Friday, June 16, 2017

Placement, order, and dating of Pauline epistles

I recently wrote up my own opinions (though not uninformed opinions) on the placement of Paul's epistles within Acts and on their approximate calendar dates. I wrote it up for someone whom I am meeting to discuss the topic, but after doing all that work, I figured it would make a good blog post. I ask readers to excuse the varying amounts of argument represented here and the terse style. "Hemer" of course is Colin Hemer in Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History, discussed in the previous post. "HIPV" is my own book, Hidden in Plain View. Each entry begins by placing the book in relation to Acts, which is usually much easier to do than placing it in relation to the calendar. Next I make educated guesses about calendar dating. The order is chronological, according to my own present views. Readers who are into New Testament issues will notice that I don't try to write treatises on the much-discussed issues of the destination and placement of Galatians and the authorship of Hebrews, but I do give my own present opinions. Until I went back to Hemer this last time, I had forgotten about the earthquake in the Lycus Valley and its possible impact upon the dating of Colossians, Ephesians, and Philemon. Enjoy!


--I Thessalonians, just after Acts 18:5, compare I Thess 3:6.

Approximate calendar date, some time around 50-51. Gallio’s proconsulship can be pretty precisely dated to 51-52, approximately 18 months, by external evidence. (See Acts 18:12-17 and Hemer on Gallio.)

--II Thessalonians, some time during stay in Corinth in Acts 18. Notice that he is still with Timothy and Silvanus, just as in the salutation to I Thess. Silvanus may be Silas.

Approx. calendar date 51-52, via Gallio connection and probable writing during this stay in Corinth. However, could be as late as 53, since we don’t know exactly when Paul left Corinth, and Acts 18:18 says Paul remained “many days longer,” a vague note of time.

--I Corinthians, during Paul’s time remaining in Ephesus, Acts 19:22. This would have been toward the end of his time in Ephesus. Numerous arguments. See HIPV. This is very firmly fixed to Acts 19:22. Probably in the spring between Passover and Pentecost (I Cor. 16:8). He expressed an intention to spend the winter in Corinth (I Cor. 16:1-8); compare the “three months” in Greece in Acts 20:3. Hence I Corinthians was written less than a year before Acts 20:3.

Calendar date somewhat less firm, depending on vague notes of time in Acts 18:18 and a journey of unspecified length in Acts 18:23. He spent 2-3 years in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-9). Hemer also places I Corinthians in Ephesus somewhere in Acts 19 (though not quite as precisely as I do). He dates I Corinthians around 55 A.D. and lengthens Paul’s journey through the Macedonian regions in Acts 20:2 so that it includes over a year, but this loses the coincidence with the three months in Acts 20:3. I would be inclined to make that journey through Macedonia much shorter so that the 3 months in Acts 20:3 does correspond to the next winter mentioned in I Corinthians 16. If Hemer is also right to date the arrest in Jerusalem in Acts 21 to 57, which is somewhat conjectural, then I would be placing I Corinthians in the spring of 56.

--II Corinthians was written from Macedonia during the collection journey. The collection is explained in the epistles. The collection journey was through Macedonia and into Achaia at the beginning of Acts 20. See II Cor. 8:1, 9:2-4. Very firmly fixed in relation to Acts and the collection (though the collection is never mentioned in Acts). See HIPV.

Calendar date, again depends on how long you make the Macedonian journey and whether one is trying to fix Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem in Acts 21 in 57. I would put II Corinthians around late fall of 56.


--Romans, clearly completed around Acts 20:3, just before he is about to set off for Jerusalem with the collection. See Romans 15:25-27. Compare also the lists of his companions in Acts 20:4 and Romans 16:21-23.

Calendar date, if Hemer is right that the arrival in Jerusalem was 57, would be late winter or very early spring of 57. Some commentators have put the arrival/arrest in Jerusalem in 58, which would shift all of this to a year later. Hemer’s arguments concern the notes of time in Acts 20:5-6 and the beginning of Passover in the year 57. I think this is not extremely strong, because (among other things) Acts merely says (Acts 20:6) that they sailed away from Philippi “after” the days of Unleavened Bread with no statement of how long after. If it were even a few days, it would throw off the calculation Hemer is making.

--Galatians, extremely controversial. I have my own opinions but will not attempt to summarize all the arguments. Contrary to most conservative commentators now, I would place Galatians during the winter of Acts 20:2, right around the same time as Romans. I am inclined to think that the journey to Jerusalem in Galatians 2 is indeed the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15, despite the well-known difficulties of this view. In that case, Paul simply doesn’t mention the Acts 11 journey in Galatians, which may be because it was merely for purposes of carrying money or may even mean that he did not see the apostles on that journey. Again this is all highly controversial. I am ambivalent on the North-South Galatian destination, but placing the epistle in Acts 20 does not require one to take the North Galatian view, though it has been associated with it historically. Hemer, in contrast, places Galatians very early as the earliest epistle, back in Acts 14 or, at latest, Acts 15:1, just before the Jerusalem council.


Hemer’s argument would make the calendar date around 49. Mine would make it some time around the winter of 56-57.

--Ephesians, Colossians, and Philemon were all written around the same time and despatched by the same messenger(s)—Tychicus and Onesimus. Col. 4:7-9, Eph. 6:21-22. Col. 4:9 shows that Onesimus and Tychicus traveled together. Many links between the persons mentioned in Colossians and Philemon—Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, for example. And Archippus is greeted in both. “Ephesians” appears to be the “lost” letter to the Laodiceans mentioned in Col. 4:16. (See argument in HIPV, taken from Paley.) These three are all prison epistles, see references to Paul’s imprisonment throughout them and the argument in HIPV concerning the “chain” in Ephesians 6:20. They fit extremely well in the two-year Roman imprisonment in Acts 28:30, but there are few indications as to whether they are early or late in that imprisonment.

Hemer argues that they were early because of a mention in Tacitus of an earthquake in AD 60-61 that completely destroyed Laodicea. Eusebius says that an earthquake destroyed both Laodicea and Colosse, though Eusebius dates the earthquake to 64. One assumes that these allude to the same earthquake but place it in different years, since that is more economical than assuming that Laodicea was destroyed by an earthquake twice within four years. Obviously, Paul wouldn’t have written telling Philemon (as he does) to prepare a guest chamber for him in a house that Paul knew had just been destroyed by an earthquake. So either the earthquake hadn’t happened yet or Paul hadn’t heard about it yet when he sent these three letters. This places pressure to put the letters fairly early in the 2-year Roman imprisonment, though if we accept Eusebius’s date there is no such issue. Tacitus was writing closer to the time, but Eusebius might have had access to other sources.

--Philippians, again, is a prison epistle and fits well during the 2-year Roman imprisonment in Acts 28. Hemer rightly points out that there apparently had been time for various journeys back and forth. Epaphroditus had known where to find Paul and had brought him money from Philippi. Word had gotten back to the Philippians that Epaphroditus was sick. So this is some argument that it was somewhat later in the imprisonment. (Phil 2:25-27) Also, Phil. 1:12-17 shows that Paul’s imprisonment has had various effects on the preaching of the gospel, Paul has had word of these effects and is making an assessment of them. Again, this argues for a somewhat later date in the imprisonment. Compare also Phil. 2:23-24 and Philemon 22. Both indicate hope of release. Hemer sees somewhat more anxiety in Philippians 1:23-24 where Paul is trying to guess whether he will live or die, but this is conjectural.

Suffice it to say that there is some evidence pushing Philippians to around 62, later in the Roman imprisonment, and some evidence pushing the three other prison epistles of Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians to 60 or early 61, but it is impossible to be dogmatic.

The calendar dating of the imprisonment to approximately 60-62 comes from the notes of time of two years’ imprisonment in Caesarea (Acts 25:26-27) and the length of the voyage to Rome, including shipwreck, winter, change of ships, etc., from Acts 27-28. If one scoots everything down a year, the imprisonment would be 61-63, but that really would probably require taking Eusebius’s date for the Colossian earthquake, since Paul would likely not have written those three letters in that way to the Laodicea/Colosse region after he knew about the earthquake.

--Hebrews: Obviously, whether or not Hebrews is in any sense an epistle by the Apostle Paul is hugly controversial, and I’m not intending to give all the arguments on various sides. My own present working theory is that it was co-written by Paul and Luke and that the last verses of the last chapter (perhaps from verse 16 or 17 on) were an entirely Pauline “cover note,” written to its initial recipients (wherever they were) and known to be by Paul, with the intention that they would circulate just the treatise itself to a wider Jewish-Christian audience. This is obviously speculative. If Hebrews is Pauline, where does it fit? Here I see a plausible connection with Philippians. In Philippians 2:19-24 Paul says that he hopes to send Timothy to them as soon as he sees how it will go with him, presumably at some sort of hearing or in some other legal sense. In Hebrews 13:23 the author says that Timothy has been “released” and that he hopes to see them along with Timothy soon. This need not mean that Timothy has been actually in prison but could just mean that Timothy has been released from some other duty. One possible picture, then, is that there was enough good news (legally) that Paul sent Timothy to the Philippians but that there were still legal loose ends to be tied up in Rome before he himself was released. Hebrews, then, could be placed at the very tail end of the Roman imprisonment mentioned in Acts, after the other prison epistles and shortly before Paul’s release, either due to the default of his accusers or to a favorable hearing.

In both Philemon v. 22 and Hebrews 13:18-19 the author says that he hopes to be released from imprisonment soon by means of the prayers of the recipients. If Hebrews is Pauline, this might place it at approximately the same time in the two-year Roman imprisonment as Philemon. However, that would place Philemon, Colossians, and Ephesians much later in the Roman imprisonment and would require that the Lycus River valley earthquake took place according to Eusebius’s date, not Tacitus’s.


--I Timothy and Titus should not be dated within Acts, as the Pauline travel they allude to clearly occurred outside of the events in Acts. There are numerous arguments for this; just to begin with, there is no way to fit Paul’s leaving Timothy in Ephesus and going on to Macedonia (I Tim. 1:3) with any of the trips recorded in Acts.

If anything, the geographical notes in Titus are even more clearly about some later journey of Paul. In Titus Paul has been in Crete and has left Titus there (Titus 1:5), while at no time in Acts is there a good place for Paul to visit Crete. Paul is at liberty when he writes Titus and intends to spend the winter in Nicopolos (Titus 3:12), which is in the north of Greece. Paul doesn’t appear to have wintered there at any time in Acts except possibly during the very early years in Acts after his conversion that are covered more sketchily. Yet I and II Timothy and Titus all appear to be much later in Paul’s life.

Given all of this and more related to 2 Timothy, the best conclusion seems to be that Paul was released at the end of the imprisonment in Acts, as his notes in Philippians and Philemon indicate that he hoped for, and had an unspecified time of ministry after that before he was again imprisoned, with the second imprisonment represented by 2 Timothy.

This would put the dating of I Timothy and Titus somewhere between 62 and 64.

--2 Timothy definitely refers to a second imprisonment, not to the imprisonment described in Acts or referred to in the other prison epistles. Again, there are numerous arguments for this, not all of which I will try to list. Among them, perhaps the most knock-down of all: 2 Timothy 4:20 says that Trophimus was left sick at Miletus in the time shortly before this imprisonment, but in Acts Trophimus was not left behind but traveled all the way to Jerusalem with Paul and is conjectured by Luke to have been the cause of the riot in Jerusalem (Acts 21:29). Also, again, in Acts Paul’s last visit to Miletus was years before he was in Rome, given the Caesarean imprisonment. He would never have referred in this way to having left Trophimus at Miletus sick, with no indication of the outcome, if it had happened several years before. Numerous indications show that this imprisonment was much shorter than the imprisonment referred to in Philippians. (By the way, an argument for the authenticity of the pastoral epistles can be made from the very fact of their being so independent of Acts and implying a later and separate ministry. Perhaps I will spell this out more in a later post.)

This epistle can’t be dated with certainty but was very likely written in a relatively short second imprisonment, ending in Paul's death, during the Neronian persecution, 64-68.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

Colin Hemer on the genre of Luke's writings

I have recently been reading and reveling in portions of Colin Hemer's magisterial The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. If you can at all get hold of a copy, consider doing so. The American publisher, Eisenbrauns, advertises it in paperback for $49.50, which I know is pricey but better than it appears to be if you check Amazon. Unfortunately, Eisenbrauns is saying it is "out of stock" on their site. I hope that is just temporary. Maybe they have gone to a print-on-demand model for the book. Oddly, Eisenbrauns is selling it as a merchant on Amazon for $55, so this is a bit mysterious. The book is so worth having.

I read and used several sections of the book in detail when preparing Hidden in Plain View, and I referred several times to Hemer's amazing lists of external confirmations of Acts, some of them discussed by Esteemed Husband here. Hidden in Plain View is dedicated to three people--William Paley, the late Colin Hemer, and Timothy McGrew.

Now I'm reading even more of the book and finding even more amazing stuff in it. Hemer is simultaneously so judicious and so brilliant that it is impossible not to respect him immensely. He's not at all afraid of scholarly fashion (though he's more polite about dissenting from fashion than I am), he cares only for where the evidence leads in his own scholarly conjectures and conclusions, and he is so careful, that it is a joy to read him and immensely profitable, even if one doesn't agree with him at every point. Hemer is pretty firmly on the side of a south Galatian destination for the book of Galatians and even more firmly on the side of a very early date, making Galatians the first of the Pauline epistles we possess. I disagree with him on the latter point and lean away from his position on the former, but just reading his discussions is clarifying and has allowed me to consider the issue in all of its ramifications.

The astounding thing about Hemer is his consistent soundness. Nowhere yet in the book have I encountered the sudden flight into dubious fantasy nor the sudden, sickening plunge into dreadfully bad argument that plagues so many even of the best scholars of the New Testament. (E.g. See here for a summary of historian Richard Bauckham's weak argument against Matthew authorship.) Never does Hemer make a weak conjecture, then abruptly treat it as an established fact, then proceed to string together several such conjectures, then act as if he has established the conclusion on firm ground. He is, par excellence, the scholar of the cumulative case and is always aware of the fact that he is incorporating uncertain or speculative premises as part of his case. Hemer also recognizes again and again that evidence can go in more than one direction. He will refer to some scholar who, say, treats a particular year of the crucifixion as set in stone and then subordinates all other evidence to it and will point out that, if there is evidence that seems to tell in another direction "downstream," we should be willing to reconsider the earlier premise (e.g., the year of the crucifixion).

So after devouring his discussion of the end of Acts and his section on the context of the composition of Acts, et. al., I finally decided to read portions of the section on the placement of Luke and Acts in ancient historiography--in other words, genre, a topic I generally find boring almost to the point of madness. But in it, I found this absolute gem of a passage, in which Hemer anticipates current trends to classify Luke as a "Greco-Roman bios" and to downplay its normal, ordinary accuracy on that basis, a problem I discuss here, here, and here. Hemer's comments, I believe, apply with (at least) equal force to the other gospels.

The Gospel at least is, on the face of it, a [bios]. But from the perspective of our theme we need to measure Luke-Acts by a more exacting historical standard than that of Plutarch. The relevance of biography to this question is largely negative. It is another kindred strand in the ancient cultural complex. It testifies to the existence of an anecdotal or encomiastic tradition of the interest in personality....There are certainly parallels between Luke-Acts and features of history, biography and technical literature. But those parallels are neither exclusive nor subject to control. They are fluid, relevant to the general milieu, if perhaps partly in reaction against it and hard to place accurately within it. Most of the New Testament is perhaps best seen as a popular literature, imperfectly representative of any defined literary type, and motivated by a dominant theological purpose scarcely paralleled in pagan writing. If Luke is a partial exception, aspiring to a more formal style in addressing a man presumably of some literary education, his type is still somewhat free and mixed, a concisely effective vehicle for what he had to say, drawing on a flexible use of the style most natural to him. The uninitiated reader might have taken the Gospel at first sight for a biography, but soon have found it an unusual one, and then have been moved by the impact of the double work in directions other than the normal reactions to biography or history. It is my contention that one of the inevitable questions posed as a result of the document was whether it really happened. Ancient biography, no less than ancient historiography, may need to serve as a historical source. The question here is whether the work is a good source. And it needs to be measured by the stricter rather than the laxer measure. Rigorous concepts of history existed in Luke's world: Luke must be judged by his performance rather than on the slippery ground of parallels. (Hemer, pp. 93-94, hardcover edition published by J.C.B. Mohr, emphasis added)
This is extremely perspicacious. I have to draw attention to several of the virtues of what Hemer says, in contrast with current fads. My emphases in the above quotation already draw attention to some of them.

Above all, Hemer avoids the simplistic use of genre identification that is suddenly dogging evangelical New Testament scholarship in 2017. That simplistic use goes something like this: "The gospels are bioi. The authors of bioi all thought they were justified in making up speeches, changing events to different days, and in various other ways doing things that we would generally consider contrary to real historical reliability. Therefore, we need to revise our standards of reliability, because the original readers would have recognized the gospels as bioi and wouldn't have expected them to be accurate in those senses." On this approach, we take the identification of something as "bios" to create a kind of probability distribution of accuracy according to which a bios is generally no less accurate than x but no more accurate than y.

Some evangelicals welcome the identification of bios in contrast to, say, legend because this imagined probability distribution at least sets some very broad limit to how creative the author is likely to get with the facts. Phew! At least we can get some historical knowledge from the gospels. What a relief! But on the other hand, this approach is also being taken to set an upper limit on how conscientious the author is going to be concerning the facts. Hemer blows all of this out of the water, because he simply rejects the silliness of the false dichotomy: Either the gospels are bioi in some highly explicit sense or else we have no idea how legendary or inaccurate they must be, because if we reject bioi we don't have a sharp genre designation for them.

Hemer realizes that something can have various features of a genre without our being able thereby to draw firm conclusions about whether the author was trying to be historically accurate on such issues as dates, what was actually said, etc. Hemer also recognizes that identifying a precise literary genre for the gospels, as opposed to a general sense of what they are attempting to do, isn't really terribly important. (Shocking as that may sound.) The more important point is that Luke had something important to say, not that he adopted a genre in a self-conscious sense and then considered that it freed him from a need to be accurate in the story he wanted to tell. Indeed, the importance of the story to Luke and to his audience made it important to get things right. Hemer's nuanced, scholarly mind allows him to think of ancient biography as part of Luke's general milieu (in the case of Luke more so than the other authors if he was a well-educated Gentile) rather than as some kind of esoteric pass-key to the gospels that allows us to draw deductive conclusions.

Moreover, as Hemer points out, it is completely false that back in those days nobody expected a source to be rigorous in its approach to truth and falsehood. Nor can slapping a genre label of "bios" on a book magically erase any relevance of high standards of historical accuracy in the ordinary sense. Hemer is openly declaring that we are right to wonder whether Luke and Acts (and I would say, Matthew, Mark, and John as well) are telling the truth about what happened, not in some dodgy sense of "telling the truth," but in a straightforward sense. That is not being anachronistic or unsophisticated at all. On the contrary, the evidence of the books themselves is that Luke was trying to get it right, in an uncomplicated sense of "right." While it may sound sophisticated, it is actually patronizing Luke and the other gospel writers to imply that they, writing in an ancient genre, didn't have our modern standards of accuracy or wouldn't have thought that (for example) they were misleading their readers if they stated explicitly that a certain event happened on a Saturday when they knew full-well that it really happened on the following Wednesday.

Hemer's relegation of Greco-Roman bioi to, at most, the general milieu of the gospel writers is even more important when we consider the Jewish authorship of the other gospels--Matthew, Mark, and John. Insofar as we have evidence for the traditional ascriptions of authorship of those gospels (and bearing in mind the lesson that evidential relevance goes both ways), that evidence tends to count against the thesis of any self-conscious or explicitly trained influence by or adoption of such a Greco-Roman genre. The picture of the young Matthew literally sitting in school and being taught Greco-Roman literary "compositional devices" is farfetched, to put it mildly. It would take a good deal of strong evidence to lead a careful historian to think that any such thing ever happened, and such strong evidence has not been forthcoming.

Now more than ever we need Hemer's care and his ability to keep all the threads of an argument in his hands at any given time, not putting too much weight on just one thread nor "running with" a theory. And then, too, there is the Preface to the book by the editor, Conrad H. Gempf. Gempf got the work ready for publication after Hemer's rather sudden death of an illness in 1987. At his death, the manuscript was found handwritten on nearly 400 narrow-ruled sheets of notebook paper, each containing nearly twice as much material as a single-spaced typed page. Gempf describes the pages as "meticulously clear."

As the Facebook meme might say,

This is Colin.
Colin was a bad-ass scholar.
Be like Colin.

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Giving the devil his due

Update here on the HHS's decision to move against the Obama-era contraception mandate. This is a follow-up to this post.