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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Is The Acts of the Apostles Dependent on Josephus?

It seems that no New Testament book is the subject of more attacks on historicity or victimized by more speculative theories than the Acts of the Apostles. Perhaps this is because Luke and Acts are the two books in the New Testament that most come across as historical writings. This is apparent not only from the preface, but the subject matter. The author of Luke-Acts engages the wider Jewish and Roman world more than any other New Testament writer. This is true especially of Acts, where the author refers to broader Jewish history, wide travels throughout the Roman world, and refers again and again to Roman/Jewish rulers, customs, locations, legal process, and political facts. And it does so with enough accuracy to prompt figures such as the eminent classical historian A.N. Sherwin-White to state that "[a]ny attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd. Roman historians have long taken it for granted." Roman Law and Roman Society in the New Testament, page 189.

Obviously, secuvangelist skeptics cannot let this attitude towards Acts stand--too damaging to theories like the Jesus Myth and too confirming of traditional Christianity. So one theory many have latched onto is the notion that much of Acts' apparent knowledge of Jewish history in particular is explained by the notion that Acts copied Josephus' writings, including Antiquities. A Jewish historian, Josephus completed Antiquities around 92 CE (though writing began much earlier). It is an extensive history of the Jewish people, up to an including the Jewish Revolt and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. He also wrote Jewish Wars, a history of Jewish wars, about 20 years earlier.

In and of itself there is nothing troubling about one ancient historian using the work of another. Using good sources is the mark of a good historian, not a bad one. But the secuvangelists do not think Acts used Josephus to write good history. They believe he used him to create a largely fictitious narrative colored with historical tidbits gleaned from Josephus. They also argue that Acts must have been written later than most scholars accept (62-85 AD) because he relied on Antiquities.

It should be noted how lonely are these claimants. There is a broad scholarly consensus against Acts' dependence on Josephus. Even a leading liberal scholar has pronounced that "[t]he dependence of Acts upon Josephus has rightly been given up." F.B. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, page 132. See also E. Earle Ellis, The Gospel of Luke, page 55 ("The argument that Luke used the historian, Josephus (AD 93), was never fully convincing.... Today it is seldom pressed."). The only modern scholar of note who still advances this argument is Steve Mason, Josephus and the New Testament.

Online, however, the story is different. Secuvangelist Richard Carrier has concluded that Luke did use Antiquities and takes the implications of that conclusion far beyond Mason. In his conclusion, Carrier claims that "almost" every noteworthy person or event in Acts is explained by dependence on Antiquities and therefore the author "simply cut and paste" his own narrative onto this overlay "in order to give his story an air of authenticity and realism." (Ironically, as I hope to explain more at a later date, the more forecfully Carrier presses his sweeping conclusion, the more he undercuts Mason's argument). However, Carrier goes much too far even if his basic premise is granted. Acts demonstrates accurate knowledge about many details not found in Antiquities but confirmed by other ancient writers and archeology. Nor is historical fiction a proper genre classification of Acts. Acts was written largely according to the conventions of ancient historiography (i.e., writing history according to the standards of his day). It is not ancient fiction. In any event, J.P. Holding of the Tektonics apologist site has recently penned a rebuttal to Carrier, which is worth a look.

Peter Kirby has commented on this exchange over at his blog, but seems uncommitted due to a lack of sufficient evidence. You can catch a preview of my response to Carrier and Mason there by reading my response to Kirby's post. For now, though, I want to begin the discussion on this blog by noting the initial reasons that the rest of contemporary scholarship has rejected the notion that Acts relied on Josephus. (A fuller response to Mason and Carrier is in the works and will either appear in an article over at or piecemeal here--or both).

First, "[t]here is no evidence for direct literary relationship between them." F.B. Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament, page 132. Discussing the usual passages used to support dependence, Polhill notes that "[n]one of these passages [] shows the least literary dependence on Josephus; and at most they reflect commonly known Jewish events." John B. Polhill, The New American Commentary, Acts, page 30. Although it is true that the author of Luke-Acts refines his sources and smooths out the Greek in his own style, it is also true that his dependence on Mark and Q (or Matthew) are easily and indisputably apparent. The lack of any direct literary relationship is a heavy blow to the argument for dependence.

Second, given the lack of literary dependence there is no need to presume that Josephus was the only source of information from which Acts could have obtained his information. The subject matter that the two have in common was not unique. As admitted by one of the few proponents of Lucan dependence, although few other accounts of Jewish history have survived to this day, there were many others that survived to as late as the ninth century. Mason, op. cit., page 13. Further, most of the subject matter the two share is about notable events that would have been widely known by Jews of the time. That Acts had available other sources of information is confirmed. Acts demonstrates a vast amount of accurate knowledge about Jewish and Gentile history, politics, geography, and religion that is independent of Josephus.

Third, the points of contact that are typically used to argue dependence are actually so different that they defeat the argument. "They are surely independent, and follow independent, indeed conflicting, sources." Colin Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, pages 372-73. For example, Acts and Josephus appear to disagree over when the rebel figure of Theudas was active, though it is by no means obvious that Josephus is right and the author of Acts wrong. In another disagreement about another rebel figure -- the "Egyptian" -- Josephus puts the number of rebels at 30,000, whereas the author of Acts uses the much more likely number of 4,000. So it appears not only that the author of Acts had information independent of Josephus, but better information. This too counts against dependence.

Thus, the absence of literary evidence of dependence, the divergent nature of the points of contact, and the general availability of the information recounted by both authors (and Acts' awareness of other historical information gained from other sources) have convinced almost all scholars that Acts did not use Antiquities as a source.

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