A Chronological Study of Paul's Ministry

By Dennis McCallum

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Why is Chronology Important?

Chronology is the study of the sequence of events in an historical text, and the comparison of those events with other known events from other sources. The Bible is an historical document, and part of assessing the value of any historical narrative is the study of Chronology. When events in the Bible line up with known dates confirmed outside the Bible, is suggests a high level of reliability in the biblical text. Also, some areas of doctrine are based on chronological assertions, as we shall see in the case of Gal. 2. This outline explains in shortened form how scholars date the events in the ministry of Paul. A more complete study of this process is available in Jack Finnegan, A Handbook of Biblical Chronology.

Sequential Outline of the Movements of Paul by Major Periods

The first step in studying chronology is to assemble a sequence of events along with all chronological notes. In other words, a narrator will say, "for over two years" or "in time for the Passover." These notes, when assembled, form a time chain, often with some missing spots. Here are the important events for Paul's ministry:

A. The period from the conversion of Paul until the lst trip to Jerusalem.
  1. (Acts 9-l2). Paul was converted on the road to Damascus
  2. He entered Damascus and stayed there for an unknown amount of time (Acts 9:19)
  3. Paul went to Arabia for an unspecified period, and returned to Damascus afterward (Gal.1:17).
  4. The whole period from his conversion until his departure from Damascus is given as "3 years"(Gal.1:18)
  5. He went to Jerusalem at this time, and stayed for 15 days (Acts 9:26-29; Gal.1:18)
B. The period from the 1st visit until the 2nd visit to Jerusalem.
  1. After the 15 days at Jerusalem, Paul was sent away to avoid capture, and sailed from Caesarea to the regions of Syria and Cilicia (Acts 9:30; Gal.1:21)
  2. After a period ranging from 8 to 14 years, Paul traveled to Antioch with Barnabas and stayed for l year (Acts 11:25; Gal.1:21-2:1 see below).
  3. Paul then traveled to Jerusalem from Antioch, staying for a short time. This was in connection with the collection taken up in Antioch because of Agabus' vision (Acts 11:27-30; Gal.2:1). He then returned to Antioch.
C. The period from the 2nd until the 3rd visit to Jerusalem.
  1. After the relief visit (2nd visit) to Jerusalem, Paul returned to Antioch.
  2. Very soon afterwards, the 1st missionary journey began.
D. The period from the third trip to Jerusalem (the Jerusalem Council; Acts l5) until the last trip there.
  1. Paul traveled from Antioch to Jerusalem for the council, then back to Antioch.
  2. At that time, they began the 2nd Missionary Journey (Acts l5-l7).
  1. Paul's 3rd Missionary Journey (Acts l8-2l)
D. Paul's arrest in Jerusalem, and imprisonment at Caesarea (Acts 21:17-26:32)
  1. Paul was arrested in Jerusalem shortly after arriving from his 3rd Missionary Journey and taken to Caesarea where he was imprisoned for 2 years.
E. Paul's trip to Rome (Acts 27-28)
  1. Paul left from Caesarea and sailed to Sidon, Myra, and Fair Havens on Crete, where he stayed until after the Day of Atonement.
  2. He then sailed west until shipwrecked on Malta, where he stayed 3 months.
  3. When Spring came, he sailed to Syracuse, Rhegium, and Puteoli, finally arriving in Rome, where he was imprisoned for 2 more years.
E. Paul's movements after the Roman imprisonment.
  1. Paul was apparently freed in after the Roman imprisonment. there is Biblical and early church historical evidence and that Paul was released and traveled more, including a trip to Spain. (Clement of Rome in I Clement, and IITim.) At some point he returned to Rome where he was martyred in the summer of 64 A.D.

Assigning dates to the events in the list above.

After assembling the chronological sequence, the next step is to discover, if possible, a firm time "peg" somewhere in the sequence. If any event in the sequence can be dated independently and reliably, the other events can also be dated by counting backward and forward from the peg. In the case of Paul, we have a very good peg dating his Corinthian ministry during the second missionary visit.

  1. Gallio (Acts l8:l2) The mention of Gallio as proconsul of Achaia offers the possibility of establishing a fixed point in the chronology of Paul's life. From that point, we can reckon forward and backward to establish the best times for all of the events mentioned.

Counting Backward

After establishing the sequence of events, and the chronological notes involved, and driving a firm time "peg" into the ground, we can use the sequence to count backwards or forward. Other corroborating material should fit in naturally.

  1. Arrival at Corinth-- Counting backwards from the time that Paul was brought before Gallio l&l/2 years (which was the amount of time previously spent in Corinth) we come to the winter of 49/50 A.D. as the time of Paul's arrival at Corinth.
  1. Beginning the 2nd missionary journey-- Allowing a period of from eight to ten months for the events that occurred from the beginning of the second journey until the arrival at Corinth seems reasonable. The actual time units given are short (usually stays of days or weeks in each city), and there are several unknown units of time as well. Subtracting this figure then from the date of his arrival in Corinth (winter 49/50) would bring us to the spring of 49 A.D. as the start of his 2nd Missionary Journey.
  2. The Jerusalem Council-- This would indicate that the Jerusalem Council occurred in the winter of 48/49 A.D. (possibly Jan.- Feb. of 49 A.D.). Paul would have spent only a short time in Jerusalem, and then would have returned to Antioch with the news of the Council's decisions.
  3. The First Missionary Journey-- This journey would need to have been finished and Paul returned to Antioch by the fall of 48 A.D. in order to leave time for the council and related events. The length of his lst Missionary Journey would have been anywhere from 4 to 10 months. This would put his departure for the lst Missionary Journey no sooner than early spring 48 A.D.
  4. The Second Trip To Jerusalem-- We can place his second trip to Jerusalem (the one resulting from Agabus' prophecy--Acts 11:27ff) anywhere between 44 and early 48 A.D. In order to check our work, and to narrow it down, we have two considerations:
  1. The First Jerusalem Visit-- If the second Galatian visit is the same as the second visit of Paul as recorded in Acts, then we should be able to count backwards either l4 or 17 years (depending on whether Paul meant the three years and the 14 years to be consecutive or contiguous--both dating from the decisive event of his salvation) and find out when Paul was converted. If the larger figure is used, it will be seen that Paul must have been converted in A.D. 30! To avoid this problem, some scholars suggest that the second visit to Jerusalem mentioned in Galatians is actually referring to the Jerusalem council. However, this is hardly likely for the following reasons.

Counting Forward

  1. We placed Paul's confrontation before Gallio as happening in the summer of 5l A.D. After a short period of time Paul returned to Antioch, in the fall of 5l A.D.
  2. The Third Missionary Journey-- After allowing the winter to pass, Paul started his 3rd Missionary Journey in the spring of 52 A.D. Paul's journey brought him to Ephesus where he stayed for 2 years and 3 months. This brings us to the summer of 54 A.D. Paul then passed through Macedonia in the fall and arrived in Greece where he spent 3 months (Acts 20:3). This would have been mid-winter A.D. 54/55. Returning through Macedonia during the spring (Acts 20:3), he sailed from Phillipi shortly after April 7 (Acts 20:6). He arrived in Jerusalem in May/June A.D. 55, prior to Pentecost.
  3. From Jerusalem to Fair Havens-- Paul was arrested in Jerusalem in the summer of A.D. 55 and taken to Caesarea where he was confined for 2 years (Acts 24:27). This brings us to summer of A.D. 57. At that point, Paul left by ship for Rome (Acts 27:l-2). Luke says it was very slow going (Acts 27:7). They arrived eventually at Fair Havens on Crete, where they stayed until after the "fast" (i.e. the day of atonement, 7 Tishri) was past. This would have been after Sept. 29, of that year--A.D. 57.
  4. From Fair Havens to Rome-- they then set sail and were shipwrecked at Malta l4 days later, which would be in late October. (Acts 27:27; l8:l). They stayed for 3 months (A.D. 57/58, Acts 28:11). In Feb. of A.D. 58, they set sail for Rome and arrived at Rome in the spring of 58 A.D. Paul remained in custody for 2 more years (acts 28:30) which brings us up to 60 A.D.
  5. After the Roman Imprisonment-- Paul was apparently freed shortly after this time as he predicted in Phil. 1:25. References to this time in l Clement 5 and the Muratorian Fragment make it probable that he visited Spain. This is also the most likely time for the writing of I and II Timothy and Titus (as well as Hebrews if, indeed he wrote that book). He then returned to Rome, where he was martyred in the summer of 64 A.D., in connection with the persecution instituted by Nero (II Tim. 4:6).

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