Jimmy was born in Texas, grew up nominally Protestant, but at age 20 experienced a profound conversion to Christ. Planning on becoming a Protestant pastor or seminary professor, he started an intensive study of the Bible. But the more he immersed himself in Scripture the more he found to support the Catholic faith. Eventually, he entered the Catholic Church. His conversion story, “A Triumph and a Tragedy,” is published in Surprised by Truth. Besides being an author, Jimmy is the Senior Apologist at Catholic Answers, a contributing editor to Catholic Answers Magazine, and a weekly guest on “Catholic Answers Live.”
The book of Acts does not tell us the full story of early Church history. It provides only partial information.
This is obvious from the fact that it just covers the period between A.D. 33 and 60, when it suddenly stops (providing us an important clue to when it was written).
Even within that time frame, though, it is only a partial record . . .
The How Many Apostles?
For example, the book of Acts tracks the activities of three individuals:
- Peter (ch.s 1-6, 9-12)
- Philip (ch. 8)
- Paul (ch.s 9, 11, 13-28)
That gives us a big clue about who Luke’s main sources were in composing the book for those parts that he didn’t personally witness (the so-called “we” passages later in the book).
Luke tells us almost nothing of the activities of the other apostles, or of other Christians, and so the book is also incomplete in that way.
It does not give us a complete record of what even its main figures did:
- Peter vanishes from the narrative after chapter 12, except for a brief reappearance in chapter 15.
- Philip has only a single chapter devoted to his activities.
- And, as we will see, Acts does not record many of the activities of Paul.
It’s About Time
Some time ago, I did a study of the flow of time in the book of Acts. Periodically Luke will provide time cues, saying that Paul spent three years in Ephesus (20:31) or that he stayed in Thessalonica for three weeks (17:1-2) or that they sailed from Mitylene and the next day arrived at Chios (20:14-15).
As a Bible chronology geek, I couldn’t resist going through the book of Acts and making a list of all the explicit time cues—as well as providing estimates for the implicit ones (such as when Paul goes from one place to another and we can estimate how long it took based on ancient travel times and methods) and the vague ones (so if Luke says Paul spent “many days” somewhere, I might reckon that as a month).
I wanted to add all these up and see if they fit within the chronological framework that the book as a whole covers. For example, could all of the activities ascribed to St. Paul have taken place in the years within the book that he was active?
The good news, from an apologetic perspective, is that they do. Acts appears to cover a period of 27 years (A.D. 33 to 60), but my time estimates for the events it mentions only came to 13 years in total.
That means that there is plenty of room in the 27 years that the book covers for all of the events Luke records—and more!
So Luke passes that test as a historian. He does not give us an impossible chronology.
But he also does not give us a complete chronology.
The Perils of Paul
We know that the record is incomplete because of the information recorded in St. Paul’s letters. For example, in 2 Corinthians there is a famous passage where Paul is so frustrated with some of the people at Corinth that he has an epistolary meltdown, and during the course of it he says some very interesting things about what he has done in his life. He writes:
Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea (2 Cor. 11:24-25).
So here are the totals:
- Forty lashes minus one from the Jews: 5
- Beaten with rods: 3
- Stoned: 1
- Shipwrecked: 3
- Adrift at sea for a night and a day: 1
How many of these does Luke record in the book of Acts?
The thing is, 2 Corinthians was written some time between A.D. 55 and 57 (depending on which chronology you accept).
No matter what, though, it was written before St. Paul went to Jerusalem for the final time, because in 2 Corinthians 9:1-5 he tells the Corinthians to be ready to make donations so that he can take them to the Jerusalem church when he makes his final visit to it.
This visit is already underway—and he has passed the city of Corinth—by Acts 20:5-6, when St. Paul is in Troas—a city to the east of Corinth.
2 Corinthians had to be written before this point on his final journey to Jerusalem, and so what is found in 2 Corinthians must have happened before Acts 20:5.
This means that all the perils Paul mentioned above must occur before this point in Acts.
But only two such perils occurs before this point:
One is the stoning at Lystra that occurs in Acts 14:19. This is the single stoning that Paul mentions in his list. (Another stoning, at Iconium, was attempted in 14:5, but it was apparently unsuccessful because Paul only mentions being stoned once.)
The second is in Acts 16:22-37, where Paul is beaten with rods at Philippi.
That’s likely one of the three beatings he refers to in 2 Corinthians.
But these are the only events in 2 Corinthians that can be referred to in Acts.
There must, from this fact, be two other beatings with rods that happened during the period that Acts covers but that are not mentioned in Acts.
In addition, all five of the times that Paul received the “forty lashes minus one” from the Jews are not mentioned in Acts.
Nor are the three times he was shipwrecked, because the only shipwreck of St. Paul is mentioned in Acts 27, which is after his final journey to Jerusalem and thus after 2 Corinthians was written.
Furthermore, when that shipwreck occurs, Paul and his companions slam into a bay on the island of Malta (27:44-28:1). They do not spend a night and a day in the sea. That must refer to an earlier event.
More Missing Events
There are a number of other events mentioned in Paul’s letters that aren’t found in Acts.
Some of these are in the pastoral epistles (1-2 Timothy, Titus), but these letters may have been written after the book of Acts closed.
This is not the case, however, for events found in Galatians, which was clearly written during the time period covered by Acts.
An example is the fifteen-day visit Paul made to Jerusalem where he saw only Peter and James the Lord’s brother (Gal. 1:18-19). That’s not in Acts.
Neither is the much more consequential visit that Peter (Cephas) made to Antioch while Paul was staying there. There were fireworks between the two during this meeting (Gal. 2:11-16), but Luke does not mention it in Acts.
What Acts Is Missing
We thus see that Acts is not just a limited record of a few key figures (Peter, Phillip, Paul), it is restricted even in what it records about all of these three.
Undoubtedly, each did many more things than are recorded in Acts.
In particular, St. Paul experienced many things that aren’t mentioned in the book even though they fell in the period it covers.
Why didn’t Luke record them?
In some cases, he may not have wanted to because he didn't want to distract the reader from his overall message. For example, if he included Paul's rebuke of Peter at Antioch, it could have distracted from the fundamental agreement (present both in Acts and Galatians) between Peter and Paul.
In other cases, Luke may not have know about the event. He wasn’t by Paul’s side during the whole time of his ministry. Indeed, the first “we passage” doesn’t occur until Acts 16:10-17, so there was a lot of Paul’s ministry that he didn’t witness.
Paul may have recounted some of them to Luke, though, just as he did for the readers of 2 Corinthians.
Why wouldn’t Luke include those?
Likely, because they would have been too repetitive for his own readers. Recording five lashings, three beatings with rods, and three shipwrecks before we get to the one in chapter 27 could be seen as overkill.
It also could have taken more space than Luke felt he had available to him if he were going to keep Acts approximately the same length as his Gospel. (Indeed, there might have been an early, private draft of Acts that was longer and that Luke trimmed to size in preparing the final, canonical edition.)
Luke thus may have had good reasons for not recording everything that happened to Paul.
Still . . . it would be fascinating to know more.
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