The Timing of Paul's First Post-Conversion Visit to Jerusalem: Evidence Against Lukean Authorship?
Our skeptic continues his assault on the idea of Lukan authorship by claiming that there “is also a discrepancy in the actual timing of Paul's first visit to Jerusalem.” As an initial matter, it is erroneous to assume that someone who was a companion of Paul for portions of his ministry would have perfect knowledge about all of his ministry. Regarding Paul's conversion, ministry in Damascus and Arabia, and first trip to Jerusalem after his conversion, the author of Acts is clear that he was not a participant. Thus, even setting aside that he wrote with his own agenda, often times summarizing and generalizing, we cannot assume he had perfect knowledge of the rest of Paul's life.
Here is how Paul describes the timing of the first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem:
But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother.
According to our skeptic, “in Paul's own words, he did not go to Jerusalem until three years after his conversion. Paul's itinerary here is Damascus-Arabia-Damascus-Jerusalem. The first Damascus is implied since Paul said he went back there.”
As an initial point, we should remember that the ancients often counted years inclusively. So part of a year could count as a year. (See also v. 43). So, as F.F. Bruce notes, even Paul is a little vague about the amount of time. It was at least two full years, but beyond that we cannot be more specific. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, page 241. In any event, does Acts contradict this two-to-three year period between Paul’s conversion and his first visit to Jerusalem? According to our skeptic, the answer must be yes.
“The picture painted by Acts is very different. Acts chapter 9 narrated Paul's conversion on the way to Damascus (9:1-10). He was miraculously healed a Christian in Damascus called Ananias (9:10-19) and "for several days" (9:19) preached in Damascus. Then "after some time" the Jews plotted to kill him and Paul had to escape in a basket lowered from the city wall. (9:23-25). Then Paul's trip to Jerusalem followed in Acts 9:26. Thus there is no mention of a trip to Arabia and certainly no indication that three years had passed.”
Despite the heated contention, there is no contradiction here because Acts does not tell us just how long Paul was in Damascus. If you think so, just ask yourself this question. What is the difference in time between how long Acts say Paul waited before going to Jerusalem and how long Paul says he waited before going to Jerusalem? Can’t answer the question? That is because Acts does not tell us how long Paul waited before going to Jerusalem. Either he did not know or did not think it worth mentioning. Ancient historians were wont to summarize and generalize, especially if they lacked exact information; but sometimes simply to move the narrative along.
When we look at what Acts actually says about Paul’s stay in Damascus, it is clear that there is no contradiction – Acts also contemplates a lengthy period of time before Paul goes to Jerusalem.
For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." All who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
It can be conceded of course that Acts does not explicitly refer to a trip to Arabia, but omission of such a tangential subject is hardly surprising and does not preclude authorship but someone who knew Paul. Luke had his reasons for writing Acts, but it was not to write an exhaustive biography about Paul. “Here as elsewhere Luke operates as a Hellenistic historian, not as a biographer. He is interested in significant deeds that affected the flow of history, not in biographical vignettes.” Ben Witherington, The Acts of the Apostles, page 323, n. 77. Not even Paul details how long he was in Arabia or for what reason. His focus too is Damascus. Moreover, Acts may suggest that Paul's stay in Damascus was interupted. Though unnecessary for a defense of Lukan authorship, some commentators have noted that the mention of two temporal indicators by Acts (v. 19b, “now for several days he was with the disciples in Damascus” and v. 23, “when many days had elapsed”) indicates an interruption of Paul’s say in Damascus, such as for a trip to Arabia.
Turning our attention to the length of time Paul delayed going to Jerusalem, for our skeptic to have a point, the phrase “after some time had passed” must mean a period of less than two years. But there is no basis for such a conclusion. The phrase is used in Acts 18:18 for a period of about a year and half. As Gerd Ludemann notes, this phrase is “a common Lukan indication of time” that “permits no conclusion regarding specifications of periods of time in Acts or regarding Luke’s knowledge of such.” Ludemann, Paul, Apostle to the Gentiles: Studies in Chronology, page 241. Martin Hengel notes that the word for "days" used in v. 23 “with a temporal meaning is a favourite word of Luke’s and indicates a lengthy period of time.” Hengel, Paul Between Damascus and Antioch, page 345-46, n. 219. Interestingly, this phrase is used in 1 Kings 2:38 to refer to a period of three years.
Although chronologically imprecise here, Luke does give a couple of clues suggesting that Paul’s stay in Damascus was lengthy. Paul “became increasingly powerful” in his public speaking. More significant is that when Paul’s life was threatened, “his disciples” acted to deliver him. As John B. Polhill notes, “that Paul had ‘disciples’ at this point is somewhat surprising.” Polhill, The New American Commentary, Acts, page 241. Of course, if Paul had spent at least two years preaching and converting Jews at the Synagogue, he could have acquired disciples while in Damascus. But a short stay in Damascus would not seem to leave time for Paul to acquire his own disciples.
Clearly, therefore, our skeptic is wrong to argue that Acts and Paul conflict over the period of time between Paul’s conversion and his first visit to Jerusalem. To the extent the account in Acts’ suggests a time period, it is a lengthy one that does not at all contradict Paul’s two-to-three year period. Nothing about the timing of Paul's first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem counts against Lukan authorship of Acts.