Pauline Chronology:
The Life and Missionary Work of St. Paul of Tarsus

by Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D.
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The Traditional (but Inaccurate) Division of Paul's Travels:

People usually talk about "Paul's Three Missionary Journeys" (each beginning and ending in Antioch), followed by "Paul's Voyage to Rome":

  1. Acts 13–14: Journey through Cyprus, Pamphylia, and Pisidia (today's South-Central Turkey).
  2. Acts 15:39–18:22: Journey through Macedonia and Achaia (modern Greece) and Asia Minor (Western Turkey).
  3. Acts 18:23–21:16: Another Journey through Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia, ending in Jerusalem.
  4. Acts 22–28: After being arrested in Jerusalem and imprisoned in Caesarea, Paul is taken by ship to Rome.

For some online maps of this traditional understanding of Paul's "three missionary journeys", see the Good News Christian Ministries or the Maps Related to the Life of Paul by Nancy Carter; see also the larger list of Ancient World Maps by Dr. Mark Goodacre.

Problems with this schema:

A More Accurate and More Comprehensive Overview: Five Main Phases of Paul's Life

The following chronology is based on a combination of evidence from Paul's own letters and from the Acts of the Apostles, since neither gives us a complete picture, and there are some points of tension between them. (See the maps in the back of any good Study Bible; see also my New Testament Geography webpage for more background on the Roman PROVINCES and their Capital Cities).

    0) Pre-Christian Phase (ca. AD 10–35)

    1. Paul was a Jew who was born in Tarsus, the capital of CILICIA (Acts 9:11, 30; 11:25; 21:39), but possibly also lived and received part of his education in Jerusalem, "at the feet of Gamaliel" (Acts 22:3).
    2. He was a Hebrew, born of Hebrew parents (Phil 3:5; 2 Cor 11:22), but probably also a Roman citizen (Acts 22:25-29; 23:27).
    3. Thus, he was bi-lingual (Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek) and bi-cultural (Jewish and Hellenistic/Greek), making him an ideal "transition figure" for the spread of early Christianity from its beginnings in Palestine to the rest of the Roman empire.
    4. He was originally named "Saul" (Acts 7:58–13:9; 22:7; 26:14) but later (as a Christian) changed his name to "Paul" (Acts 13:9ff and in all the Epistles).
    5. Raised as a Pharisee, he was very zealous for the Torah & Jewish Traditions (Phil 3:5; Acts 23:6-9; 26:5).
    6. He begins persecuting the followers of Jesus, because he considers belief in Jesus as Messiah to be incompatible with Judaism (Gal 1:13-14; Phil 3:5-6; 1 Cor 15:9; Acts 7:58; 8:1; 9:1-2; 22:3-5; 26:4-12).

    1) First Phase of Paul's New Christian Life: in the EAST (ca. AD 35–49)

    1. Jesus "reveals" himself to Paul (traditionally called Paul's "conversion") while Paul is traveling on the road to Damascus in southern SYRIA (Gal 1:11-12, 15-16; 1 Cor 15:8-10; Acts 9:3-30; 22:6-21; 26:12-18 - for these texts, see below).
    2. Paul begins preaching around Arabia, Damascus, Syria, and Cilicia, despite some opposition (Gal 1:17-24; 2 Cor 11:23-33).
    3. Barnabas takes an interest in Paul, guides and protects him, and introduces him to other Christians (Acts 9:26-30; 11:25-30; 12:25).
    4. Commissioned by the church of Antioch, in Northern SYRIA, Barnabas and Paul go on their first missionary journey to Cyprus, Pamphylia, and Phrygia (Acts 13–14); Barnabas is clearly the leader, with Paul as his assistant (see esp. Acts 14:12, in which Barnabas is called "Zeus," the king of the Greek gods, while Paul is called "Hermes," the Greek messenger god).
    5. Barnabas and Paul participate in the "Council of Jerusalem" (ca. AD 49; Gal 2:1-10; Acts 15 - note that many scholars think this council was slightly later, ca. AD 51).

    2) Early Independent Missionary Phase: in MACEDONIA & ACHAIA (ca. AD 50–52)

    1. Paul breaks with Barnabas due to the "Incident at Antioch" (contrast Gal 2:11-14 with Acts 15:36-41).
    2. Paul travels with Silas & Timothy through ASIA and crosses over to MACEDONIA, where they establish small Christian churches, esp. in Philippi & Thessalonica, possibly also in Beroea (Acts 16:1–17:15).
    3. After getting kicked out of one Macedonian city after another, the three missionaries go down to ACHAIA; Paul alone briefly visits Athens, but his preaching is not very successful there (Acts 17:16-34).
    4. They move on to Corinth, the capital of ACHAIA, where they stay for over 18 months (Acts 18:11, 18); they meet Prisca & Aquila in Corinth soon after Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome in AD 49 (Acts 18:2).
    5. Paul is brought to trial before the Proconsul Gallio (Acts 18:12-17), who was in Achaia only in AD 51–52; this fact gives us the only fixed date in the chronology of Paul's life, from which all other dates are calculated backward or forward.
    6. From Corinth, Paul & his companions write 1 Thess, and probably also 2 Thess (see 1 Thess 3:1-6).

    3) Mature Missionary Leadership Phase: in ASIA (Minor) (ca. AD 53–57)

    1. Paul travels through Asia, then to Syria (including brief visits to Jerusalem and Antioch), and back again to Ephesus, the capital of ASIA (Acts 18:18–19:41).
    2. He remains in Ephesus for at least 27 months, probably longer, preaching and strengthening the churches (Acts 19:8, 10, 22); Ephesus becomes his "missionary headquarters" with more and more associates over time.
    3. Paul travels personally and sends & receives messengers and letters back and forth from Ephesus to Macedonia, Corinth, various parts of Asia Minor, and possibly other regions (1 Cor 16:5-12; 2 Cor 8-9; Phil 2:19-30; 4:10-20).
    4. He and his associates found other Christian communities in and around Asia Minor, e.g., Epaphras establishes a church in Colossae (Col 1:7).
    5. Paul encounters opposition from Jews and Gentiles, and is blamed for a riot caused by some silversmiths in Ephesus, since he preached against the "idolatry" of worshipping pagan gods (see Acts 19:26); he probably spends some time in prison in Ephesus.
    6. From Ephesus, Paul & his companions write 1 Cor, 2 Cor, Phil, Phlm, and probably Gal (see 1 Cor 15:32; 16:8; 16:19).

    4) Final Missionary Travel Phase: to the WEST (ca. AD 58–62/64)

    1. Paul wants to go West to Rome and Spain, but first to collect & deliver money for poor Christians in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1-4; Rom 15:22-32; Acts 19:21); he stays in Corinth three more months (Acts 20:3), and writes Rom from there (Rom 16).
    2. Paul and some associates deliver this collection to Jerusalem; soon he is arrested in the Temple (Acts 2021).
    3. Paul is held under arrest for about two years in Caesarea; at his trial he appeals to Caesar and is taken to Rome, where he remains under house-arrest for another two years (Acts 2228); possibly writes Col from prison in Caesarea (or later from Rome).
    4. We cannot be sure what happened next, since nothing else is written in Acts: either he was tried, found innocent and released, in which case he might have gone to preach in Spain, as he had planned; or he was tried, found guilty, and executed.
    5. Early Christian tradition agrees Paul was executed during the reign of Emperor Nero; but we cannot be sure whether it was at the end of his first Roman imprisonment (AD 62), or after his return from Spain (AD 64), since his death is not recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.

X) After Paul's Death: his legacy continues (AD 60's - 90's and beyond)

  1. Paul's associates continue to preach, gain new converts, build up Christian communities, address problems, write letters, etc.
  2. 1 Tim, 2 Tim, Tit, and Eph are probably pseudepigraphic (i.e., letters written in his name by his followers after his death).
  3. Ephesus and Colossae remain strong centers of Pauline-style Christianity, possibly led by Timothy and Onesimus, respectively.
  4. Someone begins collecting (and editing) Paul's letters (cf. 2 Pet 3:15-16); by the end of the first century, about 10 letters are circulating together (not yet including 1 Tim, 2 Tim, or Tit), with Ephesians possibly functioning as an introduction or "cover letter."
  5. Eventually, thirteen letters attributed to Paul are recognized as "canonical" (i.e., accepted as part of the NT; in some phases of Christian history, the "Letter to the Hebrews" was also thought to be written by Paul, although most scholars and church leaders today agree that it is not Pauline).
  6. Other legends about Paul develop and are recorded in non-canonical works (e.g., the "Acts of Paul" and the "Acts of Paul and Thecla").

Compare this chronology also with that of Pheme Perkins (Reading the NT, 139) or William Baird's article on "Paul" (HCBD, 814-22).

Paul's "Conversion" on the Road to Damascus
[better described as the "Revelation" of Jesus to Paul]

In Paul's Own Words:

"For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; / for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. / You have heard, no doubt, of my earlier life in Judaism. I was violently persecuting the church of God and was trying to destroy it. / I advanced in Judaism beyond many among my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors. / But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased / to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, / nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus. / Then after three years I did go up to Jerusalem to visit Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days; / but I did not see any other apostle except James the Lord's brother." (Gal 1:11-19)

"Last of all, as to one untimely born, he [Jesus] appeared also to me. / For I am the least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. / But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." (1 Cor 15:8-10)

"This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— / for surely you have already heard of the commission of God's grace that was given me for you, / and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words." (Eph 3:1-3, probably deutero-Pauline)

"It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. / I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. / And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— / was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat." (2 Cor 12:1-4, probably referring to himself, but maybe to a different later "revelation")

The Three Accounts in Acts: 

Acts 9:3-30
Luke's Initial Narrative Account
Acts 22:6-21
Paul's Speech to the Jews in Jerusalem
Acts 26:12-18
Paul's Defense before King Agrippa

1 Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest 2 and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.

3 Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. 4 He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" 5 He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. 6 But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." 7 The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. 8 Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus.

9 For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. 10 Now there was a disciple in Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, "Ananias." He answered, "Here I am, Lord." 11 The Lord said to him, "Get up and go to the street called Straight, and at the house of Judas look for a man of Tarsus named Saul. At this moment he is praying, 12 and he has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight." 13 But Ananias answered, "Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; 14 and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name." 15 But the Lord said to him, "Go, for he is an instrument whom I have chosen to bring my name before Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel; 16 I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name." 17 So Ananias went and entered the house. He laid his hands on Saul and said, "Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." 18 And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. Then he got up and was baptized, 19 and after taking some food, he regained his strength.

For several days he was with the disciples in Damascus, 20 and immediately he began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, "He is the Son of God." 21 All who heard him were amazed and said, "Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?" 22 Saul became increasingly more powerful and confounded the Jews who lived in Damascus by proving that Jesus was the Messiah. 23 After some time had passed, the Jews plotted to kill him, 24 but their plot became known to Saul. They were watching the gates day and night so that they might kill him; 25 but his disciples took him by night and let him down through an opening in the wall, lowering him in a basket. 26 When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord. 29 He spoke and argued with the Hellenists; but they were attempting to kill him. 30 When the believers learned of it, they brought him down to Caesarea and sent him off to Tarsus.

3 "I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today. 4 I persecuted this Way up to the point of death by binding both men and women and putting them in prison, 5 as the high priest and the whole council of elders can testify about me. From them I also received letters to the brothers in Damascus, and I went there in order to bind those who were there and to bring them back to Jerusalem for punishment.

6 While I was on my way and approaching Damascus, about noon a great light from heaven suddenly shone about me. 7 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?' 8 I answered, 'Who are you, Lord?' Then he said to me, 'I am Jesus of Nazareth whom you are persecuting.' 9 Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me. 10 I asked, 'What am I to do, Lord?' The Lord said to me, 'Get up and go to Damascus; there you will be told everything that has been assigned to you to do.' 11 Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light, those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus.

12 A certain Ananias, who was a devout man according to the law and well spoken of by all the Jews living there, 13 came to me; and standing beside me, he said, 'Brother Saul, regain your sight!' In that very hour I regained my sight and saw him. 14 Then he said, 'The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice; 15 for you will be his witness to all the world of what you have seen and heard. 16 And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.' 17 "After I had returned to Jerusalem and while I was praying in the temple, I fell into a trance 18 and saw Jesus saying to me, 'Hurry and get out of Jerusalem quickly, because they will not accept your testimony about me.' 19 And I said, 'Lord, they themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in you. 20 And while the blood of your witness Stephen was shed, I myself was standing by, approving and keeping the coats of those who killed him.' 21 Then he said to me, 'Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.'"

4 "All the Jews know my way of life from my youth, a life spent from the beginning among my own people and in Jerusalem. 5 They have known for a long time, if they are willing to testify, that I have belonged to the strictest sect of our religion and lived as a Pharisee...
9 Indeed, I myself was convinced that I ought to do many things against the name of Jesus of Nazareth. 10 And that is what I did in Jerusalem; with authority received from the chief priests, I not only locked up many of the saints in prison, but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death. 11 By punishing them often in all the synagogues I tried to force them to blaspheme; and since I was so furiously enraged at them, I pursued them even to foreign cities.

12 With this in mind, I was traveling to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests, 13 when at midday along the road, your Excellency, I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and my companions. 14 When we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, 'Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.' 15 I asked, 'Who are you, Lord?' The Lord answered, 'I am Jesus whom you are persecuting. 16 But get up and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to appoint you to serve and testify to the things in which you have seen me and to those in which I will appear to you. 17 I will rescue you from your people and from the Gentiles—to whom I am sending you 18 to open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.'

19 After that, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, 20 but declared first to those in Damascus, then in Jerusalem and throughout the countryside of Judea, and also to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God and do deeds consistent with repentance."

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