Did The Author of Acts Make Use Of Paul’s Letters?

Is it actually true that Luke wasn’t a traveling companion of Paul, as some skeptical scholars suggest? These scholars even go as far as suggesting that Acts was concocted in the second century, partially using Paul’s letters as a basis. But hold on a second, let’s take a moment to ponder: do these claims hold any truth at all?

One of the nice things about having both Paul’s letters and a historical account of his activities is that we can compare the points where they intersect. It’s even more valuable because it seems that they were written independently, with very little similarity in wording.

So what should we expect when we examine these materials, assuming they are both grounded in the facts? Ideally, if there is enough material, we should find multiple instances where the documents mention the same people or events. Of course, we shouldn’t expect them to match up perfectly; the letters may contain things that don’t fit into the historical narrative, while the history, following the standards of the time, may organize information conceptually rather than chronologically and may skip over or condense certain incidents. And sometimes, the connections may span across several letters, creating a network of related passages that can’t be easily dismissed as made up.

A great example of this network can be found in Romans 15:25-26. In this passage, we see three interesting points: a collection being taken up in Macedonia, a similar collection in Achaia, and Paul’s plan to travel to Jerusalem to deliver the aid to the saints there. However, when we turn to Acts 20:2-3, where Paul is on his way back to Palestine, there is no mention of the contribution. In a speech before Felix in Acts 24:17-19, Paul mentions bringing alms to his countrymen but doesn’t specify where the funds come from. The connections between these passages are indirect, so there’s no suspicion of copying or fabrication.

To complete the picture, we can look at two other passages from the letters. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, we learn that a contribution was being collected in Corinth, the capital of Achaia, for the Christians in Jerusalem. Still, there’s nothing mentioned about Macedonia. However, when we turn to 2 Corinthians 8:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 9:2, we find that the churches in Macedonia were already involved in collecting for the same purpose.

By bringing together all these circumstances mentioned in Romans 15, we find confirmation in other passages from the book of Acts and the Corinthian letters. Each of these passages provides hints or dates that help us place them in a specific time—toward the end of Paul’s second missionary journey.

Was Paul a Slacker?

Or how about this? Did Paul slack off in Acts 18:2-5? According to the text, he’s seen making tents in Athens to support himself, working diligently six days a week. Then, on the seventh day, he engages in debates with the Jews at the synagogue. However, everything changes when Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia. Suddenly, Paul shifts his focus entirely to preaching the word. This raises a puzzling question: Why wasn’t Paul devoting himself fully from the beginning? After all, he’s not known for half-hearted efforts. The answer lies not in Acts but in 2 Corinthians 11:9. There, Paul reveals that he wouldn’t accept anything from the Corinthian church during his ministry, but the brothers from Macedonia who came to visit supplied his needs. It becomes clear that Paul had to support himself because he lacked other means, but when Silas and Timothy arrived, they brought financial assistance, allowing Paul to dedicate himself entirely to preaching. This unexpected alignment of events is what is called an undesigned coincidence. An undesigned coincidence is an unexpected connection between independent accounts or texts that corroborate and confirm each other, forming a puzzle-like fit.

When exploring the relationship between the book of Acts and the letters of the Apostle Paul, we encounter numerous intriguing “undesigned coincidences” like these that shed light on the independence of Acts from Paul’s letters, and I’ve discussed several examples elsewhere. However, some skeptics find these coincidences to be a little “too good” and argue that the author of Acts must have had access to several of Paul’s letters and cleverly crafted stories around them. Let’s examine several reasons why this argument does not hold up.

1. The Case of Titus:

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, Titus plays a significant role, being mentioned multiple times as Paul’s partner and fellow worker. Surprisingly, the book of Acts does not mention Titus at all. This omission suggests that the author of Acts did not have access to Paul’s letters, as it would be unlikely to exclude such a prominent figure. While not a conclusive argument by itself, this fact highlights the independence of Acts from Paul’s letters.

2. Discrepancies in Paul’s Sufferings:

In 2 Corinthians, Paul provides a detailed account of his sufferings, including beatings with rods and shipwrecks. However, the book of Acts mentions only a subset of these sufferings. For example, Paul mentions being beaten three times with rods, but Acts includes only one such story. Likewise, Paul refers to surviving three shipwrecks, while Acts narrates only one shipwreck, occurring three years after 2 Corinthians was written. If the author of Acts had access to Paul’s letters, we would expect a closer alignment between the two narratives. The divergences in the accounts indicate that Acts was not written based on Paul’s letters.

3. Contrasting Escape Narratives:

A comparison of Paul’s escape from Damascus as described in 2 Corinthians and Acts reveals differences in the details. In 2 Corinthians, King Aretas is mentioned as guarding the city, whereas Acts focuses on the Jews guarding the gates. These contrasting details make it clear that the author of Acts did not simply rely on Paul’s letter to construct the narrative. The independent nature of these accounts strengthens the authenticity of Acts.

Oddly enough, NT scholar Richard Pervo suggests that Luke “transformed” an item from Paul’s correspondence, resulting in an “inversion of fact represented in the appropriation of 2 Corinthians to Acts 9” to support his hypothesis of Luke’s use of Paul’s letters. However, considering the lack of significant verbal agreement and substantial differences between the two passages, it seems more probable that Luke did not utilize 2 Corinthians in this particular instance.

4. Issues Addressed in 1 Corinthians:

The problems addressed in 1 Corinthians, such as marriage, calling, and food offered to idols, are absent in Acts. Additionally, the stance of the Jerusalem council on food offered to idols in Acts appears stricter than what Paul writes later. These discrepancies suggest that the author of Acts did not have access to the specific problems addressed in 1 Corinthians, reinforcing the idea of independence.

5. Contradictions between Acts and Galatians:

Comparing Acts with Galatians reveals apparent contradictions regarding Paul’s early movements. Galatians mentions Paul’s trip to Arabia and his return to Damascus before going to Jerusalem, while Acts omits these details. The alleged discrepancies challenge the hypothesis that the author of Acts used details from Galatians to enhance credibility. The incidental correlation concerning Damascus suggests independent knowledge of Paul’s experiences. To be sure, a span of three years can encompass “many days” so these accounts are not irreconcilable. (Acts 9:23-25) However, if Luke had been drawing his narrative directly from Galatians, he could have ensured a closer alignment between the two accounts.

6. Thessalonian Converts in Acts and 1 Thessalonians:

Acts portrays Paul’s converts in Thessalonica primarily as Jews and devout Greeks, whereas 1 Thessalonians mentions the conversion of idol-worshippers. The absence of idolatrous Gentile converts in Acts and the differences in Paul’s work and extended stay among the Thessalonians indicate that the author of Acts had independent knowledge apart from Paul’s epistles.

7. The Appearance of Casualness and Undesigned Coincidences

Now, let’s take a closer look at the idea that Luke was somehow dependent on Acts when he wrote his letters. But even if that were the case, we can’t just brush off these undesigned coincidences as mere copying. We don’t always need two witnesses who are “crime-scene separated” just to have these interesting coincidences between their statements. Sure, it would be amazing if they were totally independent, but it’s not an absolute requirement. The salient point here is that these accounts fit together in a seemingly casual way, without any obvious intention to corroborate each other. And that provides some solid evidence for their independence.

You know what’s really unlikely? The idea that, using our earlier example, Luke cunningly slipped in the details about the brothers from Macedonia mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11:9, just to make them match up with Paul’s sudden full-time preaching in Acts 18. It’s like he was playing a sneaky game of connect-the-dots. But no, the way these accounts effortlessly come together suggests a genuine connection, rather than some crafty manipulation.

Luke Didn’t Use Paul’s letters

The presence of these undesigned coincidences and apparent discrepancies between Paul’s letters and the book of Acts supports the idea that Acts was written independently, not based on direct knowledge of Paul’s letters. While I think these alleged contradictions can be reasonably harmonized, these show that Luke was not carefully combing through Paul’s letters and drawing up a story. These coincidences reveal that the author of Acts very likely had access to Paul himself, adding credibility to the historical reliability of Acts. Therefore, the argument that Luke was using Paul’s letters to explain away the undesigned coincidences doesn’t really work. The Book of Acts stands as a distinct and valuable historical account of Paul’s ministry.

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