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Does the Book of Acts Portray the *Teachings* of Paul Accurately?

This is my second post on the portrayal of Paul in the book of Acts.  In the one previous I tried to show, briefly, how the account of Paul’s activities in Luke’s narrative do not gel well with what he says in his own letters.  Here I address the question that was originally raised: his teachings.  Do the things Paul says in Acts coincide with what he himself indicates?   I won’t give a detailed discuss, but just look at one key passage.  Again, this is drawn from my book The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.

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Paul’s Teaching.

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 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 (chap. 17). In this speech, 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 thus cannot be held accountable for failing to worship him. 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, however, he is calling all people to repent in preparation for the coming judgment (Acts 17:23–31).

This perspective contrasts sharply with the views about pagan idolatry that Paul …

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Does Luke Flat Out Contradict Himself?
Does the Book of Acts Accurately Portray the Life and Teachings of Paul?

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Comments

  1. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 18, 2018

    Look at the pattern of Paul’s preachings.

    His habit is to go from place to place and preach in synagogues on the Sabbath. Naturally, Jews are present. But in many if not all cases, GENTILE GREEKS are present too.

    In Acts 13:14-15, 42-43, Paul went to a synagogue in Antioch in Pisidia, and preached there to Jews AND GENTILES (Verse 42; they’d stayed behind after the Jews had left), and to “many of the Jews and religious proselytes…”

    WHO are these “religious proselytes”? They CAN’T be Jews; else they’d have been identified as “Jews.” And they CAN’T be Gentile converts to Christianity either, because they’d never heard of Christianity until that very day when Paul visited them for the first time.

    Answer: They could ONLY have been proselytes (converts) to the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah, a kind of secondary-level of conversion to Judaism which doesn’t require circumcision or Sabbath observance or dietary restrictions.

    Acts 14:1 says that Paul preached at a synagogue in Iconium to both Jews and “Greeks.”

    Acts 17:1-2, 4,16-17 says that Paul then visited a synagogue in Thessalanica where there were both Jews and “devout Greeks” (which I infer means Noahide followers). Then Paul visits a synagogue in Athens where there also are Jews and “devout persons” — which I infer means, non-heathen followers of The one True God — Noahide converts.

    Then Paul departed Athens and went to nearby Corinth (Acts 18) where there was yet ANOTHER synagogue filled with both Jews AND Greeks.

    ***

    Question: Acts makes it very clear that Jews were not supposed to mix with Gentiles. Acts 10:28: “And he (Peter) said unto them (Cornelius and his household), Ye know how that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come unto one of another nation…”

    So then WHY did Jews so freely mingle with Greeks in all their synagogues? From the testimony of Acts, it seems that every synagogue, or almost every synagogue, was filled BOTH with Greeks and Jews.

    Answer: Because the general Jewish prohibition against mingling with Gentiles applied ONLY to Gentiles who were heathens, pagans, idolators; THESE the Jews had to avoid like the plague!

    But the Greeks in the synagogues were NOT heathens / idolators, etc. That is obvious, for they’d not have been tolerated if they had been.

    The conclusion is inescapable:

    Acts is giving testimony to the widespread following among non-Jews in that region to the Jewish concept of the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah.

    • Altosackbuteer
      Altosackbuteer  June 19, 2018

      The question of whether Jews were allowed to mingle with Gentiles also comes up in the Matthew and Luke accounts of The Good Centurion.

      Luke 7:2-7 reports that The Good Centurion was beloved of the local Jews because “he loveth our nation, and he hath built us a synagogue.”

      But how could this be if Jews could not mingle with Gentiles?

      The answer, as above, is this: Jews were not allowed to mingle with HEATHEN Gentiles. But WERE allowed to mingle with God-fearing Gentiles. And therefore, The Good Centurion MUST have been a “God-fearing” Gentile. For, “Gentile” he was, and remained; there is no indication in the story to suggest he’d converted to full-blown Judaism, including circumcision.

      In the Talmud, “God-fearer” is a euphemism for a non-Jew who follows the 7 Laws of the Sons of Noah.

  2. Altosackbuteer
    Altosackbuteer  June 18, 2018

    Professor, WHEN did Paul write his letters?

    Since Paul never visited Rome on his missionary journeys, but only arrived there as a captive subsequently held under house arrest, he must have written Romans at this time.

    What about the rest of his letters? Did he sort of write them on the fly, during or shortly after his visits to the places to whom the letters were addressed?

    Or did Paul write ALL of his letters while he was being held under Roman house arrest?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2018

      Probably between 49-62 CE

      • Hormiga  June 19, 2018

        > Probably between 49-62 CE

        So 1 Thessalonians in ~49 and Romans in ~62?

        Is it possible to determine (or guess) the temporal ordering of the other five undisputed Pauline letters?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 21, 2018

          Yup. After htat it’s a bit of crap shoot, except that 1 Cor came before 2 Cor. I think the canonical order might in fact be right the rest of the way.

      • prestonp  June 20, 2018

        What is needed now to verify the critic’s claims to be able distinguish among authors and their writing styles from 2,000 years ago, must include samples from various authors with different backgrounds, temperaments and motivations and from a time span of over roughly 1,500 years. Experts in literary, historical and textual criticism will identify say each of 4 writers based on 20 samples of their work, or something along those lines. The winner will have the most correct picks.
        Bart, is there currently any competition like this anywhere?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 21, 2018

          Nope. We don’t have 20 samples for … hardly anyone. (Obvious exceptions: Galen; Cicero; Origen; etc. But they are few and far between. Think Paul. 7!)

          • prestonp  June 21, 2018

            Even better. Take just 2 or 3 or 4 samples and see how it goes. At times I question the accuracy of critics who interpret the N.T. and it seems there is no way to judge how close they come to pinpointing the truth. I find many theories are built more on subjective opinion than rather than hard facts much of the time which is fine. Except, opinions have a tendency to morph into facts and then more opinions emerge from those “facts” and before you know it, a new “gospel” is created that has very little to do with what is preserved from thousands of years ago. This new gospel may not be at all what was intended originally but it sort of takes on a life of its own and suddenly has more credibility than it may warrant. It may be spot on, too. But, how do we know? We can’t ever know I guess with total certainty, so let’s at least devise a system to test them under controlled circumstances.
            I believe a measure of subjectivity is important as well at times. Taken together, for example, the N.T.books portray people terribly serious about its central theme: Christ’s sinless life, his execution and resurrection and harsh even deadly opposition to that proposal. The enthusiasm and joy and delight of the writers pours off the pages. The writers seem like salt of the earth, normal folks filled with questions, egos, ambitions, fears and longings, just like we are. These things lend credibility to what has been handed down to us.

          • Bart
            Bart  June 22, 2018

            Yes, that’s how we go about deciding if Paul wrote some of the letters attributed to him, by seeing if they are compatible with the ones we think he did write, in definable ways (measures of writing style, e.g.: levels of subordination, use of particular conjunctions; functions of participles; and so on, as one set of tests)

    • ardeare  June 19, 2018

      Scholars have suggested Paul probably wrote 200-300 letters and we have only 7. If that is indeed the case, only a minority would have been written while he was under house arrest

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  June 23, 2018

        I hadn’t thought of that, but I’m sure you’re right. Paul must have written many more than just the 7 letters we have; mostly they didn’t survive. And why would they survive? I can’t imagine Paul made his own copies for his own archives. And the people receiving the letters would have had no notion to save them to be included in a scripture compiled in the remote distant future.

  3. Tricia  June 18, 2018

    I find your description of henotheists in your latest book to be very credible. Recent research into the source of human consciousness very logically leads back to an “ultimate deity.” As Rudolf Otto in The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige) writes of the numinous, “Desiring to give it a name of its own, I propose to call it a ‘creature-consciousness’ or creature-feeling. It is the emotion of a creature, submerged and overwhelmed by its own nothingness in contrast to that which is supreme above all creatures.”

    Human beings have taken many twists and turns in response to this numinous, this sense of the “ultimate,” but it has existed as long as human consciousness itself. It would certainly have helped Paul in his missionary work and in the spread of Christianity.

  4. bamurray  June 18, 2018

    Speaking of Paul….what’s your take on Romans 13 and its recent invocation in the context of illegal immigrants? And what was the historical Paul trying to accomplish here?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2018

      I think Paul wanted Christians to give authorities no reason to persecute them for social aberrance.

      • Altosackbuteer
        Altosackbuteer  June 20, 2018

        True. In Paul’s world, Jews were under great suspicion for constantly being on the edge of major revolt, which indeed happened in 66-73.

        The new Christian sect was viewed by Romans with deep suspicion as another form of Judaism. The Jewish roots of course are obvious.

        So Paul might VERY understandably write things in his letters which he could hope would allay Roman suspicions about whether the new sect was a civil danger.

  5. Epikouros  June 18, 2018

    I’m always struck by the discrepancy between the way Paul is portrayed in the Book of Acts and the way he portrays himself in his letters (the ones he actually wrote, at least). In Acts, he’s described as a miracle worker. Even his handkerchiefs were supposed to have miraculous powers! Yet in his letters, Paul often is dealing with some pretty mundane matters (eg, early arrivals at the Lord’s Supper snarfing up all the food). Why would a miraculous guy have to bother himself with such issues? Couldn’t he just send his churches some old hankies? I’ve long wondered how Christians reconcile this. Do they even notice it?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2018

      Yup, some big differences. But Paul does talk in several places about all the miracles he has done — e.g., 2 Cor. 12:12. Hard to know *what* he’s talking about!

    • prestonp  June 20, 2018

      He made tents, too. He was viciously beaten multiple times. Someone said the greatest among you shall be the least.

      “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” He was conscious of the agony about to begin and this is what the record shows:

      3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

  6. prestonp  June 18, 2018

    Some unbelievers respond to God’s vengeance. Some respond to His kindness and gentleness. All of us are “sinners”. Some are more deeply entrenched in carnal sins. Some are better at manipulating and being cunning. Some just don’t care. We can be a mixture, too. And there’s many more ways to categorize non-believers. Paul was addressing his topic in a particular way in each circumstance, totally consistent, and indicative of his desire to reach everyone he could with the story of redemption.

    What stands out the most to me, what is most remarkable about this guy, is how he ached for people to find God. He could have been successful at most anything, but his whole life revolved around reaching others for Christ.

  7. anthonygale  June 18, 2018

    It’s interesting that there are written accounts that differ from what Paul says about himself and accounts from Paul trying to correct what people say even during his lifetime. Given the problems with forgery and textual corruption you have discussed, were there efforts by ancient people to try to address the problem? I suppose it was probably impossible to prevent, but am wondering if anyone tried and developed ways with any degree of success.

  8. stevenpounders  June 18, 2018

    So I just returned from a trip to Greece (among other places), where I walked around the Acropolis and Areopagus of Athens and the ancient ruins of Corinth. Given the relative dependability of Acts, do you think I walked where Paul walked?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2018

      He was certainly there! He says so himself. He is placed on the Areopagus, of course, only in Acts. I don’t know if he was there. But he certainly would have been in the agora and on the Acropolis.

  9. ddorner  June 18, 2018

    I’m curious, do you play chess?

  10. forthfading  June 18, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    Do any scholars, besides conservatives, conclude that Acts must have been written before the death of Paul? I know this is a popular conclusion among conservatives, but how about moderate and liberal scholars?

    Thanks

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2018

      No, not really. The current trend is to date it much later, to the 120s or so.

      • JoshuaJ  June 19, 2018

        For the scholars who date Acts to the 120’s, what is the date range they assign to Luke’s gospel? Is there a tendency to date the gospel later as well?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 21, 2018

          Yup, it totally depends if you think it’s the same author. If so, then 120s!

      • ardeare  June 19, 2018

        Are you saying that Luke was written around 75AD and the same author then wrote Acts 50 years later?

        • Bart
          Bart  June 21, 2018

          I don’t think so myself — I continue to date Luke-Acts to teh 80s. But if I did think Acts was from the 120s, that’s when I would put Luke as well.

      • Michele  July 16, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman
        regardless of the distinction between liberals, moderates or conservatives, can one say that the majority of scholars are still on a date for Luke-Acts between ’80 and ’90?
        ps. sorry for my English, I’m Italian

        • Bart
          Bart  July 17, 2018

          It’s hard to say what hte majority thinks today. Most Luke-Acts scholars I know personally seem to lean to the 120s, even though I’ve never been fully convinced myself.

          • Michele  July 17, 2018

            Yes, I remember reading your comment in this blog in 2013 where you said that according to you the best evidence is in support of the ’80s

  11. FluminenseFC82  June 18, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,

    I found both of these posts very informative and helpful with some questions and debates I’ve often had about Paul versus the Jerusalem Church/Council versus New Testament reliability and/or being too abbreviated (amputated?). But I realize myself and modern critical-analysis are quite anachronistic, too say the least! HAH! I feel this should be kept in mind when examining the canonical New Testament — and I prefer to call it the Hellenistic-Christological canon.

    Finally, and I’ve asked this of you before, I sure do wish we could know WHY the New Testament chroniclers thought it necessary to say Paul went to Arabia for 3-years. Why Arabia? Why for 3 long years? What was there that was so important for Paul and for the NT chroniclers to even mention it, VAGUELY (in passing) mention it? What purpose did that serve!?

    And perhaps on a minor note… why are the NT chroniclers not the least bit concerned with not only 3-years in Arabia, but much worse… according to the Gospels 17-years of a complete 180-degree turnaround (after age 12) of total public silence and anonimity of suddenly anti hyper-Jewish Messianic fervor, of their “King/Savior” of not just the redeliverance of the earthly Kingdom of God in Israel but also the Christ-Savior of the entire world, Universe, and Cosmos… and none of this is headline news, no one cares that this phenomenal Nazoraean Messiah-Christ-boy has vanished(?)! It means nothing! And Roman authorities and spys never find him, never hear anything more about him, or just get bored with it all. Hahahaha! BIZARRE!!! Astonishing to me really, when I was a Christian therapist, missionary, deacon, and on fire for Paul’s Christ. Now I am a very happy deconvert which allowed me to shed all my bias and blindness and find much more truth and reality… thank the stars & galaxies! (wink)

    • Bart
      Bart  June 19, 2018

      Actually it isn’t NT chroniclers who say this. It’s Paul himself (Galatians 1). The only reason he says it is because he’s giving the history of what happened to him after his conversion. “Arabia” here does not refer to the desert, but almost certainly the Nabatean Kingdom. He may have gone there in order to start his gentile mission. Not sure why he chose there in particular. Three years: no reason for that really; it doesn’t seem symbolic. It’s just how long he was there.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 19, 2018

        It seems to me that Paul is trying to make an excuse for why he was in the neighborhood of Jerusalem but not in Jerusalem itself. If he was anywhere near Judea, he could be accused of getting his information from the Jerusalem assembly — and the point he’s trying to make in Galatians 1 is that he received his knowledge about Jesus from the resurrected Jesus himself, not from the other apostles.

        So where could Paul have gone to assure his listeners (readers) that he most definitely did not get his knowledge from the Jerusalem assembly? He could have gone to Nabatea, where the Christians had yet to set up shop. Then he immediately returned to Damascus, where the early Christian movement did begin to develop, and — more significantly — where Paul actually did learn much about Christianity! (Acts 9:10-25). And only after then did Paul go to Jerusalem. In other words, Paul is trying to set up a scenario of plausible deniability. He’s purposely dilating time in order to make it look like he was somehow special, that he was gifted with a special knowledge before contact with the Church. When, in fact, he had been in contact with other Christians for most of those years leading up to his journey to Jerusalem (which also reconciles Paul’s account with the account in Acts).

        Did Paul get his Christian ideas from other Christians? Absolutely, he did. Is Paul lying in Galatians 1? Yes and no. Paul is probably not lying that he went to Nabatea. But he is lying by omission. He does not say how long he was in Nabatea. He simply says that the time he spent there and in Damascus was a combined three years. As far as we know, he could have been in Nabatea for only three weeks and spent the remainder of the three years in Damascus. So Paul is mincing words so as to lie without lying. He’s playing word games. He’s bulls**ting. As usual.

      • Hormiga  June 19, 2018

        A bit of a random idea, but didn’t the Nabatean realm overlap the former Midian? Like where Moses was supposed to have been for a while and where Yahweh might have originated. But who knows what was in Paul’s head, even if he actually did go to “Arabia”?

      • FluminenseFC82  June 20, 2018

        Thank you. And you’re right about Galatians, not chroniclers — was thinking Gospels when I typed that. Apologies.

        Well, then I sure do wish to know why Paul felt no need to elaborate as to why he had to go down there for that long. His mention of it, to me personally, seems a waste of valuable ink, papyrus and everyone’s time! Superflous and distracting, diversionary! Puzzling to me. My gut/instincts tell me there must/might be something more behind it all, otherwise, why bother even mentioning it!? Am I missing something with the Nabatean Kingdom connection perhaps?

        Thanks again Dr. Ehrman for all your hardwork!

  12. Franz Liszt  June 20, 2018

    This isn’t directly related to Paul’s teachings in Acts so much, but Peter’s. I have heard some people say that in speeches in Acts given by Peter (like in Acts 2) there are Aramaisms in the text which indicate that the author of Luke-Acts is in contact with early Aramaic traditions. Is there any truth to this? Thanks.

    • Bart
      Bart  June 21, 2018

      There certainly are ways of expressing and tehological views that look like they could go back to Aramaic speaking sources, but Aramaisms? I’m not sure! Maybe someone else on the blog knows.

      • talmoore
        talmoore  June 21, 2018

        Dr. Ehrman, let me ask you a relevant probing question. In Peter’s speech in Acts 2 he quotes a lot of scripture. Do his quotations sound like they’re lifted from the LXX or from a semitic source (original Hebrew or Aramaic targum)? Seeing as how it’s highly unlikely the historical Peter would have quoted the LXX, that might answer the question above.

        • Bart
          Bart  June 22, 2018

          Without checking I’d say definitely LXX (or a related Greek text); but I’m out of town and don’t have either my MT or LXX here. If it were based on a Hebrew text or Aramaic translation, I’m sure I would have heard about that! Do you have a theory?

    • Robert
      Robert  June 22, 2018

      The most comprehensive (and most recent) background treatment of this question can be found in Albert Hogeterp, Adelbert Denaux. Semitisms in Luke’s Greek: A Descriptive Analysis of Lexical and Syntactical Domains of Semitic Language Influence in Luke’s Gospel. Mohr Siebeck, Apr 23, 2018, 684 pages. And yesterday was Adelbert’s birthday so it deserves an extra special recommendation!

      • Bart
        Bart  June 24, 2018

        I think the question was about Acts. Do they deal with that?

        • Robert
          Robert  June 24, 2018

          No, that’s why I say this book is important background material. One needs a systematic look at Luke’s style, his use of the LXX, and all the various different forms of proposed semiticisms, Hebraisms, Aramaicisms, before one can answer a question like this. So much of what is claimed about reconstruction of supposedly semitic sources is unsystematic wishful thinking.

  13. jrhislb  June 20, 2018

    Would Paul’s quoted statements in Acts be the most positive statements in all of the Bible about people with the wrong beliefs? Saying they have made a good faith mistake seems more positive than the denigration of anyone who belies differently from the author which seems much more typical of the biblical texts.

  14. prestonp  June 20, 2018

    “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 repeated claim that his mission was to the Gentiles.”

    Paul preached to everyone willing to listen.

    “even though the pagans have been ignorant of him.”

    some pagans

  15. thebigskyguy  June 21, 2018

    Is there any sense about why we don’t have any writings of Paul from the time he converted, about 36CE, to the time of his first preserved writings (49CE)? Did he not have anything to say yet? Maybe the recipients didn’t think letters during that time were worth saving? FedEx didn’t have service yet to the Eastern Mediterranean?

    • Bart
      Bart  June 22, 2018

      I have no idea! Even though I’ve wondered about it for years.

      • HawksJ  June 27, 2018

        Perhaps he was not yet significant enough that anybody thought his letters – assuming he yet had anything to write about – were worth keeping.

        There certainly would have been a ramp-up period / learning curve of some sort; he didn’t instantly arrive in Damascus as a recognized leader in the church. That process – as it does for any developing leader – takes time. Maybe it took 6 months. Maybe it took a decade.

  16. SidDhartha1953  July 1, 2018

    In IICor. 8:9, Paul writes, “you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (NRSV). Does Paul acknowledge anywhere in his letters that Jesus was born into poverty? Could he have thought or been told that Jesus came from a wealthy family and renounced his wealth?
    P.S. This is my first comment of the day: does your system count from the last 24 hours, rather than midnight?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 1, 2018

      I think it’s within any 24-hour day.

      • SidDhartha1953  July 2, 2018

        Any thoughts on Paul and Jesus’s poor beginnings?

        • Bart
          Bart  July 3, 2018

          Jesus was definitely impoverished. Paul’s an interesting question. He is well educated. Did he come from money?

          • SidDhartha1953  July 5, 2018

            Jesus was definitely impoverished, but did Paul definitely know that, was my question.

          • Bart
            Bart  July 5, 2018

            He never talks about it, so there’s no way to know.

  17. Michele  August 6, 2018

    Dr Ehrman,
    if the Gospel of Luke had been written around 120 AD would this make him the last Gospel? Or would it mean that John was written even later (why?) ?
    Thank you!!

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