Acts of Paul

PAUL, ACTS OF. According to Tertullian (On Baptism, 17), the Acts of Paul was written by a presbyter in Asia, who on conviction was removed from office, although he said he had done it “out of love for Paul.” The work, known also to Hippolytus and Origen, may therefore be dated to the 2nd cent. Eusebius (Hist. III. 25) includes it with Hermas, Barnabas, and the Apocalypse of Peter among the “spurious” books, although he distinguishes it from the heretical. It is included in the catalogue in the Codex Claromontanus, so that at this stage it was still on the fringe of the NT canon. Jerome, however, rejected it, and subsequently its reception by the Manichees brought it completely into disrepute.


The work is not in itself heretical, for the emphasis that it lays on sexual continence was widespread in the Early Church. In fact, it “presents very clear positions against Gnostic speculation, rejection of the OT, denial of the resurrection and relaxation of moral standards” (Schneemelcher, NTAp. II. 350). The reasons for its rejection lie rather in the offense caused by certain features, such as the prominence of Thecla (Tertullian disapproved of the participation of women in teaching and the administration of the sacraments, and in this work Thecla baptizes herself), the episode of the baptized lion, and the forged third epistle to the Corinthians. Comparison with the canonical Acts would not reflect favorably on this apocryphal book, and comparison with Paul’s letters only shows how far 2nd-cent. Christianity had declined from the standard set by the apostle. Its acceptance by the Manichees, along with the other major apocryphal Acts, was all that was necessary to insure its final condemnation. Its significance is that it shows how ordinary Christians of the period reacted to the challenge of a speculative Gnosticism. “Many sides of the primitive Christian and in particular the Pauline preaching are no longer effective, but with this much diminished armament the churches of the second century weathered the struggle with Gnosticism” (Schneemelcher, 351).

Extant remains.

The book has survived only in fragments, but recent years have brought a marked advance in knowledge. The Acts of Paul and Thecla, the Martyrdom, and the apocryphal correspondence with Corinth all enjoyed a separate existence in several languages (the first Gr. witness for the correspondence was recently published from the 3rd cent. Papyrus Bodmer X). The discovery of the Coptic Heidelberg Papyrus in 1894 proved that all three belonged originally to the Acts of Paul. A Gr. papyrus from Hamburg can now be supplemented by various other fragments. The Stichometry of Nicephorus, however, assigns 3,600 lines to the book, as compared with 2,800 for the canonical Acts, so that a considerable portion is still missing.

From this material, and building on the work of his predecessors, Schneemelcher has pieced together the outline of a narrative describing Paul’s journeys, his sojourn in various cities, and the events that took place there. He emphasizes, however, that despite all the discoveries, our knowledge of the book is still imperfect. “We can reconstruct certain sections, and also link together several stages of the journey, but for all that considerable gaps remain” (NTAp. II. 347). One notable feature is that in contrast to the canonical Acts the author was apparently concerned to describe only one journey. Paul has no fixed base to which he returns between journeys (e.g., Antioch in Acts), but is continually on the move. At each stop the pattern is the same: Paul conducts a mission, arouses opposition, is expelled and moves on. The itinerary bears no relation to the journeys in Acts, except that (a) some of the places visited are the same, and (b) like Acts, it brings Paul eventually to Rome.


The story begins after Paul’s conversion outside Damascus, where he is told to go first to Damascus, then to Jerusalem. It was apparently on the latter journey that the baptism of the lion took place. The next episode has Paul in Antioch (whether Syrian or Pisidian is not clear), where he apparently raises up a boy, but also arouses the hostility of the Jews. The Heidelberg Papyrus continues with the Acts of Paul and Thecla, in which Thecla rather than Paul occupies the center of the stage. While Paul is speaking in Iconium in the house of Onesiphorus, Thecla sits listening at her window nearby, oblivious to everything else. Her interest in Paul arouses the jealousy of Thamyris, her fiancé, who denounces Paul. Paul is scourged and expelled from the city. Thecla is condemned to the fire but rescued by a sudden cloudburst that quenched the flames. In Antioch, Thecla is condemned to fight with the beasts, but again is miraculously delivered. At this point in the narrative she baptizes herself. In this section the author seems to have drawn upon local legends connected with the cult of Thecla.

The next section is damaged, but the main lines of the story (about events in Myra) are fairly clear. It concerns Hermocrates, his wife Nympha, and their sons Dion and Hermippus. Dion with his parents adheres to Paul; Hermippus is hostile, but eventually he too is won over. The section relating to Sidon is also damaged, but includes the collapse of the temple of Apollo, where Paul was imprisoned. Of the events in Tyre, little has been preserved. Then followed, apparently, a stay in Smyrna and a journey to Ephesus, where Paul preaches in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, and tells the story of the baptized lion. This section is preserved in a Coptic papyrus in the Bodmer library, as yet unpublished. The Hamburg Papyrus begins with Paul’s trial before the governor in Ephesus. Paul is condemned to fight with the beasts, but the lion set against him is the one he once baptized. The section relating to Philippi includes the apocryphal correspondence with Corinth and the story of the resurrection of Frontina, daughter of one Longinus. Then Paul goes to Corinth and embarks for Italy on a ship. The captain of the ship, Artemon, had been baptized by Peter. The narrative of the martyrdom records the adherence to Christianity of “a great number” of the house of Caesar, including Patroclus, the emperor’s cupbearer, who falls from a window to his death but is restored to life by Paul. In prison, Paul preaches to the prefect Longus and the centurion Cestus, who later are baptized at his grave by Luke and Titus.

Date and sources.

As already noted, the patristic attestation puts the date into the 2nd cent., but it cannot be early in that cent. A feature of the journey to Italy is a doublet of the Quo Vadis story in the Acts of Peter. This VS is clearly secondary, so that dependence lies with the Acts of Paul, and one must allow time for the composition of the Acts of Peter and its use by the author, prob. about the last decade of the cent.

Other sources prob. were primarily local legends attaching to particular saints, as with Thecla, or intended to claim the prestige of apostolic connection for some local church. In Myra, for example, according to the canonical Acts (27:5f.), Paul only changed ships; here he conducts a mission. Other parts could be no more than elaboration of NT materials. The author’s familiarity with the NT is shown by numerous echoes and allusions, particularly of the Pastorals and Acts, but his work is not simply based on Acts, nor can it be regarded as an attempt to supersede Acts. His intention was rather to give expression to the “image” of Paul current in his time, in the form of an edifying description of the apostle’s missionary journey (Schneemelcher, 348).


Tr. and full discussion, see NTAp. II, 322ff.

See also

  • Apocryphal New Testament