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Paul and Acts

This is a painting of Paul in prison made by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1627.

New Testament scholarship has long debated the accuracy of the portrayal of the apostle Paul in the book of Acts. Does Acts relate what “actually happened” and Paul as he “actually was”? If so, why does the Paul of Acts seem different from the Paul of his Letters? The issue at stake, of course, is our ability to make sense of Christian origins. If Paul is indeed one of Christianity’s founding figures, then how can we understand his role without being certain that Acts presents an accurate account of his mission and message?

For nearly two centuries, New Testament scholars have thought about the inconsistencies and congruencies between Paul as depicted in Acts and Paul as portrayed in his own letters. On the one hand, Acts paints a picture of Paul that coheres in many ways with his self-portraiture in the letters: he was a committed Jew who experienced a dramatic moment where he rethought Jesus’ role within Israel’s history; he continued practicing Judaism while preaching the saving message of Jesus; and, perhaps most importantly, he was appointed to bring the gospel of Jesus to Gentiles—which generated controversy among some early Christians, especially regarding how, and on what terms, Gentiles could join this new movement.

On the other hand, Acts and Paul’s letters exhibit significant divergences. For instance, the letters narrate conflict between Paul and people in his communities—rather than between Paul and Jewish and Gentile authorities, as we see in Acts. Acts says nothing of Paul the letter writer, and he is not called an apostle except in one instance (Acts 14:4, Acts 14:14). Most notable is the incongruity between Paul’s gospel message in Acts and the message we see in his letters, especially Romans and Galatians. Paul’s emphasis on “justification by faith” is completely absent from his speeches and sermons in Acts, where he seems more aligned with Peter’s mission to the Jews (compare Acts 2 and Acts 13). Indeed, the so-called Jerusalem Council dealing with issues arising from Gentiles entering the new movement looks quite different in Acts (Acts 15:1-35) and Galatians (Gal 2:1-10).

Such points of discrepancy may appear insignificant, but their resolution has been of major importance to New Testament interpreters. Some scholars suppose that Luke, the writer of Acts, created a more subdued and even subordinate Paul in an attempt to mediate conflicts between early Christian communities of Jewish and Gentile affiliation. Others propose that Luke, who may have traveled with Paul, offered an accurate portrayal and that there is no actual disjunction between Acts and the letters. Yet others account for congruity and discontinuity by suggesting that Acts was composed in the second century, and that its author knew almost nothing about Paul but used his letters as a source for the Acts narrative.

The writer of Acts applied creative intelligence and imagination to source materials to draw out complex personal and social experiences of the past. This use of fictional techniques by both ancients and moderns can result in more vivid and persuasive narratives about historical events. Comparisons of the “Paul of Acts” and the “Paul of Letters” are perhaps artificial and reveal more about the perceptions of contemporary readers than about early Christianity. At best, we have two legitimate and engaging portraits of Paul. Both can be seen as true and historical, affording different vantage points from which we can examine the story of Christian beginnings in fuller and more imaginative ways.

  • Todd Penner

    Todd Penner is the author of numerous essays on the Acts of the Apostles, including the book In Praise of Christian Origins: Stephen and the Hellenists in Lukan Apologetic Historiography (Bloomsbury, 2004). With Caroline Vander Stichele, he co-wrote Contextualizing Gender in Early Christian Discourse: Thinking beyond Thecla, and, most recently, he has co-authored, with Davina Lopez, De-Introducing the New Testament: Texts, Worlds, Methods, Stories (Wiley-Blackwell, 2015).