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Why Paul in the Book of Acts Differs from Paul’s Letters

A Bible and Beyond Discussion

Monday, February 12, 2024
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With guest scholar Dr. Perry Kea and host Dr. Shirley Paulson

Dr. Perry Kea helped us grapple with the differences we see in the authentic letters of Paul and the way Paul is portrayed in the Acts of the Apostles. Kia explained that neither Paul nor the author of Acts was focused on writing history. They both wanted to convey important messages about Paul’s mission, but their goals were different. Understanding these differences gives us greater insights into Paul himself and the way he was remembered in the Christian churches that followed.

Perry emphasized that the author of Acts and the author of Paul’s letters were not competing or representing some kind of right versus wrong. Rather, both authors contributed enormously to the emerging church. Paul’s letters are the first known writings of the Jesus people, and the book of Acts was written at least a generation or two afterward (40 or maybe even 60 years later). By then, the authors’ differences became apparent.

An example Perry cited was the contrast between Paul’s own account of his visit with the group of leaders in Jerusalem and the account in the Book of Acts. The goal of the author of Acts involved his promotion of the idea of a unified church in Jerusalem. Paul’s own account of that event was more contentious, where he disagreed with some of the issues James and Peter had been dealing with.

The differences – some more subtle than others – leave scholars wondering how dependent the author of Acts was on Paul’s letters. The historical differences indicate the author must not have known of Paul’s letters. On the other hand, there are some similarities that are just too congruent to disallow the possibility of the Acts author having known at least some of the earlier writings of Paul

The historical truth would probably have leaned more toward Paul’s own accounts. This would have been especially true of his account of his struggles with the adjustment needed for the welcome of non-Jews into the community. Paul’s concern focused on the issues of Jewish purity in the context of welcoming outsiders; the goal of Acts was to inspire the idea of a unified and successful community of Jesus followers.

Perry also touched on some key issues related to Paul and his mission:

  • What was the difference between Paul’s own attitudes toward women in leadership roles and the goal of the Book of Acts?
  • Why did he appear to have such an enthusiastic apocalyptic attitude in his own letters, but that theological perspective is hardly noticeable in Acts?
  • What kinds of ‘gifts’ did Paul expect to see in his communities of Christ followers, and how did that appear differently in his own writings and Acts?

On Women

Romans 16:1-23
1 Corinthians 1:10-13
1 Corinthians 11:2-5
Philippians 4:2-3
Philemon 1-2

On Spiritual Gifts

1 Corinthians 12:4-10 and 14:1-5

On Paul’s “conversion”

Acts 9:1-9; 22:6-11; 26:12-18
Galatians 1:13-17