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Letters Based Chronology (2)

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Pre-Conference Founding Missions

The Problem

When we begin to put together the pieces of a letters based chronology, we find that the letters are not explicit on whether the great founding missions in the west occurred before the Jerusalem conference (option A) or after the conference (option B). To view these alternatives, you may click on:
     Letters Based Chronology (3), for Chart A
     Letters Based Chronology (4), for Chart B

Leveling the Playing Field

It needs to be made clear at the outset that B deserves no preference just because it is favored by Acts (nor should we be prejudiced against B because Acts favors it); i.e., B is not a default position: it must be demonstrated as much as A must be.


bulletThe choice between option A or B will be based on the letters. See Letters Based Chronology (1).
bulletThe preferred option will avoid time compression. 
bulletThe preferred option will exhibit coherence.

Testing Option A

The hypothesis adopted in these studies is option A; namely, that Paul’s founding missions in Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia took place before the Jerusalem conference. There are several lines of inquiry which seem to support option A.

  1. Does option A avoid time compression?

With regard to his three Jerusalem visits, Paul is specific enough about time intervals leading up to the first and the second visits, but he is not specific relative to the third visit. The first visit comes after three years, probably three years after his return to Damascus from Arabia. On this visit he meets Cephas. The second visit comes fourteen years later, on the occasion of the conference, at which Paul’s gentile mission is approved and the collection is agreed on. The third visit is announced prospectively, the purpose of which is to deliver the collection (and for no other reason:  he preferred being on his way to Spain, via Rome, instead of to Jerusalem).

Now the timing of this third visit is controlled by a number of factors:

bulletThe time needed to reach Ephesus from Jerusalem and Antioch (traveling perhaps by way of Galatia), and to found a congregation in Ephesus;
bulletThe time needed for a lively correspondence with Corinth (some four or five letters), with Galatia, with Philippi, with Philemon, and with Rome (making allowance for imprisonment in Ephesus extending as little as three months, and as long as a year);
bulletThe time needed to initiate and finally to complete the collection for Jerusalem; 
bulletThe time needed for travel to Corinth (intermediate visit) and subsequently to Troas, Macedonia and Corinth (third visit); and
bulletPaul’s expressed sense of urgency, if not haste, to complete the collection (Galatians 2:10).

This urgency would not seem to allow for the postponement of the collection to some indefinite future, since it was surely intended in part at least for the relief of human need (help delayed would be help denied), and in part to prevent the Jerusalem accord from falling apart; i.e. the collection was a way of showing good faith on his part, however he might have felt that James and even Cephas had violated at least the spirit of the agreement in connection with the Antioch episode. Not surprisingly, advocates of option B have suggested that Paul’s sense of urgency was directed to a different collection or collections, perhaps earlier, than the one referred to in 1 and 2 Corinthians and Romans; but such suggestions fail for want of any letters evidence whatsoever.

To determine if option A meets these requirements, we need to estimate minimum and maximum time spans between the second and third Jerusalem visits. A time span of some three years at a minimum would be required between these visits. A maximum time span of more than four years would bring into question the credibility of his professed urgency to provide a collection for Jerusalem. We estimate then a time span of three or four years between the visits. These time constraints are comfortably accommodated by option A. See Letters Based Chronology (3), for Chart A.

The case for option A becomes even more convincing when we take into account the failure of option B to accommodate these time requirements between the second and third Jerusalem visits. See Letters Based Chronology (4) , for Chart B. Option B is unable to fit into this period the sum of the two following time spans:

bulletThe four to seven years of the founding missions, allowing three to four (or as much as six) years for travel between Jerusalem and Corinth, and for settled missionary work, when he is supporting himself with his trade, in Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia; plus
bulletThe three to four years calculated above, during the Ephesian period and the closing months.

Thus option B yields a total time requirement of seven to eleven years. Such a time span far exceeds what is reasonable to expect of Paul in exercising due diligence on the collection project. Or, to put the matter differently, while option A is quite free from time compression, particularly between the second and third visits, option B shows serious time compression.

Freedom from time compression as a criterion for doing Pauline chronology is an important contribution of Robert Jewett. In his survey of earlier chronologies (1979:67-8; cp. 91-2), he calls attention to the problems which are encountered when chronologers ignore the constraints imposed by necessary travel time; see for example his critique of Georgi’s [B-type] chronology, which allows only eighteen months for the trip from Jerusalem to Corinth (Georgi 1992:132-4). John Knox (1987:47-49) anticipates the notion of time compression, if he does not use the exact term.

  2. Does option A respect the requirements of the collection?

Another line of investigation related to the first one also supports option A against option B. If we assume option A, the beginning of work on the collection in Paul’s pre-conference missionary foundations (Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia) follows nicely upon the conference. But if we assume option B there is a quite unintelligible delay, the collection beginning in these mission locations after a minimum of two years from founding (Corinth) and as much as five years (Galatia) and seven years (Macedonia) from founding—hardly an exercise of due diligence on behalf of the poor in Jerusalem. 

Some rather strange scenarios thus follow from option B, an option which would essentially limit Paul’s activity to the regions of Syria and Cilicia for the fourteen years between the first and second Jerusalem visits, and would require Paul Bunyanesque accomplishments during his closing years, in frantic travel, church founding, working at his trade, writing letters, and fretting over the  newly-begotten children of his preaching.

bulletPaul agrees to gather a collection, and then proceeds to found the churches which would be asked to contribute or would volunteer to contribute to the collection (Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia).
bulletHaving founded these churches, he delays some two to seven years before seriously turning his attention to the collection project. To this, we may add the absence of any evidence that he might have solicited contributions from any of his churches on the founding visit (see J. Murphy-O’Connor 1982:83-84), and the inappropriateness of his having done so.
bulletThe more one emphasizes the continuing action of mnêmoneuômen (“that we should remember”)  in Galatians 2:10, the more evident it becomes that (on option B) it was this continued remembering which was neglected.
bulletAdvocates of option B have resorted to the hypothesis of a hasty post-conference collection effort in Antioch (Georgi 1992:43-5), a view without visible supporting evidence from the letters.
bulletTo be sure, one might assume that Paul had founded gentile congregations in Syria and Cilicia which were able to fund adequately a collection for Jerusalem, but there is not a shred of evidence for such an assumption.   
bulletIf the collection functioned at least in part as a way of bringing about unity and reciprocity between the Jewish and gentile wings of the church (2 Corinthians 8:14; Romans 15:27), it seems strange that, on option B, at the time Paul agreed to the collection, the gentile wing hardly existed. Before Paul’s founding missions in the west we know of mixed congregations like Antioch, but none which are exclusively gentile—unless we beg the question, and assume the conclusion, supposing that Paul funded exclusively gentile congregations during his presumed fourteen years in Syria and Galatia, congregations which so far as we know did not participate in the collection (Romans 15:26). 

  3. Are the retrospective texts of Galatians 2:2 and 2:5 intelligible, on the assumption of option A?

The intelligibility of texts such as Galatians 2:2 and 2:5 is considerably enhanced, on the assumption of this hypothesis.

Galatians 2:1-2   1Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. 2I went up in response to a revelation.  Then I laid before them (though only in a private meeting with the acknowledged leaders) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure that I was not running, or had not run, in vain.

Galatians 2:2 shows that a great deal was at stake for a substantial part of Paul’s law free gentile mission already successfully completed when he attended the conference. If such was the case, one might infer that he had already established churches in the west; whereas if they had not been founded, he had relatively little at stake. Or, to put it differently, Why would Paul have been so apprehensive about the work he had accomplished among gentiles, when we have no evidence of gentile mission centers which he had established in Syria and Cilicia?

Galatians 2:5   To them we did not yield submission even for a moment, that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.  [RSV]

This text readily implies that it was not just a potential securing of the freedom of the Galatians from requirements of the law, but securing freedom which they had been enjoying and which was now in jeopardy.

Challenges to the option A hypothesis

It is no surprise that option A has come under attack. It has been challenged by two objections, one substantial, the other less so.

bulletGalatians 1:21 is silent on any travels beyond Syria and Cilicia; but if Paul had really founded churches in the west before the conference, would not reference to such travels have supported his claim to independence from Jerusalem?
bulletSome interpreters argue that Barnabas was a traveling companion of Paul during his missionary travels; but since there is no convincing evidence that Barnabas was part of Paul’s founding missions in Macedonia and Achaia, these founding missions could not have been made before the Jerusalem conference; so, Ogg 1968:90 and others.

The former of these objections is serious enough that it will be discussed separately below. The latter objection may be answered briefly. The weak link in this argument is the claim that Paul and Barnabas were inseparable in their work on the gentile mission. The letters do not justify the notion of a lengthy partnership between Paul and Barnabas, extending until the Antioch episode. The fact that the two met for the trip up to Jerusalem (Galatians 2:1) does not require that they had been laboring together for the previous fourteen years. The idea of such a lengthy association is of course based only upon Acts (11:25-30; 12:24–15:39). With the invalidation of its major premise, the whole argument is shown to be unfounded.

Some critics argue that Paul could not have met Barnabas to travel to the Jerusalem conference (Galatians 2:1) if Paul was missionizing in the west; so, Georgi 1992:129. On the contrary, one may suppose either (a) that Paul was not without ways of arranging to meet Barnabas in Antioch or some other place, or (b) that Paul might have known that he could find Barnabas in Antioch, if he went there; click on Paul and Barnabas.

The Silence of Galatians 1:21, on Pre-conference Founding Missions

Galatians 1:21–2:1  21Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia, 22and I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ; 23they only heard it said, “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24And they glorified God because of me. 1Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem . . . . 

How are we to construe this silence about pre-conference founding missions in Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia? Is option A thereby refuted?

Silence is characterized by a certain ambiguity, which in the case of Galatians 1:21 means that it can be read in two ways; either: 

bulletINCLUSIVELY, suggesting that Paul had indeed been to Syria and Cilicia, but was content to let it be understood that he had worked in other places. This reading would favor option A. Alternatively, the silence could be read
bulletEXCLUSIVELY, suggesting that Paul had been to Syria and Cilicia, but nowhere else. This reading would favor option B.

Given this ambiguity, we need to look elsewhere to decide the question. In support of option B, George Ogg (1968:38), among others, has argued that if Paul had founded his missions in the west before the conference, these missions would have been mentioned in Galatians 1:21, in support of his independence from Jerusalem.

On the contrary, the following considerations may be offered to show that Ogg’s argument does not prevail.

bulletGalatians 1:21, taken together with Galatians 1:11–2:14, offers quite sufficient evidence to support Paul’s argument for independence from Jerusalem. No reader imagines that Paul has not made his case. Listing more places he had visited before returning to Jerusalem would have been rhetorical over-kill.

Whether or not one agrees with H. D. Betz’ classification of Galatians as an apologetic letter (1979:14-15), one can see that Paul’s purposes are best served by brevity in this part of the letter (Betz 1979:9-61); see also the discussion in Luedemann (1984, 46-61). Subsequently Joop Smit analyzed Galatians following the model of a deliberative speech, and explained (1989:11), “The statement of the facts [in the narratio of a deliberative speech] should be brief, clear and plausible. A narration is brief if it mentions just the facts that are indispensable for the case, not more and not less. . . . Clarity of statement is gained by preserving the chronological sequence in which the events happened. Plausibility of statement is gained by presenting the course of time, the location of the events and the characters of the actors in a realistic way.” G. A. Kennedy (1984, 145) also views Galatians as deliberative rhetoric. Aristotle’s observation (Rhetoric) that “there is very little opening for narration” in political (i.e. deliberative) oratory does not invalidate the proposals of Smit and Kennedy, and may in fact confirm the importance of brevity; cp. Lyons 1985:174-5, who also sees Galatians as deliberative rhetoric.

bulletPaul demonstrates his distance from Jerusalem not only spatially or geographically (headed away from Jerusalem) but also temporally (only after fourteen years did he re-visit the city).
bulletGalatians 2:5 implies that at least the congregations in Galatia had been founded before the conference, where Paul had held the line against the circumcision of Titus, “. . . that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.” Further, as Buck and Taylor argue, “Paul did not have to tell the Galatians that he had already visited them and converted them. They already knew that” (1969:165).
bulletClearly the focus in Galatians 1:21-23 is not on where else he had been working but on the point that he was still personally unknown in Jerusalem, and that they only heard that he was preaching the gospel (Knox 1950/1987:40-41).

In sum, there is no compelling reason to read Galatians 1:21 exclusively, and option A stands.

Option B?

We have tried to make clear that, in working on a letters based chronology, option B should be given full consideration, as a possible alternative to A. An assessment of the B option may now be usefully made.

To begin with, there is little or no positive evidence in the letters for option B. The letters, including Galatians, do not tell us where Paul went after the Jerusalem conference and after the subsequent Antioch episode.

Further doubt is cast upon option B by the following problems, if B is assumed.

bulletOption B generates an awkward view of the collection, as we have already noticed.
bulletOption B encounters difficulties with retrospective texts such as Galatians 2:2 and 2:5. For quite unconvincing interpretations, see Martyn 1997:190-3, on 2:2; and 1997:185, 198-9, on 2:5.
bulletOption B results in excessive time compression in the period after the conference, as we have earlier explained. This time compression is occasioned by having to force Paul’s work on his major missionary foundations into the period following the conference, at the same time that there are constraints to limit the time span between the second and third Jerusalem visits.
bulletOption B also causes excessive time extension in the fourteen year period before the conference. Thus Paul has too little time to accomplish monumental feats after the conference, and too much time for too small a missionary field in the fourteen years before. Murphy-O’Connor (1982:73) put it best when he said, referring to A. Suhl’s chronology, “. . . [He has] divided Paul’s life into a period of implausible idleness followed by a period of incredible activity . . . .”

In sum, there is too little to be said for option B, and too much against it, for it to be convincing. Option A emerges as the preferable alternative, providing a coherent view of Paul’s labors, free from time constraints, and allowing the texts to speak in a straightforward way. 


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