ACTS AS A SOURCE

This article is form http://www.paulonpaul.org/

J. Peter Bercovitz

The reader will probably not have missed the fact that the New Testament book of Acts has not been used in As Paul tells it ... to reconstruct the story of Paul and something of his thought. This procedure was not chosen arbitrarily. On the one hand, Paul deserves to be heard directly, on his own terms. On the other hand, for all of its powerful effect in forming people's views of Paul, the book of Acts, considered as a source, poses problems for the careful student of Paul.

The "Success" of Acts

How can it be that a biographer tells a story so successfully that the subject's own version of the story is overlooked? Such is the case with the author of Acts. A third generation Christian working from his perspective at the end of the first century, and an ardent admirer of the apostle, he crafted an eloquent, dramatic, and edifying portrait which has easily "stolen the scene" from Paul himself. The author was a master of vivid and circumstantial narrative, so much so that every one knows about Saul's falling to the ground when a blinding light flashes about him on the road to Damascus, but few pay much attention to, ". . . and last of all . . . [Christ] appeared also to me" (1 Corinthians 15:8).

The reputation of Acts also rests upon its prima facie plausibility:

Acts is the only continuous narrative of the early church in the New Testament;

It includes the work of the church's apostolic "superstars," Peter and Paul;

It claims to be the result of careful investigation by the author (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1);

It is compatible with certain information in the letters; and

Its authorship is traditionally attributed to a companion of Paul (i.e., to "Luke, the beloved physician," supposedly the one who joins Paul in Troas, for the Macedonian mission; and, as the one supposedly composing the "we-passages" in Acts, his companion elsewhere in the story).

We may justifiably appreciate and enjoy Acts for what it is, a great work of Christian edification, but, as the following discussion will show, there are problems with using Acts as a source.

Acts as a Secondary Source

The letters of Paul, as primary sources, enjoy greater authority than Acts, which is a secondary source. This is a matter of historical methodology and not a question of the inspiration of the Bible (see Perspective). Practically speaking, if one were to use Acts it would be necessary to verify Acts against the letters to get reliable results.

How the Author of Acts Worked

The character and extent of his (or her) sources is still being discussed. The (anonymous) author evidently had better sources for the latter half than for the former half of his work. By the time he was writing, Jerusalem was in ruins (destroyed in the year 70 by the Roman legions), and the Christian community in Jerusalem had probably fled the city before its fall. Thus it would be problematical for a reliable oral tradition about the earliest days of the church to have survived. As for the latter part of Acts, some interpreters are convinced that the author made use of an already existing itinerary for the missionary journeys.

It is not easy to find evidence to support a proposal of this sort. The argument for the use of such a log of stopping places may take the form of a question, "Well, the author did not invent these narratives out of whole cloth, did he?" Of course, we do not know the answer to this question: Yes? partly? not at all? We cannot say.

Into these travel sequences the author has inserted speeches and episodes, as seemed appropriate for his purposes.

The speeches in Acts are carefully crafted orations, composed by the author, in keeping with the practice of ancient historians. It would be difficult to argue that they are contemporary reports by auditors of what Paul actually said. If the author is largely responsible for the contents of the speeches, then it is intelligible why sometimes a speech of Peter turns out sounding like Paul (e.g., Acts 15:6-11). Further, the author represents Paul as the great orator, with no mention of his letter writing, whereas in the letters Paul acknowledges that he is not much of a speaker but writes impressive letters (2 Corinthians 10:9-11)!

The episodes appear to be based in part upon traditional material, which would have circulated in particular congregations. But in Acts it is not always easy to distinguish traditional material from the author's editorial work, and even if we were able to identify traditional material we could not be sure where in the sequential framework it was to be located.

The case of the Gallio hearing in Corinth (Acts 18:12-17) is of special interest, because it is perhaps the most crucial synchronism on which an Acts chronology might be based. After a number of misses or near misses, did the author score a direct hit amidships? We would feel more secure in validating this datum, if (a) we could trust Acts where it is not confirmed by the letters, and if (b) we were sure during which of Paul's visits to Corinth the event occurred. Regrettably, we can not be certain of either condition. (a) When the author has cried "Wolf!" so many times, to change the figure of speech, it is difficult to know whether there really is a wolf this time. (b) G. Luedemann has suggested the possibility that the author of Acts (for convenience, called Luke) "had a tradition in which one of Paul's visits to Corinth was connected with the person of Gallio and that Luke then developed this tradition-in accord with his theology-into the episode of a nontrial of Paul before Gallio." But it still remains uncertain, as Luedemann also observes, during which of Paul's three visits to Corinth the Gallio episode took place (Luedemann 1984,17-18, 158-61). This uncertainty is increased by the fact that the author of Acts, when recounting episodes in a particular city, tends to insert all the episodes he knows of during the first visit, leaving little or nothing to be described during subsequent visits (see Hurd 1965, 28-31). Beyond these considerations, we need to add that uncertainty remains whether the Gallio hearing is even traditional material, as Luedemann believes it to be.

Sometimes there is significant agreement of Acts with the letters, evident for example in the general progress of Paul from Philippi to Thessalonica, and thence to Athens and Corinth (Acts 16:11-18:18). However, we note very little correlation between the episodes in these chapters and what we find in the letters. In any case, where Acts correctly gives the order of events, it is the letters as primary sources that warrant the correctness of Acts, a secondary source.

Reasons for Caution in Using Acts

It is not recklessness but caution that prompts us to leave Acts to one side and to depend exclusively upon the letters as we reconstruct Paul's story. We offer the following reasons.

  1. Acts is flawed by internal inconsistencies and anachronisms, especially in the earlier part.

We call attention to the Chart of an Acts Chronology, which shows something of the framework and data offered by the author, without their being assimilated to the data of the letters. One example of an anachronism is the reference to Annas as high priest (Acts 4:6), during the 30's; Annas was actually high priest 6-15 A.D. Another example is the dating of the Judean famine (Acts 11:27-30) before the death of Herod Agrippa I (44 A.D.) instead of after his death.

We also take note of the fact that in the first volume of his two-volume work, Luke-Acts, there is a well known anachronism in his placing the birth of Jesus in the time of the census when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1-3). The date of the census under Quirinius is A.D. 6, when Jesus would have been about ten years old. In the same connection, there is no evidence that the census was world-wide, or that citizens were obliged to register in their ancestral towns.

2. Acts is unacquainted with (or has suppressed) the main outlines of Paul's career as known from the letters.

In particular:

a. Acts knows nothing of the three years or fourteen years sequences, nor of the collection, as these are known to us from Galatians 1-2.

Acts does not offer a comprehensive time span for Paul's work. According to one estimate, the events chronicled in Acts, if calculated without reference to the letters, would not fill even fourteen years (Hurd 1965/1983, 23).

b. Acts almost certainly got the Jerusalem visits wrong.

Acts brings Paul to Jerusalem some three years too early on the first visit after his "conversion" (Acts 9:23-30).

Acts inserts a famine relief visit (Acts 11:29-30), and, according to some manuscripts, inserts another, unexplained visit (Acts 12:25).

Acts connects the apostolic decree with the conference visit (Acts 15:1-30), contrary to Galatians 2:1-10. The apostolic decree refers to the stipulations which would be required of gentile converts. The stipulations are partly religious (abstaining from idolatry), partly moral (abstaining from fornication), and partly dietary (abstaining from what is strangled, and from blood), Acts 15:20.

Acts brings Paul back from the Aegean area for the unmotivated visit of Acts 18:22-if one takes this text as a Jerusalem visit.

Acts mostly misses the point of the final visit, which was to deliver the collection. Acts 24:17-19 refers only to alms brought by Paul to his nation.

Acts knows nothing of a Paul champing at the bit to be on his way to Spain, via Rome.

c. We have to reckon with other discrepancies between Acts and the data of the letters, on certain more or less important details.

The list might include:

The reference to Paul's involvement in persecuting the church in Jerusalem (Acts 8:1-3), contrary to Galatians 1:22, where Paul remained unknown to believers in Judea.

The fact that the three accounts in Acts of Paul's conversion (Acts 9:1-9; 22:4-11; 26:9-18) are inconsistent with each other (see fuller discussion below).

The author's unwillingness to acknowledge that the Damascus experience was a resurrection appearance (see fuller discussion below).

Related to the foregoing, the author's reluctance to acknowledge Paul as an apostle (he functions as a missionary, sent out by and reporting back to the Antioch church, Acts 13:1-3; 14:14-28).

The substantially different account of the Jerusalem conference (see fuller discussion below).

The brevity of Paul's stay in Thessalonica (Acts 17:1-10; one may refer to Paul's version in Founding Missions (2).

3. It is doubtful whether a general chronology of Paul's career was available to the author, whether in written source or oral tradition.

The author had to put together the sequential framework of Acts as best he could. This inference seems to be confirmed by an analysis of the transitional formulas and summaries which the author used to provide continuity between episodes and to give shape to his narrative. It is in these editorial transitions and summaries that we usually find the time references, but these references are often vague and arguably stylized (6:1; 9:23, 43; 11:27; 12:1; 16:12; 19:23; 21:10, 15; 27:7, 9, 14, 20). In this connection, we should keep in mind how little was available to any author in the way of handbooks on chronology, geography, or contemporary government, even if one had been inclined to check allusions made to public officials (see Cadbury 1927, 327).

This point requires special emphasis, inasmuch as there are worthy scholars who implicitly bestow a default position upon the sequential framework of Acts, as if its three missionary journeys and five Jerusalem visits were self-evident postulates of the historical universe and did not first have to be demonstrated.

4. The author's sequential framework was likely shaped by his particular interests and purposes.

If this sequential framework was the work of the author himself, we would not be surprised if it was shaped by the needs of Christian communities which he was seeking to serve, toward the end of the first century. He was not interested in writing objective history as we know it, but in nurturing and building up the church. It seems that the author had a special interest in demonstrating that the church was the true Israel, and as such was exempt from Roman persecution. (We remind ourselves that during the previous century and a half Judaism had been an officially tolerated religion.) Throughout the course of Paul's missionary journeys, the Romans are generally represented in a favorable light, while the Jews often appear as opposing him.

5. There is evidence that the author of Acts felt free to "improve upon" his sources, even where he might have had good chronological information at his disposal.

In the case of the Gospel of Luke, of which Acts is the companion work, we have an opportunity to see the author at work, especially in his use of the Gospel of Mark, one of his two major sources for the gospel. We refer to the following examples:

The author of Luke-Acts dates the transfiguration of Jesus after an interval of eight days (Luke 9:28), rather than six days (Mark 9:2).

The author places the cure of the blind beggar on entering (Luke 18:35) rather than on leaving Jericho (Mark 10:46).

The author places the rending of the Temple curtain before rather than after Jesus expires. Click on curtain.

The author adroitly rewrites Mark 16:7 so that all the resurrection appearances are set in Jerusalem (Luke 24:6).

Mark 16:7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.
Luke 24:6 Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee . . . .

6. We have to reckon with the possibility that rumors or allegations originating from Paul's opponents may have been worked into Acts.

Such rumors or allegations may have circulated as traditional material, along with material which was accurate and even complimentary. (See Linton 1950.) By the time the author gained access to the unfavorable material, it may have been difficult for him to know-or for us now to know-what was truth and what was fabrication. (See the comparison of the resurrection appearance to Paul in the letters and in Acts, below.)

Authorship

We have been referring thus far to "the author" of Acts. Our reason is that the work circulated anonymously. The same is true of the companion work, the Gospel of Luke, which eventually came to circulate with a traditional title. Though Acts is traditionally attributed to Luke the beloved physician and companion of Paul, in recent years the book has been increasingly regarded as composed by an unknown author. It is likely that the author lived in the generation after Paul. We can assume that he did his best with the sources available to him, at a distance of two to three decades from the death of Paul (A.D. 64?) and from the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70.

It is ironic that the more one insists upon the author's being a contemporary and companion of the apostle, the more difficult it is to believe in the author's due diligence and good faith. If he is allowed to be a late first century author, his lack of information or his misinformation is understandable, and his good efforts are laudable.

CHART

OF AN ACTS CHRONOLOGY

A.D.
_____ 30 - 44

6 - 14(15)

44 - 46

(after 44)


(45)46

43/44
44

I. Crucifixion of Jesus to the Death of Herod Agrippa I
(Acts 1:1-12:24)

Establishment and growth of the Jerusalem Church
Intermittent persecution
Annas the high priest

Reference to the Theudas insurrection (5:36) while Fadus was procurator

Martyrdom of Stephen .. Persecution in Jerusalem
The church expands to Damascus
Conversion of Paul .. Preaching in Damascus
Paul's First Visit to Jerusalem .. Visits Tarsus
The church expands: to Judea, Samaria, Caesarea,* coastal towns; to Phoenicia, Cyprus, Antioch
________________
*Anachronism, if Cohors II.Italica was not in Caesarea before A.D. 44. The Speira Italike was probably not sent East until later than 44.
________________

Barnabas comes to Antioch .. he is joined by Paul
.. they work together there for one year
Judean famine
Paul's Second Visit to Jerusalem, with Barnabas, for famine relief
James killed
Death of Herod Agrippa I

anachronism

anachronism

anachronism
Acts 10:1 - 11:43


anachronism

44 - 52

41/42?
(
or 49)

(51)52

II. Death of Herod Agrippa I to Gallio Hearing
(Acts 12:25-18:17)

Paul, Barnabas and Mark go to Antioch
FIRST MISSIONARY JOURNEY
.. to Cyprus .. to south central Asia Minor .. back to Antioch
Paul's Third Visit to Jerusalem .. Jerusalem conference
.. Return to Antioch
SECOND MISSIONARY JOURNEY .. to south central Asia Minor .. through Phrygia and Galatia .. to Troas .. to Macedonia: Philippi, Berea, Thessalonica .. to Achaia: Athens,
Corinth
Expulsion of Jews from Rome, a possible anachronism
.. if Orosius was right, no anachronism

Hearing before Gallio

anachronism?

52-58

(55)58

III. Gallio hearing to Festus succession (Acts 18:18-24:27)

"Many days longer" in Corinth
Travel to Antioch: via Ephesus, Caesarea, and possibly Jerusalem
[Acts 18:22]

Paul's Fourth Visit to Jerusalem
THIRD MISSIONARY JOURNEY .. Antioch, through Galatian region and Phrygia, in Asia Minor, and then to ..
Ephesus, for three years
To Macedonia .. To Achaia, for three months
Travel, via Macedonia, Troas, Miletus, etc., and finally . . .
Paul's Fifth [or Fourth] Visit to Jerusalem
.. Arrested .. Transferred to Caesarea .. imprisoned 2 years
Festus succeeds Felix .. [If we use 55 for the date of succession, we probably have a case of time compression.]

58 - 61

59 - 61

IV. Festus Succession to End of Acts (Acts 25:1-28:31)

Paul's appeal to Caesar .. Paul, dispatched to Rome
Paul arrives in Rome .. 2 year imprisonment

The Convergence and the Distance Between the Letters and Acts

The Convergence

To do justice to Acts, we recognize that in some significant respects (and others could be mentioned) the book does show some correlation with the letters:

The recollection that a significant turning point in Paul's life is associated with Damascus, in the context of Paul's persecuting activity, and that soon thereafter Paul is actively proclaiming Jesus Christ;

Periodic visits to Jerusalem, one for a post-conversion acquaintance; another for the conference; and a final visit (though Acts, as already noted, has four and perhaps five visits);

Awareness of the problem of assimilating gentiles into the church, and discussion of the problem at the Jerusalem conference;

References to two of Paul's associates, Timothy and Silvanus ( = Silas, in Acts?);

The progression of Paul's founding missions from Philippi to Thessalonica, to Corinth (by way of Athens), and eventually to Ephesus (Acts is not very clear about a mission to Galatia proper); and

His progress at the close of his career from Ephesus, to Macedonia, and Corinth, in anticipation of the final visit to Jerusalem.

The Distance between the Letters and Acts

We have already indicated that Acts got the Jerusalem visits wrong, and we have noted further discrepancies in matters of greater or lesser importance. We now take a look at how Acts differs from the letters in two very important areas: the resurrection appearance to Paul, and the Jerusalem conference.

The Resurrection Appearance to Paul, in the Letters and Acts

As earlier summarized in Beginnings (1),

1) According to the letters, it was an experience of seeing the risen Lord; that is, this was a resurrection appearance, as much as any of the other appearances referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8.

In Acts, Paul's experience is not acknowledged as a resurrection appearance.

Paul hears the words of Christ, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" (Acts 9:4; 22:7; 26:14; see also 9:5-7; 22:8-10; 26:15-18). The emphasis is on hearing, not seeing. Paul sees a light, to be sure (Acts 26:13). But only indirectly and inconspicuously are any references to seeing Jesus introduced (Acts 9:17, 27; 22:14-15, 18; 26:16). Just when Acts seems to be on the verge of admitting Paul as a witness of the resurrection, the author excludes him by calling the experience a "heavenly vision" (Acts 26:16, 19). The key to understanding the author's ambivalence is likely to be found in his persuasion that (a) all resurrection appearances happened in Jerusalem or vicinity, and (b) all resurrection appearances took place during the forty days before Christ's ascension into heaven. In other times and places, people may have visions, but not resurrection appearances. Thus, for the author, Paul has come on the scene too late, and on the wrong stage, to have received a resurrection appearance. After the forty days of Easter, Paul can have a heavenly vision or audition, but he cannot be a witness of the resurrection.

2) According to the letters, Paul's resurrection appearance was spiritual and inward, a revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16). This immaterial quality seems to be related to the fact that these texts [1 Corinthians 9:1; 15:3-8; Galatians 1:11-12, 15-16] make no mention of an empty tomb. The tomb may or may not have been empty, but the belief in the resurrection arose from having met the risen Jesus, not from having viewed an empty tomb.

In Acts, we observe the author's tendency at work, to materialize spiritual happenings, with the flashing light from heaven, the falling to the ground, and the blindness.

The author of Luke-Acts is distinctive among New Testament writers in tending to emphasize physical, external phenomena: at the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit descends upon him in bodily form like a dove (Luke 3:22); when Jesus appears to the disciples (Luke 24:36-43), he demonstrates the physical character of his body by eating food; at Pentecost, a sound comes from heaven and fills the house, and tongues as of fire rest upon the disciples.

3) According to the letters, it was an objective experience, in that it had a matter-of-fact quality which differentiated it from a trance or vision, such as the one mentioned in 2 Corinthians 12:1-7.

In Acts, it was a vision.

The author readily acknowledges that Paul sees a vision (see Acts 26:19), but it is a vision of the heavenly Jesus, and not of the resurrected Christ in physical form of the forty days, now inaccessible even to Paul. The author of Acts was evidently working from a view of the resurrection and of post-resurrection events which stands virtually alone among New Testament writers.

Elsewhere, we find references to the resurrection of Jesus (frequently in Paul), or to his exaltation (Philippians 2:9; 1 Timothy 3:16), suggesting that resurrection and exaltation could be used interchangeably. For the author of Acts, on the other hand, resurrection and exaltation were successive, not interchangeable. Because of the vivid, narrative form in which he expressed it (Luke 24:13-53; Acts 1:1-11), the view of Luke-Acts became historically the prevailing view, as in the Apostles' Creed, or the Nicene Creed.

Now 1 Corinthians 15:3-8 serves as a kind of bench mark, if not historical bedrock, for understanding Jesus as raised from the dead, in what Paul might have called a spiritual body-the text mentioning nothing of an empty tomb or physical characteristics. By contrast, Luke-Acts represents the next stage of narrating the resurrection appearances. The author does not deny that Christ was raised in some mysterious kind of spiritual body, but he seems to clothe the spiritual body with physical characteristics (Luke 24:39-43; compare Matthew 28:9; John 20:19-29).

Once a physical body was attributed to the risen Christ, the problem was to explain why he no longer appeared in a physical body. The "solution" offered by the author of Luke-Acts-a solution which has created other problems, both ancient and modern-was to restrict the resurrection appearances to the forty days of Easter, and to introduce the notion of an ascension of the body with physical characteristics into heaven, as an explanation of why he was no longer appearing in physical form. Given this post-resurrection scenario in Luke-Acts, Paul's experience could not be a resurrection appearance: he could receive a vision of the heavenly Jesus only, and thus his qualifications as an apostle were dubious (see below).

4) According to the letters, this experience validated Paul's call as an apostle, a claim which does not ever seem to have been in question so far as his apostolic peers were concerned. In a similar way, the experience formed the basis for his gospel.

In Acts, Paul is appointed to a task, but not commissioned to be an apostle.

Paul is chosen to bear the name of Jesus before gentiles and kings and the people of Israel (Acts 9:15; compare 22:15, 21; 26:16-18). Yet for all the marvelous phenomena accompanying his vision, one thing was lacking: there was no apostolic call. Acts seems to have been reluctant to concede the apostolic title to Paul, in part because, for the author, the Twelve were identical with the apostles (and Paul of course was not one of the Twelve); and in part because, as earlier noted, Paul was not a witness of the resurrection during the forty days before the ascension-now that Christ was ascended to heaven, he could no longer be seen as the other apostles had seen him.

Paul emerges in Acts, not so much as an apostle (Greek, apostolos), but as a missionary extraordinaire, who functioned under appointment by the Antioch church, was sent out by that church on the so-called first missionary journey (Acts 13:1-3), reported back to Antioch on his return, and was appointed by Antioch a delegate to the Jerusalem conference (Acts 15:2). To be sure, the cognate verbs apostellein and exapostellein ("to send out") are used in the Acts accounts of the conversion (22:21; 26:18); but this is hardly conclusive, since Ananias too is sent (apostellein, 9:17), to minister to Paul in his blindness. Curiously, we are left with two texts (Acts 14:4, 14), which appear to acknowledge Paul's apostleship (and Barnabas') after all.

Acts 14:4, 14 4But the residents of [Iconium] were divided; some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles [i.e. Paul and Barnabas]. . . . 14When the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of [plans to offer sacrifice to them], they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd [to dissuade them] . . . .

We will not try to decide whether these texts reflect the inconsistency of the author, who perhaps let these references stand from whatever kind of source he had for the first missionary journey; or whether (less likely) the author all along assumed Paul's apostleship, and assumed that his readers assumed it too. To the extent that Acts acknowledged Paul as an apostle, he was a subordinate apostle.

Concerning the position of Acts on the subordination of Paul to Antioch, we have rather good evidence from Galatians that Paul's apostolic credentials had been challenged in some quarters, to the effect that he was somehow dependent upon the Jerusalem apostles. We can by no means exclude the possibility that such doubts about his apostleship, raised by his opponents and transmitted as traditional material along with more favorable recollections of Paul, might have influenced the author of Acts unwittingly, to the extent that he did not affirm Paul's apostleship, or affirmed it in only a limited fashion. This attitude of the author seems to be reflected in a passage like Acts 15:2, where Paul and Barnabas and others are appointed by the Antioch church to go up to Jerusalem to discuss the circumcision question with the apostles and elders-as if there were apostles in Jerusalem, but not in Antioch. Likewise, Paul is represented in Acts 13:30-31 as deferring to others as witnesses of the resurrection: "But God raised [Jesus] from the dead; and for many days he appeared to those who came up with him from Galilee to Jerusalem, and they are now his witnesses to the people."

The Distance between Acts 9, Acts 22, and Acts 26

We have called attention to discrepancies between Acts and the letters, but we also need to be aware of conflicting details in the way the author tells the story of Paul's conversion, in chapters 9, 22 and 26. From the viewpoint of the author's contemporaries these discrepancies would not be a sign of carelessness in details, but of good story telling. Click on conversion, for the texts.

In Acts 22:7, 9; 26:14, Paul alone hears the voice; in 9:4, 7, his companions hear the voice, too.

In Acts 26:13 the light flashes around both Paul and his companions (compare 22:9), whereas in Acts 9:7 they see nothing.

In Acts 9:4; 22:7 Paul falls to the ground; in 26:14 all of his companions fall to the ground as well.

Although an interpreter might try to understand these differences as a case where the author of Acts is relying on "oral tradition," this explanation has to assume the persistence of such transmission over a period of fifty years or more, and because of the inconsistencies does not enhance our estimation of either the author or his sources. If such an interpreter also accepts the hypothesis of authorship by Luke, a companion of Paul, one can only wonder why the author did not have an account of the "conversion" directly from Paul.

The Jerusalem Conference, in the Letters and Acts

At the outset, we identify several general, though important, similarities between Galatians 2:1-10 and Acts 15:1-21. (For a more detailed discussion of the conference in Galatians, click on Conference and Paul and Galatia (1).)

  1. A meeting is held in Jerusalem (not overlooking the fact that for Galatians it is Paul's second visit to Jerusalem and for Acts it is his third visit), to discuss a crucial issue, whether gentile converts should be circumcised.
  2. The leaders present are Paul, Barnabas, Cephas (Peter), James, and John (not mentioned in Acts). Titus also is present, but not mentioned in Acts.
  3. The decision rendered is that circumcision should not be required.

The differences between the two accounts are substantial.

  1. (Galatians) Paul goes to Jerusalem by revelation.

    (Acts) Paul goes to Jerusalem as a delegate of the Antioch church.
  2. (Galatians) Cephas, or Peter, comes to the conference representing the mission to the Jews; Paul, representing the mission to gentiles.

    (Acts) Peter comes to the conference as the champion of the law-free gentile mission, the one designated to preach to the gentiles; he gives a Pauline-sounding message (Acts 15:7-11). Paul and Barnabas report on what they have been doing.
  3. (Galatians) The decision is by consensus, of the pillars (Cephas, James, John), and of Paul and Barnabas.

    (Acts) The decision is rendered by James, the Lord's brother, something of a Jerusalem primus inter pares [first among equals].
  4. (Galatians) Paul's law free gentile mission is approved; nothing is added.

    (Acts) Circumcision is not required, but the "apostolic decree" is imposed: gentile Christians are to abstain from idols, from fornication, from whatever has been strangled, and from blood.
  5. (Galatians) The dual mission is approved: Paul and Barnabas to the gentiles; James, Cephas and John, to the Jews.

    (Acts) No reference-except that Paul continues to preach to the Jews (in Philippi, Thessalonica, Beroea, Corinth, and Ephesus).
  6. (Galatians) A collection for the poor (of Jerusalem) is agreed to.

    (Acts) No reference.

Assessing Other Information in Acts

But what of those parts of Paul's story which cannot be checked directly against the letters? Would they provide us an additional useful and reliable source for telling the story of Paul? We consider various sorts of information coming from Acts.

1. Was Paul a tentmaker (Acts 18:3)? Was he a native of Tarsus (Acts 22:3)? Did he also bear the name "Saul"?

Possible, but neither confirmed nor refuted by the letters. This kind of information is plausible, or would fit easily into a first century environment, but it has little to contribute to our understanding of the letters.

2. Was he a student of the Jewish rabbi, Gamaliel (Acts 22:3)?

Possible, but uncertain. Some contend that Paul does not show evidence of technical rabbinic training in his letters, and that serious study of Torah (Galatians 1:14) would have been available in a synagogue of the dispersion.

3. Was he a Roman citizen (Acts 16:37-38; 22:25-29; 23:27; compare 25:10-12, 25-26)?

Doubtful, if only because beating with rods, a Roman form of punishment, was not to be administered to Roman citizens, and Paul suffered such a beating three times (2 Corinthians 11:25). The reasons for questioning his Roman citizenship are laid out convincingly by Stegemann (1987).

4. How are we to evaluate his arrest in Jerusalem, the two-year imprisonment in Caesarea, transport to Rome, shipwreck, and the two-year residence in Rome?

It is very difficult to make a historical judgment, except to say that the general outlines of the narrative may be reliable, without our being able to confirm many of the details. To know more about these final days of the apostle would satisfy our curiosity, but in this case wishing does not make it so.

Using Acts Where It Cannot Be Checked Against the Letters?

We conclude: there are sufficient discrepancies between Acts and the letters, where Acts can be checked, that it is not prudent to use Acts where it cannot be checked.

If one were to use Acts at all, one might insert Acts material into a letters chronology, on condition that such information was flagged as belonging to a second order of reliability and that the material was "purged" of any tendencies which might distort the representation of Paul in the letters. For example, one might at some point insert travels of Paul to Cyprus and south central Asia Minor (Perga, Pisidian Antioch, Lystra, Derbe), so long as such a tour was stripped of his speeches, of references to his subordination to Antioch, and of other embellishments of the author. (Would this be during, or before, or after, his visit to Syria and Cilicia mentioned in Galatians 1:21?) But we would be left with a bare list of stopping places, places which have little bearing upon the concerns of the letters (e.g., nothing is said of their participation in the Jerusalem collection). Even such a limited concession might be an invitation to confusion, and would not seem to advance our understanding of Paul to any appreciable degree.

We also take note of the possibility of using the Gallio hearing, discussed in a previous page, to establish a synchronism for absolute dating in a letters chronology. The Gallio hearing is usually dated in A.D. 51, or more likely, in 52. But do the letters provide any support for such a date? The letters do not exclude such a date, but neither do they support it. Aside from the uncertainties expressed earlier about the usefulness of the Gallio incident, we have difficulties in knowing on the basis of the letters what years Paul spent during the founding visit to Corinth. The Aretas datum, discussed in A Letters Based Chronology (1), might support a date for the Jerusalem Conference between A.D. 50 and 54; these dates would in turn permit a founding visit to Corinth as early as 47 to 48, and as late as 53, if we use the order of events presented in this site. But such a reckoning is far from the precision which would be useful. Consequently, we post a warning: Caution: use the Gallio datum at your own risk!

Summary

It is evident then that the author of Acts, writing from the last decade of the first century, working with very inadequate sources, whether written or oral, did his best to tell the story of the earliest days of the church, and especially of its two most prominent apostles. That he got parts of the story right, in terms of biographical accuracy, is a tribute to his devotion and industry. That he failed to get the story right at certain significant points should not dim our appreciation of his contribution in terms of a vivid and dramatic work which still continues to inspire and edify believers.

Copyright © 2000-2003 J. Peter Bercovitz. All rights reserved.New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Articles (as noted) used by permission of Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies. Materials on this site may be downloaded for personal study and research, but quotations of this material should be appropriately acknowledged.

 

 

 

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