There seems to be a growing number of folks who believe Luke contradicts Paul and ancient history concerning events surrounding Paul’s conversion. Some even claim that in order to rescue Acts we must sacrifice Paul’s credibility on matters that pertain to his own life. Are the critics correct, or are they simply addressing these matters with some preconceived notions of what things were like back in the first century Middle East?
If Acts was written late in the first century or early second century CE, as some critics claim, Luke would almost certainly have access to Paul’s letters to the churches. If this is so, why would Luke knowingly phrase his own thesis in a manner that could be interpreted as contradictory? On the other hand, if Luke wrote Acts as a journal about the growing Church, he would have to be contemporary with Paul and, more than likely, would have used Paul as his authority concerning those things that he wrote about him in Acts (cp. Acts 8:1). The problem is that those critics, who see contradictions concerning Paul between Luke’s Acts and what Paul says about himself in his epistles, believe Luke wrote his thesis somewhere between 30 and 50 years after Paul’s death. They claim that Luke was trying to smooth over or harmonize some rather turbulent traditions pertaining to uniting Jewish and gentile believers in the nascent Church. In doing so, the critics claim Luke muffed his chronicle by contradicting Paul on Paul. This is the claim, but is it true?
I’ve already addressed issues pertaining to the authority of the high priest in Damascus, Paul’s office as an apostle and whether or not he saw Jesus HERE. In another blog post I addressed the critics’ claim that Luke’s account of Paul’s conversion (Acts 9:1-30) contradicts Galatians 1:16 and 1:18 HERE and HERE. At this point I wish to address matters concerning whom Paul persecuted and how familiar a figure Paul was in and around Jerusalem.
In Acts 8:1 Luke implies that the Apostles were not persecuted, or at least not pursued to their deaths. In other words the Palestinian Jewish believers may have been questioned, watched and perhaps beaten in the synagogues, but their lives were not at risk for believing in Jesus at this time. Many of the priests who served in the Temple had joined themselves with the Apostles when the Grecian believers grew in number and desired to practice their own traditions in worship (cp. Acts 6:1-6 and Acts 6:7). Traditionally, it has been believed that the 7 leaders (Acts 6:5) were deacons, but Luke shows that at least two (Stephen and Philip) of their number were evangelists, and the qualifications for deacons and leaders in the church are very similar. The Grecian Jewish believers in Jerusalem desired to worship and carry on the business of spreading the word of God according to their own traditions rather than the traditions practiced by their Palestinian brethren, and this was approved by the Apostles, and they ordained their first leaders.
As I have shown in previous blog posts, the first persecution that developed after Stephen’s death pertained only to these Grecian Jewish believers. The majority of believing brethren remained unaffected as far as putting their lives at risk was concerned. It was the Hellenistic Jewish believers who had to flee Jerusalem for their lives, and Saul (Paul) seems to have been a leader of those Jewish authorities who persecuted them (Acts 8:1, 3; 9:1-2; Galatians 1:13-14). So, both Luke and Paul are in agreement that Paul persecuted the Church, but to what extent did he persecute them?
Many critics point to what they presume to be a contradiction in Acts 26:20. there Paul tells King Agrippa and those present with him how he came to believe the Gospel, and that he preached it first to those at Damascus, then at Jerusalem and throughout the coasts of Judaea and finally to the gentiles. Yet, if Paul preached the Gospel throughout the coasts of Judaea, how could he have written earlier in his epistle to the Galatians that the churches of Judaea didn’t know him by face (Galatians 1:22)? What can we say about this?
If we use only the information we are given by both Paul and Luke, we shall see that they do not contradict. First of all, neither Paul nor Luke tells us that Saul (Paul) persecuted believers beyond Jerusalem. Acts 9:1-2 shows he intended to arrest believers in Damascus, but that never transpired, because he met Jesus on the way and became a believer himself. It is only in Jerusalem that Paul tells us that he pursued believers from synagogue to synagogue (Acts 26:11; cp. 8:3). It was only from Jerusalem that Luke claims believers had to flee (Acts 8:1). We don’t know why Paul singled out Damascus; we know only that he sought extradition papers from the high priest for believers found there. Perhaps some of the rulers of the synagogues in Damascus had complained to Jerusalem about believers who had fled there. Perhaps Jews from Jerusalem visited there and recognized some believers who fled there from Jerusalem but all this is pure conjecture. Neither Paul nor Luke tell us why Damascus was singled out.
As for Galatians 1:22, the context of Paul’s remark there has to do with how he came to be converted and to whom he owed his understanding of the Gospel. He didn’t come by this knowledge through any of the Apostles at Jerusalem. He was converted on the road to Damascus through a vision of the resurrected Jesus. Then he spent up to 3 years in Arabia where more was revealed to him by the Lord (Galatians 1:17-18; cp. 1:12). Paul denied he had been taught it by any of the churches in Judaea, because they knew of him only by reputation and not by face (Galatians 1:22). So, it is in this context, namely how Paul came to know and understand his Gospel that he says the churches in Judea didn’t know him.
With this in mind, we can now understand Paul’s statement to Agrippa in Acts 26:20. Although the churches in Judaea never met Paul in person before his conversion, this status did not remain so throughout Paul’s life. After Saul (Paul) fled to Tarsus in Cilicia (Acts 9:29-30), during the rest of the fourteen years after his conversion (Galatians 2:1) he more than likely visited the churches in Judea to offer his testimony and preach to his unbelieving brethren (cp. Acts 26:20).