The texts in question
In Act 9:20-28 we read:
Acts 9:20 Immediately he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that
He is the Son of God. 21 Then all who heard were amazed, and said, "Is
this not he who destroyed those who called on this name in Jerusalem,
and has come here for that purpose, so that he might bring them bound
to the chief priests?" 22 But Saul increased all the more in strength,
and confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus, proving that this Jesus
is the Christ. Now after many days were past, the Jews plotted to kill
24 But their plot became known to Saul. And they watched the gates day
and night, to kill him. 25 Then the disciples took him by night and
let him down through the wall in a large basket. 26 And when Saul had
come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all
afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But
Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to
them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to
him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus.
28 So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out. (NKJ)
And in Gal 1:16-21 we read:
Galatians 1:16 ....... I did not immediately confer with flesh and
blood, 17 nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles
before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. 18
Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and
remained with him fifteen days. 19 But I saw none of the other
apostles except James, the Lord's brother. 20 (Now concerning the
things which I write to you, indeed, before God, I do not lie.) 21
Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. (Gal 1:16 NKJ)
It is sometimes presented that these two accounts cannot be properly reconciled together, but are they really contradictory?
The traditional Chronology
Traditionally Paul's early travels have been broken down as follows1:
A. The period from the conversion of Paul until the first trip to Jerusalem.
- Paul was converted on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:2-18)
- Paul entered Damascus and stayed there for an unknown amount of time
- Paul went to Arabia for an unspecified period, and afterwards he returned to
- The whole period from his conversion to his departure from
Damascus is given as "three years"(Gal.1:18)
- Paul travels to Jerusalem where he meets Peter and James where he stays for 15 days before having to flee (Gal 1:18-19; Acts 9:26-29)
- Paul is taken to Caesarea from which he travels to Tarsus (Acts 9:30)
The problem with the word 'immediately'
There is, however, an apparent contradiction between the account in Acts and the account in Galatians. In Gal 1:16-17 we read "....I did not immediately (εὐθέως) confer with flesh and blood, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me; but I went to Arabia, and returned again to Damascus" (NKJ); and in Acts 9:20 we read, "Immediately (εὐθέως) he preached the Christ in the synagogues, that He is the Son of God" N(KJ).
The construction of the Greek in Gal 1:16-17 is decidedly awkward and many modern English translations link the word 'immediately' in Gal 1:16 with Paul's visit to Arabia. For example, the NEB reads, “I went at once to Arabia.”2 If this view is taken there is a conflict with the two narratives of Paul's travels. How could Paul have “at once” both preached in Damascus and gone off to Arabia?
This potential contradiction is avoided, however, by following a more literal sequence of the Greek in Gal 1:16-17, which the NKJV and The NASB do. 3 By following this interpretation the adverb “immediately” is qualifying Paul’s statements concerning his post-conversion whereabouts. Clearly the point he was making was not that he went immediately to Arabia without doing anything at all in Damascus, but that immediately after his conversion he did not go to Jerusalem or consult with the apostles there.4
It would appear that Paul is countering the charge of his Galatians opponents that he preached a second-hand message that he received from those who were apostles before him. Paul is showing that not only was he called and commissioned by Christ Jesus without any human ordination but that he had engaged in the ministry of preaching prior to ever meeting the other apostles.
Machen contends that even if the word “immediately” is taken as describing Paul’s visit to Arabia as well as his denial of consort with others, this need not imply a contradiction with the narrative in Acts. “The real point of the sentence is to deny that there was a journey to Jerusalem during those early days; it is not to establish the exact moment of the journey to Arabia . . .. When Paul uses the word ‘immediately’ in connection with the journey to Arabia, he is thinking not in terms of days or of hours but of journeys. His journey at that time was not to Jerusalem but to Arabia.” 5
In regard to this apparent contradiction the NAC commentary notes:
Some modern critics have cast aspersion on the historical accuracy of
Luke’s account because he nowhere mentioned Paul’s journey to Arabia.
However, it is important to recognize that both Luke and Paul wrote
their distinctive accounts with a clearly defined purpose in mind.
Neither Acts nor Galatians was intended to be a day-by-day journal of
Paul’s activities; each is a selective account of what Paul said and
did, designed to show, in the case of Acts, his strategic role in the
worldwide mission of the church and, in the case of Galatians, the
divine derivation and independence of his apostolic mission. It is
possible to affirm the total truthfulness and accuracy of the Bible in
everything it describes without assuming that it purports to be
totally exhaustive in every detail.6
Why Acts doesn't mention Paul's trip Arabia?
Another apparent contradiction that is sometimes mentioned is that Acts 9 doesn't mention the trip to Arabia, but an absence of detail is not the same as saying the detail never happened.
In Acts 19:23 we are told that the plot to kill Paul occurred after "many days were past." Paul could certainly have spent up to three years in both Damascus and Arabia in that described period of time. Hendriksen notes "The fact that Luke does not make mention of this trip is not strange. Neither Luke nor Paul is trying to give us a complete biography of Paul."7 The question which needs to be asked is, "How would this detail have furthered the purpose of the writer of Acts?"
Paul's trip to Arabia could not have been the first thing Paul did after his conversion, as the book of Acts says he began to preach immediately (upon his conversion) in Damascus (Acts 9:20). Nor are we given any information in regards to the purpose of the trip to Arabia. I personally favour the idea that it was a preaching trip (but that is mere conjecture on my part, though F. F. Bruce supports it).
Who did Paul see In Jerusalem?
In Acts 9:27 we read "But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus," (NKJ), yet Gal 1:18-19 tells us he met only Peter and James (the brother of Jesus).8
Again, this is only a contradiction if we read Acts 9:27 as referring to all the apostles rather than just some of them who acted as representatives for the whole group. As Kistemaker comments:
Who are those apostles in Jerusalem? Paul himself states that during
his visit to Jerusalem, he saw only Peter and James, the Lord’s
brother, but none of the other apostles (Gal. 1:18–19). James, of
course, does not belong to the Twelve but to the broader circle of
apostles. What does Paul mean when he says that he met only Peter and
James? Paul means to say that Peter was in Jerusalem but all the
others were engaged in giving leadership in “many Christian
communities scattered throughout the country.”44 (Luke’s remark that
Barnabas brought Paul to the apostles is a general statement that
refers to at least two representatives, Peter and James.9
In this writer's opinion there is no difficultly in harmonizing the record of those early years of Saul's (Paul's) post-conversion life in Acts 9 and Galatians 1. Problems occur only when one interprets the texts in a contradictory way. This writer believes the chronology proposed above is supported by the biblical record.
In response to this comment:
@JonathanChell: Unless you can show evidence for this chronology, your
speculation cannot be used to explain this problem. Are you
saying that in spite of Acts 9:20-24 Paul casually went to Arabia
and returned before the Jews decided to try to kill him? That does not
make sense. – Dick Harfield
I must firstly point out that I never implied Paul's trip to Arabia was in any way 'casual.' Indeed, I offered the opinion (with scholarly support) that it was a preaching trip.
Regarding the chronology of the three years spent in Damascus we are not furnished with enough detail to outline properly the exact sequence of events. We do know, however, that:
- Upon Paul's conversion he immediately began to preach in the synogogues in Damascus (Acts 9:20)
- Many days later the Jews plotted to kill him (Acts 9:23)
- The daring escape ended Paul's time in Damascus (Acts 9:25)
- The period from Paul's conversion to the dramatic escape lasted three years (Gal 1:18)
- Within his time there, Paul visited Arabia (Gal 1:17)
- We must place this visit somewhere in the middle of the time in Damascus because we are told that Paul returned to Damascus after his visit to Arabia (Gal 1:17)
So, the trip to Arabia happens during Paul's period in Damascus. In fact this is hinted at in the Acts account. Notice that the plot to kill Paul does not begin straight away (immediately after Paul has confounded all the Jews, Act 9:22) but actually many days later (Acts 9:23). The trip to Arabia presents a logical explanation for that delay. The plots against Paul began upon his return to Damascus, following his time in Arabia.
1 Reymond, p67-68 & Bruce, p81-86
2 See also the GNB, NRSV and JB
3 for a longer discourse on this issue refer to Machen p68-74
4 "Having spent a number of days in Damascus, Paul, instead of going to Jerusalem in order to receive from the other apostles—whom he fully acknowledges as such!—instruction in the contents of the gospel, at once decided not to go there. The words, “I did not at once confer with flesh and blood” do not mean “not at once but later,” but rather “I immediately decided not to confer with flesh and blood”; that is, I decided not to consult mere man, man in all his weakness, over against God the Omnipotent (cf. Matt. 16:17; Heb. 2:14; and see N.T.C. on Eph. 6:12). So, Paul did not at that time go to Jerusalem. Literally he writes, “I did not at once put myself upon those who were apostles before me,” seeking their advice or approval. He knew very well that, having seen the Lord and having already received the gospel and the call to proclaim it from him, he was on fully equal terms with the other apostles. So, instead of going to Jerusalem, he had gone to Arabia!"[Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Galatians (Vol. 8, pp. 55–56). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.] See also Galatiansp 39–40.
5 Machen p70
6George, T. (1994). Galatians (Vol. 30, pp. 123–124). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
7 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of Galatians (Vol. 8, p. 56). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
8 It should be noted that the term 'Apostle' is not limited in use to refer to the eleven apostles and Paul, see for example Acts 14:14 where Barnabas is called an Apostle.
9 Kistemaker, S. J., & Hendriksen, W. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles (Vol. 17, p. 352). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.