Lecture 12: Acts - Chronology
Lecture: Paul: Chronology
Let’s go now to deal with a basic chronology of the events surrounding Jesus’ [i.e., Paul’s] life here. There are a number of events that we can pinpoint in history that serve as anchors in the life of the apostle Paul. One of them is a famine mentioned in Acts 11:27, ff. We have a pretty good time to date this. In Acts 11:27, we read, “Now in those days prophets came down from Jerusalem to Antioch. And one of them named Agabus stood up and foretold by the Spirit that there would be a great famine over all the world (this took place in the days of Claudius).” We can date that somewhere around 44-46 AD. There are other records in secular literature that refer to this, that help us in our understanding of that particular event.
Another event that helps to pinpoint some of this is Acts 12:23, where you have Herod (not Herod the Great, but Herod Agrippa). We read of his death in Acts 12:22-23, that he is smitten at that time, and his body eaten by worms, etc. I believe it’s Josephus who refers to this, and ties it with a full moon, or some astronomical event, and we’re able to date that astronomical event pretty carefully – it was just before that took place. So Herod dies in Acts 12:23, and we can date that to AD 44 with pretty good precision.
The third event that we can use as an anchor is in Acts 18:2, which talks about the expulsion of the Jews from Rome during the reign of Claudius. “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” We have records of that in the Suetonius’s work, a Roman historian at the beginning of the second century. He talks about a riot taking place at the time of Claudius among the Jews, supposedly led by a man named Chrestus. Most people think that he erred here-- that it was not a riot led by Chrestus among the Jews, but a riot among the Jews over Jesus Christus, and that this Jewish and Jewish / Christian riot took place, and he expelled them. But we can date that to sometime around 49 or 50 AD.
Then, one last event is Paul’s appearance before the Roman Governor Gallio. Lots of times governors ruled for only a single year, and so you can date that pretty nicely in the Roman annals. “But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal.” And so, around AD 51, 52 sometime we have Paul in Corinth being brought before the Roman Governor at that time.
So those become the key events around which you can build a chronology of the life of Paul, and of the early church as well. So if we take that into consideration, we probably have something like the following as a chronology of Paul’s life:
• He is probably converted sometime around 31 or 32, very early. And one of the keys there involves the issue of the chronology Paul gives in the Book of Galatians. If you look at Galatians 1, he talks about his conversion. Then in v. 18 he says, “Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas ….” Three years after his conversion he went to Jerusalem to visit Peter, and there he remained with him fifteen days. Then in 2:1, he says, “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem ….” Now, the key problem here is: is that fourteen years after the three years, or are both the three years and the fourteen years after his conversion? If it’s fourteen years plus three years, then you have seventeen years from this time going back to his conversion, or eleven years afterwards. Do you see that? It becomes somewhat confusing. But a basic chronology of Paul’s life, one that is frequently followed and that I am inclined to places his conversion at 31 or 32 AD, fairly early after the death of Jesus in AD 30;
• his first visit to Jerusalem three years after that;
• the first missionary journey 44-48;
• then the Jerusalem Council which we read of in Galatians 2 fourteen years after that;
• then we have the second missionary journey;
• third missionary journey;
• Paul’s arrest in 58;
• his imprisonment in Caesarea for 2 years (58-60);
• journey to Rome;
• imprisonment in Rome;
• and then after that we have to wrestle somewhat with what happens. Is he released, like tradition says, from his first Roman imprisonment, after which he ultimately goes to Spain for a short time, is then re-arrested, writes the pastoral letters of 1 & 2 Timothy and Titus, and then is martyred, sometime around 65 or so? We’ll have to wait till we’re at the end of the Book of Acts to wrestle with that issue. But that’s kind of a rough pattern. There are variations on this, but it’s about as close as I can get with regard to that.
Let’s go on now to the early years of Paul after his conversion, and see if we can deal with that. We have his conversion referred to in 9:1-19. After three days in the city of Damascus, he is met by Ananias, who is hesitant. (Who wouldn’t be hesitant to try to meet this man?) And when Ananias comes, he responds to Paul as follows [v.17]: “’Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight. Then he rose and was baptized; and took food, and was strengthened.” So, here we have the baptism by Ananias, and scales falling from his eyes, turning from darkness to light would be very vivid here, and if that’s an image that he uses in conversion, maybe he views it as taking place at this event.
According to Galatians, he does not stay in Damascus, but he goes into Arabia. I don’t think he wanted to say that he was in the heart of today’s Saudi Arabia, but he goes east. If you’re in Damascus and you go east, you’re in desert. And so, this is where he stays for a time. He returns, and people have wondered what he did in Arabia. Did he go to meditate? I don’t think we should think of him as some sort of a monk, going into the wilderness and simply meditating all this time. He’s been meditating for days now, even before his conversion, over all of this, and he will continually meditate all his life on those kinds of things. But what happens when he comes back to Damascus in Acts 9, is that people are waiting to put him to death. And the king or governor is also there, wanting to put him to death. Now, I don’t know why the king would want to put him to death if he’s meditating in the wilderness. Very few people want to put others to death who are silently meditating in a wilderness area. He must have been doing some preaching, so this is what gets them upset. He then returns to Jerusalem after this for his first visit. He’s there fifteen days. He is now, instead of being the persecutor, become the persecuted. He has to flee, and he flees to Tarsus, and at that point we don’t hear about him for a while. When he goes to Tarsus, he’s there anywhere from six to ten years, and we never hear of a church in Tarsus; we don’t hear of Paul becoming a great, successful preacher up in Tarsus. And then, later on, we’ll review this again shortly, he is brought back by Barnabas to Antioch. They then visit for a famine visit to Jerusalem; and when they return back after a time of prayer, the church is told to commission Barnabas and Saul for the first missionary journey.
But what’s interesting to note, is that this time in Tarsus, we can call the Silent Years of Saul. We don’t know anything about it; nothing great must have happened because Luke doesn’t say anything about it, and we never hear of any church in Tarsus. But, when he is brought back, Barnabas brings him back, and he is working pretty much as Barnabas’s assistant. And when the first missionary journey begins, Barnabas, Saul, and John Mark go out. The order of the names makes it pretty clear that Barnabas is the leader of the mission group. After that, in the middle of the journey, there’s a switch that takes place – it’s Paul and his company. So here, his name changes, and he becomes the leader of the mission group. But up to this time, Saul has not been like a meteor lighting up the sky. For six to ten years, his life is fairly quiet. We don’t know much. And I think that it may be helpful for you as seminary students to realize that sometimes God takes time to prepare people for mission training. And even the apostle Paul has these silent years where we don’t know much about him, but they’re years used by the Lord to prepare him for his future work. So if, when you’re a seminary student, you are not quite attracting Billy Graham-sized crowds for evangelism, don’t worry about that. This is a time, much like Saul, like your silent years, where you’re training and acquiring the skills, and becoming the kind of person that God can use in the future. So there’s a sort of word of exhortation in that regard.