Pervo’s Pitfall: Acts Is Independent from Paul’s Letters

Erik Manning
12 min readMay 24, 2023

Did Luke really travel with Paul like Christians have always believed? Richard Pervo, a New Testament scholar, has a different idea. Pervo thinks the Book of Acts, which tells us about Paul’s adventures, was made up much later, in the second century. Pervo believes they took parts of Paul’s letters to create the book. Several scholars and skeptics online have latched onto his thesis in their quest to discredit the reliability of the Book of Acts. But is there any proof to support what he’s saying? Let’s dive into this topic and see if Pervo’s arguments really make sense.

Let’s compare Paul’s letters with the historical account found in the Book of Acts. It’s great to have both because we can see where they overlap. What’s even more interesting is that these documents at least appear to be written independently as they don’t have many similarities in their wording.

So, if we assume that both sources are based on real facts, what should we expect to find? Ideally, we should see multiple instances where both documents mention the same people or events. However, we shouldn’t expect everything to match perfectly. The letters might include things that don’t quite fit the historical narrative. On the other hand, the historical account, following the standards of that time, might organize information conceptually instead of in strict chronological order, and may even skip or summarize certain incidents. Sometimes, the connections between the documents may span across several letters, creating a network of related passages that can’t be easily dismissed as made up.

Let’s look at an interesting example from Romans 15:25–26. Here, we find three intriguing points: there’s a collection of funds in Macedonia, a similar collection in Achaia, and Paul’s plan to travel to Jerusalem to deliver the aid. However, when we turn to Acts 20:2–3, where Paul is on his way back to Palestine, there’s no mention of this contribution. In a speech before Felix in Acts 24:17–19, Paul talks about helping his countrymen but doesn’t say where the funds come from. The connections between these passages are indirect, which means there’s no reason to suspect copying or fabrication.

To complete the puzzle, let’s consider two more passages from the letters. In 1 Corinthians 16:1–4, we learn about a collection being made in Corinth, the capital of Achaia, to support the Christians in Jerusalem. However, there’s no mention of Macedonia. But when we turn to 2 Corinthians 8:1–4 and 2 Corinthians 9:2, we discover that the churches in Macedonia were already involved in collecting for the same cause.

By putting all these pieces together from Romans 15, we find support in other passages from the Book of Acts and the Corinthian letters. Each of these passages gives us clues or dates that help us place them in a specific time-towards the end of Paul’s second missionary journey. Some Christian apologists, like William Paley, call these “undesigned coincidences.” It means that two works by different authors fit together in a way that would be highly unlikely if one copied the other or if they both copied from the same source. It’s like finding puzzle pieces that fit perfectly.

However, Pervo doesn’t seem convinced by this argument. In his book on Acts, Pervo claims that the passage in Acts 24:17 is “an outright contradiction.” He argues that scholar Colin Hemer, on the other hand, fails to acknowledge Luke’s omission of the purpose of Paul’s visit, as mentioned in the letters. Pervo believes this undermines the argument from undesigned coincidences. But he seems to be an adventure in missing the point. If Luke had relied on Paul’s letters, we would expect him to include those specific details. The fact that Luke casually mentions these specifics without referencing the letters or their facts suggests that he has his own independent information. It seems like Pervo misunderstood the argument he tried to criticize, and there doesn’t appear to be any contradiction here either.

Pervo’s Lack of Perception

That’s just one example. Let’s look at a few more. Romans 16:1–3 tells us, “I want to introduce you to Phoebe, our sister in Christ, who serves the church in Cenchrea. Please welcome her in the Lord as true believers should, and help her with whatever she needs, for she has been a great help to many, including myself.” It’s interesting to note that Cenchrea was a place near Corinth where Paul was when he wrote this letter. Acts 18 adds more information, revealing that Paul had been in Cenchrea before. This connection seems unplanned and coincidental. Acts 18:18 states, “Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time. Then he left the brothers and sisters and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila. Before he sailed, he had his hair cut off at Cenchrea because of a vow he had taken.” This act of cutting his hair might have signaled the fulfillment of a special promise made to God, possibly a Nazaritic vow, although the text doesn’t provide clear details. Luke, the author of Acts, indirectly tells us that Paul had completed his vow before starting his journey.

However, this religious haircut doesn’t fit into any specific theological theme in Luke’s narrative, and it doesn’t explain why Paul took the vow in the first place. Luke includes this peculiar detail without further explanation, suggesting that he believed it to be true and decided to include it.

But the crucial question is: Are we really going to suggest that the author of Acts fabricated this story about Paul in Cenchrea simply because he had read about Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea who had been helpful to many, including Paul himself, in the Epistle to the Romans?

Pervo disagrees and calls this connection a “tenuous link” that only shares a place name. He fails to consider the broader context and the cumulative case being presented and focuses on a single example that he finds weak, which is a typical strategy of critics of undesigned coincidences. Let’s delve into some of William Paley and Hemer’s other examples from the same context:

Romans 16:3–4 states: “Greet Priscilla and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I give thanks but all the churches of the Gentiles give thanks as well.”

This complimentary greeting raises questions: What does Paul mean by this? Acts furnishes the answers.

First, the fact that this greeting is in the Epistle to the Romans suggests that Priscilla and Aquila were residents of that city. If we turn to Acts 18:2, we find Paul meeting “Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome.” Hence, Priscilla and Aquila were originally from Rome and possibly returned after the expulsion under Claudius ceased. This is the first point of connection.

Second, notice that Paul calls them “fellow workers in Christ Jesus.” What did they do to earn this commendation? Again, in Acts 18, we learn that Paul stayed with them (Acts 18:3), and when he left, they accompanied him (Acts 18:18). From this, it’s reasonable to infer that they worked alongside Paul, though only Paul’s greeting in Romans explicitly mentions it.

Third, Paul mentions that they “risked their necks” for his sake. How did they do that? Acts 18:12–17 describes Paul being brought before the Roman tribunal and Sosthenes being beaten by the mob. If Aquila and Priscilla were Paul’s fellow workers in Christ Jesus in Corinth, it’s clear that they also faced dangers.

Fourth, Paul indicates that the Gentile churches give thanks for them. This emphasis on Gentiles holds significance given the themes of the entire letter. Referring back to Acts 18:2, we discover that Aquila was a Jew expelled from Rome when Emperor Claudius, frustrated with riots in the Jewish quarter related to someone named “Chrestus” (a common Roman misspelling of “Christus”), decided to evict the Jews. Yet Aquila and Priscilla worked with Paul, who in the same city proclaimed his turning from the Jews to the Gentiles and conducted a highly successful mission among them (Acts 18:5–11). Thus, Priscilla and Aquila, though Jews, played a role in the ministry to the Gentiles and earned their gratitude.

Therefore, this apparently mundane lists of greetings offer multiple points of indirect correspondence-consistent and harmonious, without relying on direct borrowing-with the events described in the historical narrative of Acts. How often has it been said that the evidence from undesigned coincidences is cumulative. One undesigned coincidence could be accidental, like two unrelated puzzle pieces fitting together by chance. But when we discover numerous undesigned coincidences intersecting the documents, it becomes implausible to argue that they are all mere accidents. Pervo’s weak dismissal of evidence that contradicts hypothesis is intellectually irresponsible. It’s highly unlikely that all of these undesigned coincidences are simply the product of copying or accident.

So what are some other reasons to think that Acts was not fictionalized and merely drawn up from the letters of Paul?

1. The Case of Titus

In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, Titus plays a significant role, being mentioned multiple times as Paul’s partner and fellow worker. Surprisingly, the book of Acts does not mention Titus at all. This omission suggests that the author of Acts did not have access to Paul’s letters, as it would be unlikely to exclude such a prominent figure. While not a conclusive argument by itself, this fact highlights the independence of Acts from Paul’s letters.

2. Discrepancies in Paul’s Sufferings

In 2 Corinthians, Paul provides a detailed account of his sufferings, including beatings with rods and shipwrecks. However, the book of Acts mentions only a subset of these sufferings. For example, Paul mentions being beaten three times with rods, but Acts includes only one such story. Likewise, Paul refers to surviving three shipwrecks, while Acts narrates only one shipwreck, occurring three years after 2 Corinthians was written. If the author of Acts had access to Paul’s letters, we would expect a closer alignment between the two narratives. The divergences in the accounts indicate that Acts was not written based on Paul’s letters.

3. Contrasting Escape Narratives

A comparison of Paul’s escape from Damascus as described in 2 Corinthians and Acts reveals differences in the details. In 2 Corinthians, King Aretas is mentioned as guarding the city, whereas Acts says it was the Jews guarding the gates. (2 Cor 11:32, cf. Acts 9:23–24)

In line with the arguments put forth by 18th-century apologist William Paley, scholar Colin Hemer contends that the description of Paul’s escape from Damascus in the Epistle, while generally aligning with the account in Acts, displays significant differences in circumstances. Consequently, it becomes highly improbable for one account to have been derived from the other. If we can agree that, in general, the writer of each account was unaware of or did not consult the other, then the similarities between them can only be best explained by their shared foundation in truth and reality. Hemer also presents a common-sense interpretation, suggesting that different opponents could have joined forces, thus negating the need to consider these differences as an irreconcilable discrepancy.

Pervo criticizes Hemer’s viewpoint as “tortured exegesis” and accuses him of special pleading. In another instance, Pervo puts forth an alternative explanation, suggesting that Luke “transformed” an item from Paul’s correspondence, resulting in an “inversion of fact represented in the appropriation of 2 Corinthians to Acts 9.” However, considering the lack of significant verbal agreement and substantial differences between the two passages, it appears more reasonable to conclude that Luke did not incorporate 2 Corinthians in this particular case. Pervo’s theory ascribes peculiar literary motives to the author of Acts and seems more arbitrary. Ironically, Pervo’s interpretation seems to exhibit more strained analysis than Hemer’s.

4. Issues Addressed in 1 Corinthians

The problems addressed in 1 Corinthians, such as marriage, calling, and food offered to idols, are absent in Acts. Additionally, the stance of the Jerusalem council on food offered to idols in Acts appears stricter than what Paul writes later. These discrepancies suggest that the author of Acts did not have access to the specific problems addressed in 1 Corinthians, reinforcing the idea of independence.

5. Contradictions between Acts and Galatians

Comparing Acts with Galatians reveals apparent contradictions regarding Paul’s early movements. Galatians mentions Paul’s trip to Arabia and his return to Damascus before going to Jerusalem, while Acts omits these details. (Galatians 1:17–19) The alleged discrepancies challenge the hypothesis that the author of Acts used details from Galatians to enhance credibility. The incidental correlation concerning Damascus suggests independent knowledge of Paul’s experiences. To be sure, a span of three years can encompass “many days” so these accounts are not irreconcilable. (Acts 9:23–25) However, if Luke had been drawing his narrative directly from Galatians, he could have ensured a closer alignment between the two accounts.

6. Thessalonian Converts in Acts and 1 Thessalonians

In Acts, the portrayal of Paul’s converts in Thessalonica mainly consists of Jews and devout Greeks (Acts 17:4). However, in 1 Thessalonians, there is a mention of the conversion of idol-worshippers (1 Thessalonians 1:9). The absence of idolatrous Gentile converts in Acts, along with the apparent discrepancies in Paul’s ministry and extended stay among the Thessalonians, suggests that the author of Acts possessed independent knowledge that goes beyond Paul’s epistles.

7. The Appearance of Casualness and Undesigned Coincidences

Let’s grant for the sake of argument for a moment that Luke relied on Acts when writing his letters. Even if that were true, we shouldn’t dismiss these undesigned coincidences as mere copying. We don’t always need two witnesses who were completely separated in time and place just to have these intriguing coincidences between their accounts. While it would be remarkable if they were entirely independent, it’s not an absolute requirement. The key point here is that these narratives seamlessly align in an apparently casual manner, without any evident intention to support each other. It’s difficult to label the creation of Acts from Paul’s letters as the “perfect crime” while also highlighting the apparent contradictions that portray the author as inept. The perspective I am advocating for presents a more unified view of the author.

Pervo’s argument from silence

But it gets even worse. Pervo’s argument for dating Acts to the early 2nd century rests partially on the idea that Luke wouldn’t have had access to 2 Corinthians before 100 AD. But why does he make such a claim? Well, his main point revolves around the fact that the author of 1 Clement quotes or alludes to 1 Corinthians and Romans but not 2 Corinthians. Clement is believed to written at around 96 AD. However, this argument from silence is incredibly weak. There are multiple possibilities to consider. It’s possible that the author of 1 Clement simply didn’t have access to 2 Corinthians or deliberately chose not to use it for various reasons.

Moreover, even if the author of 1 Clement lacked access to 2 Corinthians, it doesn’t automatically imply that nobody else did. It’s entirely plausible that 2 Corinthians was unknown in Rome when 1 Clement was written but was already circulating elsewhere. The consensus among most scholars is that 2 Corinthians was written in the 50s, indicating that it had widespread circulation from the late 50s until the end of the century. Unless we assume that it magically disappeared as soon as Paul wrote it and was only rediscovered around 100, we can reasonably conclude that it was accessible during that time.

Luke Didn’t Use Paul’s letters

The presence of these undesigned coincidences and apparent discrepancies between Paul’s letters and the book of Acts supports the idea that Acts was written independently, not based on direct knowledge of Paul’s letters. While I think these alleged contradictions can be reasonably harmonized, these show that Luke was not carefully combing through Paul’s letters and drawing up a story. These coincidences reveal that the author of Acts very likely had access to Paul himself, adding credibility to the historical reliability of Acts. Therefore, the argument that some anonymous early second century author was using Paul’s letters to explain away the undesigned coincidences doesn’t work. The Book of Acts stands as a distinct and valuable historical account of Paul’s ministry.

Note: In February 2001, Pervo was arrested for possessing thousands of child pornography images on his work computer at the University of Minnesota. He later pleaded guilty to five counts of possession and one count of distribution of child pornography in May. I ask for the reader’s pardon in citing the work of someone guilty of exploiting children. Surprisingly, Pervo received a lenient sentence of only one year in a state workhouse and eight years of probation. Pervo formally resigned from the University of Minnesota in June 2001, having been suspended since his arrest. Despite these disturbing crimes, he continued to publish theological works as an independent scholar and Fellow of the Westar Institute. It is puzzling why the Westar Institute allowed him to continue publishing after such reprehensible actions. While I would prefer not to mention Pervo by name, his arguments are increasingly being references by skeptics, necessitating this discussion. Obviously, his crimes do not make his arguments wrong, but it should cause those who reference his work to consider issuing some kind of a trigger warning. Pervo died in 2017 from leukemia.

Originally published at https://isjesusalive.com on May 24, 2023.

--

--

Erik Manning

I am the Reasonable Faith Chapter Director in Cedar Rapids and the writer for isjesusalive.com. I’m interested in the intersection of Christianity and history.