Some Undesigned Coincidences in the Thessalonian 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 of undesigned coincidences between Acts and Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians.

Just to remind you, 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.

Shamefully treated at Philippi

First, in the book of Acts, Paul and Silas were badly beaten, thrown in jail, and then set free. They then went to Thessalonica, where Paul talked about Jesus being the Christ (Acts 16:23-24, 17:1). In the letter, which was written by Paul, Silas (also called Silvanus), and Timothy, they mention how they bravely shared the gospel with the Thessalonians, even though they had been treated “shamefully” in Philippi earlier (1 Thessalonians 2:2).

Acts further tells us that, during their stay in Thessalonica, unbelieving Jews stirred up trouble and attempted to bring Paul and Silas out to the people (Acts 17:5). The epistle echoes this by saying that they had warned the Thessalonians of the tribulations they would face, which indeed happened (1 Thessalonians 3:4).

After their time in Thessalonica, Acts mentions Paul, Silas, and Timothy being together in Corinth (Acts 18:5). The epistle, authored by these three individuals from Corinth, consistently refers to their recent ministry in Thessalonica. (1 Thessalonians 1:1)

Who caused the uproar in Thessalonica?

In 1 Thessalonians 2:14, Paul talks to the Thessalonian Christians about the persecution they faced. At first, when you read the Acts of the Apostles, it might seem like early Christians were mainly persecuted by the Jews. But if we look closer at the accounts in Acts, it’s a little more complicated than that.

While the initial opposition to the gospel often came from the Jewish community, they often tried to get the Gentiles to turn against their fellow Jews who had converted. Outside of Judea, they didn’t have the power to cause much harm in any other way. This pattern is clear in different places, including Thessalonica, where the Jews who didn’t believe got jealous and caused trouble in the city (Acts 17:5) and harassed Jason, one of the Thessalonian believers. Similar things happened soon after in Berea, where the Jews from Thessalonica found out that Paul was preaching and riled up the people (Acts 17:13). The apostle Paul had faced similar persecution while traveling through Asia Minor, where unbelieving Jews stirred up non-Jews against the Christian believers (Acts 14:2).

In this context, the letter accurately reflects the situation as described in Acts. The Jews were consistently the instigators of persecution against the apostles and their followers. Therefore, the statement in the epistle, “they both killed the Lord Jesus and their own prophets, and have persecuted us—forbidding us to speak unto the Gentiles” (2:15-17), is accurate. However, outside Judea, it was often their fellow countrymen (Gentiles) who immediately carried out the persecutions: “You have suffered like things of your own countrymen, even as they have of the Jews” (2:14).

Paul alone in Athens

In Acts 17, we learn that Paul’s ministry in Thessalonica was disrupted by a group of Jews who caused trouble for him and Silas. As a result, as already mentioned above, they had to leave in a hurry and went to Berea (Acts 17:10). It’s mentioned that when the Jews from Thessalonica heard that Paul was preaching in Berea, they went there as well, stirring up the crowds (Acts 17:13). This forced Paul to quickly head to Athens, leaving Silas and Timothy behind (Acts 17:14).

The interesting part is that there is no clear explanation in Acts as to why Paul had to separate from Silas and Timothy during this time. However, 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5 sheds light on the situation. In his letter to the Thessalonians, Paul explains:

“When we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.”

So, in this context, Timothy was sent by Paul to go back to Thessalonica and check on how the Christians there were doing. After that, Timothy would report back to Paul in Athens. This explanation clarifies what might seem like a puzzling situation in Acts, and it aligns with the accounts provided in both Acts and 1 Thessalonians. In Acts 18:5 we see Timothy and Silas reunited with Paul in Corinth.

However, Acts doesn’t directly mention Timothy’s arrival in Athens, which seems important given the part in the letter where Paul talks about being alone in Athens and sending Timothy to the Thessalonians. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman thinks this is a major strike against the historical reliability of Acts. He writes:

Luke again appears to have gotten some details wrong. When Paul writes his very first letter to the Thessalonians, he indicates that after he had brought them to faith and started a church among them, he traveled to Athens. But he felt concerned about the fledgling new church and so sent his companion Timothy back to see how the Thessalonians were doing. In other words, Timothy accompanied Paul to Athens and then returned to Thessalonica to help build them up in the faith (1 Thessalonians 3:1–2). The book of Acts, however, is equally clear. There we are told that after Paul established the church in Thessalonica, he and Silas and Timothy founded a church in the city of Boroea; the Christians there then “sent Paul away to the coast, but Silas and Timothy remained behind” (17:14–15). Paul proceeded to send instructions that Silas and Timothy should meet up with him when they could. He traveled to Athens alone and met up with his two companions only after leaving the city for Corinth (17:16–8:5). This is another discrepancy hard to resolve: either Timothy went to Athens with Paul (1 Thessalonians), or not (Acts).

Jesus Interrupted – Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible And Why We Don’t Know About Them, Bart D. Ehrman, pg. 57

Here’s how we can possibly reconcile this:

  1. Paul leaves Silas and Timothy in Berea when he goes to Athens (Acts 17:14-16).
  2. Most likely, Silas and Timothy join him in Athens.
  3. Then, Paul sends Timothy to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2).
  4. Paul very probably have also sent Silas to Thessalonica or elsewhere in Macedonia.
  5. After Athens, Paul goes to Corinth (Acts 18:1).
  6. In Corinth, Timothy and Silas join Paul on their way back from Macedonia (Acts 18:5, 1 Thessalonians 3:6).
  7. From Corinth, Paul writes to the Thessalonian Christians.

This reconstruction is a reasonable explanation for the apparent differences between the two sources. Paul doesn’t tell us how he arrived in Athens; all these verses say is that Timothy was with him in Athens at some point. It also suggests that Paul was in Athens for some time before he sent Timothy back. That’s why he writes, “when we could bear it no longer.” Acts explicitly says that a message was sent back, pleading for Timothy to join Paul ASAP. According to 1 Thessalonians 3, it looks like Timothy was in Athens subsequently afterward.

Acts does not mention Timothy coming to Paul in Athens to respond to Paul’s request. Later in Acts 18:5, Timothy comes from Macedonia to Paul in Corinth. So even in Acts, there’s a gap in the chronology. We can fill in this gap by supposing that Timothy did visit Paul in Athens and later returned to Macedonia, from where he rejoined him in Corinth. 1 Thessalonians 3 describes exactly such an errand. Not only do these two passages not contradict each other, they also perfectly interlock in an incidental way that clearly wasn’t designed.

But there’s more details that correspond with this errand of Silas and Timothy: 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 (and Thessalonica is in 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 the missing dimension not found in Acts that explains why Paul could afford to preach full time. It’s a subtle, unintentional confirmation of the events.

The author of Acts didn’t use 1 Thessalonians

There are some apparent differences between 1 Thessalonians and Acts, but they aren’t numerous or too difficult to explain.

  • In 1 Thessalonians 2:9-10, it seems like Paul spent a long time in Thessalonica. However, the history in Acts 17 doesn’t give a detailed account of Paul’s time there, only mentioning that he went to the synagogue for three sabbath days and then had to leave due to trouble with the Jews. But Paul’s letters don’t necessarily strictly require us to think he was there for a long time, this attachment could happen over a short period of time.
  • Another apparent difference is in 1 Thessalonians 1:9, which suggests that many idolatrous Gentiles turned to Christianity through Paul’s ministry. But Acts 17 only mentions that some Jews and devout Greeks believed, and it’s unlikely that devout Greeks were idolatrous. If Luke made a mistake here, it’s not a big one. It may be that Luke oversimplified what happened at Thessalonica. Or he rightly named a group of people who Paul converted, and that the later additions to the church – mainly former pagans – came after Paul left the city.
    • It’s also possible that Paul continued his ministry among the Gentiles in Thessalonica after leaving the synagogue per his usual pattern, and this provoked the Jews to cause trouble.
  • Another detail concerns Paul’s intention to visit the Thessalonians while residing in Corinth, which was hindered by Satan (1 Thessalonians 2:18). This unexecuted plan isn’t found in Acts. It’s unlikely that the author of Acts would overlook such a prominent fact if he had drawn from the letter, however I wouldn’t press this argument too hard.

Luke traveled with Paul

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. They don’t appear to be the product of design or chance, but are rather rooted in a common memory. And there are no overwhelming contradictions found between Acts and the letters, but on the contrary the differences are rather easily reconciled. This emphasizes the reliability and trustworthiness of the Book of Acts, showing that the author of Acts was truly up close and familiar with the travels of Paul.

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