The Paulinism of Acts Again: Two Historical Clues in I Thessalonians

David Wenham

Themelios 13.2 (Jan./Feb. 1988): 53-55.
[Reproduced by permission of the author]




Few books of the NT are so important as the book of Acts for the question of the historical reliability of the NT, and few books are so controversial. Many scholars have seen Acts as offering the most objective and concrete evidence for the historical competence of one of the evangelists; others have seen Acts as a thoroughly theological book which is of doubtful historical value.

Scholars arguing in favour of the first view have noted, among other things, the remarkable accuracy of Acts on points of historical and geographical detail, e.g. over the names of the officials of the different cities mentioned (e.g. the 'strategoi' of Philippi in Acts 16:20; the 'politarchs' of Thessalonica in 17:6; the 'grammateus' of Ephesus in 19:35; the 'protos' of Malta in 28:7). They have seen this as confirmation of the seriousness of Luke's claim in the prologue of his gospel to be writing an accurate account on the basis of eyewitness testimony (1:1-4) and of his implicit claim in the 'we' passages of Acts to have been a companion of Paul, closely in touch with eyewitness tradition (cf Acts 16: 10ff.).

William Ramsay (1851-1939), who was one of the foremost experts on ancient Asia Minor in his day, was one of the best known advocates of this first view: he started out with a sceptical opinion of Acts as a theological and historically imaginative work of late date (a view resembling that of some modern redaction critics), but he ended up convinced of Luke's stature as a historian of the first rank.[1] A modern scholar in the same general tradition is F. F. Bruce, who concludes a major recent survey on 'The Acts of the Apostles: Historical Record or Theological Reconstruction?' as follows: 'A writer may be at one and the same time a sound historian and a capable theologian. The author of Acts was both. The quality of his history naturally varied according to the availability and trustworthiness of his sources, but being a good theologian as well as a good historian, he did not allow his theology to distort his history.'[2]

Scholars arguing in favour of the more sceptical view of Luke's writings have noted particular historical difficulties, such as the supposedly anachronistic references to Quirinius in Luke 2:2 and to Theudas in Acts 5:36. They have also detected significant discrepancies between the account given of Paul in Acts and what we know of the apostle from his own writings. For example, it is argued that there are historical contradictions between Paul's own account of his conversion and the events following it in Galatians 1 and 2 and Luke's account in Acts 9-15; also that the Lukan portrait of Paul as a moderate man open to compromise, for example in Acts 21, is quite unlike the radical apostle of freedom whom we meet in, for example, Galatians.

Such arguments have not gone uncontested. For example, on the question of Paul's radicalism it is observed that in his epistles Paul can be conciliatory and flexible, and that the Paul of Acts 21 is not very different from the Paul of 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (though this is not to deny that Luke may have emphasized some aspects of Paul's theology and ministry more than others). On the questions of chronology, the difficulties are admitted, and yet, it is argued, they are much less formidable than they at first appear, when the limitations of our historical knowledge, the fallibility of Josephus (whose testimony is sometimes at variance with Luke's) and the differing purposes of Acts and Paul's epistles are borne in mind. Also, there are satisfactory explanations of some of the difficulties: for example, if Paul's visit to Jerusalem in Galatians 2 is identified with the famine relief visit of Acts 11:27-30, not with the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, this eliminates one group of historical problems.[3]

However, the purpose of this article is not to tackle the question of the Paulinism of Acts in general, but simply to make a few observations about two possibly relevant texts in 1 Thessalonians. I have argued elsewhere that 1 Thessalonians throws a lot of light on the history of gospel traditions, notably on the traditions of Jesus' eschatological teaching, since Paul presupposes and echoes those traditions.[4] I wish now to suggest also that the epistle throws some interesting light on the book of Acts.

The Areopagus speech

One of the most controversial questions about the book of Acts has to do with the speeches of Paul and the other apostles. It is widely accepted that the speeches are the composition of the author of Acts rather than records of what was actually said historically by the speaker referred to. Comparison is made of Josephus and other Graeco-Roman historians who felt free to compose speeches for participants in their narrative. So far as Paul's speeches in particular are concerned, it has been argued that the ideas expressed in the Pauline speeches in Acts (and in the non-Pauline speeches also) are Lukan, not those of the Paul of the epistles. So, for example, the rather philosophical Paul of the Areopagus


speech of Acts 17 is thought to be different from the Paul of the epistles who knew only Christ and him crucified.

This view of the speeches of Acts has been countered in various ways: for example, it is argued that the speeches are not polished literary pieces such as might be expected if Luke were following the tradition of other Graeco-Roman authors in composing them. It is argued that Luke's regular use of sources, such as Mark, for his speeches in his gospel makes it unlikely that he will have invented the speeches in Acts. It is suggested that the differences between the Paul of the Acts speeches and the Paul of the epistles may partly reflect Lukan editorial selectivity, but partly the differing audiences and situations presupposed: the epistles are instruction for converted Christians, the Acts speeches are apologetic to unbelievers, with the exception of the speech in Miletus in Acts 20:17-35, which is notably more similar to Paul's epistles.

It is not the purpose of this article to elaborate or examine these general arguments, but simply to contribute to the debate some observations about one piece of evidence from 1 Thessalonians that has been insufficiently noted by scholars. The evidence is that of 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10, where Paul describes his missionary visit to the Thessalonians and their response to his ministry. Their response was to 'turn to God from idols, to serve a living and true God, and to await his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who rescues us from the coming wrath'.

The striking thing about this summary is its close correspondence to Paul's Areopagus speech described by Luke in Acts 17:16-31. That speech, which is preceded by Luke's description of Paul's grief over the idolatry of Athens, begins with an extended discussion by Paul of the Athenians' ignorant and idolatrous religiousness as contrasted with the truth of God as the creator who gives life and breath to all things and 'in whom we live and move and have our being'. Paul then invites the Athenians to repent of their ignorant idolatry, because 'God has fixed a day in which he will judge the world by a man whom he appointed, providing assurance of this to all by raising him from the dead'.

The similarity of the ingredients in the two passages hardly needs spelling out:[5] in both there is an emphasis on (a) turning from idolatry to the living God, (b) coming judgment to be prepared for, (c) the resurrection of Jesus. There are some differences of emphasis, for example in that 1 Thessalonians speaks of Jesus as the saviour from the wrath and Acts of him as the appointed agent of judgment (though Acts implies his saving role). But the comparison at least tells against those who see the emphases of Acts 17 as unPauline, and it lends some support to those who argue that the differences in the emphases of Paul's speeches in Acts and his epistles reflect the difference between his evangelistic preaching and his subsequent Christian instruction: the significant thing about 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10 is that Paul is here describing the response to his evangelistic ministry and preaching.

Of course the similarity between the two passages need not prove Lukan knowledge of the Pauline sermon. It could simply be that both Paul and Luke are reflecting a common and well-known pattern of Christian preaching to Gentiles.[6] But, although this possibility must be reckoned with, it is still significant that Paul describes the Thessalonians' conversion and by implication his own evangelistic preaching in these terms: the gap between the Paul of the Acts and the Paul of the epistles is thus reduced.

But a further consideration that has not been taken full account of by commentators and that may favour the view that Luke is drawing on historical reminiscence is a consideration of chronology. According to the most widely accepted chronology of Paul's ministry and according to the most natural reading of 1 Thessalonians, Paul wrote 1 Thessalonians quite soon after his visit to Thessalonica and after his subsequent visit to Athens.[7] 1 Thessalonians is usually supposed to have been written by Paul from Corinth, where he had gone on from Athens. The significance of this for our argument is this: 1 Thessalonians was written very soon after the speech which, according to Acts, Paul delivered to the Areopagus. It could be a remarkable coincidence that Luke describes Paul's evangelistic ministry at this time in terms so strikingly similar to those actually used by Paul in describing his own ministry in this period; but it is simpler to do without the hypothesis of coincidence and to suggest that Luke had accurate information about Paul's ministry at this time.[8]

The appointing of elders

Another historical reference in Acts which may be illuminated by 1 Thessalonians is the reference to Paul's appointment of elders in Acts 14:23. It has often been argued that this is an anachronism, reflecting more on the 'early catholicism' of Luke's church than on historical realities.[9] It is suggested, not least because of the evidence of 1 Corinthians and Paul's failure in that letter to refer clearly to the leaders of the church, that the earliest Pauline churches did not have formally appointed ministers.

However, the evidence of 1 Thessalonians once again puts this commonly accepted view in doubt. The evidence in this case is Paul's injunction to the Thessalonians to 'respect those who labour among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work' (5:12-13). This evidence indicates that, although Paul had a relatively short and turbulent stay in Thessalonica (as may be deduced from 1 Thessalonians as well as Acts), he did not leave without establishing some sort of eldership (although the actual word 'elder' is not used). If he did so in Thessalonica, it is entirely probable that he will also have done so in his ministry in Galatia not very long before, as Acts suggests.

But what then of the evidence of 1 and 2 Corinthians? In this case also it is useful to recall the probable Pauline chronology. Paul, having established the church in Thessalonica, moved south via Berea to Athens and then on to Corinth; and it was while he was establishing the church in Corinth that he wrote 1 Thessahonians. Given this probable chronology and given the evidence indicating that Paul appointed church leaders in Thessalonica, it seems intrinsically probable that he will also have appointed such leaders in the Corinthian church.

A comparison of 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians certainly suggests that these two churches, which were geographically quite close to each other and which were founded at the same sort of time, had much in common. For example, they both probably had a 'charismatic problem' (cf I Thes. 5:19-20 with 1 Cor. 12-14), and they had questions over the


resurrection and the second coming - perhaps quite similar questions (cf 1 Thes. 4:13-18 and 1 Cor. 15). But did they have similar structures of church leadership? The a priori probability that they will have done so is confirmed by a comparison of 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13 with 1 Corinthians 16:15-16, where Paul speaks of the diakonia of the household of Stephanas, 'the first converts in Achaia', and of other 'fellow-workers and labourers'. The language used in the two passages is quite similar (with the kopiao and erg- roots in common). The church of Corinth did then have recognized church leaders; note also the reference to 'helps and administrations' in 12:28, the latter word guberneseis having very similar connotations to the word episcopos.[10] Their lack of prominence in Paul's letters to the Corinthians may reflect the fact that they were a relatively ineffective and/or divided force in the Corinthian church, as well as Paul's strong convictions about the corporate nature of the church with the leaders being only part of the body, and his preference for dealing with issues theologically rather than institutionally. We may conclude that the evidence of 1 Corinthians in no way contradicts the testimony of Acts about Paul's appointment of elders; on the contrary, the combined evidence of 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians tends to confirm what Acts says.[11]

The two pieces of historical evidence that we have noted in 1 Thessalonians are not, of course, new discoveries. But their significance for an appreciation of the historical plausibility of Acts has not been adequately recognized by the majority of scholars.


[1] On Ramsay and on the history of Acts studies see W. W. Gasque, A History of the Criticism of the Acts of the Apostles (Tübingen/Grand Rapids: Mohr/Eerdmans, 1975).

[2] This very valuable article is in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, eds. H. Temporini and W. Haase (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1985), vol. 11.25.3, pp. 2578-2603.

[3] On this see, for example, Colin Hemer's article 'Acts and Galatians reconsidered', Themelios 2:3 (1977), pp. 81-88. Compare also his 'Luke the Historian' in BJRL 60 (1977), pp. 28-51. Before his recent death, Dr Hemer read and kindly commented on this paper; I gratefully acknowledge his help on this and many previous occasions. On the Quirinius and Theudas questions see, for example, I. H. Marshall, Luke (Exeter: Paternoster, 1978), pp. 99-104, and Acts (Leicester: IVP, 1980), pp. 122-123.

[4] See my Rediscovery of Jesus' Eschatological Discourse (Sheffield: JSOT, 1984). I did not there point out another historical question which may be clarified by the evidence of 1 Thessalonians, namely the question of the authenticity of 2 Thessalonians. It is often argued that 2 Thessalonians expresses a different eschatological understanding from 1 Thessalonians. If, however, it can be shown that both 1 and 2 Thessalonians are drawing on the same corpus of dominical teaching (as I argue in Rediscovery), and that the supposedly divergent theological perspectives derive from that underlying tradition, then the negative case against Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians is weakened and the positive case for common authorship of the two epistles is strengthened.

[5] Cf L. Cerfaux, Christ in the Theology of St Paul (New York/Edinburgh and London: Herder/Nelson, 1959), pp. 15ff.

[6] Cf U. Wilckens, Die Missionsreden der Apostelgeschichte (Neukirchen: Neukirchener, 1963:2), pp. 81-88. It may be noted that the Lystra speech of Acts 13 does not resemble 1 Thes. 1:9-10 as closely as the Areopagus speech.

[7] In G. Lüdemann's radical reconstruction of the chronology of Paul's ministry, put forward in his Paul, Apostle of the Gentiles (London: SCM, 1984), Paul's foundation of the churches in Greece is dated before AD 40. My particular argument about the Areopagus speech works just as well given Lüdemann's chronology as on the traditional chronology. But Lüdemann's relatively negative assessment of the historicity of Acts is called into question by the sort of observations noted in this article. For criticisms of Lüdemann's reconstruction see F. F. Bruce, 'Chronological Questions in the Acts of the Apostles', BJRL 68 (1986), pp. 273-295.

[8] We must, of course, take seriously Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians about the centrality of the cross in his gospel. Some scholars have explained the absence of reference to the cross in the Areopagus sermon through the hypothesis that Paul had a major change of policy when he came to Corinth. But this hypothesis is unnecessary (and improbable): in the first place, it is a silly reading of Paul's words in I Cor. 2:2 to take them to mean that he preached about the cross and nothing else - 1 Corinthians itself shows that the resurrection was an important part of his gospel; see l5:lff. - or even that the cross was always the most prominent (as opposed to the most fundamental) element in his sermons. In the second place, it is a silly reading of Acts 17 to suppose that Luke intends this as a complete transcript of Paul's sermon, rather than a selective summary of important points. The climactic point of the sermon is the resurrection, and it is not unlikely that Luke presupposes that the preaching of the resurrection included explanation of the death of the one who rose. In any case the point remains that Paul too - in 1 Thessalonians - can summarize his evangelism at this time in a similar way to Luke, without specific mention of the cross.

[9] E.g. E. Haenchen, Acts (Oxford: Blackwells, 1971), p. 437.

[10] C. K. Barrett, I Corinthians (London: Black, 19712), speaks of 'helps and administrations' possibly foreshadowing the ministry of deacons and bishops (pp. 295, 296).

[11] We note also the evidence of Phil. 1:1 as showing that yet another church founded on the same missionary journey by Paul had officially appointed leaders, 'bishops and deacons'. The accumulation of evidence noted makes it clear that the sort of church order presupposed in the Pastoral Epistles is not as obviously unPauline as is often suggested. On the passages in 1 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians, and generally on the structure of ministry in the Pauline churches, see E. E. Ellis, Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Tübingen/Grand Rapids: Mohr/Eerdmans, 1978), pp. 1-22.