One of the study aids in the New International Study Bible (2011 edition), “Major Archaeological Finds Relating to the New Testament,” contains 35 specific archaeological discoveries relating to the New Testament. Of these, almost half (16) confirm passages in Acts. Some of the more remarkable finds include the Sergius Paulus inscription on Cyprus (Acts 13:6-7), the Gallio inscription at Delphi, Greece (Acts 18:12), and the Politarch inscription at Thessalonica (Acts 17:6), where the city officials are called “politarchs” in the Greek text.
One additional example of the authenticity of Acts (not mentioned by Wills) is the remarkable passage in Acts 12:19-23, which recounts the sudden and gruesome death of Herod Agrippa I, as a punishment for allowing the people of Tyre and Sidon to venerate him as a god. Luke’s contemporary, the Jewish historian Josephus, independently narrated a very similar account of this incident in his famous “Antiquities” (xix.8.2).
In fairness to Garry Wills, a practicing Catholic who has written several best -selling religious, as well as historical books, his intent was not to discredit Acts from a purely secular, atheistic perspective. What Paul Meant was dedicated to “The Catholic Workers, who know what Jesus meant.” Nevertheless, the book demonstrates a lack of respect for the validity of Acts that wouldn’t get very far in our Men’s Bible Study.
The Men’s Bible Class at my home congregation recently completed a months-long study of the Gospel of Luke. Now we are launching into a similar investigation of the Acts of the Apostles. We believe that Luke wrote these two books under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but not every student of the Bible shares that assumption.
In 2006, for example, Garry Wills, a Pulitzer Prize winning historian, published a book titled, somewhat presumptuously, What Paul Meant. It served as a companion piece to another of his books, published the same year, titled What Jesus Meant. In What Paul Meant, Wills dismissed the Book of Acts as Luke’s attempt to write “theological novel.”
Specifically, Wills stated that “the Acts of the Apostles has been called a theological novel, and it does share some traits with the Hellenistic [Greek language] novels being written at the same time as Acts—wandering preachers, miracles, sea adventures, long rhetorical speeches.” Of course, it helps to keep in mind that Luke, after all, was a Greek speaker, the only non-Jewish author of a New Testament book.
Wills followed up his disparaging comment with a discussion of the apparent inconsistencies among the three accounts of Paul’s conversion experience in Acts 9, 22, and 26, respectively. While it is accurate to say that the details of the three accounts vary somewhat, the context of each was different, the first being narrated by Luke, the second and third being recounted by Paul himself to different audiences.
For example, Wills made a big deal of Paul’s companions being left standing in the first two accounts but all falling to the ground in the third account, where Paul said, “We all fell to the ground” (26:14). Is it not possible that Paul might not have remembered this exact detail in this context? After all, he was explaining his supernatural conversion experience to no less a figure than King Agrippa.
In addition, the comments made by Jesus to Paul in Acts 26 are more extensive and detailed than those in the earlier versions, but this doesn’t jeopardize their validity. In fact, besides the minor inconsistencies in the details of the three accounts, they are remarkably consistent overall, especially considering the passage of years involved. The same claim can be made for the New Testament books overall.
The three accounts of Paul’s conversion experience are just one among several inconsistencies that, according to Wills, jeopardize the accuracy of Acts. In opposition to Wills’ claims, the Book of Acts corresponds remarkably well to historical and archaeological details that have been uncovered in recent years.