Does Paul’s Telling of History Contradict Luke’s Story in Acts?

In our next blog post in this series on “historical criticism,” we give another example of how historical critics can sometimes distort the Bible, based on certain methodological assumptions brought to the text. This fairly brief case study concerns how the unfolding of historical events as told in Paul’s letters differs from the story told by Luke in Acts. But it helps to put a finger in Acts and another finger in a letter of Paul’s to track with what is happening. What are we to make of these kind of “disconnects,” as some have put it, that we find in the Bible?

… another in a series of blog posts on “historical criticism” of the Bible

Paul in prison, by Rembrandt (credit: Wikipedia). Paul wrote some detailed letters, but do they contradict the story that we find in Luke-Acts?

The discrepancy is very minor, but it serves as a useful illustration. Here is a sample of a blog post written by Bart Ehrman, a professor at the University of North Carolina, a former Christian, and probably the most well known New Testament Bible scholar living today. Dr. Ehrman has developed quite a following, particular among those who are skeptical of the Bible as being the Word of God:

In virtually every instance in which the book of Acts can be compared with Paul’s letters in terms of biographical detail, differences emerge. Sometimes these differences involve minor disagreements concerning where Paul was at a certain time and with whom. As one example, the book of Acts states that when Paul went to Athens he left Timothy and Silas behind in Berea (Acts 17:10-15), and did not meet up with them again until after he left Athens and arrived in Corinth (Acts 18:5). In 1 Thessalonians Paul himself narrates the same sequence of events and indicates just as clearly that he was not in Athens alone, but that Timothy was with him (and possibly Silas as well). It was from Athens that he sent Timothy back to Thessalonica in order to see how the church was doing there (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3).

Although this discrepancy concerns a minor detail, it shows something about the historical reliability of Acts. The narrative coincides with what Paul himself indicates about some matters (he did establish the church in Thessalonica and then leave from there to Athens), but it stands at odds with him on some of the specifics.

Just from reading this, it is easy to get the sense that the Bible is contradicting itself. Dr. Ehrman correctly points out the differences in historical detail between 1 Thessalonians and Acts, but he does so with a little twist.  Did Paul really not meet up with Timothy until after Paul left Athens and arrived in Corinth? Is it possible that Timothy left Berea to travel to Athens to meet Paul, before going back to Thessalonica?  …. Mmmm…… Let us look a little closer….

Depending upon how you approach the text, your evaluation of the differences in the text will, of course, differ. If we take the two documents, 1 Thessalonians and Acts as separate articles of literature, and set the divine inspiration of Scripture aside, it is quite easy to conclude that there is a contradiction between Paul and Luke. This more skeptical view is implied by Dr. Ehrman.

On the other hand, if there is a fundamental unity that exists between these texts, a way of harmonizing the details emerges, without having to go into some rather contorted twists and turns. In fact, there really is a better way to make sense of what we read.

At the apologetics website Evidence Unseen, we can examine how 1 Thessalonians and Acts can be reconciled with one another. The discrepancy arises because Luke probably omitted mentioning Timothy’s travels to Athens, before reconnecting with Paul once again in Corinth. Here is a reconstruction of events, that resolves the supposed contradiction elaborated by Dr. Ehrman:

1. Paul goes to Athens (“Now those who escorted Paul brought him as far as Athens” Acts 17:15).

2. Silas and Timothy come to Athens. This is not mentioned in Acts. However, Luke does write that Paul told them “to come to him as soon as possible” (Acts 17:15). Paul writes, “We sent Timothy… to strengthen and encourage you” (not mentioned in Acts; 1 Thess. 3:2).

3. Timothy goes back to Thessalonica to check on them (“we sent Timothy… to strengthen and encourage you as to your faith” 1 Thess. 3:2).

4. Paul leaves Athens and travels to Corinth (Acts 18:1).

5. Silas and Timothy come to Corinth with money from Macedonia (Acts 18:5). They also come to Corinth with good news about the church of Thessalonica (“Timothy has come to us from you” 1 Thess. 3:6).

6. Paul writes 1 and 2 Thessalonians from Corinth. This might be what Luke means by writing, “Paul began devoting himself completely to the word” (Acts 18:5).

This example of a Bible “contradiction” is not too difficult to harmonize. True, there are instances where an attempted harmonization of certain discrepancies are not as easy, and one should be careful not to immediately gravitate towards an ad hoc solution that feels forced.

Bart Ehrman, yyy

Bart Ehrman (Agnostic/atheistic critic of the Bible)

Bart Ehrman has been often quoted as saying that given enough effort, you can pretty much reconcile just about any story to make everything fit, and rule out contradictions. But the opposite is also the case.  If you are bound and determined to find a contradiction in Scripture, then there are plenty of ways to find one, if you work at it. It does not always mean that finding a “contradiction” is the best way to understand the text, within its historical context.

Not all “historical criticism” is bad. It is important to reiterate that. Yet the method someone uses to try to sort out what is (a): a difference that can be reconciled or harmonized, versus (b), a difference that can only be regarded as a contradiction, is absolutely crucial when doing scholarship.

Unfortunately, there are many people, including many Christians, who tend to see only one side of the story, such as the popular description told by Dr. Ehrman, thus neglecting a perfectly reasonable approach that resolves the difficulty, without sounding forced, or otherwise implausible. As Proverbs 18:17 wisely states, “The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes and examines him” (ESV).

….. In this next blog post in this series, we will examine how some progressive Christians make the same type of methodological assumptions about the Bible, as non-believers like Bart Ehrman does, in an effort to try to “rescue” the Bible from critics and skeptics. Does this type of Christian apologetic really work? Wait for a week for the next blog post and judge for yourself.


About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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