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. 47

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