(Acts 5:36-37) Did Luke make a mistake in citing Theudas and Judas?

CLAIM: Critics of the Bible argue that Luke made a historical error here. In Gamaliel’s speech, he mentions Theudas and Judas of Galilee. However, Josephus places Judas at about AD 6 (Antiquities of the Jews 18.4-10) and Theudas at about AD 44 (Antiquities of the Jews 20.97-98). How could Gamaliel (in ~33 AD) refer to someone who wouldn’t lead an uprising for at least another decade? And, why did he mention these men out of order?

RESPONSE: Luke was not referring to the Theudas of AD 44. In his own chronology of the event, Luke places Judas after Theudas—who lived until AD 6 (“After this man…”). Instead, Luke was referring to an unknown man in the uprisings of 4 BC under the reign of Herod the Great.[1] Barnett writes, “Theudas, however, was not an uncommon name and the period before A.D. 6 was very turbulent, especially after the death of Herod in 4 B.C. Indeed, had he placed Theudas after Judas, Luke would be really open to criticism, since Gamaliel’s speech occurred about ten years before the Theudas known to historians.”[2]

Similarly, Howard Marshall argues that either (1) Josephus had his dates for Theudas wrong or (2) Luke is referring to a different Theudas. After all, Josephus refers to many different men with the same names: “Josephus describes four men bearing the name of Simon within forty years and three that of Judas within ten years, all of whom were instigators of rebellion.”[3] Therefore, this theory is not hard to believe.

Critics formerly argued that Luke’s mention of “Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene” (Lk. 3:1) was anachronistic, because King Lysanias reigned until 36 BC—not during Jesus’ time. However, Yamauchi writes, “Two Greek inscriptions from Abila, eighteen miles west, northwest of Damascus, have now proven that there was a ‘Lysanias the tetrach’ between the years A.D. 14-29.”[4] Most of our problem with so-called historical errors in the Bible is not that we have too much information—but too little. As we learn more and more historically, the Bible is repeatedly confirmed.

[1] See Longenecker, Richard. The Acts of the Apostles. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 9: John and Acts (F. E. Gaebelein, Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1981. 323.

[2] Barnett, Paul. Is the New Testament Reliable?: a Look at the Historical Evidence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1992. 149.

[3] Marshall, I. H. (1980). Acts: an introduction and commentary (Vol. 5, p. 129). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

[4] Yamauchi, Edwin M. The Stones and the Scriptures. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1972. 99.