A Historical Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians

By W. M. Ramsay

Part 2

Historical Commentary

Chapter 13

Dates of the Autobiography

Paul in this retrospect mentions a number of events in his past life. The question has been keenly debated whether the dates which he prefixes to some of the events are intended to mark the interval between each and the preceding event, or the period that separates each from his conversion. Let us put down the facts clearly. The following events are mentioned: —

1. The conversion and call to the Gentiles (Gal 1:15-16). This is the starting-point, and is therefore introduced by ὅτε.

2. εὐθέως, the retiring to Arabia; καὶ πάλιν the return to Damascus (Act 1:17). Probably it would be right to number these as 2 and 3; but I refrain from doing so, lest I seem to some to press the reasoning too hard. It would strengthen my argument to class them as two distinct facts.

3. ἔπειτα μετὰ τρία ἔτη, the first visit to Jerusalem, and the stay of fifteen days there (Gal 1:18-19).

4. ἔπειτα, the retiring to Syria and Cilicia, and continuance there (Gal 1:21-24)

5. ἔπειτα διὰ δεκατεσσάρων ἐτῶν, the second visit to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-10).1

The form of this list with the repetition of ἔπειτα seems, so far as I may judge, to mark it as a compact enumeration, in which the reader is intended to hold the whole together in his mind, and to think of each as a fact in a continuing biographical series. The thought is, as it were, “In the Divine reckoning my life begins from the conversion and call to the Gentiles. In the gradual working out of that call there are the following stages; but in thinking of my life, you must hold always in mind the epoch-making fact of the conversion; if you would understand my life, you must refer every act in it to that primary revelation of the will of God in me”. Hence all the numbers must be interpreted with reference to the great epoch. To consider that in this biographical enumeration each new item, as it were, blots out the previous one, so that the numbers are to be reckoned as intervals that elapsed from one item to the following, is to lose the dominance of the central and epoch-making event, which is never absent from Paul’s mind.

And is it not true even now? On our conception of that one event depends our whole view of Paul’s life. So far as we understand his conversion, do we understand the man. My argument in this section is the same thought which I would apply to Paul’s whole life; and, if I be granted time and opportunity, I would write his life with that thought always dominant: “You understand nothing in Paul unless you take it in its relation to his conversion”. He that fails to do that in any case fails entirely: there is but one way, and he that misses it goes wrong inevitably in his conception of Paul’s work.

It was a true instinct that led the Church to take the conversion as the day of St. Paul. For other saints and martyrs their day of celebration was their dies natatis, the day on which they entered on their real life, their day of martyrdom. But the dies natatis of St. Paul, the day on which his true life began, was the day of his conversion.

We follow that instinct here, and reckon all the events in this autobiography by reference to that thought, always dominant in his mind, and which ought always to be dominant in the reader’s mind — his conversion.

Further, we observe that those who take the other view of the meaning of these numbers always argue as if the list consisted of three events: (1) conversion, (2) first visit to Jerusalem, (3) second visit. But Paul, by the form of the list, marks it as containing either five or six separate items, each introduced in a similar way; and it does violence to the form of expression which here rose naturally in Paul’s mind, if it be declared that the other items are to be dropped entirely out of sight, and we are to think only of the three.

If he had intended the two estimates of time as marking the intervals between the items of his list, he would have indicated in his expression that the list contained only three items.

Again, Paul never neglected the most vigorous and incisive way of putting his thought: he neglects rhetorical verbosity, but he never neglects, he could not neglect, the effect that is given by putting facts in their most striking form. Here the numbers derive their effect on his readers’ minds from their greatness; and, if he had been able to use the number 17, he would inevitably (according to my conception of his nature) have taken the expression which enabled him to use the larger number.

In using this passage for chronological reckoning, it must be borne in mind that Paul’s words, μετὰ τρία ἔτη, etc., do not correspond to our “three years after”. For example, counting from A.D. 31, μετὰ τρία ἔτη would be A.D. 33, “the third year after”; but “three years after,” in our expression, would imply A.D. 34.

This rule of interpretation is regular in ancient times; the day or year which forms the starting point is reckoned in the sum. But in the modern system the starting point is not so reckoned. Thus we count that three days after Sunday means Wednesday; but the ancients reckoned that three days after Sunday implied Tuesday. Much unnecessary difficulty, and not a few unnecessary charges of inaccuracy against ancient writers, have resulted from neglect of this rule. For example, the lapse of time in the journey from Philippi to Jerusalem (Acts 20, 21) has been generally reckoned wrongly; and it has been gravely discussed whether or not Luke intends to bring out that Paul reached Jerusalem in time for the feast of Pentecost, which was his object. This difficulty is created simply by modern inattention to the old way of reckoning.

Similarly, as to Paul’s residence in Ephesus: Luke gives the time as two full years and three months (Act 19:8, Act 19:10), while Paul speaks of it as three years (Act 20:31). This had been stigmatised as a discrepancy — with the complacent self-satisfaction of the hasty critic, far removed above mere vulgar accuracy; but two years and a few months was regularly spoken of as three years by the ancients, just as we call the nineteenth century anything above eighteen hundred.

But as the best example of ancient usage in regard to reckoning of time let us take the pathetic story — a stock subject with the Roman moralists — of the death of the two sons of Aemilius Paullus almost contemporaneously with his gorgeous triumph after the conquest of Macedonia.

Cicero2 says that Paullus lost two sons in seven days. Livy3 says that the elder son died five days before the triumph, and the younger three days after. According to our method of counting there is a contradiction between these statements. But in a matter which was so striking and so famous, we should expect that the numbers would be accurately preserved. Cicero’s words would be as effective if he had said “in eight days,” and the Roman had no conception of a seven days’ week, which might lead him to say roughly seven days in preference to the exact number, eight. The reason for specifying an exact number in such a case is that the writer knew it to be right; yet here, two good authorities contradict each other.

But on the Roman method of counting all is quite simple, and the two accounts agree exactly. Say that the elder son died on Wednesday; then the fifth day after, to a Roman, was Sunday. On Sunday the triumph was celebrated. The third day after Sunday was Tuesday, and the younger son died on this the seventh day after” his brother’s death.


[1] The form of 2:11 ff implies that it is not a sixth item in this retrospect. There is no ἔπειτα or other similar word to introduce it. It is marked by a new ore as a fresh start, parallel to 1:15.)

[2] Cicero, Ad. Fam., IV 6, 1.

[3] Livy, XLV 40.

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