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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Chronology and Sequence of Paul's Mission.


Any full chronological reconstruction of Paul's active ministry requires the co-ordination of three interdependent lines of investigation: (1) discerning the relative chronology of the different geographical stages of his mission; (2) identifying some fixed dates as anchor points for an absolute chronology; and (3) placing the letters at their appropriate points within this chronological framework. This is not the place, of course, to attempt any such reconstruction. Even if it were possible to do so in a reasonably concise way, it would be inappropriate here; the authors of each of the sections to follow must be allowed the freedom to interpret their assigned segment of the Pauline corpus within their own reconstruction of Paul's career. What is required at this point is a more general introduction to the problems inhering in the evidence, the points at which crucial decisions need to be made, and the resultant range of reconstructions.


As might well be expected, the role of Acts is once again a key factor in the discussion. In both Acts and the letters Paul's mission activity is punctuated by visits to Jerusalem, and the main reconstructions of Pauline chronology are differentiated by their approach to these visits. Acts recounts no less than five such visits:

Visit 1: Post-conversion visit ( 9:26–30 )
Intervening activity: Time spent in Tarsus and Antioch ( 9:30; 11:25–6 )
Visit 2: Famine relief visit ( 11:27–9; 12:25 )
Intervening activity: Mission activity in Cyprus and southern
Asia Minor ( 13:1–14:28 )
Visit 3: Jerusalem Council visit ( 15:1–30 )
Intervening activity: Mission activity in Macedonia and Achaia ( 16:1–18:17 )
Visit 4: Unspecified visit ( 18:18–23 )
Intervening activity: Mission activity in Ephesus and Asia ( 18:24–19:41 )
Visit 5: Collection visit ( 20:1–21:26 )
Subsequent events: Arrest, hearings, journey to Rome ( 21:27–28:31 )

Two preliminary observations should be made about the final two visits. First, while Luke presents the fourth visit as a matter of some urgency to Paul (cf. 18:20–1 ), he provides no information at all about either the reason for the journey or its outcome. Second, while Luke is aware of the fact that the fifth visit was for the purpose of delivering collection money to Jerusalem ( 24:17 ), this aspect of the final journey is very much played down in Acts in comparison to the letters.


In the letters themselves, by contrast, there is evidence of only three visits:

Visit A. Post-conversion visit (Gal 1:18 )
Visit B. Jerusalem consultation (Gal 2:1–10 )
Visit C. Collection visit (1 Cor 16:1–4; Rom 15:25; cf. 2 Cor 8–9 ).

Several preliminary observations should be made about this list as well. To start with, the first two visits are presented in conjunction with some additional chronological information: the first visit occurred three years after Paul's Damascus experience (Gal 1:18 ), and the second visit took place ‘after fourteen years’ (Gal 2:1 )—though whether the fourteen-year period begins with the first visit or with the Damascus experience is not specified in the text and is a matter of some scholarly dispute. Further, since Paul's purpose in this section of Galatians is to make the point that his contacts with Jerusalem were minimal, the context requires that the list is complete. That is, the cogency of his argument would have been in jeopardy if he had failed to mention a visit; thus prior to the writing of Galatians, Paul had made two, and only two, visits to Jerusalem. Finally, the third visit, to deliver the ‘collection for the saints’ (1 Cor 16:1 ), appears only in prospect; in all the references it is still a journey that lies in the future.

Of these two sets of visits, the first and the last in each case obviously correspond with each other, despite differences in detail. It is more difficult, however, to make sense of what comes in between. There are evident similarities between the meetings recounted in Acts 15 and Gal 2:1–10: the same participants (Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James), dealing with the same issue (circumcision of Gentile converts), coming to the same general decision (legitimacy of the Gentile mission). The majority of interpreters take these two passages as variant accounts of the same event (i.e. B = 3), and develop a chronological framework on the basis of this and other evident points of contact between Acts and the letters (with varying estimations of the reliability of information found only in Acts).


In addition to this majority position, however, there are two other minority approaches to Paul's chronological framework that need to be mentioned. One of them originated with the work of William Ramsay (1907 ), who was particularly concerned to demonstrate the historical reliability of Acts. The majority viewpoint described above tends towards the conclusion that Luke was mistaken in recounting an intervening visit between the post-conversion visit and that of the Jerusalem Council (i.e. the famine relief visit), since Paul's argument in Galatians leaves no room for it. In the position developed by Ramsay and followed by a number of others (e.g. Bruce 1977 ), it is argued instead that the consultation described in Gal 2:1–10 took place during the famine relief visit (i.e. B = 2). They argue that the private nature of this consultation (Gal 2:2 ) is more in keeping with Acts 11 than with Acts 15 , and that Paul's statement of his eagerness to remember the poor (Gal 2:10 ) can readily be correlated with the famine relief project. Essential to this approach are two assumptions about the letter to the Galatians: first, that Galatians was written prior to the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 —perhaps the same delegation from Jerusalem that was creating dissension in Antioch (Acts 15:1 ) was pressuring the Galatian churches as well; and second, that the ‘churches of Galatia’ were those founded by Paul and Barnabas in Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, Derbe, and Lystra during the so-called first missionary journey (Acts 13 and 14 ), cities that were located in the southern part of the Roman province of Galatia (though the region of the ethnic Galatians lay further to the north). While this approach is often dismissed as special pleading in defence of Acts, there is a case that could be made on the basis of Galatians itself, which contains details that might suggest an early date for the letter (e.g. the prominence of Barnabas and absence of Timothy; the absence of any explicit mention of the collection project or injunctions to contribute; the restriction of his whereabouts between the first two visits to the regions of Syria and Cilicia).


The other minority viewpoint, pioneered by John Knox (1950 ), attempts to build a chronology almost entirely on the basis of information in the letters. In addition to the Jerusalem visits, there are three chronological sequences appearing explicitly in the letters: (1) from Damascus to the confrontation with Peter (Gal); (2) missionary activity in the Greek peninsula (1 Thess); (3) travels in connection with the collection (1 Cor, 2 Cor, Rom). Knox, followed by a number of others (e.g. Hurd 1965; Lüdemann 1984 ), have argued that according to Paul's own statements there could not have been any more than three visits to Jerusalem. The key to this reconstruction is the injunction in Gal 2:10 that Paul ‘remember the poor’, which is understood to mark the inception of the collection project. That is, at the Jerusalem Council, in return for the recognition of his Gentile mission, Paul undertook a project to raise money from his Gentile churches as a sign of good faith towards the Jerusalem church. Since this was the project that occupied much of his time during the final, Ephesus-based phase of his known missionary activity, the founding of churches in Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia must have happened prior to the Jerusalem Council; that is, this missionary activity is located in the fourteen-year period mentioned in Gal 2:1 . This reconstruction has the effect (though not the intent) of placing the Jerusalem Council at a point in the sequence corresponding to the unspecified visit of Acts 18:18–23 .


To this point, the discussion has had to do with relative chronology. In order to develop an absolute chronology, it is necessary to determine some fixed dates. Paul himself is not all that helpful in this regard. The reference to King Aretas in 2 Cor 11:32 is the only instance where he names an otherwise identifiable secular figure. Still, one reference is better than none. As observed above, Murphy-O'Connor (1996: 5–7) has argued that Paul's departure from Damascus can be dated to about 37 CE; while this may represent more precision than the evidence allows, at least one can say that the event had to have taken place before Aretas's death in 39 or 40 (Riesner 1998: 84–9). The other possible anchor-point is provided by the reference to Paul's appearance before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia (Acts 18:12 ). In 1905 an inscription was discovered at Delphi containing the text of a letter from Claudius to the city, which also referred to Gallio as proconsul. Since the term of office for a proconsular governor of a province was normally one year, commencing on the first of July, it is possible to fix Paul's appearance before Gallio to some time in the latter part of 51 CE (Murphy-O'Connor 1996: 15–22; Riesner 202–11). This, of course, assumes that Luke's report is reliable; advocates of a letters-based chronology place Paul's time in Corinth much earlier, and thus are required to dismiss the Acts account entirely.


To illustrate how the different approaches to Paul's chronology work out in practice, it will be useful to compare three chronologies—that of Murphy-O'Connor (1996 ), representing an approach that makes significant, albeit critical, use of Acts; Bruce's framework based primarily on Acts (Bruce 1977 ); and Lüdemann's letters-based chronology ( 1984 ). Note the significant variations in the events lying in between the post-conversion visit and the Jerusalem Council.

 Conversion 33
 Post-conversion visit 37
 Syria and Cilicia 37–?
 Cyprus, S. Asia Minor ?–45
 Antioch 45–6
 Galatia, Macedonia, Corinth 46–51
 Jerusalem Conference 51
 Antioch 51–2
 Ephesus and environs 52–6
 Collection visit 56
 Arrival in Rome 62
 Conversion 33
 Post-conversion visit 35
 Syria and Cilicia 35–46
 Famine relief visit 46
 Cyprus, ‘Galatia’ 47–8
 Jerusalem Council 49
 Macedonia, Achaia 49–52
 Unspecified visit 52
 Ephesus and environs 52–7
 Collection visit 57
 Arrival in Rome 60
 Conversion 33
 Post-conversion visit 36
 Syria and Cilicia
 S. Asia Minor
 Macedonia (Galatia?)
 Arrival in Corinth 41
 Jerusalem Council 50
 Ephesus and environs 51–3
 Collection visit 55

(Lüdemann also offers an alternative set of dates, not reproduced here, based on a date for the crucifixion of 27 CE rather than 30).


The final aspect of any chronological reconstruction is the placement of the letters within the larger chronological framework. Again we can leave these discussions for the commentaries on the individual letters that follow. Here only brief comments are necessary. There is little uncertainty about the relative position of 1 Thessalonians, the two Corinthian epistles, and Romans; in each case internal evidence provides reasonably clear indications of relative date (though the issue of the Corinthian correspondence is complicated by the probability that at least 2 Corinthians is a composite document). If 2 Thessalonians is authentic, then it is probably to be dated shortly after 1 Thessalonians, though some interpreters argue for an inverted sequence. Most commentators place Galatians prior to Romans and in the same general time-frame as the Corinthian correspondence, though as has already been observed there is a minority view that holds it to be the earliest of the letters. As for the ‘prison epistles’—Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians (if authentic)—while traditionally they have been seen as written during Paul's Roman imprisonment, there is a growing body of opinion that would place some or all of them earlier, perhaps in an Ephesian imprisonment between 1 and 2 Corinthians (see 2 Cor 1:8 ; note the reference to many imprisonments in 2 Cor 11:23 ).

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