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Reconstructing Paul’s Life

What are the sources for Paul’s chronology?

For scholars trying to reconstruct Paul’s chronology, there are two main sources: the thirteen letters in the New Testament that are traditionally credited to Paul, although there are some questions about some of those letters, and the Acts of the Apostles, which recounts in the second part of the text, extensive lists of the travels of Paul in different parts of the Mediterranean world. There are later texts, the apocryphal acts, which give other stories about Paul, his life, and his later life and eventually his death. But scholars give first place to the New Testament texts when it comes to reconstructing Paul’s life.

What are some challenges for developing a timeline for Paul’s life?

One of the issues we face in rebuilding Paul’s chronology is that his letters don’t give us chronological markers. He doesn’t give us dates of any of his letters; he’s not very specific about where and when he’s writing. So the information we would like to have is simply not there in the Pauline letters themselves. In the Acts of the Apostles, there are some possible dates we might be able to work with, but even there the author is not explicit. Those texts are not dated in the way that we might want them to be dated, so there’s a lot of reconstruction work that has to be done to build a Pauline chronology.

Are there dates we can know for sure?

In the undisputed Pauline letters, in 2 Cor 11:2, Paul refers to an event that happened in the city of Damascus three years after his conversion. He says that the leader of Damascus at that time, whom he identifies as Aretas, had basically people looking for Paul, looking to arrest him if he came back to the city. Other sources tell us that there actually was a leader who had control of the city of Damascus, who’s Aretas IV actually, and there is some disputes about the exact dating, but most scholars are now agreeing that 36 to 37 of the Common Era was probably the year when Aretas IV had control of the city of Damascus. If that’s the case, then that’s three years after Paul’s conversion. We can back date that to 33 or 34, and that tells us that Paul’s experience of persecuting the followers of Jesus and then turning to be the primary preacher of this message may have happened very quickly after the death of Jesus. So those are two possible dates we can construct at the beginning. Another possible date is in Acts. So with Acts some scholars are more or less comfortable with this, but Acts talks about Paul, his missionary journeys, his second missionary journey, which is his first visit to the city of Corinth, and he says that he appeared before a Roman official, named Gallio, and we have other inscriptions from Delphi in northern Greece that give us the dates of Gallio, who is the leader in Corinth at that time, sometime between 51 and 52. So if that is accurate, if Acts is accurate, then we know that Paul’s first visit the Corinth during his second missionary journey would have happened sometime between the summer of 51 CE and the summer of 52 CE. 

  • David L. Eastman

    David L. Eastman is Sherrill Chair of Bible at the The McCallie School in Chattanooga,TN. In his research he employs archaeological, textual, liturgical, and artistic evidence for the study of early Christian constructions of identity, the cult of the saints, and the reception and expansion of the apostolic histories. He is the author of Paul the Martyr: The Cult of the Apostle in the Latin West (Society of Biblical Literature and Brill, 2011) and The Deaths of the Apostles: The Ancient Martyrdom Accounts of Peter and Paul (SBL Press, 2015).