Paley's genius in the Horae lies in his ability to draw out what he calls undesigned coincidences. These are places where texts come together like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle but where no attention is drawn in the text to the connection. One account or epistle casually mentions a place name, a person, or an event. Another mentions some other incidental fact, person, or event. And from these emerges an hypothesis that involves the truthfulness of both texts (or even of more than two), but in such a way that it is overwhelmingly unlikely that either was copied from or based on the other. Rather, the coincidence emerges from the fact that both are referring in different ways to some factual state of affairs. (Sometimes undesigned coincidences can also occur within a particular book.) Tim has written about undesigned coincidences in a series of posts, and I have written about them here.
In this post I am going to type out a long passage from Paley with very little commentary of my own interspersed throughout. Bear with me. After the passage I will explain the argument, which, despite one slight overstatement of the case at one point, is truly brilliant. When you realize that there are many, many more such arguments that can be made concerning the epistles and Acts, you begin to realize the strength of the case for the authenticity and historicity of these documents.
Now what this quotation leads us to observe is, the danger of scattering names and circumstances in writings like the present, how implicated they often are with dates and places, and that nothing but truth can preserve consistency. (Emphasis added.)
The point that Paley is making is extremely important. If you go scattering people's names around in a forgery or a lie, you easily involve yourself in contradictions with other known facts. If, for example, you are trying to convince someone that you were at church one Sunday when you were not, and if you make up a conversation that you had with Joe at church, it may turn out that Joe was not at church that day at all, and someone may thus catch you in the lie. This is a simplified example. The problem can get a lot more complex than that as more specifics are involved. Paley continues:
Had the notes of time in the Epistle to the Romans fixed the writing of it to any date prior to St. Paul's first residence at Corinth, the salutation of Aquila and Priscilla would have contradicted the history, because it would have been prior to his acquaintance with these persons. If the notes of time had fixed it to any period during that residence at Corinth, during his journey to Jerusalem, when he first returned out of Greece, during his stay at Antioch, whither he went down from Jerusalem, or during his second progress through the Lesser Asia, upon which he proceeded from Antioch, an equal contradiction would have been incurred; because from Acts xviii.2-18, 19-26, it appears that during all this time Aquila and Priscilla were either along with St. Paul, or were abiding at Ephesus. Lastly, had the notes of time in this Epistle, which we have seen to be perfectly incidental, compared with the notes of time in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, which are equally incidental, fixed this Epistle to be either cotemporary with that, or prior to it, a similar contradiction would have ensued; because, first, when the Epistle to the Corinthians was written, Aquila and Priscilla were along with St. Paul, as they joined in the salutation of that church, 1 Cor. xvi.19; and because, secondly, the history does not allow us to suppose, that between the time of their becoming acquainted with St. Paul, and the time of St. Paul's writing to the Corinthians, Aquila and Priscilla could have gone to Rome, so as to have been saluted in an Epistle to that city, and then come back to St. Paul at Ephesus, so as to be joined with him in saluting the church of Corinth. As it is, all things are consistent. The Epistle to the Romans is posterior even to the Second Epistle to the Corinthians; because it speaks of a contribution in Achaia being completed, which the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, chap. viii, is only soliciting. It is sufficiently, therefore, posterior to the First Epistle to the Corinthians, to allow time in the interval for Aquila and Priscilla's return from Ephesus to Rome.
Okay, so what's Paley talking about? He is starting with the place in Romans where Paul says,
Greet Priscilla and Aquila my helpers in Christ Jesus: Who have for my life laid down their own necks: unto whom not only I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles. Likewise greet the church that is in their house. (Romans 16:3ff)So, if we are to take Romans to be a genuine Pauline epistle, then whenever he wrote it, he believed Priscilla and Aquila to be in Rome and to have a church meeting in their house. Now, as briefly as possible, here's where it gets fun: Independent arguments give us reason to take I Corinthians to have been written from Ephesus right about in the space indicated by Acts 19:21-22, where it says that Paul sent Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia but remained in Asia "for a season." But I Corinthians 16:19 says,
Aquila and Priscilla salute you much in the Lord, with the church that is in their house.
Therefore, I Corinthians shows Aquila and Priscilla to be with Paul at that time and sending greetings to the church in Corinth. Got that?
In Acts, Priscilla and Aquila first meet Paul at the beginning of Chapter 18, when he comes to Corinth. They work with him in Corinth for a time while he founds a church there, then they travel with him continuously until they all wind up in Ephesus. P & A then stay in Ephesus for a while (Acts 18:21-26) during which Paul goes and has some other travels, returning eventually to Ephesus (Acts 19:1).
So, for consistency's sake, the other indications as to the dating of Romans should place that epistle after a time when Priscilla and Aquila knew Paul but at some time when they could have been in Rome rather than traveling around with Paul or living in Ephesus. But it also has to be possible for them to be in Ephesus (not Rome) at the right time for Paul to send their greetings to the church at Corinth when he wrote I Corinthians. Got it?
Just here Paley does overstate his case somewhat. He says that it wouldn't have been possible for them to have been in Rome after meeting Paul but prior to the writing of I Corinthians and then to have come back to Ephesus in time. This isn't strictly correct. Acts 19:1-10 records that Paul stayed in Ephesus for a period of over two years on that visit. This was after he knew Aquila and Priscilla, but they are not mentioned during the entirety of chapter nineteen. So in principle it would have been possible for them to have taken a journey to Rome, for Paul to have surmised that they were there and to have sent greetings to them in a letter to Rome, and for them to have returned to Ephesus in time to join in his greeting to the Corinthians, probably written about the time of the events recorded in Acts 19:22. However, as Ockham might have said, journeys to and from Ephesus should not be multiplied without necessity. It is simpler to assume that Aquila and Priscilla stayed with Paul during all or nearly all of his time in Ephesus until the writing of I Corinthians and that they went to Rome subsequently. (By the way, Acts 18:2 says that they were originally from Rome and were forced to leave when the Emperor Claudius ordered all of the Jews out, so it was natural for them to return to Rome when that was possible.)
It gets even more delicate to fit the epistles together with each other and with Acts when we add the further information that Romans appears (on independent grounds I'm not detailing here) to have been written not from Ephesus but from Corinth and also that Paul told the Romans (Romans 15:25ff) that he was just about to go to Jerusalem with a contribution from the churches of Macedonia and Greece for the Christians in Jerusalem. That contribution is mentioned in both I and II Corinthians (I Cor. 16:1ff, II Cor. 8:1-9:7) as being collected at the time that those epistles are written, so this definitely places the time of Romans much too late for the former idea to work. That is, the epistle to the Romans couldn't have been written from Ephesus during some unmentioned journey taken by Aquila and Priscilla back to Rome and then back again to Ephesus during the long period in Acts nineteen when Paul was working in Ephesus.
The question then arises as to whether there was time for Priscilla and Aquila to have gone back to Rome and started a church back up in their house after the writing of I Corinthians (at which time, remember, they were in Ephesus with Paul and sent their greetings to the church at Corinth). And as it turns out, there is. Not a huge amount of extra time, but enough. Here's how it goes: Aquila and Priscilla meet Paul at the beginning of Acts eighteen when they all happen to be in Corinth. At that time Paul founds the church in Corinth. They then travel about with him for a time. He leaves them eventually in Ephesus while he goes and travels on further missionary work. He returns to Ephesus while they are (we surmise) still there. He has a ministry in Ephesus for more than two years. Eventually, shortly after Passover but before Pentecost (argument omitted here for reasons of space), he sends Timothy and Erastus into Macedonia and, just after that, writes I Corinthians. Because Aquila and Priscilla know the church at Corinth, they join in the greeting of that letter. Paul then stays in Ephesus for a while longer, probably less than two months. (Argument omitted.) There is a riot in Ephesus forcing him to leave (Acts 19:23-20:1). Either shortly before that riot or when Paul is leaving after the riot, Aquila and Priscilla also decide to leave and to return to their home in Rome. This makes sense, as the city of Ephesus would have been rather "hot" for them as well, since they were Paul's fellow-workers. Paul may have sent them away even earlier, realizing the growing danger even before the riot breaks out. In fact, we find in Acts 19:21 that Paul sketched out a future itinerary that involved eventually going to Rome himself, so it fits quite well that he would have suggested to Aquila and Priscilla that they return there and set up their base of operations there once again. Whether before or after the riot in Ephesus, they leave by ship for Rome. (Conjecture.) Paul then makes the overland (or mostly overland) journey to Macedonia and "goes over all the parts of Macedonia," which could easily have taken several months (Acts 20:1-2). Paul states in 2 Cor. 2:12-13 that he went to Troas and then on from there to Macedonia. Troas is north of Ephesus on the route one would take if one were going mostly by land from Ephesus into Macedonia. From Macedonia Paul goes south into Greece and (Acts 20:3) stays there for three months.
Since Paul knew that Aquila and Priscilla were planning to go straight back to Rome and begin to have a church in their house, he did not need to receive definite word that this had happened. However, in the seven to ten month total period I am envisaging between Paul's writing I Corinthians and writing Romans, it is possible that he actually received a letter or message back from Aquila and Priscilla at Rome indicating that they had arrived safely and had begun their ministry. Such a letter could have been sent to one of the churches in Macedonia or to the church at Corinth, to which Paul was eventually planning to go to gather up the collection for Jerusalem. In any event, Paul writes to the church at Rome from Corinth shortly before he plans to leave with the collection for Jerusalem (Romans 15:25). He sends greetings to Aquila and Priscilla in that letter (Romans 16:3). The reference to their having risked their necks could easily refer to the danger they were all in together not long before in Ephesus, which would have been fresh in his mind.
It is all quite consistent. In fact, it all fits together quite beautifully. But as Paley notes, how easily could it have been inconsistent. The introduction of the reference to the collection in Romans is a potential landmine. Anyone forging a letter to the Romans (for example) and referring to the collection to give his forgery verisimilitude could, if he were not very careful, easily have placed that letter at a time--e.g., at the same time as I Corinthians--when the salutation to Aquila and Priscilla would have been wrong, as they would still have been with Paul or, at most, might have just then left Ephesus.
Or look at it from the other side: This perfect jigsaw provides confirmation for Acts. If Acts were not written by someone with excellent knowledge of the associates and movements of Paul, how would he know when and where Paul met Aquila and Priscilla, their connection with the church at Corinth, and their presence with Paul at the time that he was writing a letter to Corinth? The fact that Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians is not even mentioned in Acts, but the events recounted in Acts permit Aquila and Priscilla to be with Paul at the time that, we believe on other grounds, the letter of I Corinthians was written. How likely would it be that someone using unreliable hearsay or allowing a heavy dose of legendary accretion into his narrative would write a book like Acts in which Aquila and Priscilla are able to be just where they need to be at just the right times to fit in with the salutations in letters to both the Romans and the Corinthians? If, on the other hand, Acts were written by exactly the sort of person it has always been taken to be written by and purports to be written by--a close friend and associate of Paul, such as Luke, and also one who was meticulous about the material he included--then it is entirely explicable that the incidental references in Acts to persons and places should fit with separate allusions in the epistles.
Another argument, which I am not laying out here in detail, can be made from the entire matter of the collection. Briefly, the collection is scarcely mentioned in Acts, only alluded to briefly in Paul's defense before Felix (Acts 24:17). Yet there can be no doubt, based upon all the evidence, that the visit to Jerusalem during which Paul was attacked by the Jews in the Temple (Acts 21) and subsequently taken into Roman custody was the journey to Jerusalem that he speaks of in Romans as imminent. On that trip to Jerusalem he brought a collection (alluded to in several epistles) for the Jerusalem Christians. He had gathered this money from the churches in Macedonia and Greece. That Acts dovetails so beautifully with the epistles in all the details concerning this journey--including the list of the countries Paul had been passing through just before going to Jerusalem--while scarcely mentioning the collection itself is strong evidence that Acts was written by a source very close to Paul and knowledgeable about his movements. The author of Acts simply recounts what happened as truthfully as possible, and truth preserves the consistency between the Acts narrative and the epistles.
The relevance of all of this to the central truths of Christianity is indirect but important. One possible "out" for the skeptic concerning Jesus' resurrection is to say that the disciples themselves never actually said that Jesus came and talked to them after his resurrection in the detailed scenes we find in the Gospels. The idea is that these scenes were some sort of legendary accretion that "grew up" later on and that perhaps, at most, the disciples had some sort of vague experience or hallucination that could be better explained as a result of grief or religious enthusiasm. The specifics of the gospel accounts of Jesus' post-resurrection appearances are, if insisted upon, an embarrassment for the skeptics. If they are taken to be what the disciples actually claimed, one has to hypothesize either implausible and detailed lying on the part of the apostles, for which motive is severely lacking, or extreme, polymodal, repeated, and lengthy hallucinations that coincidentally involve multiple people at once. This is why it is a good deal more convenient to dismiss them as something other than what the disciples actually claimed.
Athwart the road to that comfortable skeptical view lies the book of Acts and hence, by extension, the book of Luke, which was manifestly written by the same author. Both of these books contain specific scenes in which Jesus appears to people and talks with them, sometimes in groups, after his resurrection. The book of Acts contains a detailed account of Jesus' Ascension, and it also states that Jesus showed himself to the disciples over forty days after his resurrection by "many infallible proofs." Furthermore, Acts contains repeated accounts of sermons and statements by Peter (and John) that they were personal witnesses of the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, and Acts indicates quite clearly that they and the other apostles were willing to die for this affirmation. The meaning of their having seen Jesus cannot possibly be taken to be something vague, given the context, which is absolutely explicit that Jesus was walking about physically and tangibly, talking with the disciples.
If Acts and Luke were really written by a close companion of Paul who took great care over what he reported, then we can at a minimum take it, from a purely historical perspective, that Acts and Luke reliably convey what the disciples were claiming at the time of the first founding of the church. Luke, the companion of Paul, would have had opportunity to meet the apostles and to talk both to them and to others who had heard them. He probably would have had the opportunity to meet Mary, the mother of Jesus, as well; in fact the first chapters of the gospel of Luke, concerning Jesus' conception and birth, bear a strong stamp of being translated from an original in Hebrew which (though this is conjectural) may have been written down by Jesus' own family and given to Luke. All of this, in turn, brings us back to the difficulties that skeptics should have explaining the disciples' detailed testimony and the disciples' willingness to die for it. Hence, anything that supports the reliability of Acts bears upon the truth of the resurrection.
There is a free electronic copy of Paley's Horae Paulinae available on-line here. (In fact, there are several different editions available on-line. This is a particularly good one; the notes by Howson, the editor, are excellent.) Paley is quite reader-friendly, I find. His language, though formal by 21st century standards, flows beautifully.
Take up and read.