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Porter, Stanley E. The Apostle Paul: His Life, Thought and Letters. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2016. 487 pp. Pb; $40.   Link to Eerdmans

Stanley Porter’s new introduction to Paul is intended as an updated and reworked version of his Early Christianity and Its Sacred Literature (written with Lee Martin McDonald, Hendrickson, 2000). Porter argues for many traditional views in this book, such as Pauline authorship of all thirteen letters of Paul and the unity of the letters. He rejects pseudonymity as an explanation for the Prison and Pastoral epistles. Since the book is intended for use in the classroom, Porter presents alternative views as well. In addition, he more or less rejects the New Perspective on Paul, offering some sharp criticisms of Sanders and Dunn especially in his discussion of the Law (111-121). Porter has one or two ideas in the book which he considers “new territory” in Pauline studies, such as his belief Paul had seen and heard Jesus during his earthly ministry or that Paul himself was the major force behind collecting his letters.

porter-aposlte-paulThe first part of this book includes six chapters dealing with Paul’s life and letters. There are more issues which could be included in this section, but for the most part these are issues Porter has already written on in the past. Each chapter in this section concludes with a bibliography divided into basic and advanced categories.

In his first chapter, Porter describes “Paul the person” (including appearance, upbringing and education, relationship with Rome, occupation, etc.) Porter evaluates what is usually said about Paul’s background and concludes his associate with Gamaliel is highly likely, although he did not progress far in the Greco-Roman educational system. With respect to citizenship. Porter agrees with Bruce Rapske that it is plausible Paul was a citizen of Rome and a devout Jew at the same time.

There are two problems with this view. First, Paul never refers to his citizenship in his letters and second, Roman citizens would have been required to participate in the imperial cult. Porter points out that Roman citizenship did not require participation in Emperor Worship until the second century and Jews may have been given some level of autonomy which allowed them to avoid this practice. He includes a short section on Paul’s conversion. Although Paul’s experience is similar to a prophetic call, the term conversion is “entirely appropriate to describe what happened to Paul” (31, contra the New Perspective).

Porter covers one additional topic in this section which will be more controversial: Did Paul know Jesus? The consensus view is Paul did not meet Jesus nor hear him preach. Porter claims this is an unwarranted assumption based on 2 Corinthians 5:16. Porter points out that Jesus and Paul lived “intertwined parallel lives.” Since Paul was in Jerusalem and studying as a Pharisee under Gamaliel, it would be remarkable if he had not at least heard about Jesus. Second, Porter thinks Acts and Paul’s letters include claims to having heard Jesus teach. For example, in 1 Corinthians 9:1 Paul states “have I not seen the Lord?”

The consensus view is this prefers to the Damascus Road experience, but Porter calls this “sheer assumption” (35). Since the context concerns the other apostles (who had seen Jesus during his lifetime and after the resurrection), it is possible Paul also refers to seeing Jesus in the same way. He also points out Paul refers to “Jesus our Lord” rather than his more typical “Christ Jesus.”  Porter admits each of his points are “slender threads,” but he concludes it is at least plausible Paul heard Jesus teach (38). For the details of this argument, see Porter’s monograph When Paul Met Jesus: How an Idea Got Lost in History (Cambridge, 2016).

The final issue Porter treats in this chapter is the value of the book of Acts for understanding Paul. The traditional view that Luke was a physician who was a close friend and traveling companion of Paul after Acts 16 has been challenged. There are in fact many chronological details in the letters of Paul which are not reflected in the book of Acts (Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians, for example). He presents five common arguments against the idea the writer of Acts knew Paul and provides an answer for each, concluding that the book of Acts “can be used to reconstruct a fairly coherent chronology of Paul’s life” (44). The writer of Acts was not a disciple of Paul, but he does reinforce the picture of Paul drawn from the letters.

In Chapter 2 Porter develops a Pauline chronology using the letters and the book of Acts. For the most part Porter’s chronology of Paul’s life and ministry is more or less traditional, with the exception of his dating of Galatians for the earliest letter of Paul, prior to the conference in Acts 15. He offers a six-point outline of Paul’s career beginning with his conversion in A.D. 33 and ending with his re-imprisonment in 64-65 and execution as late as 67. He places the letters into this outline, several times if there is significant debate over the date (Galatians, for example). This chapter also includes the evidence for several of Paul’s imprisonments, including Ephesus (not mentioned in Acts) and Corinth (“this view has very little to commend it,” 67). Other than a dismissive footnote, Porter does not interact with the recent contribution by Douglas Campbell’s Framing Paul (Eerdmans 2015).

Chapter 3 discusses potential backgrounds to Paul’s thought. He divides the evidence into two sections, Greco-Roman or Jewish. Porter surveys Paul’s Greco-Roman influence beginning with his use of Greek and epistolary style as well as his contact with the larger Hellenistic world. With respect to his Jewish background, Porter discusses Paul’s interpretation of Scripture (clearly more Jewish than Greek). He includes teaching in synagogues in this section, although this method of ministry is not mentioned in the letters. As Porter points out, this may be in part a result of Paul’s short time doing synagogue ministry in each city, and the fact it often ended in disaster (92).

Porter offers a short survey of Pauline theology in Chapter 4. He divide the material into two categories. First, there are a number of fundamental beliefs Paul clearly holds but does not argue. For example, Paul believes in God, although he does not argue for his existence nor is there a sustained theological statement in the letters on what he believes about God. Porter includes Jesus as messiah as well as Jesus as divine in this category as well. A second category is “developed beliefs.” These are theological beliefs which are developed at greater length than the fundamental beliefs and are consequently the subject of more scholarly debate. For example, Porter includes justification and Paul’s view of the Law under this heading and spends significant space discussing the challenge of the New Perspective on Paul on these two important issues. There are short sections on reconciliation, sanctification, salvation, the triumph of God the gospel, the church, and Jesus’s death and resurrection. Although there are some eschatological ideas in the section on God’s triumph and the resurrection, contemporary interest in Paul’s view of the future should result in a more robust section on Paul as an apocalyptic thinker. Some of this material does appear in the section on 1 Thessalonians, although remarkably there is very little on 2 Thessalonians 2.

Chapter 5 deals with Paul as a letter writer, a topic which has become very popular in recent years. Porter therefore briefly comments on the purposes of the letters and the use of amanuenses, but the main section of the chapter is a short introduction to the form of ancient Greek letters as applied to Paul’s epistles. There are similarities, but also important differences. For example, Paul makes use of paraenesis, “concentrated groups of admonishments regarding Christian behavior” (149), although it is difficult to distinguish how these sections relate to the bod of the letters.

Chapter 6 includes two related topics concerning authorship and the Pauline canon. Porter has written on the topic of pseudonymity in other contexts and concludes rather strongly that pseudonymity was not as commonly accepted in the ancient world as is sometimes claimed, and less so among Christian literature. There are examples of “noble lies” in which a writer attempts to deceive their readers by creating a new letter in the voice of an authority such as Paul, but as Porter points out, even a noble lie is still a lie. In this section he interacts with Bart Ehrman (Forgeries and Counterforgeries, Oxford 2013), concluding that his criteria are “highly subjective and ultimately indecisive” (166). For Porter, the real problem with pseudonymity in the New Testament is the implication of deception both in terms of the author and the audience. For example, if 1 Timothy was not written by Paul to Timothy, then the whole situation of the letter is a deception. Therefore Porter finds it more plausible to accept all thirteen letters as coming from Paul.

The second part of this chapter is likely to be more controversial. Rarely does an introduction to Paul’s letters treat the formation of the Pauline canon in any detail. The standard way of explaining the Pauline collection is a slow evolution of the canon over the 150 years since Paul’s death, perhaps with the final collection occurring after a period of lapsed interest in Paul. On the other hand, there are several competing theories concerning an individual who collected the letters, such as Timothy or a “Pauline school.” For Porter, these suggestions are on the right track, but who better than Paul to select the letters to be collected and circulated in his name? Porter supports his assertion by pointing to the common literary practice of retaining a copy of a letter after it was sent. In this view, Paul retained “official” copies of all this letters, from which he selected some for inclusion in a Pauline corpus. This might account for why some letters such as the Corinthian Correspondence are missing. They have been lost during Paul’s travels, or simply not included by Paul’s own decision (although Porter does not suggest this, the “severe letter” to Corinth could have been omitted by Paul since it was no longer relevant after he was reconciled with the church). Porter has worked out an interesting scenario, although it is built largely on assumptions and silence.

The second part of the book consists of six chapters of introductory material for the Pauline letters in chronological order (Galatians, 1-2 Thessalonians, 1-2 Corinthians, Romans, the Prison Epistles, and the Pastoral Epistles). Each chapter covers any unique background issues unique to the letter, then Porter summarizes the contents. For example, the north vs. south Galatia theories, the order to 1-2 Thessalonians, the unity of Romans, etc. Each chapter concludes with a basic bibliography divided into commentaries and monographs.

Conclusion. In the introduction to the book, Porter expresses his initial hope that this book would serve as an up-to-date replacement for F. F. Bruce’s Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, although by the time he finished his book it ended up different than Bruce (xi). To a large extent, Porter’s Paul the Apostle is a worthy successor to Bruce’s classic book on Paul. Although he provides a tenacious defense of many traditional views (such as authorship, continuity with Acts), Porter does not simply repeat standard arguments typically found in Pauline introductions. His presentation of alternative views makes this an ideal textbook for a seminary class on Paul’s letters. But the book is written in a clear style which will make in accessible to pastors, teachers or anyone interested in the “state of Pauline studies” today.


NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Orlando, Robert. Apostle Paul: A Polite Bribe. Eugene Ore.: Cascade Books, 2014. 174 pp. Pb; $23.   Link to Wipf & Stock

A “Polite Bribe” refers to Paul’s collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem. Robert Orlando’s thesis is that Paul needed the approval of Jerusalem in order to continue to preach the Gospel. He therefore agreed to give a gift to the Jerusalem church in exchange for their approval to preach his Gospel to the Gentiles.

Orlando understands one of the main problems for Paul was his continual “battle with this sense of legitimacy as an apostle and as a missionary to the Gentiles” (xxiii). As Polite Bribeevidence for this is the Galatians 2, Paul’s conflict with “men from James” and the subsequent rejection of table fellowship by Barnabas and Peter. Orlando paints a vivid picture of Paul’s Gospel as radical and “counterintuitive” to the majority of early (Jewish) Christians (29).

There does seem to be a deep division between James as a leader of the Jerusalem church, Peter as a missionary along the fringes of Judaism and Paul, who was appointed by Jesus to go directly to the Gentiles. In Acts, Luke does tend to smooth over these divisions in favor of presenting the early church as more united than perhaps it really was. The Antioch Incident (Galatians 2), the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and Paul’s arrest after he returned to Jerusalem with the Collection (Acts 21:17-22:29) are all evidence of a sharp struggle between Paul and other early Christians who considered the Law as required even for Gentiles. This is especially a problem when Jews and Gentiles shared meals and celebrated Communion together.

At the heart of Orlando’s thesis is his assumption Paul needed (or wanted) approval from the original apostles. There are two problems with this assumption. Is there any evidence the original Twelve or James had an interest in appointing additional apostles? When Judas died he was replaced, but this is prior to Pentecost (Acts 1). After James the son of Zebedee is killed in Acts 12, there appears to be no effort to replace him as one of the Twelve. When there is need for leadership among the Hellenistic Jews in Jerusalem, they are told to appoint their own leaders (who are not called apostles, Acts 6). It is not as though the Twelve constitute a governing body for the church who have the authority to authorize preachers of the Gospel.

Second, a fair reading of Galatians 1-2 and 2 Corinthians 10-11 should be enough evidence to indicate Paul was not overly concerned what the Jerusalem church thought of his mission to the Gentiles. He claims an independent apostleship based on his encounter with Jesus. I agree he would have preferred to have the “right hand of fellowship” from Jerusalem, but he does not seem to have ever claimed to be working under the authority of Jerusalem, the Twelve, or James.

Orlando’s most remarkable suggestion that James and the original apostles required a monetary gift in exchange for their approval of Paul as an apostle. He describes this as a kind of Temple Tax imposed on Gentiles to assist the poor, James had his followers in Jerusalem (59). It is true James asked Paul to remember the poor, the very thing Paul was “eager to do “(Gal 2:10). It is even probably the case James understood the “poor” to be his Jerusalem church which was still living in common in anticipation of the return of Christ. But to describe this as a price paid for authorization to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles runs far past what the evidence could prove. Paul does not hurry back to Jerusalem in Acts 20-21 in order to offer a bribe to James, but to arrive on the day of Pentecost with a gift from the Gentile churches. He wants to evoke memories of the Day of Pentecost from Acts 2 when the Spirit of God was first poured out on the Jewish believers. For Paul, the Collection is a first-fruits offering from the Gentiles to those who were followers of Jesus from the beginning.

Orlando is indebted to the old History of Religions view that Paul adapted Greek and Roman myth better present the Gospel to Gentiles. For example, he says on several occasions Paul used the dying and rising god myths from Greek mystery religions (85), stating that Paul need “secret wisdom in order to avoid critique: in the public square. As a result this commitment to Paul’s adoption of Mithraism, he often misses the Jewish foundations of Paul’s theology. One result of the explosion of studies in the tradition of the New Perspective on Paul is an awareness of just how Jewish Paul remained after his so-called conversion. Orlando’s presentation on circumcision, for example, is described in terms of modern practices which were not necessarily present in the first century (metzizah b’peh, for example).

There are several bold assertions which would be hard to support from evidence. Orlando explains Paul’s desire to launch a final journey to Spain, the “end of the known world” as an attempt to “trigger the second coming of Christ” (84). For Orlando, this is in fact Paul’s motivation for dispensing with food laws and circumcision for Gentiles, God was about to “dissolve the distinctions between Jew and Greek in the Kingdom” (37). It would be very difficult to support this assertion from the letters of Paul or the book of Acts, and “dissolving the distinction between Jew and Gentile” is not part of any Second Temple period Jewish expectations for the coming Kingdom! Fourth Ezra, for example, sees no future for Gentiles in the Kingdom at all (nor for most Jews, for that matter).

According to Orlando, Paul was dispatched to Antioch to work as a protégé under Barnabas in Antioch (35), although in Acts Barnabas seeks out Paul because Gentiles are responding to the Gospel in Antioch (Acts 11:25-26). For some reason Orlando omits the mission to Cypress in Acts 13. Luke uses the symbolic miracle, Paul’s blinding of Bar-Jesus, to indicate a shift from Barnabas to Paul. Luke then follows that miracle with a detailed synagogue sermon which presents Paul’s understanding of what God is doing in the present age. Rather than focus on this data, Orlando describes a breach between Paul and Barnabas: “he’d had enough” of Paul and returned to Antioch where he eroded Paul’s relationship with the church (44). It is not Barnabas who leaves Paul, but John Mark. Paul and Barnabas continue as partners through the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and only split when Barnabas insists on restoring John Mark to the ministry team.

Assuming an imprisonment in Ephesus, Orlando asserts Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from prison in a state of despair, “possibly a loss of faith” (93), which he suggests is akin to a “nervous breakdown” (the title of the chapter, although he never quite states his in the text). To describe Paul’s ministry in Ephesus as “two or three years immobilized, probably ‘lying there and rotting’” (93) completely misunderstands how Luke presents Paul in Acts 19. Although Paul may have been imprisoned for a time in Ephesus (and he probably wrote Philippians during that time in prison), he evidently spent at least two years teaching and preaching so that “all Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:9-10). Rather than “lying there are rotting” Paul established churches and trained people to plant additional churches (Epaphras and Colossae, for example).

Orlando is a film-maker and not a New Testament scholar. He tells the story of Paul in narrative fashion with little awareness of scholarship on Luke-Acts or Paul. Often his source for a particularly striking idea is not the text of the New Testament or a published commentary or monograph, but an interview from his film, A Polite Bribe. This would be unacceptable in a scholarly monograph, but since this book is a companion to the film, it is less problematic.

Sometimes his sense of story-telling goes beyond the evidence. He presents his idea of starting the story of the church with Paul rather than the Gospels as a new and groundbreaking idea. This is not exactly news to biblical scholars, especially those who focus on the writing of Paul. For example, Jens Schröter contributed an article to Paul and the Heritage of Israel (LNTS 452; T&T Clark, 2012) on “Paul the Founder of the Church: Reflections and Reception of Paul in the Acts of the Apostle sand the Pastoral Epistles.” Certainly Reformation theology stands on the foundation of Paul and his epistles.

One additional concern: the book seems to breathe the air of conspiracy. This is a byproduct of the presentation of the book as a film, since a documentary which claims to uncover some dark secret suppressed by the Church is likely to be more popular. For example, Paul’s Jewish opponents “hatch a conspiracy against him” in Corinth (73). This was more or less a standard Roman lawsuit and not a “conspiracy.” It was common problem in Roman culture and Paul treats it 1 Corinthians 6. Orlando detects a “shipboard conspiracy” against Paul on the trip to Jerusalem forcing them to return to shore (107). There is not much evidence for this in the text; Orlando does not cite the book of Acts, but rather an interview with Robert Jewett in his film.

Conclusion: A Polite Bribe is an interesting approach to the difficult problem of Paul’s relationship with James and Jerusalem. Orlando should be commended for taking Paul seriously and attempting to get behind the scenes of Acts and the Epistles, although there are many assertions in this book which will not stand up to close scrutiny. His narrative method makes for easy reading, although his non-scholarly approach seems to create some problems which erode the value of his main point.


NB: Thanks to Wipf & Stock for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Factionalism was a problem for the Roman congregations before Paul.  Romans 14:1-15:7 indicates that there are some in Rome who considered food laws important enough to be a matter of contention, while others are not taking the food laws as applicable in Christ.

Romans 14:5-7 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.

This may indicate divisions between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians we have seen already by Acts 15 and Galatians.  Given the small size of congregations and immense population in Rome, it is likely that the churches functioned as islands of believers (to use Lampe’s word), perhaps initially ethnic enclaves.

Assuming that Philippians was written while Paul was in prison in Rome, it is possible to learn several things about the state of Christianity in Rome in the early 60’s.

Philippians 1:12-14 Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. 13As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. 14Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.

Philippians 4:22 All the saints send you greetings, especially those who belong to Caesar’s household.

We know that Paul was influential in the household of Caesar.  He states that the whole palace guard has heard the gospel, presumably from solders converted while they were guarding him.  These guards would have been gentiles converted from paganism, as opposed to Jews converted within the synagogue. This indicates that Paul is continuing his two-part mission, to the Jew first and then to the Gentile.

Divided ChurchThat Paul had success among the Gentiles encouraged the local Roman church to also engage in a similar ministry. As we observed earlier, there was good reason for the Jews to avoid contact with the gentiles based on their expulsion under Claudius in A.D. 49.  Romans seems into indicate that the church in Rome was made up of a series of small house churches (Dunn calls them apartment churches, which is more accurate since the poor did not live in houses!)

There is some evidence in Philippians of factionalism.  Phil. 1:15 says that some people preach the gospel out of “envy and rivalry” and “false motives.” These opponents of Paul try to stir up trouble for Paul while he is in prison, possibly indicating that there are at least some who “preach the gospel,” meaning that Jesus is the Christ, the crucifixion and the resurrection, etc., but they are doing so in a way that is “against Paul.”  This may be personal, but it may also be theological. (Or some combination of the two, of course!)

This may indicate that they disagree with the more radical elements of Paul’s theology, that Gentiles come to Christ apart from the Law, without converting to Judaism.  It may be that these rivals opposed Paul and perhaps even disagreed with the Jerusalem council (or, were ignorant of it; or, did not feel that they ought to be bound by it). That there are Jews who would still oppose Paul in Gentile inclusion may indicate an earlier date for Philippians, or that the issue of Gentile inclusion remained a major sticking point for the early church.

It may be something of a surprise to find that there were some congregations in Rome that were openly hostile to Paul, that seems to be the evidence of the book of Philippians.

There is a bit more evidence of factionalism in 1 Clement.  This letter was written A. D. 95-97 by Clement, a bishop in Rome.  The church of Rome was undergoing persecution when the letter was written (1:1, 7:1) but still felt it important to contact the Corinthian church.  According to tradition, Clement was the third bishop of Rome, although it is not at all clear that there was a single unbroken line of bishops who exerted any kind of authority over all of Roman Christianity before the year A. D. 200.

Clement wrote this letter on behalf of the church of Rome to the church of Corinth for the purpose of advising them on certain church matters.  The letter was considered to have had some level of authority, although we do not know how it was received by the Corinthians.  For our purposes here, 1 Clement 5 is the key text, although Clement returns to Paul in chapter 47.

1 Clement 5:5-7 Because of jealousy and strife Paul by his example pointed out the way to the prize for patient endurance. (6) After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the East and in the West, he won the genuine glory for his faith, (7) having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the West.  Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance. (Translation by Holmes, p. 33.)

While Clement’s evidence is a bit later than Paul’s time, there is at least some evidence of the fact that Paul face opposition in those two years he was in Rome under house arrest.

As soon as Paul arrives in Caesarea, prominent Jews from Jerusalem approach Festus for a “favor,” to release Paul to their custody.  What we know about Festus is generally good, especially when compared to Felix.  He dealt quickly with two separate messianic movements (Antiq. 20.8.10).  Unfortunately, Festus died after less than two years in office (A. D. 61-62) and his replacement Albinius was not an able administrator at all.

Porcius FestusWhen he arrives in Judea, Festus finds himself it a difficult situation politically.  He needs the help of the “ruling Jews” to manage the province of Judea. The elite of Jerusalem included the former high priests and other Herodians.  They were, by and large, interested in power and wealth (as most politicians are). There is a certain irony here, since these men do not represent a very large segment of the population on Judea in the mid first century! They are but one small splinter group of many at the time.  Festus buys very little influence over the people of Judea if he does do this elite group a “favor.”

The language of their request points to a formal alliance.  If Festus expects to have the support of the local elite, then he needs to hand Paul over to them for justice rather than release him.  It is quite remarkable that there is still a plot afoot to assassinate Paul (25:3). It has been two years since Paul’s alleged offense yet there is still a faction which considers him guilty of desecrating the Temple.  While this seems extreme, remember that bringing a Gentile into the court of the (Jewish) men was nearly as bad as the blasphemy committed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  That act of desecration was a major factor in the Maccabean revolt.  These enemies of Paul are burning with the same Zeal for the Law Paul had in Acts 9 when he traveled to Damascus to arrest followers of the Way.

Festus sees that there is nothing about Paul that requires punishment.  In fact, these are not even real accusations being made against Paul!   Paul’s accusers are not present, therefore the very basis of a case against him in Roman law is missing.  This was Paul’s point in his defense before Felix (his accusers are the Asian Jews, who disappear when the action moves to Caesarea).

Luke only briefly comments on Paul’s defense before Festus, although he adds the claim that Paul has neither offended the Temple or Caesar.  This is the first time that Paul has emphasized that he is not guilty of anything under Roman law.  Paul clearly realizes that his only chance at justice is to rely upon his citizenship.

Paul has been transferred to the governor Felix for protection from the Jews.  After five days Ananias, the high priest, along with some elders and lawyers, go to Felix to accuse Paul.

Felix is well known from history as a particular bad governor of Judea.  His full name was likely Marcus Antonius Felix.  He was appointed as governor of Judea about 52 by the emperor Claudius.  Felix and his brother Pallas were freed slaves of Claudius’ mother Antonia.  Both were  favorites of Claudius. a favorite in the court, this lead Felix to believe that he could do as he pleased. That Claudius would appoint freedman to posts such as this was considered unusual by Roman standards (Seutonius, Claud. 28).

Antonius_FelixFelix did indeed have a reputation for cruelty, he suppressed many of the bandits that had risen in Judea, but he did so by extreme violence.  He made a deal with one of the leaders, promising safe passage,  then captured him.  When the Egyptian rallied people in the desert, Felix attack, killing four hundred followers. He used the sicarri, the knife wielding assassins, to take kill Jonathan, the high priest (Antiq. 20.163, JW 2.256).  Jonathan had complained to Rome about Felix, hoping for a better governor.  Like the other Roman governors of Judea, he was anti-Semitic, although this might be better stated that he was Roman-centric.  No one but a citizen of Rome really counted for much in the ancient world!

He was married to Drusilla, the daughter of Herod Agrippa I.   Only six years old when her father died in 44, Julia Drusilla was originally betrothed to Epiphanes, the son of the king of Commagene (between Cappadocia and Syria), on the condition that he convert to Judaism (including circumcision).  When he was unwilling to do so, she was married to Azizus, the Syrian king of Emesa (about A.D. 53) at the age of 14.  She was reputed to be very beautiful, as was her sister Bernice (Agrippa II’s wife), who was jealous of her younger sister.

Felix persuaded Drusilla, then about 20, to leave her husband and marry him. There is no indication that he was forced to be circumcised, perhaps this was her father’s will not her own.   Felix also married the granddaughter of Anthony and Cleopatra (Seutonius, Claud. 28). Felix and Drusilla had a son, Agrippa, who died in 79 in the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius (Antiq. 20.144.), and it is at least possible that Drusilla was with her son at the time.

Felix’ mismanagement of the territory of Judea was one of the biggest factors in the revolution that began in 66.  For all of this he treats Paul fairly and finds nothing which merits punishment — although he is unwilling to challenge the Jewish authorities by simply releasing him.  Like politicians of all ages, Felix simply did nothing and left the matter to his successor, Festus.

Paul GraffitiAfter Paul participated in the vow with the Jewish Christians, Asian Jews stirred up trouble for Paul.  These Jews begin by spreading the common misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching, that he is anti-Jew.  Paul is not anti-Jew in the sense that he wants Jews to stop being Jewish, he wants them to stop relying on the Law for salvation.  To the orthodox Jews, this is worthy of death.  The charge the bring against Paul is that he brought a Gentile into the Temple.  This would be a serious offense, worthy of death (for the Gentile, as well!)  The Jews did not allow women or Gentiles into the central courts of the Temple, believing them to be unclean.

Is this anger credible, or is Luke exaggerating the situation for rhetorical reasons? The evidence seems indicate that there were zealots in Jerusalem in the mid first century who were willing to use violence to guard the sanctity of the Temple.

m.Sanhedrin 9:6 He who stole a sacred vessel [of the cult (Num. 4:7)], and he who curses using the name of an idol, and he who has sexual relations with an Aramaean woman— zealots beat him upon the spot. A priest who performed the rite in a state of uncleanness— his brothers, the priests, do not bring him to court. But the young priests take him outside the courtyard and break his head with clubs. A non-priest who served in the Temple— R. Aqiba says, “[He is put to death] by strangling [Num. 18:7].” And sages say, “[He is put to death] at the hands of Heaven.” (Translation from Neusner)

Philo, Spec.Laws 2.253 And such a man will never entirely escape, for there are innumerable beings looking on, zealots for and keepers of the national laws, of rigid justice, prompt to stone such a criminal, and visiting without pity all such as work wickedness, unless, indeed, we are prepared to say that a man who acts in such a way as to dishonour his father or his mother is worthy of death, but that he who behaves with impiety towards a name more glorious than even the respect due to one’s parents, is to be borne with as but a moderate offender.

Luke points out that the charge is not true, that the Gentile that had been seen with Paul did not enter the temple.  The charge comes from “Jews from the province of Asia,” quite possibly from Ephesus.  They would have been the most likely pilgrims to recognize Trophimus as a Gentile convert and associate of Paul.  These men are never called disciples, so the implication is that they are Jewish pilgrims.

If this is true, there is a hint here that the Jews from Ephesus were anti-Paul and quite willing to stir up trouble for him in Jerusalem.  I have speculated earlier that Paul’s time in Ephesus was more troubled than Luke lets on; this is another bit of evidence in that regard.   Perhaps Paul was in prison on Ephesus after all!

That Diaspora Jews are interested in rioting in the Temple over potential desecration indicates that Diaspora Jews cannot be considered “liberal” on Law.  These are people who are very zealous for the traditions of the Law and the sanctity of the temple and are willing execute Paul for breaking the sanctity of the Temple.  Like Paul before his conversion, the Hellenistic Jews are willing to use force if necessary to defend the Law and the Temple.

The riot in Ephesus (Ats 19:23-41) is an important story in the developing plot-line of Acts, although Paul is not really a part of the story.  We are told that the silversmiths fear the rise of Christianity in Ephesus, Paul’s companions are arrested, and the city manager calms the crowd.  The reader does not know what happens to Paul during and after the riot.

For this reason, some speculate that he was arrested and imprisoned in Ephesus, a time reflected in 1 Cor 15:32, “if I fought the wild beasts in Ephesus…”  The implication is that Paul was forced into some sort of gladiatorial punishment, although the text may refer to his opponents rather than literal animals.  If Paul was in prison in Ephesus, then he may very well have written Philippians, Colossians and Philemon while under arrest, rather than from Rome.  This is all argument from silence and not particularly persuasive, but it does solve some problems with those books.


The main point, however, is that Christianity has made such an impact on the culture of Ephesus that the culture attempts to “fight back.”  At the end of this attack on Paul’s mission in Ephesus, we are told that what Paul preaches is not against Rome nor is it illegal according to Roman Law.  This seems to be a major sub-text in the unit; Luke wants to inform us that the Romans found Christianity compatible with Roman Law.

A second problem addressed by this section of Acts is the “parting of the ways” – when did Christianity become distinct from Judaism?  As far as the Romans are concerned, in Acts 19 Christianity is still the same thing as Judaism.  In Acts 18 the Jews in Corinth argued that Paul was not one of them.  In the riot at Ephesus the crowds do not make a distinction between Alexander (a Jew) and the Christians.  At this point in the development of Christianity, any decision about the Christians may have had an indirect impact on the Jewish community.

Perhaps the most important theme of this incident is the fact that Christianity challenged the greatest pagan cult in the ancient world and was seen as a serious threat to that cult. I think that this is the challenge of the story – how has contemporary Christianity impacted culture?

The answer is (sadly) either “not at all” or as something which secular society mocks and then promptly ignores.

Acts 19-20 portrays Paul as a free man.  After his time in Ephesus Paul will return to Jerusalem to be arrested and eventually travel to Rome as a prisoner.  Witherington comments that Luke intends this unit to be a “lasting model of what a universalistic Christian mission ought to look like.” (Witherington, Acts, 573)

CelsusIt is perhaps strange to think of this as the third missionary journey, since Paul stays in Ephesus for three years. This is Paul’s longest period of settled ministry and perhaps the most fruitful time in his entire career.  Christianity does in fact spread throughout Asia Minor and Ephesus becomes a center for Christianity into the early middle ages.

As is his usual pattern, Paul enters the Synagogue (19:8-9).  As we might expect by this point in Acts, Ephesus had a large Jewish population as well (Josephus, Antiq. 14.225-227, 16.162-168, 172-173).  That Paul meets several important Jewish Christians in Ephesus (Aquila and Priscilla, Apollos, as well as some disciples of John) indicates the importance of Ephesus to the Jews.  The Jewish community dates to the third century B.C., and was the largest in the region. Lamps decorated with menorahs have been found in Ephesus, indicating a large Jewish population.

Paul is able to spend three months in the synagogue arguing persuasively about the kingdom of God. Paul is described as speaking freely, (parrasiazomai), the same verb used to describe Apollos in the synagogue in 18:26 as well as Paul and Barnabas in the synagogue in Psidian Antioch in 13:46.  The word has the idea of freedom, but also boldness, fearlessness, etc.  Paul is not holding anything back in his time in the synagogue. The phrase “kingdom of God” likely refers to a whole range of topics Paul preaches on in synagogues, Jesus as the Christ, that the Christ had to die and rise again, and perhaps even the nature of the kingdom in the present era.

Luke chooses an important word to describe the negative response of the synagogue to Paul’s preaching.  The NIV’s “obstinate” is used in the Septuagint frequently to describe hard-heartedness toward the word of God.  These Jews are acting like their forefathers, a point made also by Stephen in Acts 7.  The word describes a choice not to believe something, but also the fact that this stubbornness leads to a stronger unbelief.  This can be seen in the “hardening” of Pharaoh’s heart in Exodus (or Rom 9:18).  He chose to be stubborn, and then the Lord increased his stubbornness as judgment.

Unlike Paul’s previous experience in Thessalonica, he is able to remain in the city of Ephesus for a long time, perhaps as long as three years.  In fact, Paul’s time in Ephesus might be his most successful ministry described in the book of Acts.

The four letters in which Paul appears to be writing from prison are traditionally assigned to the Roman imprisonment in A. D. 60-62, referred to at the end of the book of Acts.  According to Acts Paul was under house arrest for about 2 years and had considerable freedom while awaiting trial. During this time, according to the traditional view, Paul wrote Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon.

However, there are at least two other possibilities for imprisonments during which Paul could have written these short letters.  There is no reason to take all four of the prison letters as a unit.  For example, it is possible that Philippians was written from Ephesus, while the other three prison letters came from Rome (this is Polhill’s position, for example.)   I will summarize the evidence for each of the imprisonments, there is more to be said than this, but this is enough to orient our thinking for now.

Rome, A.D. 60-62

  • The traditional view assigns the captivity Epistles to Rome.  We know from Acts that Paul was in fact placed under house arrest in Rome for two years (Acts 28:30).
  • “House arrest” means that he was free to proclaim the gospel (Acts 28:16, 17, 23, 31; Eph 6:18-20; Phil 1:12-18; Col 4:2-4).
  • Paul mentions the “palace guard” and the “emperor’s household” in Phil 1:13 and 4:22, implying he is in Rome.
  • Phil 1:19-26; 2:17, 23 imply that he is under the threat of death, which could very well be the outcome in Acts 28.
  • Paul greets Aristarchus in Col 4:10, in Acts 27:2 he accompanied Paul on the journey to Rome.
  • Col 4:14 states that Luke is with Paul, favoring a Roman imprisonment (Acts 28:14, 16).

Ephesus, A.D. 52-55

  • There is no mention in Acts of any imprisonment in Ephesus, though in 2 Cor 6:5 and 11:23 Paul does say that he has often been in prison. Acts records no imprisonment until Philippi (Acts 16:19-40). Where were the others?  One possibility is that these occur before Acts 13, another is that there was an imprisonment in Ephesus which is not recorded in Acts. As Moises Silva says, no one disputes the possibility that Paul was imprisoned during his three years at Ephesus, but that he wrote the letter of philippians from there is another matter (Silva, Philippians (BECNT, Second Edition; 2005, pg. 7)
  • In 1 Cor 15:32 the apostle speaks about fighting wild beasts at Ephesus. That may be a proverb or merely a metaphor. But if taken literally, it could mean that Paul was actually thrown to the lions in the arena.
  • In 2 Cor 1:8-10 Paul alludes to some serious trouble that overtook him in the province of Asia, and in Romans 16:3, 4 he tells us that Priscilla and Aquila risked their lives to save him. We know that the pair were with Paul in Ephesus, and this opens up the possibility that it was here that they protected him.
  • Ephesus is a natural location to send letters to the cities in the Lycus Valley.
  • Ephesus has a large Christian community which would assist Paul writing the letters (Col 4:10, 11).
  • Paul asked Philemon to have a guest room ready for him in Colossae (Philem 22) when he was released implying that he was nearby.
  • Onesimus is more likely to have fled to Ephesus than Rome.

Caesarea, A. D. 58-60

  • While this appears to be the weakest possibility, Paul was in prison in Caesarea under “open arrest” for more than two years.  Like Rome, he likely had enough freedom to produce short letters.
  • He was under house arrest in Herod’s palace (Acts 24:23) and his friends were allowed free access to him.
  • The best arguments for Caesarea require Ephesians, Colossians and Philemon to be written and delivered at the same time.  The runaway slave Onesimus escaped from Colossae to Caesarea (some five hundred miles, rather than to Rome), Paul sent him back to Philemon with that letter along with Tychicus, the bearer of Ephesians and Colossians. If Ephesians was written from Caesarea, Tychicus and Onesimus would have brought the letters of Colossians and Philemon to Colossae first, then he would move on alone to Ephesus.
  • With respect to Philippians, the distance from Caesarea to Philippi is less than to Rome, but not particularly conducive to several trips implied by the letter.

By way of conclusion, a location of Ephesus for Philippians is attractive, although the fact that there is no clear reference to imprisonment in Acts or the other letters  makes this a tentative suggestion at best.   There are are some exegetical reasons for accepting Ephesus as the geographical and chronological origin of the letter to Philippi.  For example, Philippians 3 seems to be an attack on a group of Judaizers, with interests not unlike Galatians.  An earlier date for Philippians helps to explain how the Judaizers can still be active after Acts 15.   What other elements of the letter to the Philippians would be effected by an earlier or later date?

I will come back to these possibilities for Ephesians and Colossians in the next few weeks.

[The audio for this week’s evening service is available at, as is a PDF file of the notes for the service. You should be able to download the audio directly with this link, if you prefer (right-click, save link as….)]

The word “next” in verse 18 indicates that Paul is setting up a time frame for these events.  He does not want the accusation that he is leaving out events.  The visit Paul makes here is to Jerusalem, for a short time, and is by no means a “formal” conference.  This is undoubtedly the event recorded in Acts 9:26-30.

It is stated that he meets with Peter alone, except for James, the brother of Jesus. This is first an indication of Peter’s  leadership of the Jerusalem church at this point.  By Acts 15 he is in less of a position of leadership and James is “more in charge.”  The reference to James may be because it is unclear whether he is an Apostle or not.  Is everyone who saw Jesus resurrected an apostle, or only those with a special commission?

What did they do in this meeting?  The Greek here is clear.  Paul states that he went to Jerusalem to “interview” Peter.  In Hellenistic Greek this is “to make someone’s acquaintance.” He wanted to meet Peter, let him know what was going on, exchange information, but not be instructed or approved in any way!  It is extremely likely that Peter shared with Paul his experience of meeting the resurrected Jesus, and Paul did the same.  It might be during this time that Paul learned of the events he describes in I Cor. 15:3-5 concerning those who had seen Jesus.

Fifteen days would have been plenty of time for Peter to tell him all that he knew of Jesus and his earthly ministry, something that Paul would not have been as familiar with, and that he would have had no other way of learning.  This is a first hand interview by Paul to get the facts of Jesus earthly ministry.  It is clear from this statement that Paul’s first contact with Jerusalem was minimal, with a limited number of the leadership, and was in no way a confirmation of his call or an instructional time.

After his brief visit with Peter, he sets of for Syria and Cilicia.  The word  region here sometimes is “latitudes,” as in a geographic region.  But since this is not a technical document it likely refers to the Roman province of Syria and Cilicia.  This is parallel to Acts 9:30, and 11:25f.  We are told Paul boarded a ship for Tarsus, and later he and Barnabas went to Antioch.  This period was likely similar to his time in Nabatean Arabia, a period of preaching the Gospel.

Paul includes an unusual line in this section: “with God as my witness, I am not lying.”  This a courtroom oath.  Paul is more or less setting himself in a courtroom scene and swearing a legally binding oath that he is telling the truth.

The point of all of this is to prove his statement in Gal 1:11-12 – he did not receive his gospel from any human, but rather from God. If the Galatian churches defect from that gospel, they are in extreme danger because they are rejecting the only Gospel which has its origins in God himself.

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