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A Rational Look at Christianity; Basing Reason in Truth

Note: Part 6 of this series can be found here. It discusses how Dr. Richard Pervo, in his 2006 edition of Dating Acts, very briefly covers his main positive evidence in favor of his theory that the author of Acts used Josephus when referring to the rebellions of Theudas and Judas the Galilean--a very brief coverage that mainly involves mentioning the superficial similarity of topical order while repeatedly insisting that the author of Acts is in (even "embarrassing") error.

After which, Dr. P suddenly switches to the position that the author did not make an error but intentionally took the information from Josephus in this topical order. As will be shown in the finale of this series, there are good reasons why he must have felt he had to try something other than error to explain the usage thereby! Since he doesn't spell out those reasons himself, however...

Part 7 -- Thoroughly Sniffing The Thesis (Or Huffing It, Maybe)

Let’s spell out the implications of Dr. Pervo’s thesis on this topic.

Sometime in the 2nd century, an otherwise unknown author (who will go on to successfully pass off his freehand compositions as being that of an obscure companion of Paul, at a time when the authorities in the religion he is trying to ‘co-optively support’, if I may coin a phrase, are hot to oppose texts on grounds of their being spuriously and recently generated--even when those texts say things the authorities theologically approve!) is busy writing up a spurious and recently generated history of the early church.

For some reason, despite the fact that romance novels are very popular among his fellow-believers in his time and place (as will be exemplified by romance novels of these same characters later, if they aren’t already being circulated) without needing eye-bleeding levels of historical verisimilitude, the author decides he will go to the trouble to research and include eye-bleeding levels of historical verisimilitude--levels the popular audience don’t need, and which will bore them when they even bother to notice them. (He also chooses to do this at the expense of including much theological content, thus making it difficult for leaders to preach from his work for the next 2000 years--much unlike the GosLuke text he is attempting to present this text as a sequel to, by the way, which contains what will eventually become some of the most famous literary material in world history, even among people who have never read a Gospel.)

But being a pedantic history geek, he perseveres at his task of providing a historical snapshot of the Eastern Mediterranean coast and its socio-political state roughly two generations earlier; a snapshot so good that non-religious professional historians of Greco-Roman antiquity (who don’t have theological axes to grind one way or another) will be using his text as a primary resource for their own studies 1900 years later.

One of this unknown fellow’s own resources is the historian Josephus, who recently completed a vastly much larger work on the topic of Jewish/Greco-Roman history, although only the last few books (before he died) are of use to our unknown author. But those books are crammed full of details, and our highly competent author chooses a few of them when building his technically proficient snapshot pseudo-history.

Along the way, our author wants (for various narrative reasons) to show a hugely honored Jewish rabbi of the time giving something of a pass to Peter and John (his heroes at that point in the story). So, how to do that without making this rabbi a convert to Christianity?--because our author cares enough about historical accuracy not to sheerly invent such a major conversion for an actually historical figure of whom he is sheerly inventing this scene. Hmm... well, what if this character (Gamaliel 1 seems like a good choice) calls for restraint on the ground that if Peter and John are not doing God’s work they will certainly fail? (But if they are working with God, then for goodness’ sake, don’t be found warring against God!) That’s reasonable enough.

But our author isn’t content to just invent this little speech, which stands fine enough in its narrative logic as it is. No, he’s a hard-core history geek, and he wants to put that to work here, too. So, he’ll add a couple of comparative references, in his character’s speech, to failed messianic movements prior to his character’s day.

Now, where can he get a list of failed messianic movements prior to the timeframe of this scene?--which is set in the reign of Tiberius Caesar, while Pontius Pilate is the governor of Judaea, Herod is still tetrarch of Galilee and Herod’s brother Philip is still tetrarch of the region of Itrurea and Trachonitis. Oh, and Lysanias is still tetrarch of Abilene, too, mustn’t forget that. Annas the legitimate high priest is still alive, his son-in-law Joseph Caiaphas is still the technical high priest (and technical lackey of the Roman government under Pilate), and Annas' sons John and Alexander are some key members of the high-priestly family at this point. (Acts 4:6. That's a detail of Peter and John's first appearance before the Sanhedrin, but not much time has elapsed in the story between there and Acts 5.)

Our author, remember, is a hard-core Greco-Roman history geek. He’s the kind of person who zeroes in precisely on trivial details of this sort, because that’s his thing. He might even have been a little bored writing Acts up till now, because he hasn’t had much opportunity to put in these kinds of details which he loves to obsess over--although by God he has plans to orgy in those kinds of details for the rest of the book! And now here’s a chance to indulge a little early in just the kind of trivial nitpicky research that he loves and, not incidentally, is so demonstrably good at.

So, who is he going to go to, in the early-to-mid-2nd century, to find a list of failed messianic movements prior to his carefully timeframed scene? The answer is obvious: Josephus!--the famous literary Jewish historian, who much like our unknown author loves to obsessively detail this kind of thing.

The even more obvious answer is Book 17 of the Antiquities, where the largest such list of Jewish messianic pretenders can be found, and which also happens to be safely and very clearly set well before the timeframe of this scene our unknown author is entirely fictionally creating involving Rabbi Gamaliel. That’s the perfect answer, then: he’ll pick up a couple of references there for his examples, and rubbing his hands in geeky satisfaction at his cleverness he’ll go on with the narrative until he can really start to cut loose with the details which, to anyone but other historians, will only be gummy pedantic trivia.

Our author then proceeds to go to Antiquities BOOK 20 instead, which is very clearly set AFTER the scene he has carefully and meticulously set up (insofar as its relation to Greco-Roman history goes), and decides to use, as his first reference, a messianic claimant whom Josephus very clearly and obviously sets AFTER the scene our unknown author is writing (by roughly 15 years). Cheerfully ignoring these details which he loves to obsess over (and typically obsesses very competently so), our author then proceeds to also ignore the very obvious statement by Josephus that at around this time the sons of Judas the Galilean were slain, JudGal being a rebel from much earlier at the time of the census (as Josephus explicitly says, actually going so far as to remind the reader he talked about this in a previous book. Namely, the book which our author of Acts should and most likely would have been using instead of this one.)

Being a sober and careful historian-type, though, our unknown author decides that Josephus’ vague maximally large mob is too unrealistic, so he reduces that down to a more particular and realistic 400. Not because he has any real reason to do so (he doesn't actually have better figures at hand, he's simply skimming off whatever Josephus said here)--it just looks more professional. Or, maybe he does it because he’s hoping readers in the early-to-mid 2nd century, almost 100 years divorced from the details, will forget that he himself has been talking about thousands of converts recently, and will instead understand his character Gamaliel to be making an unstated comparative reference to a real estimate of Christian numbers at that time.

I am not saying that this scenario is strictly impossible. But I have to regard this as being intrinsically implausible. To me, it just doesn’t pass the sniff test. Huffing up imaginary motivations (and even outright imaginary data!), doesn’t add to the overall plausibility--even if we do it until our eyes cross.

We could add, or substitute, another hypothesis to save the main hypothesis: maybe our author was just a sloppy researcher who kind of remembered hearing about some guy named Theudas leading a rebellion, and where did he read about that, oh yeah in Josephus somewhere; he’ll just start at the end going backward and, hey what luck, there it is in the last book! No need to go any farther for his two examples, there they are, Theudas and then great, another guy is mentioned next, paste him in, too! Our author has important things to be doing and he just wants something there for a bit of emphasis, and anyway it isn’t like anyone is going to care.

This scenario isn’t strictly impossible either. But in conjunction with our author’s over-punctilious and hyper-competent research style, which can be demonstrably proven? It just doesn’t fit, not any better than our hyper-competent researcher, who loves this sort of detail, going to completely the wrong book in Josephus for his bits of trivia and then ignoring just the kind of detail he himself loves to appreciate and show off his competency about. It’s the sort of hypothesis that would fit the authorship of the (2nd century) romance novel “Acts of Paul and Thecla”. Not the authorship of the “Acts of the Apostles” (2nd century authorship or otherwise).

We could try another additional hypothesis, to save the original hypothesis: maybe Book 20 was all our author had access to, and none of his other Greco-Roman history sources (whatever they were) talked about Jewish messianic pretenders (or not in anything like the same timeframe anyway), so he made the best of what little he had on the topic.

Aside from adding another hypothesis to try to save the plausibility of the original hypothesis (piling them up with “the ingenuity of a Gamaliel”, as Dr. Pervo might put it--if it was being done in favor of Luke’s accuracy), this still suffers from the same problem: the author of Acts (and maybe also GosLuke) is very clearly and demonstrably a hard-core history geek for that particular slice of East Mediterranean space and time, who loves and obsesses over exactly the kinds of details which Josephus provides in Book 20 for alerting his reader when the incidents with Theudas and JudGal take place, relative to each other and relative to the larger Greco-Roman historical framework. The author doesn’t need the references for Gamaliel to make his point in principle, so why would he settle for that anachronistic reference?--and even if he was going to do so, why put them in flagrantly the wrong order as Josephus clearly states in terms that obsessive history geeks would be completely unlikely to overlook?!

This, I suspect, is why Dr. Pervo himself decides toward the end of this section of his chapter, that he should present Luke as intentionally selecting and presenting this info from Antiquities Book 20 in the manner that he does, instead of “misreading” Josephus.

But while he can kind of squint up an imaginary reason for why Luke would change the vague large mob to a more particular and realistic round number (although that imaginary reason totally doesn’t fit Luke’s own setting in other regards, as noted earlier), Dr. P doesn’t seem able (at least in this part of Dating Acts) to come up with even an implausible imaginary reason for why Luke would intentionally use the mere superficial order of Josephus’ references to Theudas and JudGal. (Which, in turn, is probably why he presents this as being some kind of "embarrassing"-ly inept accident earlier in his argument. Including most recently when he was repetitively trying to convince his readers about Luke’s error, error, error.) The most he can do is make noises and handwaving about how the authors have different styles, and different goals (yet similar goals, but different), and how a historian has freedom to loosely quote his sources for brief references, etc. etc. As if any or all of these pickle slices flicked up onto windows will somehow magically evolve into a conscious reason for Luke using Josephus this way.

The more economical solution, if I may say so again, is that Luke wasn’t reading from Josephus in the first place and so made no such double error, even though someone could possibly (and, as with Eusebius, demonstrably did) do so.

Dr. Pervo’s case for this usage from Josephus rests on a string of not-altogether ingenious hypotheses. The case for two Theudases, however, is an inference from the data as it stands according to one very typical principle of histiographic analysis: an author who is demonstrably competent at including historical details, and who writes a book generically signifying he is trying to relate history, should be granted credence for correctness unless there is clear evidence otherwise.

This hardly requires objecting to Dr. Pervo’s attempt on the ground of Luke being “an error-free historian” (which is the first of only two “traditional” “obstacles to acceptance of this thesis” that he thinks to consider. The only other obstacle he can think of is that such a result would challenge the a dating of Acts otherwise plausibly set before 93/4CE.) Luke has been no more shown to be in error by Dr. Pervo, on this point, than Josephus has been shown to be in error--and that was what needed establishing. Unless Luke can be shown to be in error, and if the discontinuity can be very easily explained without either historian being in error, then that is the simplest, and fairest, and most historically responsible way to go.

If that simplicity and fairness to his sources leaves Dr. Pervo without enough of a leg to stand on for suggesting a dating of Acts post-Antiquities, then too bad; his other arguments or suggestions along that line will have to stand on their own merits without it.

(As a final reminder, though: Dr. Pervo may have already substantially responded to such criticisms in the four years since he released Dating Acts, or even somewhere else in DA itself--though it would have been better for him to deal with them in this place instead of elsewhere in DA.)



My computer started its process of dying last week on Sept 1 (as if I didn't have other things to stress about then {sigh}), and I had it out of pocket Saturday and Sunday when parts 5 and 6 would have been posted. So I went ahead and posted all three final parts to the series today (Labor Day 2010).

I should add as a personal note, that I am very well acquainted with an author who writes historical fantasy fiction, and whose latest book was released by her publisher last Tuesday (to substantial critical acclaim in the trades). I hadn't thought about this when I started putting up the series, but I can't help feeling highly amused at the coincidence. {g}

Anyway, my point is that if someone told me my friend, a demonstrably obsessive and competent historical geek, had made such a sloppy use of one of her sources when inventing a scene, I would reasonably consider it very implausible. Had she herself told me she goofed like that, we would have found it both deeply embarrassing for her and also very funny, precisely because it's so implausible.

But if someone tried to convince me she had made such a goof, by means of such shoddy question-begging and circular reasoning and ad hoc hypothesizing and appeals to non sequitur grounds...?

My short long answer to such an attempt would be: Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo. (My long, long answer would look a lot like the above. {g})


I do want to reiterate again, in fairness to Dr. P, that his argument in favor of dependence on Josephus might work much better on other topics. It isn't impossible that a second-century author picked up, let's say, a time-stamp list of details from Josephus (when Tiberius was reigning and Antipas was tetrarch of Judea and his brother Philip was tetrarch of etc. etc.), yet didn't rely on Josephus at all for the Theudas/JudGal reference.

It also isn't impossible that an early-mid 1st century author and Josephus, later, both made use of the same formal time-stamp statement, having both gotten it from a shared source. Source criticism is a notoriously finicky and tricky line of study to suss out, as sober scholars on any side of the ideological aisles have eventually come to acknowledge (particularly in the last 30 years). Typically it's the radicals who put so much weight nowadays on source crit theories.


I was looking up a reference in JAT Robinson's Redating the New Testament for another purpose last week, and ran across his brief comments on the theory of Josephan dependence for the author of Acts. The considered opinion of the man who wrote the liberal manifesto Honest to God and actually invented source stratification theories for some of the NT texts, may be worth recounting (p.88 of RtNT):

"When we come to the issue of dating [Acts] proper, we may note in passing that one argument, namely the supposed dependence of Acts on Josephus' Antiquities (stressed for instance by F. C. Burkitt, The Gospel History and Its Transmission, Edinburgh, 1906, 109f.), which would require a date after 93, seems to have been almost totally abandoned.

"(Cf. F. J. Foakes Jackson, Acts (Moffatt NTC), 1931, xivf.; Kümmel, INT, 186; Lamp, PCB, 883; Manson, Studies in the Gospels and Epistles, 64f. Writing in 1910, Harnack regarded this point as having been 'settled thirty-four years ago by Schürer'. Quoting the latter's summary, 'Either St Luke had not read Josephus, or, if he had read him, he had forgotten what he had read', Harnack said: 'Schürer here exactly hits the mark' (Date of Acts, 114f.)."

I sure as heck wouldn't want to be the person going up against Adolph freaking Von Harnack on a point (someone who was already annoyed at having to reverse his earlier very late dating for Acts to a pre-70s composition)! At least, I'd want better grounds for doing so than the sort of thing presented by Dr. P in DA. I seriously doubt they would have convinced that hard-minded liberal scholar he should have stuck to his 2nd-century dating guns.


Back in February, Bill Heroman wrote this (much briefer!) article making a positive argument for identification of the Acts Theudas with Judas son of Ezekias. He thinks Luke just misremembered the name; apparently not realizing that Theudas was occasionally used as a Grecian substitute for Judas. (Also, the theory would work better for Luke's source to have misremembered the name.)

Hat-tip to John Sabatino for pointing me toward the article this morning! {g}



Why do you call JAT Robinson "the man who... actually invented source stratification theories for some of the NT texts" ? To what source stratification theories do you refer?


That's a good question, Lo; I hadn't heard about it either, until just recently. I think it was in Keener's 2nd volume of commentary on GosJohn, where he was making a similar point on a different topic: JATR had practically invented a particular kind of source stratification theory, and even he thought Related Theory X didn't hold up very well.

I'll try to look it up at lunch--K's book is terribly thick, but the reference might be indexed. (Thank God, and/or his publisher, that his notes are properly footnoted instead of endnoted for this book. Keener's footnotes are worth the price of purchase alone, much like Hengel's and Boyd's. But for present purposes, I'm thankful because even if the ref isn't indexed, I still might run back across it even if it was only in a footnote comment.)

I don't recall there being much detail to the reference; but I recall thinking first that K must be referring to an early version of JATR's theory (presented in its final form in Redating the New Testament) of multiple Gospel inter-sourcing development more-or-less simultaneously from the late 30s to late 60s (as the authors referenced each other through progressing drafts). That's a pretty unique theory (which I admire despite its weaknesses), but when I read back over the reference again I couldn't quite make it fit what Keener was talking about.

So, I dunno; if I can find the ref again in Keener, I'll present it and see if anyone else has enough access to publications to check what the details are on that. I don't doubt K knew what he was talking about--he's ridiculously well-researched, which is why I put what I did--but neither am I clear on the details yet (which is why I didn't put more details. {wry g})


Brief update in regard to Spencer's question (I'm guessing that was Spencer Lo):

Still haven't been able to find it again in Keener. I can't figure out where else I might have read it at that time, either. Argh! Sigh.

So I had better add a qualification to my previous comment, since I cannot now find where I read it. I don't think I just imagined it; but, hey, I've spent between 8 to 10 hours every night for the past 30+ years lucid dreaming (not something I would recommend to anyone {wry g}), and while from long experience I very much doubt I 'dreamed' that connection, I can't exactly rule it out either!

Sorry, Spencer. I'll have to call 'my bad' on that.


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