How many trips to Jerusalem did Paul make? The Book of Acts says five, Paul’s epistles say three.

St. Paul by El Greco


Copied fromRejection of Pascal’s Wager

In a number of places in Acts, Luke had Paul in places or making trips to places which are simply contradicted by Paul’s own witness.

Number of Trips to Jerusalem

 As we have mentioned elsewhere, Acts and the Pauline epistles differ over how many trips Paul, as a Christian, actually made to Jerusalem. Acts mentioned five trips to Jerusalem by Paul while the Pauline epistles only presupposed three such trips. (Acts 9, 11, 15, 18:22, 21 versus Galatians 1:18, 2:1 and the (planned) visit to Jerusalem in Romans: 15:25).

Any attempt to try and resolve this discrepancy by suggesting that Paul may simply have omitted mentioning the other trips does not hold water. Let us examine this a little more closely. According to Acts Paul had already been to Jerusalem twice (Acts 9, 11) before the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). According to his letter to the Galatians, Paul had only been to Jerusalem once (Galatians 1:18) before the council (Galatians 2:1). The question is, could Paul have simply ignored mentioning another trip because it was unimportant to him? Hardly. Paul’s whole aim in Galatians was to show his independence of the apostles in Jerusalem. (He noted that the leaders there “makes no difference” to him-Galatians 2:6) Thus the amount of times he had visited Jerusalem was very important to his argument. Going to Jerusalem too many times would have indicated his dependence on the apostles and subordinate status towards them. Furthermore he mentioned that he is not lying (Galatians 1:20) while recalling these very events. It is unlikely that Paul would have allowed himself to be caught in a bald-face lie if it was actually the case that he was in Jerusalem another time after the first visit and before the council. Acts had Paul travelling to Jerusalem another two times after the council (Acts 18:22, 21). In Galatians 2:10 it was mentioned that Paul agreed to the apostles’ request to make a collection for Jerusalem. We know from Romans 15:25-28 that Paul’s purpose in going to Jerusalem was to deliver this collection. This collection is also alluded to in Acts 24:17 where Luke had Paul say “Now after some years I came to bring alms to my nation and to offer sacrifices.” Thus Paul’s last trip in Acts 21 is the same anticipated trip planned in Romans 15. Could Paul have made another trip before this, the one mentioned in Acts 18:22? Now Paul made a direct agreement to bring the collection to Jerusalem, and we know from his epistles that he took the task very seriously [Galatians 2:10, I Corinthians 16:1, II Corinthians 8:1-9:14, Romans 15:26]. Given the importance he attached to this, it would be unlikely in the extreme that Paul would appear in Jerusalem in the interim before the collection was completed; showing up “empty handed” as it were. [3] These considerations have led Gerd Ludemann, Professor of New Testament at the University of Gottingen to conclude that:

“[I]n Paul’s Christian period there is a probability bordering on certainty that Paul went to Jerusalem only three times. [4]
 

Timing of Paul’s First Visit to Jerusalem as a Christian

 There is also a discrepancy in the actual timing of Paul’s first visit to Jerusalem. In describing the events immediately after his conversion this is what Paul wrote:

Galatians 1:16-19

 I did not stop to discuss this with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were already apostles before me, but I went off to Arabia at once, and later went straight back to Damascus. Even when after three years I went to Jerusalem to visit Cephas [Peter] and I stayed with him for fifteen days, I did not see any of the other apostles, except James, the Lord’s brother.
 

Thus in Paul’s own words, he did not go to Jerusalem until three years after his conversion. Paul’s itinerary here is Damascus-Arabia-Damascus-Jerusalem. The first Damascus is implied since Paul said he went back there. The picture painted by Acts is very different. Acts chapter 9 narrated Paul’s conversion on the way to Damascus (9:1-10). He was miraculously healed a Christian in Damascus called Ananias (9:10-19) and “for several days” (9:19) preached in Damascus. Then “after some time” the Jews plotted to kill him and Paul had to escape in a basket lowered from the city wall. (9:23-25). Then Paul’s trip to Jerusalem followed in Acts 9:26. Thus there is no mention of a trip to Arabia and certainly no indication that three years had passed. [5] Paul’s Presence In Jerusalem during the Trial of Stephen

 There is another problem with Luke’s placement of Paul in Jerusalem. In Acts 7:58, 8:3, the yet to be converted Saul was said to be in Jerusalem and took an active part in the murder (or execution-depending on how you view it) of Stephen. Yet Paul in Galatians 1:22 said that when he visited Jerusalem for the first time three years after his conversion, he was “still unknown by sight to the Churches of Judea”. If Paul did take part in Stephen’s murder/execution, than at least some of the early Christians would have already seen Paul in Jerusalem before his conversion. Thus the presence of Paul in Jerusalem at that time is definitely unhistorical . [6]

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3 thoughts on “How many trips to Jerusalem did Paul make? The Book of Acts says five, Paul’s epistles say three.

  1. ” If Paul did take part in Stephen’s murder/execution, than at least some of the early Christians would have already seen Paul in Jerusalem before his conversion. Thus the presence of Paul in Jerusalem at that time is definitely unhistorical ”

    According to Acts, Paul didn’t take part in the actual murder / execution of Stephen. He stood back, watching. There is no clear connection, either in Paul’s writings or in the Book of Acts between Paul and the stoning of Stephan. Thus, any “believers” there had no particular reason to make a connection between Paul and Stephen’s death.

    If Paul’s subsequent persecution of the church was outside of Jerusalem (and, there is no mention anywhere of his part in the persecution being inside Jerusalem), then it is hardly unreasonable that Paul wouldn’t be recognized as a “person of interest” by the Jerusalem church.

    And, lastly, as you note, Paul wrote that he was “still unknown by sight to the Churches of Judea”. This, in and of itself, is highly inconclusive. I might be a guy who burned down some little Baptist church way back in the piney woods of East Texas, and, I might be known as the guy who did it, back there in the piney woods. But, it wouldn’t be wrong to say “I was still unknown to the Baptist Churches in the US”. This can simply be taken as a “general” statement. This does not mean that there is no single individual in some Baptist church someplace in the US that recognizes me.

    If one has a very stark, brittle, wooden interpretation of scripture, then one can read Matt 3:5 – “Then Jerusalem was going out to him, and all Judea and all the district around the Jordan” – to mean that every single person – man, woman, child, blind, sick, lame, dying – “ALL Judea” – were “going out to him” [John the Baptist]

    Hopefully, though, anyone with common sense wouldn’t interpret the verse as such. But then, I don’t hang around too many fundamentalists or ex-fundamentalists, and those seem to be the types to put such interpretations on scriptures…

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  2. I would push back on Alphonse’s position a little – even though we share the same conclusions.

    I would stress firstly, that Hebrew literature does not prioritize chronology the same way modern western literature does. In older Hebrew traditions, things are not always in order. For example, the book of John has Jesus’s clearing of the temple a lot sooner than Luke does – leading some to speculate there were two similar events. Nope, this is just an example that we should not get too persnickety about the exact chronology with early Jewish writers.

    Secondly, I wonder if you mistake the “unknowing” of Paul by the Judean church. Paul was somewhat famous across Judea, likely an early Temple captain, very likely in charge of Stephen’s murder (It says people laid their cloaks at his feet – a well-known symbol of Jewish deference to leadership. He did not take part in it, he ran it.), then storming across the countryside persecuting Christ-followers. Of COURSE they knew him – but did they know him as a converted Christian? Think about it, if they literally didn’t know him – why would they not want to meet him? What would keep Christians from wanting to meet a new brother in Christ?

    I strongly urge you to consider that they knew him physically, but they did not know his heart – suspecting that he was still an enemy and his arrival was a clever trap laid for them.

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    1. Certainly possible.

      It is also possible that the stories about Paul’s persecution activities found in the Book of Acts are exaggerated or even invented.

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