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Dating Galatians and Harmonization with Acts

We've gotten to the point where how we date Galatians and where we fit it into the narrative of Acts will affect our interpretation in a significant manner. The first question that we have to address is, which visit to Jerusalem is Paul recounting in Galatians 2:1-10? Is it the famine relief visit of Acts 11:27-30 or the Jerusalem council of Acts 15? First, I think it's worthwhile to point out that it's not all that obvious. Scholars are divided on this issue (even Evangelical scholars).

In favor of the theory of Galatians 2:1-10 referring to the Acts 11 visit are the following:
  1. This visit clearly is prompted by a revelation by the Holy Spirit.
  2. The Acts 15 gathering seems to be a public gathering, where the one described in Galatians is private.
  3. Paul never alludes to a letter sent to the diaspora churches which could have definitively won the case for him.
  4. The issue of food laws was already decided by James. Why would men coming from him in Galatians 2:11-14 be advocating a view stricter than the already existing agreement?
  5. Paul only mentions two visits to Jerusalem. If he visited 3 times why does he omit the visit in Acts 11?
  6. According to Acts 15, false teachers requiring circumcision had already been to Antioch.
In favor of an identification with Acts 15 are these:
  1. Why would Paul be told to remember the poor if he had just dropped off a pile of money for famine relief?
  2. The issue of Gentile circumcision is central in Acts 15 while it never comes up in Acts 11.
  3. There is mention of false teachers who demanded circumcision of Gentiles in Acts 15.
I think that there is one major argument that doesn't get brought up much that disarms one of the main arguments against identifying Galatians 2:1-10 with Acts 15. Romans was written after the Jerusalem council, and that letter shows that the issue of Gentile circumcision was not a dead issue even then, nor was the issue of observance of food laws. Again, while this is a tricky decision, I think it's safer to identify the visit in Acts 15 with Galatians 2:1-10.

This brings up the question of dating. Many scholars opt for an early date on the basis of seeing congruence between Acts 11 (which we can probably date to 48 CE) and Galatians 2. However, I think a later date is more likely on a couple of grounds. First, I would argue that Acts 15 happens 17 years after Paul's conversion, which would put it somewhere in the vicinity of 50-52 CE. Then we need time from there for the events of Galatians 2:11-14 to happen and then for the false teachers to make it to Galatia and for Paul to write the letter. So that would probably put us in the mid 50's. Second, in terms of content, Galatians fits in nicely with 2 Corinthians and Romans, both of which are dated somewhere around 55-57 CE, so it would seem like Galatians would fit well somewhere into that date range.


  1. I'm an early dater, so I'll take up some of your objections. First, with your numbered objections:

    1) I find this objection perplexing for two reasons. First, it makes perfectly good sense for them to remember the poor, even if he did just drop off money. After all, the famine would pose a continuing problem, so if Paul and Barnabas are going to continue travelling, they would be natural people to continue raising money. Second, the later letters mention Paul's collection for the Jerusalem churches, and all of them were written after Acts 11. In other words, Paul continued to collect money even after that first visit.

    2) Why would this issue come up in Luke's account in Acts 11? Luke's concern is not necessarily the same as Paul's concern in Galatians 2. In fact, Luke barely mentions anything that went on when Paul was in Jerusalem during that visit, when surely they must have talked about something other than famine relief.

    3) I'm not sure what you're getting at with this one, so I'll leave it alone.

    As for your point about Romans mentioning circumcision after the Jerusalem Council, I'm not sure what you're trying to say. All that tells us is that circumcision was an issue both before and after the Council. If you clarify what you mean here I may have more to say.

    I still think the non-mention of the Jerusalem Council in Galatians is a decisive bit of evidence for an early date. Paul makes it very clear to the Galatians that he and the leaders in Jerusalem are on the same page. The letter, drafted by the Council (seemingly) led by James and including testimonies from Peter and Paul would seem to be a knock-out argument; it's just hard to imagine Paul wouldn't buttress his case with it.

    As for the similarities between Galatians and Romans, I understand the thought process behind it. But don't we have to acknowledge that this is primarily evidence of similar problems rather than similar dating? That's not an either/or, but still a distinction to keep in mind.

    Anyway, I'll stop for now. For what it's worth, I remember Witherington presenting a convincing case for an early Galatians date in his Acts commentary, but I don't have it near me at the moment.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to engage this question. I think I should have developed some of my argument more fully before posting.

    What it all boils down to is that I don't see any compelling reason to opt for an identification w/ the Acts 11 visit. In Acts 15 we have false teachers who are trying to pressure Gentiles to get circumcised and a decision is made on circumcision among other things (arguments 2 and 3 in favor of Acts 15). Acts 11 doesn't have any of that. Of course it doesn't exclude that possibility that that an agreement is made in Acts 11 that is unreported, but I just see no reason to think that there was when the account in Acts 15 fits reasonably well.

    I actually read Galatians differently on whether or not the leaders are on the same page as Paul at the time Galatians was written. 2:11-14 seems to militate against that understanding. They were on the same page, but some men from James pressured Peter to not act in line with their earlier agreement. Part of Paul's exasperation (though certainly not all of it) is their about face. I think that it's critical that Paul never says that Peter never admitted he was in error because if he had done that it, Paul could bring it out as a decisive trump card.

    You may be right on point number one, but that's not my strongest argument. I don't know if I'd call it perplexing, though. It still seems a little odd to me.

    With my reference to Romans, one think I'm trying to show is why point #3 in favor of Acts 11 isn't as strong a point as it may seem. There still was a lot more confusion on the issue of circumcision and food laws than there should have been if all of this was decided by the Jerusalem council.

    I think you make a helpful distinction between similar problems and a similar date. I think, though, that if all we had to go on was Paul's letters, meaning we don't have Acts, I think that the natural dating we would come to is a later date, near Romans and 2 Corinthians. I'm using this as a bit of corroborating data, not as a primary argument. It doesn't guarantee a late date, but shows that a late date certainly makes a fair amount of sense when just viewing the Pauline corpus.

    Witherington's commentary is one that I'm not using, but I'll check it out to see how he argues.

  3. In my paragraph that starts with 'With my reference to Romans...' needs an extra two sentences at the end:
    The Jerusalem conference didn't settle things as neatly as one would think if we read Acts apart from Paul. Thus, I don't think that we can eliminate that possibility that the Jerusalem conference happened prior to the writing of Galatians.

  4. You said "I just see no reason to think that there was when the account in Acts 15 fits reasonably well." I guess that's my point, I don't think it fits "reasonably well."

    I probably have more to say about this, but I have some teaching to prepare for (Revelation & 1 Corinthians, good stuff). By the way, I think Witherington's best stuff on Acts and Galatians is in his Acts commentary, not his Galatians one. If I remember correctly (and I may not), his Galatians commentary addresses it briefly and says "see my Acts commentary." His Acts commentary is outstanding and worth getting anyway.

  5. I tried as best I could to show why I don't think the argument that silence on the letter drafted by James is an issue in my different reading of 2:11-14 (paragraph in comment starting w/ 'I actually read Galatians differently...'). If they had gone back on their agreement (including a letter) what's the point in bringing up the letter. I can deal with other objections if you'd like, but I'll read Witherington first. Thanks for pointing out that it's his Acts commentary that has that info, that'll save me some time.

    If you want we can resume this at a later time when it's convenient for you (we don't have to though if you're not interested). I've enjoyed the discussion, as always!

  6. Sigh. I can't help myself... =)

    I hear what you're saying. But "if they had gone back on their agreement (including a letter)" then why would Paul even bring up their original agreement in the first place? How would it support his case?

    A couple other points that aren't necessarily decisive factors for the debate, but are nonetheless interesting:

    1) Why did the people "from James" come to Antioch? Were they checking on Peter to make sure he was kosher? Was Peter justified in his worry about their opinion of him, or did he overreact?

    2) Are the people "from James" the same as the "circumcision group" whom Paul goes on to mention (sorry, no reference, don't have a Bible in front of me and I'm too lazy to use biblegateway)?

  7. I should add that I agree with your assessment of Witherington's commentary on Acts, it is excellent. I didn't think to check it, I should have.

    I'll refrain from making further comments tonight to let you get to studying, which is hard because I think you raise good questions.

  8. Fine, you win. Not the debate, of course, but I will get back to studying. =)

    Regarding my question #2, I really would like to hear your thoughts. For some reason, it was quite some time before it occurred to me that there could actually be 2 seperate groups of people. I always thought they were the same, but maybe they aren't. Anyway, since you're the one dedicating time to studying Galatians (is this for a class?), I'll let you figure it out.

  9. It worked out well that I was posting on 2:11-14 as we were having this discussion. Your questions helped and opened up how 2:1-10 and 2:11-14 work together. I nuanced my position a bit since the our earlier discussion:

  10. Ok, time to resume. So I'm studying Galatians for my own sake. I had taken an extended break from studying the Paulines after studying Philippians, Ephesians, 1 Corinthians 1-6 (my study group dissolved) and Romans 1-4 (I ran out of stamina - I've never studied anything so demanding). I wanted to get back to studying Paul because, well, I love Paul!

    As I point out in the post I referenced in my last comment, I don't think that the circumcision and the people from James are the same group. To give a preview of my future post, I think that the circumcision group are non-Christian Jewish who were pressuring the church in Rome over their acceptance of Gentiles sans circumcision and adherence to the food laws. If you have Longenecker, he spends a few pages laying out the possibilities ad loc.

    I think that Witherington does give a strong case for an early date, but I'm still not convinced. First, there's the question of why does Paul omit the visit in Acts 11. I would just say that it wasn't necessary. In chapter 1, Paul is trying to proved the independence of his gospel, but that's proven before we get to chapter 2. Paul has already done a lot of preaching by the time of the Acts 11 visit, so clearly he didn't learn his gospel then. The false teachers weren't trying to prove Paul's subordination/dependence on the apostles on the basis of that visit, thus he was free to omit it. The Acts 15 visit only gets included because it shows how problematic Peter's behavior was in Antioch.

    I do think my interpretation of 2:1-14 minimizes the objection as to why the decision of the council isn't cited.

  11. Now for other points Witherington makes...

    Paul being sent as a representative from Antioch to Jerusalem isn't necessarily at odds with Paul's claim that it was by revelation (though this does admittedly cohere more easily with Acts 11). We don't know what prompted the meeting, but it very well could have been a revelation saying 'send Paul and Barnabas as representative to Jerusalem' which isn't all that different from Paul's and Barnanbas's being sent on mission in Acts 13:1-3

    I think his point that the issue of circumcision is raised after Paul arrives in Jerusalem according to Galatians where it prompts the visit in Acts 15 isn't very strong. We're dealing with a selective account in Galatians and Paul never claims that the issue didn't come up prior to his trip to Jerusalem.

    He has more objections, but I'll broach those later, I have a meeting to go to.

  12. Ok, here's my last response to Witherington's objections.

    I think that his objection that Acts 15 seems to be a public meeting where Paul casts his meeting in Acts 2 to be private is the strongest objection. Martyn actually thinks that there were two meetings, one public and a second one that was private. I'm not inclined to agree with him, but that's a possibility. Given the lack (in my opinion) of evidence to support an identification with Acts 11 I am willing to live with this difficulty. Like I said in the post proper, I don't think either side has a slam dunk case.

    Witherington also has a couple of objections on differences in the presentation of the data. One he notes is that Paul calls the troublemakers false brothers and Luke never impugns their faith. Why couldn't Paul and Luke call them differently? Paul has a bone to pick with them, Luke doesn't. Another is the level of involvement of Paul in the council. This is a little more significant than the previous point, but I also don't think it's inexplicable. I think we have a case of different perspectives on the same story. Does that remove all of the tension, no but it helps reduce it a bit.

    Anyways, that's enough for now. :)

  13. I don't have a ton of time, sorry. Not all of Witherington's points carry equal weight, as he himself admits.

    The single biggest reason why a late date doesn't make sense to me is, as I've been saying, the fact that Paul doesn't mention the letter which would support his case considerably. This is true even if you are correct, that Paul is showing that Peter and James are acting against their previously held principles. If what Paul is trying to demonstrate their hypocrisy, I can't imagine why he wouldn't mention the letter.

    In the end, I can't think of a conceivable reason why the letter wouldn't be mentioned by Paul if he wrote Galatians after the Jerusalem Council. Whatever the case he is trying to make (and identifying his case is not crucial to this particular point), it would be strengthened significantly by appealing to the events recorded in Acts. There is, however, a conceivable reason why didn't refer to the letter- because it hadn't been written yet. =)

  14. I guess I don't think that adding one more verse to the account in 2:1-10 saying that they put the agreement in writing and sent that to all of the other churches adds that much that it would be absolutely necessary. Paul's done enough to justify his outrage. I understand where you're coming from though, this is why I do think that this is a difficult question. How strongly do you weigh the objections to each identification. For me the sparseness of information in Luke's account in Luke 11 scares me away, especially given how absolutely crucial a decision like that would have been.

    I also noticed a slip in an earlier comment I wasn't the church in Rome that was being pressured by non-Christian Jews, it was the church in Jerusalem.

  15. Okay, one last kick to the dead horse.

    Why does Paul only refer to a private conference between he and the Jerusalem leaders? I'm making a separate objection to the "Gal 2 is private, Acts 15 is public" objection, which isn't a nail in the coffin.

    My point is this: if Paul is trying to demonstrate that he and the Jerusalem leaders were in agreement, and they were the ones acting against their principles, it would have been quite easy for him to be refuted. After all, he's only referring to a private conversation. His enemies could have easily stood up and said, "prove it." How could he? It was private.

    Yet, if there were a public declaration from the Jerusalem leaders (Acts 15) that he could have referred to, his case would have irrefutable. As it is, his testimony is unverifiable because no one else was there. Does that make sense?

  16. I think that this is the strongest objection you've raised yet. However, I think that there's at least one good way around it. The false teachers in Galatia either were at the meeting or people associated with them were. In 2:4 he mentions the 'false believers' who were there. While the false teachers were many things, it's hard to imagine that they, the scrupulous would ever contemplate bearing false witness and denying something that they know happened, especially if it led to the public proclamation and letter mentioned in Acts 15. I think that this is reasonable and not special pleading, what think ye?

  17. That sounds like the explanation of someone trying to make it fit. =)

    I wouldn't take 2:4 to indicate the spies were at that private meeting; that interpretation never even occured to me. Do the commentaries see it that way?

    I gotta be honest, bro. I'm just not seeing it. As I said earlier, there is just no conceivable reason for Paul to omit the official declaration from James and the Jerusalem Council if Galatians 2 and Acts 15 refer to the same event. The way I see it, there are 2 options: (1) Galatians 2 = Acts 11, or (2) Galatians 2 = Acts 15 and Paul did not make the best case possible. You can guess which one I'm going with.

    For the record, I think your position is best defended by arguing from the similarities between Galatians and Romans, though I ultimately think it's not a strong enough argument.

  18. Dunn explicitly affirms their presence in the meeting. It's a little harder to gauge Martyn but it looks like he affirms it as well. Longenecker and Fee don't really address that question (perhaps that should be taken as a disagreement with the reading I suggested).

    I hear what you're saying but I'd rewrite it as

    (1) Galatians 2 = Acts 11 and Luke left out some really important information or
    (2) Galatians 2 = Acts 15 and Paul did not make the best case possible but still made a more than adequate case (if my reading of Gal. 2:4 is correct).


  19. (1) is much more preferable.


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