A Chronological Study of Paul's Ministry

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Dennis McCallum

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 The Bible is an historical document, and part of assessing the value of any historical narrative is the study of Chronology.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 1st trip to Jerusalem.

  1. (Acts 9-12). 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 1 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.
    • Paul traveled from Antioch to Seleucia, then to Cyprus.
    • Then he went to Pamphylia which lies to the north of Cyprus in modern day Turkey.
    • From there, he went to Galatia, as far as the city of Derbe.
    • Then he went back through the same cities in the opposite direction.
    • Finally, he sailed from Antioch of Pisidia to Antioch of Syria.
    • This entire journey apparently lasted 6--9 months, concluding before the storms of winter would have stopped ship travel in the Mediterranean.

D. The period from the third trip to Jerusalem (the Jerusalem Council; Acts 15) 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 15-17).
    • Paul journeyed from Antioch to Syria and Cilicia, this time using the overland route to Turkey.
    • They visited Derbe and Lystra, then passed through Phrygia and Galatia. He arrived at Troas, where he set sail for Macedonia.
    • Upon arrival, he went to Phillipi, then to Samothrace, Neopolis, Amphipolis, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and finally to Corinth where he stayed for 1 1/2 years.
    • After the Macedonian and Greek ministry, he traveled to Ephesus, Caesarea, and back to Antioch in Syria.
  3. Paul's 3rd Missionary Journey (Acts 18-21)
    • Paul traveled from Antioch to Phrygia and Galatia for the third time.
    • He then traveled back to Ephesus where he stayed 2 1/4 years.
    • After the Ephesian ministry, he sailed to Macedonia, and went by foot to Greece including a second stop at Corinth(II Cor. 13:1).
    • He then walked back to Macedonia stopping at Phillipi, and set sail for Troas.
    • From Troas, he sailed for Jerusalem stopping on the way at Assos, Mytelene, Chios, Samos, Miletus, Ephesus, Cos, Rhodes, Patara, Tyre, Ptolemais, and Caesarea.

E. Paul's arrest in Jerusalem, and imprisonment at Caesarea (Acts 21:17-26:32)

Paul was arrested in Jerusalem shortly after arriving from his 3rd Missionary Journey and taken to Caesarea where he was imprisoned for 2 years.

F. 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.

G. Paul's movements after the Roman imprisonment.

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 II Tim.) 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.

Gallio (Acts 18:12) 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.

  • Achaia was the area of ancient Greece south of Macedonia. The province was made responsible to the Senate by Claudius in A.D. 44.
  • The term of office for a Proconsul (governor) was 1 year (2 years in rare cases).
  • The beginning of the term of office was May or June. This is indicated by the fact that in A.D. 42, Claudius ordered all proconsuls to leave Rome for their provinces by April 1. In A.D. 43, he amended his law so that proconsuls only had to leave by the middle of April. Thus, allowing for travel time, the term of office would have started in early summer and lasted from summer to summer.
  • Some biographical information on Gallio is available. His full name was L. Junius Gallio Annaeanus. He was a brother of Seneca, the Roman Philosopher. Gallio is recorded in history by both Tacitus and Dio Cassius.
  • The Delphi Inscription is a copy of a letter from the emperor Claudius to the city of Delphi (located across the bay from Corinth). In it, we find the name of Gallio mentioned in his official capacity of proconsul, and the letter is dated.
  • The date given is the 26th "imperial acclamation" of emperor Claudius. An imperial acclamation was an honorary appellation by which the Roman soldiers saluted their general after a military victory. Later, the Senate took over the giving of the imperial acclamation, and the nature of the appellation changed to one signifying supreme power. Emperors during this period were receiving these honors on a regular basis, often more than once in a year. The 26th and 27th imperial acclamation of Claudius occurred in 52 A.D.
    • This date is arrived at by considering another honor known as the "tribunician power." Roman magistrates known as tribunes enjoyed a certain amount of respect, and a similar privilege was conferred upon the emperor when he was granted this honor. The honor came to be granted annually, in addition to the initial granting upon the ascension of the new emperor to the throne. This honor is also mentioned in the Delphi inscription. Although the exact number of times this honor had been conveyed is lost from the tablet, a corresponding Carian inscription links Claudius' 12th tribunician power (going from Jan. 25 A.D. 52 to Jan. 25 A.D. 53) with his 26th imperial acclamation. Therefore the 26th imperial acclamation must fall within this period.
    • On the Aqua Claudia at Rome, (an aqueduct dedicated on Aug. 1, A.D. 52), is an inscription which states that Claudius had received the tribunician power the l2th time, and had received the imperial acclamation the 27th time. Thus Claudius must have received his 26th imperial acclamation prior to the building of the Aqueduct (i.e. within the time period from Jan. 25 to August 1, A.D. 52). Therefore the Delphi inscription can be dated as having been written during the first half (Jan-July) of 52 A.D. C.
    • Narrowing the date: When was Paul brought before Gallio?
      • Acts 18:11-12 states that Paul stayed a year and six months in Corinth. He was then brought before Gallio by the Jews, "while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia." It is likely that Gallio was newly arrived in Achaia at the time of this trial. As a new magistrate, he would be anxious to curry favor with the natives by granting their legal requests. He would thus provide a ripe opportunity for the Jews to try to get rid of Paul. It is probable, therefore, that Paul was brought before Gallio in the summer of 51 A.D.

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 1 & 1/2 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.
    • There is evidence to support this conclusion from the historian Orossius. In Acts 18:2, it says that when he arrived at Corinth, Paul "found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, lately come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome." Orossius says that this was the expulsion referred to by Seutonius in Claudius 25, "since the Jews constantly made disturbances at the instigation of a certain Chrestus, he expelled them from Rome." (It has been suggested that "Chrestus" was, in fact, Christ, which, if true, would make this one of the earliest mentions of Jesus in secular history.) Orossius also says that this expulsion occurred in the 9th year of Claudius' reign. If we consider the first year of his reign to be the reckoning point, (since he started on Jan. 25) then the ninth year would have been A.D.49. Thus, it could truly be said that Aquila had "lately come" when he met Paul in the winter 49/50.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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:
    • the Famine (see Acts 11:27-30) recorded by Luke took place in approximately 46 A.D. according to Tacitus. Josephus and Sentonius say it was between 44 and 48 A.D.
    • At about this time the death of Herod occurred (Acts 12). Herod died c. 44 A.D. (although some scholars argue for a later date)
    • As will be seen, the later date is preferred for this event, so we might speculate that the visit could have occurred as late as late 47 A.D. (since the effects of the famine would not have been felt until after the drought was over). We know from Acts 11:26 that Paul was in Antioch at least l year prior to this trip, which would place his coming to Antioch in 46 A.D. if not earlier.
  6. 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 14 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.
    • Why would Paul fail to mention a visit to Jerusalem when he was defending himself against charges that he was just a mimicker of the other Apostles? In light of vs. 20 in Gal. 1, this would certainly be a serious omission indeed!
    • Gal.2:2 gives the reason for the visit in vs.1. Paul says "...it was because of a revelation that I went up." This would be a very appropriate description of the Agabus visit, but a very poor one of the council visit. There is no vision or revelation mentioned in connection with the council visit.
    • Gal 2:2 also says that Paul submitted to the apostles the gospel that he was preaching, but that he did so "in private." Yet, at the Jerusalem council, Paul had to argue his theology publicly-- before both the leaders and everyone else (see Acts 15:4).
    • Gal. 2:10 says that the only thing the Apostles had to say was that Paul should "remember the poor". At the Jerusalem council, they said four things, and none of them had to do with the poor! As a matter of fact, the content of the rulings given at the Jerusalem council related directly to the subject matter that Paul is discussing-- the content of the gospel. For Paul to paraphrase the findings of the council in this way would be nothing less than pure distortion of the truth!
    • The final and most telling argument has to do with why Paul never does mention the findings of the council if, in fact, it had already occurred. It cannot be argued that Paul rejected the findings of the council, in view of Acts 16:4. We are forced to assume therefore that the council had not yet occurred.
    • Assuming then, that the second visit mentioned in Gal.2:1 is, in fact, the visit in connection with Agabus' vision, we are left with an even more difficult problem fitting 17 (or even 14!) years in between Paul's conversion and the Acts 11 visit to Jerusalem. This visit cannot be dated any later than 47 A.D. as already pointed out above.
    • However we might be dealing with a figure that is actually less than 14 years. It was common practice to count a part of a year as a whole year. Compare Acts 19:8-10 with Acts 20:31 to see how Paul reckoned an actual period of 2 years and 3 months into 3 years. Therefore the actual figure that we are dealing with could very easily be closer to 13 years.
    • Counting back approximately 13 years we would arrive at late 33 A.D. or sometime in 34 A.D. as the time of Paul's conversion. We can also see that Paul's first visit to Jerusalem happened no earlier than the fall of 36 A.D.

Counting Forward

  1. We placed Paul's confrontation before Gallio as happening in the summer of 51 A.D. After a short period of time Paul returned to Antioch, in the fall of 51 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 27:1-2). 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 14 days later, which would be in late October. (Acts 27:27; 18:1). 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).