Dating the Book of Acts: 6, the late date reconsidered (5. Paul’s letters)

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

by Neil Godfrey

5. Use of Paul’s Letters in Acts

The following hyperlinked notes (continued from Tyson) outline evidence from Knox, O’Neill, Enslin, Walker, Leppa, Aejmelaeus, Goulder and Pervo for collectively “mounting a serious counterargument” that the author of Acts knew and used Paul’s letters.

The apparent nonuse of Paul’s letters — given the centrality of Paul to the story of Acts — has often been cited as a factor that prohibits a late date for the composition of Acts.

Tyson observes that this apparent absence of Paul’s letters appears to pose no problems for those who argue for an early (pre 70 c.e.) date for Acts. Those who argue for this early date and for the author of Acts being a close companion of Paul seem not to be troubled by that companion not knowing of or showing any interest in the letters of Paul when he wrote about his life. (Tyson, p.16)

Since Goodspeed is widely taken as the authority for dating the collection of Paul’s letters from around 90 c.e. scholars generally take the absence of Paul’s letters from Acts as a sign that it was written prior to that date.

Knox presented a case for believing that the author of Acts did know the letters of Paul but deliberately chose to ignore them. The reason was that this author was writing after Marcion, and against Marcion, who made extensive use of Paul’s letters, indeed claiming them as his authority. Knox’s argument is that it would have countered the author’s intention in writing Acts to have made reference to them. He was attempting to promote a completely different image of, and theological position for, Paul.

O’Neill dates Acts to around 130 ce, just prior to Justin Martyr. He does not accept Knox’s argument and instead notes that it was Polycarp, around 135 ce, who was the first to demonstrate a knowledge of Paul’s letters. O’Neill thus argues that if the Pauline corpus was unknown till around 135, then it is still plausible that the author of Acts was in ignorance of them even up to around that time. In support of this assertion, he notes that Justin Martyr, writing after the Pauline letter collection must surely have been known, fails to acknowledge them, and makes no reference to Paul at all.

Enslin suggests that Luke did know of Paul’s letters and did make use of them, but not in the way we have assumed he might:

  • Paul’s journeys take him to the same places he addressed his epistles — Galatia, Corinth, Rome, Thessalonica, Philippi, Ephesus. Coincidence?
  • Why the curious and unelaborated statement in Luke 24:34 that Christ appeared to Simon? Was this a reference to 1 Cor. 15:5 (where Cephas is used as the Aramaic name for Simon)?
  • The ascension of Acts 1:3 is delayed until long after the resurrection, yet this appears also to be a revision of the pericope about the ascension in Luke 24:50-51. Was this delay built in to accommodate the catalogue of appearances in 1 Cor. 15.?
  • Does the longer text of Luke 22:19b-20 derive from 1 Cor. 11:23-25 (thought Enslin suspects the longer Lukan text is not original)?
  • Does not Acts 15 read like a revision of the same conference in Galatians 2? (For extensive notes on the comparisons between these two chapters see my blog post How Acts subverts Galatians.)
  • The letters offer little narrative material, and since Luke’s interest was in minimizing any suggestion of conflict in the early church, use of the letters may have even been counterproductive to his purposes.

Enslin also agreed with Knox that the author of Acts may have deliberately avoided mention of Paul’s letters because he was opposed to the implication of those letters — that they were treated as the authority of Marcionite heretics. He also notes that Justin likewise avoided any reference to Paul’s letters — presumably again because the of the embarrassment of introducing heretically singed literature into his discourses. If so, then it would seem that Luke was in the same position as Justin Martyr — attempting to skirt around the mention of letters for fear of the embarrassment of the heretical associations that those letters held. (One might well note here that Tyson/Enslin are in fact implicitly placing Acts in the same historical/theological situation as the mid-second century Justin Martyr.)


Walker followed Enslin’s lead. He also saw Acts 16:1-3 as a revision of the question of circumcision as addressed in Gal. 2:3-5.) Walker concluded that Luke was attempting to “rescue” Paul from “heretics” such as Gnostics and Marcionites by making him sound more like Peter, and bypassing explicit reference to his letters. Simultaneously Luke was re-writing Peter to make him sound like Paul and the message he preached in his letters. The whole exercise was an attempt to introduce a catholic harmony into the history — and contemporary situation — of the church.


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)

Tyson draws on the studies of Walker and a 2002 dissertation by Leppa to demonstrate the strong possibility that the author of Acts 15 drew on Galatians. For details see my earlier post: How Acts subverts Galatians

“It is the dense correspondence between Acts 15 and Galatians 2 that most impresses Leppa.” (Tyson, p.19). Leppa analyzes verbal similarities and unusual combinations of words in similar contexts between Acts and Galatians:

  • sumparalambano is used only 4 times in the New Testament; it is used only in connection with Paul and Barnabas taking or not taking a companion on a trip; these 4 usages in Gal.2:1, Acts 12:25; 15:37, 38 “do not seem to be just random isolated incidents.”
  • zelotes huparcho “is a very rare combination, appearing only in these three verses in known Greek literature from the third century b.c.e. to the third century c.e.” It appears only in Gal.2:1; Acts 22:3; 21:30.
  • Acts 11:2-3 brings together three terms appearing in a related context in Paul’s Gal 2:7, 12ho ek peritome [those of the circumcision], akrobustia [uncircumcision] and sunesthio [eat with]: “An unusual, in fact hapax legomenon, word in Luke does not alone prove literary dependence. But, he employs the expression [ho ek peritome] and the rare verb [sunesthio] in the very same context. Three unusual words or expressions in a closely related context is stronger evidence. The probability that all these details are just random isolated incidents is quite small.” (Leppa, 56-57; in Tyson, 19)

Leppa comments: “What matters is not how much the two stories are different, but how they are different. In this case Luke’s story is not only different, but also very much opposite to Paul’s own accounts. Therefore the tension between the two sources does not prove that Luke was not aware of Galatians. No one can create a mirror image without knowing the original image.” (Leppa, 113-114 — emphasis in original; in Tyson, 19)

Leppa offers reasons for Luke’s subversion of Galatians. Luke wants to stress:

  • the continuity between Judaism and Christianity
  • Paul’s close relations with the other apostles
  • the unity of the first believers

Hence Paul’s letter had to be turned “upside down”.


Aejmelaeus argues that the farewell speech of Paul at Miletus (Acts 20:18-35) draws heavily on Paul’s epistles.

The English translations necessarily obscure most of the argument, but can at least to some extent convey the general idea:

  • But none of these things move me; nor do I count my life dear to myself, so that I may finish my race with joy, and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of the grace of God. — Acts 20:24
  • holding the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or laboured in vain. Yes, and if I am being poured out as a drink offering on the sacrifice and service of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. — Phil.2:16-17
  • Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I did not cease to warn everyone night and day with tears. — Acts 20:31
  • For you remember, brethren, our labour and toil; for labouring night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, we preached to you the gospel of God. You are witnesses, and God also, how devoutly and justly and blamelessly we behaved ourselves among you who believe; as you know how we exhorted, and comforted, and charged every one of you, as a father does his own children, that you would live a life worthy of God who calls you into his own kingdom and glory. — 1 Thess.2:9-12
  • Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which he purchased with his own blood. — Acts 20:28 (6 parallels with the following . . . .)
  • For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with him. Therefore comfort each other and edify one another, just as you also are doing. And we urge you, brethren, to recognize those who labour among you, and are over you in the Lord and admonish you — 1 Thess.5:9-12

Aejmelaeus also sees the author of Acts drawing on 1 Clement, both in the citation formula and an unattributed saying that he assigned to Jesus, suggesting that Luke belonged to the same community as the author of 1 Clement:

  • I have shown you in every way, by labouring like this, that you must support the weak. And remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that he said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’ — Acts 20:35
  • Let us therefore be lowly minded, brethren, laying aside all arrogance and conceit and folly and anger, and let us do that which is written. For the Holy Ghost saith, ….. most of all remembering the words of the Lord Jesus which He spake, teaching forbearance and long-suffering: for thus He spake . . . . — 1 Clem.13:1-2
  • Wherefore do we tear and rend asunder the members of Christ, and stir up factions against our own body, and reach such a pitch of folly, as to forget that we are members one of another? Remember the words of Jesus our Lord: for He said, . . . . — 1 Clem. 46:7-8
  • And ye were all lowly in mind and free from arrogance, yielding rather than claiming submission, more glad to give than to receive . . . . — 1 Clem. 2:1

Goulder sees numerous comparisons between the Gospel of Luke and 1 Corinthians and 1 Thessalonians indicating Luke knew those letters.

(Part of a discussion re the above is snapshot here.)


Pervo draws on Enslin, Walker, Leppa, Aejmelaeus among others to mount the most comprehensive argument for Luke’s knowledge of Paul’s letters and their use in Acts and influence on his gospel. Instead of large chunks of material being copied as in the case of Luke’s use of Mark’s gospel, Pervo finds “fragments and short phrases . . . . a number of unusual expressions that occur in similar contexts or treat similar situations. . . . He is aware that no single pair of passages, taken by itself, can prove Luke was acquainted with Paul’s letters, but he is convinced that the presence of a significant number of apparent parallels constitutes a weighty cumulative argument.” (Tyson, p.20)

Pervo sees 86/87 places in Acts that echo Pauline letters, including Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 Thessalonians.

With Ephesians and Colossians in the above list, it is apparent that Luke was far enough removed from the real Paul to be unable to tell (as modern scholars can) the difference between the authentic and inauthentic works of Paul. He only knows “the Paul who had been filtered through the deutero-Pauline school.” (p.20)

Pervo admits that some of the comparisons appear to be random echoes, but others carry more weighty relationships. Especially noteworthy is the comparison between Galatians 2 and Acts 15 — the treatment of the meeting between Paul and the Jerusalem leaders. Pervo says that the best evidence for literary dialogue comes from Lightfoot, although Lightfoot himself did not draw this conclusion:

  • Geography is the same: headquarters of false brethren is Jerusalem and they are infecting those in Antioch; gentile apostles go up from Antioch to Jerusalem and return again to Antioch.
  • Time is the same: or at least not inconsistent.
  • Persons are the same: Paul and Barnabas represent the gentile churches; Cephas and James are leaders of the circumcision party; the agitators are described as converted Pharisees or those who attempted to impose the law on the new converts; both Paul and Barnabas are with others (“certain other Gentiles”/Titus).
  • Subject of dispute is the same: circumcision of gentile converts.
  • Character of the conference is the same: exemption of gentiles from the law; Jerusalem church recognizing the apostolic commission of Paul and Barnabas.

In addition Pervo (following Walker and Leppa) considers the role of Titus in Paul and Timothy in Acts:

  • In Gal. 2:3 Paul says that his companion, who was “with him”, Titus was not compelled to be circumcised — leaving the reader with the impression that Titus remained uncircumcised, not even submitting to circumcision voluntarily. There is no reference to Timothy in Galatians.
  • In Acts 16:1-3 the author informs us that Timothy (there is no reference to Titus in Acts) was circumcised, although he was not compelled to. It was because Paul wanted him to be his companion, “with him”, and the act was a voluntary concession to Jews.

(Compare the cluster of terms and concepts as per Leppa’s observations above.)

Pervo follows Walker in observing that Peter’s speech in Acts 15:7-11 expresses the argument of his protagonist Paul in Galatians. But Pervo adds a significant detail: Peter’s speech expressing Pauline theology is couched in the deutero-Pauline terms we find in Ephesians, such as Eph. 2:8. Peter in Acts 15 (like the deutero-Paulinist author of Ephesians) substitutes “salvation” for the more authentic Pauline “justification” as found in Galatians. Luke employs the Deutero-Pauline terminology to wash over the differences between Peter and Paul.

Many similarities between Galatians 2 and Acts 15 have been noted before, but the textual links have not been recognized because of a failure to understand that the purpose of Luke (or the author of Acts) was to subvert Galatians.

Tyson sees the above arguments combining to force the removal of the argument that Acts’ ignorance of Paul’s letters is a barrier to accepting a second century date for the composition of Acts.


The following two tabs change content below.

Neil Godfrey

Neil is the author of this post. To read more about Neil, see our About page.

If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!

3 thoughts on “Dating the Book of Acts: 6, the late date reconsidered (5. Paul’s letters)”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Discover more from Vridar

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading