Paul’s Timeline – When Did He Visit Jerusalem?

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Paul’s Visits To Jerusalem


There is a slight problem in understanding when exactly key events took place in the first Century. We have very little historical evidence of actual dates for key events. There is also an apparent conflict between Luke’s account of Paul’s Life in Acts 9 & 15, and Paul’s account in Galatians 1 & 2. Paul’s description in Galatians of his visits to Jerusalem simply does not marry up with Luke’s description in Acts. This is no small thing. For one thing it calls into doubt the veracity of Luke, (or Paul), and also that of the Bible. Less critical, but still of significant importance, it tends to generate opacity about the timeline of events in the early Church. Understanding this timeline actually helps in understanding the letters of Paul. Do an online (Google image) search for “timeline of Paul” and you will easily find that most commentators place the Council Of Jerusalem around AD 50.

Luke wrote chronologically, (Luke 1):

It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus,

Therefore, quite rightly, Acts reads as a sequential timeline of events. So, Acts 15, the Council Of Jerusalem, described also by Paul in Galatians 2, fits in around AD 50 on the generally accepted timeline. Acts 18 seems to corroborate this, because Paul meets with Priscilla and Aquila “recently arrived from Italy after the Claudian expulsion of Jews from Rome”; well Claudius died in AD 54, and the expulsion is reckoned around AD 50, so if Priscilla and Aquila arrived in Corinth around say AD 51, then clearly the Council Of Jerusalem occurred slightly before that, e.g. around AD 49-50. I will deal with this not inconsiderable problem at the end; the main issue to consider first and foremost is the assumed conflict between Luke and Paul’s description of Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem. In Acts 9, Luke informs us that Paul was mingling with everyone on his first visit to Jerusalem after his conversion:

26 And when Saul was come to Jerusalem, he assayed to join himself to the disciples: but they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way, and that he had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. 28 And he was with them coming in and going out at Jerusalem. 29 And he spake boldly in the name of the Lord Jesus, and disputed against the Grecians:* but they went about to slay him.

Paul however describes the opposite, (Galatians 1):

15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace, 16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood: 17 Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. 18 Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. 19 But other of the apostles saw I none, save James the Lord’s brother. 20 Now the things which I write unto you, behold, before God, I lie not.

So what is the confusion here, and how do we get Luke and Paul to harmonize? Whereas Luke describes Paul going from Damascus to Jerusalem where he meets with all the Church, Paul describes not going to Jerusalem, and when he does go, he meets no-one at all except James and Peter – it is, to all intents and purposes, a clandestine visit.

The first thing to realize here is that Paul in Galatians is not talking about his Damascus conversion, he is talking about something quite different actually. He is talking about the revelation of Christ in him.

16 To reveal (apokalypto) his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen;

Apokalypto means the revelation of something previously not understood and it can also mean the physical appearing or manifestation of someone. Paul I think means one of two things here; either he is talking about receiving the Holy Spirit, or he is referring to Christ directly teaching him things that were at that point complete revelations within the Church. Whichever Paul is talking about, it appears to be a totally separate event to his conversion on the road to Damascus. In essence then, it would appear that Paul really had two stages as a believer, a first stage were he was growing up in the Jewish Christian Church, and a second stage where God explained the whole operation of the New Covenant to him and released him for his ministry. Paul alludes to this before Festus and Herod Agrippa in Acts 26:

19 Whereupon, O king Agrippa, I was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision: 20 But shewed first unto them of Damascus, and at Jerusalem, and throughout all the coasts of Judaea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, and do works meet for repentance.

So now we have to identify this moment in Paul’s life in Acts where he receives further revelations. In Acts, Paul is seen going to Jerusalem four times. After his conversion, then to take provision up prior to the famine, then for the council of the Church, and then at the end of his life when he was arrested. The second time he goes up, with Barnabas to deliver aid to Judea, is unlikely to correspond to his visit to see Peter, because he describes the purpose of his visit as ‘to see Peter’, whereas the visit described in Acts is with Barnabas, to deliver aid. I think it very unlikely that this is the same event rolled into one.

Now let’s go to Acts 13. Paul and Barnabas are back from Jerusalem, having delivered aid. Paul is still being called Saul by Luke. We are told he is a prophet and teacher, (V1), but not an apostle. It is not until Chapter 14 (V14), that Luke first calls Paul an apostle. So Saul is just a teacher and prophet in the Church at Antioch, and then the church lays hands on him, and consecrates him, by the Holy Spirit, for apostleship.

13 Now there were in the church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers; as Barnabas, and Simeon that was called Niger, and Lucius of Cyrene, and Manaen, which had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. As they ministered to the Lord, and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away.

So now we see Saul called out for apostleship by the Holy Spirit, and then in verse 9 Luke changes his name to Paul. So, this is very significant; Paul’s name change is not recorded by Luke at his conversion on the road to Damascus, it is recorded when he is called to apostleship.This then appears to be the moment at which Christ reveals himself in Paul through the Holy Spirit, as recorded in Galatians; the point is that it is at this moment the Holy Spirit changes Paul into a new man, as well as empowers him to be an apostle to the nations. This is exactly what Paul describes in Galatians:

15 But when it pleased God, who separated me from my mother’s womb, and called me by his grace,16 To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:

This is Paul’s calling out for a ministry to the nations. The same word is employed by both Luke and Paul to describe the event; it is a separation: ‘aphorizo’. The separation implies several things: a separation in the sense of a calling out, (like the Church from the rest of fallen humanity), a separation in the sense of being isolated from others, (e.g. from the Church itself, as when one goes into the wilderness), a separation in the sense of being severed from one’s native culture, (i.e. Judaic Christianity), and a separation from one’s carnal nature. Paul uses the word as commensurate to being born, and so the overriding meaning must be that of being born again of the Holy Spirit.

So, whereas for the first few years of his conversion, (e.g. AD 36-41), Paul was a law observant prophet and teacher in the Jewish Church, he was now released from Jewish legalism. This is the point at which he went to Mount Sinai in Arabia, (like Moses), to talk with Jesus on the mountain, in Paul’s case to receive the entirety of New Covenant, now shorn of Old Testament baggage, i.e. the Gospel to the Nations, as opposed to the Gospel to Israel. Ultimately, we may even infer that Paul was baptized in the Spirit at a later point to his conversion (see Acts 8:16-17).

We can accurately date Paul’s ‘revelation of Christ’ to around AD 40-44, because the Great Famine began in AD 44, (Acts 11:28), and Herod died in AD 44 (Acts 12:23). Assuming that Paul and Barnabas would have delivered monetary aid somewhat in advance of the famine, so that the Church could stock up on provender, then a date like AD 41 for their visit to Jerusalem seems quite logical and reasonable. After they deliver aid, Paul is ‘separated’, so AD 41 seems a viable date for this event. Three years later, as per Galatians, around AD 44, Paul then makes a clandestine, (or private), visit to Peter, and then fourteen years later, that is fourteen years after his initial commission in AD 41, he goes up to the Council of Jerusalem. This would place the Council of Jerusalem around AD 55.

The main glitch in this way of reading the timeline, is that in Acts 18, Luke tells us:

18 After these things Paul departed from Athens, and came to Corinth; And found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, lately come from Italy, with his wife Priscilla; (because that Claudius had commanded all Jews to depart from Rome:) and came unto them.

The issue here is that Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome somewhere between AD 49-53; (AD 49 is the date I suspect is correct). If Priscilla and Aquila were ‘just come’ following the expulsion, we are looking at a date of AD 50. This of course means the Council Of Jerusalem would need to predate their expulsion, hence the common dating for the Council around AD 50. For the timeline I am proposing to be correct, then we need to infer from Acts 18 that Aquila and Priscilla, having left Rome during the expulsion, thereafter spent several years in Italy, before then going on to Corinth. I believe this is a perfectly reasonable understanding, although it is not perhaps what the text immediately suggests.

This timeline means that Paul’s first mission was sometime between AD 44-49, followed by a long period in Antioch, (Acts 14:28):

And there they abode long time with the disciples.

(Although they also moved around Cilicia during this time: Galatians 1:21, presumably meaning Paul visited Tarsus).

The visit to Jerusalem then occurs around AD 55, and then the rest of Paul’s missions thereafter.

So, my general thinking right now is that Paul’s first ministry was before AD 47-48, and the commotion his work caused with the Jews, (see Acts 13 & 14), provoked the regional Roman deputies to complain back to Claudius, who in turn took a dim view both of the Jews and ‘Chrestus’ worship, which then put a damper on ministry, (as Christianity relied on Judaism’s favoured status as a ‘religio licita’, any prohibition on Jews meant that Christianity also was handcuffed). Then Nero came to power, (AD 54), and as he had a Jewish wife he rescinded Claudius’ edict, and so, several years later, Paul was able to start mission work again. Hence therefore the hiatus between the first and second apostolic missions when the Church was holed up in Antioch, which was in Syria and outside the immediate purview of the Roman Empire.

Regarding Gallio, mentioned in Acts 18, just because he was proconsul in Achaea in AD 52, (as per the Delphic inscription), does not preclude him being a proconsul there for an extended period, e.g. around AD55-56……(for example, Julius Caesar was proconsul of Gallia Cisalpina from  58-49 BC).

So a very rough timeline – one which is totally open to debate, and historical and archaeological repudiation – for me is this:

AD 33 – Jesus put to death

AD 35 – Stephen stoned to death

AD 36 – Paul converted

AD 36-41 Paul grows and matures in the Church as law observant Jewish Christian

AD 41 – Paul and Barnabas deliver aid to Judea, and are then chosen by God for mission field work

AD 41-44 – Paul goes into spiritual retreat in preparation – he goes to Mt Sinai where Jesus meets with him and inducts him; now he understands the death of the Old Covenant and the birth of the New

AD 44 – Paul visits Peter privately in Jerusalem to explain the New Covenant to him; (Peter was the ‘key-keeper’ of the Church)

AD 44-47  Paul ministers in Syria, Cilicia and Judea

AD 47-49 – Paul’s first mission

AD 49 – Claudius clamps down on Jewry; Jews expelled from Rome

AD 49-55 Church lies low in Syria, mission work out of question

AD 55 Council Of Jerusalem; Nero rescinds edict against Jews, so Paul embarks on second mission


*Take note of the Grecian dispute, as it is one of the core issues in the letter to the Romans