Colin J. Hemer, “The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History”

I have Professor William Lane Craig to thank for flagging this amazing book, in a video of him speaking that I watched and took notes on years ago.  It is a tour de force argument in favor of the historicity of the book of Acts.  It is also extraordinarily evenhanded.

The book’s basic scope and tone are each captured in the book’s first paragraph (1, footnote omitted):

Although there has been no lack of debate about the book of Acts, the question of its historicity has been strangely neglected.  Indeed, opinion about the book of Acts has become polarized, and often between those who differ profoundly on the matter of historicity, but this aspect of their agreement is often implicit rather than explicit.  It is integrated into differences of assumption and approach whose thrusts are aimed elsewhere.  Many writers seem simply to assume the the question has been answered, one way or the other.  Some even contend that the question is illegitimate, although again there is never an answer implicit in such a contention.

The author avers throughout (see, e.g., 352 & n.80) that he is happy to be considered outdated and out-of-fashion; today he might have said, politically incorrect.  He is after the truth, and is happy to offend liberal ideologues and some fundamentalists alike.  The book is heavily and carefully footnoted (in appearance it resembles a law review article, to put it in terms my fellow lawyers will immediately appreciate).  I noted early on (21) the author showing his background as a Classicist, and really that suffuses the whole text (by the way, there is a lot of untranslated Greek — and, to a lesser extent, German — in the book).

The book painstakingly ties passage after passage, verse after verse to historical reality, and also concludes that the likely author was indeed Luke, a traveling companion of Paul’s, and (409-10) that it was likely written quite early:

The early dating of Acts is a significant part of our total case.  While not per se anything like a “proof” of historicity, it is an important catalyst, which influences the formulation of questions, and excludes inapplicable lines of argument.  It is one major avenue into the heart-area of the problem.  Theories of tradition-historical reinterpretation by the early church tend to require time, and to become more difficult with early datings. The evidence may be held to exclude absolutely many faulty arguments for alternative views, if not thereby ecluding a better defense of those views.

It is relevant to stress that our opinion places Acts unequivocally in the lifetime of many eyewitnesses and surviving contemporaries of Jesus, Peter and Paul, as prospective readers who could object to the presence of material falsifications.  Again, that does not prove the veracity of Luke’s account.  Indeed, the early date has on occasion been linked with a fictional view of Acts [footnote omitted].  Yet such a view must immediately pose another question, whether it is credible that Acts is fiction, credible amid the life-and-death issues which confronted the church under Nero.  The seriousness of questions of truth for the community is sufficiently attested in the earnest dialectic of Paul’s own epistles.

The reference to “eyewitnesses” calls to mind — not for the first time in the book (see, e.g., the discussion of how ancient historians weighed evidence) — Richard Bauckham’s work.  (Hemer died in 1987, and Bauckham’s great work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (which does not list Hemer in the index) did not appear until nearly twenty years later in 2006.)

When you think about it, Acts ought to be the New Testament book most vulnerable to an attack on its historicity — if it really lacked historicity, that is.  After all, its detailed and purportedly factual narrative — with nautical information, geographic details, judicial proceedings, named officials, and so forth — could be attacked if the critic had the needed evidence.  But this book says the evidence points the other way.


The book prompted a couple of ideas I thought worth sharing.  First, Hemer spends some time on the ending of Acts with Paul still unreleased, and discusses among other things why Luke might not have continued the narrative to include Paul’s release even if it had occurred and Luke had been aware of it.  So this paragraph (406-07) prompted me to start thinking generally (I elaborate on this thought here) about the precise purpose Luke had in writing Acts:

The situation is one which lies outside the common experience of people in the modern comfortable West, and may obtrude itself on us only when we have friends living in some politically sensitive part of the world.  In Britain today it is hard for people even to comprehend the need for certain kinds of apparently quixotic discretion.  If Paul was released, Luke was at pains not to advertise the fact.  Paul was returning to scenes of his previous labors.  This book, even if primarily directed to a Christian audience, was not likely to be restricted in its circulation to trustworthy insiders.  The occasional implacable enemy who might turn to it need not be primed with the advance knowledge that Paul might reappear at any time on his patch.

Second, when you think about it, Luke not only traveled with Paul but must have had some long talks with Peter, too, given the fisherman’s key role in both Luke’s Gospel and in the first half of Acts.

Let me also share with the reader some key passages I flagged:  (1) 29 and 99-100 (“Conclusions”) were worth rereading; (2) 104-07 and 337-38 (carryover paragraph) are important “roadmaps” to Hemer’s text; and (3) also important are 335 (second paragraph) and 351 (last full paragraph).


Some shorter notes:

  • The Scottish Bible scholar F.F. Bruce is cited in the foreword (by I. Howard Marshall) and thanked in the preface (by Conrad H. Gempf).
  • Paul’s thinking is, at one point, described as having “matured” (278-79).
  • The dating of Paul’s letters is interesting, and often the key evidence is in the opening or closing of a letter (e.g., 401-02).
  • Speaking of dates, the author writes (264):  “My estimate would be somewhere in the range:  Crucifixion in 30; [Paul’s] conversion c. 32-34; [his second Jerusalem] visit c. 46-47, with perhaps a preference for the earliest limits on the two latter.”
  • There’s a lot on the “Galatian problem” and also repeated references to a Theudas issue (re the latter, see 162-63, 175, and 224-25), and there’s one passage in Acts that the author apparently finds hilarious (see 348 n.78).


Finally, I must also note that there are a couple of favorable citations to C.S. Lewis, regarding miracles (428, to Lewis’s book of that name) and “chronological snobbery” (439, Lewis’s famous phrase; this footnote concludes, “The complexity of the ancient world merits the most careful and detailed study”).

Again, this is an amazing book in the evidence it marshals for the historicity of Acts.  It’s well worth finding and reading.