The Theudas Problem in Acts 5 and Antiquities 20

So I have been going through a number of issues with Michael Cato on Twitter which has ranged from the identity of the Servant in Isaiah 53, to the authorship and identity of the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel of John, to the mistranslations in Zechariah 12:10. Basically what I consider to be child’s play (after all, it’s a lot easier to argue when you know you’re right!). While I will deal with Isaiah 53 later (probably the soonest I’ll go through this will be in a debate I’m currently trying to arrange) and I have already written the chapter in my book about the identity of the Beloved Disciple (which I am hoping to finish in the next few months but I don’t want to reveal just yet) but the purpose of this post is to deal with the apologetic assertion that the author of Luke-Acts was written around 62CE at the earliest! Yeah I have to admit, even just writing this feels all kinds of wrong… But anyway; in case you’ve not heard this argument, let’s quickly run through this.

In the simplest terms, the line of reasoning is this: the book of Acts does not mention a number of details in the first century and so the author must have been writing before these events even occurred. These include the death of the apostle Paul, who died probably in the mid-to-late 60s, thus, while Acts 28:30-31 tells us that Paul was under arrest for two years but does to mention his execution. Nor are we told about the death of James in the year 62CE as well as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70CE and the persecution of Christians by Nero in 64CE. So the only reason (or perhaps the best reason?) why the author does not record these details, is because they had not happened yet. It’s just so obvious… right?!?

Before I get into the main problem with this, I just want to touch upon what I’ve always found strange about this apologetic argument. That is, those who claim that it must have been written before these events because it does not mention it, also typically claim that the Gospel of Mark (at least) was written before the destruction of the Temple even though the Gospel talk about it (more on this below). In other words, I find it strange that on the one hand, when the Gospel of Mark talks in great detail events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in chapter 13, they are happy to say that this was written before the actual events it talks about. Yet when the book of Acts doesn’t mention these details this is taken as evidence that these had not happened yet. Surely if you accept that the Gospel of Mark was written in the 50s (or any time before the Jewish War) and is merely vividly describing a these as a form of prophecy or premonition, the author of Acts could have written literally anything at literally any time without them necessarily having to have happened yet for the same reason. The apologist could just argue that it it was written in the 20s and all of the details it records are just based on someone’s vivid prophecy being recounted and that none of the actual events it records had happened yet. So for me, it seems strange that whether the account records does record specific details or does not both are taken as evidence of early authorship. But then again, this is the perfect apologetic strategy; heads they win, tails you lose!

With all that being said, obviously the main problem with this analysis is that this rests upon the assumption that the author of Luke-Acts wanted to record everything extensively and the fact they did not mention something, this must have been because it had not happened yet. However, you need to ask, is that necessarily because they were writing before these events? It seems the obvious answer is, of course not! One need not assume that the author would extensively write about every single detail and any omission should be taken as evidence as this not having occurred yet. As Christian apologist Mike Licona correctly points out:

Historians, ancient and modern alike, are selective in the material they report. Data the reporting historian deems uninteresting, unimportant, or irrelevant to his purpose in writing are usually omitted. For example, Lucian complained when he heard a man tell of the Battle of Europus in less than seven lines but afforded much more time to the experiences of a Moorish horseman. Amazingly, neither Philo nor Josephus, the most prominent non-Christian Jewish writers of the first century, mentioned the Emperor Claudius’s expulsion of all Jews from Rome in c. AD 49-50. Only Suetonius and Luke mention the event and each gives it only one line in passing.

Mike Licona The Historicity of the Resurrection of Jesus: Historiographical Considerations in the Light of Recent Debates (p. 17)

Given this, are we therefore to assume that every time someone does not mention something, this is because an event had not yet occurred? To use a simple analogy, imagine someone discovers this blog in a thousand years (alright, it’s a long shot, but just go with it!) should they assume that because I have not mentioned Donald Trump was president, this should be taken to mean I was writing before this*? Beyond this, when we also add this to the fact that the author certainly had theological or otherwise ulterior motives, one can very easily account for why one can very easily just omitted these details for reasons other than the fact they had not happened yet. For instance, an obvious reason could be that the main purpose of the book of Acts was to report the triumph of Christianity and killing main characters of this era and detailing persecution by the Romans would surely have harmed this victorious picture the author was trying to create!

What’s more, it could perhaps equally be argued that the account is not so much about Paul and James or even the triumph of Christianity per se, but about the gospel arriving at Rome. Given that there are numerous positive references towards the Romans; for instance: Roman soldiers are favourably addressed by John the Baptist, something mentioned only by Luke (Luke 3:14). The Centurion in Luke 7 is very favourable to the man, who “loves our nation” (7:5) and Cornelius (also a Centurion) in Acts 10 is a favourable character who later becomes a follower. What’s more, another Centurion and Roman commander in Acts 21-23 help Paul repeatedly throughout this time. In addition, the Centurion guarding Paul on the ship while he is travelling to Rome is yet another favourably portrayed Roman soldier and finally, Paul is repeatedly treated with deference due to his Roman citizenship (Acts 16:37-38, 22:25-28). So it could be argued that the purpose of Luke-Acts was to make the emerging Christian movement appealing to the Romans and thus, ends the account in Rome because it attempts to make this the new home of Christianity, as opposed to Jerusalem. While I will talk about this in more detail another time, this may suggest this is actually a strong piece of evidence that this was an attempt to move away from the Jewish version of the movement, based in Jerusalem and led by James (Jesus’ brother) and so, consistent with the rest of the account ends in Rome and therefore, this would mean Peter (not James) being made the founder of the Roman Church (hence the term Roman Catholic).

While some may interpret this all as being evidence that this occurred before the persecution of Christians by Nero in 64 CE, one can equally argue that it was written after 68 CE when he committed suicide. Furthermore, if Theophilus (whom Luke-Acts dedicated this account to in the opening of both Luke 1:3 and Acts 1:1) was a Roman official (some identify him as Titus Flavius Sabinus) based on the fact that Paul used the same term when addressing Felix (Acts 23:26; Acts 24:2) and Festus (Acts 26:25), then one could assume that the reason the account ended when it does was because Theophilus was familiar with what followed and so the author would not need to recount what they already knew. In other words, while one may read this as an account written for future generations to tell the story of the Apostles (in particular Paul) during the first decades after Jesus’ death, this seems to ignore the fact that the account is actually dedicated to a specific person for a specific purpose, to provide an ordered account and historical background for Theophilus to add to what had already been taught (Luke 1:1-4).

While this is certainly an issue which will not be readily solved, given apologists will literally believe anything to affirm the earliest dates they can, it seems as though if the only reason to believe an account was written at a time is because it does not mention specific details is incredibly weak. Now, I will probably return to this issue later to go through this in more detail, but this post deals with the defence of the fact that Acts is not in error when dealing with an episode in chapter 5. So the defence of the case for such a notion is that the author of Luke-Acts was written before 62CE, rather than closer to the end of the First Century (some scholars even put it in the Second Century) and does not need to rely on the writings of Josephus. So instead of dealing with the issue of precisely when Luke-Acts was written, because this is a huge topic, I will just focus on one episode which presents real difficulty with the notion that Acts was written before Josephus; the account in Acts 5:34–39. But before I do *fun fact* this passage in Acts was the final nail in the coffin for me to finally get off my arse and write my current book because (contrary to the apologetic assertion) that this speech apparently spoken by Gamaliel (more on that below) proves Christianity as true, I would argue that this provides the best evidence against the notion that Christianity is “of God.” But you’ll have to wait for my book to see why!

Anyway, to understand the underlying issue with this, we need to read the offending passage. So as Acts 5:34-39 reports:

“But a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, respected by all the people, stood up and ordered the men to be put outside for a short time. Then he said to them, “Fellow Israelites, consider carefully what you propose to do to these men. For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and a number of men, about four hundred, joined him; but he was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and disappeared. After him Judas the Galilean rose up at the time of the census and got people to follow him; he also perished, and all who followed him were scattered. So in the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them—in that case you may even be found fighting against God!”” (Acts 5:34–39)

So what is the issue with this, I hear you ask? Well, the main issue with this, is this speech was apparently spoken by Gamaliel in the early or mid-30s, yet this incident involving Theudas is that this happened about ten or fifteen years after this alleged speech made by Gamaliel. As the Christian scholar Raymond Brown points out:

There, Gamaliel, supposed to be giving a speech in the early or mid 30s (shortly after the death of Jesus), mentions the uprising of Theudas, which did not occur till some ten years after Gamaliel’s speech, and compounds the error by implicitly dating the census and uprising of Judas the Galilean (A.D. 6-7) after Theudas.

Raymond E. Brown, The Birth Of The Messiah (Cassell & Collier, 1977), (p. 555)

The significance of this can seen when we consider the fact that in the earlier work by the same author, the Gospel of Luke tells us that the author’s intention was “to write an orderly account” and has “carefully investigated everything” from testimony “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses” (see Gospel Luke 1:1-5). If however the author of the sequel makes a mistake here, that would seriously damage the contention that the author was relaying these details from careful investigation! Thus, as Raymond Brown summarises:

A study of Luke/Acts shows that Luke had shortcomings as a historian, e.g., in Acts 5:36 he has Gamaliel in the mid-30s refer in the past to a revolt by Theudas which did not occur till the 40s – and then Luke compounds the confusion by having Gamaliel refer to the revolt led by Judas the Galilean (A.D. 6) as if it came after the revolt of Theudas! There is every reason to believe that Luke himself composed many or all the speeches he has placed on the lips of Peter and Paul in Acts. To be sure he may be reusing older material in these speeches, but Luke weaves it together in a dramatic setting….Thus, if one wishes to use the statements in the Lucan Prologue to make prejudgments about the amount of historical precision one can expect in the infancy narrative, one must first interpret the Prologue in the light of Luke’s procedure in the body of Luke/Acts – a procedure that gives evidence of considerable freedom of composition, occasional historical inexactitudes, and a primary interest in the logical rather than the chronological.

Raymond E. Brown, op cit., (p. 239)

Despite this, in response to this accusation, Michael cited a… something, I have no idea if what this is… Anyway, whatever it is, he linked me to this: The Theudas Problem in Acts 5 and Antiquities 20 which apparently can shed some light on the issue! To begin, the author notes:

Judas the Galilean’s rebellion is generally identified as being in CE 6. Josephus places the events [involving Theudas] in CE 44 , but the speech of Gamaliel must be no later than CE 35. We could imagine that The Theudas Problem in Acts 5 and Antiquities 20 might have got his facts confused and that Luke merely reported what he said, but not that he could have been confused about events yet to take place.

While the position that Acts was not written until after Josephus and simply misunderstood or simply misapplied this account, placing it into the mouth of Gamaliel after the fact certainly accounts for this perfectly, the author also notes:

“An opposing view, put forward in Whiston’s notes, defended by FF Bruce and adopted by most confessional commentaries and footnotes, is that the Theudas of Acts is a different person from the one described by Josephus. This view is not accepted by critical scholars… [However,] FF Bruce’s view is not a resolution of the problem, but simply a denial of it. His solution may well be the correct one, but if we treat all tensions in the text in such a way, then we have done little other than presuppose inerrancy and proceeded to manufacture whatever systems are necessary to support it.”

In other words, unfortunately many Christians seem to a priori reject any issue with the account in Acts, and so must affirm that either Josephus was wrong about the date, or that this was talking about another individual altogether. Basically anything must be the case before even contemplating that maybe, just maybe, the author of Acts made a mistake! To prove this point, as the author then goes on to say:

The standard critical position is that Josephus was right and Acts wrong… is problematic for a number of reasons.

  1. Josephus, born CE 37, would have been just seven years old when the events occurred, according to his chronology, but he does not write them down until CE 93-94, when he compiles the Antiquities in Rome. By then on his fourth wife, a Cretan Jew, Josephus would have had poor access to Jewish oral sources as a result of his behaviour in the Jewish war, and subsequent transfer of allegiances to Rome. 

Given that Josephus reports from literally “From Creation to the Death of Isaac” in Book I all the way up to the Jewish War from 66 to 73 in Book XX, it seems strange that this charge is not being made about him talking about events from literally thousands of years before his birth, rather than those which he was alive during! So basically, this line of reasoning is, if you have a source which only appears after a number of decades after the event and did not have access to sufficient sources, we should not trust them… Other than the Gospels, we can trust them! I mean, come on… Give me a break! Not only this, but one has to imagine whether the author would apply the same line of reasoning to the times in which Josephus talks about Jesus! When we consider that Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews was written around 93–94CE and he was not have been even born when Jesus was meant to have died, are we therefore to assume that we should disregard what he says about Jesus?!? This clearly shows the problem with applying a principle inconsistently, it can come back on you and bite you on the arse!

Basically, the following objections to Josephus can be more forcefully applied to the authors of the Gospels, yet it seems if the apologist is forced to challenge the reliability of either the anonymous author of Acts or the Gospels compared to one of the most prolific historians of antiquity, you know which one they will throw under the bus!

Second, the style of the writing in this passage is comparatively loose. In the passages preceding and following it, Josephus is careful to give numbers and close chronology. Our passage focuses on the sensational rather than the factual, and comes across as a tale ‘told from afar’.

I can’t believe anyone would have the balls to cite this as an argument against Josephus, as it is laughably weak! But ignoring the fact that if Josephus would have provided details about every single detail of every single person in the first century, Antiquities would be more than already extensive 20 books, the previous point provides a clue as to why Josephus’ would downplay the uprising here; his transfer of allegiances to Rome. Would the then-Roman citizen (who had already taken the Vespasian family name Flavius) want to highlight someone who would have been viewed by the Romans as a clear enemy had a huge following? Given the account, it is clear that he wants to not only downplay the event, but highlight that it ended badly for him:

It came to pass, while Cuspius Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain charlatan, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the Jordan river; 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. 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. After falling upon them unexpectedly, they slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem.

Jewish Antiquities 20.97-98

This is clearly trying to put a pro-Roman slant on the incident and thus, recalling the actual details was very much secondary to the main aim; to promote the Roman dealing of this threat to their power! Not only this, but it is not as though the Gospels or New Testament writings are exactly exhaustive and meticulous when it comes to detailing the events they describe. Just to take my favourite example of this from the end of the Gospel of John, literally the last passage says:

Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.

John 21:25

So yeah, it seems to me that you can only challenge sources you don’t like but you can’t apply that same principle to the New Testament, because that would be madness! Anyway, these two reasons to distrust Josephus have been piss-poor, what else has he got?

Third, despite the penchant for some scholars to credit Josephus over Acts, internal and external data suggests that Acts is careful with its sources, whereas Josephus is happy to make things up when it suits him.

The Theudas Problem in Acts 5 and Antiquities 20 (p. X)

Shall we ignore the obvious question-begging here? No, let’s not. While I of course agree that all sources have their own bias; on what planet can someone claim that “Acts is careful with its sources” when we don’t even know what the sources the author uses?!?! All we know from the internal evidence is that the author claims the sources they used are traditions “handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word” yet we do not know who these are! What’s more, the primary source which is used to compare Acts for external validationis Josephus’ writings! While I could rant all day about how Acts is merely trying to furnish an account of what the author wished happened, not what actually happened, I just find it staggering the lengths pop-apologists will stoop to in order to defend the Bible! But it gets better because the author also claims that:

On a purely historical basis, Acts would seem to have better credentials

I mean… do I really need to respond to this? I know apologists can be absolutely delusional but come on, really?!? I need to move on before I give myself a nosebleed from face palming so much! At least the author correctly points out that:

What then, of the position that both are correct — as put forward by FF Bruce — and that they refer to different incidents? This is also problematic. Not only is there no external evidence for an earlier Theudas, it is surprising that Josephus would not have clarified that his Theudas was the second Theudas, if there were two. If neither of the texts named their protagonist, then we would probably not conclude that the accounts were of the same person, but there is more to the similarities than simply a coincidence of name. Josephus clearly describes Theudas as a rebel claiming supernatural power and authority. Gamaliel says that he claimed to be ‘somebody’. By contrast with Judas, who is known for what he did, Theudas is known for who he claimed to be. Both accounts imply that some of the followers were killed, while others were dispersed. Not only are we left with the problem of Josephus failing to clarify the two Theudass, we are also left with the problem of why Luke did not clarify it.

I think we can reasonably reject this for the reasons above. So if we are to assume there are four options, we now need to consider the possibility that both Acts and Josephus were wrong. Given this, the author then goes on to note:

We are left with the other possibility, that both are incorrect. This might on the surface be seen to be the worst of all worlds, since it denies both our sources, is entirely errantist, and leaves us nowhere.

So if we are to assume that only one of these accounts is true, which should we prefer? Well before he attempts to answer this, he offers his own explanation as to the problem that the account in Acts seems to refer to that Judas the Galilean appeared after Theudas, when according to Josephus, this was the other way around. He argues:

[i]t is essentially the same in almost all translations — “After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census…” (NIV), representing μετὰ τοῦτον ἀνέστη Ἰούδας ὁ Γαλιλαῖος ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις τῆς ἀπογραφῆς. However, the Greek does not necessarily mean ‘after him’ in a chronological sense… We have the same ambiguity in modern English, in that we use ‘first, second’ and so on to refer both to time and to priority. Context is the key determinant. There is a problem of sentence logic which is solved if we take μετὰ τοῦτον to mean ‘after in importance or relevance’, rather than ‘after in time’.

My issue with this, is that he relies upon the English phrase of “some time ago” which in the Greek actually reads as πρὸ γὰρ τούτων τῶν ἡμερῶν ἀνέστη which translates more closely as “for before these days rose up” rather than “some time ago.” But let’s say he’s right and let us assume that this resolves the issue that Acts gets these in the wrong order, the problem with this, is still that:

However, this still leaves us at least nine years adrift from Josephus.

Yep it does! So what is your solution to this problem? Let’s see:

Josephus places the events in the procuratorship of Fadus, and describes the actions of Fadus in dealing with the events. This is clearly a Romanisation of his source. If he is remembering from his own childhood, then as a Jewish boy at the age of seven, which is where he is placing the events in his own lifetime, he would not have a clear recollection of who the procurator was, and certainly not of Fadus’s internal policy deliberations.

Erm… So are we to assume that Josephus’ only source of information about this is his own memory? As I mentioned earlier, Josephus literally talks about the creation of the universe in Book I of this collection and I’m going to guess he wasn’t there for that. Maybe, just maybe Josephus used sources other than his own memory. But anyway, let’s go along with this… So the argument here is that because Josephus was only 7 when this happened, we can’t necessarily trust his memory if this is his only source. Let’s see where he’s going with this. So he later argues:

given that he was deeply out of favour with the Jews and living in Rome with his fourth wife, who was Cretan rather than from Jerusalem, there is a strong reason to believe that he was working from his recollections of an oral source, or his earlier notes.

So again, let’s go along with this. Let’s say that we are not relying on Josephus’ memory of the event, but an earlier oral source (one would assume the notes he compiled would have to be based on some source anyway, so that doesn’t really solve the issue of what this source was) how does that help? Well the answer is, it doesn’t, given he later argues:

Exact knowledge of ‘who was procurator when’ would have been relatively easy for Josephus to gather, and his readers would have been sharply critical of any failure in that regard. Presenting the story through Roman eyes is entirely and absolutely in keeping with Josephus’s purpose and practice in writing.

Are you keeping up with this? Yeah me neither! So first we were to assume that Josephus’ only source for this was his own memory; but he would have been 7 and we can’t trust his memory for that. Then he argued that because he lived in Rome and had a wife not from Jerusalem, he must have been using an oral source or his own notes, rather than his memory. But now he is arguing that it would have been easy for Josephus to find out who was procurator at this time. So what is his point? Well he concludes by saying:

If we accept that Josephus did not have access to a direct chronology of Theudas, and that he inserted the name of the procurator to match the year he put the event in, then we approach a solution.

I’ll tell you what, I’m now completely lost! What does he mean by “direct chronology”? I can only assume he means Josephus did not have access to a first hand source from someone who was there when this occurred, but I honestly have no idea. So let’s say he’s right, I have no idea how we’d even know that but whatever, let’s go with that. But the rest of this is a complete mystery to me…

The reason why I’m lost is because Josephus does not report what year this happened. Instead, the only chronological marker Josephus uses is that this occurred “while Fadus was procurator of Judea.” It is not as though Josephus says “this occurred in year X” and that he inserted Fadus into this account because it matches the year he was talking about. Instead, chapter 5 of book XX just uses Fadus as the chronological anchor for us to know when this event took place. Therefore, the key question is; when was Fadus procurator? This is the key question! Unfortunately, the author does not address this issue, but instead, he immediately goes onto claim:

Let us posit for a moment that the Theudas revolt took place in CE 30, not CE 44. This makes it not seven years after the birth of Josephus, but seven years before — a very easy transposition to make for someone describing events that took place when he was too young to remember them. It would be hard for us to accept that Josephus had the dating of the events more than fifty years out, which would be the case if we took the standard translation of Acts 5, but not at all difficult to imagine that he confused before/after when he himself was fifty-seven and any sources that he might still have would be in their seventies. If he were working from a recollection of a story told to him in his youth, then this becomes all the more likely.

Hang on, let me get this straight! Let’s ignore the fact that there is literally no justification for saying that this took place in 30 CE… He is claiming that it difficult to imagine that Josephus would not be able to date the event accurately because he is reporting something which happened 50 years previously and so we can’t trust Josephus because he would have been 7. So his “solution” to this is to say that this occurred instead 7 years before he was even born and that his source is actually a story he was told as a youth. And that is a better solution?!?! But you’re not finished there are you…?

I am going to posit that Paul was present at the Sanhedrin on that day.

I mean, sure, why the hell not?! If we are just making up things, why don’t we just assume Paul was there!

He elsewhere states that he sat at the feet of Gamaliel, and he appears for the first time in the very next incident, which is the martyrdom of Stephen. The text does not suggest that there was a gap in time between the events, but rather that they are more or less contemporaneous, as indicated by ‘in those days’, Acts 6:1.

Before I address this, I need to point out there nowhere in Paul’s letters does he ever say he had any connection to Gamaliel. It is only in the book of Acts that says Paul studied in the Pharisee academy of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3). In Paul’s letters, he never says he was a pupil of Gamaliel, even when he is most concerned to stress his qualifications as a Pharisee. But I will explain the significance of this in another post. What does all of this mean? Well he provides us with a new chronology:

  • In CE 29 Jesus of Nazareth is executed, during a period of unrest which had also involved Barabbas in insurrection in the city (Luke 23:19). There is a deal of confusion shortly afterwards, and a resurgence of Jesus’s followers. However, they do not seem to have political aspirations, and distance themselves from violence. Most particularly, they do not involve themselves in mass movements of people, being content to remain for the most part at home.
  • In CE 30 Theudas, possibly inspired by the example of Jesus, and possibly disappointed that Jesus had not used his popularity and supernatural powers to restore the kingdom, declares that he, too, has miraculous powers, and leads a substantial number of people to the Jordan for a demonstration.
  • In CE 35, Peter and John are arrested… Gamaliel gives a short speech urging calm: if the men’s mission is of divine origin, it will succeed. If it is of human origin, it will fail. In the meantime, Stephen and others have been appointed, and, shortly afterwards, Stephen gets into an argument with Hellenistic Jews. They bring him to the place where the Sanhedrin meets, and those who happen to be there (Acts 6:15) pay careful attention to him. Stephen’s sermon sets off along lines they are familiar with, but by the end enough of them are incensed that they drag him out of the city to stone him.

In other words, his chronology of what happened is that:

  • 29 CE Jesus of Nazareth is executed (which has the huge problem that that Gospels say that this coincides the celebration of a Friday Passover, which is the 14th Nisan would have to be either April 7, AD 30 or April 3, AD 33 see: Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54)
  • A year later in 30 CE Theudas tried to start his own movement and was killed. And this happened in this year because… well why not this year?
  • 35 CE Peter and John are arrested and the incident in Acts 5 transpires
  • Not long after this, Steven is stoned to death (Acts 6:15)

So basically, let’s try and see if we can understand his conclusion:

Solution 4 — that we have mistranslated ‘meta touton’, and that Josephus got his before/after mixed up when dealing with an oral tradition from his childhood, relies on just one error by one of the authors, rather than a wholesale dismissal of one or a dubious reconciliation which creates as many problems as it solves.

So basically, his argument is that; you have to assume is that Josephus got his information as a child, whoever this person was told him that this episode occurred 7 years before he was born and Josephus then didn’t bother to check this at all. Instead, when he reports this later for some reason misremembered and reported this as 7 years after he was born and then made the inference that this must have had to occur during the time that Fadus was procurator so claimed that this was when it occurred.

The trouble is, as with many claims of Christians regarding issues with chronologies, they simply try and change the dates of events and think this doesn’t have an impact on anything else. It is like they have never seen a time-travel film! This is probably most obvious with the issue of the birth of Jesus occurring both during the reign of King Herod and the Census of Quirinius but the same principle applies here. Unless you try and argue that Josephus is just doing a kind of 2 + 2 = 5 analysis of he is just saying Fadus was procurator at the time he thinks this revolt occurred (because he heard it as a child?!?) the fundamental issue is when was Fadus procurator? 

We know from Josephus that he was appointed after the death of King Agrippa, in 44 CE and we know he was the last King from the Herodian dynasty and Acts 12 itself provides a similar account to Josephus in Antiquities (19.8.2 343-361) of his death. So if we know that Fadus was appointed after this he was with a fair degree of certainty, it is not as simple as just saying that everything to do with Theudas occurred 14 years earlier without this impacting upon other issues with the timeline! 

In the same way when apologists try and argue that the King Herod (the Great) mentioned in Matthew’s nativity was alive during the census mentioned in Luke’s account, nearly 10 years later, this is hugely problematic. This is because the entire point of the census (recorded in the Gospel of Luke) was that because when Herod the Great died, the Romans then had to divide his kingdom among his children, which meant that the land needed to then be divided between three of his sons and his sister. Specifically, his son (confusing also called Herod) Archelaus became ethnarch of the tetrarchy of Judea. But in 6 CE the Roman Empire deposed Herod Archelaus and converted his territory into a Roman province which meant that Quirinius was assigned to carry out a tax census of this new province. Before that, Judea was not under Roman rule, but this meant from 6 CE, those living in Judea had to pay taxes to Rome which met resistance from a group of rebels led by Judas of Galilee (the same Judas mentioned in this passage in Acts from above… I don’t just throw these blog posts together you know!) This therefore means, you can’t just claim that things happened whenever suits your argument, because this precise sequence of events must have been in place for the census to take place! 

With all this being said; where does that leave us with the fundamental issue of whether Acts borrows from Josephus? Unfortunately, it seems the issue is, when apologists insist that the internal evidence implies that the account was written before 62CE and given this, when Acts and Josephus are in agreement this is taken to mean Josephus is confirming the details found in the book of Acts. And then, when these are in conflict, they hold to the a priori assumption is that Josephus must be in some way mistaken. Furthermore, if you attempt to add into the mix that you can bring up the issue of Luke’s dependence on Mark, this is not an issue, because the apologist can just move the dating of Mark’s Gospel to even earlier! So while one could make the case that the fact that the Gospel of Luke depends heavily on the Gospel of Mark, this would therefore mean we can date this, and thus Acts, as later than 62 CE. However, the issue with this argument, is that while virtually all scholars maintain that Luke knew the Gospel of Mark and used it as one of their main sources, it seems the apologetic get-out-of-jail-free-card with this, is just to push the date of Mark even earlier!

Basically, it seems as though whether this episode is included or not, it seems that you cannot possibly convince the apologist that Acts was not written until after the events it describes because they will always maintain a date closer to the event. And as the example of the Gospel of Mark makes clear, this would be true whether or not the account talks about specific details or not! Either way, I hope this post not only proves that this case being made against Josephus here is probably one of the most ridiculous lines of reasoning I’ve seen since the good ol’ days of Kent Hovind’s YEC, but that you can’t just be flippant being when you date things. Historical events are not like lego bricks that you can just swap and change at will. Instead, they are more like pieces in a jigsaw which have to be in the precise sequence for it to make any sense.

* I do recognise the paradox of saying that I have not mentioned Donald Trump being president, I am in fact then saying Donald Trump is president in this post. So for any smart arse who was going to point that out, ha! I beat you to it!

One thought on “The Theudas Problem in Acts 5 and Antiquities 20

  1. I want to first point out that I do not consider the dating of Luke or his dependency on particular sources (such as Josephus’ writings) to be a threat to the validity of Christianity’s claims of Jesus’ salvific role, messianic title, divinity, death, resurrection, and return… Therefore, I am even more willing to modify my current position on Luke’s authorship than I would on passages where Christianity’s claims rest more inflexibly.

    As for your blog’s post:
    First, forgive me for not clarifying my use of this citation. I was simply trying to put forth the reality that there are a number of alternative interpretations that do not suggest that Luke (or his source) were incorrect in regard to Theudas. However, your response to his post does provide ample room for discussion and I believe it reveals major problems in the rationale you employ to arrive at your conclusion that Luke adopted the description of Theudas and Judas the G in his (supposed) recounting of Gamaliel’s speech. I will address points as they appeared in your blog and make concluding remarks afterwards.

    You begin the blog with a mention about our discussions being “child’s play (after all, it’s a lot easier to argue when you know you’re right!).”
    …Now of course you’ll realize I come with a similar level of confidence (I could even argue a greater level of confidence), but I will warn you that such a position can suppress progression in the conversation toward truth, which I assume is our objective in all conversations to follow. And do note that I recognize the obvious bias in the fact that I have been a follower of Jesus (Christian) for about six years, so I am inclined in any conversation to defend assertions that give evidence that Christianity’s claims are true. But in order to open my mind to the potentiality of being wrong about certain passages, I adopt a policy that the truth of “mere” Christianity is not dependent upon strict inerrancy. However, I do lean towards inerrancy at a more general sense both personally and in conversation with others, that allows for God to preserve core principles and details of Scripture throughout time, while allowing for scribal errors or even slight discrepancies between the Synoptics. These issues tend to be more important with “in-house” discussions among Christians and do not present difficulties to Christians, in that they do not challenge the validity of the Christian faith.

    You say that your “post is to deal with the apologetic assertion that the author of Luke-Acts was written around 62CE at the earliest!”
    …I’d argue that your post was primarily concerned with the problems from the citation I provided, and most of the problems you pointed out I actually agree with.

    “In the simplest terms, the line of reasoning is this: the book of Acts does not mention a number of details in the first century and so the author must have been writing before these events even occurred. These include the death of the apostle Paul, who died probably in the mid-to-late 60s, thus, while Acts 28:30-31 tells us that Paul was under arrest for two years but does to mention his execution. Nor are we told about the death of James in the year 62CE as well as the destruction of Jerusalem in the year 70CE and the persecution of Christians by Nero in 64CE. So the only reason (or perhaps the best reason?) why the author does not record these details, is because they had not happened yet. It’s just so obvious… right?!?”
    …This is seriously misrepresenting the argument. There are many points of data that suggest pre-70AD authorship. But I will get to that in a moment. But yes, the exclusion of details pertinent to Luke’s narrative are included in the category of internal evidence suggesting early authorship.

    “…those who claim that it must have been written before these events because it does not mention it, also typically claim that the Gospel of Mark (at least) was written before the destruction of the Temple even though the Gospel talk about it (more on this below). In other words, I find it strange that on the one hand, when the Gospel of Mark talks in great detail events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in chapter 13, they are happy to say that this was written before the actual events it talks about. Yet when the book of Acts doesn’t mention these details this is taken as evidence that these had not happened yet. Surely if you accept that the Gospel of Mark was written in the 50s (or any time before the Jewish War) and is merely vividly describing a these as a form of prophecy or premonition, the author of Acts could have written literally anything at literally any time without them necessarily having to have happened yet for the same reason. The apologist could just argue that it it was written in the 20s and all of the details it records are just based on someone’s vivid prophecy being recounted and that none of the actual events it records had happened yet. So for me, it seems strange that whether the account records does record specific details or does not both are taken as evidence of early authorship. But then again, this is the perfect apologetic strategy; heads they win, tails you lose!”
    …Yeah, I think here you inadvertently revealed your reasoning for dating Luke to post-70 AD. The reason I have been pressing you on your dating of the authorship of Luke has been because the only reasoning that I have been given for late authorship (post-70 AD) of the synoptics is the prophetic statement by Jesus that the Temple of Jerusalem would be utterly destroyed. In fact, this happened (as you know) in 70 AD. The clear nature of the passage is prophetic, but you use this passage to date Luke’s source material (Mark or Mark’s source material) to after 70 AD… so you begin with the presupposition that Jesus didn’t actually say this. And to be clear (and to reiterate), this passage is clearly prophetic. You equate all of the gospel as having identical style and meaning when you say that Acts could have been written in the 20s… but prophetically. But if Jesus is clearly discussing (during his ministry – early 30s AD) events that happened in 70 AD, then this is clearly prophetic in nature. Therefore, like the late dating of the book of Daniel (or even the Pentateuch), a major underlying assumption for biblical scholars when dating authorship is that prophecy is not legitimate, so therefore the texts that include them must have been written after the events they predict take place. This is why prophecies about Jesus are easier to validate, as we know the writing of these preceded His birth. Let me put it this way, if the prophecy of the destruction of the Temple were not in the Synoptics, would you date the authorship of Mark after 70 AD?

    “With all that being said, obviously the main problem with this analysis is that this rests upon the assumption that the author of Luke-Acts wanted to record everything extensively and the fact they did not mention something, this must have been because it had not happened yet.”
    …Again, this is misrepresenting the argument and avoiding the point. The sequence of events and nature of Luke’s writing (in Acts) largely correspond to recounting Paul’s travels (and as you would suggest, the delivery of the Gospel to Rome) and would necessarily include his death! Certainly, the death of Peter, who has a major role in Acts, would also be pertinent information, even for the coherency of the narrative. Any reader would ask at the end of Acts: “well what happened to Paul!” Exclusion of details does not necessitate dating that precedes these events, but it does if these details fit coherently into the nature, purpose, and message of the text. More on this in a moment.

    You quote Mike Licona: “Data the reporting historian deems uninteresting, unimportant, or irrelevant to his purpose in writing are usually omitted.”
    …I hardly would consider the victorious death of Paul after successfully delivering the Gospel to Rome uninteresting, unimportant, or irrelevant. And certainly, if the purpose of the text is what you suggest later to be focusing on the “new home of Christianity” being Rome, then why would Luke exclude the major detail about the “old home” (Jerusalem) being destroyed by the Romans less than a decade later? You are being a bit inconsistent here.

    “To use a simple analogy, imagine someone discovers this blog in a thousand years (alright, it’s a long shot, but just go with it!) should they assume that because I have not mentioned Donald Trump was president, this should be taken to mean I was writing before this*?”
    …If this blog was about modern presidents and international relationships with the United States, then yes, I would certainly conclude that this was written before Donald Trump was president. If I am recounting the travels and ministry of Paul, I would hardly dismiss the important detail of his death if I wrote after it happened.

    “For instance, an obvious reason could be that the main purpose of the book of Acts was to report the triumph of Christianity and killing main characters of this era and detailing persecution by the Romans would surely have harmed this victorious picture the author was trying to create!”
    …But Luke does recount the death of major Christian figures (e.g. Stephen, Acts 7:54-8:2 and the apostle James, Acts 12:1-2). And why would Luke exclude the detail that Paul delivered the Gospel to Caesar as he said he would (Act 27:23-25), or why not exclude this passage if he knew it may not have taken place?

    “While this is certainly an issue which will not be readily solved, given apologists will literally believe anything to affirm the earliest dates they can, it seems as though if the only reason to believe an account was written at a time is because it does not mention specific details is incredibly weak.”
    …I’ll ignore that first part. Ok, so I will expand upon further reasoning we have for early authorship by Luke. There is the internal evidence, which includes exclusion of details pertinent to Luke’s narrative and message. I’ve already discussed these briefly. Luke also claims to have access to eyewitness testimony of the events during and after Jesus’ ministry (Luke 1:1-4). This is an assertion that positions us to either verify early authorship of Luke (assuming his sources weren’t all 100 years old) or dismiss his assertion as a lie. There is unanimous consensus among early (2nd century) Church leaders (e.g. Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and others) that Paul’s companion Luke wrote the gospel attributed to him and the book of Acts. Paul seems to quote from the Gospel of Luke in his first letter to Timothy and first letter to the Corinthians (1 Tim 5:18, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26), although some would argue that Paul did not write 1 Timothy (I do hold to a position that Paul wrote this letter, although this is a complicated matter that we can discuss at a later time). The “we” passages of Luke are positioned in Acts within a sequence of events and locations that are highly detailed (and now verified), suggesting first-hand account from the author himself. And Paul refers to Luke in three of his letters (Colossians, 2 Timothy, Philemon), suggesting that this was an actual companion. Yes, this all points to early authorship.

    “But before I do *fun fact* this passage in Acts was the final nail in the coffin for me to finally get off my arse and write my current book because (contrary to the apologetic assertion) that this speech apparently spoken by Gamaliel (more on that below) proves Christianity as true, I would argue that this provides the best evidence against the notion that Christianity is “of God.” But you’ll have to wait for my book to see why!”
    …This is quite an assertion. I certainly hope this is the “best evidence” that Christianity is not of God, because this appears to be seriously weak reasoning. But I’ll wait to read your book before making a final assessment.

    “Despite this, in response to this accusation, Michael cited a… something, I have no idea if what this is… Anyway, whatever it is, he linked me to this: The Theudas Problem in Acts 5 and Antiquities 20 which apparently can shed some light on the issue!”
    …Again, I certainly did not intend on this article to represent my standing on the issue, but it does point out a major alternative explanation: Josephus could have inaccurately dated the events of Theudas. That’s it. And that is not necessarily my position on the issue, but it does represent an explanation and points out that some scholars will immediately dismiss Luke’s authenticity if it disagrees with our only other historical source on a detail (in this case Josephus).

    His post does include a point that I was hoping that you would catch: “I am going to posit that Paul was present at the Sanhedrin on that day.”
    …I actually agree with this interpretation. Given that Luke later (Acts 22:3) explains that Paul studied under Gamaliel, this would explain where Luke got his information on Gamaliel’s speech. You are correct that Paul does not mention this in his letters, but I hardly consider this concrete evidence that he did not actually study under Gamaliel. And this contradicts your assertion that people in history can exclude details that are irrelevant. Paul could have easily considered the name of the person he studied under to be irrelevant.

    “In other words, his chronology of what happened is that:
    29 CE Jesus of Nazareth is executed (which has the huge problem that that Gospels say that this coincides the celebration of a Friday Passover, which is the 14th Nisan would have to be either April 7, AD 30 or April 3, AD 33 see: Matthew 27:62, Mark 15:42, Luke 23:54)
    A year later in 30 CE Theudas tried to start his own movement and was killed. And this happened in this year because… well why not this year?
    35 CE Peter and John are arrested and the incident in Acts 5 transpires
    Not long after this, Steven is stoned to death (Acts 6:15)”
    …I agree with you that Jesus died on April 3, 33 AD and that the events centered around Josephus’ Theudas likely occurred in the mid-40’s AD.

    “Unfortunately, it seems the issue is, when apologists insist that the internal evidence implies that the account was written before 62CE and given this, when Acts and Josephus are in agreement this is taken to mean Josephus is confirming the details found in the book of Acts. And then, when these are in conflict, they hold to the a priori assumption is that Josephus must be in some way mistaken. Furthermore, if you attempt to add into the mix that you can bring up the issue of Luke’s dependence on Mark, this is not an issue, because the apologist can just move the dating of Mark’s Gospel to even earlier! So while one could make the case that the fact that the Gospel of Luke depends heavily on the Gospel of Mark, this would therefore mean we can date this, and thus Acts, as later than 62 CE. However, the issue with this argument, is that while virtually all scholars maintain that Luke knew the Gospel of Mark and used it as one of their main sources, it seems the apologetic get-out-of-jail-free-card with this, is just to push the date of Mark even earlier!”
    … But you never gave evidence that Mark was written before 70 AD, aside from your mention of Jesus’ prophecy that the Temple would be destroyed, which assumes that He didn’t actually say this. Yes, Luke and Matthew use Mark (or Mark’s source material) to write their gospels, but there is little evidence that this source material (or Mark itself) was written late. There is strong evidence that suggests that it was in fact written early, but that is a very complicated issue that would take far longer to discuss.

    Final Words
    I enjoyed reading your post, but you didn’t really touch on the important points, such as evidence that Luke used Josephus’ works to write Acts or any other evidence that would place Luke’s authorship after the 60’s AD. If the similarities between Acts and Josephus’ writings is your strongest evidence for dating Luke-Acts to after 70 AD, then you have very little evidence for that claim. The assertion that Luke depends upon Josephus as a source pushes back authorship to the second century. Therefore, your evidence for his reliance upon Josephus must be strong (stronger than the evidence for 60-80 AD authorship). So let’s consider it:

    Josephus and Luke include the names of Theudas and Judas the G in the same order. That’s pretty much it.

    You failed to include quite a bit of information that pushes against your model that Luke used Josephus. For example, how did Luke get the information about dating Judas the G correct, but not those of Theudas correct? IF Luke inaccurately dated the rebellion of Theudas, this would only suggest that he did not rely upon Josephus for this information. And note that Josephus and Luke differ markedly in recounting two rebels with the same name. When looking at the texts, the only similarity are the names of the individuals. Luke excludes Judas’ sons, includes his death (not in Josephus), etc.

    If the fact that Luke and Josephus refer to two rebels with the same name is the strongest evidence for one’s reliance on another, then there must be very little evidence indeed!

    A MAJOR presupposition that I have already noted is that Josephus is to be trusted before Luke, and you note that you detest when Christians do the opposite.

    Here are some possible models:
    – Luke is right. Josephus is right.
    o This would necessitate the possibility that they are referring to two people named Theudas. This is plausible given that Luke would unnecessarily provide correct dating of Judas but incorrectly date the events of Theudas.
    – Josephus is right. Luke is wrong.
    o This is certainly the position that many scholars will hold. However, it is quite possible that Luke is recounting a speech given by Gamaliel, which would have been mentioned by Paul, and inserted historical characters that his readers would be familiar with to give relevant examples. This would push against the principle of strict inerrancy, which Christianity’s core claims are not dependent upon.
    o Luke may have just given a summary of the speech (where Gamaliel simply exclaimed that Christianity will fall like all of the other uprisings if God is not behind it) using an inaccurate timeline with one character (Theudas) that would have been familiar to the readers but would have not represented precisely what Gamaliel said.
    – Luke is right. Josephus is wrong.
    – Both are wrong.

    I don’t necessarily hold to a particular model. However, I do think that Luke referring to a minor uprising before Judas the G (with another man named Theudas) or his insertion of Theudas into the summary of Gamiel’s speech are each attractive, historically and textually consistent, and do not present any difficulties for the Christian reader.

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