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Acts as a Source (4)

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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. 

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