CADRE Comments

A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Note: Part 1 of this series can be found here. It introduces the data, the problem, and the solution proposed (among a few other people) by Dr. Richard Pervo, most notably in his 2006 edition of Dating Acts.

Recapping the final paragraph from last time...

Dr. Pervo’s thesis is that the order of mention by Gamaliel, first Theudas and then Judas the Galilean, suggests (or, for Dr. P, practically demands) that Luke borrowed this information from Josephus, specifically from Book 20 (written very late, indeed the last book of Antiquities completed before Josephus’ death). The main positive evidence in favor of this thesis (unless Dr. P brings out stronger positive evidence where I haven’t been able to read him yet), is that Josephus happens to mention Judas the Galilean after writing about Theudas the (messianic) “magician”; thus, in a trivially sequential way, first Theudas is mentioned, then Judas the Galilean. Whereas, if Luke was really writing with actual living knowledge of conditions in pre70s Palestine, he would not have put Theudas before JudGal, and certainly would not have put a reference to Theudas at all (much less before JudGal) in the mouth of a character decades prior to the rebellion of Theudas. As Dr. Pervo quips (p.153 of DA), this would be like Winston Churchill making a speech in 1932 exhorting Parliament to recall the rise and fall of Hitler after whom Kaiser Wilhelm rose up and fell.

Part 2 -- Salting the Pizza Beforehand

“Extrication of Gamaliel (or Luke) from this quandary requires the ingenuity of... well, a Gamaliel!” This is Dr. Pervo’s stated opinion on p.155 of DA; but it is interesting that he immediately goes on to say that “The most common recourse is quite prosaic.”

Really? A “quite prosaic” recourse that Gamaliel was thinking of an earlier Theudas, wouldn’t seem to require “the ingenuity of a Gamaliel”! (Otherwise, it wouldn’t be quite prosaic.)

One hardly needs any ingenuity to defend it either; although one might need a bit of ingenuity to notice that Dr. Pervo begs the question rather severely when he insists, against this proposition, that (p.156) “The sole historical account of an insurrectionist known as Theudas is Josephus”.

The short answer to this is, “No.”

The long answer to this is: Noooooooooooooooooooo, we have two records of a ‘Theudas’ leading a messianic rebellion in Galilee. One text is Antiquities, one text is Acts, and the details of each text, when added together, indicate one rebellion came before 6CE while the other came roughly 40 years later.

Those are the textual details, which are quite directly straightforward as they stand in the sources, and which require only one simple inference to harmonize together. To insist that one of these texts is the only “sole historical account”, is sheerly salting the pizza in favor of Dr. Pervo’s thesis by excluding the very possibility of the Acts account being correct. Dr. Pervo has to legitimately argue that Acts is incorrect here (especially for his theory about loose dependence on Josephus to work), not tacitly (yet forcefully!) exclude its correctness from the outset.

F.F. Bruce’s defense of the two-Theudas theory, quoted by Dr. Pervo (p.156), is dismissed by Dr. P as being partly question-begging, too. This would not be a defense against his own question-begging in any case; but Dr. P’s claim about Dr. B’s procedure is also just not true. Dr. B proceeds to the Theudas problem having already established that Luke is elsewhere at least as careful a historian as Josephus (or even moreso sometimes). Dr. Pervo doesn’t deny Luke’s generally competent historical accuracy, or even deny just how pickily accurate Luke often is. But he wants to explain Luke’s accuracy, such as it is, being due entirely to Luke’s facility at using details very opaquely from other sources, such as for example Josephus. This would still count as being a good second-hand historian (and would, in fact, be tantamount to a conservative account of Luke’s accuracy on any dating earlier than Josephus--even by the explicit terms of GosLuke’s own prologue, where the author explains he researched other sources to try to get the best information!) Which of course is why, if this is the rebel Theudas of the 40s CE, it’s very strange that Luke would anachronistically slot him before JudGal, and have someone before Theudas’ rebellion make a comment on it.

The failure, if only one Theudas is in view, requires some kind of explanation precisely because Luke is usually careful about things of this sort. Dr. Pervo thinks the (uncharacteristic!) mess-up is evidence that Luke rather badly misread Josephus. This all proceeds on the hypothesis of a single-Theudas, and so a hypothetical error by the author of Acts. But Dr. P is starting off assuming the error as a settled fact; not as a hypothesis to be abductively tested.

I’ll be getting back later to just how peculiar this theoretical explanation is. My point for now, is that ‘Luke is a good historian elsewhere’ is not question-begging to the issue of ‘Is Luke being a good historian here’ (unless one simply draws an invalid deductive conclusion thereby--which Dr. Bruce and other careful commentators, such as Colin Hemer do not do.) Whereas ‘Josephus is the sole historical account we have of a rebellion by someone named Theudas’ is question-begging to that issue, because it tacitly requires that Luke’s anecdote here must not be even a historical account (much less a good one).

This is very much a case of the pot calling the kettle ‘marijuana’. Dr. Pervo’s analysis starts off with a flagrantly question-begging assertion that Acts is in error here, while accusing Dr. Bruce of doing the same kind of question-begging in reverse--except that he clearly isn’t.

This is the first weakness to Dr. Pervo’s approach to this particular thesis in Dating Acts. But it won’t be his last.

Next time: why a magical imagination is very important...


Registering for comment tracking.

I read Pervo's discussion of the rebels last night and his response to "objections" to the theory of dependence on Josephus (which was mostly though not exclusively an anti-Witherington discourse). One thing that struck me was the stridence with which Pervo made some of his assertions without much discussion. He gives lip service to the notion that we cannot simply assume that Josephus is accurate and Luke mistaken but then goes on to do just that with little or no comment.

Regarding Pervo's rejection of the two-Theudas idea, I was reminded of the theme from Highlander, "THERE CAN BE ONLY ONE!" Other than assuming that it was not mentioned by Josephus it could not have happened, his only argument seems to be that Theudas was not a common name. This doesn't strike me as dispositive, especially with Luke-Acts' pretty good track record on such issues. Will you have more to say on whether Theudas was a common name?

Also, what do you think of the possibility that there was one Theudas and Luke gets the timing right and Josephus gets it wrong? I've never seen an extended discussion of this and Pervo seems to ignore the possibility. Is there anything about Acts' account of Theudas that is improbable other than his disagreement with Josephus (assuming they are referring to the same figure)?

We need to draw a further distinction. Even if it were the same Theudas, this isn't Luke's account over against Josephus' account. Rather, this is Gamaliel's account over against Josephus' account. Luke is quoting a speech by Gamaliel.

Even if Gamaliel were wrong, this wouldn't mean that Luke is wrong. There is no presumption that if a historian quotes a speaker, he is vouching for what the speaker said.

An accurate quote will reproduce what a speaker says, even if the speaker misspoke.

This series started so well, but now it turned in to trying to refute Dr. Pervo. Oh well...

Chris (and hereafter for this comment): {{He gives lip service to the notion that we cannot simply assume that Josephus is accurate and Luke mistaken but then goes on to do just that with little or no comment.}}

Yep; I'll be mentioning that in passing along the way (if I haven't done so already--but I think it's in a later entry. I haven't re-read the current entry yet today... {lol!})

{{Will you have more to say on whether Theudas was a common name?}}

Briefly, although this is a point on which I am very dependent on another source who hasn't provided examples; so I won't be leaning on it a lot. I mentioned the salient information once already back in Part 1, too. The short answer is that Theudas is an uncommon form of several much more common names, including occasionally "Judas". (In part 1 I compared how Jews of the time would sometimes take my own wholly Greek name as a multi-lingual pun for Joshua, rather than transliterate that to Jesus. It's kind of weird for a messianic candidate, especially a failed one, to be remembered by a Greek substitution of a Jewish name, but that's going to be true in any case.)

{[Also, what do you think of the possibility that there was one Theudas and Luke gets the timing right and Josephus gets it wrong?}}

Acts' account of Theudas is extremely minimal, while Josephus has a lot more detail including in regard to the timing. (The relative timing is one of the few distinctive bits of information in the anecdote from Acts! This will become a serious problem for Dr. P's own argument soon in my critique, btw.)

Considering how competent Josephus is elsewhere where we can check him, I don't think we should consider it probable that Josephus is that extremely wrong. It would practically be the argument against Acts, except in reverse and with more detail to overcome for plausibility's sake.

From a strictly historical standpoint, if we absolutely had to go with one or the other, Josephus would be the better bet in this case. (Not incidentally, Dr. P treats the case from the outset, as illustrated in my Part 2 above, as if we absolutely had to go with one or the other, before he has even tried to argue for this. This'll come up again later as I progress through his argument.)

Even then, that wouldn't much affect the argument for Luke's dependence on Josephus. There are good reasons to consider that argument extremely implausible (even though not strictly impossible) from a historical standpoint, regardless of whether Luke was writing post-Antiquities and even regardless of whether Luke used Antiq for other purposes! I'll be getting to those reasons along the way.



Gamaliel could have been wrong, of course, to remember the name as Theudas. But unless he was being wrong in a weirdly prophetic fashion that's practically designed to call aspersion on the competency of Luke, he couldn't have been wrong about the timing of JudGal and Josephus' Theudas.

Because the Theudas rebellion mentioned by Josephus hadn't happened yet, and wouldn't for another 10-15 years (depending on the year of Jesus' crucifixion).

You're right about how if a historian quotes a speaker, we should not presume he is vouching for the accuracy of what the speaker said. (A qualification of scholarly versions of inerrancy, too, of course.) But this doesn't at all help if, hypothetically, the same Theudas is being talked about in each account.

The argument that this is the same Theudas, though, hangs mostly on Theudas being an unusual (form of a) name; and (somewhat secondarily) on the order of the names in the two texts being trivially similar. Dr. P is going to have serious trouble trying to forge a connective link, even with those two pieces of data, as will be illustrated in upcoming entries.



If Dr. Pervo starts out of the gate hugely begging his own question (and incorrectly charging Dr. Bruce with doing the same thing the other way around), then I am unsure why I wouldn't begin my actual analysis refuting that.

Are you saying you think his question-begging presumption that this anecdote from Acts must not be historical (much less good history), is proper methodology for beginning his argument that this detail from Acts must not be historical but rather some kind of freakish research error (or, alternately, some kind of strange intentional usage of a resource despite the timing differences) by the author of Acts?

Or are you disagreeing that Dr. P is hugely begging his question from the outset?

Or, do you think I should be ignoring such a gaffe, even though it's a gaffe and shouldn't be in a legitimate argument, and focusing only on defending Dr. Pervo rather than pointing out mistakes in his argument when I run across them? (And if so, why?)



I think trying to refute Dr. Pervo while not focusing on analysing the problem put me off here. And while you are focusing on Dr. Pervo, commentators are jumping ahead of you making excellent points about the issue (while someone writes a compulsory ad hominem against Pervo).

I thought you could have used a historical method here where you have multiple options what really happened. You could have described these options including pros and cons and come to the most likely answer based on facts you described. Or you could have assumed one of the books is right and trying to work out how the other account fits in (And then visa versa). Or you could have tried from the starting point what are the chances of two people mentioned next to each other in two ancient books from the same era.

It is irrelevant if Dr. Pervo (or F. F. Bruce) made an error somewhere. F. F. Bruce's "The Book of the Acts" page 116 addresses this issue and I don't think it is great analysis. However it is irrelevant if F. F. Bruce made a good case or not, if you are looking for the truth.

It is hardly unconventional to directly respond to a particular persons' argument on a subject. It can be quite helpful, in fact. Here, Pervo has articulated the most recent pro-Josephan dependence case I am aware of and claims to have all but settled the issue conclusively forever. That merits a response and pretending it was not made by Pervo wouldn't make the argument any more clear.

And I don't think the fact that Pervo has previous legal troubles means his case fails. I can't help but think, however, that those particular troubles -- or rather what gave rise to them -- might help explain his snide disdain for anyone who takes the New Testament -- specifically Luke-Acts -- seriously as history.


Regarding Josephus possibly misplacing Theudas, Witherington cites Shayne Cohen's Josephus in Galilee and Rome as establishing that Josephus often misplaces events temporally, even contradicting himself in such matters across his own writings.

John Polhill's commentary cites some material about the name Theudas. He notes that it may be a nickname or a Greek form of a common Hebrew name. Here is his footnote in support:

"132. Theudas is most likely a shortened form of a Greek name such as Theodotus or Theododius, meaning Gift of God. Jews often adopted such Greek names that corresponded etymologically to their given Hebrew names. Hebrew names corresponding to Theodotus would be such commmon ones as Jonathan, Nathaniel, and Matthias. See C.J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History..., 162-13, n5. A similar argument sees Theudas as a possible Aramaic nickname meaning witness; P. Winter, "meszellen zur Apostelgeschichte. 1. Acts 5, 36: Theuds," ExpTim 17 (1957): 38-99."


I see what you're saying now. However, my scope was limited from the outset (back in part 1) to analyzing Dr. Pervo's argument in light of the data.

Along the way, I'll be discussing various options; but the most I'll arrive at regarding the problem itself is that it is extremely unlikely that the author of Acts was referring to Josephus for reference to Theudas and JudGal, and that a much simpler and more plausible option is that Luke (one way or another) and Josephus had two different Theudases in mind.

I'm not sure there's enough information to draw much more of a conclusion than that, other than a general expectation that Luke and/or his sources are usually competent and so, if we have no specific reason to think otherwise for a piece of data where we can't cross-check him, we ought to provisionally treat him as being accurate there -- in this case, for reporting the statement of Gamaliel, however it was he came about it. My guess would be through the report of Saul of Tarsus, disciple of Gamaliel, but that's just a plausible guess. There are several ways he could have gotten that report.



It's true that Josephus isn't perfect on that score, but I still haven't heard any positive evidence or argument that he's wrong in this case. Do we, for example, have any evidence that he's getting his surrounding details wrong (especially in regard to chronology) when talking about this Theudas?

If not, then why would we even suspect him to be wrong anyway? The possibility could be left open, but the provisional inference would still be that he's correct; and in a competition between two sources on the same topic, where (a) it's clear that the topic must be the same, and (b) where the details are mutually exclusive to one another, then normal procedure is to go with the report that includes more details, especially more details pertaining to the differences between the accounts. (In this case, chronological markers--Luke's reference to Theudas barely has any other details to compare!)

I expect this is why Dr. P thinks his main opposition is simply ideological commitment to the inerrancy of Luke: that presupposition would (formally speaking) logically trump Josephus where the two parties differ, under any circumstances. But as it happens, his case for them talking about the same incident at all is very weak; to the point where he ends up flailing around trying to imagine connections between them and, when that (naturally!) doesn't seem strong enough, just falling back on asserting and even outright presuming Luke is in error.

(And then he can't even stay with that; he ends up trying to make it an intentional choice on Luke's part. More on that later.)


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