In yesterday's post I wrote about Douglas Campbell's recent work on Pauline chronology. I've read some of his articles on the matter before, but I'm just now getting around to reading his Framing Paul, where he develops his thoughts on chronology more fully into a comprehensive frame for Pauline exegesis. Campbell is, without question, one of the best writers on NT chronology working today. Unlike many working within that sub-field he understands that a) chronology is a historical project, and b) as such cannot be reduced to literary relationships but rather most focus upon constructing intelligible human operations. This elevates his account to a level comparable to the greatest chronologists in the modern study of the New Testament. Where I disagree with him it is because we have made different decisions on controvertible matters.
Two decision points--one procedural, one empirical--in particular seem to force our chronologies into a degree of divergence. The conceptual has to do with the relationship between the Pauline and Acts data. Campbell, following John Knox and really the discipline more broadly, argues that the Pauline data must be given primacy over the Acts data. And of course he's right: on the specific matter of Pauline chronology, all things being equal Paul's own autobiographical statements must take precedence. He's also right that Luke is not invariably concerned with presenting material in its proper chronological order. In fact, space seems at least as much a structuring principle in Acts as time, with the expansion of Christianity first north along the Levantine coast and then west towards Rome constituting a primary (perhaps the primary) means by which Luke organizes his account. This can all be granted, although I am not entirely convinced that Luke is disinterested in the issue of chronology, especially when we see instances in which he signals to us that he is connecting a given account back to earlier episodes (cf. Acts 11:19-20, which is set up explicitly as the immediate sequel to Acts 8:1). Where I think that Campbell errs however is that he seeks to construct a chronology solely on the basis of the Pauline epistles. I fear that for Campbell "secondary" too easily translates as "dispensable."
The second point is empirical. Campbell argues that given what we can know about the period Paul must have escaped Damascus under the ethnarch of the Nabatean king Aretas (cf. 2 Cor. 11:32-33) sometime in 36 or 37. Identifying this with Paul's departure from Damascus and trip to Jerusalem referenced in Gal. 1:17-18, Campbell argues that this must have happened 2-3 years after Paul's conversion and 10-14 years before his second journey to Jerusalem (cf. Gal. 2:1. Campbell rightly allows that in Jewish idiom "three years" could mean greater than two but no greater than three, and "fourteen years" greater than thirteen but no greater than fourteen, and also acknowledges that the fourteen years could be consecutive or alternatively concurrent with the three). Thus he treats this as (in his own words) the "anchor" of Pauline chronology. I am very much inclined to agree with Campbell that Gal. 1:17-18 and 2 Cor. 11:32-33 refer to the same series of events (as does, I would argue, Acts 9:23-26). I am further inclined to agree that Campbell is right in arguing that 2 Cor. 11:32-33 makes most sense if the Nabateans controlled Damascus at the time that Paul fled the city (over and against the argument that the ethnarch was merely a local Nabatean functionary). I am less sanguine about being able to narrow the range of years in which such conditions existed down to 36 and 37. Indeed, Campbell himself acknowledgments that such conditions could have existed as early as 34.
The difference between 34 and 36 might seem pedantic, but it has implications for a range of other judgments. To a certain extent this difference is mitigated by the difference between a consecutive and concurrent dating of the three and fourteen years of Gal. 1-2. These permutations though all serve to underscore the conceptual point above: that the conscientious decision to ignore the Acts data potentially mars the enterprise. Once that data is introduced certain possibilities become more plausible and others less. For instance, if Paul fled Damascus in 36/37, and if the fourteen years are consecutive with the three, then the Jerusalem visit of Gal. 2 presumably happened between 49 and 51 (and indeed Campbell dates it to late 49/early 50). If Gal. 2 refers to either the Jerusalem visit of Acts 11 or Acts 15 the chronology leaves little room to allow for the Pauline journeys of Acts 16-17 to occur in time for him to be in front of Gallio in 51/52 (as per the Gallio inscription, correlated with Acts 18:11-12; note that I see no evidence in Acts that leads me to think that Luke is presenting these journeys out of temporal sequence). Now, absolutely, if what we can infer from the Pauline data here invariably contradicts what we can infer from the Acts data then we must prefer the Pauline; no question. But given the considerations above I'm not sure that we need to conclude that such contradiction exists. In fact, if we allow for a flight from Damascus as early as 34 and a concurrent dating in Gal. 1-2 then Paul could have made his second visit to Jerusalem as early as 44--thus more than allowing Gal. 2 to refer to the visit of either Acts 11 or Acts 15 and still allowing sufficient time for the general course of events as per Acts to have unfolded. Heck, if we allow for a flight from Damascus as late as 37 and concurrent dating then we could have a Gal. 2 visit in 47, which would probably exclude it as a reference to the visit of Acts 11 but not as a reference to the visit of Acts 15.
In summation, I am finding Campbell to offer one of the best handlings in recent years of the chronological evidence in the Pauline epistles themselves. But where he seems to be weakest is precisely where he excludes evidence from Acts that, whilst secondary, might in fact make a difference for his chronology.