For seventeen centuries the Acts of the Apostles was presumed to be a historically reliable account of early Christianity. The rise of modern biblical criticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries overturned this presumption. One of the most radical critical approaches to Acts was that of F. C. Baur and the Tübingen School (Kümmel, 112). According to Baur, Acts was a composition of the second-century church created to resolve the tension between Jewish (Petrine) and gentile (Pauline) Christianity.
Baur's view was quickly rejected by critical scholars, and a variety of competing viewpoints emerged. Source critical scholars argued against Lucan authorship, presuming a variety of sources behind Acts (Conzelmann, xxxvi-xl). Historical critics doubted that Acts accurately reflected the first-century Mediterranean world (Guthrie, 354-63). Literary critics viewed the work as typical of Hellenistic historiography, whose authenticity and veracity were as suspect as the secular histories of the period (Kümmel, 112-23).
By the first decades of the twentieth century, Acts came to be viewed as a theological treatise of the late first or early second century written in the literary form of historiography (Harnack, Haenchen). There is still wide diversity among scholars regarding the theological focus of Acts. Nevertheless, most critical scholars of less conservative persuasion presume Acts is a theological treatise by an unknown author of the early church.
Conservative biblical scholarship in the nineteenth century either ignored or reacted against these developments in the understanding of Acts. The work of Sir William Ramsey toward the end of the nineteenth century began to provide conservative scholarship with data to support the historical reliability and Lucan authorship of Acts. Ramsey, a classicist and archaeologist, initially presumed the findings of higher critical German scholarship regarding Acts. Ramsey discovered, however, that his archaeologist findings repeatedly substantiated the reliability of Acts.
Ramsey, carried away with his findings, emerged as a crusader for the reliability of Acts. Unfortunately, his zeal was not always matched with a sound handling of the evidence; so his findings were largely discounted. Others took up the challenge, however, and began the process of substantiating the book's reliability. Sherwin-White, another classicist, found the administrative and legal dynamics of Acts perfectly consistent with what is known of Roman administration in the middle of the first century (Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament). More recently, Martin Hengel, a critical biblical scholar of high repute, has argued powerfully and persuasively for the historical reliability of Acts (Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity).