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.


Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul

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

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.) Continue reading “Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul”