Chronology of the Early Church
This article is an attempt to define approximate dates for events in the book of Acts, to facilitate study of the life and times of the early church, and in particular to highlight the impact of the Judaising Controversy.
There are five key dates, from which other dates can be calculated:
For details of the last four key dates, 41, 46, 52 and 59AD, see the New Bible Commentary, Davidson, Stibbs & Kevan, Inter-Varsity Fellowship, London, 1954.
Note: The abbreviation AD means "Anno Domini" or "Year of our Lord". Jewish people use the alternative abbreviation CE, meaning "Common Era".
When Paul and Barnabas went out on their first evangelistic journey, there was no general agreement among the Apostles and Elders in Jerusalem about the question of circumcision of the Gentiles. Their work was constantly hindered by this vexed question, leading to Paul's heated letter to the Galatians. He returned to Jerusalem to discuss it with the Council, an event that is described in detail in Acts 15. Then he set out on his second journey and revisited the Galatian churches with the encouraging news that there was no requirement for the Gentiles to be circumcised, but a minimal observance would be required, particularly with regard to the food laws so that the Jewish and Gentile Believers could continue their communal meals together.
The first and second journeys probably took about two or three years each. There are six years between the key dates 46 to 52, so the Jerusalem Council must have been somewhere near the mid-point, around 49. The New Bible Commentary suggests the year 50AD.
One thing we learn from this date is the time it took for the Judaising Controversy to be resolved. When the Church first began in 30AD, it was entirely Jewish, and evangelisation of the Gentiles was not considered. It took 20 years for them to accept the Gentiles into the church without requiring them to fully convert to Judaism.
This can be derived from Galatians 2:1 where he says:
Fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also.
Paul had already been to Jerusalem, three years after his conversion, an event which is mentioned in Galatians 1:18. He is counting 14 years after his conversion, not 14 years after his previous visit, since his conversion was the event that made his life worthwhile. If the two periods are added together we get 17 years, giving the impossible result that Paul was converted before Yeshua had been executed and risen again.
The question is - which visit to Jerusalem is Paul referring to, from which he counts 14 years back to his conversion? Was it the Jerusalem Council of 50AD, or was it the earlier visit, in 46AD when he went with relief for those stricken by the famine?
The heated letter to the Galatians, about circumcision, might lead us to believe that he was referring to the Jerusalem Council of 50AD, but there is something here that doesn't make sense. In Galatians 2:7-14, Paul speaks disparagingly of Peter because he was still vacillating over the question of circumcision of the Gentiles. This means the Jerusalem Council had not yet taken place, because at that Council everybody was agreed that circumcision of the Gentiles was unnecessary, including Peter. (Acts 15:7-11).
Paul must therefore have been referring to the earlier visit to Jerusalem in 46AD when Peter was still not convinced. Subtracting 14 years from 46AD we get 32AD as the date for the conversion of Paul. This is a very early date, only two years after the church was founded, but it is quite feasible.
From 30 to 32 AD there was rapid growth of the church in Jerusalem followed by persecution. Stephen, along with others, was appointed as a church leader and had a powerful ministry, but he was stoned while the yet unconverted Sha'ul (Paul) looked on with approval. (Acts 6, 7 and 8:1). The persecution continued, with the active involvement of Sha'ul, causing the Believers in Jerusalem to be scattered throughout Samaria, but wherever they went they preached the Word. (Acts 8:1-4).
Sha'ul pursued them to Damascus, to try and bring them back to Jerusalem, but he met the Lord on the Damascus Road and was converted. He was struck blind, and then regained his sight when he met Ananias. (Acts 9:1-18). He began preaching straight away in Damascus (Acts 9:19-22). Then there is a time lapse, described in Acts 9:23 as "after many days". This is the time referred to in Galatians 1:17 when he went to Arabia and then returned to Damascus. Not the Sinai Peninsula as some might suppose, but more likely the Arabian desert just outside Damascus. After his return to Damascus the Jews plotted to kill him, but he discovered their plot and was let down the wall in a basket and made his way to Jerusalem, accompanied by Barnabas. This is the visit mentioned in Galatians 1:18, three years after his conversion, so the date is 35AD.
It turned out to be a disappointing visit. The Believers in Jerusalem were afraid of him because of the way he had previously persecuted them, and didn't accept him as a genuine Believer. Even though Barnabas spoke up for him, the most they would do was provide him with a safe escort in and out of Jerusalem, and then they sent him back to his home town of Tarsus. (Acts 9:26-30). Nothing is heard of him again for a few years, until Acts 11:25, where we read that Barnabas went to Tarsus to find him and bring him to Antioch.
During that time, while Paul was absent, the following events occurred:
As a postscript to the dialogue about Peter and Cornelius, and the ministry to the Gentiles, the book of Acts refers back to the stoning of Stephen and the persecution that caused the Believers in Jerusalem to be scattered. It says they went as far as Phenice, Cyprus and Antioch, and makes the curious remark that they preached only to Jews, but some other people, presumably their converts in Cyprus and Cyrene, came to Antioch and began preaching to the Greeks, and in it's context this must mean they preached to Gentiles, not to Greek-speaking Jews. (Acts 11:19-21).
It seems that the Jews who came from Jerusalem were reluctant to preach to anyone except their fellow Jews, but the people who lived elsewhere felt more at ease among the Gentiles and were more willing and able to communicate with them. However, this does not mean they were preaching a sanitised Gentile Gospel, devoid of the Torah. It was still a Jewish message, preached mostly by Jews. The message was the same, and only the audience had changed, and until the Council of Jerusalem met in 50AD they were expected to fully convert to Judaism in order to believe in the Jewish Messiah.
When news of what was going on in Antioch reached the church in Jerusalem, they sent Barnabas to Antioch. The first thing he did was to go to Tarsus and get his old friend Paul, and they worked together for a year, building up the church. (Acts 11:21-26).
What was the date when Barnabas went to get Paul? This can be tentatively worked out from the prophecy of Agabus about the famine, and the appointment of Claudius Caesar as Emperor.
And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the Spirit that there should be a great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. (Acts 11:27-28).
Claudius was appointed Emperor in 41AD, and this verse implies that the prophecy was made before his appointment. "In these days" means the year when Paul and Barnabas were in Antioch, so Barnabas must have gone to Tarsus to get Paul in 40AD at the latest.
Paul had been left in relative obscurity since 35AD and it must have been a difficult time. He knew that G-d had called him as the Apostle to the Gentiles, but his recent history of persecuting the Believers prevented him from carrying it out. In any case, the church was not yet ready for ministry to the Gentiles. When Barnabas came to get him, he must have been very much relieved.
He enjoyed a year of ministry in Antioch from about 40-41AD, and then he went to Jerusalem on his famine relief visit in 46AD. It is not clear what he was doing from 41-46AD. He might have been in Antioch, continuing his ministry with Barnabas, or he might have gone on a few short journeys elsewhere, but there is nothing worthy of any special mention.
He went on his famine relief visit to Jerusalem in 46AD, and at that time there was the persecution that resulted in Peter's imprisonent and miraculous escape, described in Acts 12. At the end of Acts 12, Paul and Barnabas returned from Jerusalem to Antioch. Peter also came to Antioch, and they had their argument about the question of circumcision, described in Galatians 2:7-14. Then the church at Antioch sent out Paul and Barnabas on their first evangelistic journey.
Assuming that the prophecy of Agabus was made before Claudius Caesar became Emperor in 41AD, and consequently the latest date for Barnabas to go to Tarsus to get Paul was 40AD, then Peter's vision and his visit to Cornelius could have been at any time between 35 and 40AD. If the assumption regarding Agabus is false, then we have a wider time frame, from 35 to 45AD, but we continue this discussion on the basis that it's true.
Peter's vision was an act of Divine providence, because without it the second generation Believers who began preaching to the Gentiles would have been considered outright heretics. The early Jerusalem Believers never had any thoughts of ministry to the Gentiles, who were totally excluded from the church for at least the first five years until 35AD, and maybe the first ten years until 40AD. After that, the Judaising controversy raged for another 10 or 15 years until it was finally settled in Jerusalem in 50AD.
From the day of Pentecost when the church was founded, it took a total of 20 years for them to welcome the Gentiles without hindrance.
We have already seen how Paul's letter to the Galatians was written at some time during his first evangelistic journey, between 46 and 50AD, and he is obviously irritated that the Judaising Controversy has not been resolved. Galatians is probably the first of his letters to be written.
The book of Romans also has the Judaising Controversy as it's main theme, but when was it written? To resolve this, we have to go forward in time to his third evangelistic journey.
Acts 18:22 describes how Paul went to Jerusalem and then to Antioch at end of his second journey. This was in 52AD, which is one of our key dates mentioned earlier. Acts 18:23 says he spent "some time" in Antioch and then went off on his third journey. He went to Galatia and then to Ephesus. He spent a total of three years in Ephesus, as he recounts in Acts 20:31. This includes three months in a synagogue (Acts 19:8) and two years in the house of Tyrannus (Acts 19:9-10). Then there was the opposition from the silversmiths and the riot that followed. (Acts 19:24-41).
He went to Macedonia and then Greece (which means Corinth) and stayed there three months, which would have been long enough to put together the detailed arguments given in Romans, and then he went back through Macedonia. (Acts 20:1-3). We know that the book of Romans was written in Corinth because of certain people he mentions:
Paul's letter to the Romans was to a church he had never visited, although he always wanted to go there. (Rom. 1:8-15). He hoped to visit them on a future journey to Spain (Rom. 15:22-24) but his immediate plan was to go to Jerusalem with a contribution for the Believers who were in need (Rom. 15:25-27).
The remainder of Acts 20, from verse 3 onwards, tells us how he travelled to Phillipi where he celebrated Passover, then he sailed along the coast of Asia Minor, stopping at a number of places along the way, but missing out Ephesus because he wanted to be in Jerusalem for Pentecost. He was warned by the Holy Spirit in every city that trouble awaited him in Jerusalem but it didn't bother him because the knew the Lord wanted him to go there.
Paul arrived in Tyre (Acts 21:3), where there were further prophetic warnings, but he carried on and went to Jerusalem where the brethren received him gladly. (Acts 21:4-17). The remainder of Acts 21 tells us how he went into the Temple for a ritual of purification which resulted in a riot because some of the Jews mistakenly thought that he had taken Gentiles into the Temple. The crowd is restrained by a group of soldiers (Acts 21:31-40), and then Paul was given an opportunity to speak to them. (Acts 22:1-23). They wouldn't listen, and the soldiers were about to scourge him to try and extract a confession of some sort, but Paul declared that he was a Roman citizen and he was given an opportunity to talk to the Sanhedrin. (Acts 22:24-30). They wouldn't listen, but he managed to get the Pharisees and Sadducees arguing with each other about the resurrection of the dead. (Acts 23:1-9). The Romans continued to protect Paul from their violence. Some Jews made a plot to kill him, but the plot was discovered and Paul was safely escorted to Felix, the governor of Judea. (Acts 23:10-35). He was given some opportunities to testify to Felix (Acts 24:1-26), but was kept in prison for two years until Felix was replaced by Festus. (Acts 24:27-25:1).
This brings us to our fourth key date, 59AD, and it means Paul's arrival in Jerusalem and the events that led to his imprisonment occurred in 57AD. He had been in Corinth and quickly made his way to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost, so the book of Romans was probably written early in 57AD.
Unlike the book of Galatians, the book of Romans does not mention any dissention with Peter or any of the other Apostles and Elders, about circumcision of the Gentiles, because by that time the problem had been resolved. However, it was still a hot enough issue to warrant considerable debate. Only 27 years had passed since the day of Pentecost, and for the first 20 of those years the problem had not been resolved. They had enjoyed only 7 years of liberty since the Jerusalem Council in 50AD and there were still many questions to be answered about observance of the Torah and justification by faith.
Paul eventually managed to meet the Roman Believers when he was despatched to Rome as a prisoner, having appealed to Caesar. (Acts 25:11, 28:15). The journey to Rome began in 59AD after Festus had taken over from Felix, in a ship that was scheduled to arrive the same year before the winter, but they didn't make it and spent the winter in Malta. (Acts 28:1-11). Then they went in another ship to Italy and went to Rome (Acts 28:11-14), so the arrival in Rome was early in 60AD. He was given an opportunity to speak to the Jewish leaders and explain why he had been brought as a prisoner to Rome, but none of them were interested in prosecuting him because they had not been given any letters of complaint from the Jews in Judea. (Acts 28:17-29).
Paul spent two years in Rome in a rented house and received visitors, so he was able to continue his ministry (Acts 28:30-31), which brings us to 62AD.
The book of Acts must have been written shortly after this, because it ends on a triumphalist note and fails to mention the Great Fire of Rome that occurred in 64AD and the subsequent persecution of Christians.
The chronology of the early church can be summarised as follows:
30AD. Execution and Resurrection of Yeshua at Passover, and birth of the church at Pentecost.
30-32AD. Sometime between these dates, Stephen was stoned and the Believers in Jerusalem were scattered throughout Samaria, but they preached the Word wherever they went.
32AD. Conversion of Paul on the Damascus Road.
35AD. Paul visited Jerusalem, but was rejected because of his past history of persecuting the Believers, so he returned to his home town of Tarsus.
35-40AD. Sometime between these dates, Peter had his vision and went to visit Cornelius. As a result of this, the church began to consider including the Gentiles, but not without hindrance.
40AD. Latest date when Barnabas could have gone to Tarsus to find Paul and bring him to Antioch.
41AD. Latest date for the prophecy of Agabus, about the famine, assuming the prophecy was made before Claudius became Emperor.
46AD. Paul went to Jerusalem on his famine relief visit, then he returned to Antioch and went on his first evangelistic journey.
46-50AD. Sometime between these dates, Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, expressing his frustration that the Judaising Controversy had not yet been resolved, and in particular his dissatisfaction with Peter.
50AD. Paul went to Jerusalem to meet the Apostles and Elders, and the Judaising Controversy was resolved. Everybody was in agreement, including Peter. Then Paul returned to Antioch and went on his second evangelistic journey.
52AD. Paul visited Jerusalem at the end of his second journey, and then went to Antioch.
57AD. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans while in Corinth. This letter is less heated than Galatians because the Judaising Controversy had been resolved, although his main theme was still the role of the Torah in the lives of Believers who are justified by faith. Immediately after finishing his letter, he went to Phillipi, then sailed along the coast of Asia Minor, then to Jerusalem where he was taken prisoner by Felix, the Roman Procurator of Judea.
59AD. Festus took over from Felix. Paul appealed to Caesar and set off on a ship to Rome, still as a prisoner. The ship ran aground because of bad weather and they spent the winter in Malta.
60AD. Paul set off on another ship and arrived in Rome, where he was warmly greeted by the Believers. The trial before the Emperor Nero never took place because the Jews did not pursue it. Paul spent the next two years in a rented house in Rome, continuing his ministry and receiving visitors.
62AD. End of the book of Acts.
64AD. The Great Fire of Rome and the ensuing persecution of Believers. Church tradition says that Paul was beheaded, and Peter was crucified upside down, but nobody knows for sure.
This chronology is available for general use, but as was stated at the beginning, it highlights the impact of the Judaising Controversy. To exclude the Gentiles for so long, and even "G-d Fearers" like Cornelius, and then to argue about circumcising the Gentiles for so much longer, means the early Believers in Yeshua were not at all like the slightly observant Messianic Jews of today. They were more like the Chassidim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews. The Believers who came from Jerusalem were definitely like the Chassidim, and those in the outlying regions of Samaria and Galatia were still sufficiently observant to demand complete conversion to Judaism.
Those who quote the books of Romans and Galatians to people who are just dabbling in Torah observance, to try and make them abandon the Torah and go back to living like Gentiles, are really quoting the wrong books. These books were written neither for the Gentiles nor the slightly observant, but for the Chassidim, to try and persuade them to be more accommodating toward people like Cornelius and other "G-d Fearers" who had already come part of the way.
For an elaboration of this subject, see my article on How Jewish Was The Early Church?
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