Pandemic Journey 4

The Pandemic has brought out the best in some people and the worst in others. Among the worst is the bizarre claim by some that it’s all a hoax.

Writing about Paul’s journey to Rome, I have been conscious that some twentieth-century scholars have claimed that this too was a hoax. The allegation takes two main forms: that Luke borrowed the account of a real journey and simply inserted Paul into it; or that, even if the journey was real, then Paul the prisoner couldn’t possibly have played the decisive role in it portrayed by Luke.

James Smith of Jordanhill, Glasgow, was a Fellow of the Royal Society, an authority on ancient shipbuilding and navigation, a geologist, a biblical scholar, and a yachtsman of thirty years’ experience. In 1848 Smith published The Voyage and Shipwreck of St Paul (available here), in which he investigates in great detail the accuracy and credibility of Luke’s account in the book of Acts.

Building on his knowledge of ancient shipbuilding and navigation, he spent a winter in Malta exploring the locations mentioned in Luke’s narrative and interviewing seamen experienced in sailing the eastern Mediterranean. The following summer he spent in the museums and libraries of Naples, Florence, Lausanne, Paris and London doing more research. Finally, he retraced the voyage itself in his own yacht. The book is a fascinating account of his journey which leaves the reader in awe at Luke’s extraordinary accuracy and attention to detail as a historian. Smith’s conclusion is worth quoting:

A searching comparison of the narrative, with the localities where the events so circumstantially related are said to have taken place, with the aids which recent advances in our knowledge of the geography and the navigation of the eastern part of the Mediterranean supply, accounts for every transaction – clears up every difficulty – and exhibits an agreement so perfect in all its parts as to admit but of one explanation, namely, that it is a narrative of real events, written by one personally engaged in them.

The twentieth-century German scholars who cast doubt on the authenticity of Luke’s narrative were writing more than half a century after Smith had proved beyond all reasonable doubt that Luke was telling the truth – presumably in ignorance of his work. The motive for doubting Luke’s account seems to have been in large part a belief that what mattered to Luke (and therefore what should matter to us) is the significance of the story rather than its historical truth. In other words, they wanted us to believe that Acts should be read much as we read the parables of Jesus, as stories with a powerful meaning but no claim to be based in fact.

This leads me to some conclusions:

1. History (facts, events, narratives) and theology (meaning, significance, value, application to contemporary experience) belong together. What God has joined we should not try to pull apart. This is a mistake, a basic misunderstanding of the Christian faith, which is grounded in the meaning of events in history: the word became flesh, Christ died for our sins, he was raised on the third day… When it comes to history and theology, you really can have your cake and eat it.

2. The unity of history and theology applies to our lives too. What we do, the choices we make, the lives we live: they matter. We make a difference. Sometimes the difference only emerges much later, perhaps only after we’re long gone. As we walk with God, he is working out his purposes. We are partners with him in making history.

3. It is unwise to rubbish the historical basis of biblical history. Sooner or later the truth tends to emerge. In the case of Paul’s voyage to Rome, the credibility of Luke’s account had been established long before the attempt was made to discredit it.

4. God calls us to faith and patience. That means being willing to wait for answers to our questions and to live without them if necessary. I first encountered radical scepticism about the historical value of Acts as a theological student. I was sceptical about the sceptics but had no means of proving they were wrong – until, some ten years later, I discovered James Smith. There will be times when we don’t have answers to our critics or the critics of our faith. The psalms tell us to wait for the Lord. Life will set us many puzzles as people of faith. Waiting for God (to point the way, to reveal the truth, to show his hand) is a vital spiritual lesson. The season of Advent reminds us to wait in hope.

Published by markphilps

Came to faith at university while studying Russian. Brief career with the BBC. Married to Caroline. Ordained in the Church of England. Thirty-five years in parish ministry. Now retired and doing some writing.

4 thoughts on “Pandemic Journey 4

  1. Very interesting. I’d never come across James Smith – so it’s very helpful to read this.


  2. That’s fascinating, Mark, about James Smith. I was listening to David Pawson on Micah and he pointed out the historical and geographical specificity of the Bible: for example all the towns in chapter 1 would be on the invasion route of the Assyrians and Babylonians. And they can still be dug up.


  3. I think 19th and 20th century scepticism about the historical value of the Bible is being dismantled, slowly and often in the teeth of the mainstream scholars’ objections!


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