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

The Sources.

1.

Our two main sources of biographical information concerning Paul are the Acts of the Apostles and the letters themselves. There are some additional snippets in later Christian writings—e.g., a stylized descriptive portrait in Acts of Paul 3.1; accounts of his martyrdom under Nero (1 Clem. 5.5–7; 6.1; Eusebius Hist. Eccl. 2.25). But even if we were to exploit them to the full (e.g. Riesner 1998 ), we would simply be adding minor embellishments to a portrait based primarily on our two main sources.

At first glance these two sources seem to complement each other neatly. Acts provides us with biographical information on Paul's life and ministry, and the circumstances in which the individual churches were founded; the letters provide us with direct information on his thought and his interaction with churches after he had moved on to new fields of mission. We might seem to be in the happy position of being able to combine two complementary sources to construct a full picture.

2.

As has already been observed, however, the use of Acts as a source for Paul is not without problems. For one thing, despite the impression given by the author of Acts (let us for convenience call him Luke) that he is providing us with a full and continuous account of Paul's itinerary, Paul himself makes reference to details—for example, trips (the hasty and painful visit to Corinth in 2 Cor 2:1 ) and various incidents of hardship (2 Cor 11:23–7 , especially the references to shipwrecks, synagogue discipline, and imprisonments)—about which Luke seems unable to tell us anything.

Further, at points where the two accounts do overlap, they are sometimes strikingly at odds. The parade example of this is the narration of Paul's first post-conversion visit to Jerusalem in Gal 1:18–24 and Acts 9:26–30 . In Acts, it is a high-profile visit. Although the disciples were ‘all afraid of him’, after Barnabas had convinced ‘the apostles’ of the reality of his new-found faith, Paul ‘went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord’, at least until opposition from the (non-Christian) Hellenists increased to the point that the ‘brothers’ felt it necessary to escort him to safety in Caesarea. In Galatians, by contrast, the visit is a much less public affair. Paul's purpose in going up to Jerusalem was ‘to visit Cephas’, which he did for fifteen days, not seeing ‘any other apostle except James the Lord's brother’. Even after his departure, he was ‘still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea that are in Christ’, who simply had oral reports that their former persecutor was now ‘proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy’.

Even when one gives full weight to the diverging purposes of Luke (who wants to emphasize harmony in the early church and the smooth progression of the faith outwards from Jerusalem) and Paul (who wants to downplay his contacts with Jerusalem and to defend his independence as an apostle), the differences between the two accounts are substantial. Acts and the letters are not to be treated simply as equal and complementary sources. Paul's own testimony needs to be given primacy. The letters represent our primary source for his life and thought.

3.

Nevertheless, Acts is not simply to be dismissed; Luke clearly has independent access to information about Paul's career. He displays no awareness of Paul as a letter-writer, which means that Acts cannot be seen merely as an embellished narrative presentation of details gleaned from the letters. Further, there are frequent points of contact, in details of itinerary, between Acts and the letters (see the list in Brown 1997: 424). Even the accounts in Gal 1 and Acts 9 , as discussed above, despite their differences in detail and emphasis, contain a similar sequence: conversion near Damascus (Gal 1:15–17; Acts 9:1–19 ); subsequent trip to Jerusalem (Gal 1:18; Acts 9:26 ); time spent in Cilicia/Tarsus (Gal 1:21; Acts 9:30 ) and Syria/Antioch (Gal 1:21; Acts 11:25–6 ). Moving out from Galatians but still within the same sequence of events, the account of Paul's flight from Damascus in Acts 9:23–5 has its first-person counterpart in 2 Cor 11:32–3 . Similar observations could be made about Paul's progression down the Greek peninsula (1 Thess 2–3; cf. Acts 16–18 ) or his final trip to Jerusalem with the collection money (1 Cor 16:1–4; 2 Cor 7–9; Rom 15:25–9; cf. Acts 19:21–21:19 ). Thus while Acts and the letters are not simply to be interlaced, critical and cautious use can be made of the Acts account to supplement the information on Paul's life and activity contained in the letters.

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