CAN WE DATE PAUL’S ACTS EPISTLES?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Many years ago, very early in this author’s ministry, he asked an older preacher friend if it were possible to date Paul’s Acts epistles using the Book of Acts. (The author had heard that it was feasible, but he did not know any specifics.) To his surprise, the preacher discouraged him with the following disclaimer: “There is nothing in those writings to indicate when they were written.“ Years later, however, the author learned that that simply was not true: internal information allows us to match some of his epistles with chapters in Acts. Frankly, that preacher was either lazy and did not care, or he (like many) was too unfamiliar with the Bible to know any better. In this article, we will demonstrate how we can determine the chronological order of the Pauline Acts epistles.
Why do this? Chronologists often disagree as touching numerical years. Therefore, some Bible students prefer to date Paul’s earliest epistles by using chapters of Acts as benchmarks. In other words, it is much easier to establish where a Pauline Acts epistle was written in relation to Acts (as in, chapter 20) than to establish its absolute year (for example, A.D. 55). Human calendars are simply too ambiguous concerning such ancient history, but the Word of God is a sure basis for timelines. Dates based on Scripture are much more reliable than human reckoning of time.
As we will see, the Pauline Books, Romans through Philemon, are not ordered in the Bible chronologically. That is, the Apostle wrote them in an order different from the table of contents at the beginning of our Bible. Romans was not his first epistle, and Philemon was not his last. The 13 Pauline epistles are deliberately arranged as such because the Holy Spirit edifies the saint from Romans (basics) all the way to Philemon (maturity). Paul wrote his first six epistles during Acts—Romans, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Galatians, 1 Thessalonians, and 2 Thessalonians. These six are the focus of our present study. Friend, be aware that there will be much verse comparison, but it will be highly profitable. You probably will not grasp this material the first time around—or even the second, third, or fourth—but you keep at it until you do understand!
Galatians is the Book whose corresponding chapter in Acts is most difficult to pinpoint. The epistle’s very nature nonetheless demonstrates that it was written after Acts chapter 15 (comparable to Galatians chapter 2). Paul visited the region of Galatia—not a city, please note, but a territory—in Acts chapters 13 and 14. Antioch in Pisidia (13:14), Iconium (13:51-52), and Derbe and Lystra (14:1-24) are all in the vicinity of Galatia (modern central and southern Turkey). Paul traveled through Galatia a second time in Acts 16:6-7, and a third time in Acts 18:22-23. Galatians 4:13 seems to indicate that Paul has already visited Galatia at least twice. In fact, he has just left Galatia (Galatians 1:6). All this data places Galatians as being written between the 16:6-7 visit and the 18:22-23 visit. For simplicity’s sake, we will say Galatians was penned in Acts chapter 17 (certainly no later than chapter 18). Exactly where Paul was when he wrote Galatians is unknown, but that makes no difference.
NOTE: Was Galatians written first, or was 1 Thessalonians? There is often difference of opinion. This author’s personal belief—which you can accept or reject—is that Galatians was Paul’s first inspired writing. After all, Galatians is the most convincing Book to defend his Gentile apostleship as separate and distinct from Peter and the 11, and it delineates how the grace message is not to be confused or combined with legalism (Law-keeping, Judaism). Surely, God the Holy Spirit would have wanted this information codified as soon as possible. Galatians, therefore, was likely the first inspired epistle of Paul.
1 & 2 THESSALONIANS
Paul visited Thessalonica in Acts 17:1-9. According to 1 Thessalonians 2:17, Paul has just departed the city (Acts 17:10 explains why). In 1 Thessalonians 2:2, he refers to his unlawful beating and illegal imprisonment at Philippi (Acts 16:19-40). He has already passed through Athens (1 Thessalonians 3:1), which historically occurred in Acts 17:15–18:1. From Athens, Paul sent Timothy to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:2), and Timothy has since returned to Paul (verse 6). Timothy and Silas are both with Paul as per 1 Thessalonians 1:1 and 2 Thessalonians 1:1, corresponding to Acts 18:5 (cf. Acts 17:15). Timothy departed from Paul in Acts 19:22, making it impossible for 1 and 2 Thessalonians to be written anytime after. First Thessalonians was penned in Acts chapter 18, while Paul was in Corinth. Second Thessalonians was written shortly after, but again, no later than Acts 19:22 when Timothy left Paul. Both Thessalonian epistles were written before the two Corinthian epistles.
1 & 2 CORINTHIANS
The two Corinthian epistles, like Romans (below), are the easiest to date because they track Paul as he heads to Jerusalem with the collection for the poor Jewish kingdom saints. He first came to Corinth in Acts 18:1-18. He writes that he has already baptized the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:14-16 cf. Acts 18:8). First Corinthians (16:8,19) claims that it was written from Ephesus in Asia (technically, Asia Minor). The riot at Ephesus (Acts 19:22–20:1) is suggested in 1 Corinthians 16:9. In Acts 19:22, Paul sends Timothy to Macedonia (northern Greece), whereas Corinth is in southern Greece (Achaia). First Corinthians 4:17 and 16:10-11 indicate that Timothy is approaching Corinth. Paul intends to pass through Macedonia according to 1 Corinthians 16:5, which he does in Acts 20:1-2 while making his way to Jerusalem (Acts 20:16; 1 Corinthians 16:3-4). Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus may have been the couriers who brought Paul’s first inspired epistle to Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:17). Paul departed Ephesus in Acts 20:1, meaning that 1 Corinthians was penned in the final moments of chapter 19 (perhaps 20:1).
As for 2 Corinthians, Timothy was with Paul (1:1). This would be after Acts 19:22 when Timothy left Paul and returned. Paul visited Macedonia followed by Greece (Acts 20:1-2). Thessalonica and Philippi are in what the Bible calls “Macedonia” (modern northern Greece), and Corinth and Athens are in what Scripture terms “Greece” (technically southern Greece, Achaia—2 Corinthians 1:1). Paul penned 2 Corinthians between his visit to Macedonia and stop in Greece/Corinth (2 Corinthians 1:16 and 8:1). Macedonia is roughly where Paul wrote 2 Corinthians (2:13, 7:5, 8:1, 9:2). Titus brings to Paul news from Corinth (2 Corinthians 7:6; 2 Corinthians 8:6; 2 Corinthians 12:18); note that Titus’ name never appears in Acts. The Macedonians have just given donations to Paul (2 Corinthians 8:1-5), meaning 2 Corinthians was written before the Book of Romans (cf. Romans 15:25-27). Second Corinthians 1:8 speaks of the riot in Ephesus (Acts 19:22–20:1). Paul is heading to Judaea/Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 1:16; 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). He arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 21:17, after which 2 Corinthians could not be written. Second Corinthians 2:13-14 correlates with Acts 16:8-10. In light of all this, 2 Corinthians, therefore, was written during the timeframe of Acts 20:2-3.
As with the two Corinthian epistles (above), Romans is easy to date because it is Paul’s final epistle before he reaches Jerusalem. He arrives in Jerusalem in Acts 21:17. According to Romans 15:25-31, he has just collected donations from Achaia (Corinth) and Macedonia (Thessalonica). Romans 16:23 says Gaius is Paul’s host; Gaius is from Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:14). Romans 16:23 is also indicative that Paul is in Corinth, for Erastus is chamberlain of Corinth (2 Timothy 4:20). Paul visited Corinth three times (2 Corinthians 13:1), and Romans was written on his third trip. Phebe was the courier of the Book of Romans (16:1-2). She is a member of the church at Cenchrea; Cenchrea was Corinth’s eastern port/harbor. Romans was written after 2 Corinthians (cf. Romans 15:25-31), for Paul had already collected from Achaia (Corinth). Romans was penned in Acts 20:2-3, after he wrote 2 Corinthians.
Using Scriptural data, we can say the following about Paul’s Acts epistles:
- Galatians (written Acts chapters 17/18) — penned in ?
- 1 Thessalonians (written Acts chapter 18) — penned in Corinth
- 2 Thessalonians (written Acts chapter 18) — penned in Corinth
- 1 Corinthians (written Acts chapters 19/20) — penned in Ephesus
- 2 Corinthians (written Acts chapter 20) — penned in Macedonia
- Romans (written Acts chapter 20) — penned in Corinth
SUPPLEMENTAL: PAUL’S PRISON EPISTLES
While Paul was under house arrest in Rome during the two years following the Acts period (Acts 28:30-31), he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. (Luke penned the Book of Acts here.) Paul was released for some time, writing 1 Timothy and Titus during that free period. Recaptured, he was imprisoned in a dungeon in Rome. There, Paul penned a final epistle to Timothy; the Roman government put him to death shortly thereafter (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
- Ephesians — sent by Tychicus (6:21-22) — penned in Rome
- Philippians — sent by Epaphroditus (2:25,28-29) — penned in Rome
- Colossians — sent by Tychicus and Onesimus (4:7-9) — penned in Rome
- Philemon — sent by Onesimus (verses 10-17) — penned in Rome
- 1 Timothy — ?
- Titus — sent by Tychicus and/or Artemas? (3:12) — penned en route to Nicopolis (3:12)
- 2 Timothy — sent by ? — penned in Rome (1:17) — **Paul’s farewell**