Saturday, 10 October 2015

So when did St Paul persecute the church? (And when did Jesus die?)



Simple question. St Paul said he persecuted the church before his own conversion happened. This was in the first century AD, but when? In the 30s? In the 40s? Later?


On purpose, I’m going to answer with one hand tied behind my back. What I mean is this: I’m not going to use any information in the Book of Acts. None at all. Zilch. Zero. Big fat zero.


I’m going to get my dating purely from first-hand autobiographical eyewitness data from someone who was there, and in his own words, there when Paul was persecuting the church. That person, is of course, Paul himself, the persecutor.


As usual in my blogs, I’m going to rely only on letters that scholars agree were written by Paul himself. I mean secular scholars, Jewish scholars and Christian scholars. And even then, I’m only going to use a few of those authentic letters: Galatians, Corinthians and Romans. That is all I’m giving myself to determine when Paul was persecuting church. (And for good measure, I'll have a go at when Jesus died too.) How will I do?


An independent yardstick


I'll be mentioning a few dates. To measure all the dates against some fixed point in time, I am going to use only two yardsticks, independent yardsticks:



1) the Jewish War with Rome. The war began in 66AD and ended in 70AD. Those are dates that historians on all sides agree on. That is: the siege of Jerusalem began in 66AD; and Jerusalem was destroyed in 70AD. The Romans destroyed the city and the Temple. The destruction was so great that the rabbis upped sticks and left and settled in Galilee. The destruction was so utter that according to archaeologists not even burials happened at Jerusalem afterwards. The city was wrecked, its people slaughtered, others dispersed.



2) King Aretas IV died in 40/41AD. Again, historians are agreed on that.

In some of his  autobiographical letters, Paul describes trips he’s made to Jerusalem after he stopped persecuting the church, or that he was planning to make. The descriptions of these trips leave us in no doubt that they are before 70AD. It's not as if he says, "I met Peter and we were in a war zone!" Only before 70AD were such trips as he describes possible. Indeed, in 1 Corinthians, Paul clearly knows that the temple is still standing, which means he cannot have written this any later than 70AD: 


  • 'Don't you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar?” (1 Corinthians 9:13)



Each time he goes on a trip he has a reason for going. He tells us in his own words the reason for his trips and we start to get an idea of how far apart in time they were from each other. Here are his mentions of the first two:



  • “I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it... [Paul then describes being converted to following Jesus]... I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days... Later I went to Syria and Cilicia.”   (Galatians 1:13-18)


  • Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem ...set before them the gospel I preach among the gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain.”   (Galatians 2:1-2 – So Paul went to get his preaching vetted and approved by the leaders of the Jerusalem church.)




So that was two visits, many years apart, which happened after his conversion. Paul planned a third visit to Jerusalem towards the end of his ministry career:




  • “Now, however, I am on my way to Jerusalem in the service of the saints there. For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.” (Romans: 15:25-26 – Paul says he had been collecting money from his churches for some years to take to Jerusalem, a gift to the Jerusalem church.)



So, there we have three visits and we have some numbers (the mentions of three years and fourteen years). It’s time to get the calculator out.



We can start from 70AD - when Jerusalem got destroyed - and work backwards. But realistically, it makes more sense to start from 66AD and work backwards, because in 66AD the siege of Jerusalem began. The visits above don’t give any impression at all that Paul was making his trips during the siege of Jerusalem.




So counting the years backwards with our numbers: Paul says there were 14 years between two of his visits to Jerusalem. So even if the second visit (Galatians 2:1-2) was as late as 66AD, then that means Paul’s first visit was at least 14 years before 66AD: so that’s 52AD for the first visit at the latest. (See footnote 2 for another way of counting.) Paul's first-hand account says that by the time of that first visit, Paul had already been converted and stopped persecuting the church: that is, by 52AD at the latest.



So 52AD is, to begin with, a terminus ante quem. (Terminus ante quem is the phrase historians use to say that that this is the latest possible date by which something had happened.) So Paul had stopped persecuting the church by 52AD and converted to following Jesus by then.



But actually, we should push it earlier. That’s because that second visit was only Paul’s middle visit to Jerusalem after his conversion. I haven’t fitted in the third visit he planned (Romans 15:25-26).



So there are things that we need to fit in between Paul’s second and third visits to Jerusalem, and these probably took some years. That is, after Paul’s second visit to Jerusalem:





     

  • he goes to Antioch and has a row with Peter there (Gal 2:11-14)

  • he also visits some of his churches around the Mediterranean and collects money to take back to Jerusalem as a gift on his next visit (Romans 15:25-26; 2 Cor 8:1-7)
So, we know the second visit is even earlier than 66AD, otherwise there is no room to fit in Paul planning his third visit before 66AD.



Now, we can push back the time when Paul stopped persecuting the church a bit further still, because there are three years and a bit more to fit in, as Paul said:





  • “I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days... Later I went to Syria and Cilicia... Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem...



(As mentioned, there is an alternative way of counting the 14 years, which I will come to.) 



So far, the data gives us this TIMELINE, starting from earlier events:





     

  • Paul stops persecuting the church


  • time in Arabia (he doesn’t say how long)


  • time in Damascus - three years


  • first visit to Jerusalem – for fifteen days (before 52AD)


  • time in Syria and Cilicia (this place was along the south coast of Asia Minor – its capital was Tarsus) and places where he did missionary work [i] - fourteen years


  • second visit to Jerusalem (before 66AD)


  • time doing missionary work


  • Paul collects money from his churches around the Mediterranean


  • Paul plans a third visit to Jerusalem (no later than 66AD)


  • 66AD the siege of Jerusalem

So, the earlier three years mean we can put a date on when Paul stopped persecuting the church, so, this is the TIMELINE:





     

  • Paul stops persecuting the church - before 49AD [ii]


  • time in Arabia (he doesn’t say how long)


  • time in Damascus - three years


  • first visit to Jerusalem – for fifteen days (before 52AD)


  • time in Syria and Cilicia and places where he did missionary work - fourteen years


  • second visit to Jerusalem (before 66AD)


  • plans for third visit (no later than 66AD)


  • 66AD the siege of Jerusalem


Now realistically, there’s no need to be pushing every single event, including the third visit to Jerusalem, till the last possible moment up to 66AD – that’s just our terminus ante quem. And once we’ve allowed time between the second and third visits to Jerusalem as well, and allowing time for Arabia after his conversion, then it means that the time when Paul was persecuting the church is pushed further back into the 40s.


All our data from Paul so far is from Galatians and Romans, and Corinthians. Now let’s get more datable evidence from Corinthians:


  • “In Damascus the ethnarch (the governor) [iii] under King Aretas had the city of the Damascenes guarded in order to arrest me.” (2 Cor 11:32)


This is where our next independent yardstick comes in: 40/41AD. That's when King Aretas IV, who ruled the Nabateans from 9BC, died. So 41AD is the terminus ante quem. By then, Paul was getting into these scrapes while following Jesus. [iv]


That means, so far, that Paul’s conversion had happened by 41AD at the latest. That means Paul had stopped persecuting the church by 41AD at the latest. That means we have pulled the last possible date when Paul stopped persecuting the church 8 years, from 49AD to 41AD. This is what that does to our timeline:




  • Paul stops persecuting the church – by 41AD


  • time in Arabia (he doesn’t say how long)


  • time between Arabia and his first visit - three years


  • first visit to Jerusalem – for fifteen days (by 44AD at the latest)


  • time in Syria and Cilicia and places where he did missionary work - fourteen years pass (or 11 years if you prefer to include the first 3 years within the 14 years - see footnote 2 - this is the alternative way of counting that I told you about)


  • second visit to Jerusalem - by 58AD (or 55AD if you prefer to include the first 3 years within the 14 years)


  • plans for third visit (no later than 66AD)


  • 66AD the siege of Jerusalem


The answer

To answer the question that started this blog: When did Paul stop persecuting the church? The answer is that Paul had stopped persecuting the church by the 40s, and probably some time earlier. 

We can say this because Paul was there - his first hand eyewitness writings give us dates; and we have independent yardsticks - we know when Jerusalem was destroyed, etc.; so we can compare one with the other in the way. With autobiographical first-hand eyewitness evidence like this, and independent historical markers like this, you can actually reconstruct a lot of early church history.

So putting it all together at last, our overall TIMELINE is as follows:
 
  • Paul persecutes the church (before 41AD, pushing back into the 30s realistically)

  • Paul is converted to following Jesus

  • Paul stops persecuting the church

  • time in Arabia (Paul doesn’t say how long)

  • Paul avoids arrest in Damascus (by 41AD at the very latest)

  • Aretas IV dies (41AD)

  • Paul's time in Damascus - three years

  • first visit to Jerusalem – for fifteen days (by 44AD at the latest)

  • time in Syria and Cilicia and places where he did missionary work - fourteen years

  • second visit to Jerusalem (by 58AD or 55AD)

  • he goes to Antioch and has a row with Peter there (Gal 2:11-14)

  • sometime later, Paul writes his letter to the Galatians, in which he writes about that time period (3 years and 14 years) and describes his row with Peter

  • time doing missionary work

  • he visits some of his churches around the Mediterranean and collects money to take back to Jerusalem as a gift on his next visit (Romans 15:25-26; 2 Cor 8:1-7)

  • Paul plans a third visit to Jerusalem

  • Paul writes Romans and 2 Corinthians in which he talks about his plans for his next visit to Jerusalem (therefore letters written no later than 66AD)

  • 66AD the siege of Jerusalem

  • 70AD the destruction of Jerusalem 
This is useful stuff, as we want to know as much as possible about the people Paul persecuted in the 30s for their faith, and about what they knew about Jesus before Paul got interested in following Jesus. This dating gives us extra confidence about talking about the church Paul persecuted in the 30s.


If you wanted to hone the dates further by looking at data from other sources, such as the Book of Acts, you can of course do that as another exercise.


Footnote: a date for Jesus’ death


Paul gives the Corinthians a bit more information. He tells us us that Jesus had brothers who had wives (1 Corinthians 9:5). As Paul was writing in the 50s, and Jesus' brothers were adults with wives and clearly still alive in the 50s, this means Jesus' life can be dated to the first half of the first century. (And we see that Paul was an adult persecuting the church in the 30s, so this makes Paul and Jesus contemporaries of the first half of the century.)

Paul also tells the Corinthians that he understands that the following things had happened.


Information from Paul as a secondary source:


     
  • Jesus was betrayed and crucified, etc. (1 Cor 11:23, 15:3-7)


Information from Paul as a primary source:




  • followers of Jesus carried on following Jesus, now as churches (Gal 1:13, 22-23)


  • other people were "apostles" before he was, and he names Peter and James (Gal 1:17)


  • other people were, as he says, "in Christ" before he was, and he names Andronicus and Junia (Romans 16:7)


  • Paul persecuted the church (1 Cor 15:9, Gal 1:13)


  • Paul was converted to following Jesus


  • Paul stopped persecuting the church (Gal 1:15-16)


  • Paul went to Arabia (Gal 1:17)


  • Paul went to Damascus (Gal 1:17)


  • Paul avoids arrest in Damascus (by 41AD at the very latest)

Taking all this into account, there is a fair bit to squeeze in, so this pushes the crucifixion of Jesus back into the 30s.


And so, in this exercise all of these results have been calculated based on independent historians' agreed dates (66-70AD and 41AD) and a few autobiographical letters. So putting it all together again with Jesus included, our overall TIMELINE is as follows: 



     

  • by the 30s at the latest, Jesus was betrayed and crucified, etc.


  • followers of Jesus carry on following Jesus, now as churches


  • Paul persecutes the church (before 41AD)


  • Paul is converted to following Jesus


  • Paul stops persecuting the church


  • time in Arabia (Paul doesn’t say how long)


  • Paul avoids arrest in Damascus (by 41AD at the very latest)


  • Aretas IV dies (41AD)


  • Paul's time in Damascus - three years


  • first visit to Jerusalem – for fifteen days (by 44AD at the latest)


  • time in Syria and Cilicia and places where he did missionary work - fourteen years


  • second visit to Jerusalem (by 58AD or 55AD)


  • he goes to Antioch and has a row with Peter there (Gal 2:11-14)


  • sometime later, Paul writes his letter to the Galatians


  • time doing missionary work


  • he visits some of his churches around the Mediterranean and collects money to take back to Jerusalem as a gift on his next visit (Romans 15:25-26; 2 Cor 8:1-7)


  • Paul plans a third visit to Jerusalem


  • Paul writes Romans and 2 Corinthians (no later than 66AD)


  • 66AD the siege of Jerusalem


  • 70AD the destruction of Jerusalem

So that's the timeline. 


Of course, if you want to hone the dates more by using data from other sources, such as the gospels, Acts, Tacitus, etc, you are free to do so! This was just an exercise in getting dates from Paul’s letters to Galatia, Rome and Corinth.




The thing is, historians when putting dates on Paul's story usually do it by comparing it with the Book of Acts. I wanted to do something different, and work backwards from 70AD, a date that is set in stone, so to speak. Q.E.D.









[i] Places where Paul says he did missionary work include Corinth (1 Cor 15:3), Philippi (Philippians 4:9), Thessalonica (1 Thess 2:13), Galatia (Galatians 1:6, 11).

[ii] Many historians would try to fit the three years into the fourteen years, which would mean, so far in this argument, that the first visit to Jerusalem had happened by 52 rather than 49AD as a terminus ante quem. See Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years, page 25-26. Therefore, in this blog I’ve offered both alternative dates where appropriate.


[iii] 41AD: aside from the fact that Paul sees himself as a believer by this time – this is autobiographical and there’s no reason to doubt that Paul knew when he was a believer - there is also an interesting historical puzzle. Aretas IV holding sway, and having an “ethnarch” under him, is attested only by Paul. However, he is our earliest source and our only primary source. Josephus, a later source and a secondary source, is unaware of Aretas IV holding sway there. (As for their being an 'ethnarch' some see an analogous situation in Alexandria in Josephus Ant. Book 14: 7.2, but there are problems with that, as demonstrated by DA Campbell.) DA Campbell suggests Aretas briefly took advantage of political turmoil and weakness in the region and held sway for a year or so, which would solve the problems associated with Paul's understanding of the politics. See Barnett: Paul: Missionary of Jesus, page 82; and Barnett: The Birth of Christianity: The First Twenty Years, page 62; and DA Campbell: “An anchor for Pauline Chronology: Paul’s Flight from ‘The Ethnarch of King Aretas’ (2 Corinthians 11:32-33),” (JBL. 121.2 (2002), 279-302.

[iv] DA Cambell argues for 36/37 being the time when Paul avoided arrest in Damascus - on the basis that this is the window when Aretas IV could plausibly have seized temporary control of Damascus - and on that basis Campbell shifts all the dates another four years. If so, that would mean Paul had ceased to persecute the church by 36/37AD. On a final note, why was Paul under threat in Damascus? Firstly, relations between Jews and Nabateans were bitter because in the 20s Antipas divorced King Aretas’ daughter and remarried Herodias. Secondly, preaching a Jewish messiah to Nabateans was dangerous enough and may have stirred up trouble in the wider region. Thirdly, some say Paul was of the Herodian family which wouldn't have gone down well given that King Aretas' daughter had been spurned in favour of Herodias.

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