Appendix A : What is Paul referring to in  Acts 13.20?

Preaching to Jews in the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch the Apostle Paul makes reference to a period of 450 years.  His sermon is about the coming of Christ.  In particular he stresses that Jesus is the promised seed of David but he begins with a reference to God’s choice of their fathers, meaning Abraham, Issac and Jacob, and to the sojourn in Egypt.  When he makes his appeal he refers to his hearers as the sons Abraham (v26) and goes on to speak about the fact that God had fulfilled his promise to the fathers (v32-33).

Verse 20 is not straightforward to translate.  Paul’s speech as a whole consists of a series of related statements linked by the word ‘and’ (Greek - kai).

And the people exalted ...

And with an upheld arm...

And about forty years...

And having destroyed... (v19-20)

all this took about 450 years

And after these things... (v20-21)

And-thence they asked for a king....

And removing him...

The reference to 450 years comes at the start of verse 20 and therefore in the structure of the sentence it most naturally goes with verse 19.

However, some translations relate the 450 years to what follows:

After that He gave them judges for about four hundred and fifty years, until Samuel the prophet.  (NKJV). 

This fails to do justice to the structure of the passage, effectively re-arranges the sentence and is difficult to relate to other dates in the Bible.  One proposal to retain this translation is that the ‘judges’ should include Moses, who did indeed judge, and Samuel.  The time from Exodus to the death of Samuel was at most 436 years, which could possibly referred to as ‘about 450 years’ but it is strange that the 40 years in the wilderness has already been mentioned.  Finally, Paul next speaks of the desire for a king, but this happened during the lifetime of Samuel, less than 400 years after the Exodus.

Other translations follow the word order and structure of the speech more closely so that the 450 years is linked with verse 19.

When he had destroyed seven nations in Canaan, he put them in possession of their land for about four hundred and fifty years.   After this he gave them judges, down to the prophet Samuel.  (NJB)

With this translation the 450 years does not relate directly to the judges or to the time of Samuel. Rather it would seem to relate to the time they are in possession of their land.  This makes sense of the words but not of the speech, why does Paul refer to this?  The land was allocated in 2559, and about 450 years later is the reign of Solomon, but this does not fit the logic of the argument except possibly that Solomon was the son of David.

A third translation sees the 450 years as a summary of all that has gone before.  The immediate context is taking possession of the promised land (2553 when they crossed the Jordan, 2559 when it had been divided).  About 450 years earlier is 2108 and the birth of Isaac, the seed of Abraham.  Indeed the whole episode, from the first call of Abraham 25 years earlier can be said to be about 450 years before the time when the seed of Abraham finally take possession of the land they were promised.  Since the fathers and Abraham are stressed this interpretation all makes good sense of Paul’s argument as a whole.

This appears to be the logic of the Engish Standard and New International translations:

All this took about 450 years. And after that he gave them judges until Samuel the prophet. (ESV)

It should also be noted that the word rendered “about” can be used as “an expression used to introduce an alternative form of expression as an interpretation of what has been said”.  So it could be translated something like “that is”, “that is to say” or “so to speak”.

Thus the following are reasonable translations which make sense of the argument in a way that others do not and are consistent with the rest of Scripture:

and when he had destroyed seven nations in Canaan, he allotted them their lands - about 450 years.


and when he had destroyed seven nations in Canaan, he allotted them their lands - that is to say 450 years.

© David Phillips 1995-2017