One of the benefits of having both Paul’s letters and a history of Paul’s activities from another hand is that we are able to compare points of contact across the two genres. Their overlap is all the more valuable since they appear to have been written largely or wholly independently of one another, with very little verbal similarity at any point.
What should we expect from such material, if each is independently grounded in the facts? With luck, and if the material is extensive, we should be able to find multiple instances where the documents refer to the same people or events. Of course we should not expect the history and the letters to correspond point-for-point; in the nature of the case, there will be much in the letters that would be out of place in the history, while the history—in keeping with the historical standards of the times—may organize material conceptually rather than chronologically and may compress or pass over some incidents in the course of the narration. And occasionally, the correspondences may cross over several letters, creating a network of related passages that cannot with any plausibility be dismissed as fabrication or forgery.
There is a good example of this sort of network that starts with Romans 15:25-26:
At present, however, I am going to Jerusalem bringing aid to the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.
Here we have three points of interest all in the same passage in one of the letters: a collection being take up in Macedonia, a similar collection in Achaia, and Paul’s plan to travel to Jerusalem to take this aid to the saints there. Turning to Acts 20:2-3, we find Paul on the way back to Palestine, but there is not a word about a contribution. In a speech before Felix in Acts 24:17-19, Paul mentions that he came to bring alms to his countrymen, but there is no mention of where the monies come from. The points of correspondence are so indirect that there is no suspicion of copying here.
Two other passages from the letters enable us to fill out the picture. From 1 Corinthians 16:1-4 we see that there was a contribution being collected at Corinth, the capital of Achaia, for the Christians of Jerusalem. Still we have nothing about Macedonia; but on turning to 2 Corinthians 8:1-4, and also 2 Corinthians 9:2, we find the churches of Macedonia introduced as already engaged in a collection for this very purpose.
Thus all of the circumstances brought together in those two verses in Romans are corroborated by a number of other passages in the history of Acts and in the Corinthian epistles. And each of these, by some hint in the passage, or by the date of the writing in which the passage occurs, can be fixed at a particular time—a period toward the close of Paul’s second missionary journey.
Does this conformity, scattered and indirect, with not a whiff of verbal similarity, look like forgery on one part or on the other? Or rather, does each passage stand perfectly naturally in connection with its own context? If so, the suggestion that such a coincidence is the effect of design is most improbable.
We are not left merely to guess what forgery looks like. The gnostic “gospels” of the second century afford us a clear illustration of how writers of the time who were forging a document on the basis of documents already known make use of their material. Thus, the “Gospel of Peter” is studded with phrases that sound like they have been lifted directly from the canonical Gospels:
“And one of them brought a crown of thorns and put it on the head of the Lord.” (cf. Mark 15:17)
“And they brought two malefactors, and they crucified the Lord between them.” (cf. Luke 23:32-33)
“And in that hour the veil of the temple in Jerusalem was rent in twain.” (cf. Mark 15:38)
“But who shall roll away for us the stone …?” (cf. Mark 16:3)
“Whom seek ye? Him that was crucified? He is risen and gone.” (cf. Mark 16:6)
The degree of verbal similarity between the Synoptic Gospels and the “Gospel of Peter” is high precisely because the forger—and he must be a forger, for he is writing long after Peter’s death—wants to create a certain effect. He wants to give a ring of authenticity to the text he is manufacturing in order to ensure its favorable reception in a community where the established texts carry high prestige.
But there is no hint of that here. The book of Acts and the Pauline epistles are verbally independent; their interconnections are indirect. That is what makes their harmonies so impressive as evidence that both give us substantially truthful representations of real events.