Some Undesigned Coincidences in the Corinthian Correspondence

In his well-known work, “Horae Paulinae,” William Paley presents a compelling case for the reliability of the book of Acts through a concept he termed “undesigned coincidences.” In this blog post I’ll look at several notable examples between Acts and Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.

Just to jog your memory, 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 puzzle.” (McGrew, Hidden in Plain View, pg. 18) So you might be reading a passage and it raises a question, but then you turn to another account and it casually and subtly explains another passage. You’ll pick up on the concept as we go through some examples.

Crispus, Gaius and Stephanas

One of these coincidences centers on the incidental mentions of lesser-known Christians in the New Testament, such as Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas. In 1 Corinthians 1:14-17, Paul chides the Corinthians for creating divisions based on their party spirit. He writes: “I thank God that I baptized none of you, but Crispus and Gaius; Lest any should say that I had baptized in mine own name. And I baptized also the household of Stephanas: besides, I know not whether I baptized any other. For Christ sent me not to baptize, but to preach the gospel: not with wisdom of words, lest the cross of Christ should be made of none effect.”

In the book of Acts, specifically in Acts 18:8, we learn about Crispus, who held a prominent position as the leader of the Jewish synagogue in Corinth. Luke tells us that he became a devout believer in the Lord, and his entire household shared his faith.

Turning our attention to Romans 16:23, we find Gaius, a noteworthy figure in Corinth. We read that he not only hosted the Apostle Paul during his time in Corinth but also extended his hospitality to the entire church community. Paul’s letter to the Romans was written from Corinth.

Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 16:15-18, we come across the household of Stephanas, described as the “first-fruits of Achaia.” This indicates that they were among the earliest converts in the region. A possible member of the family named or household servant named Epaenetus is also hinted at in one verse in the book of Romans (16:5b) as part of the “first-fruits of Achaia”.

These references to Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas in different parts of Paul’s letters, each with distinct roles and contexts, seem to highlight the authenticity of these individuals. It would be highly unlikely for these names to appear in multiple places by mere chance, especially with their unique roles and associations. This lends credibility to the historical accounts. It’s improbable to suggest that these references were selectively gathered to create an illusion of name consistency, particularly given the various purposes for which these individuals are mentioned. But you might be tempted to think, “Big deal. So what about a handful of names?”

“When Timothy comes”

But wait, it gets better. Remember that Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, written around 52-53 A.D. in Ephesus, which is in modern-day Turkey. We know this because in 1 Corinthians 16:19, Paul mentions Aquila and Priscilla, who he met in Corinth (as seen in Acts 18:1) and who traveled with him to Ephesus (Acts 18:26). Also, he talks about staying in Ephesus until Pentecost in 1 Corinthians 16:8. Now, Corinth is across the Aegean Sea from Ephesus.

Now, check out these two verses from 1 Corinthians:

  1. 1 Corinthians 4:17: “That’s why I sent you Timothy…”
  2. 1 Corinthians 16:10: “When Timothy comes…”

From these verses, it’s clear that Timothy had been sent by the time Paul wrote this, and he expected his letter to reach Corinth before Timothy did. Since Ephesus and Corinth are relatively close by sea, it’s likely that Paul sent his letter directly by boat. Timothy, on the other hand, took a less direct overland route to Corinth, as we learn from Acts 19:21-22, where Paul sends Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia.

But here’s the kicker: Acts doesn’t explicitly mention Corinth as their destination. So, the connection isn’t crystal clear. However, in Acts 20:1-4, we see that Timothy did indeed make it to Corinth, confirming what we inferred from 1 Corinthians. This indirect journey supports the historical accuracy of Acts.

Now, remember that in Acts 19:21-22, Timothy’s travel companion is Erastus. In Romans 16:23, Erastus is called the city treasurer of Corinth, and we know that Paul wrote Romans during his three-month stay in Corinth as implied in Acts 20:2-4. Archaeological evidence, like a pavement slab found in ancient Corinth, even mentions Erastus paying for a pavement. So, it makes sense that Timothy, on his way to Corinth, would travel with someone who we know lived in Corinth.

All about Apollos

But there’s yet another set of interesting connections that start with two quotes from 1 Corinthians regarding the doings of Apollos:

  1. “I follow Paul,” “I follow Apollos,” “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:12) suggests that Apollos had been in Corinth.
  2. “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6) hints that Paul was in Corinth before Apollos.

Now, in the book of Acts, we find details about Paul’s travels and some clues about Apollos. After his first trip to Greece, Paul went to Ephesus, leaving Priscilla and Aquila. He then went back to Palestine, visited Jerusalem, and moved north into Asia Minor (Acts 18:19, 23). Eventually, he returned to Ephesus. During this time, Apollos comes into the picture. He was in Ephesus, learning from Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:26), and then he went to Achaia, where he greatly helped believers through grace by publicly debating a group of Jews that were troubling the Corinthian church. (Acts 18:27) One might say Apollos was the first Apollo-gist. (Sorry, that was a lame pun.) This hints that Apollos might have stopped in Corinth on this trip. Moreover, Paul returned to Ephesus just as Apollos was in Corinth (Acts 19:1).

There’s another interesting link, although a bit indirect, between Acts and what Paul says in his second letter to the Corinthians. Paul asks, “Do we really need letters of recommendation to you, or from you?” It’s a rhetorical question, and he continues by saying, “You guys are our recommendation, written in our hearts, known and read by everyone” (2 Corinthians 3:1-2). Interestingly, the book of Acts helps us understand why Paul uses this language. When Apollos, fresh from his tutoring with Priscilla and Aquila, went to Corinth, “the brothers encouraged him and wrote to the disciples to welcome him” (Acts 18:27).

Was Paul a slacker?

Here’s another example: In Acts 18:1-5, we hear about Paul arriving in Corinth and working with Aquila and Priscilla, who were also tent makers. He’d spend his Sabbaths in the synagogue, talking with Jews and Greeks. But when Silas and Timothy came from Macedonia, Paul shifted his focus to full-time ministry. Why the sudden change? Luke doesn’t tell us, and he might not have known.

But in 2 Corinthians 11:7-9, Paul explains it himself. He mentions that he didn’t burden the Corinthians financially while preaching to them, but he did receive support from other churches. When he was in need, the brothers from Macedonia supplied his needs. This aligns with what we read in Acts and adds a financial dimension not found in Acts. It’s like a subtle, unintentional confirmation of the events.

“You yourselves know…”

But there’s more! Paley offers another compelling reason to believe that Acts is grounded in firsthand accounts. In Acts, we get a clear picture of Paul’s work in Corinth. It tells us that Paul supported himself through manual labor, specifically as a tent maker, alongside Aquila and Priscilla (as found in Acts 18:1-5).

In contrast, when we look at 1 Corinthians 4:11-12, Paul states that he continued working with his own hands “even until the present hour,” meaning up to the time he wrote his letter in Ephesus.

Now, let’s shift our focus to Paul’s activities in Ephesus, as described in Acts chapter 19. There’s no mention of him engaging in manual labor there. However, in Acts 20, we learn that when he returned from Greece, Paul summoned the elders of the Ephesian church to meet him in Miletus. During his address to them, he emphasized, “I have not desired anyone’s wealth, possessions, or clothing. You yourselves know that I worked with my own hands to provide for my own needs and the needs of those with me” (Acts 20:34). It’s crucial to note that he’s speaking directly to the Ephesian church elders when he says, “You yourselves know that I worked with my own hands,” and his entire speech revolves around his conduct during his most recent stay in Ephesus.

This demonstrates that the manual labor Paul engaged in during his time in Corinth continued in Ephesus. Furthermore, he kept up this practice during his specific stay in Ephesus, which was close to the time when he wrote this letter. Consequently, when he composed the letter, he could genuinely claim, “Even until this very hour, we labor, working with our own hands.”

The coherence between these passages is remarkably compelling and feels entirely natural. It seems clear that if Acts had borrowed from the letter, this detail would have been placed within the context of Paul’s activities in Ephesus. The correspondence wouldn’t have relied on such an indirect reference, as we see here, where a later statement refers to something omitted in Acts. Not that there’s any current doubt about the authorship of 1 Corinthians, but Paley also notes that it’s unlikely that a detail not found in the historical account of Paul in Ephesus would be concocted in a letter supposedly authored by him from that very location. Moreover, the reference itself, especially regarding the timing, is too indirect and general to serve any forgery purpose.

“When I came to Troas”

But wait, there’s even more! In 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, we read: “When I came to Troas to preach Christ’s message, and a door was opened unto me of the Lord, I had no rest in my spirit because I found not Titus my brother; but taking my leave of them, I went from thence into Macedonia.”

To link this passage to Acts, we simply assume that Paul followed the same route from Ephesus to Macedonia as he did when traveling from Macedonia back to Ephesus, or more precisely, to Miletus near Ephesus. This means he took the same path for both his journeys to and from the Greek peninsula. At this point, Paul is in Macedonia, having recently arrived from Ephesus. The passage suggests that he made a stop at Troas during his journey. In Acts, however, there are no specific details provided about this particular stop; it merely states, “Paul departed from Ephesus, for to go into Macedonia” (Acts 20:1).

Nonetheless, Acts does recount Paul’s return from Macedonia to Ephesus. It tells us, “Paul sailed from Philippi to Troas; and when the disciples gathered on the first day of the week to break bread, Paul preached to them until midnight; from Troas, he went by land to Assos; from Assos, he took a ship and sailed along the coast of Asia Minor, arriving in Mitylene, and then to Miletus” (Acts 20:6, 13-15). This account offers two crucial pieces of information: first, that Troas was located along the route between Ephesus and Macedonia, and second, that Paul had disciples in Troas.

The letter mentions Paul’s visit to Troas and an opportunity opening up for him during one of his journeys from Ephesus to Macedonia. Acts, in a separate journey between the same locations, notes that Paul made a stop in Troas, where he had disciples and was actively engaged in his ministry with great zeal. The reference in the letter is supported by Acts, even if not explicitly stated. This kind of confirmation is valuable because it appears entirely natural and uncontrived.

The collection for the Jerusalem saints

Let’s step away from Paul’s letters to the Corinthians for just a moment look at a passage in Romans 15:25-26: “In the present, my journey leads to Jerusalem with aid for the saints. For both Macedonia and Achaia have generously offered contributions to support the less fortunate among the saints in Jerusalem.”

Now, in this single passage, we’ve got our eyes on three interesting points:

  • First, a collection effort in Macedonia;
  • Second, a similar initiative in Achaia;
  • and third, Paul’s travel plans to deliver this support to the saints in Jerusalem.

But when we turn to Acts 20:2-3, we discover Paul’s journey back to Palestine, yet there’s not a single word about any contribution. Fast forward to a speech before Felix in Acts 24:17-19, and Paul mentions his mission to bring alms to his fellow countrymen. However, the source of these funds remains undisclosed.

The beauty here is that the connections are so indirect and scattered that there’s no hint of one text copying the other. It all starts to make more sense when we bring two other passages from the letters into the mix. Going back to the Corinthian letters. In 1 Corinthians 16:1-4, we see a collection underway in Corinth, the capital of Achaia, to assist the Jerusalem Christians. Still, there’s nothing mentioned at all about Macedonia. But when we flip to 2 Corinthians 8:1-4 and 2 Corinthians 9:2, we find the Macedonian churches actively involved in the very same cause.

Ah, so every detail in those two verses from Romans is backed by various passages from the Acts of the Apostles and the Corinthians’ epistles. Each of these can be pinned to a specific moment, all converging during the later part of Paul’s second missionary journey.

Given that this convergence is so indirect, and there’s not a whiff of word-for-word similarity, it’s hard to accuse either side of forgery.

Paul’s deep despair explained

Let me give you just one more sampling. The opening of 2 Corinthians reveals yet another connection with the Book of Acts. In Acts 19, Paul is depicted as leaving Ephesus due to an uproar caused by adversaries of the new religion. The tumult is described as follows: “When they heard these sayings,” referring to Demetrius’s complaint about the threat posed by Paul’s ministry to the established worship of the Ephesian goddess, “they were full of wrath, and cried out, saying, Great is Diana of the Ephesians. And the whole city was filled with confusion; and having caught Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s companions in travel, they rushed with one accord into the theatre: And when Paul would have entered in unto the people, the disciples suffered him not; and certain of the chief of Asia, who were his friends, sent unto him, desiring that he would not adventure himself into the theatre. Some, therefore, cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused, and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together. And they drew Alexander out of the multitude, the Jews putting him forward; and Alexander beckoned with his hand, and would have made his defense unto the people; but, when they knew that he was a Jew, all with one voice, about the space of two hours, cried out, Great is Diana of the Ephesians.–And after the uproar was ceased, Paul called unto him the disciples and embraced them, and departed for to go into Macedonia.”

Paul wrote 2 Corinthians in Macedonia, immediately after these events. He starts his epistle as follows: “Blessed be God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our tribulations that we may be able to comfort those who are in any trouble, by the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted of God. For, as the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also abounds by Christ; and whether we are afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings that we also suffer; or whether we are comforted, it is for your consolation and salvation: and our hope of you is steadfast, knowing that, as you are partakers of the sufferings, so shall you be also of the consolation. For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that we despaired even of life: but we had the sentence of death in ourselves, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God, who raises the dead, who delivered us from so great a death, and does deliver; in whom we trust that he will yet deliver us.” (2 Cor 1:3-9)

This passage profoundly reflects the circumstances in which the Book of Acts places Paul at the time when the letter is thought to have been written. It conveys the calm recollection of a mind that has emerged from the chaos of imminent danger and the serious contemplation that follows a recent deliverance. The passage contains just enough detail to link it to the tumult in Ephesus: “We would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble which came to us in Asia.” It doesn’t go further, leaving out any reference to Demetrius, the seizure of Paul’s friends, the intervention of the town clerk, or the nature and cause of the danger Paul faced. It doesn’t even specify the city where this occurred. In short, it provides no details that would raise suspicions of the author borrowing from the Acts narrative (which scholars do not suspect), nor does it imply that the author of Acts sketched out events later filled in by the letter.

While it’s true that the Book of Acts doesn’t explicitly state that Paul’s life was in imminent danger during the uproar in Ephesus, we can reasonably infer that it must have been perilous considering the circumstances: the “whole city was filled with confusion,” the people had “seized his companions,” Paul was determined to “go out among them,” his fellow Christians prevented him, “his friends, certain of the chief of Asia, sent to him, begging him not to venture into the tumult,” and he had to leave immediately, “and when the tumult had ceased, to depart into Macedonia.” All of these details are present in the narrative and support Paul’s own account that he was “pressed out of measure, above strength, insomuch that he despaired even of life,” believing he was under a death sentence.

The author of Acts didn’t use Paul’s letters

Now, a clever biblical critic might suggest that Luke, upon reading 2 Corinthians and learning about Paul’s despair, constructed a highly imaginative narrative involving the goddess Diana, Alexander the blacksmith, and the Ephesian tumult. However, this fanciful fiction idea is fraught with problems.

As we dive further into 2 Corinthians, we notice how prominently Titus is featured. His name pops up several times, especially in chapters 7 and 8. In 2 Corinthians 8:23, Paul calls him “my partner and fellow worker for your benefit.” What’s intriguing is that the book of Acts doesn’t mention Titus at all. If someone were making up these accounts, they would probably make more of this material. In genuine historical documents, it’s not unusual to leave out people or events that might seem crucial to us.

Now, let’s look at Paul’s account of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:24-25. He mentions, “Three times I was beaten with rods,” but in the Acts narrative, only one of these incidents is described (Acts 16:22). He also says, “Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea,” which sounds like a perfect opportunity for dramatic stories. Yet none of these three shipwrecks is documented in Acts. The one recorded disastrous voyage (Acts 27) happens years after this letter was written.

Moving on, there’s the account of Paul’s escape from Damascus in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 compared to the account in Acts 9:23-25. While the core events are the same, there are differences that make it clear the history wasn’t based on the letter. In 2 Corinthians, Paul mentions that Aretas had the city guarded, but we don’t know who did the guarding. In Acts, we learn that the Jews kept watch at the gates for Paul, probably with the ethnarch’s permission. However, Aretas isn’t named. Although these statements can be reconciled, it’s tough to believe that the author of Acts constructed his history based on the letter.

This independence also shows up in 1 Corinthians. The issues the Corinthian church wrote to Paul about—concerns related to marriage, calling, unmarried individuals, and food offered to idols—prompt his responses in 1 Corinthians 7 and 8. However, when we flip to the book of Acts, there’s no sign of these problems in Corinth. Even the topic of food offered to idols only gets briefly touched upon during the Jerusalem council, where they seem to impose stricter rules than Paul, who wrote after this event, recommends (Acts 15:20).

All these instances provide evidence that the Acts narrative was put together independently of these letters. The various coincidences between them, some of which we’ve explored here, are genuinely undesigned. This emphasizes their reliability and trustworthiness.

I’ve noticed that skeptics, often biblical critics too, scrutinize every biblical author as if they’re sneakily playing the role of a literary trickster, subtly embedding hints of truth within their work that elude most readers. While you’d think they would dismiss this notion as highly unlikely, these clever critics argue that they all exist within the same “narrative universe.” So they come up with ad hoc explanations like “fan theory” and literary dependence to brush aside these seemingly casual connections in an author’s work. I’ve even heard some suggest when the author of Acts contradicts Paul, it’s deliberate! I mean, that’s one way to avoid confronting the evidence right in front of you, but it seems to me that it comes with a hefty intellectual price tag. What is it that the critics find so difficult to accept about the idea that Acts was written as a travelogue of the Apostle Paul?

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