The Bible and Archaeology: The Book of Acts—The Church Begins

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The Bible and Archaeology

The Book of Acts—The Church Begins

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As discussed in recent issues of The Good News, archaeologists have made many discoveries that verify and illuminate our understanding of the four Gospels. After the Gospels, the next section in the New Testament we will survey is the books of the Acts of the Apostles, or simply Acts.

The book of Acts is simply a continuation of one of the Gospel accounts. Luke compiled his Gospel about Jesus Christ as the first volume of a two-part work. In his first manuscript he covered the life of Jesus; in the second he described the early history of the Church Jesus founded.

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary notes: “The Acts of the Apostles is the name given to the second part of a two-volume work traditionally identified as having been written by Luke, a companion of the apostle Paul. Originally the two volumes circulated together as two parts of one complete writing” (Richard Longenecker, 1981, Vol. 9, p. 207).

Luke explains to Theophilus, to whom he dedicated this work, the purpose of his first tome: “The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up …” (Acts 1:1-2 Acts 1:1-2 1 The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, 2 Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments to the apostles whom he had chosen:
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). The phrase former account in this first verse is proton logos in Greek. It refers to the first papyrus roll of a larger work, called in Greek tomos, from which we get our English word tome.

In the second scroll Luke relates events that took place after Jesus “was parted from them [the disciples] and carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51 Luke 24:51And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.
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). It covers about the first 30 years of Church history.

A scholar attacks Acts

About a century ago British scholar William Ramsay focused on the book of Acts to try to show it was rife with geographical and archaeological errors. After all, many scholars of his day, equipped with the tools of textual criticism and archaeology, had exposed many errors in other classic writings. This eminent humanity professor diligently prepared himself by studying archaeology and geography before departing for the Middle East and Asia Minor in his quest to prove Luke’s history of the early Church was mostly myth.

His quest didn’t turn out as he expected. After a quarter century of research in what is today Israel and Turkey, where he carefully retraced the steps of the apostles as described in the book of Acts, this famous unbeliever shook the intellectual world when he announced he had converted to Christianity. He confessed this radical change of mind and heart was thanks in great part to his surprise at the accuracy he found in Luke’s narrative in Acts.

After decades of examining the historical and geographical details mentioned in the book, Ramsay concluded: “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historic sense … In short this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians” ( The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament, 1953, p. 80).

He went on to write many books about Acts and the epistles of Paul. Ultimately Ramsay was knighted for his contributions to the study of archaeology and geography.

The tomb of King David

When the Christian Church began on the Day of Pentecost, when its first 120 members received God’s Spirit, thousands of Jewish pilgrims were visiting Jerusalem worshiping at the time of that holy festival (Acts 2:1-5 Acts 2:1-5 1 And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. 2 And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. 3 And there appeared to them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat on each of them. 4 And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. 5 And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven.
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That day the apostle Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, delivered an inspired sermon to the Jewish crowd. Thousands heard and repented of their sins. Speaking of the recent resurrection of Jesus, he quoted from one of King David’s prophetic psalms: “For You will not leave my soul in Hades, nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption” (Acts 2:27 Acts 2:27Because you will not leave my soul in hell, neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption.
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; Psalms 16:10 Psalms 16:10For you will not leave my soul in hell; neither will you suffer your Holy One to see corruption.
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Peter continued: “Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day” (Acts 2:29 Acts 2:29Men and brothers, let me freely speak to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his sepulcher is with us to this day.
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, emphasis added). Peter, speaking in the temple area in Jerusalem, could point to the nearby tombs of the kings of Israel-specifically David’s burial site.

Although it was not an Israelite or Jewish custom to bury the dead in towns or cities, royalty was an exception. The Bible records that “David rested with his fathers, and was buried in the City of David” (1 Kings 2:10 1 Kings 2:10So David slept with his fathers, and was buried in the city of David.
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). Many later Israelite kings were also buried in Jerusalem, although not all in the designated tombs of the kings. For instance, evil King Jehoram was buried “in the City of David, but not in the tombs of the kings” (2 Chronicles 21:20 2 Chronicles 21:20Thirty and two years old was he when he began to reign, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years, and departed without being desired. However, they buried him in the city of David, but not in the sepulchers of the kings.
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Several hundred years later, during the restoration of Jerusalem under Nehemiah, the area around the tombs of the kings was repaired. “After him Nehemiah the son of Azbuk … made repairs as far as the place in front of the tombs of David …” (Nehemiah 3:16 Nehemiah 3:16After him repaired Nehemiah the son of Azbuk, the ruler of the half part of Bethzur, to the place over against the sepulchers of David, and to the pool that was made, and to the house of the mighty.
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Josephus, a Jewish historian born shortly after Peter gave his Pentecost sermon, wrote that a few decades earlier Herod the Great had broken into David’s tomb at night to plunder its riches, only to discover a previous king had already looted it ( Antiquities of the Jews, Book XVI, Chapter VII, Section 1). David’s tomb was widely known even when Josephus wrote his account decades after Peter’s sermon.

A.T. Robertson notes: “His [David’s] tomb was on Mt. Zion where most of the kings were buried. The tomb was said to have fallen into ruins in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian [A.D. 117-138]” ( Word Pictures in the New Testament, Bible Explorer software).

Although archaeologists don’t agree on whether the extensive tomb area discovered almost a century ago in the southern end of Jerusalem is the location of the tombs of the kings of Israel, the location agrees with accounts mentioned in the Bible and does have the backing of some prominent scholars.

Hershel Shanks, editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, writes: “The proposed site of David’s tomb, and of others adjacent to it, is precisely where one would expect to find the burial site mentioned in the Bible-in the southern part of the City of David, an area that would normally be forbidden to burials.

“In 1913 to 1914 a Frenchman named Raymond Weill excavated this area and found several tombs that he numbered T1 to T8 … The most magnificent of these tombs is T1. It is a kind of long tunnel or artificially excavated cave 52½ feet long, over 8 feet wide and over 13 feet high … The fact that some extravagant, even ostentatious tombs were located precisely where the Bible says the kings of Judah, including King David, were buried certainly suggests to a reasonable mind that the fanciest of these tombs (T1) may well have belonged to King David” ( Biblical Archaeological Review, January-February, 1995, p. 64).

Precise identification is difficult because the area was heavily quarried in later centuries and only portions of the tombs remain. Whether more research can confirm this site as David’s tomb or not, we can be confident that during Peter’s sermon given on the Day of Pentecost, when the New Testament Church began, he could point to an area in Jerusalem where everyone knew David’s tomb was located and could attest that his remains were still there.

David obviously had not risen from the dead, but now Peter and many other witnesses could confirm that it had been Jesus’ tomb, not David’s, that had opened and from which Jesus had come back to life, confirming He was the Messiah. Thousands of Jewish listeners could not refute the evidence. This proof, among others, led many to accept Jesus as the Messiah immediately (Acts 2:41 Acts 2:41Then they that gladly received his word were baptized: and the same day there were added to them about three thousand souls.
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Gamaliel the wise

During the days and weeks after Peter’s sermon, the apostles faced violent opposition, including being thrown in jail.

During their trial before their incarceration, many Jewish authorities plotted to kill them, but one of the chief religious leaders spoke up in their defense:

“Then one in the council stood up, a Pharisee named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in respect by all the people … And he said to them: ‘Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men … I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing; but if it is of God, you cannot overthrow it-lest you even be found to fight against God.’ And they agreed with him, and when they had called for the apostles and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go” (Acts 5:34-40 Acts 5:34-40 34 Then stood there up one in the council, a Pharisee, named Gamaliel, a doctor of the law, had in reputation among all the people, and commanded to put the apostles forth a little space; 35 And said to them, You men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do as touching these men. 36 For before these days rose up Theudas, boasting himself to be somebody; to whom a number of men, about four hundred, joined themselves: who was slain; and all, as many as obeyed him, were scattered, and brought to nothing. 37 After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed. 38 And now I say to you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nothing: 39 But if it be of God, you cannot overthrow it; lest haply you be found even to fight against God. 40 And to him they agreed: and when they had called the apostles, and beaten them, they commanded that they should not speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.
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This Gamaliel, who opposed the apostles’ execution, was a teacher of Paul (Acts 22:3 Acts 22:3I am truly a man which am a Jew, born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, yet brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, and taught according to the perfect manner of the law of the fathers, and was zealous toward God, as you all are this day.
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). He was the grandson of Hillel, the founder of a dominant school of the Pharisees, a major branch of Judaism.

Gamaliel’s family name has been confirmed by archaeological findings. In a tomb in the catacombs of Beth-Shearim, near the Sea of Galilee, in a section called the Tomb of the Patriarchs, one of the graves has an inscription in Hebrew and Greek: “This [tomb] is of the Rabbi Gamaliel.” The Gamaliel of Bible fame was the first of an illustrious rabbinic family bearing his name. This tomb was that of one of his descendants.

The historian Josephus and some Talmudic works also mention Gamaliel, describing him as a benevolent and brilliant man. William Barclay adds: “He was a kindly man with a far wider tolerance than his fellows. He was, for instance, one of the very few Pharisees who did not regard Greek culture as sinful. He was one of the very few to whom the title ‘Rabban’ had been given. Men called him ‘The Beauty of the Law.’ When he died it was said, ‘Since Rabban Gamaliel died there has been no more reverence for the Law; and purity and abstinence died out at the same time’ ” ( The Daily Study Bible Commentary, Bible Explorer software). So we see another biblical figure mentioned in the Scriptures confirmed by sources outside the Bible.

History confirms still another biblical character

As the gospel spread to the outlying areas of Israel, Peter arrived in Samaria to preach the Word of God. There he met a magician named Simon, who was baptized but was later rejected by Peter and John for trying to bribe his way into a position of power and influence in the Church (Acts 8:18-24 Acts 8:18-24 18 And when Simon saw that through laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, 19 Saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost. 20 But Peter said to him, Your money perish with you, because you have thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. 21 You have neither part nor lot in this matter: for your heart is not right in the sight of God. 22 Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you. 23 For I perceive that you are in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity. 24 Then answered Simon, and said, Pray you to the LORD for me, that none of these things which you have spoken come on me.
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Nothing else is directly mentioned in the Scriptures about this shady character, known in history as Simon Magus. However, about a century after Simon’s death, writings appear that describe his activities after the apostles rejected him.

Writing to the Romans, Justin Martyr comments: “There was a Samaritan, Simon, a native of the village called Gitto, who in the reign of Claudius Caesar [A.D. 41-54], and in your royal city of Rome, did mighty acts of magic, by virtue of the art of the devil’s operating in him. He was considered a god, and as a god was honored by you with a statue, which statue was erected on the river Tiber, between two bridges, and bore this inscription, in the language of Rome: ‘Simoni Deo Sancto’ [To Simon the holy God]. And almost all the Samaritans, and a few even of other nations, worship him …” ( The Ante-Nicene Fathers, “The First Apology of Justin,” p. 171).

In 1574 excavators found a fragment of marble on an island in the Tiber River with the inscription “Semoni Sanco Deu Fidio.” Some interpret this as referring to a Sabine deity, Semo Sancus, but most likely it was part of the statue Justin Martyr described as having been dedicated to Simon Magus.

The editors of The Ante-Nicene Fathers make this point: “It is very generally supposed that Justin was mistaken in understanding this to have been a statue erected to Simon Magus. This supposition rests on the fact that in the year 1574 there was dug up in the island of the Tiber a fragment of marble, with the inscription ‘Semoni Sanco Deo,’ etc., being probably the base of a statue erected to the Sabine deity Semo Sancus. This inscription Justin is supposed to have mistaken for the one he gives above.

“This has always seemed to us very slight evidence on which to reject so precise a statement as Justin here makes; a statement which he would scarcely have hazarded in an apology addressed to Rome, where every person had the means of ascertaining its accuracy. If, as is supposed, he made a mistake, it must have been at once exposed, and other writers would not have so frequently repeated the story as they have done” (ibid., footnote, p. 171).

Whether the base of the statue was dedicated to Simon Magus or not, the historicity of this biblical personage is also confirmed in literature of the second and third centuries.

Paul in Damascus

After the gospel went to Samaria, it spread northward to Damascus, where a dramatic conversion took place-that of Saul, who became the apostle Paul. After his conversion God told him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do” (Acts 9:6 Acts 9:6And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what will you have me to do? And the Lord said to him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told you what you must do.
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After Paul arrived in Damascus, Jesus spoke in a vision to Ananias, one of the Christians living there: “So the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire at the house of Judas for one called Saul of Tarsus, for behold, he is praying” (Acts 9:11 Acts 9:11And the Lord said to him, Arise, and go into the street which is called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for one called Saul, of Tarsus: for, behold, he prays,
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The street called Straight was one of the main avenues in Damascus. The Expositor’s Bible Commentary explains: “The street called Straight was an east-west street that is still one of the main thoroughfares of Damascus, the Derb el-Mustaqim . It had colonnaded halls on either side and imposing gates at each end … and presumably was as well known in antiquity as Regent Street in London or Michigan Avenue in Chicago today. The directions included not only the name of the street but also the house where Saul could be found” (Longenecker, p. 373).

When the Jews persecuted Paul in Damascus, his friends lowered him from the city’s walls in a basket (Acts 9:25 Acts 9:25Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket.
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). Archaeologists have discovered sections of this ancient wall, which the Romans built. John McRay writes: “Part of the Roman wall has been found about 1000 feet south of the East Gate (Bab Sharqi) beneath Saint Paul’s Chapel and Window. Under the present Ottoman gateway, this small chapel was built by Greek Catholics over a gate from the Roman period. Tradition associates the spot with Paul’s escape by a basket that was lowered from a window in the wall (2 Corinthians 11:33 2 Corinthians 11:33And through a window in a basket was I let down by the wall, and escaped his hands.
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)” ( Archaeology and the New Testament, 1991, p. 234).

Magnificent Caesarea

Meanwhile in Jerusalem Peter had been arrested again and this time was sentenced to death by Herod Agrippa, grandson of Herod the Great. A few decades ago this ruler, too, was confirmed as a historical figure when Israeli archaeologist Benjamin Mazar found scale weights with Herod Agrippa’s name and title that date to the fifth year of his reign.

When Herod Agrippa heard of Peter’s miraculous escape (Acts 12:5-9 Acts 12:5-9 5 Peter therefore was kept in prison: but prayer was made without ceasing of the church to God for him. 6 And when Herod would have brought him forth, the same night Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains: and the keepers before the door kept the prison. 7 And, behold, the angel of the Lord came on him, and a light shined in the prison: and he smote Peter on the side, and raised him up, saying, Arise up quickly. And his chains fell off from his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, Gird yourself, and bind on your sandals. And so he did. And he said to him, Cast your garment about you, and follow me. 9 And he went out, and followed him; and knew not that it was true which was done by the angel; but thought he saw a vision.
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), he flew into a rage. “But when Herod had searched for him and not found him, he examined the guards and commanded that they should be put to death. And he went down from Judea to Caesarea, and stayed there” (verse 19).

Caesarea was an impressive artificial port built by Herod the Great. Named in honor of Augustus Caesar, it became the Roman headquarters of Judea. Herod also had a magnificent palace there where he would court Roman officials.

“The city included buildings typical of a Hellenistic city, such as a theater, amphitheater, hippodrome, aqueduct, colonnaded street, and an impressive temple dedicated to Caesar” ( The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, 1962, Vol. 1, p. 480). Most of the remains of these buildings have recently been found by archaeologists, including a stone plaque that mentions Pontius Pilate [see The Good News, May-June 2000, p. 25].

“I was on the supervisory staff at Caesarea from the beginning of full-scale excavations in 1972 until 1982,” writes John McKay. “Our work has largely confirmed the impression given by Josephus in both his Wars and Antiquities, of the grand scale on which Herod built to satisfy his own vanity and that of the emperor Augustus” ( Archaeology and the New Testament, 1991, pp. 139-140).

Herod Agrippa’s death

The Bible also records Herod Agrippa’s unexpected death at Caesarea. “Now Herod had been very angry with the people of Tyre and Sidon; but they came to him with one accord, and having made Blastus the king’s personal aide their friend, they asked for peace, because their country was supplied with food by the king’s country. So on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne and gave an oration to them. And the people kept shouting, ‘The voice of a god and not of a man!’ Then immediately an angel of the Lord struck him, because he did not give glory to God. And he was eaten by worms and died” (Acts 12:20-23 Acts 12:20-23 20 And Herod was highly displeased with them of Tyre and Sidon: but they came with one accord to him, and, having made Blastus the king’s chamberlain their friend, desired peace; because their country was nourished by the king’s country. 21 And on a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat on his throne, and made an oration to them. 22 And the people gave a shout, saying, It is the voice of a god, and not of a man. 23 And immediately the angel of the Lord smote him, because he gave not God the glory: and he was eaten of worms, and gave up the ghost.
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Josephus offers additional details in his independent account of Herod Agrippa’s death: “On the second day of which shows he put on a garment made wholly of silver, and of a contexture truly wonderful, and came into the theatre early in the morning; at which time the silver of his garment being illuminated by the fresh reflection of the sun’s rays upon it, shone out after a surprising manner … and presently his flatterers cried out … ‘Be thou merciful to us; for although we have hitherto reverenced thee only as a man, yet shall we henceforth own thee as superior to mortal nature.’ Upon this the king did neither rebuke them, nor reject their impious flattery … A severe pain also arose in his belly … And when he had been quite worn by the pain in his belly for five days, he departed this life …” ( Antiquities of the Jews , XIX, viii, 2).

The two accounts, the Bible and Josephus, in this complement each other. Josephus does not mention the origin of the stomach pain, but the Bible mentions it was because of “worms.” Luke, the physician, used the Greek word skolekobrotos in reference to Herod Agrippa’s terminal condition. The word refers to tapeworms or other intestinal worms, which can block the intestinal tract and cause great pain and sometimes lead to death, as was the case here.

We will continue our survey through the book of Acts in the next installment. GN