Were the Apostle Paul's epistles all written during the Acts Period? This question is ambiguous. It may mean, "Were these epistles written during the period between the call of Paul and the end of the 'two whole years' with which the Acts account terminates?" Or it may mean, "Were Paul's epistles linked up with the Acts account in such a way that they and Acts are really two different aspects of the same series of events?"
The second question may be settled summarily. They are not so linked up. Acts is a historical document. It relates to Israel's history. It is a continuation of the narrative in Luke's Gospel. Gentiles come into its account only incidentally, and as little as possible is said about them, even though they are mentioned in it more frequently than in any other book of the Greek Scriptures. This is easily verified with a concordance. Paul's commission is stated to relate to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15; 22:21; 26:17, 20, 23). Peter unlocked the Kingdom to the Gentiles (10:45; 11:1) and defended his action with vigour (15:7, 14). Paul and Barnabas turned to the Gentiles (13:46, 47) who rejoiced (13:48); and later related what they had done (15:12). A door of faith had been opened to the Gentiles and this caused great joy to all the brethren (14:27; 15:3). Paul later again announced that he would go to the Gentiles (18:6); and in 21:19 he unfolded what he had done among the Gentiles. Finally he announced to the Roman Jews that the saving-work of God was sent to the Gentiles. Now, in all these, the important point for this discussion is that though we are told that these things were done, we are not told precisely, anywhere in Acts, what was done, the real inwardness of what was taking place. It was a historical record. Doctrine regarding the Gentiles was excluded as far as possible. Although the Gentiles are in the history, very much in it, one feels all the time (and rightly) that they do not belong to it and would not appear in it, except as strictly subordinate to Israel, had Israel behaved as they ought to have done. This comes out very plainly indeed if we read Romans 9 to 11 alongside Acts. It is hardly possible to imagine two treatments, basically of the same theme, so utterly unlike one another.
This comes out, too, in Acts itself in the one place where Paul is faced with enquiries from an, apparently, exclusively Gentile audience, namely in Athens. Yet, even here, he addressed himself first to the Jews; and only after that did Gentiles, as such, come into it. "He argued in the synagogue with Jews and the reverent, and in the market throughout every day towards those happening along." (Acts 17:17). To these he evangelized (literally) "the Jesus and the resurrection" (v. 18), Jehovah the Saviour and the resurrection. But the next verse and what follows belong to a very different sort of audience. If any Jews were among the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers they were, by that very fact, so far apostate as not to be in any sense except physical descent Jews at all. And not only is the audience unique in Scripture, the subject discussed is unique also—nothing other than the central problems of Philosophy in the generally accepted sense of the term. Pilate's profound question "What is truth?" reaches out to it from the opposite pole, so to speak; here the question is the one which in these days has come into greater prominence than ever before in the history of mankind: "What is reality?" Some Athenian philosopher had penetrated deeper into this than the rest and had perceived the great truth that (apart from His will translated into action) God is for ever beyond human reach. So this wise man had turned away from the idols and inscribed a pedestal "To God Unknowable." To the Athenians in general Paul administers only a mild rebuke from their point of view— that they are unusually fearful of demons; but nothing is said against the one responsible for the inscription. Collectively, he said that they were ignorantly devout; and instead of reproof Paul uses the inscription as the basis of his address and, as always, he points his hearers towards the Lord Jesus and His resurrection. What makes his discourse unique is the manner in which he sets about his task.
Here is one of the contexts for the discussion of which that much-misused word "dispensational" is so convenient; because the essential point for us to observe is that this is one of the few places in Paul's output in which there is nothing whatever "dispensational" in character. Here he keeps strictly in harmony with the note struck by the inscription on the pedestal—what is now generally known as Natural Theology; and the bridge from this subject to Christian doctrine—first the notion of God as Creator, then the nature of mankind as His creation, their groping for Him and the profound truth of their kinship to Him and His closeness to them, and therefore the falsity of the deduction that any material object can represent Him. Then he turns to the one ultimate starting-point for all who wish to come to God: "He is charging men—all—everywhere—to be repenting, inasmuch as He assigns a day in which He is about to be judging the habitable earth in righteousness in a Man Whom He specifies, evidence of credibility tendering for all by raising Him from among dead ones."
This appeal, as almost always when made to the learned and intellectual, fell almost entirely on deaf ears, and only "some men" and "a woman" paid attention to him. The rest fended off his challenge: "We will listen to you for ourselves concerning this again, also." But they never did, and never will till that promised Day comes. Philosophy and human learning and wisdom are of value to those who already believe God: as a substitute for believing God they are worse than worthless, and a snare because they minister so strongly to pride. There is no Reality apart from Him Who alone is self-existing, Who has what Scholastic Philosophers call "necessary being," that is, Whose being is its own explanation and is not dependent in any way on anyone other than Himself.
So we find that to this most un-Jewish of all possible audiences Paul has nothing to say about Gentiles as such. In essence his message differs in no significant way from that recorded elsewhere in Acts to Jews and to those Gentiles to whom he turned-repentance, Jesus and the resurrection. And the Athens ministry is irrelevant to the rest of his ministry except as completing the record of it as history. He never explicitly develops the theme he there sets out. It is one strand of the fabric of his entire teaching, but no more: he is not out to answer the Philosophers but to display the Evangel of the uncircumcision. The historical side of these activities is confined to Acts. On the other hand, Paul's epistles are not concerned with history except quite incidentally, as in 1. Cor. 15:1-8 where he has to set out historical data, which otherwise they are almost devoid of. A few indications in them have been put together by students with a few in Acts, and some approximation to the dates of them thereby deduced; otherwise they do not link up with Acts in any precise way. They relate, in fact, exclusively to Paul's Evangel and its consequences. Israel come into them incidentally, and as little as possible is said about them, except as a foil to what is taught about the Gentiles and the Church which is Christ's body.
While it is quite true that some of Paul's epistles were written during the period covered by Acts, there are no evident cross links at all except as referred to above. They are all about his commission to the Gentiles; Acts barely mentions it, and then as briefly as possible except as a purely historical account. The epistles are a written ministry to churches of Gentile origin, Acts records a verbal ministry always to the Jew first. No record exists of a speech to a Gentile church or of an epistle to Israel from Paul, unless it be Hebrews, the authorship of which is not disclosed. Even if it did turn out to be by Paul the fact remains that it is extra ordinarily different from any of his other writings. Acts covers a short period of history from a very restricted standpoint; Paul's Epistles have turned out to be valid for at least 1900 years, but with the history of that period they are in no way concerned. These things being so, it cannot matter much what the answer to our first question may be, so it is not surprising that no definite affirmative answer is possible.
On the other hand, there is no room in the chronological framework of Acts for Paul's visit to Spain. He definitely stated that he would be going there after visiting Rome (Rom. 15:22-29); so he must have done so. The truth is that Acts is not concerned with Paul and his affairs except as they affect Israel. Once the pronouncement to the Roman Jews was made and they had departed from his presence, all Acts has to say about his subsequent ministry is covered by two verses.
There is no room, either, in Acts for the imprisonment of 2. Timothy. Others have pointed out, and convinced me, that the Roman imprisonment of Acts 28 was far from rigorous and very brief. True, Acts does not describe its termination, but it implies it in the final verses. There was nothing in that imprisonment to justify the tone of Paul's words in 2. Timothy. Assuming a second one, Paul's foreknowledge that his end was at hand is understandable; but 2. Tim. 4:6, 7 makes nonsense if, in reality, two whole years of unmolested teaching and preaching lay before him. A corollary of the theory of one single imprisonment is that the Prison Epistles were written during it. This brings about a clash between Acts 28:20 and Eph. 3:1. The latter imprisonment must have taken place after the termination of his ministry to Israel and therefote after the end of Acts.
The Scriptures differ from every other document ever circulated in the inflexible way each one of them sticks to its theme and refuses to pander to human curiosity or to wander off into irrelevancies and side issues. This extreme purity and clarity of thought marks them off decisively from all merely human writings.
We are apt to overlook that we know practically nothing of the chronological order of Paul's Epistles outside what we may deduce from the epistles themselves and a few incidental coincidences with other writings. Certain of them fall into groups: first, 1. and 2. Corinthians; second, Romans and Galatians; third, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians; fourth, 2. Timothy and Titus. These four show clear doctrinal stages; the first being Pentecostal, the second with Pentecostal conditions practically gone, and building a firm doctrinal basis for the third, which is the glorious crowning teaching. The fourth looks rather to the long dark centuries which were to follow. Nothing of this fits into the Acts framework; nor could it, for its scope transcends that of Acts.
There remain some epistles which do not really fit into any chronological scheme. We cannot say for certain when 1. and 2. Thessalonians and 1. Timothy were written. The fact that Paul had to instruct the Thessalonians about the future of their dead suggests that the epistle is early; yet the suggestion that their dead were suffidently numerous to bring such a question to the forefront points the other way, as also does their high standard of maturity. It may well be that this church was the first to endure any considerable martyrdom. The feeling of personal concern here is in contrast with the circumstances of the disdosure of the Secret of the Resurrection to the Corinthians, who seem to have been chiefly interested in academic discussion of the subject.
The fact is, we can place these epistles almost anywhere in Paul's ministry except near its end.
Lastly, we know nothing at all of the Apostle Paul's oral ministry to the Gentile churches except what he tells the Corinthians in 1. Cor. 15:1-7. Naturally it must have been along the lines of the written ministry; but whether he told any of the secrets verbally before he did so in writing is a matter of conjecture. He could not have done so publicly, for then they would no longer have been secret.
Taking all these considerations together, we can only conclude that such chronological investigation is a will-o'the-wisp. If its success could carry any important lesson for us, we would have been given all the necessary data. As such data have been withheld, we can rightly conclude that a chronological sequence of Paul's Epistles is not only unnecessary but perhaps even harmful, in that it might easily divert our attention from our proper approach to them.
R. B. WITHERS Last updated 18.10.2005