Volume 48 - Issue 2

Uprisings and Mob Violence in Acts and in the First Century

By William B. Bowes


Acts of the Apostles reports several uprisings and instances of mob violence that occur across Asia Minor, caused by or related to the evangelistic and missionary endeavors of Paul and his companions in the middle of the first century. While the historicity of the events recorded in Acts is an issue of perennial dispute, the disturbances associated with the expansion of the Christian message are presented by the author as historical events. Consequently, a closer and more detailed examination of the major uprisings throughout the text is in order. This article begins with an analysis of extrabiblical records of mob violence and uprisings in the first-century Roman Empire, and then moves to an analysis of five episodes of mob violence recorded in Acts for the purpose of comparing the way that uprisings during the early Imperial period were recorded. The discussion concludes by arguing that Acts reports these events in a manner consistent with the way that other uprisings during this time were reported, and the details in Acts match the social and cultural context of the areas described. As a result, readers should consider the accounts in Acts to have a higher degree of historical reliability.

“The problem with the Lucan Paul in its briefest form is that the Paul of the Epistles is a different Paul.”1

“Is the Paul of Acts the real Paul? Yes; he is the real Paul.”2

1. Introduction

It would be an understatement to say that the portrayal of Paul in Acts is a contested area of scholarly discourse. The perspectives encapsulated in the quotes above are two parts of a broad spectrum of viewpoints on the historical value of the material about Paul in Acts, which is no simple issue.3 As such, any approach to questions about the reliability of Luke’s4 writing must be careful and qualified, noting that he writes a work that purports to be historical and that his identity as a historian and his compositional practices should be understood in light of his social and cultural context.5 Even so, it must be emphasized that the historical verisimilitude of Acts matters, and whether readers count its descriptions of figures like Paul to be realistic has myriad implications for how we understand both earliest Christianity as well as how we presume that early Christians understood and recorded their past, especially the past as shaped by the movement’s key figures and recorded after their deaths.6

A peculiarity of the style of reportage in Acts is the space given to uprisings and acts of violence, particularly as perpetrated by groups or mobs.7 Before examining these in detail, defining our terms will be important in order to make proper distinctions. Mob violence is here understood as unorganized collective action in disturbance of peace and order, which utilizes violence for any reason. Uprisings are similar in that they refer to organized collective action for a cause or in response to threat(s), but an uprising is not necessarily violent. Thirdly, a riot is something more than these. Aldrete’s definition of “riot” is apt: “a type of urban collective action utilizing violence or the threat of violence in order to obtain a goal, express a grievance, or make known an opinion.”8 In other words, a riot is a sustained action which is more organized and extreme than mob violence or uprisings, but is related to these and may be a consequence of either of them.

Especially with respect to his narratives about Paul, Luke frequently depicts violent and/or chaotic responses to the divisive activities of the early missionary movement, and both their frequency and intensity often serve to advance the plot of the narrative. Luke’s record of these events is important for the questions of historicity and reliability that surround his work, but compared with other content in Acts, mob violence has received fairly little attention. In what follows I intend to examine how Luke narrates riots and uprisings in the context of early church expansion, noting the sociocultural tension of his first-century context as well as the ways that first-century Greco-Roman and Jewish writers described mob violence. The purpose of such comparison will be to show how Luke’s writing can be understood as plausible and realistic, thereby bolstering the likelihood that Luke is considered a reliable reporter of historical information about mob violence and uprisings. Ultimately, I intend to emphasize that Luke’s accounts suggest familiarity with actual realistic contexts and historical persons, and as a result this provides readers with greater confidence that the scenarios and characters that Luke describes are not simply narrative inventions. This exploration begins first with an analysis of uprisings and mob violence in general, in terms of its nature and prevalence in antiquity.

2. Uprisings and Mob Violence in the Early Imperial Period

In the context of ancient Rome, both the late republican and early imperial periods were characterized by frequent riots, uprisings, and social disorder.9 In the first century, the Empire emphasized the preservation of order to the extent that the threat of military force to diffuse mob activity was a regular feature, even while Rome preferred to leave such responsibilities to the local authorities.10 Rome was quick to punish sustained disorder, but despite heavy-handedness toward unrest, the first century was a consistently unstable period.11 Uprisings and even riots could happen for any and every reason, but it appears that they most often happened in periods of economic turmoil or food insecurity.12 Social strife and disenfranchisement were similarly volatile issues, and underlying tensions were often enflamed in public spaces such as theaters, where the populace would congregate.13 The famous Pantomime riots of 14, 15, and 23 CE are a notable example of tensions between groups reaching a fever pitch in a theater context and becoming mob violence.14 Tacitus notes that in the initial riots, several soldiers and a centurion were killed, and government officers were wounded. In response, Tiberius enacted laws limiting public events: he barred Roman senators from associating with theater actors, and he authorized local authorities to punish instigators with exile.15

Public events such as circuses could also breed disorder, and mob activity did not always need to have an identifiable cause.16 For example, there were several circus riots in the first century that seemed to find their spark in the noise and energy inherent in such an event, which would be characterized by rhythmic chants and eventually spontaneous airing of grievances.17 Josephus reports that during the reign of Caligula (37–41 CE) one circus riot began after crowd excitement shifted into rage over excessive taxes, and the Emperor was so incensed that he arrested and executed the instigators.18 Some writers in antiquity seemed to think mob violence so common that dealing with or enduring unruly mobs was simply considered part of the work of those dealing with the public, such as philosophers or politicians.19 Someone (usually a public official) typically had to reason with mobs, and since they themselves faced threat, this sometimes meant giving in to some of the mob’s demands.20 If local authorities could not appease unruly mobs, they had to appeal to the authority of Rome. Rome had to navigate a politically complex balance in such cases; military forces could crush disturbances, but it was also to Rome’s advantage to maintain the favor of the masses. As Kelly puts it, “the numerous reports about riots contained in the sources often assume that riot control could be a bloody and dangerous affair for soldiers as much as for rioters, and that battles between rioters and soldiers could be enormously destructive to the physical fabric of the city.”21 While historians like Tacitus report that Tiberius tried to curb riots without military force, by the time of Nero (54–68 CE) there was regular military presence at theaters (and would continue to be after Nero) because of the frequency of mob violence in these sorts of public forums.22

Some more detailed examples of mob violence in the primary sources seem to have their impetus in animus between groups from different places or backgrounds. A notable example is an incident in Pompeii in 59 CE, which, according to Tacitus, started after an exchange of taunts at a gladiatorial match.23 Tacitus called such escalating exchanges ”characteristic of these disorderly country towns,” and notes that words became stone-throwing, and then mass chaos with numerous deaths and serious injuries.24 This incident was serious enough that it was reported to Nero, and his senate subsequently disallowed Pompeii from holding public gatherings for a decade, dissolved various guilds and associations, and exiled instigators of the violence.25 Appian describes an instance of mob violence from the first century BCE that is particularly instructive, given his inclusion of an unusual amount of detail. Appian notes that a tax was imposed on slaveowners by local triumvirs (administrative officials) that was interpreted as an attempt to “deprive them of their property,” and he relays,

They banded together, with loud cries, and stoned those who did not join them, and threatened to plunder and burn their houses, until the whole populace was aroused, and Octavian with his friends and a few attendants came into the forum intending to intercede with the people and to show the unreasonableness of their complaints. As soon as he made his appearance they stoned him unmercifully, and they were not ashamed when they saw him enduring this treatment patiently, and offering himself to it, and even bleeding from wounds. When Antony learned what was going on he came with haste to his assistance. When the people saw him coming down the Via Sacra they did not throw stones at him, since he was in favor of a treaty with Pompeius, but they told him to go away. When he refused to do so they stoned him also. He called in a larger force of troops, who were outside the walls. As the people would not allow him even so to pass through, the soldiers divided right and left on either side of the street and the forum, and made their attack from the narrow lane, striking down those whom they met. The people could no longer find ready escape on account of the crowd, nor was there any way out of the forum. There was a scene of slaughter and wounds, while shrieks and groans sounded from the housetops. Antony made his way into the forum with difficulty, and snatched Octavian from the most manifest danger, in which he then was, and brought him safe to his house. The mob having been dispersed, the corpses were thrown into the river … (the) insurrection was suppressed, but with terror and hatred for the triumvirs.26

Appian’s description vividly captures how quickly these events could become chaotic and violent, how sensitive the economic situation could be, how perceptions of unfairness influenced mob violence, and also how it was rather typical for persons to address and attempt to reason with mobs (whether successful or not).27

Jews would have been particularly concerned about mob violence, as this period was characterized by steadily increasing tension between Jewish groups and Romans (which intensified most after the mid-30s CE).28 Tensions ran high among Jewish groups and their neighbors partly because of Jewish disdain for the restrictions of Roman occupation, along with the Jewish tendency to flout Roman beliefs and customs.29 Jewish nationalist feeling at the beginning of the first century did eventually harden into a movement of militant resistance, which, as Smallwood notes, “was the fundamental cause of the recurrent disturbances of the next sixty years and of the revolt which was their climax.”30 A high point of tension between Jews and their neighbors was certainly Claudius’ expulsion of Jews from Rome in 49 CE, apparently due to frequent social unrest and even major disturbances, which was not the first time that Jews had been expelled from the city.31 Unfortunately there is little detailed information on Claudius’ edict, but it appears that the various disturbances cited as the cause could have been due to inter-group Jewish conflict, which was common at the time.32

Jewish writers describing uprisings and mob violence involving Jews tend to assume that Roman authorities were obligated to interfere in civil disorder, and this assumption may reflect how frequently Jews were a target of mob violence in the Empire.33 Non-Jewish historians such as Tacitus often tend to describe Jews with negative language, as though they were frequently viewed as disorderly; in one instance in 52 CE after a Galilean pilgrim was killed, Tacitus describes the Jews of the area as “showing symptoms of commotion in a seditious outbreak” that turned deadly, with Tacitus angrily observing that some Jews involved “had been daring enough to slay our soldiers.”34 When it comes to mob violence involving Jews and Jewish-Roman tensions, Josephus provides the most information relevant to the geographical area as well as the particular time frame closest to the life of Paul and the earliest Christians. One notable instance described by Josephus in his Jewish War (written in the 70s CE) is the so-called “Standards” incident, which took place during the term of Pontius Pilate (26–37 CE). In Jewish War 2.175–203, Josephus relays that Pilate had transported images of Caesar into Jerusalem, which, due to the disrespect of Jewish religious sensitivities, led to the formation of a mob that (eventually) succeeded in protesting Pilate’s action, with their persistence leading to his removal of the images. Philo describes another similar instance under Pilate’s rule when the procurator had gilded shields set up in Jerusalem, and this caused enough unrest that Philo reports the crowd threatening revolt and war over the action. Philo also reports the crowd threatening to appeal to Tiberius on their behalf.35 Other instances of Jewish uprising were not as successful, though. For example, in one unfortunate case, Josephus reports that Pilate had many Jews killed after an uprising following his use of Temple funds to build an aqueduct.36 Many other instances could be explored, but it suffices to say that tensions ran high in Jewish areas just as in other areas, and as a disenfranchised group in the Empire, mob violence was often a method of making known the otherwise silenced Jewish voice, and of reacting against perceived disrespect of Jewish custom and belief.

By its very nature, mob violence is chaotic and even eyewitness reports may be prejudiced toward one party or perspective in such instances of conflict, since these sorts of events are ideologically charged. This does not mean that an accurate report is impossible, but more that the question of accuracy itself is made more complex. Most reports of mob violence come from writers with an elite perspective (such as Tacitus, Cassius Dio, and Herodian), friendly to the Empire or who were worked with the government, which can often hinder a clear picture of such episodes since mob violence often involves conflict between the elites and the masses.37 Most accounts of mob violence are written long after the fact, typically describe the behavior of the unruly crowd in negative language, and condemn the disorder involved more so than the actual issue that stirred the mob. In some of these respects, Acts is similar to other ancient sources that describe uprisings and mob violence, since as any other historiographer Luke does have a perspective and an agenda, is reporting events with which he has varying levels of personal familiarity, and does typically describe crowds negatively. In other ways, Acts is dissimilar to ancient sources since Luke is certainly not a cultural elite but writes as part of a minority group (known for divisiveness), is rather ambivalent toward Rome, and writes a comparatively short time after the events he describes. In considering how the reportage in Acts compares to other ancient records, we turn now to a closer examination of some of the instances of mob violence that Luke records.

3. Luke’s Descriptions of Uprisings and Mob Violence in Acts

In what follows I explore five instances of uprisings or mob violence from Acts 14–21.38 Each episode is different, in terms of the amount of detail Luke offers, the extent of the disturbance or the degree to which local authorities were involved, and whether or not the particular incident represents violence instigated toward Paul (and his companions) by Jews (as in Lystra and Jerusalem), by non-Jews (as in Philippi and Ephesus), or by both (as in Thessalonica).

3.1. The Incident at Lystra (Acts 14:8–23)

Luke describes Paul and Barnabas being forced to flee to Lystra after threats of violence from both Jews and non-Jews that followed an otherwise successful season of ministry at Iconium.39 Luke notes that Paul spoke and acted powerfully, such that after a crippled man was healed the locals liken them to incarnations of divinities (14:12). In the chaos of this, Luke notes that the Jewish instigators who had threatened Paul at Iconium40 convince the Lystran crowds (presumably gathered for Paul’s preaching) that Paul should die, and (presumably only) Paul is stoned and taken out of the city. Incredibly, Paul survives (though this is not necessarily described as a supernatural event or a resurrection), and leaves the city.41 Luke’s details here are sparse; perhaps the rapid turning of the crowd came from being convinced that Paul and Barnabas were pretenders or were irreverent in some way. Almost everything about this episode seems to reflect miscommunication and confusion; Paul and Barnabas are already (presumably) preaching with a translator (14:11; the people speak in Lycaonian), and the escalation could have happened as a case of misunderstanding or mistranslation that simply deteriorated.42

In his sparseness of detail, Luke is not unlike his contemporaries in recording such violence. While death by stoning seems rather harsh given the lack of detail, it would not be implausible if Jews believed Paul was disrespecting Jewish beliefs and customs.43 In the first century BCE, Josephus reports that Onias the Just (Honi the Circle-Drawer), otherwise perceived to be godly man, was stoned to death by other Jews after refusing to curse their enemies.44 Although Paul was able (at least temporarily) to quell the fervor of the crowd, Pervo probably overstates the case when he suggests that Luke is doing with Paul what fictional works (like Virgil’s Aeneid) do in depicting important people who, by their oratorial prowess, can calm a mob.45 Paul barely restrains the crowd here, and his rhetorical ability is not in focus in any of these incidents; he barely escapes death and is hardly pictured as a hero.46 Rather than assuming Luke is trying to be entertaining by creating an instance of mob violence after a misunderstanding or a violation of custom, it seems more plausible that an event like this actually happened.47 Josephus’ record of the stoning of Jesus’ brother James along with his companions because they were assumed to be “breakers of the law” would be one of many contemporaneous examples.48

3.2. The Incident at Philippi (Acts 16:16–24)

In the one incident of mob violence involving the narratorial use of “we” (presumably indicating eyewitness information, a reasonable presumption given the greater attention to detail in this episode), Paul arouses the ire of local slaveowners after casting out a Python spirit from an enslaved fortune-teller. Paul and Silas are seized and taken into Philippi’s public space to face local authorities, which Luke attributes to the slaveowners’ perception that Paul and Silas had put them at financial risk. The instigators, however, presumably stir up a crowd and tell the local magistrates that Paul and Silas are Jews49 and are “disturbing our city” (16:20) and advocating customs unlawful for Romans. This testimony then leads to physical abuse by the surrounding mob and to imprisonment, for what appear to be both religious and political reasons.50 Schnabel dates Paul’s time in Philippi to 49 CE, and if so, the Philippian people would have been freshly aware of Claudius’ edict expelling Jews from Rome for this sort of discord.51

The details of this episode (in terms of the reason for the uprising and the extent of the violence) appear consistent both with our understanding of the Philippian colony at the time, and also with first-century acts of mob violence.52 Luke identifies an underlying financial motivation (16:19), a typical impetus for unrest, as previously noted. In the accusation before the magistrates, they are identified with a people-group already suspect for the rejection of Roman customs; they are blamed for disturbing the city and accused of undermining custom; and thus their business becomes the business of the those congregating in a public marketplace (ἀγορά), an otherwise typical location for unrest.53 The mention of violating customs could mean that Paul was disturbing the peace by proselytizing Judaism or possibly that he had been accused of using some sort of foreign magic, which would be illegal.54 Traditional customs involved people’s livelihood, so the challenge of making Romans forego mos maiorum (ancestral practices) probably did have some economic sense to it, and Paul’s message of the lordship of Jesus may have undermined the relationship Philippi had with Rome and Caesar and thus could appear revolutionary.55 Various disturbances during this time share the features of this episode, such as Gellius’ description of Marcus Marius, who was stripped and beaten with rods by a mob after disrespecting local customs about baths.56 Rather than assuming that Luke is simply creating “a typical scene centered on the labile mob, swayed by unscrupulous manipulators, which can be conjured up as needed,”57 it seems more plausible that this event actually happened this way, as it often did in this period.

3.3. The Incident at Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–9)

This appears to be the only incident where both Jews and non-Jews are clearly involved in mob violence toward Paul (and Silas), although here Luke identifies the initial instigators as Jewish.58 Although Luke attributes the uprising to jealousy over Paul’s successes in preaching, there is little detail about why such a strong response ensues, which is described as the entire city being in uproar.59 Evidently, frustration at Paul’s message led to enlisting what Luke pejoratively calls “some wicked men of the rabble” (perhaps unemployed, disenfranchised people frequenting public places) into a mob.60 Paul and Silas are associated with a certain Jason (possibly because Jason may have been known to be Jewish), and they bring Jason and other contemporaries of Paul before the local authorities. The accusation here is something of a combination of the accusations in Lystra and Philippi, in that the instigators cite the former disturbances of the missionaries in other towns, and then again point to the act of flouting Roman customs or elements of Roman identity (here they associate Paul’s preaching with rejecting the authority of Caesar by asserting Jesus’ kingship). Evidently there is a continued reception of Paul’s message as being unavoidably political and hence potentially seditious. That Paul dealt with “much conflict” here after being “shamed” at Philippi is consistent with his own statements in 1 Thess 2:2 and 2:14–16.

In this case the local authorities (non-Roman magistrates, or πολιτάρχας) do not respond with violence but are “disturbed” by the seriousness of the charge (and its political or revolutionary implications), and want to avoid escalation, even taking a financial guarantee of this.61 The fact that this episode ends in such anticlimactic fashion suggests that Luke is not simply trying to craft entertaining, violent, but hagiographic depictions of Paul’s escapades, but is relating what was likely an embarrassing instance of Paul being banished from a city (perhaps for being considered an enemy of the empire, thus endangering the city‘s relationship with Rome). Rather than assuming that “the events of Paul’s activity in the city (Thessalonica) are legendary,”62 it seems safer to see it as “fit(ting) very well into the general picture that can be built up of movements within the Judaism of the day … which constituted a threat to public order.”63

3.4 The Incident at Ephesus (Acts 19:23–41)

The riot at Ephesus is certainly the most discussed of the incidents of mob violence in Acts.64 It is the longest and most detailed of Luke’s descriptions, the only one significant enough to merit a preface as to its importance (19:23), and the only event that progresses to the level of a riot. As in Philippi, Luke notes that the initial instigation of the uprising was financial, and as in Philippi the instigators cite the violation of custom.65 Demetrius, identified as a silversmith, incites other craftsmen and businessmen (possibly members of a local guild) against Paul on the basis of his preaching, which is understood to be shaming the use of shrines, against Artemis, and therefore antithetical to Ephesian traditions and customs.66 Luke associates the threat to Artemis with the formation of the mob, which moves to the theater (which would be a public space of congregation), bringing several of Paul’s companions. A Jew Luke identifies as Alexander attempts to “make a defense to the crowd” (19:33), but he is unsuccessful and drowned out by frenzied chanting.67 Eventually a local leader is able to appease the crowd by pointing out that their riotous behavior was illegal, which could result in punishment from Rome.

Luke’s description of this event is generally consistent with similar events at the time, and his description of the crowd’s behavior is realistic.68 Some have argued that the realia is outweighed by the entertainment value here, but as Keener argues in his analysis of the Lystran crowd’s response to Paul, such behavior “should not be deemed implausible simply because it is also entertaining.”69 Luke twice attributes “confusion” to the emotionally charged crowd; people were simply shouting out different things, and most of the mob did not understand the reason for the uprising (19:32).70 Since Paul is not particularly victorious (or even really present) here, the scene makes Paul’s message appear extremely divisive, and the whole event essentially represents a failure, Luke has little motive for inventing this episode. Ephesians were known in other contemporaneous writings to be prone to discord and violence,71 and Luke’s minor effects (like the clerk’s silencing and reasoning with the crowd) are similar to other historical examples, like Dio Chrysostom’s account of his speech addressing a crowd after a bread riot, where he reasoned with them so that they wouldn’t be accused by the empire of lawlessness and lose their favor.72 While Luke undoubtedly dramatized the episode, it is certain that Paul’s critique of Artemis would be taken seriously, since “Ephesus and Artemis were inseparable … when Artemis is honored the prestige and prosperity of the city increases.”73 Paul’s divisive message against the financial, religious, and political sentiments of Ephesus could certainly have produced this sort of effect, and so instead of assuming that “there is next to nothing of historical value in Luke’s work here,”74 Luke’s report of this event should be considered feasible and understandable given the details and context.

3.5. The Incident at Jerusalem (Acts 21:27–36)

This final incident is instigated by “Jews from Asia,” probably referring to some who remembered Paul’s association with the riot at Ephesus.75 In this instance Paul’s previous disturbances are cited, but here he is accused of teaching against the Jewish people, against the Law, and against the Temple itself, and that he further violated custom by bringing a Greek into a restricted area of the Temple, disrespecting the space.76 That is, the mob violence that ensues stems from a threat to or egregious undermining of Jewish beliefs and customs, and thus for similar reasons as the other sorts of uprisings in Jerusalem attested in primary source evidence. Paul is beaten by the crowd, which is characterized by a similar confusion and uproar as in Ephesus (21:34), and Luke indicates that Paul was not killed because of the Roman military presence in the city, who arrest him. The episode continues with Paul eventually (and unsuccessfully) addressing the crowd, but here we are concerned with elements of the initial uprising and mob violence.

The force of Paul’s problem here is his suspected disrespect of the Temple. Disrespect to the Temple or open flouting of the Law were key components of the main examples of first-century unrest in Jerusalem. Josephus records two eminent examples; first he notes a massive riot with thousands being trampled after a Roman soldier exposed himself on the Temple grounds,77 and second a certain Jesus ben Ananias who, after speaking against the Temple, was arrested, beaten, turned over to the Romans, and flogged in the early 60s CE.78 Similar to the way that Artemis’ temple was symbolic of Ephesian identity in the previous incident, the Jerusalem Temple was emblematic of Jewish identity and nationalism.79 An attack on the Temple was an attack on Judaism and its tradition, and could be considered as warranting death.80 Since Paul’s preaching would have been understood as both a problematic interpretation of the Law and as involving the acceptance of Gentiles, the accusation about Trophimus is probably reflective of the mob’s understanding of Paul’s message and its relationship to Jewish tradition. Such chaos and the possibility of murder, along with the lack of concern for a Roman response fit the context of increasing violence that Josephus describes in the city from the late 50s CE, particularly given the increased tension between warring factions within Judaism itself.81 Rather than assuming that this embarrassing, unsuccessful, highly realistic portrayal to be a Lukan fiction, it seems more reasonable to assume that this event reflects the likely circumstances that Paul would have faced in Jerusalem at this volatile historical period.

4. Conclusion: The Elusive Question of Historical Correspondence

The frequent turmoil and unrest in Luke’s narrative corresponds to his context and era. While this does not prove historical correspondence, it can suggest a higher possibility of historical correspondence and of a reader’s trust in Luke as a historian. In each of the five episodes discussed above, there are no references to supernatural phenomena in the actual narration of the uprisings or mob violence, even when these elements are present in the narration before and afterward. That is, there is little in the episodes of violence that could be attributed to legendary emendation. Based on the initial overview of mob violence and civil disorder in the ancient world, the features of Luke’s descriptions are hardly fanciful, but appear realistic and provide us with useful material for understanding both first-century society and the historical Paul. To assume that Luke’s portrayals are inauthentic simply because they are typical of events of the time is unfairly skeptical; the appearance of authenticity should, at the very least, be a contributor to the acceptance of authenticity. Accurate local details do not make Luke’s writing historical, but they should make readers less skeptical.

Luke clearly viewed Paul highly, but readers of Acts must ask whether he would include Paul’s involvement in so much unrest and suspicion of sedition unless these were things that the historical Paul was actually known to have been involved in. Luke often comments on the cause or culprit behind such uprisings, and these comments may be colored by his agenda; but the events themselves seem to fit the historical persons and historical contexts depicted.

For contemporary readers, this matters for several reasons. First, a less skeptical approach to Acts can serve to show how its reportage complements (rather than contrasts) the picture of Paul found in his own letters, which can increase a reader’s trust in the coherence of the New Testament message as a whole. Second, a favorable view of Luke’s reportage can serve to show how the Jesus movement advanced in spite of constant and consistent resistance at the local and governmental levels, which could be encouraging to modern Christians ministering in difficult and even dangerous environments. Lastly, viewing Acts as relaying trustworthy information can serve to show that the message of Jesus can and should affect every strata of society, and by associating with this movement, contemporary Christians are themselves participating in the ongoing, unfinished story that started in Acts.

Holladay is right to note, “the interpreter must constantly negotiate between ‘the world of the text’ and ‘the world behind the text,’”82 but as I have argued here, with respect to episodes of mob violence in Acts, the gulf between these two worlds should be considered slight rather than vast. My contention is not that Luke gives pure facts without any interpretation, but that his accounts of uprisings and mob violence are consistent with the character of extant historical sources on uprisings and mob violence and should be considered as reliable sources of information. In light of this analysis, we are better prepared to address the question that confronts every interpreter of Acts: Is Luke’s narration of uprisings and mob violence in Acts simply an intentional (but false) example of vivid realism that serves only to glorify the legendary, embellished Paul of a later generation, or is it better explained as an accurate depiction of the upheavals that really took place within the historical circumstances of the birth of the early Christian movement?

[1] Robert Brawley, “Paul in Acts: Lucan Apology and Conciliation,” in Luke-Acts: New Perspectives from the Society of Biblical Literature Seminar, ed. Charles Talbert (New York: Crossroad, 1984), 129.

[2] F. F. Bruce, “Is the Paul of Acts the Real Paul?” BJRL 58.2 (1976): 305.

[3] For recent research on Paul in Acts, see Daniel Marguerat, Paul in Acts and Paul in His Letters, WUNT 1/310 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2019), esp. 1–47; Christopher Mount, “Acts,” in The T&T Clark Handbook of the Historical Paul, ed. Ryan Schellenberg and Heidi Wendt (London: T&T Clark, 2022), 23–53.

[4] The precise author of Acts is not ultimately important to the purpose of this article, but I retain the traditional moniker for convenience. At the very least, we can be reasonably sure that he was a first-century Christian who was very familiar with Mediterranean geography and portrays himself as a companion of Paul and an eyewitness of some of what he records.

[5] The genre of Acts is itself an issue of perennial dispute, but there is agreement that Luke is intending to write a historiographical work (representing actual past events and memories) and not a purely fictional one (as though he were writing an epic fable or novel). The pressing issue concerns not necessarily whether Luke wrote history but what sort of history he wrote, since “Luke and his contemporaries exercised more liberty in details than we would grant modern historians” (Craig Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary, 4 vols. [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012–2015], 1:26). Questions of reliability also do not deny that Luke as the author stands behind the text and does insert his own view and agenda into it (some apologetic undertones are undeniable), but this type of narratorial action does not necessitate that he is simply creating a fictional world with the appearance of realism and thus misrepresenting history. Rather, as Darrell Bock puts it, “the historian’s perceptions are very much a part of what history is and how it works itself out” (Acts, BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 5). For a discussion on Luke as a historian and the practice of ancient history-writing, see Daniel Marguerat, The First Christian Historian: Writing the ‘Acts of the Apostles,’ trans. Richard Bauckham, SNTSMS 121 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1–25.

[6] For issues pertaining to the date of Acts, see Carl Holladay, Acts: A Commentary, NTL (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2016), 4–7. While an early date for Acts (prior to 70 CE) is possible, it must be admitted that internal and external evidence hardly provide a precise answer to this question. It seems most plausible to me to simply date Acts sometime in the range of 70–100 CE. That is, I would assume that it is a first-century work, but that it was written after the death of many (but not necessarily all) of the early leaders.

[7] Throughout Acts, not every uprising is mob violence, and not every instance of mob violence would be considered a riot. Hence, throughout this article I discuss civic disorder that falls under the categories of uprisings and mob violence rather than only one type of these. For example, below I do not discuss the disturbance at Iconium (14:1–7) because this was only a description of division and an “attempt” at mistreatment, and thus may be considered disorder but not an uprising or mob violence.

[8] Gregory Aldrete, “Riots,” in The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome, ed. Paul Erdkamp (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 425.

[9] See Wilfried Nippel, Public Order in Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), esp. 47–112. For a more recent treatment, see Gregory Aldrete, “Riots,” 425–40. Aldrete notes that of the mob violence in Rome that should be considered full-scale riots, the vast majority involved physical violence and a quarter of them were serious enough that one or more people were killed. Interestingly, while descriptions of mob violence are frequent in the primary sources of the first century, accounts of such are sparse for the second century, which may be due to increased military presence, economic prosperity, or social and political reform.

[10] Nippel, Public Order in Ancient Rome, 103. As Nippel notes, “it is, of course, almost impossible to make a general assessment of the efficacy of local magistrates and their various sorts of underlings in guaranteeing the safety of the streets and enforcing public order regulations” (105).

[11] For a helpful overview of social, cultural, and political realities of this period, see T. E. J. Widemann, “Tiberius to Nero” and “Nero to Vespasian,” in The Cambridge Ancient History, Vol. 10: The Augustan Empire, 43 BC–AD 69, ed. Alan Bowman, Edward Champlin and Andrew Lintott (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 198–255, 256–82.

[12] As noted by Paul Erdkamp, “‘A Starving Mob Has No Respect’: Urban Markets and Food Riots in the Roman World, 100 BC–400 AD,” in The Transformation of Economic Life under the Roman Empire, ed. Lukas de Blois and John Rich (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 93–115. See also Bruce Winter, “Acts and Food Shortages,” in The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, ed. David Gill and Conrad Gempf, BAFCS 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 59–78. For primary source examples, cf. Cassius Dio, Roman History 55.27 (noting how the masses openly spoke of and planned for revolution during a season of famine and high taxes); Suetonius, Augustus 25 (noting how public disturbances would be expected when there were “scarcity of provisions”); Tacitus Annals 12.43 (noting that mobs would often trample others to death and in 51 CE a mob surrounded and threatened Claudius).

[13] Moyer Hubbard, “Urban Uprisings in the Roman World: The Social Setting of the Mobbing of Sosthenes,” NTS 51.3 [2005]: 416–28. Hubbard notes that in addition to issues of overcrowding, “the vast majority of people in the Roman world lived at or below subsistence level, with a high percentage of these lacking regular employment.” Such conditions (like desperate, unemployed, disenfranchised persons with time and frustration gathering in public spaces) could enflame popular anxiety.

[14] See W. J. Slater, “Pantomime Riots,” ClassAn 13.1 (1994): 120–44. For primary sources cf. Cassius Dio, Roman History 56.47.2, 57.14.9–10; Suetonius, Tiberius 37.2

[15] Tacitus, Annals 1.77; see also Suetonius, Tiberius 37.

[16] Uprisings and mob violence could be instigated by something as small as giving a poor-quality speech. As Hubbard puts it, “mob violence was a common reaction—virtually a reflex—to situations of distress, threat, or frustration, be they significant or trivial, real or imaginary” (“Urban Uprisings in the Roman World,” 419). Regarding public places, Tacitus reports, “in the circus and theaters there was the greatest license for the masses” (Histories 1.72). Cicero notes that uprisings could happen for such small reasons that they might simply be considered “spontaneous expressions of popular indignation” (Domo 12).

[17] Thomas Africa, “Urban Violence in Imperial Rome,” JIH 2 (1971): 3–22; Ramsay MacMullen, Enemies of the Roman Order: Treason, Unrest and Alienation in the Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966), 163–91. MacMullen notes that airing grievances was more effective when done at the hands of organized guilds (not unlike the silversmiths that Luke describes at Ephesus), which could more readily influence a crowd than an individual (Enemies of the Roman Order, 170).

[18] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 19.24–26; Cassius Dio, Roman History 59.28.11.

[19] Plutarch comments, “men engaged in public affairs (are) compelled to live at the caprice of a self-willed and licentious mob” (Moralia 580a). See also Dio Chrysostom, Orations 35.23, 33; Musonius Rufus, Discourses 10.

[20] MacMullen, Enemies of the Roman Order, 172. Josephus describes a mob scene in Jewish Antiquities 19.24 where the crowd simply appears to assume that its requests will be granted “as usual.”

[21] Benjamin Kelly, “Riot Control and Imperial Ideology in the Roman Empire,” Phoenix 61 (2007): 150. On several occasions, theater riots proved deadly for Roman soldiers, but both Josephus and Tacitus indicate that mobs feared the presence of military personnel, and their presence was typically enough to quell unrest; cf. Josephus Jewish War 2.226–7; Tacitus, Histories 4.3.

[22] Tacitus Annals 13.25.

[23] Tacitus Annals 14.17. As Aldrete puts it, the riot “seems to have stemmed from nothing more than intra-city enmity between partisans of Pompeii and those of the rival town of Nuceria” (“Riots,” 428).

[24] Annals 14.17.

[25] Annals 14.17.

[26] Appian, Civil Wars, 5.67–68.

[27] A similar instance of a failed attempt to give a speech and address a mobbing crowd in 48 BCE is provided in Caesar, Civil Wars, 3.21.

[28] For an examination of uprisings involving Jews in the first half of the first century, see Sandra Gabetti, The Alexandrian Riots of 38 CE and the Persecution of the Jews: A Historical Reconstruction, JSJSup 135 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 167–93. For an overview of the relationship between Jews and Romans more broadly, see E. Mary Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian (Leiden: Brill, 1981).

[29] Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian, 144–80.

[30] Smallwood, The Jews Under Roman Rule from Pompey to Diocletian, 155.

[31] The famous reference from Suetonius states, “since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he (Claudius) expelled them from Rome” (Divus Claudius 25.2). Prior to this, Tiberius had expelled the Jews from Rome in 19 CE because they were converting Romans away from Roman tradition to their own customs (see Cassius Dio, Roman History 57.18.5).

[32] See F. F. Bruce, “Christianity under Claudius,” BJRL 44 (1962): 310–13. It seems likely that some of the disturbances under Claudius (as referenced by Suetonius) were because of inter-Jewish disputes over Jesus and his messianic identity, which the misspelling “Chrestus” seems to suggest. For interpreters who take this view, cf. James Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 141–43; Louis Feldman and Meyer Reinhold, eds., Jewish Life and Thought among Greeks and Romans: Primary Readings (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 332.

[33] As suggested by Kelly, “Riot Control and Imperial Ideology in the Roman Empire,” 159. Appian (Roman History 11.8.50) seems to think that Jews paid higher taxes than others because of how often they rebelled. P. Lond. 1912 likewise reflects the attitude that Jews were propagators of unrest.

[34] Annals 12.54.

[35] Philo, Embassy 38.299–305. This instance (written within a decade after its occurrence) would imply that Jews during this time felt that they would be protected by Rome, since they figured that appealing to Caesar would be useful for achieving their purpose. Another, more famous instance only a few years later (as recorded by Josephus in Jewish War 2.184–203) described Caligula attempting to place a statue of himself in Jerusalem which caused an uprising of tens of thousands of Jews and the threat of war.

[36] Josephus, Jewish War 2.175–77.

[37] Kelly, “Riot Control and Imperial Ideology in the Roman Empire,” 152.

[38] There are other instances of mob violence in Acts (such as Stephen’s stoning in Acts 7), but for the sake of space and precision, this analysis focuses only on violence that is directly or indirectly in reaction to Paul.

[39] For information on the city of Lystra and its background, see Eckhard Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2 vols. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 2:1112–22. For a full-length study of the episode, see Marianne Fournier, The Episode at Lystra: A Rhetorical and Semiotic Analysis of Acts 14:720a (New York: Peter Lang, 1997).

[40] Commentators tend to divide over this detail and whether it is a Lukan hyperbole or invention, since the distance from Antioch to Lystra is roughly 100 miles, from Lystra to Derbe is about 60 miles, and from Lystra to Iconium is about 20 miles. It must be noted that the long distance cannot in itself invalidate this claim, but it does imply that these particular Jews exerted enormous effort to stop Paul. For those who dispute the historicity of this episode, cf. Dean Béchard, “Paul Among the Rustics: The Lystran Episode (Acts 14:8–20) and Lucan Apologetic,” CBQ 63 (2001): 84–101; Richard Pervo, Acts, Hermeneia (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2008), 360. For this who affirm the historicity of this episode, cf. I. Howard Marshall, Acts: An Introduction and Commentary, TNTC 5 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press: 2008), 329; Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 427–28.

[41] As Bock notes, “this is a mob action” (Acts, BECNT [Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 479). The Pauline reference to stoning in 2 Cor. 11.25 makes this event at least plausible. That Paul’s preaching warranted death probably involved his view of Gentile inclusion and of the interpretation of Torah with regard to Gentiles. Josephus notes that stoning was still considered an appropriate punishment for blasphemy in the first century (Jewish Antiquities 4.202; see also Mishnah Sanhedrin 6.4).

[42] Keener helpfully suggests that “the Jewish accusers could have persuaded the crowds that Paul not only rejected their gods but also did not serve the Jewish God; they likely argued … that the apostles were magicians” (Acts, 2:2176).

[43] Even though the Roman legal system limited the extent of local punishment, both Jews and non-Jews executed people by stoning regularly. Keener observes, “even in this period Roman law could not prevent stoning from occurring altogether, since it was a common way for mobs to execute vengeance without regard for official laws” (Acts, 2:1453).

[44] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 14.22–26.

[45] Richard Pervo, Profit with Delight: The Literary Genre of the Acts of the Apostles (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1987), 35; Virgil, Aeneid 1.148–53.

[46] Paul does address a mob as an orator after the Jerusalem incident below (21:37–22:2), but he is hardly successful; on the contrary, he is nearly killed after speaking and has to be taken away.

[47] Contra Pervo, Profit with Delight, 36–39.

[48] Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200. For a comparable non-Jewish examples of mob stoning, see Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 8.59.1.

[49] For Roman perspectives about Jews, cf. Tacitus, Histories 5.5; Cicero, Pro Flacco 28; Juvenal, Satires 14.96–106.

[50] I disagree with Craig De Vos, who thinks that the incident at Philippi “does not suggest a mob action, as at Thessalonica” (“Finding a Charge that Fits: The Accusation against Paul and Silas at Philippi [Acts 16.19–21],” JSNT 74 [1999]: 51). For more on the background and culture of Philippi at this time, see Craig De Vos, Church and Community Conflicts: The Relationships of the Thessalonian, Corinthian, and Philippian Churches with their Wider Civic Communities, SBLDS 168 (Atlanta: SBL, 1999), 233–87; Eduard Verhoef, Philippi: How Christianity Began in Europe: The Epistle to the Philippians and the Excavations at Philippi (London: T&T Clark, 2013). Being beaten in this way was considered acceptable for those who caused civil disturbances; cf. Callistratus, Digest; Tacitus, Annals 1.77; Suetonius, Augustus 45.3, and Josephus, Jewish War 2.269.

[51] Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2:1151.

[52] On Luke’s terminology and understanding of the local political structure, see David Gill, “Macedonia,” in The Book of Acts in Its Graeco-Roman Setting, ed. David Gill and Conrad Gempf, BAFCS 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 412.

[53] See the discussion in C. K. Barrett, Acts 1528, ICC (London: T&T Clark, 2004), 788–89.

[54] Bock, Acts, 537; Brian Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, BAFCS 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 118; cf. Cicero, De Legibus 2.8.19. In the Julio-Claudian period, proselytization laws were not rigidly enforced except when a serious threat to the state was suspected.

[55] Bock, Acts, 538; Schnabel, Early Christian Mission, 2:1155. Paul was probably suspected of tumultus rather than seditio, but the limited information Luke provides seems to indicate that the people understood his message as undermining tradition or Rome itself. Tacitus (Histories 5.5) understands Jews as compelling converts to reject all of their traditions and even their nation and families. As De Vos notes, the imperial cult was the most important religious expression in Philippi (Church and Community Conflicts, 248–49), and thus this sort of proselytizing may be in view.

[56] Gellius, Attic Nights 10.3.3.

[57] Pervo, Acts, 407.

[58] It is not clear whether non-Jews are involved in the mob violence at Lystra, although that is possible. For a detailed analysis of this episode and of the background on Thessalonica, see James Harrison, Paul and the Imperial Authorities at Thessalonica and Rome: A Study in the Conflict of Ideology, WUNT 1/273 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011); Todd Still, Conflict at Thessalonica: A Pauline Church and Its Neighbors, LNTS 183 (London: T&T Clark, 1999).

[59] Whether Luke is guilty of hyperbole here (and also with regard to the extent of the Ephesian chanting in 19:34) is beside the point. It is clear that hyperbole would probably help the pace of the narrative, but that does not necessitate that the details of these events are fabricated. Broad-scale hyperbole like this is a typical narratorial device; e.g., P. Lond. 1912, 96–100. The idea that Paul has “turned the world upside down” is more of a political statement about the nature of his message vis-a-vis Rome than it is about the extent of his activity.

[60] Here Luke reflects common attitudes among Romans about those who participate in mob violence; a similar example is found in Plutarch, Aemilius Paullus 38.

[61] In my view the most likely issue here is that Paul’s proclamation of Christ is viewed as a violation of the laws enacted by Augustus and Tiberius about predicting the change of rulers, as detailed in Dio Chrysostom, History 57.15.8. Numismatic evidence from Thessalonica suggests that the Imperial cult was popular there by the first century BCE, and the city was dependent on imperial benefaction. Consequently, local leaders were committed to maintaining a good relationship with Rome, which entailed demonstrations of allegiance.

[62] Helmut Koester, Introduction to the New Testament, Vol. 2: History and Literature of Early Christianity (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2000), 108.

[63] Bruce, “Christianity Under Claudius,” 322.

[64] For an overview of research on Ephesus and on this episode, see Paul Trebilco, The Early Christians in Ephesus from Paul to Ignatius (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), esp. 104–96; Jerome Murphy O’Connor, St. Paul’s Ephesus: Texts and Archaeology (Collegeville: Liturgical, 2008); Robert Stoops, “Riot and Assembly: The Social Context of Acts 19:23–41,” JBL 108.1 (1989): 73–91.

[65] That the expansion of Christianity caused financial losses for temples is seen in Pliny, Epistles 10.96.

[66] Guilds of silversmiths are attested in antiquity and would have had meeting places near marketplaces and theaters; see Holladay, Acts, 378; see also the first-century funerary monument mentioning Ephesian Silversmiths, IEph 2212. On typical attitudes toward foreigners critiquing a city’s customs, see Cicero, Moral Duty 1.34.

[67] This and any other quotations from Acts are taken from the ESV.

[68] A similar event of a crowd rushing to a theater after the flouting of custom can be found in Josephus, Jewish War 7.46–62.

[69] Keener, Acts, 2:2144.

[70] A similar instance is recorded in Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 7.15.4.

[71] See Psuedo-Heraclitus, Epistles 7.9–10; though later, Philostratus, Life of Apollonius 1.16.4.

[72] Dio Chrysostom, Orations 46.14.

[73] Rick Strelan, Paul, Artemis, and the Jews in Ephesus, BZNW 80 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1996), 46.

[74] Scatt Shauf, Theology as History, History as Theology: Paul in Ephesus in Acts 19, BZNW 133 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2005), 98.

[75] The uprisings in Ephesus and Jerusalem are intentionally connected; see Jeffrey Tripp, “A Tale of Two Riots: The Synkrisis of the Temple of Ephesus and Jerusalem in Acts 19–23,” JSNT 37.1 (2014): 86–111.

[76] For background information on Jerusalem in this period, see Lee Levine, Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period, 538 BCE70 CE (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2002). For the seriousness of bringing a non-Jew into restricted spaces, see Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 15.11.5; Jewish War. 5.5.2; 6.2.4.

[77] Josephus, Jewish War 2.224–27.

[78] Josephus Jewish War. 6.300–9.

[79] Keener, Acts, 3:3147.

[80] One could also look to Jewish War 2.229–31 where Josephus describes a Roman soldier being executed for burning a Torah scroll.

[81] Levine, Jerusalem, 307; Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.8.8.

[82] Holladay, Acts, 13.

William B. Bowes

William B. Bowes is a PhD candidate in New Testament and Christian Origins at the University of Edinburgh.

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