Galatians 2 and Acts

[NB: This is based on an excerpt from my upcoming book on Galatians.]

In Galatians 2 Paul reports a meeting in Jerusalem with “the Pillars.” In this meeting he brings along Titus as a test case for Gentile salvation.

With respect to the book of Acts, when does this meeting take place? There are three possibilities. First, “after fourteen years” in 2:1 may refer to the time since Paul’s conversion. Galatians 2:1-10 would therefore refer to the “famine visit” (Acts 11:29-30). Luke tells us that Barnabas and Paul deliver a gift from Antioch to the poor believers in Jerusalem in response to a prophecy from Agabus. Paul says in Galatians he went to Jerusalem because of a revelation (2:1) and he was told to continue to remember the poor (Gal 2:10). “Remembering the poor” in Jerusalem is exactly what the famine relief visit intended to do. A serious problem for this position is Acts 11:29-30 does not mention a meeting with any of the leaders in the Jerusalem church, whether public or private.

Book-of-GalatiansA second possibility is the event takes place “after fourteen years” from the last time reference in Galatians, Paul’s three years in Arabia. This would mean the visit took place seventeen years after his conversion. Galatians 2:1-10 would therefore be Paul’s report of the meeting in Acts 15. This meeting, usually called the “Jerusalem conference,” discussed the relationship of Gentiles and the Law. There are several problems with this view.

In Acts 15, Paul does not go to Jerusalem in response to a revelation. He is responding to some teachers in Antioch who are arguing Gentiles must submit to circumcision. Second, there is no reference to Titus in Acts 15, in fact, Titus is not mentioned at all in Acts. Third, the meeting in Acts 15 seems public: “the apostles and elders gathered.” In Gal 2: 2 Paul specifically states he met privately with those who were “influential.” Fourth, while the issue in both Acts 15 and Gal 2:1-10 is circumcision of Gentile believers, Paul does not refer to the decision of the conference or the letter drafted by James in his letter to the Galatians. The only hint is that Paul was told to continue to remember the poor, but he has already been doing that for some time by Acts 15.

A third possibility is Paul went to Jerusalem on another occasion and met with the leaders of the Jerusalem church. This would mean Gal 2:1-10 does not refer to either Acts 11:29-30 or Acts 15. If it is the case, Paul does not mention the famine visit in the letter. It is possible he did not need to since he did not meet with any leaders at that time. Potentially this could be a problem if his opponents pointed out that Paul had more contact with Jerusalem than he admitted on in his letter.

All things considered, I think the third option is best for understanding this meeting in Gal 2:1-10. At some time prior to Acts 15, perhaps even before his first missionary journey, Paul met with Peter and James in order to establish a precedence for Gentiles who accept Jesus as savior. Paul’s success among the Gentiles created a class of believer who was neither ethnically Jewish nor a convert (or near-convert) to Judaism. At the time of this meeting, Peter and James agree these Gentiles are not converting to a form of Judaism and are therefore not required to keep the Old Covenant.

I realize this is something of a controversial issue – Longenecker and Still simply state the problem and point the reader to more technical discussions in the commentaries (Thinking Through Paul, 92). How does an early date (before the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15) change the way one reads Galatians? Or, alternatively, if the letter was written after Acts 15, how does Paul’s description of the event in Galatians differ from Acts?


10 thoughts on “Galatians 2 and Acts

  1. Typo at the beginning. I am pretty sure you mean Galatians 2, and not Acts 2.

    • Thanks Gene, I have fixed it. That is just about the only line I typed this morning. Which is why I should not try to write before the coffee has taken hold.

  2. Good topic and analysis. I don’t have time to dig in on the various options but will make a couple observations. First, Paul is insistent in Gal. 1 and 2 (as elsewhere) that his knowledge and authority is straight from God. Though, re. “authorization” (as I’m using it, distinct from initiating authority), he acknowledges receiving the “right hand of fellowship” to go to Gentiles (2:7-9). He knew then, and later, that the Jerusalem Apostles had controlling influence. And he DID want a unified mission.

    Second point is that “remembering the poor” was seemingly his ongoing large collection over several years, seen as some by his side of a compromise or even a “bribe”, or at least a quid pro quo in relation to the Jeru. “Council” agreement. On his last journey to Jeru. he would bring a large sum, personally (another major subject).

    Third point is that we shouldn’t find it unusual that Acts and Paul’s own renderings would be in conflict or often left muddled. While Luke seems clearly “Pauline” he had an important agenda which required that he do some clever omitting and “spinning” of the actual full history of what was going on. Not only between Paul and “The Twelve” but also between James and Peter, etc., etc…. the numerous competitions for leadership and arguments over what Jesus had intended and perhaps even what Jesus had taught. Note that Gal. 2:12, 13 clearly implies a rift between Peter and James had occurred. That’s corroborated (between the lines) in various ways in Acts, with some glaring silences (begging for explanation). At least its precursor is also hinted at in the Gospels with all the competition and jockeying portrayed.

    • Thanks Howard. I wonder if “authorization” is the right word, since the church at Jerusalem does not function like a medieval papacy or a modern denomination. On the one hand, they are interested in ensuring the Gospel is preached accurately in new regions (such as the apostolic visits to Samaria in Acts 8 and Antioch in Acts 11). But they do not seem to “authorize” anyone in Antioch, or as far as we know, Damascus. As long as Paul is preaching Christ crucified, resurrected and ascended to the right hand of the father, there is no “authorization” required.

      Paul seems to think he was authorized by the resurrected Jesus and that was enough for him. Maybe I am over-reading Paul, but even if the Jerusalem church offered to “authorize” him, he would see that as secondary to his divine commissioning.

      But you are right, Paul wanted the Jerusalem church to endorse what he was doing, perhaps because he thought bringing in a harvest among the Gentiles would result in the return of the messiah. (Maybe some more on that later!)

      • Sure would be nice if we had a little more detail on just how the very early Jerusalem/Antioch church was structured and governed, wouldn’t it? Given we don’t, I won’t argue that “authorization” may not be the best term. But both Acts and Paul seem to line up that there was some “centralized” decision-making, tho by just whom is not clear throughout the first generation (to the siege/destruction of Jeru.) Probably it was “the Pillars” mainly, tho indications seem to be that James personally consolidated (or was attributed) the key role after a few years… not saying he was power hungry. There DID seem to be some kind of commissioning – of the Hellenists including Stephen, of Paul and Barnabas, etc. (Doesn’t the Didache support this as well, as a pretty early source, tho probably post-70?)

        I guess my main point would be that what we see in modern times and evidenced in 2nd, 3rd century and following history seems to be the case from the very beginning, even “apostolic” times: A lot of very human conjecturing, jockeying, etc. No clarity on key theological points of the day. Rapid (more than today) development of “doctrine” and attempts to keep it in some consistent line (“sound doctrine” and eventually “orthodoxy”, it came to be called). All this left Paul room to be quite creative and he took good advantage of it, always conscious that his efforts could be basically squashed by what I called “controlling influence” of Jerusalem leadership. Of course, all this changed not many years after his death, with the scattering of the Jerusalem group and the attendant disruption throughout followers of the Way and the fast rise of outside-of-Judea (mostly Gentile) Christianity. (I keep mentioning the crucial pivot of 70 AD, as most people, esp. young students, have little if any conception of it…. I don’t think I did either, thru Bible college or even much in seminary.)

  3. In the Ryrie Study Bible on the Epistles it says, “Paul does not mention the decision of the Jerusalem Council which bore directly on his Galatian argument concerning the Judiazers, indicating that the council had not yet taken place” (Ryrie 70). He makes a great point here. If the council had met and decided Paul could have used the decision to back up his arguments. If Paul did write before the counsel met was the council affected by Paul’s letter? What if they had gone in the opposite direction would Paul’s letter still be inspired scripture? I think that by giving this an earlier date maybe Peter had time to think before the decision in Acts 15. Paul says in Gal. 2:11-12 that Peter wasn’t consistent in his treatment of the Gentiles. Because of this call out maybe Peter was convicted of his inconsistency and it affected the councils decision.

      • Sorry I haven’t read the book or even followed the analysis over priority of Gal. (writing) vs. Jerusalem Council. But I’m not sure I see just why it matters in terms of historical fact. Whether Paul references the “Council” decision in Gal. or something else, we know that Acts was written later — almost certainly decades later, not just years.

        (For Phillip or anyone): Am I right in thinking that Gal. being prior to the Council would push the traditional dating (and/or presumed order) of Paul’s letters earlier? If so, how much earlier?

        As to the question about possible influence of Galatians on the Jerusalem leaders, for anyone’s comment, I’m wondering this: How likely is it that a letter by Paul to churches in Galatia would have been recognized as important more broadly, copied and circulated to Jerusalem within what must have been a very short period? Also, does not Acts (around ch. 23?) indicate that only hearsay existed as to what Paul really taught (implying no letters of his had been seen in Jerusalem)?

  4. This topic is one of the issues that is very unclear to scholars. “The dates are important when analyzing the possibility of development and differences in Paul’s thinking and presentation…” (TTP 91). It is also important when trying to figure out who Paul was writing to. Was it southern Galatia, or northern Galatia? It seems that the biggest debate is about whether Paul wrote his letters to Jesus groups in southern Galatia, or northern Galatia. There is no reference to the poor Jesus followers in Jerusalem which would suggest a later date that Paul wrote these. I like what Brandon says in his post. If Paul wrote his letters before the council met, would that have affected what the council decided? Also, vice versa, if Paul met with the council and then wrote the letters, he had a lot to back up his arguments. It makes sense that the letters were written before Acts 15 because of what Paul says in Galatians 2. He talks in the past tense as if these things had taken place, and now he was taking it to the council. “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Gal 2:10).

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