written very soon after the events they describe, and we have a high degree of certainty that the content of the original texts has been reliably transmitted throughout history. At the least, this means that we can trust these books as historical records. As such, it is entirely reasonable to take the supernatural content into serious consideration. In fact, dismissing the books because of their supernatural content isn’t justified. Rejecting the books or just particular portions because of supernatural content shows a philosophical pre-commitment to materialism rather than an objective weighing of the historical evidence.