To some, this post is going to seem tedious, unimportant, or possibly more complicated than it needs to be. For me, this was just the beginning of unraveling common misunderstandings or misinterpreted passages in Paul’s letter. When reading commentary about Galatians, I found the common understanding was that this letter was written after the Jerusalem council in Acts 15 and Paul’s reference in the chapter 2 about going to Jerusalem is an account of him challenging the authority of the council, thus breaking away from his old Jewish ways or turning his back on Jewish authority. I find this account wrong, and unsupported in scripture. I spent days flipping between Galatians and Acts comparing the timelines and accounts to figure this out. I believe I have a legitimate and accurate account of Paul’s timeline, and I believe by reading Paul’s letter correctly, we see him submitting to authority rather than challenging or turning his back. This post will flip back and forth a lot between Galatians and Acts.
As a diversion, before I even get started, I learned something interesting while writing that is unrelated to the timeline. If one looks at a traditional map of where Paul travelled, he was always north of Jerusalem, yet in Galatians 1:18 and 2:1 he wrote that he “went up” to Jerusalem and in Acts 9:30 “they brought him down to Caesarea,” which is north of Jerusalem. This confused me until I learned that in Hebrew, when referencing a trip to Jerusalem, the word aliyah is used, which means to go up. Thus, regardless of where you are in relation to Jerusalem, you will always go up or when you leave, go down.
But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not immediately consult with anyone; nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were apostles before me, but I went away into Arabia, and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and remained with him fifteen days. But I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother. (In what I am writing to you, before God, I do not lie!) Then I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. And I was still unknown in person to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only were hearing it said, “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to Destroy.” And they glorified God because of me.
Galatians 1:15-24 (ESV)
Unfortunately the writers of this time did not provide date stamps in their letters. That sure would have made it a lot easier for us! Paul provided a short synopsis of what occurred over about a three-year period. He sawYeshua while traveling to Damascus, spent about 3 years in the area, then traveled to Jerusalem and met with Cephas (Peter) and James, brother of Yeshua.
I compared Paul’s brief account to Luke’s account in the book of Acts.
But Saul increased all the more in strength, and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Christ. When many days had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night in order to kill him, but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket.
Acts 9:22-25 (ESV)
Along with Acts 9:1-21, this corresponds with Paul’s account of spending time in Damascus after his vision.
And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord. And he spoke and disputed against the Hellenists, but they were seeking to kill him. And when the brothers learned this, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.
Acts 9:26-30 (ESV)
While Luke does not provide a time frame of how long Paul was in Damascus until his visit to Jerusalem, in Acts 9:26, I believe this corresponds with Paul’s account in Galatians 1:18, which he wrote after three years. So far, so good. Pretty simple comparison and the timeline accounts correlate.
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain.
Galatians 2:1-2 (ESV)
Keep in mind that Paul is providing a timeline as part of his testimony. He is establishing credibility with the readers of his letter by providing details and names that can be verified by others. With that said, Paul claims that he went to Jerusalem for a few days and met only with Cephas and James. In his next sentence he states “Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem.” He doesn’t provide a record of what he did during those fourteen years, but the way in which he wrote this implies that the next time he went to Jerusalem was fourteen years later. If, in Galatians 2, Paul is referring to his trip to Jerusalem regarding the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council, it seems inconsistent with Luke’s historical and chronological account because Luke mentions Paul going back to Jerusalem between those visits. If we flip back to where we left off in Acts 9, the next time Luke mentions Paul is Acts 11:19-30.
Paul mentions that he went back to Jerusalem “because of a revelation.” What revelation? Is Paul talking about his revelation when he met Yeshua on the road to Damascus? That just doesn’t seem to make sense. Earlier in Acts 9:27, Barnabas already vouches for Paul and retells the story of Paul’s vision of Yeshua. Why, fourteen years later, would Paul feel the need to go back to Jerusalem and explain his revelation?
I believe the revelation that Paul is speaking of is one of two things. Either he is referring to Peter’s vision and subsequent understanding of that vision that salvation is also available to Gentiles (Acts 10 & 11), or, more than likely, he is referring to the prophecy mentioned in Acts 11:28 of Agabus’ vision of a famine because of Paul’s reference to remember the poor in Galatians 2:10.
Now in these 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). So the disciples determined, every one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea. And they did so, sending it to the elders by the hand of Barnabas and Saul.
Acts 11:27-30 (ESV)
Paul is in Antioch at the time Agabus prophesied that a famine was coming, so the disciples took up a collection and sent Paul and Barnabas to deliver it. The next mention in Acts of Paul is the last verse of chapter 12.
And Barnabas and Saul returned from Jerusalem when they had completed their service, bringing with them John, whose other name was Mark.
Acts 12:25 (ESV)
Other than a brief mention that Paul and Barnabas bring a collection, then leave Jerusalem some time later.
Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.
Galatians 2:10 (ESV)
Paul makes a specific mention about remembering the poor, which completely correlates to the account given in Acts 11:30 about going to Jerusalem with a donation because of an impending famine.
My conclusion is that Paul wrote Galatians before the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15.
If you have followed along up to now, here’s the point. When trying to understand some of this, I found a common theme in a lot of commentary that considered Paul’s explanation at the beginning of Galatians chapter 2 as him taking a stand against Judaism and starting the Christian church. Instead of an act of rebellion, I believe Paul was sincerely following Jewish protocol and seeking validation from leadership. Instead of breaking away from his Jewishness, he was embracing it and following protocol.