Did the churches in Judea know Paul? Why Acts and Galatians contradict Ehrman

Thornhill, James, 1675/1676-1734; Paul Preaching in the Areopagus
Paul preaching in the Areopagus. Image Credit: Artuk

2. Did the churches in Judea know Paul? Here again Paul is quite clear. Sometime after he converted he went around to various churches in the regions of Syria and Cilicia, but he “was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea” (Galatians 1:21-22). This has struck some scholars as odd. According to the book of Acts, when Paul was earlier persecuting the churches in Christ, it was specifically the Christian churches in “Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1-3; 9:1-2). Why is it that Christians in the churches he had formerly persecuted didn’t know what he looked like? Wasn’t he physically present among them as their enemy earlier? According to Acts, yes; according to Paul, no.” [Bart Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing The Hidden Contradictions In The Bible (And Why We Don’t Know About Them), pg. 56]

If someone met you before, it seems obvious that they’d remember you. Well, the answer is complicated because, if they’ve known you for years, they wouldn’t forget; but if they’d only met you once, they could possibly forget unless they had the blessing of what I call “photographic memory.” If they “never forget a face,” it’s likely they’d remember you.

Here in yet another quote from my former university professor, we see that he claims Paul in Galatians is contradicting Acts. The reason? Acts says that Paul traveled to Judea and Samaria when he persecuted Christians but that, when he writes in Galatians, he says that “I was still unknown by sight to the churches of Judea.” Surely, this appears to be a contradiction, right? It does appear that way — until you realize that Bart Ehrman has done here what he’s been doing throughout his book: placing contradictions where there are none.

Acts 8

Now Saul was consenting to his death.

At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison. (Acts 8:1-3)

Here in Acts 8:1-3, we see that Saul persecuted the church at Jerusalem. Paul had to be in Judea in order to persecute the Jerusalem church because Jerusalem is located within Judea. Thus, Saul would’ve known the Judeans, and they would’ve known him.

Well, there’s a statement in Galatians from Paul that Ehrman is twisting to his own selfish ends. That statement needs examination.

Paul: unknown to the Judean churches (Galatians 1:21-22)

21 Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia. 22 And I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea which were in Christ. 23 But they were hearing only, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they glorified God in me. (Galatians 1:21-24)

Ehrman says that Paul is saying that the Judean churches didn’t know him, that they’d never met him before, but is that what Paul is saying?

No, it isn’t.

Look at Galatians 1:23: “they were hearing only, “He who formerly persecuted us now preaches the faith which he once tried to destroy.” First, it’s interesting the pronoun “us” is used; this indicates that the message was coming from Judeans. That is, the Judeans had heard about Paul’s preaching the gospel and coming to Christ. And how would the Judeans have been able to call him “He who formerly persecuted us” if the Judeans didn’t know who Paul was? Next, it says in Galatians 1:24 that “they glorified God in me.” How would they glorify God because of Paul if they didn’t know who he was? The Judeans glorified God because of the miraculous change that they’d heard about in Paul.

When Paul says that “I was unknown by face to the churches of Judea,” he’s not saying that they didn’t know him, but rather, that they hadn’t seen Paul preaching the gospel yet. Their memories of Paul were those back in the day when he was persecuting the churches and instilling fear into the hearts of every believer and Christian. They hadn’t seen Paul preaching the gospel face-to-face yet, but they rejoiced in what they’d heard about Paul because God had saved him and transformed him to convert people to Christ whereas before, he was known for persecuting the churches of God.

Conclusion

Acts 8 tells us that Paul did his worst persecution work in Judea, so the churches there would’ve known who he was (how could they not? he had been present for the stoning of Stephen, remember?).

And yet, when he starts preaching the gospel, they heard of his preaching though they hadn’t seen him since he’d been persecuting Christians. They’d seen him handing people off for death the last time they’d seen him. Now, though, in Galatians 1, Paul says they heard how God had changed him, turned him from his former work to the work of God — and they were rejoicing because they probably thought it’d take a miracle to change Paul and turn him around. And God did it; He specializes in miracles!

If they didn’t know who Paul was, they wouldn’t have been able to refer to him as “he who formerly persecuted us,” nor would they have “glorified God” because of Paul.

Acts 8 and Galatians 1 contradict Ehrman because, if anyone reads the context of these statements, he or she discovers that there is no contradiction between them at all. Ehrman is guilty of ripping statements from their context and causing readers to interpret them “at face value” without providing the necessary context in which to interpret them. The contradiction here is one of Ehrman’s own making.