Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Gal 2.1-10 = Acts 15: How firm a foundation?

The identification of Gal 2.1-10 with the events of Acts 15 often serves as a foundation for interpreting both texts based on the tendencies evident in their differences. I have seen assignments for undergraduate surveys, discussion prompts for graduate seminars, and doctoral exam questions that ask the student to compare the two passages, identify their differences, and discuss what those differences suggest.

But how confident can we be in this identification? At first glance, it might seem that we can be very confident: Both texts describe trips to Jerusalem to discuss the circumcision-free gospel, and dating Galatians after Acts 15 might allow Paul to have been in north Galatia (Acts 18.23). Addressees in north Galatia are said to be preferable to south Galatia because of Paul's use of the “ethnic” term “Galatians” (3.1) and the double silence about ethnic Jews: Unlike 1 Corinthians and Romans, Paul does not address Christians with Jewish backgrounds separately, and we have no evidence of a Jewish population in north Galatia. Based on these factors, influential commentators like Betz and Martyn assume the identification of the passages with almost no argument.

I want to suggest that this confidence is misplaced. The argument from north Galatian addressees, based as it is on an ambiguous use of an ambiguous term (Paul could be using it sarcastically—imagine a European calling a Dutch Boer a “foolish African” fifty years ago) and a double argument from silence, is too weak to settle the argument. All we really have, then, is the prima facie similarity between the two accounts.

The problem is that there is a third account, Acts 11.27-30, that also deserves consideration. When the three accounts are compared, the identification of Gal 2.1-10 with Acts 15, although still possible, becomes less of a foregone conclusion.

Gal 2.1-20

Acts 11.27-30

Acts 15

Trip occasioned by “revelation.”

Trip occasioned by Agabus's prophecy.

No revelation or prophecy.

Second trip to Jerusalem (critical for Paul's argument).

Second trip to Jerusalem.

Third trip to Jerusalem.

Private meeting with “pillars” to discuss circumcision-free gospel.

No meeting mentioned.

Public discussion of circumcision-free gospel.

Spying “false brothers.”

No mention of “false brothers.”

Mentions of Christians teaching the necessity of circumcision.

“Pillars” require care for the poor, Paul was already eager for this.

Trip undertaken for material relief of Christians in Jerusalem.

No mention of poverty or material needs.

Acts 11.27-30 thus has three seemingly unrelated correspondences (prophecy, trip sequence, and material needs), no contradictions, and two silences, the most important of which is plausibly explained by Gal 2's description of a private meeting. Acts 15, on the other hand, has two correspondences (subject of discussion and presence of opponents), at least two contradictions (trip sequence and the nature of the discussion), and two silences.

Naturally, conservative commentators such as Longenecker and Bruce, who seek to avoid contradictions whenever possible, have gravitated towards Acts 11. Even if one is not committed to avoiding contradictions, however, I think this comparison shows that Acts 11.27-30 is a viable candidate. Whether or not to correlate Galatians with Acts is not at issue; the question is which is the best correlation, and with what degree of confidence we can make that correlation.

In the end, both are possible, but the degree of confidence often accorded to the correlation with Acts 15 seems unjustified. It can be a tentative conclusion, but interpretive edifices built upon it must, by definition, be at least as tentative. Studies that do so, while not invalid, should acknowledge the shakiness of their foundation.


  1. Thanks for this, Tom. It is a tough decision, thought the Acts 11 identification is often tarred, unfairly IMHO, as the choice of fundamentalists.

    Nevertheless, one of the difficulties I have with the Acts 11 identification for Gal 2 (assuming that Acts 11 and 15 refer to distinct visits), is that I really wonder if Paul would be referring to someone else's revelation in Gal 2:2 rather than his own. If it's his own, then one of the parallels with Acts falls short.

  2. Thanks for the interesting post, Tom. I'm on the other side of this issue. My thoughts are at:

    with response to critics at:

    As well as the point made by Stephen (above), I would add that stressing the public / private contrast, as Ben Witherington III does, has an unintended consequence -- it simply creates a fresh problem for the first Jerusalem visit in Acts and Galatians, with Acts 9.26-28 reporting a public event and Gal. 1.18-19 reporting a private one (on oath).

  3. Thank you both for your thoughtful comments. I think it's entirely possible that Paul is talking about a revelation to him. One of the conservative commentators I looked at (Bruce, I believe) even made the same point himself while still opting for Acts 11. On the other hand, I see nothing in what Paul says that requires or even strongly suggests this. If we knew for sure from other sources that Gal 2=Acts 11, we would not think anything strange about Paul referencing Agabus's prophecy in that way. More suggestive to me--although still inconclusive--is the seemingly coincidental alignment of trip sequence, mention of prophecy, and mention of material needs.

    I will have to think more about the new problem created by stressing the public/private distinction if Gal 1=Acts 9, although it seems to me that this only becomes a major problem if one is claiming that (a) Luke would have definitely reported a private meeting if he knew about it, and (b) Luke knew about all Paul's private meetings. I think both (a) and (b) are probably false, so one can speculate that, if Gal 2=Acts 11, Luke didn't describe Paul's private meeting because either (1) he didn't want to, or (2) he didn't know about it. That might not have been the case for Paul's first journey to Jerusalem.

    My purpose in raising this issue is not, however, to argue that the equation of Gal 2 with Acts 15 should necessarily be abandoned. It might be correct, but I think the earlier discussions linked above show that it is by no means a foregone conclusion. The question I am most interested in discussing, then, is this: Can we use a very tentative conclusion like this responsibly as the assumed foundation for whole lines of research, or for introducing students to these texts? If so, how do we go about it?

  4. There is no reason to suppose that Gal 2:1-10 describes Paul's second visit to Jerusalem. See my blog post here. You say that it is 'critical for Paul's argument' that Gal 2:1-10 was the second visit, but this is based on false assumptions about Paul's line of argument.

    The private vs public argument is often overplayed. No public meeting can be arranged without there first being a private meeting between the major players. Gal 2:1-10 and Acts 15 can refer to separate meetings during the same visit. Incidentally, it is hazardous to conclude, as Mark does, that Acts 9:26-28 reports a more public meeting than Gal 1:18-19, since Paul and Luke seem to use the term 'apostle' in different ways.

    Gal 2:10 suggests that Paul helped the poor in Jerusalem immediately AFTER the visit of Gal 2:1-10, not before, doesn't it? So it is hard to see how Gal 2:1-10 could be the famine visit. But Gal 2:10 makes sense if Gal 2=Acts 15. The collection from Galatia, mentioned in 1 Cor 16:1-3 could well have happened immediately after the visit of Acts 15. This fits well with the Titus-Timothy hypothesis and I will argue the case in more detail on my blog in a few weeks time.

    The Gal 2=famine visit theory runs into serious chronological difficulties. It is hard to place the famine visit after 46, so, even if the 3 years and the 14 years are concurrent, and with inclusive counting, we would have Paul's conversion no later than 33. It's awfully tight. Acts 15, on the other hand, can be dates to 48-49. This was a sabbatical year, which explain why the believers in Jerusalem were in need of money. It also explain how Paul was able to recall the 14 year interval (14=2x7).

    It is just possible that Paul made two trips to Jerusalem in response to the revelation of Agabus: one to deliver aid and another (Gal 2:1-10) to see whether they needed further aid to help them survive the sabbatical year. The identification of the revelation of Gal 2:1 with the revelation of Agabus would not require that Gal 2:1-10 is the famine visit.

    For these reasons, and others, I now feel that Gal 2=Acts 15 is rather firm. In recent years I have also become a committed south Galatianist.

  5. The real difficulty with the Acts 15 = Gal 2 equation is the chronological compression it generates against the Gallio datum. Only extreme special pleading can evade this. So if Paul is to be taken at his word in Galatians, we basically end up having to go with three Jerusalem visits in toto. (Other things will chip in here.) This leads us to suspect Acts of doublets--two in fact. The reason why scholars have oscillated between Acts 11 and Acts 15 is consequently that they both apply! I agree that you can't base much on a denial or identification at the outset though; larger issues are in play. [Douglas wearing his wife's prosôpon of course.]

  6. Thanks for the further interaction. I'll comment very briefly on the specific arguments for correlating Gal 2 to one passage or another, since my primary interest is in the way this obviously debatable conclusion often seems to be assumed to be a solid foundation for further conclusions about Acts, Paul, and their relationship to each other.

    (1) I'll grant that the importance of the sequence of visits depends on how one interprets the overall argument. I'll have to think about this more.

    (2) Reading Gal 2's private discussion and Acts 15's public discussion as different discussions within the same visit strikes me as an entirely plausible way to avoid the apparent contradiction. I'm fine with it as long as one acknowledges that it's speculative and not self-justifying (i.e., the reasons for making it must come from elsewhere).

    (3) I actually don't think Gal 2.10 gives us anything to go on as to when Paul enthusiastically cared for the poor.

    (4) Thanks to both for raising the dating issues, which seem to cut both ways. I'll have to think more about those.

    In the end, though, I think it's clear from this discussion and others that this question is far from a settled, sure conclusion. My purpose in raising arguments for Acts 11 was not to argue that that is definitely the correct position, but instead to rehabilitate it enough to suggest that it's problematic to simply assume the Acts 15 option in presentations of this material to students and in commentaries.

  7. Tom, I agree with most of your points. However, I don't agree with Douglas Campbell (Rachel) on his chronological point. Douglas, I accept your date of 36-37 for Paul's escape from Damascus (Douglas Campbell, "An Anchor for Pauline Chronology: Paul's Flight from 'the Ethnarch of King Aretas' (2 Corinthians 11:32-33)," JBL 121.2 (2002): 279-302). This fits nicely with Paul's conversion/calling in 34 and the Gal 2:1-10 visit in 48. This date is confirmed by the Sabbatical year arguments (see my earlier comment).

    Now, the Gallio incident can be dated to 51 because of
    a) the well known Delphi inscription,
    b) Sosthenes was an archisynagogos and therefore a benefactor. The beating of Sosthenes is just what we would expect during a time of food shortage (1), and there was probably a foot shortage in 51 (2). I have argued here that Crispus re-directed his benefactions from the synagogue to the church, was given the name "Sosthenes", and was beaten by the Jews during the food shortage.

    So, Paul probably arrived in Corinth in 50. We therefore have 2 years to get Paul from Jerusalem (in 48) to Corinth (in 50). During this time he re-visited one province, (south) Galatia, and he evangelized another, Macedonia.

    Now, in the 10 years between the famine visit (46) and Paul's final trip to Jerusalem (~56) Paul evangelized 4 provinces (south Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, and Asia) and he re-visited 4 provinces (Cilicia, south Galatia, Macedonia and Achaia). So, every 2.5 years Paul evangelized a province and re-visited another. It is therefore not at all surprising that he revisited south Galatia and evangelized Macedonia between 48 and 50.

    The chronology becomes strained only if we suppose that Paul went to north Galatia. However, Acts excludes the possibility of a trip to North Galatia. Paul receives 3 pieces of divine guidance (Acts 6:6-10) and their common purpose is to bring Paul to Macedonia as soon as possible. The north Galatianist have to suppose that Luke would write that Paul received contradictory divine guidance that sent him first one way, then the other. See my map and discussion here.

    So, with the south Galatia theory, in combination with the Gal2=Acts 15 theory, there is no chronological strain, is there?

    (1) see Moyer Hubbard, Urban Uprisings in the Roman World: The Social Setting of the Mobbing of Sosthenes, NTS 51 2005 pp.416-428)
    (2) see Barry Danylak "Tiberius Claudius Dinippus and the food shortages in Corinth", Tyn Bul 59.2 (2008)