Friday, October 9, 2009

Luke Screws Up Josephus' Chronology

I spoke with James White yesterday on his Dividing Line program. Mainly we talked about the recent White/Barker debate, which I thought White lost by a nose. In the course of my discussion the reliability of the book of Acts came up, and I mentioned an apparent error in the book of Acts. In this post I want to further explain what I'm talking about.

In Acts chapter 5 we're told that the high priest Gamaliel told the Jews not to worry about this new Jesus movement. If it was of God there would be no way to stop it anyway, whereas if it wasn't it would collapse under it's own weight, like movements of the past have. Here's the text, with important points in bold:

"Men of Israel, be cautious in deciding what to do with these men. Some time ago, Theudas came forward, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him. But he was killed and his whole following was broken up and disappeared. After him came Judas the Galilean at the time of the census; he induced some people to revolt under his leadership, but he too perished and his whole following was scattered." (NEB, Acts 5:36-8)

What's interesting about this is that Josephus at Antiquities Book 20 Chapter 5 actually mentions these same two insurrectionists. In his telling he first mentions Theudas then subsequently talks about Judas of Galilee. But what Josephus does is he mentions them in reverse chronological order. He mentions Theudas first, then sort of by way of reflection talks about Judas of Galilee. Someone reading Josephus hastily might understand him in a mistaken fashion and switch the chronology. Looking above to Acts we can see that this is exactly what Luke has done. Here's the text from Josephus:

1. Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus's government.

2. Then came Tiberius Alexander as successor to Fadus; he was the son of Alexander the alabarch of Alexandria, which Alexander was a principal person among all his contemporaries, both for his family and wealth: he was also more eminent for his piety than this his son Alexander, for he did not continue in the religion of his country. Under these procurators that great famine happened in Judea, in which queen Helena bought corn in Egypt at a great expense, and distributed it to those that were in want, as I have related already. And besides this, the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain; I mean of that Judas who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews, as we have showed in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom Alexander commanded to be crucified. But now Herod, king of Chalcis, removed Joseph, the son of Camydus, from the high priesthood, and made Ananias, the son of Nebedeu, his successor. And now it was that Cumanus came as successor to Tiberius Alexander; as also that Herod, brother of Agrippa the great king, departed this life, in the eighth year of the reign of Claudius Caesar. He left behind him three sons; Aristobulus, whom he had by his first wife, with Bernicianus, and Hyrcanus, both whom he had by Bernice his brother's daughter. But Claudius Caesar bestowed his dominions on Agrippa, junior.

What we're seeing in Acts is exactly what we would expect to see from someone that was borrowing from Josephus. We've got the same insurrectionists that are mentioned in a single chapter. We've got a reversed chronology error like we might expect someone to do based upon Josephus' somewhat confusing way of telling the story. This makes really good sense as an error on the part of Luke.

Of course it's possible Luke is right and Josephus is wrong. It's possible that there is no dependence. If this were the only point of contact between Josephus and the book of Acts I could see the point of the claim that the dependence claim is not all that solid. But in fact there are additional points of contact.


Darf Ferrara said...

Why is Luke wrong when Gamaliel was the one that didn't have the chronology right?

atimetorend said...

"Why is Luke wrong when Gamaliel was the one that didn't have the chronology right?"

Ooh, that's an interesting twist of logic, nice catch! Your presupposition is showing, that Luke wasn't actually accurately recording a real conversation.

Seriously though, I make the same presupposition and didn't catch that detail for the same reason. It is an interesting item you posted about. It gets frustrating that there are Christians out there that feel the need to defend certain reading on the multitude of issues like this in the bible. On one hand I would agree with many Christians that details like this need not negate their faith. On the other hand, it sure is easier to step outside the faith and evaluate items like this without being forced to favor certain conclusions over others.