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
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
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
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
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
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
Concerning the position of Acts on the subordination of Paul to
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
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.