Responses to Bismikaallahuma

Is the Bible Contradictory Regarding Paul’s “Target Audiences”?


Recently Jundullah has attempted to demonstrate a contradiction in the Bible (*) regarding whether or not Paul went to preach to the Gentiles immediately after his conversion or later after he had already been preaching to the Jews. Below is the claim:

Claim: After Paul received the supposed revelation, he went out to teach to the Gentiles, implying the revelation was for the Gentiles or can be preached to the Gentiles.

Problem: The problem arises when we see that in Galatians and Acts, two different accounts exist as to which people that the message was revealed for:

Galatians 1:16: To reveal his Son in me, that I might preach him among the heathen; immediately I conferred not with flesh and blood:

Galations 2:7 But contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter;

So as we can see, in Galatians after receiving the revelation Paul jumped and started preaching to the gentiles, hence the revelation was for the Gentiles.

Now lets see what Acts says:

Acts 9:20 : And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God.

Acts 13:5: And when they were at Salamis, they preached the word of God in the synagogues of the Jews: and they had also John to their minister.

Acts 13:14 : But when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and sat down.

Acts 14:1 And it came to pass in Iconium, that they went both together into the synagogue of the Jews, and so spake, that a great multitude both of the Jews and also of the Greeks believed.

So essentially, we see two problems.

One, these are two contradictory accounts. We see in Galatians that Paul, after receiving revelation, went and started preaching to the Gentiles. Whereas in Acts, after receiving revelation he went and started preaching to the Jews and when they rejected him, only then did he went to the Gentiles.

The main problems with the author’s attempt at finding a contradiction is that 1) the chronology provided for us in Galatians is not fully considered, and 2) all the relevant data from Acts is not taken into account. First, here is the relevant portion of the first two chapters of Galatians, with the most important parts for our purposes emphasized:

“I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. 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 Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him 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. Later I went to Syria and Cilicia . I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. They only heard the report: ‘The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.’ And they praised God because of me.”

“ Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. But I did this privately to those who seemed to be leaders, for fear that I was running or had run my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you. As for those who seemed to be important whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not judge by external appearance those men added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they saw that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as Peter had been to the Jews. For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John, those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.” (Galatians 1:11-2:10, NIV)

It should first be noted here that the meeting in Jerusalem with the apostles that Paul mentions regarding what he is teaching to the Gentiles about the gospel took place 17 years after his conversion. This can be deduced easily by adding the 3 year gap between Paul’s conversion and his first meeting with Peter and James and the 14 years after that when he went back to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus to meet with the apostles. Thus, there is obviously no problem in reconciling the accounts between Galatians and Acts here since this only proves that Paul was preaching predominantly to the Gentiles within 17 years of his conversion, leaving in place plenty of time for his ministry to the Jews as is provided in Acts.

It may be objected though at this point that Paul’s statement from Gal. 1:16 still implies that his mission to the Gentiles was to begin immediately. However, this certainly does not follow by necessity. Paul does indeed state that it was his God-given mission to “preach him [Christ] among the heathen”, yet this can be reconciled with Paul’s early preaching (predominantly) to the Jews in Acts easily enough by understanding this statement to mean that Paul’s ultimate, or primary, goal given him by God was to preach to the Gentiles. In other words, Paul’s mission to the Gentiles does not necessarily imply that he did not also have a role (or had a role) in Jewish evangelism. For comparative purposes, recall from Gal. 2:7 that Paul states that Peter’s mission was to the Jews, yet this likewise does not negate the role that Peter had in the evangelizing of Gentiles (see e.g. Acts 10; 15:7). Given that this epistle was written largely to address Gentile issues (i.e. whether or not they are required to keep Jewish Law), and that it was written well after his preaching to the Gentiles had become his primary role in the early church, it is not surprising that he would stress his Gentile mission in the letter. This emphasis, however, is simply insufficient to discount the possibility that he first preached also to Jews.

The storyline of Acts indeed corroborates that such a change in direction in the ministry of Paul occurred. Consider, for instance, the following excerpt:

“On the next Sabbath almost the whole city gathered to hear the word of the Lord. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were filled with jealousy and talked abusively against what Paul was saying. Then Paul and Barnabas answered them boldly: ‘We had to speak the word of God to you first. Since you reject it and do not consider yourselves worthy of eternal life, we now turn to the Gentiles. For this is what the Lord has commanded us: “I have made you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring salvation to the ends of the earth.”’ When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed. The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jews incited the God fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region.” (Acts 13:44-50)

In fact, it is worth mentioning that it would not be completely accurate to state that Paul preached at first exclusively to Jews. The audiences at the synagogues in which Paul (as well as the other apostles) preached were comprised not only of Jews, but also the so-called God fearers, or those Gentiles that believed in the Jewish God and attended the synagogue services. In fact, this can be seen by one of the very verses that Jundallah referenced:

At Iconium Paul and Barnabas went as usual into the Jewish synagogue. There they spoke so effectively that a great number of Jews and Gentiles believed. (Acts 14:1, NIV)

So, when we consider the whole picture, it is clear that there are insufficient grounds for the accusation of contradiction. Jundallah concludes his work by noting:

Secondly, it seems obvious that Paul had wanted to preach to the Jews, and the revelations he allegedly received were for the Jews. Furthermore, they rejected him as an imposter and a liar, because they knew their own scriptures and hence they knew that Paul was nothing more than an imposter.

Actually, Acts indicates that both Paul and the early church were quite successful in terms of Jewish evangelism. The rapid growth of the early church among the Jews can be found easily enough in the opening few chapters of Acts, but since Paul is our subject here, we’ll restrict our discussion to him. Consider the following, for instance:

“When they had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a Jewish synagogue. As his custom was, Paul went into the synagogue, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures, explaining and proving that the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead. ‘This Jesus I am proclaiming to you is the Christ’ he said. Some of the Jews were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a large number of God fearing Greeks and not a few prominent women. But the Jews were jealous; so they rounded up some bad characters from the marketplace, formed a mob and started a riot in the city. They rushed to Jason's house in search of Paul and Silas in order to bring them out to the crowd. But when they did not find them, they dragged Jason and some other brothers before the city officials, shouting: ‘These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his house. They are all defying Caesar's decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus.’ When they heard this, the crowd and the city officials were thrown into turmoil. Then they made Jason and the others post bond and let them go. As soon as it was night, the brothers sent Paul and Silas away to Berea. On arriving there, they went to the Jewish synagogue. Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true. Many of the Jews believed, as did also a number of prominent Greek women and many Greek men. When the Jews in Thessalonica learned that Paul was preaching the word of God at Berea, they went there too, agitating the crowds and stirring them up. The brothers immediately sent Paul to the coast, but Silas and Timothy stayed at Berea. The men who escorted Paul brought him to Athens and then left with instructions for Silas and Timothy to join him as soon as possible.” (Acts 17:1-15, NIV)

What is of most interest to note in this particular instance is that while Paul was successful in convincing a number of Jews (and Gentiles) of Christ’s Messiah-ship through Scriptural exegesis, those Jews that withstood Paul did so not with Scriptural debating, but with inciting the Gentiles against them (by saying that they were “defying Caesar’s decrees”), and even by forceful expulsion. Contrary to the author’s assertion, it appears that “knowledge of the Scriptures” was actually not a viable tool utilized by the church’s early opponents.

It is equally clear that Paul’s message was basically harmonious with that of the disciples as well. Note again from our extended quote of Galatians above that Paul met with the other apostles twice, the second meeting of which Paul mentions that he was granted “the right hand of fellowship” from the very pillars of the church (i.e. Peter, James, and John). These meetings also demonstrate Paul’s earnestness in regard to staying on the same page as Christ’s disciples when preaching the Gospel message. Lest somebody try to charge Paul with fraud in this case (i.e. by stating that he had apostolic backing when that was not the case), it should be kept in mind, first of all, that Paul was not shy in affirming his disagreements with even the very chief of the apostles:

“When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs? ‘We who are Jews by birth and not “Gentile sinners” know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. ‘If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!’” (Galatians 2:11-21, NIV; see also Acts 15)

While we find in Paul's letters ample evidence of disputes he had with Jewish Christians regarding  whether or not Gentile converts were required to keep Jewish law, we do not find any evidence that these same opponents were in dispute with him over such vital issues as Christ's divinity, the atoning quality of his crucifixion, the resurrection, etc.

Secondly, the other apostles were alive and well at the time that Paul was writing to the Galatians, and it could have been checked (and indeed, would have been well-known anyway) whether or not Paul was basically on the same page as the other disciples regarding these other matters.

In closing, it should be stressed that even from an Islamic standpoint, it would be unwise to claim that the original disciples (and even Paul himself for that matter) were deceivers. Consider the following articles:

The Qur'an Affirms Paul Passed on the True Gospel of Christ
St. Paul and Islam
The Quranic View of Pauline Christianity
Paul of Tarsus: The Apostle According to Islam
The Status of Paul in Early Islam

Responses to Bismikaallahuma
Articles by Wildcat
Answering Islam Home Page