Before I continue on with Paul’s interaction in Acts of the Apostles—a brief interlude to remind us of two obvious concepts. In fact, so obvious, you will immediately read it, and only one word will come to mind. “Obvious.” Yet for some reason we enter biblical studies and become muddled, foggy and eventually ignored.
1) Just because it is historically accurate, does not make it historical. Just because an event is historical, does not mean we have a historically accurate account.
I enjoy reading the background on movies at Internet Movie Database. All sorts of information—actors, budget, gross revenues, quotes, trivia—including a section on “goofs.” One goof often listed is anachronisms—items, quotes or events in movies out of place.
For example, the action/adventure Where Eagles Dare is a World War II drama. Yet imdb notes, “If you look really carefully you can make out that the timer used on the bombs (in particular the one on the cable car) is a Heuer Sebring, a model that wasn't made until around 1958.”
Obviously they were not using 1958 timers in 1944. It is a mistake. Now, the movie has 1000’s of details correct—uniforms, salutes, trucks, cars, motorcycles, parachutes, radio rooms, etc.—yet all those correct details do not make the story factual. It does not become historical if the movie maker used correctly dated times.
We understand it is these anachronisms cluing us in as to errors in the story.
Secondly, even though we know something happened, we may not have historically accurate information. We have differing copies of the Gettysburg Address, and are not certain what Lincoln’s precise words were. Does that mean he did not give the Gettysburg Address? Of course not. And we can be reasonably certain of being extremely close to what he said. Just not 100% accurate.
Because a story has correct details does not make it history. Because a story has incorrect details does not make it completely fiction.
I point this out, because at times it seems we battle two extremes within biblical studies. On the one hand, there are those who insist every detail MUST be true, or the whole thing should be thrown out as a shame. “Jesus couldn’t be born when King Herod the Great was alive and Quirinius was governor, therefore Jesus was never born.” On the other, there are those who claim some details are accurate, so the whole thing must be true. “Since there really was Pontius Pilate, heaven has golden streets.”
This “all-or-nothing” would seem to be part of what Sherwin-White is battling. Scholars who indicate not knowing what Paul was precisely charged with on certain occasions so it never happened. However, Sherwin-White then pendulums too far (in my opinion) to excusing anachronisms calling into question the account’s historicity.
It seems to me we approach these stories just like any other historical account. Provisionally, understanding errors do not eliminate the necessity of it being historical, but give us pause as to why the errors occurred.
Christians would be far better served if they avoided Herculean twists to align Jesus’ birthdate, accept Luke modified the date to conform to Luke’s intended point, and move on. Jesus could still exist. Jesus could still be the Son of God. Jesus could still have been crucified, buried and rose again. Just Luke got it wrong when it came to Jesus’ birth. (Coincidentally, this is exactly what evangelical Christians do with the Second Century gospels on Jesus. Still claim he was a child at one point, and could do extraordinary things, and was the son of God, etc. Just that the author of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was wrong. Alas, they avoid making the same claim about Luke, because it is within the covers of their leather-bound, family heirloom.)
2) Is it remarkable Luke got details correct?
Imagine I told you to write a Batman comic including a storyline about Bruce Wayne being on trial. I suspect you would include things like a prosecutor, attorneys, a judge, possibly a jury. It would be in a courtroom, there would be counsel tables, perhaps a court reporter and bailiff. You would include words like “Objection!” and “Sustained!” Phrases like “Call your next witness” and “Please be seated.”
Thanks to books, television, plays and movies, most people have general knowledge how a trial runs. 2000 years from now, I would review it and could point out dozens, if not 100’s of details you got precisely correct. The correct general charge, the correct order, the correct language, the correct players, the correct system.
Yet we know it is a story about Batman—a completely fictional account.
The question I have is this—given a person who could read/write Greek, was generally knowledgeable regarding governorships, travel, and geography of the First Century Mediterranean, would we equally expect such a person to have general knowledge regarding legal actions sufficient to provide the broad details we have?
Simply put, could Luke have the knowledge to completely make-up the legal inter-workings with Paul, the same as you could make up a trial about Batman? If so, how remarkable is it he gets these broad concepts correct?
Keeping this in mind, the next two (2) lectures Sherwin-White deals with Paul’s trial before Felix and Festus in Judea.
Sherwin-White addresses “moderns” (pg. 49) regarding question as to what the specific charges would be. “In the scene before the Sanhedrin, Paul defends himself sophistically from charges of what one may call heresy….” (pg. 49) or stirring up civil disturbances.
This accusation—“stirring up civil disturbances”—is supported by letter from Claudius against Alexandrians, “stirring up a plague and disturbances for the Jews throughout the world..” (pg. 51)
Paul’s accusers (Asian Greeks) disappear, thus putting the case on “cold storage” for two years. Also interesting the inquiry into Paul’s province, as this could well be forum domicilii but Felix keeps the case. Perhaps because Cilicia did not have Roman authority at the time (it was under client-kings.) By the 4th year of Nero it did. (Did Luke place this event too early? If so, Sherwin-White excuses it: “If Acts has made a slip in implying that Cilicia was already a separate province, the slip is venial, because within two or three years that was the situation.” (pg 57) This is what I mean by Sherwin-White excusing what could be an anachronism revealing lack of historicity.)
Sherwin-White makes only brief mention of Paul’s citizenship; he will deal with Roman Citizenship in a later lecture.
The next lecture regards Paul’s interactions at the cities. The pattern is roughly the same: Paul enters the city, starts to preach in the synagogue. Jews bring complaints to the city leaders, Paul skips town. Repeat at the next stop.
Sherwin-White makes the point the accounts, including the punishments, the persons involved, etc. conform to what would probably happen in the latter 1st century. There is nothing reflecting late Second Century here. I do think this is a stronger point to support Acts was not a late 2nd Century work. In other words, Luke did not put a 190 CE timer in a 60 CE event.
Basically, Sherwin-White notes the stories contain broad general knowledge, conforming to the broad general knowledge we have of the period. With an occasional anachronism that Sherwin-White excuses, and I question what direction it would point us in.