Did Saint Paul, native of Tarsus and Roman citizen
as he claimed, really make the journeys ascribed to him – or
are they just a frame upon which to hang his seminal epistles?
Did this erstwhile Rabbi Saul, student of Gamaliel and
Pharisaic Jew, really sally forth over sea and mountain – or
could the story of his travels have been concocted precisely to
framework missives of orthodoxy aimed at recalcitrant synagogues
of the Jewish diaspora? A century of archaeology appears to confirm
a few circumstantial details mentioned in his letters and yet the
biblical account gives one cause to wonder.
On the Island of Love
What better way to begin the mythology
of Christian triumph in the Gentile world than a spectacular conversion?
For Paul's first adventure on the missionary path the chosen venue
a strategically placed island ruled by the Ptolemies of Egypt until
annexed by Rome in 58 BC. Many of the vast
number of rock-cut tombs on the island follow the peristyle fashion
of Egypt. Mark Antony gave
the island to Cleopatra as a wedding gift but it was restored as
a Roman province after the Battle of Actium (31 BC).
Economically prized for its copper mines
(half of which were awarded to Herod
the Great by Augustus), in 22
BC the island became a senatorial province, under the rule of
a propraetor (although granted the honorary
rank of proconsul).
Aside from a severe earthquake in 77 AD and a violent Jewish
insurrection in 115/6, the peaceful, prosperous island barely
figured in Roman histories.
But it seems that Paul's co-worker, Barnabas,
Jew from Cyprus, so what better place to start the grand
missionary tour than Barney's
homeland? (Well, actually, a more
obvious choice would have been the cities of the Decapolis – thoroughly
Gentile and far more accessible). Paul's
first journey, so it is said, began about the
year 46 AD, after the apostle had passed more than 10 years in
retirement at Tarsus, performing
no evident work for the Lord or even maintaining contact with
the brethren. Yet Paul is chosen by the church in Antioch (or rather,
by the Holy Spirit) to carry the good news to Cyprus and
Asia Minor. (Not that he was really the first – Acts
11.19 tells of unnamed "scattered" brethren already there,
preaching to the "Jews
alone". The aside is very important,
as we will see).
After a stopover at Salamis
the apostles "go through" the island (the
cities of Citium, Amathus and Curium don't get a mention)
and make straight for the Governor
in Paphos, who conveniently
has sent word that he wants to hear them. (Why,
one wonders? Did they cause such a commotion at the other end
of the island? And if so why do we not know of it?) All
it takes is the spiteful blinding of a
rival magician (curiously
named "Bar Jesus") and Sergius
Roman aristocrat and doubtless the richest, as well as the most
powerful, man on the island, is enrolled among the ranks of the
Christians. "By tradition" Cyprus becomes the first
country governed by a Christian, though oddly we never hear
of Sergius again, and nor is there any evidence of early Christianity
on the island. Hereafter, Rabbi Saul is known by his latin
name Paulus (which just happens to be the
name of the Governor).
One good yarn deserves another
Not only was Paul a soar away success with proconsul
Sergius – he
also got given a thrashing by him! Sounds
a little contradictory? Well, it is another "Church tradition" so
all things are possible. But for this yarn, remarkably, there is physical
evidence – a remnant of the very column about
which Paul was whipped! Apparently, the faithful can reconcile
the two ideas by insisting Paul first was thrashed
by and then converted the governor to Christianity (it
will only take you a moment to dream up the movie script – speak
to Mel Gibson).
The miraculous upshot of all this is that a stump
of marble selected at random in modern times provides "proof" for
the missionary activity of Paul and, ipso facto, "evidence
for Jesus." If you can believe this, you probably believed
there were WMDs in Iraq and your government would not lie to you.
it makes you happier, you can believe that St Paul
was "scourged 39 times" against
this innocuous stump of a pillar before converting
his tormentor Sergius Paulus.
more acceptable evidence (of Sergius Paulus,
that is, not St Paul) is an engraved stone found
at the site of ancient Soli (Kyrenia) in northern
Cyprus, at the end of the 19th century.
the same time, a boundary stone was found in Rome
from the reign of Emperor Claudius (41-54) recording
the name of a Sergius Paulus appointed a curator "of
the banks and the channel of the River Tiber." Was
it the same man? Paul's "epistle to the
to greet him, which suggests it was not.
"Paul's first missionary journey under the auspices
of Antioch is narrated only by Luke ... A close analysis of this
account brings to light so many improbabilities that it becomes impossible to accord it any real confidence."
O'Connor, Paul, His Story, p44.
In reality, the Cyprian story falls apart for a
number of reasons, not least because the Governor's palace, even
today, is a visible celebration of a vibrant paganism,
spanning centuries of Roman occupation. The huge palace complex,
measuring 120 x 90 metres, includes the normal panoply of public
and state rooms, gardens and bath houses. Exquisite mosaic floors
feature the major Roman-Hellenic gods – and all
without a Christian icon in sight! Ancient Paphos had
its theatre, agora and even Asklepion,
shrine-cum-hospital of the ever-popular healing god Asclepius, until his overthrow by Jesus. We might
also reasonably suspect a fraudster's work because of a curious
similarity (yet again) between the work of "Luke" (the
purported author of Acts)
and the history of Josephus written in the 90s.
Aerial view of the proconsul's residence,
Did Paul make it past the front door?
|Where did they
get their ideas from?
||Acts 13, 4-8
Cypriot magician, pal of Roman governor, works a dirty
||'Jewish Cypriot magician, pal of Roman
governor, attempts to work a dirty deed.'
|"While Felix was procurator of
Judea, he saw this Drusilla, and fell in love with her;
... He sent to her a person whose name was Simon*, one
of his friends; a Jew he was, and by birth a Cypriot,
and one who pretended to be a magician, and
endeavoured to persuade her to forsake her present husband,
and marry him."
"... They sailed
to Cyprus ... And when they had gone through the isle
unto Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer,
a false prophet, a Jew, whose name was Bar-Jesus:
Which was with the proconsul,
Sergius Paulus, a prudent man;
who called for Barnabas and Saul, and desired to hear the word
But Elymas* the sorcerer (for so is his name by
interpretation) withstood them, seeking to turn away the deputy
from the faith."
|* But according to some manuscripts
the name given by Josephus is "Atomos", itself
possibly a corruption of Hetoimos (Elymas?) or a Greek word for small (as indeed is Paulus in Latin). In
no way is Elymas a translation or even an equivalent
|Not to waste a useful bit of story,
Felix and his "adulterous" bride Drusilla show up later
in Acts –
when Paul, it seems, gave them a dressing down!
"And after certain days, when
Felix came with his wife Drusilla, which was a Jewess,
he sent for Paul, and heard him concerning the faith
And as he reasoned of righteousness, temperance,
and judgment to come, Felix trembled, and answered, Go thy way for this time; when
I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." (Acts 24.24,25)
||Acts 13, 9-12
||By a malicious act of cruelty, St Paul
blinds his rival – and so impresses the governor
that he immediately becomes a Christian.
Our noble St Paul sets the tone for
two thousand years of vicious curses. The author of
Acts continues his demonising of "the Jews".
The colourful spell is composed of words and phrases
drawn from the Septuagint (the Greek translation
of Jewish scripture).
"Then Saul, (who
also is called Paul,) filled with the Holy Ghost, set
his eyes on him, and said,
O full of all subtilty and all mischief, thou
child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness,
wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of
the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of
the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be
blind, not seeing the sun for a season.
And immediately there fell on him a mist and a
darkness; and he went about seeking some to lead
him by the hand. Then the deputy, when he
saw what was done, believed, being astonished at
the doctrine of the Lord."
Facing down the "children of the devil"
which came unto me at Antioch, at Iconium, at Lystra; what persecutions
I endured: but out of them all the Lord delivered me."
Rather than capitalise on the conversion of a rich and powerful
acolyte in Cyprus, Saul-now-Paul sails off to Pisidia for far
tougher challenges. Reaching the city of Pisidian
Yalvac) high in the Taurus Mountains,
Paul delivers in the local synagogue "part two" of Stephen's
address of Acts 7
the two sermons neatly summarize Jewish history from Abraham through
to John the Baptist).
Like Stephen, Paul finishes his lecture by insulting
his Jewish audience ("Behold, you despisers,
and wonder, and perish!"– Acts
13.41) . On the next Sabbath "almost
the whole city" come to hear the charismatic provocateur
"the Jews envied" Paul's pulling power.
We thus reach a crucial point in the whole Christian saga: "We
turn to the Gentiles", says Paul.
"It was necessary that the word of
God should be spoken to you first, but since you reject it and
judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we now turn
to the Gentiles. For so the Lord commanded us, I have set thee
for a light to the Gentiles, to be a means of salvation to the
very ends of the earth."
– Acts 13, 46,47.
Jews of Antioch, after all, had had a
whole week (Acts 13.44) to abandon
their ancestral faith and join Paul's new sect, even if they
were not treated to the spectacle of an instant blinding like
our dear friend Sergius Paulus!
Pisidian Antioch. Settled with
Roman veterans by Augustus in 25 BC, the city covered
14 sq. km. and had a population of perhaps a 100,000
in the 1st century AD.
Could Paul really have competed
with the theatre, stadium, taverns and baths? 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.
Not unexpectedly, "the Jews" had Paul and Barnabas expelled
from the city. None abashed, our intrepid heroes dust themselves
off and journey a hundred miles further east to the city of Iconium (modern
Konya). Here the drama repeats itself (although the apostles supposedly
"abode a long time" in the city). They speak "boldly" in
the synagogue, divide the whole city into "believers" versus "the
Jews", and precipitate
threats of a stoning. Paul and Barnabas now flee south and east
to Lystra (Hatunsaray) and Derbe (Kerti
In Lystra, a pronouncement from Paul allows a lame man to walk
(the trick closely parallels Peter's healing
in Acts 3). The miracle causes
the locals to declare Paul to be the god Hermes, and
Barnabas, oddly, to be the king of the gods, Zeus.
As it happens, the visit of Zeus and
Hermes to Phrygia
is to be found in Ovid's 1st century anthology
of myths "Metamorphoses" but surely
"Luke" didn't copy the idea?
The adulation of the apostles is short-lived, however, because
Paul launches a diatribe against an imminent sacrifice to the
very god Barnabas is thought to be.
The people, now stirred up "by Jews" from far off Antioch
and Iconium (do they just happen to be
there or have they followed the apostles for 150 miles?) stone
Paul and dump
"dead" body outside the city (Acts
14.19). However, miraculously he "rose
up" and returns to Lystra. By the standards of
Paphos, this wondrous working of the Holy Spirit should have
converted the entire city, if not the whole of Lycaonia. Yet
instead of dazzling the multitude with his recovery (or is it
a resurrection?), the very next day the dynamic duo make off
to Derbe, a further 50 miles southeast. (They are now less
than 200 miles from Paul's home town of Tarsus).
A real life stoning. What would
you say were the chances of survival?
In Derbe the apostles "preached, taught
many. They then retrace their steps through the hostile towns of
Lystra, Iconium, Antioch, evangelise Perge (ignored
first time round), and ordain elders "in
every church" (Acts 14.23). Evidently all the earlier
enmity had abated (or the
story teller has run out of story) and churches had sprung
up like mushrooms emerging from horse manure. An uneventful voyage
home allows the heroes to regale the brethren of Antioch "how
they had opened the door of faith unto the Gentiles." Jolly
well done. We now have Christian communities all over Asia Minor.
But is it fact or fiction?
Viewed without the rose-tinted spectacles of Christian faith,
the first voyage of Paul is as fanciful as the first voyage of
Sinbad. Improbable, unlikely incidents are juxtaposed
with the miraculous and the ridiculous.
Faith can offer special pleas for every incongruity but logical
The first missionary journey of Paul has a clear theological
agenda: to portray "the Jews" as obdurate and villainous and to record the supposed successful
establishment of a network of Pauline churches among
the Gentiles. In each little drama – the
contest of magicians in Paphos, the "envy" encountered at Pisidian Antioch,
the "threats" of Iconium, the attempted murder in Lystra – the
Jews are demonised, "just won't listen" and try to
stop the "good news" of Jesus Christ reaching the ears
of the Gentiles. Clearly, the Jews are the children of the Devil.
In contrast, the Gentiles everywhere, from the Governor at Paphos
to the crowds of Derbe and Perge, are instantly, wildly
enthusiastic – abandoning their traditional religions
with alacrity. Even Jesus did not establish churches with such
panache. And what does Paul have to offer them? He has no Gospels
(they have not yet been written); he has no first hand
reminiscences of his Lord and Saviour (he never met the
guy). What can he say
of the Disciples he never met ? ("But
I saw no one else of the apostles, only James the brother of
the Lord" – Galatians 1.19). For the story to
work, Paul has indeed to be "filled with the Holy Spirit" – has
to be a veritable brigade of Billy Grahams or Ted Haggards on
speed. To regard it as "history" requires a suspension
of all critical thought, a huge leap of faith and a large measure
The yarn works, but only if we view the story
through Christian eyes. From the very first, everywhere they tread,
the servants of the Lord carouse with kings, governors, grand dames
and the leading men of their day. The Holy Spirit which accompanies
them ensures their entry into all the best parties and rescues
them from all the worst scrapes. But if there is no Holy Spirit
then we are dealing with sacred myth not history.
Postscript: Fraudulent in tooth and claw
Later accretions to the story of the apostolic
mission allow us to better appreciate just how the Christian
fabrication factory works. In the real world, fierce rivalry
between ambitious clerics was the surest spur to the miraculous.
In the 4th century, Salamis, on the eastern end
of the island of Cyprus, gained a new sycophantic name, Constantia,
in honour of the pious if stupid emperor Constantius II (337-361).
The renamed city was the stomping ground of the patriarch Epiphanius,
who spearheaded the destruction of pagan shrines which had existed
for a thousand years.
nearly forty years (until 403) Epiphanius exerted his authoritarian
influence across the eastern Mediterranean, seeking to control
the affairs of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Strictly speaking
his own see was actually subordinate to that of Antioch but
Epiphanius's answer was to promote the local hero St
Varnavas) as "founder of the Church" (his
often pushing Barnabas ahead of Paul in the apostolic pecking
order. Naturally, Barnabas, the Cypriot Jew, was accorded a suitable "martyr's
death". The 5th century "Acts of Barnabas" records
that it was Jews led by Bar-Jesus of Paphos – enraged
by the saint's condemnation of "naked racing", idol festivals
in the theatre, and libations in the temples (boy are we talking
sin) – who seized, throttled and "burned to dust" poor
Antioch lost control of Cyprus at the Council
of Ephesus in 431 but in 488 Peter the Fuller,
the ruthlessly ambitious Patriarch of Antioch, revived the
claim. The then Archbishop of Constantia, Anthemios,
met the challenge with a dream, which
it seems led him to an hitherto unknown tomb of Barnabas where he found nothing
less than the original edition of Matthew's Gospel!
Presented to the credulous Emperor Zeno (474-491), the Cypriot
Patriarchy gained in return imperial privileges, that is, total
authority over its own bailiwick. Theocracy now reigned
in the island of love. Ever after, the boss of bosses, His
Beatitude the Archbishop,
has flaunted the sceptre rather than a pastoral staff, worn a
pretty purple mantle and used red ink in official decrees.
Holiness that has no limits
Another 5th century creation was "St Irakleidos", son
of a pagan priest, we are told, who guided
the apostles around the island (new adventures
unrecorded in Acts? or did they simply get lost?). In any
event the son of a pagan converted and was made
first bishop of Cyprus by Barnabas – thus setting
in place the requisite
"apostolic succession" which has justified
the authority of every subsequent bishop. A tireless exorcist,
Irakleidos was rewarded with the obligatory martyrdom (those
dastardly pagans again). His
skull – well someone's skull – is the star attraction
of the 18th
century monastery at Tamassos, his purported birth
Not so far from Tamassos, a rival monastery, Kykkos, can make
no claims of "apostolic foundation" but instead has a jaw-dropping
icon – nothing less than an image of the Blessed
Virgin Mary painted
by St Luke himself! Despite the reputed "powers"
of the icon (rain-making as well as healing) it could do nothing
to stop the monastery burning down in 1365, 1542, 1751 and 1831.
But it must be genuine because the monastery is the richest on
the island, with a collection of gold artifacts worth millions.
Shame that the icon – "too sacred
for human eyes to gaze upon" – has not been seen for centuries.
Ah well, that's show business.
Hermann Detering, The Falsified Paul,
Early Christianity in the Twilight (Journal of Higher Criticism, 2003)
A. N. Wilson, Paul, The Mind of the Apostle (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997)
John Ziesler, Pauline Christianity (Oxford, 1990)
Edward Stourton, In the Footsteps of Saint Paul (Hodder & Stoughton,
John Drane, Introducing the New Testament (Lion, 1999)
J. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul, A Critical Life (Clarendon, 1996)
J. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul, His Story (Oxford, 2005)
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