There are two different stories, their differences well known, of the circumstances surrounding Paul’s conversion and the later Jerusalem Conference in the New Testament.
The Two Conversions
In the Book of Acts (9:1-30) we read that
- Paul was persecuting the church until —
- Paul was struck down by a divine call on his way to Damascus,
- that he was baptized in Damascus by a lowly disciple (Ananias),
- and after some time (“many days”) he fled to Jerusalem because of Jewish persecution,
- His contacts in Jerusalem were limited but only on first arriving
- until Barnabas acted as his Janus-like gateway by taking him to the apostles —
- who, we learn elsewhere in Acts, were led by Peter and James
- Brethren took him away to Caesarea and then to Tarsus to protect him from the Hellenists
In the Epistle to the Galatians (1:13-24) we read a different story.
- Paul used to persecute the church until —
- Paul says Christ revealed himself by revelation “in him”,
- that he then went to Arabia.
- Only after he had been in Arabia did he return to Damascus.
- After three years in Damascus he went to Jerusalem because he wanted to see Peter
- His contacts in Jerusalem remained limited — the Judean churches did not see Paul
- He met Peter (staying with him 15 days) and James only.
- Paul then returned to the regions of Syria and Cilicia.
One can conclude that the author of Acts did not know of the Galatians letter. But I think it more likely that the author of Acts composed a narrative polemic against the letter. Each of the differences can be accounted for as a polemical response to some point in the Galatians account. . . .
Arabia versus Damascus
In Acts it is Damascus that is the geographic focus of Paul’s conversion experience; in Galatians the notable geographical association is Arabia. N.T. Wright makes a reasonable case in his 1996 JBL article (115, 683-692), Paul, Arabia, and Elijah (Galatians 1:17) that the author of the Galatians letter was casting himself as one who stood in the line of biblical prophets:
- he was separated “from his mothers womb”, 1.15 (compare Jeremiah 1.5; and Isaiah 49.1)
- he was known for his religious zeal — even killing those opposed to the law, 1.13-14 (compare Phineas and Elijah, Nu.25 and 1 Ki.18)
- he went to Arabia in response to his call from God, and the same letter spoke of Arabia as being the place of Mount Sinai, 4.25 (compare Moses and Elijah, Ex.3 and 1 Ki.19)
- he returned from Arabia to Damascus, 1.17 (compare Elijah, 1 Ki.19.15)
The author of Acts on the other hand had a different agenda, which was to cut Paul down to a subordinate position to the Jerusalem apostles. The various scholarly attempts to rationalize or harmonize the Paul of Acts with the Paul of the epistles, including Galatians, have struck me as strained to breaking point, but this is another discussion. It is easiest to read Acts treatment of Paul as an attempt to portray Paul in many ways echoing the accomplishments of Peter, but at the same time subordinate and conforming to the teachings sealed with the authority of Jerusalem. Acts rejects the Paul of the letter who sniffs at the status of Cephas, James and John, and who reminds readers he owes nothing of his conversion or gospel message to them.
The independent status and prophetic pretensions of the author of Galatians were all too clear to the author of Acts. The Acts narrative would erase anything that suggested an allusion to the callings of Moses and Elijah. The journey to Arabia had to be deleted because of its holy mountain associations, especially when referenced beside the prophetic allusion of being separated from his mother’s womb. Gentile Damascus, referenced as an aside to the Arabian journey in the letter, would be taken by the Acts narrator and made the central point of Paul’s conversion instead. And so would any reference to being destined for his role, like Jeremiah, from the time of his conception.
The revelation to (or in) Paul
The author of Galatians does not make it clear to modern readers exactly how the revelation of Christ came to Paul. The letter says God revealed Christ in Paul. Does that mean that from the moment of his conversion others could see Christ living in Paul, or does it mean that the revelation was an inner experience of Christ? Either way, the entire conversion experience is said to have been entirely without any human intermediary. The revelation came to him directly from Christ without any other human involvement (1.12). The significance of this was that Paul could therefore justify his claim to equality of authority with the other apostles.
The author of Acts has a problem with this. Paul was too easily identified as a focus of opposition to the doctrines of those Christians who rooted their authority in the Old Testament and in being the fulfillment of the Jewish religion. The narrative of Acts therefore makes Paul’s conversion the consequence of three visions — one to Paul of Jesus, another to Paul of Ananias, and another to Ananias, a lowly disciple in Damascus. The vision of Christ alone leaves Paul blind and doomed. Paul must be baptized and made whole again, and this can only be accomplished through another vision to Ananias. Paul’s conversion in Acts is not so independent of human agency as claimed in the letter to Galatians. The apostles were called by Christ directly, but Paul must become a disciple via the vision and baptism of Ananias.
The vision of Christ in Acts reads to a modern reader like a much more dramatic calling than anything experienced by the apostles. But it would be a mistake to see this as a sign that Paul’s calling was somehow setting him in a higher class than the apostles. It is the vision given to an enemy of Christ. Balaam experienced a similar vision when riding to curse the people of God — Num.22:22-35:
- Balaam rode
- with other attendants
- to oppose God’s people
- an angel stood before him
- and stopped him
- God opened his eyes to see the angel
- Balaam fell down at the sight
- and confessed that he had sinned
- before being commanded to continue his journey, but in obedience to God
- and he then blessed God’s people
Just as did another enemy of God, Heliodorus who had been sent to rob the temple (2 Macc. 3:14-40:
- Heliodorus entered the temple treasury
- with other attendants
- to oppose God’s people
- “the sovereign of spirits” stood before him on a horse
- and stopped him
- and the attendants of Heliodorus were astounded at the sight
- and two angels stood each side of him
- Heliodorus fell to the ground
- and total darkness came over him
- he was prostrate and speechless
- his attendants carried him away
- he was at the point of death
- the attendants asked the priest to pray for him
- the priest feared Heliodorus but still prayed for him
- Heliodorus received another vision offering mercy because of the priest’s prayer
- Heliodorus recovered
- and reported to all the great power of God
The vision of Paul in the Acts narrative follows the same motifs as the above disciplinary or punitive visions God reserves for his pagan enemies:
- Paul rode
- with his attendants
- to oppose God’s people
- the heavenly Jesus stood before him in a shining light
- Paul fell to the ground
- his attendants stood speechless
- Paul was made blind
- his attendants led him away
- he was unable to see and neither ate nor drank 3 days
- God told Ananias to heal him
- Ananias feared to heal Paul but still obeyed
- Paul had received another vision of Ananias mercifully healing him
- Paul recovered and was baptized
- and preached Christ to all
The vision of Paul may be more flamboyant as a narrative piece than the conversions of the apostles. But the apostles saw the resurrected Jesus as friends and disciples every day for 40 days before they received the spirit with fire and loud wind and miraculous languages. Paul’s conversion was the punishing conversion of a gentile enemy of God. And he entered the fold through the hands of the disciple Ananias.
The author of the epistle spoke of his conversion in a way to assert his independence from and equality with the other apostles; the author of Acts has turned the conversion of Paul into the punitive conversion of an outcast.
Any vision of Christ claimed by the author of Galatians has been reduced to something indistinct and shadowy beside the dramatic power of the narrator of Acts. The polemic of apostolic independence in the epistle has been buried beneath the polemic dressed in the dramatic scenes of Acts.
Going to Jerusalem
According to the letter the reason Paul went to Jerusalem was to see Peter (Cephas). And he made this journey three years after his conversion. That smacks of both independence (the 3 year wait) and equality (seeking a personal meeting) between the two apostles.
The narrator has a different plan for Paul. He does not of his own volition decide to go and see Peter face to face. Rather, he is forced to flee Damascus because of persecution, and when he escapes to Jerusalem he does not seek out Peter or any of the apostles, but merely the other common disciples.
And the three years wait is reduced to a more modest “many days” before reaching Jerusalem, too.
So in Acts Paul does not seek out Peter, nor even go to Jerusalem, of his own volition. This, and the change from “three years” to “many days” serves to dilute the independence factor that is stressed so pointedly in Galatians. Acts further challenges the theme of independence found in Galatians by portraying Paul as seeing his place with the disciples, not the apostles.
Nevertheless, to explain knowledge of Paul’s meeting with Peter, the narrator brings in Barnabas to introduce him to the apostles. Peter is not singled out at all, although the reader is well aware that Peter would be included among those he met. But above all, it is not Paul who can, like an equal, walk up to Peter and introduce himself. He must be led to the apostles by the good graces of Barnabas. The author of Acts could not be make Paul’s status vis a vis the apostles any clearer — nor more contrary to what Galatians implies.
Galatians also emphasizes the shortness of Paul’s stay in Jerusalem. It was, we are told, only fifteen days. There is no such time limitation intimated in Acts.
Not known to the disciples in Judea
Paul in Galatians emphasizes that he never mixed with the churches in Jerusalem and Judea but liaised exclusively with the Peter and James. He presents himself as an equal of the apostles and in no way of a lesser rank, and also as one who has no calling to preach to the Jews. His remit is to the gentiles only. Peter’s and Paul’s commissions do not overlap.
How does Acts explain the failure of the Jewish churches to meet with Paul? By declaring they were afraid of his reputation as a persecutor. They refused to see him, not trusting his attempts to see them. But Acts wants to portray the church as a harmonious new Israel where all, Jew and gentile, are one in Christ. It attempts to gloss over the evidence of unresolved divisions. So after Paul is introduced to the apostles through Barnabas, the narrative is able to inform us that Paul was able to go freely in and out among all in Jerusalem. Paul preaches to Jews first, but also to gentiles.
Paul goes to Syria and Cilicia, but when and in what capacity?
Galatians says Paul went after his visit with Peter to Syria and Cilicia. The letter has also made it clear that Paul is the apostle to the gentiles while Peter’s responsibility is the Jews. The inevitable conclusion is that Syria and Cilicia are Paul’s territory, gentile churches, while Judea belongs to Peter.
Acts does describe a Paul leaving a conference with the Jerusalem apostles and going to Syria and Cilicia, but the narrator sets it years later than the time given for it in Galatians. The timing is critical in Acts, because in Acts Paul does not leave for these regions until after he has submitted to the ruling James in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). So when Paul does leave Jerusalem for Syria and Cilicia it is to “strengthen the churches”, but also to carry the message from the Jerusalem authorities (15.41).
Acts will have Jew and gentile united, and Peter sometimes addresses gentiles, and Paul sometimes addresses Jews, and Jew and gentile are to be one in Christ. So Paul is sent back to his hometown, Tarsus, to await the time for his mission to preach before “gentiles, kings and the children of Israel” (9.15).
Once again we see the authority of Paul (this time over the churches in Syria and Cilicia) that is expressed in Galatians countered by the Acts narrative.
And this Syria-Cilicia visit brings us to the next set of comparisons:
The Second Jerusalem Meeting and Its Aftermath in Antioch
In the book of Acts (15:1-16:3) we read that
- Brethren arrived in Antioch from Judea
- causing a dispute in the church.
- Paul and Barnabas
- were sent by the churches to Jerusalem
- to seek a resolution to the conflict.
- Peter spoke and James also spoke as the leader with the final decision
- and issued the decree to settle the matter harmoniously
- Back in Antioch Paul and Barnabas
- separated as a result of a disagreement (over John Mark)
- Paul circumcised half-Greek Timothy to please the Jews.
In the letter to the Galatians (2:1-21) we read that
- Paul was inspired by God to go to Jerusalem
- and he took Barnabas with him
- to discuss privately the gospel he preached with the Jerusalem leaders
- Paul did not circumcise the Greek Titus to please the “false brethren”.
- Paul addressed James, Peter (Cephas) and John
- There was harmonious agreement
- Peter and other arrived in Antioch from James in Jerusalem
- Causing a dispute (with Paul) in the church
- Paul disputed sharply with them, and with Peter in particular
- In this Antioch dispute Barnabas separated himself from Paul
The same polemical and theological differences that explained the variant conversion stories account for the divergences here, too.
The motivation to go to Jerusalem
The author of Galatians establishes Paul’s independent authority by declaring he went to Jerusalem as the result of a divine revelation.
Acts explains that Paul was sent up to Jerusalem by the churches. It was their bidding, not his, that led him to go. Paul is not the authoritative independent agent in Acts that he is in Galatians.
Dispute resolution technique
Galatians, apparently from the pen of Paul, informs its readers that James, Peter and John all agreed with Paul in Jerusalem. But afterwards back in Antioch, these men reneged — Peter and others were sent by James to preach observance to Jewish customs. Paul declares what he said to Peter about it, and then drops the subject leaving his own words the last for the reader to hear on the matter.
The author of Acts resolves this problem of disunity by moving the Antioch dispute to the beginning of the narrative. So instead of the story of the conference blowing up with a subsequent dispute in Antioch as it does in Galatians, Acts rearranges the story so that the Antioch dispute initiates the Jerusalem conference — where it is harmoniously resolved.
Pillars and presidents
In Galatians Paul admits James, Peter and John are reputed to be pillars in the church, but their reputations mean nothing to him. He is every bit their equal.
In Acts Paul and Barnabas are lost in the crowd. The elders and apostles began by opening the issues. Then Peter spoke, then he let Barnabas and Paul (in that order — Paul taking second place) speak to illustrate the point Peter had just made. Finally James rises to announce his binding decision. He is clearly the leader to which all others defer.
A purpose of Acts is clearly to subordinate Paul to the Jerusalem authorities and all that they represented theologically against what many took to be an independent Pauline line.
The circumcision conflict
In Galatians Paul vociferously declares he would not be intimidated by “false brethren” who wanted him to circumcise the Greek Titus. He is so opposed to circumcision that he declares in the same letter that anyone preaching this has no place in Christ.
In Acts, the author delineates a conciliatory Paul who can be all things to all races, and he does submit to the sensitivities of the Jews by having the half-Greek Timothy circumcised.
Obviously the uncircumcised Titus would not have served the theological interests of the author of Acts. And if, as some have suggested, the Pauline Pastorals are also from the hand of the final redactor of Acts, then we can see Paul having a final swipe at Titus by announcing that he was one of many who had abandoned him in his final days (2 Tim. 4.10).
The Paul-Barnabas split
Galatians explained that the split between Paul and Barnabas was over Jewish customs and law observance. Barnabas sided with Peter and James, the Jerusalem led church.
This was another problem for the author of Acts wanting to promote a history of catholic harmony. He solved this problem by instigating a different reason for the dispute. He chose to focus on the personalities and steer clear of the doctrinal issues. He turned a doctrinal split into a personality clash. Two well-meaning men were simply too strong minded to get along together. They each needed to choose their own assistants whom they best felt comfortable with. An easy fix.
The textual evidence
Joseph Tyson in Marcion and Luke-Acts cites textual evidence from Walker that supports the hypothesis that the author of Acts did know the letter to the Galatians, and attempted to subvert the message of the letter by recontextualizing key phrases.
On pages 18 and 19:
Both refer to proclamation to Gentiles as gospel (Gal 2:7; Acts 15:7).
Both speak of a division of responsibility (Gal 2:7; Acts 15:7).
Both speak of divine selection of Paul and Peter (Gal 2:7-8; Acts 15:7).
Both speak of divine impartiality (Gal 2:6; Acts 15:9).
Both speak about the reception of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:2-5; Acts 15:8).
Both refer to the law as yoke (Gal 5:1; Acts 15:10).
Both speak of the inability to observe Torah (Gal 2:14; Acts 15:10).
Both express the same view about the law and gospel (Gal 2:16; Acts 15:10-11).
Both assert the importance of faith (Gal 2:16; Acts 15:9).
Both assert the importance of grace (Gal 2:9; 1:6, 15; Acts 15:11).
Tyson notes that Walker concludes that “virtually every idea and much of the actual working of Peter’s speech in Acts 15:7-11 have parallels” in Galatians. “Indeed, the Acts passage is so remarkably similar to the material in Galatians as to suggest the author of Acts almost certainly knew this letter and . . . used it as a source . . .” (p.19)