I have yet one more thing to address concerning Paul in Damascus before I go on to discuss his stay in Jerusalem. How long was Saul (Paul) away from Jerusalem? Paul says in Galatians 1:17-18 that he didn’t return to Jerusalem for about 3 years after leaving there to arrest believers at Damascus. Yet, some critics seem to believe that Luke contradicts Paul making it seem like he returns to Jerusalem almost immediately after his conversion. Is this true?
In a word: “No!” But, let’s look at the Scriptures involved:
Neither went I up to Jerusalem to them which were apostles before me; but I went into Arabia, and returned again unto Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem to see Peter, and abode with him fifteen days. (Galatians 1:17-18 KJV [emphasis mine])
And when he had received meat, he was strengthened. Then was Saul certain days with the disciples which were at Damascus. And straightway he preached Christ in the synagogues, that he is the Son of God. But all that heard him were amazed, and said; ‘Is not this he that destroyed them which called on this name in Jerusalem, and came hither for that intent, that he might bring them bound unto the chief priests?’ But Saul increased the more in strength, and confounded the Jews which dwelt at Damascus, proving that this is very Christ. And after that many days were fulfilled, the Jews took counsel to kill him: But their laying await was known of Saul. And they watched the gates day and night to kill him. Then the disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket. And when Saul was come to Jerusalem… (Acts 9:19-26a KJV [emphasis mine])
Luke doesn’t mention Paul’s time spent in Arabia, because it has nothing to do with Luke’s theme which shows how the Gospel spread so rapidly across the Roman Empire. He is not trying to smooth over apparent contradictions, but merely mentions Paul’s conversion in Damascus and his escape from harm there and his ultimate meeting with the Apostles in Jerusalem.
On the other hand Paul is trying to answer an argument against his Gospel being his own. He is seeking to defend what he has done against what some accusers had said about him. Paul made some specific statements about himself in an effort to show the incongruity of the argument against him. For example, why would Paul spend the first three years after his conversion away from the Apostles at Jerusalem if his Gospel is supposed to be driven from theirs? To whom would Paul go to learn his Gospel? It is evident that Paul had preached a Gospel without Law to the Galatians, but those coming later claimed real believers obeyed the Law and were thus saved by Christ (through obedience to the Law). Who would have taught such a Gospel (i.e. The Resurrected Jesus without the Law) to Paul? He certainly couldn’t have received it from any of the Apostles, neither from Ananias who baptized him, for he was a believer who was devout according to the Law and a man having a good report of all the Jews at Damascus (Acts 22:12). Neither could he have learned his Gospel of Christ without the Law by studying with any of the churches of Judea, for none of them knew him by face until much later (Galatians 1:22). Neither could Paul, a zealot of the Law (Galatians 1:14), have imagined it. So, how could he have learned it, except through revelation from Christ (Galatians 1:12).
Luke in speaking of Paul’s conversion and ultimate return to Jerusalem had none of these things in mind when he wrote “after many days were fulfilled” Saul (Paul) went up to Jerusalem. He wasn’t defending anything, so he wasn’t seeking to be specific. The “many days” mentioned in Acts 9:23 is also translated years in Luke 1:7, 18 and has the meaning of over a decade in “a good while ago” (Acts 15:7) and has the meaning of up to two years in “a good while” (Acts 18:18). The same Greek words are used in each of these verses and have the meaning of years not days or even weeks. The meaning depends upon the context. One cannot say that Luke contradicts Paul when such ambiguous words are used to describe Paul’s time away from Jerusalem. To do so only reflects one’s bias against the text.