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The Puzzle

Page Topics

No Reliable Chronology Cascading Confusion What to Do About It?
Fourth Trip to Asia? Specific Examples Problem Details
Root of the Problem Unfinished Business

No Reliable Chronology for the New Testament

The result of the problem, the puzzle, as described below, is a huge mess. It is an almost complete lack of confidence about the dates and places of authorship of the epistles of Paul. Unfortunately, this lack of a sensible chronology is glossed over by many who study the New Testament — it is just too big a problem — and so they reason that it is better to leave the problem alone and pretend it doesn't exist.

That is not a good attitude. It means that regular members of churches never hear about the story of the expansion of Christianity with a clear and sensible timeline. And nobody talks about it.

To be specific, experts on the New Testament documents do not know when or where Paul wrote his epistles. There are some good estimates for the early letters of Thessalonians, but things quickly turn murky with the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus).

A Jet-Set Fourth Trip to Asia Minor? (No)

It gets so bad that some commentaries suggest that Paul was released from imprisonment in Rome, left for Asia Minor for yet another visit, was sent back to Rome for a "second imprisonment," and then wrote some of the epistles. (This can be seen by doing an Internet search for "second imprisonment." Many sources explain this hypothesis. An example is at Wikipedia, on the page for "Pastoral Epistles.")

This is the height of inability to acknowledge reasonableness. Those who advocate this seem to be thinking Paul had a corporate jet at his disposal for quick trips around the Mediterranean.


The Root of the Problem

Most of the problems arise from one particular verse, from 2 Timothy 1:17, quoted here with surrounding sentences for context.

May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.

The problem here is the word "Rome." The world of New Testament scholarship turns upside-down because of this one word.

It means that Paul did not write this letter (2 Timothy) until after he had been to Rome.

A casual reader may think there is no problem here, that 2 Timothy must have been written in Rome during Paul's stay there after his arrest. But that is not a reasonable assumption when considering the details in the letter. The letter clearly discusses recent issues in Asia Minor, and therefore Paul had to have recently travelled there. This is the reason that many commentators suggest that Paul travelled around Asia, establishing the circumstances mentioned in the letter, before being arrested and sent back to Rome a second time (the "second imprisonment" in Rome, as the hypothesis is known).

Not only does this sound wildly unreasonable, it is nothing short of the suspension of common sense. It is an inaccurate line of thinking.

Cascading Confusion

Postulating that 2 Timothy was written after Paul has been to Rome even once creates havoc for a sensible unfolding of events in the life of Paul.

It throws off the entire timeline for the New Testament epistles. If 2 Timothy was written in Rome, where was Titus written? Wouldn't it be in the same place, due to there being similarities in the letters? On and on, the problems build up.

Specific Examples

Here are some specific difficulties with the chronology. The three letters called the Pastoral Epistles — 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus — are considered to have been written within a relatively short period of time due to the similarity of the greetings and the topics.

Looking just at 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy, and Titus, we find the following examples that raise alarm bells. Remember: 2 Tim 1:17 has stated that Onesiphorus has already visited Paul in Rome, so according to that presumption the following examples relate to matters that occurred after Paul had been to Rome.

As I urged you when I went into Macedonia, stay there in Ephesus so that you may command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer nor devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies.

When was Paul in Macedonia giving this command to Timothy? It sounds as though it was a fairly recent event. On the other hand, if it was not a recent event but something in the more distant past, it makes no sense at all to say that this happened during one of Paul's early missionary journeys four years before he arrived in Rome. Why would he bring up a subject from four years earlier? That clearly is not reasonable.

An important point to keep in mind is that Paul spent two years in prison at Herod's palace (Acts 23:35 and 24:27) and another two years in rented-home detention in Rome (Acts 28:30). It was four years of continuous imprisonment from the time of his arrest in Palestine until his case was heard in Italy. If time is added for the trip to Palestine before Paul's arrest and more time for travel after release from Rome, a figure near five years would be closer to the mark.

Timothy, my son, I give you this instruction in keeping with the prophecies once made about you, so that by following them you may have fight the good fight, holding on to the faith and a good conscience.

In this passage Paul assumes that Timothy needs some encouragement because he is young in the faith and still not practiced at pastoral work. Would this feeling about Timothy still be true after four to five more years have passed since they had ministered together in Asia?

Would Timothy really have been so slow a learner? Why was he such a favorite of Paul if he needed basic encouragement after so many years of experience in the ministry?

May the Lord grant that he (Onesiphorus) will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.

This mentions that Paul was in Ephesus and he received much help when he was there. When was that? The way he states "You know very well," Paul seems to take for granted that these were fairly recent events.

Would Paul be using the same reference to events in Ephesus if the actions had happened four years earlier? No, that is not likely. Therefore some people suggest that Paul was released from Rome, and then went back to Ephesus, and then wrote this letter, wherein he mentions both of those places.

This is a very clear example of the problems with the New Testament chronology: the critical verse mentioning Rome is just one sentence in front of the quote about Ephesus given above.

When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus in Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.

Paul had recently been in Troas, in Asia Minor. He had to have been to leave his cloak there. Would Paul be telling Timothy to bring a cloak that was left in a city during an earlier missionary journey many years before. Certainly not. That would not make sense at all.

But, again, as said over and over, Paul has stated that he has already been to Rome. He said so in 1 Tim 1:17. That would mean Paul went back to Troas after leaving Rome: a very big problem.

Erastus stayed in Corinth, and I left Trophimus sick in Miletus.

Paul speaks as though he witnessed Erastus stay behind in Corinth; but that is not necessarily so, since someone may have told him about that fact. However, Paul did leave Trophimus in Miletus. So Paul had recently been to Miletus.

Here is another case for stating that Paul either went to Miletus after leaving Rome (since this verse is part of 2 Timothy, where Rome is mentioned) or Paul is making a reference to something that happened the last time he was in that area, which would have been four or more years earlier.

If Paul had left Trophimus with an illness, and four years had passed since that time, Trophimus would likely have died from such a long illness. Wouldn't a reasonable person think so? Why would Paul mention someone being ill four years earlier? It does not make sense.

The reason I left you in Crete was that you might straighten out what was left unfinished and appoint elders in every town, as I directed you.

Exactly when was it that Paul went to Crete with Titus? The commentaries and maps of Paul's journeys do not mention that for some odd reason.

We know that the letter to Titus is considered one of the Pastoral Epistles, along with 1 Timothy and 2 Timothy, and the three letters were likely to have been written around the same period of time.

Did this happen after Paul left Rome, as mentioned in 2 Tim 1:17?

It really does not seem plausible. The letter is full of advice for a young minister, which would require Titus to be somewhat new in the ministry. In addition, Paul seems to have spent quite a bit of time on Crete, doing work that is currently "unfinished" at the time of writing this letter.

Do everything you can to help Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way and see that they have everything they need.

Apollos was well known to Paul early in his ministry. He was in Ephesus while Paul was in Corinth (Acts 18:24) and in Corinth when Paul traveled to Ephesus (Acts 19:1). Apollos is mentioned in Paul's letter of 1 Corinthians seven times.

Yet, all this familiarity between Paul and Apollos seems to have occurred during Paul's third missionary journey to Asia Minor. Apollos is never mentioned by Paul in any other letter after that. Except for the mention in Titus.

So it seems likely that Titus and 1 Corinthians were written within a short time. Apollos drifted out of Paul's life after that. It would not make sense to say that Apollos reappeared many years later.

On and on the examples can keep coming. "Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that you may be filled with joy" (2 Tim. 1:4). Sound like a guy eager to meet up with another middle-aged man? Or more like a mentor for a young disciple? Timothy was not so young after Paul had gone to Rome, so placing this letter at a late date does not make sense.

"Alexander the metal worker did me a great deal of harm" (2 Tim 4:14). This actually would be a reasonable conflict if Alexander was from Ephesus, considering there was a riot there incited by a "silversmith named Demetrius" during a journey by Paul (Acts 19:23). It becomes an unknowable enigma if we say this happened after Paul had been to Rome.

There are many examples of the problems with the chronology. Keep searching and you will find them.

The Chronology has Been Unfinished Business

It is true that people have been confused about the New Testament chronology for a long time.

The early Christians were little interested in chronology, and the scantiness of data in the New Testament writings and uncertainties as to the interpretation of most of the data which they do provide make New Testament chronology a thorny subject. It is, moreover, an unfinished subject, since light may yet arise from unexpected quarters.

This is a very interesting comment. It is honest.

However, the conclusion that people were "little interested" or that data is scanty may actually be a matter of opinion. It is possible that people have been interested, but that they were discouraged because the chronology is so confusing. And it is possible that there is more data in the writings, if we know where to look for it.

What to Do About It?

So what can be done? How can we solve this problem and get to a sensible sequence of events for Paul?

The viewer need take only one action: Read the book, Solving the Paul Puzzle.

Details About the Chronology Problems

For full explanations about the various problems with the New Testament chronology, read the book Solving the Paul Puzzle.

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