When did Paul go to Jerusalem?
Three times in the book of Acts,the Bible student is informed that after Saul’s conversion to Christ in Damascus, he departed for Jerusalem. According to Acts chapter 9, Saul (also called Paul) “increased all the more in strength” following his baptism into Christ, and “confounded the Jews who dwelt in Damascus” (vs. 22). Then, when “many days were past…the disciples took him by night and let him down through the wall in a large basket” for fear of the Jews (vss. 23,25). Immediately following these verses, the text reads: “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple” (vs. 26, emp. added). Add to these verses Paul’s respective statements to the Jerusalem mob (Acts 22:17) and to King Agrippa (Acts 26:20) regarding his journey from Damascus to Jerusalem, and Bible students get the impression that shortly after Paul‘s conversion in Damascus, he journeyed to Jerusalem. The problem with this reasoning is that Paul later wrote to the churches of Galatia, and indicated that he “did not immediately…go up to Jerusalem” following his calling to Christ (Galatians 1:16). Rather, he went to Arabia, back to Damascus, and then after three years he went up to Jerusalem (1:17-18). [NOTE: “Arabia” generally is taken as a reference to the vast peninsula which bears that name. Its northwestern boundaries reached almost to Damascus—Pfeiffer, 1979, p. 203.] Concerned Bible students want to know how these passages are harmonized? Did Paul go straight to Jerusalem shortly after his conversion, or three years later?
Although Acts chapters 9,22, and 26 all indicate that Paul went from Damascus to Jerusalem after he became a Christian, one must realize that none of these passages specifically says that Paul went straight from Damascus to Jerusalem. It only says, “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem….” The writer of Acts gives no time limitations here. In fact, nowhere in the New Testament will a person find a statement denying that three years expired between Paul’s conversion and his first trip to Jerusalem as a Christian. Although rarely emphasized, what the Bible does not say regarding Paul’s journeys is very important—it proves that the alleged contradiction is based only on speculation, and not on a fair representation of the Scriptures.
Some question why Paul did not mention his trip to Arabia to preach among the Gentiles when he spoke to the Jewish mob in Jerusalem, and later to King Agrippa. Was it not a vital piece of information? Did he just “forget” about this part of his life? Actually, Paul had a good reason for not mentioning his trip to Arabia—he was speaking to Jews who were “seeking to kill him” because of his dealings with Gentiles (Acts 21:28-31). As a way of comparison, we can understand why a college football player, who transferred from a rival school, may not talk to his current teammates about his former college experiences, or why a new sales representative, who transferred from a competing company, may refrain from talking to current customers and/or coworkers about the three years he spent with the rival company. In a similar way, it did not aid Paul’s cause to mention at the very outset of his speech that some of his first work for the Lord was done among the Gentiles. (The Jews hated Paul for his dealings with the Gentiles. The events recorded in Acts 21 alone are proof of such hatred.) Certain situations simply warrant silence on a subject, rather than an exhaustive detailing of historical facts. Paul did not lie (to the Jerusalem mob or to King Agrippa) about his past experience working with the Gentiles for a time; he merely omitted this piece of information in his efforts to show his fellow Jews that the very people among whom he had been a loyal persecutor were those to whom he now preached.
The twenty-first-century reader must remember that a Bible writer (or a speaker whom a Bible writer quotes) may be writing/speaking from one point of view, and raise a point that may not be made in another situation. Neither Paul in his speeches, nor Luke in penning the book of Acts to Theophilus, saw a need to mention Paul’s journey to Arabia. In his letter to the churches of Galatia, however, Paul was dealing with Judaizers who taught that one had to keep the Law of Moses to be saved, and who wished to discredit Paul as an apostle. Paul thus wrote to tell them that after his conversion, he preached among the Gentiles for an extended amount of time before ever meeting with another apostle. Paul did not hurry off to Jerusalem to get instruction and approval from the Twelve. In defense of his apostolic credentials to the churches of Galatia, Paul mentioned his delayed journey to Jerusalem in order to emphasize (among other things) his genuine apostleship, whose message and authority came from Almighty God, and not from the twelve apostles, or any other person.
Pfeiffer, Charles F. (1979), Baker’s Bible Atlas (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).