Galatians, the "most authentic" of the Pauline epistles, raises more questions than it answers. If its pugnacious author was, in reality, an early Christian missionary, then the letter is perhaps the first record of his clash with competitors over a territory he had claimed for himself. But what territory?
Paul's letter was ostensibly addressed to "the churches of Galatia" but gives no clue as to precisely where those churches were located. Speculation falls into two camps, the "north Galatian" theory, centred on the original Gallic tribes; and the "south Galatian" theory, centred on towns in Romanized Pisidia-Lycaonia recorded in Acts. Both may be wrong.
Why would "Paul" – or any other apostle from the Levant with a message for the Gentiles – eschew the more accessible, Greek-speaking coastal cities of Asia Minor for the uplands of Anatolia, populated by diverse, polyglot and warlike tribesmen? If this "frontier zone" provided credulous converts for a sharp-witted Jewish proselytizer, were these same illiterate tribesmen really the audience for an epistle of finely nuanced theology? Yet if it was to Roman colonies of the interior that Paul addressed his missive, why choose these Latin-speaking martial towns for a message of redemption and a critique of Judaism?
Something about Paul's dealings with the Galatians in not quite kosher.
Paul – High Plains Drifter?
The Acts of the Apostles uses curiously archaic and unhelpful terms to describe the core areas of Paul's "missions to the Gentiles":
"Paul and his companions travelled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia."
– Acts 16.6.
"After spending some time in Antioch, Paul set out from there and travelled from place to place throughout the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples."
– Acts 18.23.
The focus of both Phrygia and Galatia was the north-central plain of Anatolia but in fact the "detailed" escapades found in Acts belong entirely to the south-central region, in the environs of Cilicia and the Taurus mountains.
At one time – long before the author of Acts put his yarn together – Phrygia extended over much of central Anatolia, a vast tribal confederacy that reached its apogee in the 8th-7th centuries BC. In the 3rd century BC northern Phrygia had been settled by Celtic tribes that, like the Phrygians and Hittites before them, had migrated from Thrace into Asia. The Celts settled on the borders of Bithynia and Pontus and gave their name to the region – Galatia, from the Greek word for a Celt, Galtae.
It was the death of the last Galatian king – in battle against the southern tribes – which prompted direct Roman rule. "In the time of Paul" Galatia referred not to the tribal homeland of the Anatolian Gauls but to the much larger province established by Augustus in 25 BC. This territory encompassed all the diverse regions of the Anatolian plateau not included in the coastal provinces and extending as far as the frontier of Cappadocia. It was given the name Galatia because, hitherto, Galatian client kings had been assigned a notional authority over the whole region by Rome. In the century following Augustus the region was Romanised with a network of colonies or redeveloped Greek towns.
"North Galatians" – Barbarians for Jesus?
"As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you. Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself."
– Galatians 4.13.
There is little to suggest that the tribal area of north-central Anatolia offered much encouragement to a Greek-speaking Jew with a vision of a godman who had "conquered death". For one thing, the Galatian tribes spoke a language similar to that of their kinsmen in Gaul (and continued to do so until at least the 5th century). Even if a tiny minority of Galatians were familiar with spoken Greek, would they really have understood a stranger telling the story of a redemptive sacrifice for their sins?
The Celts had entered Asia in the 3rd century BC, at the invitation of Nicomedes I of Bithynia, a Greek kingdom on the Marmara and Black Sea. In return for land in the interior the tribesmen agreed to fight as mercenaries against a rival Greek king, Antiochus I of Seleucia, harassing from the east. The Galtae functioned as a warrior elite over what remained of the indigenous population. For a generation, they raided across Asia Minor until eventually routed by another kingdom rising in the southwest, Pergamon, Rome's only Greek ally.
The chastened Galatians now fought alongside their old adversaries, the Seleucids of Syria. Pergamon appealed to the Romans, already campaigning in Greece, and in 190 BC, at the Battle of Magnesia, the legions of Scipio Asiagenus defeated the combined Seleucid-Galatian army. Following the battle the Roman general Manlius Vulso led a punitive expedition into the Galatian heartland, pillaging the lands and selling thousands of Celts into slavery. Rome, the new master of Anatolia, annexed Pergamon as the province of Asia ("bequeathed" by its last king) and installed client states across the region. In the twenty year conflict with Pontus (the Mithridatic Wars) the Celts fought as Roman auxiliaries. When, in 64 BC, Pompey the Great imposed Roman rule over Pontus, pacification of the interior was delegated to his Celtic vassals. A compliant chieftain, Deiotarus, was installed as "king of all Galatia". The kingdom gained additional lands from Antony in 39 BC but the short-lived dynasty ended with the death of Amytas in 25 BC and Roman annexation.
The Galatians were now "friends and allies" of Rome. In the Augustan age, and for centuries after, this warrior people would provide recruits for the imperial army. Rome's twenty-second legion, Legio XXII Deiotariana, was recruited from the Galatian tribesmen and named for their original king. This legion, stationed in Alexandria, was destroyed by Jewish rebels during the war against Simon ben Kosiba (132-136).
An Opportunity in Pessinus?
"Now concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given orders to the churches of Galatia, so you must do also."
– 1 Corinthians 16.1.
If a mission by Paul to the warlike northern tribes is highly dubious, the notion that he could subsequently "send them a letter" is pure fantasy. "There is neither Jew nor Greek," Paul writes in Galatians 3.28 but would that mean anything to people who were Celts? Would they warm to the promise of becoming "Abraham's seed" (3.29)? If intrigued by the promise of eternal life would they really have entertained a plea for "alms for the saints"? In an age and place where whole peoples were reduced to slavery the notion that Paul, an outsider, taken sick at that, could have wandered into a Galatian village, been cared for "like an angel" (Galatians 4.13) and founded a church or two is ludicrous.
But some scholars look to a Hellenized cult centre, Pessinus, which fell within the lands settled by the Celts, as a possible missionizing opportunity. Could Paul have arrived in a thousand-year-old sanctuary city, talked the talk, and left behind him a community of believers?
It was in Pessinus that Cybele, the ancient goddess of the conquered Phrygians, had her primary sanctuary. Rather than despoil the centre (as they had Delphi in Greece) the Galatians added Cybele to their own gods. Pessinus became one of three Galtae tribal capitals, the others being forts at Ancyra (Ankara) and Tavium. The city continued as a centre of pilgrimage and trade. At the end of the 3rd century BC, when Hannibal threatened Rome itself, the "Great Mother" had been deemed so auspicious that the Romans negotiated possession of the sacred "black stone" of the goddess. Cybele was installed in Rome, where her castrated priests were known as galli. The goddess, on her arrival, was taken into
the temple of Victory on the Palatine.
Cybele was at least as ancient as any deity from the Judaean highlands, and even had her own dying and reborn consort, Attis. Around 50 AD Emperor Claudius instituted annual ceremonies for Magna Mater and Attis in Rome. In the mid-2nd century Antonius Pius was a devotee of the goddess and as late as the reign of Marcus
Aurelius, the veneration of Cybele remained a State cult. In later centuries, Magna Mater was frequently merged with other goddesses, such as Isis and
It is safe to assume that the Galatians had their own "Druidic" priests, able to deal with interlopers threatening to overturn the gods. More to the point, not a shred of evidence, biblical, literary or archaeological, supports the speculation that Pessinus had an early Christian church. In fact, in 362, Emperor Julian, "the apostate", paid homage to Cybele at Pessinus on his way to the Persian front. The earliest Christian inscriptions in the city date from about this time and are more frequent from the 5th century onwards. The city's first known bishop, Demetrios, was ordained in 403.
So if "ethnic Galatia" makes no sense as a centre of Pauline activity, just where did Paul "found churches" and to whom did he really write his epistle?
"South Galatians" – Settlers for Salvation?
"I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me."
"You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified."
"I bear branded on my body the marks of Jesus."
– Galatians 2.20; 3.1; 6.17.
Acts – but not Paul himself* – names towns just north of the Taurus Mountains for the apostle's adventures, in a region called variously Pisidia, Lycaonia or Isauria. All were, in the mid-1st century, part of Province Galatia.
The Roman presence in southwest Anatolia in the "time of Paul", circa 50-135 AD. The area includes parts of Lycia, Pisidia, Lycaonia, Cappadocia and "Rough Cilicia" – Trachea Cilicia. The imperial Road, Via Sebaste, running from Smyrna through Antioch to Tarsus, marked a temporary front line across the highlands while the provinces of Galatia and Cappadocia were being organized. In contrast to the underdeveloped high country, the coastal plain teemed with major, established cities. Many had an earlier Greek foundation and received an imperial make-over.
But Paul, it seems, chooses the bandit country beyond the mountains for his "first churches among the Gentiles". Really?
The Improbable Paul
"When it pleased God ... to reveal His Son in me ... I went to Arabia and returned again to Damascus. Then after three years I went up to Jerusalem ... and remained fifteen days ... Afterward I went into the regions of Syria and Cilicia ... Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem."
– Galatians 1.15-2.1
In Galatians Paul recalls nothing of the Damascene road "sound and light show" repeated three times in Acts. In his own words, his life-changing drama has become prosaic: on some unstated occasion God had "revealed" his Son. Paul's professed subsequent movements are three years in Arabia and fourteen years in Syria and Cilicia. Thus seventeen years at least have passed from the time that the apostle first "saw the light" until the occasion when he wrote to the Galatians. And that letter, apparently, was written "so soon" after the Galatians had been evangelized (Galatians 1.6). But nothing in the letter, no king or ruler, no "historical marker", allows even approximate dating. All exegesis requires "calculation".
When, according to Acts, did Paul first evangelize the recipients of the "Galatian" letter?
Acts actually first mentions a foray into Galatia on the apostle's second missionary journey but only as a passing preamble to his adventures in Europe. In the first stage of the second mission Paul is re-visiting his earlier foundations to "see how they do." (Acts 15.36). This second mission occurs a "long time" after the first trip (Acts 14.28).
When was the first mission? The Holy Ghost directs the selection of Paul for the task sometime after the death of Herod Agrippa I (44 AD in the known universe). In the prelude to this first mission, it is other brethren, prophets and teachers at Antioch, who receive instruction from the Holy Ghost – NOT Paul. The "Paul" of Acts, of course, is presented as a team player, not the wilful maverick that emerges from his own letters. The Antioch brethren "laid their hands" on Barnabas and Saul and sent them on their way (Acts 13.1-3).
After his adventure Saul/Paul reports back to the Antiochian church ("from whence they had been recommended" - Acts 14.26-27). The pecking order is inescapable although dating of the mission remains opaque. As to the adventure itself, the main action has occurred at Antioch-in-Pisidia, with supportive activity in Iconium, Lystra and Derbe, all towns of Lycaonia.
Thus the identity of the "Galatians", the dating of the mission, and the dating of the epistle sent to them, are all intrinsically linked. If the "South Galatian" theory holds up no better than the "North Galatian" theory then what we have in the Epistle to the Galatians is something not at all uncommon in the compendium of the Bible: a bona fide fake.
"Paul and his company loosed from Paphos, they came to Perga in Pamphylia: and John departing from them returned to Jerusalem. When they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down. And after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue sent to them, saying, 'Men and brethren, if you have any word of exhortation for the people, say on.'
Then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said ..."
– Acts 13.13-16.
In Cyprus Paul is able to win a believer in Christ – the provincial governor no less – by blinding a rival magician (Acts 13.11). But in the coastal province of Pamphylia, civilized and rich in cities like Perga, Aspendos, Side and Attalia, the apostle works neither miracle nor sign. In fact, Acts has nothing to report at all of "good work" in these great cities but catapults the pioneering apostles (implicitly) along the valley of the Kestros (Aksu Çayı) river, through the mountains, past the (unmentioned) cities of Cremna and Sagalossus, to set them down at a synagogue in Pisidian Antioch, where, bizarrely, they are invited to speak. Bizarre because they are, after all, strangers in town – and look what happens when a lax rabbi lets the unknown visitor speak!
Paul uses the opportunity to deliver a 600-word diatribe – as bogus a piece of reportage as anything found in the Bible. The whole thing is a set piece, a "necessary," perfunctory offer to the Jews to immediately embrace the new faith or perish.
“It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken to you first; but since you reject it, and judge yourselves unworthy of everlasting life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles. For so the Lord has commanded us: 'I have set you as a light to the Gentiles that you should be for salvation to the ends of the earth.’ "
– Acts 13.46,47.
Paul's speech complements Stephen's story of Acts 7. "Stephen," on the point of martyrdom, recounted the sacred history of the Jews from Abraham through to Solomon and finished by using the words of the prophets to denounce "the Jews." Paul now adds to the story of the Jews the conquest of Canaan, the period of Judges, the preparation of John, and the coming of Jesus. Paul, too, finishes with a warning from the prophets.
The original text has been cut and pasted into two separate chapters of Acts, in both places where a "warning to the Jews" was required. Both Greek-speaking Jews, Stephen and Paul, are stoned for their trouble – those dastardly Jews! However Paul, unlike the less fortunate Stephen, is required for a continuing story: his stoning occurs at a later venue and he makes an instant recovery, despite being "dumped for dead" outside the walls of Lystra.
In stark contrast to the Jews, the Gentiles "begged that these words might be preached to them the next Sabbath" (13.42) and "almost the whole city" (what, all one hundred thousand?) showed up the following week, much to the seething chagrin of the Jews. Conversions were instant, numerous and "throughout all the region". As if.
Pisidian Antioch was originally a Seleucid foundation of the 3rd century BC. It had been settled with Greek colonists from Magnesia-on-the-Maeander, with the intention of holding off attacks from the Galatians. Located on the frontier of Pisidia and Lycaonia the city retained a frontline status in the later struggle between Rome and Antiochus III of Syria. Three thousand veterans of Legion V Alauda (one of Antony's legions, first recruited by Caesar in Gaul) were settled by Augustus in 25 BC, when the town was refounded as the Roman military colony, Colonia Caesarea Antiocheia. It was the largest and most Romanized of all Rome's colonies in the region. Antioch alone was granted “Ius Italicum” (Latin Rights), an honour borne out by the discovery of a copy of the Augustan epitaph “Res Gestae Divi Augusti", close by the imperial sanctuary in the centre of town. Although many residents would have spoken Greek the official language of the city remained Latin until the close of the 3rd century.
• In such a city, could Paul really have taken the town by storm, the same apostle who had absolutely no impact in so many other cities through which he must have passed?
• Could any wandering religious radical have competed with the theatre, stadium, taverns and baths – and not least, rival priests – in anything but the most marginal of ways?
Only the distortion lens of Christian belief encourages the silly notion that the apostle passed through the city like a whirlwind, overturning pagan cults and Jewish synagogue alike.
In Pisidian Antioch, as in many of his other venues, Paul leverages his Jewish connection to recruit non-Jews. But were there any Jews in the city in the first place?
Were there Jews in Pisidian Antioch? Was there a synagogue?
"The inscription ... an epitaph from Apollonia ... of Debbora ... beyond doubt a Jewess by her name ... married to Pamphylus (whom we may suppose to have been a Jew, probably) ... is the only certain indication of a Jewish colony in Antioch."
– Sir William Ramsay, Cities of St Paul, p256/7.
After the 4th century triumph of Christianity the "Great Basilica" of Antioch was converted into a church and a residence for the local bishop. A mosaic floor, which names a late-4th century bishop, Optimus, an attendee of the Council of Constantinople, identifies this repurposed building as the earliest church yet found in Anatolia. The original basilica has itself been identified as the “Church of St. Paul” by a 6th century altar, found in secondary use at the baths in Yalvaç – a connection good for tourism but a tad optimistic.
Even more dubious is the suggestion that an earlier "Jewish synagogue" lies beneath the basilica, the very place where the apostle Paul addressed "almost the whole city". This identification rests solely upon discontiguous wall foundations and, of course, the assurance of Acts.
• But would Jews of the 1st century, otherwise unknown in Antioch, really have had an impressive meeting hall in the centre of a Latin colony, five minutes walk from the Imperial Sanctuary?
More than a century ago, Sir William Ramsay, still revered by some Christians as the "greatest archaeologist of all time" (because, of course, he made the "right" conclusions) drew similar dubious suppositions from pretty meager findings. A tombstone found in another city, fifty miles away, inscribed with the name "Deborra" and referring to Antiochian ancestors was deemed proof positive of a "Jewish community" in Antioch (no chance then that a pagan could have given his daughter a Jewish name?). Deborra's husband had the name Pamphylus, thoroughly Greek – though in his case, said Ramsay, he must be a disguised Jew!
At best, the jury is still out on whether any significant group of Jews were ever resident in Pisidian Antioch.* But in the Christian dreamscape, of course there was an influential and established community of Jews in this Roman colonia, complete with a large town centre synagogue, even decades before the dispersion caused by the Jewish War. It is simply a matter of waiting for the evidence to emerge.
Yet it is really Acts alone which underpins the notion not only that a Jewish community existed but that it also was well-connected. Acts has the Jews stir up "prominent women and the chief men", who then run Paul and Barnabas out of town.
"But the Jews stirred up the devout and honorable women, and the chief men of the city, and raised persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them out of their coasts."
– Acts 13.50.
The use of the word "coasts" (changed to "region" in recent translations) for an inland city is curious, as is the reference to authoritative women. Following Ramsay's method, what we have here may relate to another town and point to a 2nd century date for this "detail"! **
• If the Jews really were so established and influential in Antioch did they really need to petition the town's officials to eject a couple of non-local Jewish troublemakers?
• And what about Paul's "Roman citizenship" on this occasion?
Is it not all, really, just the standard Christian aggrandizement of its heroes, either carousing with or confronting "those in authority"?
"Paul and Barnabas ... shook off the dust from their feet against them, and came to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit."
– Acts 13.51-52.
After their expulsion from Pisidian Antioch, Acts tells us that Paul and Barnabas walked over a hundred miles to Iconium (Claudiconium) where they "spoke boldly" in the synagogue and performed unstated "miraculous signs and wonders". Apparently, the Lord had given them this power – something they seemed to lack at Antioch – but then the Lord does nothing to stop them being chased out of town again. That's life as an apostle, eh?
The episode is essentially a truncated version of the Antiochian experience and just as ludicrous. The dynamic duo are forced to flee a murderous faction of a divided city:
"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.
But the Jews who refused to believe stirred up the Gentiles and poisoned their minds against the brothers. So Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.
The people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews, others with the apostles. There was a plot afoot among the Gentiles and Jews, together with their leaders, to mistreat them and stone them. But they found out about it and fled to the Lycaonian cities of Lystra and Derbe and to the surrounding country." – Acts 14.1-6
Despite dividing the city into two hostile camps (a first for Christian divisiveness?) Paul returns to Iconium on his return journey and again on his second mission. It seems the bold evangelist had won many Jews and God-fearing Gentiles for Christ.
Archaeology helps not a jot in verifying or falsifying Acts' claims at Iconium. The Roman city that certainly existed below modern Konya has never been identified although we know that the town was honoured by Claudius and made a colony by Hadrian in 130 (Colonia Aelia Hadriana Augusta Iconiensium).
However, all is not lost. The extravagant yarn of Paul and Thecla, itself put together in the 2nd century, is centred on Iconium. The whimsical fable is a clear example of how early Christians embellished a disappointedly skimpy episode in Acts. Tertullian (160-230) scornfully reports that the Acts of Paul and Thecla were forged by an heretical presbyter of Asia Minor who "confessed that he did it out of love for Paul" (De batismo 17). But despite the censure of the North African, the tale was immensely popular for centuries and was reiterated by many of the Fathers.
In the tale, Thecla was one of Paul's converts at Iconium and became his adoring groupie ("Bound with him in affection"). Converted to chastity by the apostle's rapturous rehash of the Beatitudes ("Blessed are they who have kept the flesh pure ... Blessed are the continent ... Blessed are the bodies of virgins ...") the maiden endures the most extraordinary challenges: burning at the stake, ravaging by beasts in the arena, tethering between raging bulls. In every instance Thecla is saved by divine intervention. She both dies peacefully after converting many to Christ and suffers a glorious martyrdom.
For all this, the fantasy tells us quite a lot. The early "tradition" says that Thecla finally escaped her oppressors by disappearing into a hillside at Meriamlik, Seleucia (modern Silifke) – and almost certainly Seleucia is where the story of Thecla was concocted. It just so happens, that a Temple of Jupiter graced another hill at Seleucia and in the 2nd century was a thriving centre of pagan pilgrimage. Nearby stood a noted school of philosophy. Faced with such challenges local Christians soon identified a tomb of the virgin martyr and in the degenerate Christian era that followed the martyrium became one of the most celebrated shrines in the Christian world. Egeria, the Spanish nun, visited in the 4th century and in the 5th century bishop Basil of Seleucia embellished the story of Thecla in a two-volume work replete with many additional miracles. The pagan temples and schools were demolished, of course, and their stones used in churches and monasteries clustered around the purported "home of Thecla". A huge basilica at Meriamlik completed the holy themepark.
Lystra – a Ripping Yarn from the boondocks
"One must wonder how Lystra came to be one of the list ... How did the cosmopolitan Paul drift like a piece of timber borne by the current into this quiet backwater?"
– Sir William Ramsay, Cities of St Paul, p408.
Lystra (Colonia Julia Felix Germina Lustra) was a Roman colony established in 6 BC to allow better control of the tribes in the mountains to the west, the fierce Isaurians. Before the Romans arrived in Cilicia the Isaurians – who were, perhaps, ancestors of the Kurds – occupied the whole basin of the river Calycadnus, south of the mountains. But Rome's war against "Cilician pirates" – waged by Publius Servilius in 76–75 BC and Pompey in 65 BC – saw the Isaurians pushed back into their mountain fastnesses. A generation later, the Romans were again encroaching on the mountain tribes, this time from the west. Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (known as Cyrenius in Luke 2.2, governor of Syria in 6-7 AD), was at this stage governor of Galatia and waged a campaign against the so-called "Homonadesians" around the year 4 BC.
In the 4th century the Isaurians were still being described by the historian Ammianus Marcellinus as the scourge of Asia Minor. But by the 5th century two legions had been raised from these tribesmen (Legio II Isaura and Legio III Isaura), several Isaurian officers had risen to high rank, and one of them, Zeno, even became emperor (474-491).
As a Roman colony, the official language of Lystra was Latin, but the indigenous people still spoke the native Lycaonian language, which makes it all the more "curious" that Paul and Barnabas had a sophisticated dialogue with the locals. That is just one anomaly in a whole catalogue of marvel and magic.
Because the author of Acts has a different point to make at Lystra, this town – so unlike Antioch and Iconium – is portrayed as having no established Jewish community or synagogue. In this instance the claim is probably accurate – though the contrast to neighbouring Iconium is "curious" to say the least – didn't the Jews get everywhere?
In all of Paul's missionary adventures, Lystra stands out as the first town he encountered with an entirely pagan population. With the people completely ignorant of Jewish folktales is the great apostle at a loss? Far from it. At Lystra, Paul heals a cripple by shouting, argues in the Lycaonian language, gets mistaken for a god and is brought sacrifices, instantly recovers from a "fatal" stoning and takes to the road the next day none abashed! It is all simply pious fiction.
"In Lystra there sat a man crippled in his feet, who was lame from birth and had never walked. He listened to Paul as he was speaking. Paul looked directly at him, saw that he had faith to be healed and called out, "Stand up on your feet!" At that, the man jumped up and began to walk." – Acts 14.8,10.
Paul, it seems, can recognize a man's faith by sight. Is this, perhaps, the skill of a charlatan who can spot his "mark"? In fact, the incident is a truncated iteration of Peter's healing of a lame man in Acts 3.2-9.
The healing miracle here stands in odd contrast to the statement attributed to Paul in 2 Timothy that his lackey Trophimus he had "left sick at Miletum." Could the apostle who leaves behind his own sick servant actually cure congenital deformity with a word?
"When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, 'The gods have come down to us in human form!' Barnabas they called Jupiter, and Paul they called Mercury because he was the chief speaker. The priest of Jupiter, whose temple was just outside the city, brought bulls and wreaths to the city gates because he and the crowd wanted to offer sacrifices to them.
But when the apostles Barnabas and Paul heard of this, they tore their clothes and rushed out into the crowd, shouting: 'Men, why are you doing this? We too are only men ... ' Even with these words, they had difficulty keeping the crowd from sacrificing to them."
– Acts 14.11-18.
The novel identification of Barnabas as "Jupiter" and Paul as "Mercury" (nothing like it appears elsewhere in the New Testament) is actually NOT as original as it seems. Ovid, a Roman poet, published an anthology of Greek myths "Metamorphoses" around the year 8 AD and the whole compendium is about transformations of men and gods. One story, in particular, concerns the appearance, in Phrygia, of Jupiter and Mercury. It results in the "foundation of a new church".
"In the hills of Phrygia, an oak and a lime tree stand side by side ... There is a swamp not far from there, once habitable land but now the haunt of diving-birds and marsh-loving coots. Jupiter went there, disguised as a mortal, and Mercury, the descendant of Atlas, setting aside his wings, went with his father, carrying the caduceus. A thousand houses they approached ... But one received them: it was humble it is true, roofed with reeds and stems from the marsh, but godly. Baucis and the equally aged Philemon, had been wedded in that cottage in their younger years, and there had grown old together ...
“We are gods,” they said, “and this neighbourhood will receive just punishment for its impiety, but to you we grant exemption from that evil" ... Everywhere else vanished in the swamp ... but their old cottage, tiny even for the two of them, turned into a temple ... “We ask to be priests and watch over your temple" .... The gods’ assurance followed the prayer. ...“Let those who love the gods become gods: let those who have honoured them, be honoured."
– Ovid, Metamorphoses, 8.611-678, Philemon and Baucis meet Jupiter and Mercury.
Heavens above, surely "Luke" didn't copy his ideas?!
Enter dastardly Jews
The story of Paul now takes a remarkable twist. At this point, having established a Jew-free city the author of Acts conjures up the obligatory nasty Jews from 250 miles away, stiff-necked types determined to murder the apostle!
• How on earth, one might wonder, did distant Jews know where to find Paul? Or was it just a chance encounter?
In a remarkable volte-face the crowd, which had been ever so keen to honour the apostles as gods, are now swayed by the arriving Jews into stoning Paul instead!
"Then some Jews came from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowd over. They stoned Paul and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead. But after the disciples had gathered around him, he got up and went back into the city. The next day he and Barnabas left for Derbe."
– Acts 14.19-20.
Coming from Iconium and as far as Pisidian Antioch – about three weeks travel – one might have thought "the Jews" would have made sure the stoned Paul was really dead. But – as they say – you can't keep a good man down!
Derbe – a one-denarius town
"The presence of Jewish inhabitants ... at Derbe and Lystra ... is proved by the authority of the Acts alone."
– Sir William Ramsay, Cities of St Paul, p255.
Derbe was a town at the eastern extremity of Lycaonia and may have been, in fact, not in Galatia at all but in the province of Cappadocia, created by Tiberius in 17 AD. Like the residents of Lystra, the people of Derbe spoke Lycaonian. The town certainly appears to have changed masters frequently:
"The Romans later assigned to the predecessors of Archeläus an eleventh prefecture, taken from Cilicia, I mean the country round Castabala and Cybistra, extending to Derbe, which last had belonged to Antipater the pirate."
– Strabo, 12.
In the "time of Paul" Derbe may have belonged to the kingdom of Antiochus IV of Commagnene, who gave the town the name Claudioderbe in honor of the Roman emperor Claudius. But in the New Testament yarn, in contrast to the panoply of melodramas at Lystra, nothing much happened at Derbe.
"They preached the good news in that city and won a large number of disciples. Then they returned to Lystra."
– Acts 14.21.
The purported eagerness of pagans to abandon gods revered by their ancestors for centuries when Paul comes to town beggars belief. Even on the return trip nothing happens at Derbe.
"He came to Derbe and then to Lystra ... "
– Acts 16.1.
Apparently, one of Paul's travelling companions on his third missionary journey was a "Gaius" from Derbe. Or perhaps not. In Acts 19.29 he is transformed into a "man of Macedonia"!
"He was accompanied by Sopater son of Pyrrhus from Berea, Aristarchus and Secundus from Thessalonica, Gaius from Derbe, Timothy also, and Tychicus and Trophimus from the province of Asia."
– Acts 20.4.
"So the whole city was filled with confusion, and rushed into the theater with one accord, having seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians, Paul’s travel companions."
– Acts 19.29.
For a "foundational church" Derbe remained remarkably low-profile. Only four bishops are known from the 4th to the 7th centuries and thereafter Derbe is not even mentioned by the "Notitiæ Episcopatuum". Ironically, it was during the Byzantine period that the area witnessed a plethora of church building and gained the epithet “The Land of a Thousand and One Churches”. But by medieval times Derbe itself had been abandoned and forgotten.
Return to go
Bizarrely, having escaped murderous intent, Paul soon returns to the cities of his would-be assassins! Instead of continuing east along the road from Derbe and crossing the Taurus mountains to safety – an easier and shorter route – the intrepid duo retrace their steps through Lystra, Iconium and Pisidian Antioch and only then return to base via Perge on the coast of Pamphylia. Unbelievably, along the way what are now called "churches" are "strengthened" with elders.
"Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith ... They appointed elders for them in each church."
– Acts 14.21-23.
Just who would qualify as an "elder" in a fledgling church?
Like mushrooms emerging from manure, "churches" have now sprung up across Asia Minor. As if.
The Enigmatic Timothy
Despite his earlier experiences, Paul has no reluctance to return to Lystra on his second missionary journey. More improbable nonsense ensues. In the town which has no Jews Paul now finds a half-Jew instead!
Unbelievably, despite all that the great apostle has to say about the irrelevance of circumcision, Paul actually circumcises this unfortunate youth. The wacky reason given in Acts is "because of the Jews". Yet aside from the single reference to the youth's own mother there is not a shred of evidence that there were ever Jews in Lystra – all of which must have made Paul's discourse on the "Abrahamic covenant" in Galatians a tad obscure to the provincial converts who supposedly received his letter!
More seriously disturbing is the report that Paul himself did the circumcising. Was it his first or had he performed many in his previous "life in Judaism"?
"He came to Derbe and then to Lystra, where a disciple named Timothy lived, whose mother was a Jewess and a believer, but whose father was a Greek. The brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him. Paul wanted to take him along on the journey, so he circumcised him because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek."
– Acts 16.1-3.
Paul actually has very little to say about his companion Timothy (Timo'theos, honour to God). The apostle refers to him variously as "son" (1 Corinthians 4.17, Philippians 2.22), "brother" (2 Corinthians 1.1), and "servant of Christ" (Philippians 1.1). Paul includes Timothy in the greeting in seven of his epistles and sends him on errands to Corinth and Philippi. Timothy's "co-authorship" of several letters implies a close relationship. Perhaps, if a Timothy really existed, his Greek education enabled him to act as Paul's secretary?
But of their first meeting and the "circumcision" which followed Paul himself says nothing – which is hardly surprising when Paul purportedly wrote to the very same Galatians:
"Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace."
– Galatians 2-5.
When Paul eventually goes up to Jerusalem he takes with him not a Timothy but a Titus (who was "NOT compelled to be circumcised" – Galatians 2.3). Paul meets those who "seemed to be pillars" but they "add nothing" to him (2.6). As the apostle makes painfully clear again and again in his epistles, his gospel is entirely his own – direct from revelation.
Acts also reports another extraordinary claim:
"As they travelled from town to town, they delivered the decisions reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for the people to obey. So the churches were strengthened in the faith and grew daily in numbers."
– Acts 16.4-5.
Paul delivers the Jerusalem edicts? As if.
"Some men came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the brothers: "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved."
– Acts 15.1.
"As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!"
– Galatians 5.12.
Paul's "Galatian letter" was clearly written to counteract the influence of Judaizers, that is, Jews like himself who had a Christ-centred religious product to peddle. Paul's missive, in reality, was a letter only in the sense of a public statement, intended to be read by
with a mind to do so (which explains why there are none of the usual personalized greetings either at the beginning or at the end). Religious innovators like Paul, hustling for a following, might well have posted open letters castigating rivals and extolling their own merits. A reader may well have read it aloud to a handful of illiterate friends (in that sense, a "church").
Galatians could NOT have been a genuine letter addressed to a region the size of Illinois and twice the size of Belgium, delivered by a 1st century equivalent of the pony express. Such a postman would have been an inveterate traveller on a par with Paul himself and we know of no such traveller. And how would the delivery have been affected? Could Paul really have given his messenger adequate and detailed verbal or written directions ( ... walk for ten days, next town on the hill, at the tavern ask for Phoebe – and at this place remember to speak Lycaonian ... ?). Would his postman have had one letter and waited weeks while a local scribe copied it or several copies (a huge expense)? The difficulties multiply.
The recipients of Paul's letter are said to have known of Paul's "previous life in Judaism" (1.13) – which suggests no great distance from Judaea. Many of them had been baptized (3.27) yet some had once "known not God" (pagans?) and now again "observe days, months and seasons and years" (4.8-10), arguably, either the religious calendar of Judaism or some "Chaldean" influenced cult. We are thus looking for an area of established Hellenism with groups of baptized and orthodox Jews. Everything suggests a region not far from Jerusalem itself. Paul on his own testimony says he was "unknown by face in Judaea" but had entered Syria and Cilicia (1.21-22).
Just maybe he never went anywhere else.
A Tale of two cities - Antioch and Antioch!
Who could these Judaizers have been? There are, perhaps, clues in the letter itself. In Jerusalem "false brethren" had sought by stealth to bring Paul "into bondage" (2.2). In Antioch "certain men ... those of the circumcision ... came from James", causing Peter, Barnabas and other Jews to withdraw from the Gentile converts (2.11-15). In the famous confrontation, Paul publicly denounces Peter:
“If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?"
– Galatians 2.14.
Could it be that Paul's opponents, who displaced him among his "little children" in "Galatia" were none other that the original sectarians of Jerusalem – the Church of God – that was cautiously separating itself from more orthodox brethren?
In Acts the Pauline letters are neither quoted nor acknowledged, but nevertheless their content informs the drama strung out along a perambulating itinerary that carries the Good News to a world in need of redemption.
Galatians relates one side of a bitter dispute which occurred in Syrian Antioch. In the epistle Paul doesn't restrain his anger and lets fly with curses and oaths (1.8-9; 3.1, etc.). In stark contrast, Acts smoothes over of this same bitter conflict with a vanity called the "Council of Jerusalem". Paul's face-to-face confrontation with Peter is watered down (it is unnamed "Pharisees which believed" that argue for the Law, including circumcision).
In Acts 15 the "Council" establishes apostolic harmony on the basis of dietary stipulations and sexual restraint (James rules against any "greater burden" for the Gentiles). The whole thorny issue of circumcision is discreetly set aside. The author of Acts continues with his edifying tale of unfolding missionary progress, difficulties overcome and churches established, using "Paul" as his main protagonist.
There is, perhaps, a clue to the date of Galatians:
"Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children."
– Galatians 4.25.
Paul may be speaking in a poetic vain, with Jerusalem "in slavery" to the Law. But just possibly the city he refers to here (in the present tense) is the captured city of 70 AD – or even of 135 AD.
The missionary journeys of the great apostle are all palpable falsehoods but Paul's angry letter to the "Galatians" (or is it to the "Antiochians"?) has not been wasted – it colours fictional events transported to a land far away and a time long ago, to Pisidian Antioch, Iconium and Lystra.
Sir W. M. Ramsay, Cities of St Paul (Hodder & Stoughton, 1907)
Stephen Mitchell, Geoffrey Greatrex, Ethnicity and Culture in Late Antiquity (Duckwoorth, 2000)
J. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul, His Story (Oxford, 2004)
A. N. Wilson, Paul, Mind of the Apostle (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997)
N. H. Sitwell, Roman Roads of Europe (Cassell, 1981)
J. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul, a Critical Life (Clarendon, 1996)
Strabo, Geography (6 - 14; 1‑9, 15‑17)
Livy, History of Rome (38.16-17-27)
Casius Dio Roman History
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