Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul

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by Neil Godfrey

The main point of the following is to present reasons for understanding the author of the Pastoral Epistles was not drawing on our canonical Acts for his Paul’s biographical data but on popular oral legends circulating about Paul and that became incorporated into the Acts of Paul. (I do not discuss the discrepancies between the Pastoral Epistles and our canonical Acts assuming they are well enough known already.)

I have compiled a list of similarities between the Pastoral Letters of Paul (mostly 2 Timothy) and the Acts of Paul from Dennis MacDonald’s The Legend and the Apostle: The Battle for Paul in Story and Canon. MacDonald discusses three possible models to explain these similarities. (Note that I do not refer to all of MacDonald’s discussion points. There is more in his book. So presume any weaknesses here are the fault of the transmitter, not the original author.)

Model 1: The author of the Acts of Paul knew and used the Pastorals

This is the most common view of those who have studied this question.

  • Advantage: This model can account for the similarities.
  • Problem: This model cannot account for the differences.

Lipsius attempted to explain the differences as result of the author of the Acts of Paul creating a Paul compatible with his gnostic beliefs, and in opposition to the Paul of the Pastorals. MacDonald counters Lipsius:

  1. The Acts of Paul is not gnostic: evidence lies in “the glorification of martyrdom, the concern for the body in preparation for the resurrection, the apocalyptic destruction of the world, and the attribution of the creation of God”;
  2. The Acts of Paul contains no polemic against the Paul of the Pastorals. Corssen notes that the polemic is entirely the other way — the Pastorals unrelentingly attack the image of the Paul found in the Acts. The letter is the sharper weapon with its authoritative first-person “I”; the narrative shows no attempt to counter the letter with a higher “we” authority nor does it address the tone of the Paul of the Pastorals.

Model 2: The author of the Pastorals used a written source behind the Acts of Paul

Scholarly attempts to explain this have not gained traction and been out of favour since 1968.

Model 3: The authors knew the same oral legends

Using the Alex Orlik’s classic article “Epic Laws of Folk Narrative” MacDonald demonstrates the reasons for seeing the Acts of Paul as being heavily dependent on second century oral legends in Asia Minor. If, as is possible, the author of the Pastoral Epistles knew of these oral legends he would have opposed their portrayal of Paul.

This model can:

  • Account for the differences in the depiction of Paul in the Pastorals and the Acts without conjecturing earlier written sources;
  • Account for the similarities better than the other models. Why are the similarities are not exact? (In the Acts Hermogenes is associated with Demas, in the Pastorals, with Phygelus; in the Acts Onesiphrous lives in Iconium, in the Pastorals, in Ephesus.) Such variations can be explained as either the author of the Acts being careless in how he used the Pastorals, or as the sorts of variations one expects from the vagaries of oral storytelling. Personal and place names are often substituted and mixed in the transmissions of this sort of storytelling without affecting the structure or meaning of the story.

I have placed the chart for a quick overview of a comparison of the Acts of Paul with the Pastorals here.

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Neil Godfrey

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