Category Archives: Apostle Paul

Was Paul’s “Philosophical” Speech at Mars Hill in Athens a Failure?

In Acts 17:16-34, we read about Paul’s appearance before the Athenian philosophers at the Areopagus. In verses 22-31, Paul makes a speech before the crowd, before being mocked and cut off in mid-argument (verse 32). Some Christians believe Paul later came to regret this speech, as too “philosophical,” a rhetorical style ill-suited for Gospel presentation. In other words, what Paul argued before the Athenians was a mistake, an example for us today of what not to do when contending for the faith among non-believers.

I intend to challenge that interpretation of this text as misguided. Instead, I argue that Paul’s “philosophical” speech at the Areopagus, otherwise known as “Mars Hill,” was simply yet another tool in the toolbox of the evangelist, given to us today by God as an example of how we can seek to persuade our non-believing friends of the truth of the Gospel, when the situation calls for it. Paul’s performance at Athens, far from being a failure, was a resounding success, and worthy of emulation by a follower of Christ today.

St. Paul Preaching at Athens, by Raphael (1515-6).

A bit more background is in order. The Apostle Paul was disturbed that the city was “full of idols” (verse 16), but there was more to it. Ancient Athens was the seat of philosophical sophistry in the Greco-Roman world. The early church father, Tertullian, famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?,” suggesting that the story of the Risen Jesus, the narrative that came from Jerusalem, was quite different from the wisdom of man, that symbolized the philosophical sophistication of Athens.

This is undoubtedly true. Paul himself noted that knowledge puffs up, even for Christians (1 Corinthians 8:1). Often, intellectual pride is a stumbling block for Christians, as well as being a stumbling block for the non-believer, in coming to faith in Christ.

But is it ever permissible to use philosophy as part of one’s defense for the Gospel? Apparently, there are Christians who say no, believing that Paul’s speech before the Athenians was a failure. Such Christians believe that any evangelist should stick with the Bible, and avoid any style of argumentation that sounds “philosophical,” that trusts in mans’ wisdom as opposed to the wisdom of God.

However, trusting in “man’s wisdom” and employing philosophical argumentation for the advancement of the Gospel are not the same thing. When Christians confuse the two together, and reject Paul’s example in Athens, as something to avoid, they rob the intellectually-inclined skeptic of the opportunity to hear the Gospel presented to them, in a language which they can understand.

In Paul’s speech, he sought to persuade his listeners by contending that they were very “religious” (verse 23). He praised the Athenians for their inscription “to the unknown god,” though it surely raised more than a bit of curiosity, by his claim that the Risen Christ was that “unknown god” (verse 23).  Paul appeals to the Creator, as “Lord of heaven and earth” (verse 24), a theme consistent with Scripture (Isaiah 42:5), that also echoed the philosophical thought of Plato. God “does not live in temples made by man” (verse 24) recalls Mark 14:58, but it was also a sentiment found in the thought of both his Stoic and Epicurean listeners. Paul quotes, with admiration, two of the most well known pagan poets, Epimenides of Crete and Aratus, regarding God, “In him we live and move and have our being,” and “For we are indeed his offspring,” respectively (verse 28). Paul cites these pagan thinkers to argue that we are not to worship idols, a teaching consistent with the Old Testament (Deuteronomy 5:8).

He does all of this within the context of suggesting that his listeners “should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him” (v. 27), as a pretext for his final claim that Jesus is risen from the dead, the revelation of the one true God (v.31). In short, Paul is appealing to pagan wisdom, the best of pagan philosophy, that which was consistent with the message of Scripture, as part of his Gospel presentation.1

Sadly, in much of the church today, Christians have largely given up on the art of persuasion, that appeals to the intellect, of those who are philosophically inclined, like the Athenians, as a preparation to hear the Gospel. But let us examine the Scriptural evidence: On what basis do those who believe that Paul failed in Athens, make their case that Paul later came to regret the rhetorical substance of his speech before the Athenians?

After Paul leaves Athens, he then moves to Corinth (Acts 18:1). In his first letter to the Corinthians, he recalls his posture in originally approaching the Corinthians:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV).

Did Paul write these words, with his experience in Athens on the forefront of his mind?

Some believe so. They contend that Paul was disturbed by what happened at Athens, citing that he came to Corinth “in weakness and in fear and much trembling,” indicating anxiety on his part, regarding his previous preaching experience. Paul had tried the “intellectual approach” in Athens and it had failed. Paul then resolves not to use such philosophically tainted rhetoric among the Corinthians, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” In other words, Paul came to regret his appeal to philosophy at Athens, vowing to only preach the “simple Gospel” moving forward.2

Granted, Paul’s speech at Athens is the most “philosophically” oriented discourse we have recorded in the Book of Acts, but there are a number of problems with the viewpoint of Paul having “regret” over the Athenian episode.

Some have cited the relatively poor response to the Gospel in Athens (Acts 17:32-34). True, there is no evidence in Scripture that a church was established in Athens, as a direct result of Paul’s ministry. But do not “all the angels in heaven rejoice, when even one is saved,” as the common saying goes? There were “some” who did join Paul and believed. Would not have Paul rejoiced in the fact that God did indeed move within the hearts of at least some of his Athenian listeners? The thought of new followers to the faith, though few in number, would hardly have been a good reason for Paul being anxious or discouraged, upon entering Corinth.

Furthermore, Dionysius the Areopagite (v.34), one of Paul’s successes in Athens, is reported later by the church historian Eusebius to have been eventually a leader in the church at Athens, and became a martyr for the faith. So, the rumor that there was no church to come out of Paul’s preaching in Athens, should be safely dismissed.

Was there any further activity by Paul in Athens? Acts simply does not say. All we know is that sometime after his appearance on Mars Hills, he left for Corinth. There is nothing here in Acts that tells us that Paul was in any way discouraged by the events in Athens. We are left with trying to figure out what Paul was trying to communicate to the Corinthians, in his first letter to them.

However, even if Paul was discouraged in Athens, there were plenty of other reasons why he might have entered Corinth in a discouraged, anxious state. Paul had been treated poorly earlier in Thessalonica by many of the Jews (Acts 17:1-9), and his Jewish opponents followed him to Berea, where Paul was harassed there as well (Act 17:10-15), thus leading to his visit in Athens. While the Athenians did not threaten Paul with violence, he was treated with amusement in Athens, and not taken seriously by all. Opposition of any sort to Paul’s ministry might have caused the great Apostle some distress. But to tie this to Paul’s words to the Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 2, is purely speculative. Paul had previously made a shorter, philosophical discourse among the pagans at Lystra, and there is no indication that he felt any sense of regret at his performance among Lystra’s pagan listeners (Acts 14:8-18) .3

A strong case can be made that Paul understood Corinth to be quite a different city than Athens. While Athens was a center of scholarly learning and disputation, Corinth was a port city, focused on commerce and industry. The heady, philosophical approach employed at Athens would not make much sense to the dock workers at Corinth. Instead, Paul sought to meet his listeners, whether in Athens or in Corinth, where they were at.

Furthermore, it was characteristic of Paul’s ministry in general, not to appeal to the power of his own rhetoric or academic learning. Rather, as Paul reminded his readers in Philippi, the believer should “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). There is no reason to think that his “fear and much trembling” in Corinth should substantially differ from the message he gives to the Philippians. Bible scholar Kenneth Bailey suggests that:

For Paul, “fear and trembling” meant that he went in humility, trusting in the grace of God, not in earthly power or in his abilities or good works….”Fear and trembling” was not a special psychological condition experienced by Paul uniquely on the road from Athens to Corinth; but it was for him the appropriate spiritual attitude for all Christians as they fulfilled their callings.4

Some scholars contend that Paul’s admission of “weakness” before the Corinthians, in 1 Corinthians 2:3, might have actually been a physical condition, as some sort of illness.5 Either way, the common, popular view that Paul’s “weakness” among the Corinthians, referring to some sort of psychological condition resulting from a sense of failure at Athens, is without foundation or evidential support.

A closer examination of 1 Corinthians itself reveals that Paul was not adverse to continue quoting pagan poets and philosophers to make his points: “We see in a mirror dimly.” (1 Cor. 13:12, from Plato, “Phaedo”), and later, he quotes “Bad company ruins good morals.” (1 Cor. 15:33, from Menander’s Comedy, “Thais”). Why would Paul rightly reject “the wisdom of men,” only to contradict himself by favorably quoting pagan philosophers in the very same letter?

Instead, it might be best to conclude that Paul’s apologetic efforts at Athens were not a failure, but rather a resounding success. While Paul was among the intellectual elite in Athens, he used the philosophical tools available to him, for the advancement of the Gospel. By appealing to the thoughts and sentiments of the Athenians, Paul was able to gain a more effective hearing.

While among the laborers in the dockyards of Corinth, Paul used the appropriate style of rhetoric for his listeners there. Wherever Paul preached the Gospel, he did so by appealing to the backgrounds of his listening audience, tailoring the style of his message that would best suit the presentation of the Gospel. The variety of approaches to preaching and evangelizing that Paul used throughout his ministry, gives testimony that the message can be adapted in style to the particular audience, without compromising the substance of that message.

To further prove the argument, in that very same letter to the Corinthians, that rightly speaks against the “wisdom of men,” Paul nevertheless contends that,  “I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (I Corinthians 9:19-23).

Others have followed in Paul’s footsteps over the years, in speaking before the great intellectual minds of the day: Saint Augustine wrote his City of God to challenge the mockery of the pagan intellectuals, in the waning days of the Western Roman empire, and his book has become a classic. Thomas Aquinas wrote Summa contra Gentiles to refute the great scholars of 13th century Islam. C.S. Lewis’ radio addresses on the BBC Radio, during the bleak period of World War II, that became substance of Mere Christianity, shook up the spiritual agnosticism of the British intellectual elite. Genetic scientist Frances Collins held back the assault of the New Atheists when he published The Language of God, 2006. Leading Christian thinkers today, ranging from Tim Keller to William Lane Craig, continue to “take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:5), just as Paul did before the Athenian philosophers.

…. And to think that the Apostle Paul did this all for the glory of God…. That we might learn from all of the examples of Paul that Scripture lays before us, to encourage us to be faithful witnesses for Christ!!


1. See I. Howard Marshall’s exegesis of Paul’s speech in Acts 17, in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary: Acts, p. 281-292. Marshall identifies where Paul’s appeal to pagan philosophical sources mirrors the teaching of Scripture, while acknowledging, that at times, Paul is also contrasting pagan thought with the truth of God’s Word. In agreement with my case, Marshall argues that 1 Corinthians 2:3 should NOT be understood as reflecting on Paul’s experience in Athens (see footnote, page 292). 

2. Over the years, I have heard various sermons where preachers make this argument. Most recently, I find it in the teaching of Steve Gregg, of the Narrow Path ministries (accessed January 12, 2019) , whom I greatly respect and admire for his fairness and thoroughness. But I believe that Gregg’s opinion is incorrect on this point. The lynchpin in the “Athens-as-failure” argument comes down to how one should interpret 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.

3. F.F. Bruce in Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, p. 248. Unfortunately, Bruce inadvertently errs on page 246, by observing that Paul did not preach the message of the cross at Athens, as a fault of his own. This has led some to conclude that this was a tactical error on Paul’s part, that he repented of when arriving in Corinth. The text in Acts 17 clearly indicates that Paul was cut off from completing his message, by the amusing jeers of the crowd, and not because of a tactical error by Paul. 

4. Kenneth E. Bailey, Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians, p. 104-107. Bailey contends that for Paul to have received an audience in Athens was a victory in and of itself. Children of the elite in Greco-Roman culture were sent to Athens for an education. That Paul was given an invitation to speak before the Areopagus was a spectacular achievement, and his positive reception in Athens set in motion several hundred years of Christian apologetics among the Greeks that won over that region of the Roman empire. Furthermore, Paul’s appeal to the Corinthians was not based on fancy rhetoric, but rather on the signs and wonders that God performed (1 Corinthians 2:1-5). There is therefore no evidence that a sense of failure in Athens was on Paul’s mind while in Corinth. Bailey goes even farther by suggesting the I Corinthians itself has an awareness of the debate with the pagan philosopher Pericles, in making a defense of his evangelistic preaching. Paul never completely abandons the use of pagan philosophy for the purposes of his evangelistic presentation. Bailey’s case, supported by Marshall (above), yet contra Gregg and Bruce (see above), is far more compelling.

5. Gordon Fee, in the New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, p. 93. Fee continues to say that precisely what Paul’s weakness was in Corinth is beyond our ability to reasonably ascertain.  

The Historical Adam

Was there a real Adam, the sole progenitor of the human race? Is the text of Genesis 1-11 historical or mytho-historical? Did snakes talk? Did the apostle Paul regard Adam as an historical person? What is at stake with the raging debate over the historical Adam?

Veracity readers may wish to plug in and follow the work of Dr. William Lane Craig, who is beginning a new, expanded study on this topic.


Historian Tom Holland on Why He Was Wrong About Christianity (in 5 Minutes)

Humans existing side-by-side with dinosaurs, at Answers in Genesis’ Creation Museum, in Kentucky, in stark contrast with the narrative every public school educated child learns from the modern scientific consensus, namely, that the dinosaurs died out millions of years before modern humans entered the scene.

Secular British historian Tom Holland tells the story of growing up in church, only to lose his faith in the process. In this extraordinarily provocative essay in the New Statesman, Holland describes his first encounter with doubt:

When I was a boy, my upbringing as a Christian was forever being weathered by the gale force of my enthusiasms. First, there were dinosaurs. I vividly remember my shock when, at Sunday school one day, I opened a children’s Bible and found an illustration on its first page of Adam and Eve with a brachiosaur. Six years old I may have been, but of one thing – to my regret – I was rock-solid certain: no human being had ever seen a sauropod. That the teacher seemed not to care about this error only compounded my sense of outrage and bewilderment. A faint shadow of doubt, for the first time, had been brought to darken my Christian faith.

But years later, after researching the grand history of civilization, he comes to a very different conclusion. While still not embracing the faith, Holland takes on a profound appreciation for the Apostle Paul:

It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.

On the Unbelievable podcast/radio program, Tom Holland sits down with New Testament scholar N.T. Wright and show host Justin Brierley, to talk about how his mind changed. Unbelievable, perhaps my top, favorite podcast, has a new series, entitled The Big Conversation, featuring some of the top world thinkers, including Jordan B. Peterson, Steven Pinker, and Daniel Dennett. Tom Holland is the author of various books, such as the In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire and The Forge of Christendom: The End of Days and the Epic Rise of the West. N.T. Wright is one of the world’s most influential, New Testament historians, and author of the recent Paul: A Biography:

  • ………………..

Interested in the whole discussion? Listen to the whole Unbelievable episode below, having the title “How St. Paul Changed the World.”










Should the Old Testament Be Unhitched from Christian Faith? … (Acts 15 and Andy Stanley)

Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley. He is stirring controversy again, but he is also getting Christians (like me) to think about stuff that we are not always prepared to deal with.

A lot of skeptics find the Old Testament to be a problem. A lot of Christians, if they are honest, do too.

But at the first great church council, in Jerusalem, in Acts 15, you get the impression that the earliest Christians were willing to get rid of the legal requirements of the Old Testament, in order to reach more people, with the Gospel. Staunch Jewish members of the early church resisted this, wanting Gentile converts to become circumcised, as a condition for salvation. But those like the Apostle Paul convinced the church leadership to conclude otherwise:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well (Acts 15:28-29 ESV)

In other words, if the Gentiles Christians were willing to adhere to these four basic requirements, they could remain in the church, without (at least the men) falling under the knife. At first, this sounds straight forward, until you read elsewhere later in the New Testament, where the exact requirement for abstaining from food sacrificed to idols, appears to be set aside as a “disputable matter,” as explained by Paul in Romans 14 and 15, where Christians can follow their consciences, as long as they do not cause other believers to stumble.

The main point seems to be that Christians should put an emphasis on unity, and that the requirements laid down in Jerusalem were more about keeping peace, than they were about adhering to moral principle.

One of America’s most influential pastors, Andy Stanley, of one of the largest churches in Atlanta, Georgia, North Point Community Church, has gone a step further, in a 2018 sermon that has caused a firestorm of controversy. Stanley lands his message by saying, “Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well.

Andy Stanley has received quite a bit of pushback (Dr. Michael Brown at Charisma magazine, Wesley Hill at First Things). In understanding the Old Testament to be a problem, for many people today, is pastor Stanley throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

If you look at Acts 15, I find that many modern Christians have a problem with even the basic requirements adopted at the Jerusalem council. With respect to the requirement to abstain from “sexual immorality,” a lot of evangelicals are quick to lament how same-sex marriage, and other traditional, sexual immorality issues are being compromised, in certain quarters of the church.

But with equal force, we see the early church condemning, at least here in Acts 15, the eating of food sacrificed to idols, consuming blood, and eating the meat of animals that still have blood in them (what has [not] been strangled). And yet, how many Christians do you see today worrying about eating any food, in connection with idolatry?

Even more unsettling, and more relevant to modern Christians, what about eating red meat? Do you like your steak rare or medium rare? Are you violating the requirement laid down by the first great council of the church?

What are we to make of the binding force of the Acts 15 decree, for today’s Christians? How are we to relate to the Old Testament, rejecting what is an obstacle to faith in Jesus, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Continue reading

Paul’s Early Visits to Jerusalem: Does Acts Conflict with Galatians?

In Acts 15, the first great church council meeting counts as the third visit Paul paid to Jerusalem, after his conversion, according to a face value reading of Acts. But Galatians records only two visits to Jerusalem by Paul. Is the chronology within the Bible in conflict?

Skeptics of the Bible like to point out things like this as “errors,” but that judgment is premature. There is much scholarly debate, but historically there are two main theories as to how the problem could be resolved. But without descending into too much detail, there is also a more recent proposal that might better explain the difficulties.

Acts records a first visit of Paul to Jerusalem in Acts 9:26-30, following his escape from Damascus, in a basket, lowered by his friends (Acts 9:23-25). The second visit is commonly called the “famine” visit, when Paul and Barnabas are sent from Antioch to deliver help to the church in Jerusalem, in Acts 11:27-30. The third visit, in Acts 15:1-29, Paul has a “public” meeting with the church leaders in Jerusalem, to try to resolve the conflict regarding the status of welcoming the Gentiles into the then Jewish-dominated church. Paul makes at least one more visit later to Jerusalem in Acts, but that visit is not relevant to this chronology problem.

Compare this to what we read in Galatians, Paul’s letter to the church there, intended to resolve the dispute over the Judaizers, who wished to impose circumcision on the Gentile believers in Jesus. Paul appeals to his authority as an apostle, called directly by God, to overrule the legalism of the Judaizers.

To make his case, in Galatians 1:11-24, Paul tells of being converted by a personal revelation from the Lord Jesus. After spending three years in Damascus, Paul goes to Jerusalem, only visiting the apostles Peter and James, meeting them for the first time.

Then, in Galatians 2:1-10, Paul writes of returning again to Jerusalem, “after fourteen years” (Is this fourteen years after his conversion, or fourteen years after his first visit to Jerusalem? We do not know). Paul took Barnabas again, along with Titus, to address the circumcision issue with the Jerusalem apostles (Click on the image below, to expand the image).

The evangelical apologist Norman Geisler champions the traditional view, namely that this second meeting in Galatians corresponds to the third meeting found in Acts; that is, Galatians 2 = Acts 15. Geisler admits some problems here: (a) Galatians 2 records a private visit, whereas Acts 15 describes a public visit, (b) Galatians mentions nothing about any council decree, whereas Acts 15 specifically mentions a council decree. On the flip side, there is evidence favoring this solution: (a) Luke in Acts 15 is emphasizing the public decision regarding Paul’s message, whereas Galatians is interested in private affirmation of Paul’s call to ministry among the Gentiles;  (b) Paul and Barnabas faced stiff opposition in both Galatians 2 and Acts 15; and (c) the persons mentioned in Galatians 2 and Acts 15 more clearly match, as well as the overall timing of the events.

The main obstacle with Geisler’s solution is that it suggests that Paul simply omitted the mention of a third visit to Jerusalem, as described in Acts. Yet Galatians specifically spells out a total of two visits to Jerusalem by Paul, and no more. Omitting the description of a third visit would probably raise some suspicion by Paul’s critics, and does not adequately remove from the reader the specter of error in the Bible. After all, Paul’s driving point is that he gets his apostolic calling directly from revelation, and not from any man, not even the Jerusalem apostles (Galatians 1:11-12). He was basically unknown to the churches of Judea, prior to the meeting in Galatians 2 (Galatians 1:22). If Paul were to ignore yet an extra visit to Jerusalem, it would tarnish Paul’s credibility.

Dallas Seminary and New Testament scholar Darrell Bock champions a different solution, associating the Acts 11:27-30 visit with the Galatians 2:1-10 visit; that is, Acts 11:27-30 = Galatians 2:1-10. He cites three main reasons to support this view: (a) In Galatians, Paul’s second visit is instigated by a “revelation” (Galatians 2:2), and this could tie in with the prophecy of Agabus in Acts 11; (b) Paul mentions that he desired to “remember the poor” in the second visit of Galatians (Galatians 2:10), and this affirms the reason mentioned in Acts 11 for that visit to Jerusalem, namely to offer a gift to the church there, to aid in famine relief; and (c) the problem being addressed in Galatians 2 concerns having table fellowship with Gentiles, whereas the controversy in Acts 15 is about circumcision, making it less likely that the incidents are the same.

Bock’s solution does have its difficulties. It assumes that Galatians was written before the events described in Acts 15, and in general, it moves up the time table traditionally associated with the movements of Paul. Combined with some skepticism over the interpretation of the positive points of evidence mentioned by Bock, not all scholars find the assumptions proposed by supporters of Bock’s solution to be agreeable: (a) Paul’s revelation may not be related to the prophecy of Agabus. As in much of Paul’s writings, Galatians indicates more that the “revelation” had to do with Paul himself, and not necessarily something to do with another person, like Agabus; (b) there is no requirement to assume that the call to “remember the poor” be limited only to one visit; and (c) the issue of table fellowship with the Gentiles derives directly from the controversy over circumcision, as well as the Jewish food laws. It need not be separated.

More recently, Duke University New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre proposes a newer solution that should be taken seriously, in view of the difficulties associated with the previously proposed solutions. To understand Goodacre’s solution, it requires the student of Scripture to have a better understanding of the genre of the Book of Acts.

According to New Testament scholar, Michael Licona, most scholars today recognize that the Gospels, as well as the Book of Acts, can be shown to take the literary form of Greco-Roman biographies, the “bios” genre. Greco-Roman biographers were concerned about chronology, but not in the same manner as modern biographers and historians are today. Unlike modern biographies, Greco-Roman biographies do not share the same degree of precision when it comes to narrating the chronology of historical events. Greco-Roman biographies were known at times to sacrifice certain precise details of chronology, in order to achieve other literary aims, namely, to highlight the character of the person or persons being studied. In other words, the writers of the Gospels and Acts were not required to follow the literary standards of doing biography and history that we would require today. Instead, they would follow the literary standards commonly accepted in the Mediterranean cultures of the first century.

Licona’s thesis in Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography gives examples of how the New Testament authors would use various compositional devices in order to achieve the literary aims of those authors. Perhaps there is a Greco-Roman compositional device associated with Acts that can help relieve the chronological problems reconciling Acts and Galatians.

Mark Goodacre finds agreement with the positive case, presented by those like Norman Geisler, that the so-called third visit in Acts  to Jerusalem, in Acts 15, is the same as the second visit in Galatians, in Galatians 2. There is a long history of accepting this view, going back as early as the church father of the 2nd century, Irenaeus.

However, Goodacre proposes that the first visit in Acts (Acts 9) is actually the same as the second visit in Acts (Acts 11). In other words, Acts 9:26-30 and Acts 11:27-30 are in reality the same visits to Jerusalem, narrated twice. This is the proposed chronology that is offered by Goodacre’s solution, starting from the end of Paul’s time in Damascus:

  • Paul (then Saul) escapes via the basket from Damascus (Acts 9:23-25).
  • Paul then makes his way to the area of Tarsus, his home town, and eventually arrives in Antioch, to receive the gift of the believers there, to be given to the elders of the Jerusalem church to aid in famine relief (Acts 11:25-30).
  • Paul and Barnabas go to Jerusalem, the first visit described in Galatians 1:11-24.
  • This is also the same visit described in Acts 9:26-30.
  • Paul is then brought to Caesarea, and then sent off to Tarsus, per Acts 9:30.
  • Years later, after Paul’s first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas, along with Titus, go to Jerusalem for both a private meeting with the apostles, to affirm Paul’s call to ministry, as well as to participate in the public church debate over the Jewish/Gentiles controversy, leading to the decision of the Jerusalem council in Acts 15. Therefore Acts 15 and Galatians 2 describe the same incidents.

Goodacre describes Acts 9 as a type of “flash forward” of the events described in Acts 11. But it might be better to think of Acts 11 as a “flashback” to the events of Acts 9, which might fit in well with the use of such compositional devices found in other Greco-Roman biographies.

It would be reasonable to suggest that Luke effectively repeats the story of Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem, between Acts 9 and Acts 11, to tie those passages together. In the interim, Luke in Acts 9:32 to Acts 11:18 picks up the story of Peter, specifically focusing on the story of Cornelius, the Gentile Roman military officer, and his conversion to Christ. Once done with the story of Peter and Cornelius, Luke recalls where he earlier stopped off with telling Paul’s story, and to bring things back to Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem.

Why does Luke do this? We can not be completely certain. It is quite possible that Luke’s objective in Acts is to narrate how the church grew from being a Jewish-only movement to becoming a Jewish-Gentile movement, centered around the mission of Paul, a converted Jew to Christ, to share the Gospel with the Gentiles. In other words, Luke selects material from the history of the early church, to focus first on Peter, and then to transition to the character of the apostle Paul. It would only be fitting for Luke to build up the story of how the church overcame the problems between Jew and Gentile, by temporarily highlighting the background and story of Peter’s interactions with Cornelius, before returning to his main narrative, following the apostle Paul.

Those who object to this solution might complain that Acts 9 only makes mention of Paul’s movements from Damascus to Jerusalem, with no intervening travels. But this objection is no more a difficulty than the fact that Luke also makes no mention of Paul’s time in Arabia in Acts 9, while operating out of Damascus, as mentioned in Galatians 1:17. It simply was not a concern of Luke’s to mention all of those precise details in his narrative.

But perhaps the biggest objection to be raised is the assumption that Luke is rearranging, if not repeating, his chronology in Acts, with respect to Paul’s travels in Acts 9 and Acts 11. It is true that a face value reading of Acts would suggest the presence of three visits to Jerusalem, by Paul, by the time of the Acts 15 Jerusalem council, and not two. Nothing in Acts specifically would indicate otherwise. It is only the desire to reconcile the chronology of Galatians that causes concern.

On the other hand, if indeed the Book of Acts is a good example of the Greco-Roman biographical genre, then it should not surprise us to find Luke using compositional devices often associated with that genre. In fact, we should be surprised if Luke did not use such compositional devices in his writing.

Mark Goodacre’s solution is not without criticism, and it would be wrong to dogmatically assert this as the only possible answer to this chronological difficulty. The other proposals have their strengths as well. But in light of the growing scholarly consensus as to a common understanding of the first century, Greco-Roman literary context of the Book of Acts, it might be well worth considering Goodacre’s approach as a legitimate solution.

This situation causes frustration for some contemporary readers, who desire a resolution to chronological problems, for the sake of preserving biblical inerrancy. For those who wish to defend the Scriptures, some probably wonder why the Scriptural text does not spell things out more clearly. Some might complain that if Luke really wanted us to believe that the so-called first (Acts 9) and second (Acts 11) visits of Paul to Jerusalem were really the same, then the Bible would explicitly come out and say that!

The problem with this way of thinking is that it assumes the narratives of the New Testament should behave in the same manner as modern histories and biographies. Sadly, this misguided expectation mirrors a type of cynical and crass skepticism, that encourages critics to dump all of the Bible, simply because the Bible supposedly fails to measure up to “our” modern expectations of what good history and biography should look like.

When we are reading the Bible, we must keep in mind a basic principle of Bible interpretation: The Bible was written for us, but not to us.  “Face value” readings of Scripture often ignore the context in which the biblical writers originally wrote. Confusion over what interpretation of the Bible is best, often arises, because not enough attention has been paid to literary and historical context. The presuppositions of believers and critics alike must take into account the evidence for the prevailing literary practices of the first century, and resist the tendency of anachronistically imposing certain standards on the Gospel writers, that they had no conscious intention of ever meeting.

Norman Geisler’s views are published in his Galatians introduction, as found in A Popular Survey of the New Testament. Darrell Bock’s views are published in his Act: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Aside from his New Testament blog, I am not aware of where/if Mark Goodacre has put his ideas into print.



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