Paul’s conversion date has been a topic of intense academic study for many decades. As a result, a historical narrative has been painstakingly assembled to include many important historical events relevant to ancient Christianity. These include Herod’s death date, Christ’s birth date, John the Baptist’s ministry, Christ’s Crucifixion date, and Paul’s conversion date and death date.
Remarkably, these dates can be determined with some reliability and interrelate with each other in a smooth historical narrative. Of course, the dates are certainly still a manner of considerable controversy and some speculation, and certainly, there is no consensus of agreement among historians as to their correctness. But the fact that such a narrative can be given as a hypothesis lends some credence to their reliability.
Paul’s Scriptural timeline is difficult to put together in a cohesive manner resulting in considerable controversy about the specific dates of his ministry. However, what makes this a doable enterprise is that there are interlock dates with historical figures throughout his life, making dating somewhat less ambiguous. In his book A Chronology of Paul’s Life, Robert Jewett attempts to trace out the lifespan of Paul against these historical figures whose dates are known. This interlocks Paul’s history with these historical figures provided a baseline upon which the rest of his life history can be laid out in a cohesive manner.
Broad Outline of Paul’s Life and Conversion Date
His book attempts to produce the most reliable historical outline possible within the reasonable limits of what we know. The first problem was to determine what portion of Scripture provides the most accurate portrayal of these dates. Jewitt believes the historical evidence derived from the Pauline letters to be more accurate than the secondary evidence present in the Book of Acts. This is because more historical details allowing us to map out his life. Using this technique, a broad outline of Paul’s life from conversion to death is as below:
- Conversion (Gal. 1:15-16; 1 Cor 15:8)
- Three Yeat Time-Span (Gal. 1:18)
- First Jerusalem Visit (Gal. 1:18-19)
- Missionary Activity (Gal 1:21)
- Fourteen Year Time-Span (Gal. 2:1)
- Second Jerusalem Visit (Gal. 2:1-10)
- Missionary Work, Including Collegiong (1 Cor. 16:1-8)
- Third Jerusalem Visit (Romans 15:25-33)
- Imprisonment and Execution
Early Life Before Paul’s Conversion Date
There is not much known about Paul’s early life besides what can be gleaned from Scripture. He likely was born sometime between 5 BC and 5 AD and was a Roman citizen by birth. He was from a devout Jewish family from the tribe of Benjamin and was raised in the city of Tarsus.
Paul describes himself as being “a Hebrew of the Hebrews, as touching the law, a Pharisee.” (Phil 3:5). Paul’s sister’s son is mentioned in Acts 23:16, and in Romans 16:7 he states that his relatives Andronicus and Junia were Christians prior to his conversion and were prominent among the apostles.
Paul was an artisan involved with leather crafting and tent-making. This would be his initial connection to Priscilla and Aquila with whom he would partner in the business. Paul seemed to take some pride that he was able to support himself by his business and did not need support from others.
Gallio and the First Historical Interlock
An interlock occurs when Paul’s life interacts with a historical figure whose relevant dates are known. Gallio is the first historical figure in this narrative.
Gallio is mentioned in Acts 18:12-17:
While Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgment. “This man,” they charged, “is persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.”
Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to them, “If you Jews were making a complaint about some misdemeanor or serious crime, it would be reasonable for me to listen to you. But since it involves questions about words and names and your own law—settle the matter yourselves. I will not be a judge of such things.” So he drove them off. Then the crowd there turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; Gallio showed no concern whatever.
Gallio was a man of considerable importance primarily due to his family. He was the son of Seneca the Elder and the elder brother of Seneca the Younger, who was born in Cordoba in what is now Spain in 5 BC. He was adopted by Lucius Junius Gallio, from whom he took his name, Gallio.
Gallio and his brother Seneca were likely banished to the island of Corsica but achieved some restitution when Seneca was selected to tutor Nero. Galio then became proconsul of the province of Archeae but had to resign, likely due to poor health. Achaea is situated in Greece (in the Peloponnese peninsula), not far from Corinth.
When Gallio was proconsul in Achaea, Paul was brought before him by leaders from the local synagogue. He was accused of leading the local Jews toward Christianity – which was “contrary to the law.” Gallio could not care less about local Jewish customs and had them all thrown out of court.
The important facet of this story is that it fixes Paul’s visit during Gallio’s proconsulship, between July 1, 51 through July 1, 52 AD. So then we know the time of Paul’s visit in Corinth just next door to Achaea to be eighteen months (Acts 18:1) which would place his time there from about January 1, 50 AD to July 1, 51 AD.
Emperor Claudius and Expulsion of Jews from Rome
The Roman Emperors never knew quite what to do with Christians living in their midst. Their knee-jerk reaction seems to have been persecution – they did not accept Roman ways and insisted on their peculiar customs and beliefs.
But when Christians refused to worship the Roman gods – that was just too much. They even refused to worship the Roman Emperor which was just beyond the pale. Moreover, most of the Christians in Rome were Jewish, so Claudius just had them all expelled from Rome in 49 AD.
This is important in our dating narrative because of the arrival of Priscilla and Aquila from Rome at the beginning of Paul’s Corinthian ministry. This helps establish our timeline since they were expelled in 49 AD, and Paul probably started his Corinth ministry in 50 AD, having his trial before Ballio in about 52 AD.
Paul’s conversion date and his other important mission dates all seem to come together.
The Framework of Time Spans
While all of this is interesting in its own right, it also helps us determine the likely year of Paul’s conversion. This is important because knowing this year helps to determine when Christ was crucified. Thus, the dates of the Crucifixion and Paul’s conversion are likely close together and not separated by multiple years.
Jewitt puts together an experimental hypothesis to make this determination. The hypothesis assumes three Jerusalem journeys interspersed with multiple missionary trips and other historical events (like the trial before Gallio). This framework is put together primarily through hints provided by Paul’s various letters and a less detailed history provided by the Book of Acts.
The framework is outlined below,
- Conversion – August-October 34
- Escape from Aretas – 34
- Three Year Timespan in Arabia – 34 – 37
- Return to Damascus – 37
- First Jerusalem Visit – 37
- Fourteen Year Time Span 37 – 51
- Paul’s Arrival in Corinth – 50
- Departure from Corinth 18 months later – 51
- Apostolic Conference in Jerusalem – 51
Damascus and Aretas
The little-known Roman ruler over Damascus named Aretas assumes a large role in the determination of these dates. If it were not for his mention in Scripture and having an important part to play in the early life of Paul, he would likely have been lost to obscurity.
He was a Nabataean ruler of the country east of the Jordan River and particularly of the beautiful city of Petra. He was also the father of Phasaelis, who was married to Herod Antipas.
Herod’s eyes were wandering, and he decided to divorce Phasaelis to marry his brother’s wife, Herodias. Fearing for her life, Phasaelis fled to her father when she heard about Herod’s plans to divorce her (possibly resulting in her untimely demise), and the rest is history.
Scripture tells us that John the Baptist was a prison of Herod and scolded Herod for marrying his brother’s wife. Herod was certainly annoyed but was afraid to do anything to John because he was so popular with the people.
The sordid story is portrayed in Scripture,
At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.”
Now Herod had arrested John and bound him and put him in prison because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, for John had been saying to him: “It is not lawful for you to have her.” Herod wanted to kill John, but he was afraid of the people because they considered John a prophet.
On Herod’s birthday, the daughter of Herodias danced for the guests and pleased Herod so much that he promised with an oath to give her whatever she asked. Prompted by her mother, she said, “Give me here on a platter the head of John the Baptist.” The king was distressed, but because of his oaths and his dinner guests, he ordered that her request be granted and had John beheaded in the prison. His head was brought in on a platter and given to the girl, who carried it to her mother. John’s disciples came and took his body and buried it. Then they went and told Jesus.
Aretas was not happy that Herod had divorced his daughter, and he invaded Herod’s domain defeating his army. However, Antipas managed to escape capture with the help of Roman forces. Antipas then ran off to Rome to complain to Emperor Tiberias, who dispatched Lucius Vitellius to attack Aretas. Vitellius arrives with his soldiers only to hear that the Emperor had died and then abandons his mission.
We know that Tiberias died in 37 AD and that Aretas himself died in 40 AD placing upper limits on Paul’s conversion dates.
Piecing it Together
Paul was converted “on the road to Damascus” in a story very familiar to every Christian (Acts 9). In this story, Christ appears to Paul in a blinding light demanded to know why Paul was persecuting him. Paul comes to realize his terrible mistake in persecuting the Christians, and his life takes a complete change.
He continues to Damascus, where he originally would arrest Christians but now has come to become a Christian. Paul stays with some Christians while in Damascus and starts proclaiming Jesus in the synagogues, saying, “He is the Son of God.”
But Paul had a problem; the Jews hated him for his preaching and decided he must go. The Jews’ desire to kill him became known to Paul, and he clearly needed to get out of the city before they could accomplish their goals. (2 Cor. 11:32)
His Christian colleagues took him to the city gates under cover of night and lowered him in a basket through a window.
The Three Year Time Interval
Paul escapes from the Jews in Damascus who wanted him dead for subverting the Scriptures and preaching blasphemy. There is no doubt that Christ’s message was considered blasphemous by religious Jews and that they should stone anybody preaching that message.
Paul got out of Damascus with his life and then went into the countryside to learn more. I will let him describe what happened in his own words,
I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him for fifteen days. I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother. I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. (Galatians 1:11-20)
Most scholars today believe that Paul did not travel all the way to what is now known as Arabia – hundreds of miles away. Rather, the geographical area of Arabia refers to the area surrounding Damascus. It would seem that Paul spent three years receiving instructions (revelations) from Christ as to the Christian gospel that he would later preach and write about in his epistles. (Gal. 1:17).
Then Paul describes how he went back to Damascus (Gal. 1:17) and then went to Jerusalem to “get acquainted” with Peter, with whom he stayed fifteen days. Paul then spends fourteen years on a missionary trip (Gal 2:1) which would then have him going to Jerusalem in about 51 AD.
Summary of Paul’s Conversion Date
The timespan backward from the known date in history (Gallio’s rule in Achaea) allows us to place the conversion of Paul in 34 AD reasonably.
This would be just after the most likely Crucifixion date of Christ in 33 AD making the whole historical narrative come together. To be sure, there are other ways we could put the narrative together, but no other narrative makes this much sense following known historical dates.
We can now make a smooth timeframe enveloping the life of Christ, John the Baptist, and now Paul, from the death date of Herod the Great to the conversion date of Paul.
Herod’s death date is confirmed by pairing with Josephus’s ancient history and one particularly noticeable lunar eclipse. Christ’s birth date is then paired with Herod’s death date as we know Christ was born before Herod’s death. Finally, John the Baptist’s birth date is paired with Christ’s birth date, and John’s beheading is paired with Christ’s Crucifixion.
This flow of history substantiated by verifiable historical events demonstrates the historicity of the Scriptures and helps us better understand the times in which these events occurred.