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Does the Book of Acts Accurately Record Paul’s Teachings?

We could deal forever with the question of the historical accuracy of Acts. There are entire books devoted to the problem and even to *aspects* of the problem, and different scholars come to different conclusions. My own view is that since Acts is at odds with Paul just about every time they talk about the same thing, that it is probably not to be taken as very accurate, especially in its detail. In yesterday’s post I dealt with a couple of places where it’s portrayal of Paul’s *actions* seem to be at odds with what Paul himself says; in today’s, my last post on the topic, I speak about Paul’s *teachings/views* and come to the same conclusion. I’ll pick just one example, and again, draw my remarks from comments I’ve made elsewhere in print.

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Almost all of Paul’s evangelistic sermons mentioned in Acts are addressed to Jewish audiences. This itself should strike us as odd, given Paul’s own repeated claim that his mission was to the Gentiles. In any event, the most famous exception is his speech to a group of philosophers on the Areopagus in Athens (chapter 17). Here Paul explains that the Jewish God is in fact the God of all, pagan and Jew alike, even though the pagans have been ignorant of him. Paul’s understanding of pagan polytheism is reasonably clear here: pagans have simply not known that there is only One God, the creator of all, and can thus not be held accountable for failing to worship the one whom they have not known. That is to say, since they have been ignorant of the true God, rather than willfully disobedient to him, he has overlooked their false religions until now. With the coming of Jesus, though, he is calling all people to repent in preparation for the coming judgment (Acts 17:23-31).

A lot of people (naturally) assume that Paul really said what the Book of Acts says he said.  But did he?  Keep reading.  If you’re not a blog member, you’ll need to join first.  You will bless the day you did so till you pass off your mortal coil.  

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So: Was Luke Luke?
Did *Any* Companion of Paul Write Luke and Acts?

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    Silver  January 17, 2020

    When you wrote the other day that “suffering is no longer a ‘problem’ for me, just a horrible reality”, does it not now impinge in any way on your reflections about God? Are you completely able to dismiss it from an understanding that if God is omnipotent, omniscient and all-loving then he ought to prevent suffering?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2020

      Yes, I don’t believe in a God like that. If I did, I’d still have a problem explaining suffering.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 17, 2020

    A persuasive and thought provoking thesis supporting the view that the author of Acts probably did not really know Paul very well and, hence, his description of Paul in Acts Is not completely historically accurate.

    Readers new to this blog should read Dr. Ehrman’s textbook on “The New Testament” which is a terrific book.

  3. Avatar
    Stephen  January 17, 2020

    What do you think of the idea that ACTS was composed at least in part as an attempt to heal a breach between the Pauline churches and the Jewish church? To reestablish a severed connection? This line of thinking presupposes that the conflict between Paul and James was rather more serious than portrayed and may have resulted in an actual schism. And of course recognizes that the Jerusalem church would have been destroyed or at least marginalized in the aftermath of the First Revolt. Maybe ACTS was search for roots and in the process heal some wounds and smooth over some bumps?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2020

      Yes, definitely, and the breach between Paul and Peter in particular.

      • Avatar
        MiriamL613  March 30, 2020

        I don’t see a breach between Paul and Peter. Paul chastised him for being intimidated by the “circumcision party.” Paul’s entire battle was with the unnamed members of this “circumcision party” — seen in Acts 11:2, Galatians 2:12, and Titus 1:10. They continued to insist that the gentiles be circumcised and keep the whole Torah (Acts 15:5), even after James ruled that they did not need to convert. Many of us Jews don’t have any hesitancy to eat at table WITH gentiles; it doesn’t mean we are eating treif, and Paul wasn’t telling Peter to eat non-kosher food. In Acts, Paul claims to be Torah-observant, and non-Christian Pharisees affirm that he is (Acts 23:9, 28:21). James affirmed that he knew Paul was observant: Acts 21:24.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 31, 2020

          Yes, if you go by the book of Acts, there was no breach. It’s only if you stick to what the one eyewitness says about it (Paul) that you see there may have been a problem. It’s often thought that Acts wanted to smooth over the difficulty to make Christianity look unified from the outset.

          • Avatar
            MiriamL613  April 1, 2020

            Christianity began its internal battles in Acts 15:5 when “believers of the party of the Pharisees” insisted that the Gentiles who wanted to join them be circumcised and observe the Torah of Moses. None of them are named; rather, they are referred to as “the circumcision party.” Paul refers to them in Titus 1:10 as “insubordinate.” Insubordinate to whom? Most likely insubordinate to James who ruled that the Gentiles did not have to convert to Judaism but need only follow the Noahide laws. It seems to me that this “circumcision party” evolved into the Ebionites as the Ebionites wanted nothing to do with Gentiles and hated Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. Christianity as structured under James, consisting of Torah-observant Jews and Noahide Gentiles is nowhere to be seen after the destruction of the Temple.

  4. Avatar
    Levenson  January 17, 2020

    I’m new here and I’m excited to dive in and learn as much as I can. My first question is which Bible translation is the most accurate to read and study? I currently have KJV and NIV

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2020

      I prefer the NRSV as the least slanted theologically toward the views of the translators.

  5. Avatar
    fishician  January 17, 2020

    At the beginning of “Luke’s” gospel he states clearly that the story is the result of investigation, not personal eyewitness. There is nothing at the beginning of Acts to counter this. Surely if the author was an eyewitness to some of the events he would have stated so, rather than leave his readers think it was just the result of investigation. Perhaps the “we” passages were spliced into his story from his sources without explanation or good editing. Question: do you think Acts was written separately from the Gospel, or written as one and split up later (in which case his intro to the gospel clearly also applies to Acts).

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2020

      They were written later, but I think the author meant them to be read together so that vol 1 and it’s preface is meant to cover both of them (as teh preface to vol. 2 suggests)

  6. sschullery
    sschullery  January 17, 2020

    The *blinding* light story in Acts and Paul’s repeated claims to have *seen* the reincarnated Jesus on that occasion seem to be in conflict. Do you know what the party line is reconciling the stories, especially considering he had not previously laid eyes on Jesus?

  7. Avatar
    PBS  January 17, 2020

    The predominant view of the beginning of Romans typically suggests something akin to this outline: Theme: The Guilt of Mankind:
    —Ch. 1 Addressing the guilt of the Gentiles.
    —Ch. 2 Addressing the guilt of the Jews.
    —Ch. 3 Addressing the guilt of the both.

    But is this what Paul is really doing? It’s possible, due to the absence of any designation of race in chapter one that Paul is actually addressing the Jews & Jewish Christians in chapters 1 – 4 et. al. and not referring to pagans. Perhaps Paul is employing Nathan’s tactic in dealing with David (the “you are the man!” tactic in 2 Sam. 12 & compare with “O man” at Rom. 2:3, NASB). Moreover, the OT quotes in chapter 3 are all from contexts that judge the OT Israelites.

    So if Jews & Jewish Christians are Paul’s actual focus and not pagans, then it would not be the case that Paul is soft on pagans in Acts and hard on them in Romans (in other words he’s not addressing them). Instead, he’s being stern with hard-hearted Jews in Romans (because unlike pagans, the Jews were “entrusted with the oracles of God” (3:1-3) and thus /they/ ought to know better) and, as per usual, he’s being gentle on pagans in Acts 17 because (consistent with Jesus) it’s a better evangelistic method and, they have not had the “oracles” & “Law” so as to know better.

    In short, Paul is consistent. Hard on those who should know better and gentle with those who do not.

  8. Avatar
    Matt2239  January 17, 2020

    The motive could be the opposite — Paul wished to maintain popularity amongst the converted and therefore was overly-harsh on pagans in Romans, when in fact he was very lenient, as described in Acts. Given that Paul’s contribution to Christianity was its expansion to non-Jews, including pagans, I’d bet he was soft on paganism. But the real difference seems to split along the pagans’ consciousness of guilt — mens rea. In Acts, they are not aware of the one true god and have acted in ignorance — all very forgivable. In Romans, the pagans know there is one true god and have acted wrongly in defiance of him, therefore a harsher judgment is due. It all depends upon whether the pagans know they’re doing wrong. Hence, there really isn’t a contradiction. Pagans who are ignorant are treated one way, while pagans who are defiant are treated another, less lenient, way.

  9. Avatar
    dominchowles@gmail.com  January 18, 2020

    Great post Bart.
    Apologists go to Luke (Acts) and Mark alot (Claiming Mark wrote Mark and Luke wrote Luke and Acts) . Thanks for clearing this up.
    Dominic

  10. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  January 18, 2020

    Sorry, this is an off post question. What guarantee have we that Jesus himself ever called himself the Messiah or the king of the Jews? For example the then prince and regent emirate of Ethiopia- Haile salessi was worshipped as Jesus reincarnation by the Rastafarians but when he was interviewed he made it clear that he was not Jesus, that he was just a mortal man.
    Now looking at the Bible we will see this same incident happened with John the Baptist where he was called Elisha even by Jesus but when John the Baptist was asked if he was Elisha he answered No!
    My second question is that did all jesus’ disciples see him as the Messiah?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2020

      No guarantee. But I think it’s likely — even if the argument for it has to be a bit complicated. I’ve posted on it before. I’ll think about returning to it.

  11. Barfo
    Barfo  January 18, 2020

    I find the conversion of Paul very interesting and is probably the most puzzling for me. I wish there was more information on it. Did he really have a vision or was he converted in the typical fashion of word of mouth? Was he perhaps bored with the standard Jewish religion and sought something new and therefore went on a new journey (spreading Christianity) that he found exciting? A teller of tall tales? I guess we will never know. According to all that is written about it in the NT Paul had a vision of someone he believed to be Jesus. His conversion is a tremendously important element of Christian history and one apologists use quite frequently. Is there any other (contemporary or close to it) reports of his conversion outside of the NT?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2020

      No,m there’s no record about him at all, in any way, outside the NT until a brief reference to his missionary work and death in 1 Clement (ca. 95 CE)

  12. Avatar
    JBarruso  January 18, 2020

    Paul doesn’t strike me as a guy who would tell “white lies” even if it was in the interest of winning converts. So great was his integrity for the truth he was punished and abused repeatedly and ultimately died for it. Also what need does someone of his intelligence and skill with words have for lying to achieve his ends. Do we have other examples of him telling “white lies” to win converts?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2020

      The only thing that is close is when, in 1 Corinthians, he says he became a Jew to win Jews and a non-Jew to win gentiles, in 1 Cor. 9:20. That could obvioulsy be taken in a number of ways.

      • Avatar
        JBarruso  January 19, 2020

        I take it this way; he became a Jew (spiritual – a true Jew circumcised of the heart) to win Jews (carnal – circumcised flesh) and a “non-Jew” (no longer carnal) to win gentiles as a means to reconciling carnal Jews to God. So I wouldn’t say this is an example of a lie told in the interest of winning converts. I’d say it’s quite truthful.

  13. Avatar
    Bewilderbeast  January 18, 2020

    Red Ink fan here: Once again I must confess to enjoying the red ink almost as much as the post!!
    I believe I truly will ” bless the day (I) did so till (I) pass off (my) mortal coil. “

    • Avatar
      hankgillette  January 22, 2020

      I, on the other hand, find the red ink annoying and disruptive (especially when the continuation repeats a sentence or a fragment of a sentence). I am sure that it would be trivial to program the page so that those of us who have paid for access would not have to see this interruption.

  14. Avatar
    rborges  January 18, 2020

    To me, there is a more striking difference — the one regarding the reason for the death of Jesus and its relation to salvation, like you said in your books and this blog. According to Paul (and other NT authors), Jesus died for the atonement of the sins, and salvation comes through faith in Jesus. This stands in the core of Paul’s teatchings. However, according to Luke, Jesus’s death provides no atonement. This is a little confusing to me, so forgive me if I’m wrong, but I think Luke’s view is that salvation comes through repentance and subsequent forgiveness by Jesus/God. So it is hard to imagine the author of Luke as a disciple of Paul. It would make much more sense if the author of Mark were Paul’s disciple, for instance.

    I would like to ask you: how many scholars recognize this difference I mentioned? Is it a minority or a majority view? I know evangelicals and conservative scholars will deny any such contradictions, but what about other scholars?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 19, 2020

      It’s probalby a miniority view. Most people see atonement everywhere because that’s what they’ve been told and trained to see.

  15. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 20, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you agree with me here? I really don’t know where the Prof. is coming from at all. i.e. of course he would’ve been seen as a living being here on Earth who returned from death, that’s the whole key to it beng a resurrection, is it not?

    Me: When I was young I pictured Jesus as a ghost, but this seems like it would be wrong because ghosts are weak, faded images, so do you agree Jesus was probably seen in a more vibrant way than a ghost, because resurrection was something powerful, you wouldn’t be weaker than before, does this make sense?

    Prof.: “Nobody, least of all Paul, saw Jesus as a living, human figure on earth. That’s not what the ancients thought epiphanies were.”

    • Bart
      Bart  January 20, 2020

      No, I disagree with his quotation. Both sentences. I think both are demonstrably wrong. BUT, it somewhat depends on what he actually means by “living, human figure.” He could mean something different from what I do. If he means “mere mortal,” then yes, of course that’s right.

  16. fefferdan
    fefferdan  January 21, 2020

    One of the intriguing issues in the Paul vs Acts questions for me is the question of circumcision for Jewish Christians. Paul certainly takes an extremely negative attitude toward the circumcision of Gentiles, and Acts seems to confirm this. But it shows Paul as accepting it -even practicing it- for Jewish Christians who were not yet circumcised, at least in the case of Timothy. [16.3] Is this report credible? Is it a case of Paul being a “Jew to the Jews,” or should we dismiss it as a case of Acts papering over the differences between Paul and the Jerusalem church?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2020

      I think it is precisely in-credible. Paul says explicitly that it’s what he *refused* to do with Timothy!

      • fefferdan
        fefferdan  February 4, 2020

        Unless Paul deals with Timothy elsewhere, I think you are confusing Titus [a Gentile acc to Gal 3.3] with Timothy [who had a Jewish mother and was therefore a Jew]. In Galatians, Paul points out that the Jerusalem church did not require a Gentile Christian, namely Titus, to be circumcised. In Acts, he causes the circumcision of the technically Jewish Timothy to satisfy Jewish objections. And he reportedly takes part in a Temple ritual in Acts 21 to prove that he doesn’t “teach all the Jews who live among the Gentiles to turn away from Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children.”

        So my question is not satisfactorily answered, unless I have missed something.

        • Bart
          Bart  February 5, 2020

          I’m confused about the thread of the conversation, but I was saying that Paul refused to circumcise the Gentile Titus, quite vehemently, in Galatians; but Acts reports that he willingly without reservation circumcised Timothy in Acts. The fact that his mother was a Jew did not make Timothy a Jew. He was raised as a gentile. The two accounts are usually seen as a discrepancy.

          • fefferdan
            fefferdan  February 5, 2020

            Thanks for clarifying. But even though Timothy might have been raised as a Gentile, the Jewish community may have argued otherwise. Certainly Acts 21 takes the attitude that Paul was willing to bow to Jewish public opinion regarding the circumcision of Jewish Christians. It’s to prove this that he supposedly goes to the Temple in a public act demonstrating his solidarity with Jewish tradition [and gets arrested]. So my original question remains: Do you think Paul’s attitude was that it was OK for Jewish Christians to circumcise their sons? For Acts the answer is clearly yes, while in Paul’s letter the answer isn’t as clear. He tries to be “all things to all people” but how far is he willing to bend in order to do that? I lean toward the opinion that Paul’s teaching on this was probably similar to his teaching on food sacrificed to idols: you don’t need to obey the commandments [yes to circumcise and not to eat food sacrificed to idols], BUT if it offends your brother if you do not obey, then obey.

          • Bart
            Bart  February 6, 2020

            I guess the point is that Paul himself is insistent that Jews and Gentiles have the same way of salvation, and it has nothing to do with circumcision, to the point where he insisted that if the non-circumcised Galatians got circumcised they had invalidated their relationship with God in Christ; later he says that he hopes when those urging them to be circumcised had it done to themselves (showing they were non-circumcised) he hopes they are “cut off”. English translations tone it down, obviously, but it’s very sarcastic. he doesn’t believe in yielding to jewish sensitivities, and didn’t do so himself (didn’t keep the law when he was with gentiles) So there’s nothing to suggest it was the sort of thing he would do and lots to suggest it wasn’t

          • fefferdan
            fefferdan  February 7, 2020

            Thanks! I agree that Paul is extremely adamant about this in Galatians. However, just as he toned down his rhetoric in Romans on this point, I wonder if he might have been more open to compromise later on. After all, in Galatians he is writing in anger against the Judaizers, who were perverting his “gospel to the Gentiles.” But the story Acts describes a period where Paul is on his way to Jerusalem on a mission or reconciliation with his fellow Jewish Christians. One thing for certain: the “Paul” of Acts is very different from the Paul of Paul!

          • Avatar
            MiriamL613  March 30, 2020

            Replying to Bart, Feb. 25. Since when did a child of a Jewish mother NOT be a Jew? Of course Timothy was a Jew and obligated to all of the 613 law of the Torah, no matter how he was raised. Though Paul did not have any personal obligation to circumcise Timothy, he would have wanted him to be circumcised (1) because it is a mitzvah, and (2) people may have questioned why he was not.

            Are you familiar with the book, “Jesus the Pharisee,” by Rabbi Harvey Falk. Rabbi Emden discusses this subject.

          • Bart
            Bart  March 31, 2020

            The idea that to be a Jew required a Jewish mother is modern. I believe there are some Israelis on teh blog, but my sense is that it was related to Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel: who would count as a Jew? It obviously wouldn’t be enough to say your *father* was, since, techncally, it’s almost impossible to prove who your father was. But not your mother.

  17. Avatar
    mikezamjara  January 21, 2020

    Did Paul really prosecuted chirstians? The roman authorities allowed that?

    • fefferdan
      fefferdan  February 4, 2020

      He admits to “persecuting” the church. The bit about bringing them to Jerusalem in chains comes from Acts, so this is not Paul’s own claim. It wouldn’t be under Roman law authority though, in any case. Acts claims he was working for the high priest of Judaism at the time.

    • Avatar
      MiriamL613  March 30, 2020

      My guess is that Paul was paid by Romans, through the Sadduccees, to try to stop the Christian messianic movement which would have been viewed as an insurrection. They may have convinced him that it was in the best interests for Jews to stop this movement which was getting on Rome’s nerves. He later regretted it.

    • Robert
      Robert  March 31, 2020

      Karite Judaism, which like the earlier Sadducees does not accept the oral law, generally accepts patrilineal descent for identifying who is Jewish. Talmudic Judaism generally accepts matrilineal descent for identifying who is Jewish. But there are (always) dissenting opinions, for exampl b Yebamot 17a.

  18. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 22, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    So according to Paul, (Romans 11:25-30) Jews will eventually accept Jesus as messiah before the end of the age?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 24, 2020

      That’s my reading of it.

      • Avatar
        Brand3000  January 25, 2020

        Dr. Ehrman,

        So if Paul believes all Jews will be saved, does he believe in hell? And if so, would it only be for Gentiles who did not accept Jesus?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 26, 2020

          I’ll be dealing with this in my forthcoming book. But basically, no, he’s not talking about hell. Being “saved” for Paul refers to being delivered from the coming desturction to arrive with Jesus’ return. Paul has no concept of people’s souls going to “hell” for eternal punishment.

  19. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 26, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you think, perhaps based on some things he says in 1 Thess., that Paul believed in a chance for salvation at the general resurrection/return of Christ? (Because in the later writings of the NT, it seems like things were trending more strict, and that as soon as earthly death takes place, our fates are sealed one way or another).

  20. Avatar
    Brand3000  January 27, 2020

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do you still think that Peter and James sacrificed animals after Jesus’ death and resurrection, or would they have seen Jesus himself as the forgiveness for sin?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 28, 2020

      Either the latter or both. they may have continued to sacrifice because that was the law of God.

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