Issues of Pauline Chronology Examined:
An Analysis of Some Pesky Issues, and
a Suggested Timeline for the Early Years
of Paul's Gospel Ministry
by Jules Grisham
We begin our discussion of Pauline chronology with an examination of the question of when might have been the most likely time that Saul went to Arabia. Here's the issue: whereas Luke makes no mention of such an excursion, Paul does, declaring quite decisively in Galatians 1:17 that “I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus.”
Most commentators place the timing for this visit between Acts 9:22 and 9:23 (in other words between “Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ,” and “After many days had gone by, the Jews conspired to kill him”) – the notion being that the Arabian visit took place during the “many days” mentioned here.
That said, I'll now share with you my own predilection to place the Arabian journey earlier, as having taken place in the interim of the “several days” mentioned in verse 19 (“After taking some food, he [Saul] regained his strength, and spent several days with the disciples in Damascus”). According to this view, Paul, upon recovering sufficient strength to undertake this journey, would have gone, as he writes there in Galatians, “immediately to Arabia.”
One thing I like about this option is that it establishes a sort of symmetry with Jesus’ wilderness experience, in which you’ll remember of course that immediately following his baptism, our Lord went into the desert for forty days, and then, afterwards (per Luke), went to Nazareth and immediately began preaching there. So too here, then : Paul would have been baptized in Damascus; then gone immediately to Arabia (per Galatians 1:17; and note that by “Arabia” he would almost certainly have meant the desert areas south and south-east of Damascus, controlled by the Nabatean Arabs under King Aretas); then, after some unknown, unspecified amount of time there in the wilderness, he would have returned to Damascus and begun “at once… to preach in the synagogues…” (per Acts 9:20). As for dating these events, we’ll hold off on that now for just a few minutes until we get to Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem – we haven’t even gotten to the first visit yet!
Following this proposed chronology, we see that “after many days” (Acts 9:23) of this activity in Damascus, the Jews there began to conspire to kill him. Consider it from their point of view: here’s the very man that had come to stamp out this noxious sect, and now he’d become one of them! So they hatch a plot to kill him, and are waiting day and night at the city gates to kill him. But Saul’s fellow-believers help him escape by lowering him in a basket from a whole in the city wall. Quite a dramatic story. And it’s interesting to note that Paul refers back to this incident himself, in 2 Corinthians 11:32, where he writes that “in Damascus the governor under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me. But I was lowered in a basket from a window in the wall and slipped through his hands.” Recall that Aretas is the king of the Nabateans, and that Saul had spent that indeterminate period of time among them.
There are several possibilities to account for why the Nabatean king would have any interest in assisting the Jews of Damascus in arresting and silencing Paul. One idea is that the apostle had stirred up trouble among the Nabateans on account of his evangelizing activities among them, and in so doing had Aretas’ disfavor. That’s certainly possible, and maybe even probable. Personally, however, I think it most likely that Aretas was trying to increase and/or consolidate his influence in Damascus by earning the loyalty of one of the city’s most important and numerous ethnic groups, the Jews, by doing them a favor. There is some evidence which suggests that Aretas assumed actual, if only brief, control over Damascus between the years 37 and his death in 40. But even before that he would have been keen to assert and magnify his influence in the city, through his fellow Nabateans and their local leadership in the city. Do you see where the NIV in 2 Corinthians 11:32 translates “governor”…? The word there in Greek is “ethnarch,” which is a title for the head of a particular ethnic group in a given locale, akin to a clan leader or chieftain. Anyway, this takes us further afield then we really want to go!
Now we come to Saul’s first visit to Jerusalem as a Christian. In Acts 9:26ff., we read the following description of this visit: “When he [Saul] came to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he really was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord and that the Lord had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had preached fearlessly in the name of Jesus. So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. He talked and debated with the Grecian Jews, but they tried to kill him. When the brothers learned of this, they took him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.”
This visit is certainly the same as the one referred to in Galatians 1:18-24. Let’s read that passage as well. Paul writes, “Then, after three years” – referring once again to his time both in Arabia and in Damascus – “I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter, and stayed with him fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles – only James, the Lord's brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me.”
A surface reading of these two passages may seem to indicate some dissonance between them, most obviously as between Saul’s moving “about freely in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord” in Acts, and his claim to have been “personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ” in Galatians. In Luke’s account, the entire visit seems much more public than it does in Galatians, where it almost seems secretive. And some scholars have gone so far as, on the basis of this perceived dissonance, to dismiss Luke’s report as unreliable, or even as fabricated. But such extremely skeptical interpretation wholly unwarranted. In fact, a more careful reading not only resolves the seeming dissonance between the passages but enriches our sense of what actually transpired.
Saul came to Jerusalem hoping to get acquainted with Peter and to join the disciples – note that “disciples” is Luke’s shorthand for believers – but they were all, reasonably enough, afraid of him. What if it was a ploy to snare and entrap them…? But Barnabas stood up for him and took him before the apostles (Peter and James only), and Saul stayed with them.
What we see, then, is that while Saul was either kept away from or himself avoided the churches in Judea, that did not stop him from disputing with the Hellenistic, or Greek-speaking Jews, in the city. Think about that for a second, because it’s sort of interesting: Saul, who’d been such a ferocious leader of the anti-Messianic, anti-Jesus party among these very Hellenistic Jews, went back now to his erstwhile brethren among the Synagogue of the Freedmen. Remember this group from Acts 6:9. These were the very radicals who had spearheaded the trial and execution of Stephen three years earlier. So Paul comes back to them, but now proclaiming the very message which they so hated, arguing with all his energy and zeal that Christ was after all the Messiah, that he’d seen the risen Lord! Their reaction was predictable…. As with Stephen, so now with Paul – they resort to violence.
Fortunately, Paul did not suffer Stephen’s fate – at least not at that time. As we read in Acts, “when the brothers learned of this” (presumably, we’re speaking here of Peter, James, and Barnabas), “they took him out of the city and sent him down to Tarsus” (which was Paul’s home city, as we learn later, in Acts 22:3). After this, we read, “the church throughout Judea , Galilee, and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace – no doubt in large measure because it’s first and most zealous persecutor had now become its most zealous champion.
Now, take a look at Galatians chapter 2, verses 1-10. Once again, I’d like to read this section just to make sure that we’re all up to speed. Paul writes, “Fourteen years later…” Stop! Fourteen years later than what? Is this fourteen years after his conversion, or fourteen years after that first visit to Jerusalem…? Ah, that is the question! Let’s hold off on that until we establish some more context…
Again, verse 1: “Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you. As for those who seemed to be important – whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance – those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter, and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.”
Now, keeping the details of this passage in mind and turning once again to Acts, we see that Luke records three visits by Paul to Jerusalem after his conversion and before his second missionary journey. These occur in Acts 9 (which we’ve just discussed), Acts 11 (the so-called famine relief visit) and Acts 15 (the apostolic Council of Jerusalem). And the question which has perplexed and divided many scholars (as well as countless careful readers of Scripture) is to figure out and determine just which chapter of Acts corresponds to Galatians 2 – chapter 11 or chapter 15?
On the most cursory reading, the subject matter of Galatians 2 might seem to conform better with that of Acts 15, throughout the course of which the question of the gentiles’ relation to the such issues as circumcision and the kosher dietary laws were discussed – whereas Acts 11 speaks only briefly about the issue of Paul and Barnabas being sent to Jerusalem with famine relief. But upon deeper inspection, this identification breaks down, and it becomes most probable that Galatians 2 describes the same visit as does Acts 11.
Why do I say that? Well, consider what Paul’s point throughout the whole beginning of his letter to the Galatians is: he is writing to the Galatians among whom he had recently preached the gospel and founded a number of churches, but who are now apparently giving ear to certain self-professedly authoritative representatives of the Jerusalem church who are insisting that, if the Galatians really want to be truly Christian, and be accepted as such by their Jewish co-believers, then they too must essentially become Jews – that is, their males must be circumcised, and all of them must conform to the dietary laws set forth in the Torah. And Paul’s letter is, in its entirety, a rather stinging rebuke of this notion. In it, he defends the “gospel of Christ” as he received it, and takes great pains to emphasize that he received this gospel not from some authorized representatives in Jerusalem, but from the Lord himself. Look at the very first words of the letter, for example. Verse 1: “Paul, an apostle – sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father…” And then, a few verses later, verse 12: “I did not receive it [that is, the gospel of Christ] from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.”
His point in the passages we’ve been examining was most certainly to emphasize that he’d had only the most limited contact with the apostles in Jerusalem. His commission was from Christ himself, not from them. So we’ve seen in the first chapter how he mentioned his brief, 15-day visit in which he met only with Peter and James. Then, in chapter 2, when he says he went “again” to Jerusalem, the effect of this is to emphasize that only then, only fourteen years later, did he go. Do you see that? This is very important. If we were to paraphrase what Paul was getting at in this whole section, we might put it as succinctly as this: “I barely even saw these guys – what? Two weeks after three years, and then another short time after fourteen years. Practically zilch! So it’s not like I owe them my commission….”
In fact, in light of his intention in this passage to emphasize only the most limited contact, his neglecting to mention the fact that in fact there was a third time that he’d visited Jerusalem but not mentioned it – were he to neglect the fact that he’d actually been to Jerusalem more than the two times he’s insisting is all he’d been there, well, that would undermine his entire argument! Even worse, if this were so, it would be hard not to conclude that he set about willfully to mislead us and them. It would in effect make Paul a liar, since his intention was so clearly to make us think he’d only been to Jerusalem twice, when in fact he’d been there three times…. But it’s even sort of funny, in that Paul seems to address this very issue that we’re discussing, when he writes in 1:20, “I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie!” Well, that pretty much closes the lid on any thought of his misleading us, unless we adopt the most radical skepticism about everything he says. In short, the entire logic of Paul’s argument would require that Galatians 2 refer to a second visit to Jerusalem. And, unless we’re prepared to declare Luke a liar, or in error, or whatever, then we’re left with the probability that Galatians 2 describes the Acts 11 famine relief visit – though it does so, admittedly, with a different emphasis.
So far, so good. But now the burden must fall upon us to make the case for this identification. We’ve already read Galatians 2. Here’s Acts 11:27-30: “During this time some prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. One of them, named Agabus, stood up and through the Spirit predicted that a severe famine would spread over the entire Roman world. (This happened during the reign of Claudius.) The disciples, each according to his ability, decided to provide help for the brothers living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.” And then the concluding verse, in 12:25: “When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark.” That’s it. No talk of circumcision, no mention of any conflict over Titus, no mention even of Titus… What gives? How can we account for certain variations between them. Specifically:
1. Whereas Acts refers only to Barnabas, Paul, and famine relief, Galatians refers to Titus being present, and to the issue of circumcision being discussed. This was the issue of the Jerusalem Council, but was not mentioned at all in the context of the famine relief visit in Acts.
Answer: Titus no doubt came along as a helper or assistant to the two senior men, and so Luke simply didn’t mention him as such. Paul himself, having mentioned Titus earlier on, mentions only himself and Barnabas, in Galatians 2:9, as those to whom the apostles in Jerusalem extended the right hand of fellowship. This establishes that these two were the formal heads of the famine relief delegation. Next, there’s no reason to think that the issue of circumcision and of the relation of gentiles to the Law could not have come up earlier. In fact, it makes the most sense to acknowledge that it probably did – but was only finally resolved at the Jerusalem Council. Why didn’t Luke mention this? Presumably because the official reason for the visit was famine relief. And because these other discussions were done privately. See Paul’s own words in Galatians 2:2: “I went in response to a revelation….” Stop! Note that both Acts 11:28 and Galatians 2:2 make it clear that the visit was occasioned by a revelation. Another argument in favor of identifying these two passages.
Anyway, again: “I went in response to a revelation [i.e., Agabus’ prophesy] and set before them [the apostles] the gospel that I preach among the gentiles. But” – now listen – “I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.” Privately… But there was nothing private about the Jerusalem Council; it was discussed out in the open, and was brought there finally to a very public resolution.
2. Okay, but in that very verse we read that he “set before them the gospel that [he preached] among the gentiles.” But he hadn’t been on the first missionary journey yet, and so didn’t preach among the gentiles yet; again, this points to a date for this passage after the first missionary journey, and therefore to the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.
Well, that’s too easy. Yes, it’s true that Paul and Barnabas hadn’t yet embarked on the first missionary journey, but we know per Acts 11:20 that the gospel was already being proclaimed to gentiles in Antioch. The church hadn’t yet launched its overseas missions project, but it was already deeply engaged in local evangelism.
3. Paul seems to report that the situation was resolved, that “they [the pillars of the Jerusalem church] gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me, [and] they agreed that we should go to the gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do….” Again, all this sounds similar to Acts 15, right?
Yes, at a most superficial level. But the more you think about it, the less attractive, and the less likely, this reading is. It would seem highly odd, to the point of being ethically questionable, for Paul to neglect even to mention what had so clearly been the decision of the Jerusalem Council vis a vis gentiles – remember? – that they didn’t have to get circumcised or maintain the dietary laws, but that they did have “to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, and from the meat of strangled animals and from blood” (Acts 15:20). Clearly, asking that they “remember the poor” was most definitely not all that the Council decided. On the other hand, such a request would be entirely appropriate in the context of a “famine relief” effort.
So as I see it, the picture that emerges is this: in response to Agabus’ prophetic revelation, a party led by Paul and Barnabas (but also including Titus, and possibly others), was formed to deliver famine relief to the mother church. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Paul, in private, set before the pillars of the church the gospel which he was preaching to the gentiles in Antioch and which he already envisioned, perhaps, preaching to all the ends of the earth. On the issue of circumcision, he held his own against those who pushed for it as a requirement for all Christians, but clearly, as the issue would emerge later, neither it nor the question of dietary restrictions were resolved satisfactorily. In the end, the apostles gave him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship and asked only that they continue to remember the poor brethren – the very thing they wished to do, as evidenced by the occasion of this visit…. In sum, I think the case is in fact rather decisive in favor of identifying the Jerusalem visit of Acts 11 with that of Galatians 2. Now, what is far less certain is the dating for all this!
Once again, Galatians 2:1 reports that “fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem.” And the really vexing question of all this chronology is to try and figure out when exactly this might be. We’ve established that the visit to which Paul refers in Galatians 2 is the same as that referred to in Acts 11.
Now, Luke links the famine relief visit to his material on the renewed persecution of the church and the death of Herod Agrippa. In fact, this section is framed by the famine relief discussion, such that chapter 11 ends with Barnabas and Paul being commissioned to send it, then chapter 12 ends with a report of the successful completion of the visit. The death of Herod gives us our first really solid date to peg all this chronology to: the year 44.
So it would seem that the most obvious – though we should hasten to add, by no means the only possible – inference would be that this famine relief mission was prepared for soon before the death of Herod and was completed soon after his death – in other words, in 44. The other date which we’ve got more and more solidly, on the basis of improved astronomical data and calculations, is a probable date for Jesus’ crucifixion, on April 7, in the year 30. Thus, fourteen years, counting inclusively (do you know what I mean by counting inclusively? It’s the same type of counting which, in regard to Jesus rising from the dead after three days, gets a count of three days from Friday to Sunday…. You include the first day in the count…) Thus, fourteen years before 44 takes us to 31.
And we can establish the following outline: Saul is converted in the year 31, some eighteen months after Jesus’ crucifixion; three years later, in 33, he flees from Damascus and makes his first visit to Jerusalem, after which he goes to Tarsus, where he spends some ten years; then Barnabas brings him back to Antioch, where they teach together “for a whole year,” per Acts 11:26, 43-44; then, fourteen years after his conversion, in 44, he visits Jerusalem a second time for the famine relief.
Now, this outline has one very important advantage: it conforms absolutely to the easiest and most obvious reading of Acts 11-12, in which the famine is predicted and prepared for before Herod’s death, and completed after Herod’s death. But it has a few disadvantages, too.
First, 31 as the date for Saul’s conversion, while by no means out of the question, is in fact quite early, and there’s a lot of material in those first eight chapters of Acts before that event. Second, 44 doesn’t match with the extrabiblical historical evidence we’ve got that the famine didn’t occur until 45 through 48. Third, and perhaps most importantly, counting fourteen years from the date of the conversion rather than from the date of the first Jerusalem visit doesn’t fit with the most straightforward reading of Galatians. In the Greek, there’s a very apparent threefold repetition of the word epeita = which means “then, afterwards, or next”), as follows: 1:18, epeita (then) after three years I went up to Jerusalem”; 1:21, “epeita (then) I went to Syria and Cilicia”; and 2:1, “epeita (then) after [an interval of] fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem.” It would seem, therefore, that Paul probably – but again, by no means necessarily – meant to indicate that this second Jerusalem visit was fourteen years after the first one. But when we try to establish a chronology based on this counting 14 years between the Jerusalem visits, we find that we have to sever the close link we’d established between the famine visit and Herod’s death. There is, in other words, a tradeoff between these two things. Either we read Galatians as counting from the first visit, or we read Acts as timing the famine relief visit to 44.
If, therefore, we opt to count the fourteen years from the first Jerusalem visit (as per the Paul’s most straightforward sense in Galatians 1:18, 1:21, and 2:1), then the famine relief visit could be timed as falling during the period in which contemporary extrabiblical sources mention a famine, i.e., the years 45-48. Fourteen years before this period (counted inclusively) puts us in the period 32-35; and if we push back three years earlier (once again, inclusively), that takes us to a date range for Saul’s conversion between 30-33. 30 is almost certainly out of the question, as that, as we’ve seen, is the most probable year of our Lord’s crucifixion, and is therefore too early to consider as a date for Saul’s conversion. We are left, then, with the following possibilities:
A) His conversion in 31; his first Jerusalem visit in 33; and his second Jerusalem visit in 46;
B) His conversion in 32; his first Jerusalem visit in 34; and his second Jerusalem visit in 47;
C) His conversion in 33; his first Jerusalem visit in 35; and his second Jerusalem visit in 48.
For what it’s worth, I prefer the first option (thought admittedly, only as a matter of sanctified speculation!) because of its nearest proximity to Herod’s death. According to this reading, we recognize what Luke has been doing all along through the books of Luke and Acts: he’s telling a very complex story in a very compelling (and I must add almost cinematographic) way, building to crucial points, then cutting away to new scenes picking up old threads left off earlier.
So too here: we’re following the thread of the story as it develops in Antioch, where the gospel is first proclaimed to gentiles, and to which Saul is then brought by Barnabas to teach for “an entire year” (45-46). Agabus and the prophets could have come to Antioch in 45 and made their predictions; the relief effort could have been organized, and Saul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem in 46. At this point, now that our focus is back on Jerusalem, Luke takes us back in time a little bit, to “bring us up to date” there. “It was about this time,” he writes in Acts 12:1, and then launches into the story of Herod’s execution of James, son of Zebedee, of the imprisonment and miraculous escape of Peter, and finally of Herod’s death. This ties up – it re-chronologizes – the threads, and then, in 12:25, we read that Saul and Barnabas return to Antioch, after the death of Herod.
That said (and at the risk of throwing everything into confusion!) I’m not sure even now whether I don’t like our first option best (early conversion in 31, then fourteen years to the famine relief visit in 44)! And note that these are by no means the only possible dating arrangements (though to adopt any other would entail ignoring the most straightforward readings of both Acts and Galatians, a step which I’m uncomfortable to take too boldly).
Even so, remember! Just about everyone has their own notion of how these things ought to be dated. Reasonable and good intentioned people differ on this, and that’s okay. There are no critical doctrines on the line. But nor, I strongly believe, is this effort a waste of time. Rather, all of this represents a good faith search for an ever deeper understanding of God’s word, and for the real joy which comes from apprehending and experiencing the deep harmonies and symmetries of Scripture. May God continue to bless us as we continue to engage his Word and as we grow daily in our love for it.