Are the Speeches in Acts Reliable?

I listened to a debate between Craig Blomberg and Pamela Eisenbaum on the reliability of the Gospels. One of Eisenbaum’s points (arguing that the Gospels were not reliable) was that the Gospel writers would often compose speeches rather than offer the exact wording of the speeches. Her point was that the Gospels should not be scrutinized using modern-day notions of reliability. The practice of composing speeches was an accepted practice of the day and so we should not look on this as necessarily wrong but we should recognize that by modern standards they would not measure up as reliable. Not surprisingly Blomberg did not disagree with the general point Eisenbaum was making.

Aside from the debate I found this interesting because I just finished reading an excellent treatment of this topic in Craig Keener’s commentary on Acts. In his first volume with over 800 pages devoted to “introduction” Kenner has an entire chapter on “Speeches in Acts” (pp. 258-319) This chapter is a minefield of rich material. I want to just highlight some portions out of this chapter. Keener begins by observing much of what Eisenbaum claimed.

“Historians did not typically treat speeches as conservatively as they did narrative, but fleshed them out more fully (and could also either adapt existing sources or completely invent speeches, and one cannot predict, simply on the basis of historical genre, which practice characterizes the speeches of a given author or relates to a given speech within an author.” (258)

He further notes, “Modern interpreters can better grasp the issues being debated if they recognize that the question of the speeches in Acts is not one of the ‘reliability’ of Acts but of the genre—it is good ancient history, which, though related to its historical successors, is not exactly the same genre as modern history.” (271)

But care must be taken as he notes that “[c]laiming that historians composed full speeches does not normally mean that speeches did not occur on such occasions or even that the historians invented the speech’s subject matter when the actual subject was known or earlier reported differently.” (275)

And while we shouldn’t impose modern categories onto ancient documents Keener says “ancient historians were capable of asking the same critical questions that we are asking today.” (280) Dionysius expressed skepticism about a speech recounted by Thucydides since as he himself claims “he was in exile in Thrace during a later part of his book and could not have heard a speech reported elsewhere.” (280)

Keener admits that Luke may have reported conversations to which [he] and his sources would not likely have been privy (Acts 25:14-22). In such cases one would not be surprised if Luke composed the account according to what he deemed probably rather than according to an oral or written source; in so doing, he would simply have been following the procedure expected for ancient historians.” (283)

One important point for Acts is to understand that since speeches during this time could go on for hours and given the average length of those speeches in Acts Keener says “Luke does not expect us to regard his speeches as more than summaries.” (261) And, “Virtually no scholars publishing in mainstream academic circles argue that the speeches in Acts are verbatim.” (309 & 318-319) This is not really all that new. Keener says that F.F. Bruce made the same observation in 1942. Bruce noted that Luke provided “the gist of what was said on each occasion.” (310) Keener writes, “Long ago C.H. Dodd suggested that the author ‘apparently used to some extent the liberty which all ancient historians claimed (after the example of Thucydides), of composing speeches which are put into the mouth of the personages of the story.’ But he further concluded (though not always on the most objective grounds) that Luke apparently used ‘his historian’s privilege with considerable restraint’; he argued that the speeches reflected pre-Lucan Christian tradition of the apostolic kerygma.” (318)

Equally important we need to remember that “[t]o claim that historians had wide latitude in speech composition is not to claim that each of them exploited this latitude to the same degree as others or equally in all of their speeches; hence it does not establish the degree of freedom that Luke took in all his speeches.” (282)

Keener’s chapter is steeped in primary and secondary documentation which makes his discussion all the more valuable. Many pastors might be tempted to pass over a discussion like this but hopefully from the small sample of quotes I’ve provided above you can see what they might be missing. Sadly, many students would pass over this material as well. Discussions like this are vital to give a passage a deeper background and context than what a simple exegetical commentary can sometimes offer. The apologetic value is an added bonus. Pastors and students owe it to themselves to buy and read this commentary. It will only enhance your understanding of Acts and provide you with a treasure of cultural and historical background material.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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