Pastoral Epistles & the Acts of Paul (+ canonical Acts)

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by Neil Godfrey

The Acts of Paul show a remarkable series of affinities with the pastoral epistles, particularly 2 Timothy. There are differences as well, but they are the sorts of differences that one expects to find in stories repeated orally. Someone is labelled as a coppersmith, now was that Alexander or Hermogenes? Paul always teams up with “two’s”: now was it Demas and Hermogenes or Phylelus and Hermogenes in this particular scene? That sort of variation.

In both the Acts of Paul and 2 Timothy we find:

  • Onesiphorus welcoming Paul
  • Paul staying with Aquilla and Priscilla
  • Paul imprisoned and rescued from a lion
  • Paul being deserted by his followers and defending himself in a court alone
  • Demas deserting Paul for love of material things
  • 2 false missionaries preaching the resurrection was a past event
  • Persecutions at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra (although 2 Timothy’s account contradicts the circumstances in both the Acts of Paul and our canonical Acts)
  • et al etc etc et al

A full list of the differences and citations can be found online at Acts of Paul and the Pastoral Epistles.

Most commentators have concluded that the Acts of Paul draws on the Pastorals as a source for its narrative details. If so, as MacDonald discusses in The Legend and the Apostle, one is unable to explain the differences between the details in the Acts of Paul and 2 Timothy. Why the different names for the 2 missionaries who are undermining households by preaching the resurrection is a past event? for example.

The explanation that does explain both the similarities and the differences, and is consistent with the types of differences we find (mentioned above), and that is discussed in MacDonald’s book and in part sourced to Harnack in Hennecke’s New Testament Apocrphya, is that the author of the Acts of Paul was relying on oral traditions. MacDonald argues that the author of the Pastorals was likewise drawing on the same or similar oral traditions.

Historicity of canonical Acts?
One sometimes hears that evidence for the historicity of our canonical Acts lies in part in its accord with names, places and events in the “genuine Pauline epistles”. If the mere fact that names, places and events appear in two genres of literature by different authors is testimony to historicity, then the same argument would inform us that the Acts of Paul and Thecla is also historical. Unless one says that comparing the “genuine” Pauline letters with the Pastorals is “no fair”. 2 responses:

  1. the fact that names, places and events found in “genuine diaries” are repeated in a later story does not and never can be a criterion for assuming the story to be as “true” as the original diaries or letters (c.f. movies “based on” books or real life events);
  2. how is it possible to decide which letters of Paul are genuine from the self-attestation of the epistles themselves? See my notes from of Ancient Epistolary Fictions by Rosenmeyer.

  • Richard Fellows
    2007-02-15 05:06:04 UTC - 05:06 | Permalink


    When two documents have names, places and events in common it can be because they are both historical but it can also be because one author used the other as a source. In the case of Acts and the undisputed letters, the vast majority believe, on other grounds, that the author of Acts did not use Paul’s letters. There are good reasons for accepting this view. The historicity of Acts is therefore affirmed by the names etc. that it has in common with the undisputed letters.

    The case of the Acts of Paul and the PE is different because it is likely that the Acts of Paul used the PE as a source. I would like to believe that the Acts of Paul did not take its names directly from the PE because this would allow me to cite Titus’s connection with Lystra and Iconium to support the identification of Titus as Timothy. However, when I looked into the issue I concluded, with the majority, that the Acts of Paul simply picked its names from the pages of the PE.

    Incidentally, I suspect that those who stole names from another text tended to reproduce those names in the same form. Independent works, on the other hand, often give different forms. So, for example, Prisca and Priscilla. Do you know of any spurious text that uses a name form that is different from the name form in the texts that were its likely sources?

    Another important point, of course, is that the Acts of Paul gives the named persons geographical contexts that are inconsistent with those of the PE. If you think that Acts is unhistorical, then you need to come up with some evidence for historical blunders along these lines.


  • 2007-02-15 06:54:40 UTC - 06:54 | Permalink

    How does the fact that 2 documents, A and P, contain the same names confirm the historicity of A? Even if A derived its names from another source, S, then a correspondence of names between A and P would mean nothing unless we can verify both S as historical and that A was faithful to it.

    Even if certain letters of P were genuine and historical etc, how does it follow that someone else making references to names in those letters must also be narrating genuinely historical information? The Romance of Alexander uses names from a history of Alexander without advancing our historical knowledge in any way. The Chronicles of Dictys and Dares use the names and places from the Iliad without adding any information of any veracity at all. It is irrelevant whether they are relying on independent “traditions” for their sources or making direct use of Arrian or Homer — just adding “an independent source” in between makes no difference to the propensity of an author to use any source to write fiction.

    On what grounds do the “majority” argue that certain letters of P are “genuine”? Do those argument take cognizance of the facts about epistolary literature in Rosenmeyer’s work?

    You opt for the majority view of PE and AP but until I see an argument to counter the one I summarized above I see no reason to shift to the “majority” view. If it’s simply a matter of majority versus minority views than count me in the minority within certain circles I guess, and the debate closed.

    I cannot understand how variant forms of a name confirm historicity of the names or of the stories told about them.

    You wrote that if I think Acts is unhistorical then I need to come up with evidence for historical blunders. Not at all. I can find historical blunders in works that I believe are essentially historical. Just because a story has a historical setting is not at all an a priori reason for assuming it is historical. Most fiction contains historical settings in varying degrees of granularity — ancient as much as modern.

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