Paul’s Third Journey in A Polite Bribe

A Polite Bribe is an excellent representation of Paul’s journeys as presented in Acts. Because Paul describes his first two journeys to Jerusalem (as a Christian) in his letters, we have the opportunity to “compare and contrast” events in Paul’s letters with the same events described in Acts, written at least fifty years later. But we are adrift when it comes to Paul’s third journey. Paul never mentions this third journey in his letters — except prospectively, as a journey he intends to make at some time in the future.

So we are stuck with Acts, and A Polite Bribe follows the book of Acts pretty strictly. In this narrative, Paul goes to Jerusalem for a third time and meets with James. James asks Paul to go to the temple to offer a sacrifice. Paul agrees, but before he can complete this mission, a riot breaks out when it is discovered that a “gentile” is trying to make an offering in the temple. Paul is arrested, and involuntarily begins his journey to Rome.

Is this accurate?

Is Acts accurate about Paul’s third journey? Scholars, and A Polite Bribe, have latched on to one feature of this story, the fact that Acts makes no reference to James actually accepting the collection. Doesn’t this omission imply that the Paul’s collection must have been rejected? Why else would Acts omit any reference to the collection, which was the whole point of Paul’s visit, unless it was rejected?

This is an interesting and rather speculative point, which could be argued pro or con. But the lack of any reference to James’ accepting Paul’s offering, is hardly the first thing to notice about this story. Here are three far more significant problems.

1. James asks Paul to make an animal sacrifice? Really? Scholars just take this at face value, but it makes nonsense of Paul’s letters, where we see Paul contending with opponents who are vegetarians and against animal sacrifice. It also makes nonsense of Acts 7, where Stephen compares the offerings in the Jewish temple to idolatry. “As your fathers did, so do you,” says Stephen, comparing the temple worship to the idolatrous worship of the golden calf in the wilderness. It also makes nonsense out of Jewish Christianity, which promotes vegetarianism, opposition to animal sacrifice, and complains bitterly about eating at the table of demons.

And if James is asking Paul to make an animal sacrifice, what was Jesus himself doing disrupting the animal sacrifice in the Jewish temple (Matthew 21:12–13 and parallels)? This clearly demonstrates that Jesus was not just against the pagan practice of animal sacrifice; Jesus was against all animal sacrifice. And what about the fact that his brother James himself was a vegetarian, and raised as a vegetarian? And what about the death of James in the year 62, at the instigation of the chief priests of the temple? James was just as much opposed to the priests as his brother Jesus was.

At every turn, we see opposition to animal sacrifice and opposition to the priests in the temple, and yet here we have James promoting animal sacrifice. It is a misuse of scholarly talents to try to insist that this completely unsupported account in Acts has any basis in reality.

2. And Paul agrees to go to the temple and make a sacrifice? If anything, this makes even less sense. This is the same Paul who said that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”! This is the same Paul who boldly declares his independence of the other apostles in Galatians, saying that he is an apostle “not from men or through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father”! If Paul agreed to go to the temple and make a sacrifice, it would represent a total sea-change in Paul’s views.

3. And here is the final problem. The Jews riot because foreigners have been brought into the temple? A Polite Bribe presents this as part of the rejection of foreign gifts by the temple, described by Josephus in Wars 2.17.2.

There is a serious chronological problem here. The rejection of foreign gifts was real, but only occurred at the beginning of the great revolt against Rome in the year 66. Before this point, foreigners frequently did present gifts to the temple. It was not a big deal or a significant problem. But the rejection of foreign gifts occurred well after the death of James in 62. How, then, could Paul have spoken to James about the collection at all? James had been dead for years at this point.

The whole tendency of Acts is to present both Jews and the Jewish Christians as legalists, and to show that Paul was the dutiful servant of the Jerusalem church. We know from Paul’s letters that this is a total distortion of the views of Paul and of the Jewish Christians. All of these incidents defy the description presented in Paul’s letters and support the inaccurate theological tendencies of Acts.

So what really happened?

Sometimes the best thing to do is just to admit that there are things we don’t know; and what exactly happened in Paul’s third journey to Jerusalem is one of those things. The scholars’ instinct to want to imagine some sort of pivotal disagreement between Paul and James is correct. They are just looking in the wrong place, stuck in the dead-end narrative that Acts presents. The story of James suggesting an animal sacrifice (in the interest of Jewish purity, no less), and of Paul meekly acquiescing, requires multiple violations of everyone’s ideals.

If we want to imagine what a disagreement between James and Paul would be about, that is very easy to do based on Paul’s letters. Paul doesn’t see any reason for insisting on ethical niceties such as vegetarianism. The world is coming to an end, and what difference does it make if one person is eating meat and another person isn’t? Can’t we all just get along?

James wants the movement to reject idolatry and to reject violence, including animal sacrifice. Why should Christians share meals with those who, through their food, demonstrate violence towards life and contempt for the message of Jesus? It is these very live issues, not obscure disputes over ritual purity, that ultimately shattered the movement.

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One Response to Paul’s Third Journey in A Polite Bribe

  1. Drew Hensley says:

    I took Intro to New Testament (class for laity) at the conservative Virginia Theological and even there they said Acts was fiction.

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