A life as rich in travel and relationships as Paul’s was, documented both by his letters and by the history of the book of Acts, affords many opportunities for undesigned coincidences to emerge—so many, in fact, that it is worth pausing to see some of the evidence that Acts was not written by someone who had Paul’s letters before him.
Leafing through 2 Corinthians, we notice how conspicuous a part is played by Titus. He is named multiple times (see chapters 7 and 8 in particular), and Paul describes him in 2 Corinthians 8:23 as “my partner and fellow worker for your benefit.” Yet in the book of Acts, his name does not appear even once. It would be a poor fabricator who could not make more of his material than this. Yet in real historical documents, the omission of some person or event that we could hardly imagine ourselves omitting is quite common.
Or consider Paul’s enumeration of his sufferings in 2 Corinthians 11:24-25. “Three times I was beaten with rods”—but only one of those occasions makes it into the history (Acts 16:22). “Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea”—what an opportunity to tell a set of dramatic tales! Yet not one of these three is mentioned in the book of Acts, where the one disastrous voyage that is recounted (Acts 27) takes place years after this letter was penned.
Or compare the account Paul gives of his escape from Damascus in 2 Corinthians 11:32-33 with the account of the same adventure in Acts 9:23-25. The main facts are the same, but the differences make it perfectly clear that the history was not written up from the letter. In 2 Corinthians, for example, Paul says that Aretas had the city guarded, though there is no information as to who did the guarding. In Acts, it we are told that the Jews kept watch at the gates for Paul, for which they probably needed the leave of the ethnarch; yet Aretas goes unnamed. True, it is not hard to reconcile these statements. Qui facit per alium, facit per se, as the saying goes: he who does a thing by another does it himself. But here again, it is not credible to suggest that the author of Acts wrote his history from the letter.
This same manifest independence is visible in 1 Corinthians as well. Consider all of the problems that the church at Corinth had written about, problems to which Paul replies in 1 Corinthians 7 and 8: problems about marriage, about calling, about the unmarried, about food offered to idols. It is wholly natural that they should make these inquiries of Paul and wholly natural that he should reply to them. Yet in the book of Acts we find no trace of these problems at Corinth, and the one place that the question of food offered to idols is touched upon, the Jerusalem council arguably enjoins something stricter than Paul himself, writing later than that event, imposes (Acts 15:20).
All of these passages provide evidence that the history was written independently of these letters. The numerous coincidences between them, some of which we have already seen in this series and some of which we will be looking at in subsequent installments, are therefore genuinely undesigned. And that is why they provide evidence of their substantial trustworthiness.
One more touch of verisimilitude in 1 Corinthians itself, noted by Paley in his Horae Paulinae, though not really an undesigned coincidence, deserves attention. Paul begins chapter 7 with a reference to earlier correspondence now lost:
Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: …
The issues they have raised, however foreign to us, are the sorts of things we can well imagine arising in a young church of the time. But other parts of the letter reveal that there were graver and more embarrassing problems that they had not written about but that Paul had evidently learned of from other sources: bitter quarreling and divisions (1:11, 11:18), sexual immorality (5:1), and lawsuits between members of the church (6:1). What is more natural or probable than that their letter to Paul should speak of the issues that did not reflect poorly on any of them, while rumor carried to Paul’s ears (“It is actually reported …” 5:1) an account of the more scandalous matters? This manner of dividing the issues Paul addresses would be most improbable in a forgery. It has the ring of truth.