Undesigned Coincidences: Sneaky Good Evidence That Luke traveled with Paul

New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman claims that Luke wasn’t really a traveling companion of Paul. In his book Forged, Ehrman writes: “(The author of Acts) is simply claiming to be a traveling companion of Paul’s and therefore unusually well suited to give a “true” account of Paul’s message and mission. But he almost certainly was not a companion of Paul’s. On the one hand, he was writing long after Paul and his companions were dead. Scholars usually date Acts to around 85 CE or so, over two decades after Paul’s death. On the other hand, he seems to be far too poorly informed about Paul’s…missionary activities to have been someone with firsthand knowledge.” 

In a previous blog post I demonstrated that the author of Acts gets a ridiculous amount of facts right regarding local places, titles, names, environmental conditions, customs and circumstances that only an eyewitness contemporary of the time and events could possibly know. 

For someone who was writing long after Paul was dead this would’ve been a hard thing to do. In this post, I want to talk about another line of evidence: undesigned coincidences. There simply are a ton of undesigned coincidences between Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts.

As a reminder, an undesigned coincidence is a notable connection between two or more accounts or texts that doesn’t seem to have been planned by the person or people giving the accounts. Despite their apparent independence, the items fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. This phenomenon of undesigned coincidences between Acts and the letters of Paul – that is the casual interlockings between the sources that are best explained by the truth of the narrative in Acts and that the author was very well-informed of Paul’s activities, contra Ehrman.

These undesigned coincidence are centered around the Paul’s friends and people Luke probably got to know himself. Let’s start with Paul’s friend Apollos.

Undesigned coincidences and Apollos

The cluster of coincidences begins with two quotes from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.” (1 Corinthians 1:12)
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow. (1 Corinthians 3:6)

Both of these verses suggest that Apollos had been in Corinth. The second verse also suggests that Paul had been to Corinth first. In Acts we find out about Paul’s travels in detail, as well as a few comments about Apollos’ life that confirm these conclusions. 

Let’s take a look. Acts tells us that after his first visit to Greece, Paul went from Corinth to Ephesus, where he left his friends Priscilla and Aquila. (More about this couple in just a minute.) Paul then returned to Judea, stopped in Jerusalem, and then headed up north into Asia Minor before eventually making his way back to Ephesus. (See Acts 18:19 and 23.) It’s during these later travels that Apollos comes onto the scene. Acts 18:26 tells us that he’s taught in Ephesus by Priscilla and Aquila and then went on from them over to Achaia. There he “was a great help to those who by grace had believed” because he squared off with some Jews in public debate over Jesus’ messiahship. (Acts 18:27-28) So Apollos seems to be one of the first Apollo-gists. OK. That was a lame pun. 

From this alone, we can reasonably infer that Apollos traveled to Corinth on this trip. However, we don’t have to stop there, because Paul traveled back from Corinth at the same time that Apollos went there, just as Acts 19:1 tells us. The verse starts off by saying While Apollos was at Corinth”…That’s interesting and coincides quite nicely with 1 Corinthians. 

You might think “that’s neato, but so what?” Hang on with me for just a second. There’s more to this coincidence which is just as indirect. This is between this passage about Apollos we read in Acts and a phrase Paul uses in 2 Corinthians 3:1-2, which reads:

 “Or do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone.” 

OK. So why is Paul getting a little testy here? What’s this ‘letters of recommendation’ business all about?

Acts fills in the details for us. We read that after being instructed by Priscilla and Aquila, Apollos made his own journey to Corinth, “the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples there to welcome him” (Acts 18:27). Ah, so that’s where Paul is getting this from. Apollos came carrying letters that he was legit. As a wonder-working apostle who founded their church, Paul sarcastically reminded them that he doesn’t need such a thing. 

Priscilla and Aquila: The power couple

But there’s more. Let’s talk now about Priscilla and Aquila, the couple that helped Apollos. Consider this passing reference in Romans 16:3-4:

“Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus. They risked their lives for me. Not only I but all the churches of the Gentiles are grateful to them.”

Well, that’s certainly very nice of Paul to say. But you might say “Paul says hello to a couple. Big whoop.” However there’s more to this greeting than meets the eye. For starters, the fact that this greeting shows up in a letter to the Roman church suggests that Priscilla and Aquila are from Rome. Now turn to Acts 18:2. There we read that Paul “met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome.” So Priscilla and Aquila were originally living in Rome, and probably had only recently come back once the expulsion under Claudius stopped being enforced. This is one part of the coincidence.

Paul also calls them “co-workers in Christ Jesus.” How did they get such a gold star from Paul? Again going back to Acts 18, we find that Paul stayed with them (in verse 3), and when he left, they went with him (in verse 18). From this we might safely assume that they were co-workers with him, however only Paul’s greeting in Romans makes this fact explicit. 

Furthemore, Paul says that they “risked their lives” for his sake. How exactly did they risk their necks? Go read Acts 18:12-17. There we find that Paul is dragged before a tribunal and Sosthenes is beaten by an angry mob. If Aquila and Priscilla were Paul’s fellow workers in Corinth, they obviously were also exposed to similar danger. 

Finally, Paul indicates that the churches of the Gentiles give thanks for them. Given the themes of the entire letter, this singling out of the Gentiles seems to have some sort of extra special meaning. And going back to Acts 18:2, we find that Aquila was a Jew and expelled from Rome. This is when the emperor Claudius, sick of the riots in the Jewish quarter, decided to give the Jews the boot. The Roman historian Seutonius tells us that this had something to do with a fellow named “Chrestus.” Most historians assume that the disturbances were due to the spread of Christianity in Rome.

Yet Priscilla and Aquila were working with Paul, who in this same city said that he was turning from the Jews to focus on the Gentiles. (18:6) From then on in verses 5-11 we find that Paul carried out a highly effective mission to them. Though they were Jews, Priscilla and Aquila were all-in with Paul in the Gentile mission. Ah, so that’s how they earned the gratitude of the Gentile churches. These multiple interlockings are so subtle and indirect and yet these details fit together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Fictional stories and forgeries don’t look like this.  

But wait! There’s even more going on here with Priscilla and Aquila! Let’s look at another example from Acts 18. In verses 1-5, we read about Paul’s arrival in Corinth:

 “After this, Paul left Athens and went to Corinth. There he met a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome. Paul went to see them, and because he was a tentmaker as they were, he stayed and worked with them. Every Sabbath he reasoned in the synagogue, trying to persuade Jews and Greeks. When Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul devoted himself exclusively to preaching, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah.”

So here we find out that Paul worked as a tentmaker with Aquila and Priscilla, and on the Sabbath he’d reason with the Jews in the synagogue. This is interesting in itself because Paul often wrote that he’d work with his own hands to support himself, but we never find out what his trade was just from his letters. But when Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, apparently Paul quit making tents and was out preaching full time. What caused this sudden change? Luke doesn’t tell us and may not even have known the reason. But when we turn over to 2 Corinthians 11:7-9, we find out what happened. Paul writes:

“Was it a sin for me to lower myself in order to elevate you by preaching the gospel of God to you free of charge? I robbed other churches by receiving support from them so as to serve you. And when I was with you and needed something, I was not a burden to anyone, for the brothers who came from Macedonia supplied what I needed. I have kept myself from being a burden to you in any way, and will continue to do so.”

Ah, he now had the funds to give himself to the Gospel full-time thanks to some kindly patrons from Macedonia. And we know which church sent him the gift from his letter to the Philippians. Paul, in a casual and subtle kind of way, corroborates yet another detail from Acts. Notice how artless that the book of Acts interlocks with Paul’s letters to the Corinthians and the Romans. 

Paul’s protege Timothy

Let’s take a look at a couple of more examples with Paul’s friend Timothy. We know Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus because Paul sends greetings from the aforementioned Aquilla and Priscilla in 1 Corinthians 16:19. Remember we said that Paul met them in Corinth (Acts 18:1) and that they went with Paul as far as Ephesus (Acts 18:26). Paul also says that he intends to “stay in Ephesus until Pentecost” (1 Cor 16:8). Corinth, the capital of Achaia, was on the other side of the Aegean sea from Ephesus.

Now take a look at these two verses from 1 Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 4:17 we read: “For this reason I have sent to you Timothy…” And in 1 Corinthians 16:10, we read, “When Timothy comes…” From those two incidental texts, it’s clear that Timothy had already been sent by the time of Paul’s writing, but that Paul expected his letter to arrive before Timothy got to Corinth. Given that Ephesus is directly across the Aegean Sea from Achaia (where Corinth is), we’d presume Paul would’ve sent his letter directly by boat from Ephesus to Corinth. Therefore we can infer that Timothy must’ve taken some indirect route to Corinth, through Troas and Macedonia.

When we flip over to Acts 19:21-22, which concerns Paul’s stay in Ephesus, that’s exactly what happened. We read there that Timothy did in fact take such an indirect overland route to Corinth from Ephesus.

But enough about travels. Let’s talk about some details about Timothy himself. In 2 Timothy 1:5, Paul says:

 “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you as well.”

2 Timothy 3:15 gives us some more details about Timothy’s upbringing:

 “and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” 

So Timothy was steeped in the Jewish scriptures and in the faith. These details perfectly dovetail with what we read in Acts 16:1-3:

“Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothers at Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.”

In Acts, we learned Timothy’s father was Greek and apparently drew the line at circumcision, but his mother was a Jewish convert to Christianity. That’s why he would’ve been familiar with the scriptures since he was a child. 2 Timothy mentions his grandmother but not his father. Neither group of details seems to be at all in connection with the other. 

Co-working cousins: Barnabas and Mark

Let’s finish up by looking at one more involving two more friends of Paul. In Acts 15:36-40 we read:

Some time later Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us go back and visit the believers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.” Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left, commended by the believers to the grace of the Lord.

This was quite the tiff. So why was Barnabas so eager to bring Mark along even though Mark ditched them in Pamphylia? Luke doesn’t give us a clue. But when we flip over to Colossians 4:10, we have our answer:

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas.”

So in Colossians Paul explains the reason for the fight between Paul and Barnabas over Mark. Obviously Paul didn’t add this reference to Mark being Barnabas’s cousin so he could explain Acts, because in Colossians there’s no indication of there having been any falling out involving Mark. By the time Paul wrote to the Colossians, they seem to have settled their differences. Nor is Luke in Acts adding his narration of the conflict based on Colossians, because he makes no mention of Mark being Barnabas’ cousin, a detail which would’ve been natural to include.

Luke traveled with Paul

There are not just a small amount of these undesigned coincidences. I could definitely keep going. We can’t just shrug them off as statistical noise. I’ve just given you the tip of the iceberg here. In his book Horae Paulinae, William Paley has dozens of examples of how Acts interlocks with Paul’s letters in undesigned ways, and you can pick up a digital copy of his book for free here. It’s public domain.

These undesigned coincidences just can’t be the result of Luke being very sneaky, copying from Paul’s letters and cobbling a story together. In fact, critics say that Paul’s letters and Acts contradict each other. (Which they don’t, as I’ve written about here.) These artless dovetailings show that Luke was very likely a traveling companion of Paul, or at the very least Luke had reliable access to information concerning Paul’s travels, which suggests he was personally acquainted with Paul.

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