The Historical Paul vs. The Legendary Paul?
Skeptical critics argue that Luke wasn’t a traveling companion of Paul’s. Why do they say this? Let’s discuss one reason. NT scholar Uta Ranke-Heinemann asserts that in: “Acts and the epistles there are two Pauls. The historical Paul of the authentic epistles and the legendary Paul of Acts.” 1
In other words, don’t confuse the colorful Paul of Acts with the actual Paul we read about in his letters. This indicates that Luke didn’t have firsthand knowledge of Paul. He must have lied about being his traveling companion and embellished a bunch of stories. But is the Paul of Acts that different from the Paul we read about in his letters? I’d say no. Not at all.
If anything, Acts showcases Luke’s talent as a reporter. When he portrays Paul’s personality, it’s clear that it’s the same as that in Paul’s epistles. Yet the similarities are subtle and indirect. They surface in an artless way. It’s doubtful this subtle consistency is the result of design or mere chance.
In her book Hidden in Plain View, Lydia McGrew points out a strong unity of personality in Paul’s character from Acts 20 and Paul’s letters. 2This is his farewell address to the church leaders in Ephesus. In this speech we see both his genuine love and warm-heartedness. We also see his tendency to be a bit dramatic and emotionally manipulative. I don’t mean that as a slam. Whenever Paul puts on the pressure, it’s always for a good cause.
Paul the ‘guilt tripper’
In saying goodbye to the elders at Miletus, Paul references his own trials and sorrows. He says he’ll never see the elders again, bringing them to tears. (Acts 20:25, 36–38) This is the same Paul who pressures Philemon to free the slave Onesimus by telling him that he “owes him his own life.” (Philemon 17–19). Paul also shows this tendency to guilt trip people in 1 Corinthians. There he goes on about his trials and afflictions. He reminds them that he’s their spiritual father. In other words, he gives them the disappointed dad treatment. (1 Cor 4:8–14).
Another trait of Paul’s is his tendency to defend his blamelessness about money. (Acts 20:33–35.) He seems almost touchy about it. In the middle of his tearful goodbye with the elders at Miletus, he brings up how he worked to pay his own way. Paul’s harps on this theme a lot in his epistles.
In both 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:8 Paul emphasizes that he worked night and day. He says that didn’t want to be a financial burden to the Thessalonians when he was with them. In 1 Corinthians 4:12 Paul stresses that up to the time of writing he is working with his own hands to support himself. And in 1 Corinthians 9:7–18, Paul goes over the top in showing that he’s above reproach in these matters. He teaches that ministers of the gospel have a right to receive offerings. But then he says “I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast.” (1 Cor. 9:16) He’s pouring the drama on thick. Paul also comes across very touchy about his apostleship in 2 Corinthians 11–12.
Paul’s care for the churches
The Apostle Paul also tells the elders in Acts 20:29–32 that after his departure, false teachers will come. He tells them to resist them, remembering how he himself “admonished them with tears.” This is the same Paul we see in his letters who says that the “care of all the churches” comes upon him daily (2 Cor 11:28). It’s the same Paul who rebukes the Galatians for yielding to the pressures of the Judaizers. (Gal 4:16–20) He says that he’s “in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in them.” And he firmly warns the Philippians to “beware of dogs” when referring to false teachers. (Phil 3:2)
Furthermore, Paul is almost annoyingly uncompromising. In Acts 15:36–41 we see Paul getting into a heated discussion with Barnabas over Mark. Mark had deserted them in Pamphylia. Paul wasn’t about to bring him on another missionary journey. It didn’t matter how much Barnabas vouched for him. The two apostles ended up parting company because of Paul’s stubbornness. This is the same Paul who tells the Galatians that he had the cajones to publicly rebuke the Apostle Peter. He’s referring to the time when Peter would no longer eat with the Gentiles when the Jewish brethren from Jerusalem came to Antioch. Paul wasn’t putting up with Peter’s capitulation. (Galatians 2:11–15)
Paul was also one fiery and sarcastic guy. He can lay it on pretty thick at times. This snarkiness is worth quoting in some passages. Paul shows his exasperation over the Corinthians’ fixation with the so-called super apostles. He wrote: “You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise! In fact, you even put up with anyone who enslaves you or exploits you or takes advantage of you or puts on airs or slaps you in the face. To my shame I admit that we were too weak for that!” (2 Corinthians 11:19–21)
Talk about getting punchy. But this is tame compared to what he writes to the Galatians. He wrote to tell them to not submit to the Judaizers who required circumcision for salvation. Paul was not happy that there were people perverting the Gospel and mixing the Law with grace. Paul writes: “ As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Gal 5:4–12) Now that’s some razor sharp sarcasm. Lame pun intended.
We see this same mixture of anger and sarcasm from Paul in Acts, and it ties in to a striking external historical confirmation. In Acts 23:1–5, the Jews apprehend Paul and bring him before the Sanhedrin. Paul looks them in the eyes and says he’s served God and kept a good conscience. For this remark, he’s slapped on the mouth at the request of Ananias the high priest. Paul is furious. He says “ God will strike you, you whitewashed wall! You sit there to judge me according to the law, yet you yourself violate the law by commanding that I be struck!”
In response, those who were standing by said, “Would you revile God’s high priest?” Paul’s response is a bit strange. He says: “I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’”
This raises a natural question — why is it that Paul didn’t realize who the high priest was? Ananias was the son of Nebedinus. 3He was the high priest when Felix’s predecessor, Quadratus, was president of Syria. The historian Josephus reports that Quadratus bound Ananias and sent him to Rome. This was so that he could give an account to Claudius Caesar over some shady business 4.
Agrippa interceded for Ananias, and so he was able to return to Jerusalem. But Ananias wasn’t restored to his former office of high priest. Jonathan succeeded Ananias. We know this because Josephus refers to Jonathan occupying the office of high priest during Felix’s reign. This implies an interruption in Ananias’ high priesthood. 5Josephus tells us that assassins killed Jonathan inside the temple. 6
After Jonathan’s death, the office of the high priest remained unoccupied for some time. Eventually, King Agrippa appointed Ismael, the high priest 7. The events in Acts 23 took place during this interval. Ananias was in Jerusalem and the office of the high priesthood remained vacant. So by his own authority, Ananias acted, assumed the role of the high priest. This explains Paul’s words in Acts 23:5: “ I did not know, brothers, that he was the high priest.” This is another difficult detail that Luke gets correct. He doesn’t even take the time to explain the historical backstory in his account of this event. These sources interlock in a way that points to the truth of the narrative we find in Acts.
Some think that Paul is being sarcastic here when he says “I didn’t know he was the high priest.” He is probably well aware that Ananias is not the high priest properly so-called. So when he says “I didn’t know he was the high priest”, the subtext is because he’s not. He’s a usurper. Paul is likely being snide here.
Only one Paul
There’s more that could be said here, but I’ll stop for now. The bottom line is that the Paul we find in his uncontested letters is the same Paul we find in the Book of Acts. He’s the same warm-hearted, touchy, guilt-tripping, hot-headed, sarcastic and indefatigable Paul that we find in his letters. These parallels between Acts and Paul’s letters are unlikely to be the result of mere chance. And these correspondences regarding Paul’s character seem so casual and subtle that it’s unlikely they were designed that way. Through such indications, we see the texture of reality, the portrait, and the reportage.
The best explanation is that Luke knew Paul all too well, because he traveled with him. The biblical critics who say there are two Pauls are being their usual myopic selves. There’s only one Paul.
1. Uta Ranke-Heinemann, Putting Away Childish Things: The Virgin Birth, the Empty Tomb, and Other Fairy Tales You Don’t Need to Believe to Have a Living Faith
2. Lydia McGrew, Hidden in Plain View, Kindle Page 156
3. Josephus, Antiquities 20.5.3
4. Antiquities 20.6.2
5. Antiquities 20.8.5
6. Antiquities 20.8.5
7. Antiquities 20.8.8