I intended to have this post written shortly after Easter, but April has been a really busy month so far (and looks to continue as such) so I didn't get to it until now. Next post, I plan to return to my series on Seven Languages in Seven Weeks.
Recently I re-read a book about Paul by John Pollock, called The Apostle. I also took a free course on Udemy by N.T. Wright about one of Paul's letters (Philemon). In this post I wanted to share my notes and the things I learned from them.
The Apostle is written as a biography of Paul, expanding on what is written in the book of Acts with what can be inferred from the Epistles, historical sources, and archaeology. Where nothing else is available, Pollock fills in the gaps with reasoned speculation. It is helpful for understanding the context and audience each epistle was written for. As I'll discuss below, I also appreciated getting a better sense of the cities and regions of the eastern Mediterranean in the first century.
To start with, here is a brief summary of Paul's life from my notes from The Apostle:
- He was born in Tarsus but probably educated in Jerusalem
- He was present at the trial and lynching of St. Stephen and afterwards zealously tried to track down and persecute other members of the early Church
- He was converted on the road to Damascus
- He spent time in the wilderness then briefly returned to Jerusalem and met St. Peter and other leaders in the Church
- After this, there is a period of Paul's life that the book of Acts doesn't describe; the author thinks he was back in Tarsus and spent some time studying Greek thought (since he was very familiar with it later in life but it probably wouldn't have been part of his upbringing as a Pharisee)
- Paul was an active member of the Christian community in Antioch, which was one of the first to include a significant number of believers who did not come from a Jewish background (i.e. gentiles)
- From Antioch, Paul (with Barnabas and Mark) set off on a journey to preach the gospel; they started in Cyprus then went to the region of Galatia in modern-day Turkey
- When they returned to Antioch there was a controversy (that would continue for much of Paul's life) about the extent to which gentile Christians should be required to follow the Jewish Law
- Paul then revisited the cities he'd been to previously (with Silas this time) to share the outcome of this debate in the Jerusalem council
- He pressed on further this time, crossing the Aegean into Europe
- In the Greek city of Philippi, Paul and Silas were flogged and imprisoned overnight after performing an exorcism on a slave girl who was a fortune-teller
- Paul continued through other Greek cities: Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth—he settled in for awhile in the latter
- In Corinth, a Roman proconsul ruled that some of the controversy that invariably followed Paul was an internal Jewish matter (more on this below)
- Ephesus was another city where Paul settled and taught for awhile; it was an important regional centre so his teachings permeated into the countryside from there
- The book of Acts is discreet on the matter (discussed below), but Pollock infers that Paul spent time in prison in Ephesus
- At the end of his time in Ephesus, there was a riot by artisans who made idols of the Greek godess Artemis who were angry their business was declining
- From the churches around the Aegean, Paul had taken up a collection to support the impoverished church in Jerusalem where he travelled to present the funds
- In Jerusalem, he was caught up in a race riot for associating with Gentiles; the Roman garrison arrested him to keep the peace
- He was transferred to custody in the Roman colonial capital of Caesarea (since it was too difficult to protect someone with his notoriety in Jerusalem) where he made his case before successive governors and eventually appealed to be tried by Caesar in Rome
- The journey to Rome was eventful, with a shipwreck in Malta along the way
- In Rome, it is unclear exactly what happened, but seems that Paul was acquitted at his first trial—and possibly made his way further west (maybe to Spain) for a period of time
- He was caught up in a burst of persecution by Nero (assuming he was released the first time); tradition holds that St. Paul and St. Peter were executed on the same day (June 29, A.D. 67)
In reading The Apostle, I learned about some historical figures that intersected with Paul's life:
- Gallio was the proconsul in Corinth who declared the controversy around Paul's teachings to be an internal Jewish matter. Seneca the Younger was his brother.
- If Paul was imprisoned in Ephesus, as speculated, his trial probably would have been heard by Proconsul Silanus. A reason for the book of Acts to be circumspect about the event is that Silanus was part of the imperial family and was assassinated on the orders of Nero's mother to ensure her son wouldn't face any competition to be emperor. So anyone who had benefitted (even simply being acquitted) during Silanus' governership would want to avoid drawing attention to that fact as long as Nero was still in power.
- Queen Bernice, along with her brother (and possibly lover) Herod Agrippa II, heard Paul's defense in Caesarea. Later in her life she was a mistress to the future Roman emperor Titus.
I also liked this passage on the legacy of Paul's speech on Mars Hill:
Athens had rejected him. He could not know that his speech would go down to posterity beside the Funeral Oration of Pericles and the Philippics of Demosthenes as one of the great speeches of Athens. He could not know that whole books would be written about it or that in a few hundred years the Parthenon would become a Christian church; and the nineteen centuries on, when Greece after long suppression became once more a sovereign state, the national flag which flies beside the ruins of the Parthenon would be lowered to half-mast each Good Friday, and raised on Easter Day in honor of Christ's Resurrection. (p. 116)
From reading The Apostle I got a better sense of the places Paul travelled to—and he did a ton of travelling:
Thus, in his late forties, an age when men settle to comforts and seek a firm base, Paul began his roughest travels. The task was immense. Against him stood the contemporary climate of thought, the great philosophies, the leading religions of the world. His ally was the age-old, unending human search for truth and security. (p. 54)
No man in previous history had traveled so far or suffered so much to bring men truth; he could not stay still or silent while others remained ignorant of the Way, the Truth and the Life. (p. 113)
For example, Paul travelled between Antioch in Syria and Pisidian Antioch at least a couple of times. At least one of those journeys seems to have been overland (other times he would have gone part of the way by ship*), probably on foot. Here is the distance on Google Maps:
*Some of the descriptions of travelling by ship reminded me of the shipwrecks that Dr. Ballard investigated around Rhodes in Alien Deep.
The first major mountain pass on this journey is the Cilician Gates. The city of Konya was known as Iconium in antiquity.
For a more artistic perspective, here's a subway-style map of Roman roads in the second century A.D. (I cropped it to the Eastern Mediterranean region where Paul spent most or all of his life from the original here. All credit goes to the cartographer, Sasha Trubetskoy). Paul would have travelled on many of these roads.
Out of the places Paul went, Galatia was fairly rural (towns like Lystra and Derbe were small) and the Macedonian cities (Philippi and Thessalonica) were also small. Athens and Corinth were big cities, though, and Ephesus was an important regional hub. Adding to these notes about the communities he visited, here are some excerpts from The Apostle where John Pollock describes the context of some of the epistles:
In contrast with previous letters, he is not obliged to combat aberrations; or to rebut criticisms except once, when he snubs slanderers who twist his words to "sin away, to give God's forgiveness more opportunity!" Only once, too, does his tendency to justify himself break through...
Instead there is a calmness, a magisterial confidence in this letter to Rome, the longest he ever wrote, which distinguishes it from those to Galatia and Corinth. It contains some of his profoundest, most difficult writing and much of his most beautiful. ... it has also been one of the world's decisive books. It formed the seedbed of Augustine's faith and Luther's Reformation. It was reading Luther's Preface to the Epistle to the Romans that caused John Wesley's heart to feel "strangely warmed... " (p. 174)
Colossians and Ephesians:
Colossians and the other letter, known as Ephesians, emerged similar in content yet distinctive in style. Thoughts much in Paul's mind are found in both, sometimes in identical phrases so that it is even possible he composed the letters together, dictating part of one, then part of the other. To Colossae, with a particular church in mind, he can include personal messages while Ephesians is more formal yet gives intimate autobiographical comments, especially when his mind is with those who have never seen him. (p. 224)
By implication the letter to Philemon displays Paul's total rejection of slavery as a state compatible with the gospel in a Christian society. Paul was no Spartacus calling slaves to revolt: a sudden end of slavery would reduce the Roman Empire to chaos and he was realist enough to recognize that to agitate for abolition in his lifetime would be senseless, merely provoking the crushing of Christians as a menace to law and order. But he had consistently taught that "In Christ there is neither slave nor free," since all are equal in the sight of their Master, Christ. Both Ephesians and Colossians (Onesimus and Philemon surely being much in mind as he wrote) emphasize the new relationship between slave and free in which each must look on the other as a brother. (p. 227)
The book of Philemon was the subject of the N.T. Wright course I took on Udemy. The course is free and only an hour long, so rather than try to summarize it here, I'll just encourage you to watch it if interested. In the course, professor Wright compares Paul's letter to Philemon with a letter that Pliny the Younger wrote about a similar situation. He says that "Nobody in the ancient world was thinking quite like Paul was thinking", and "Even if this book was the only Christian document from the first century it would show that something remarkable was going on".
Wright emphesizes Paul's concern for reconciliation—radical and costly reconciliation across huge class barriers. He points out parallels between the runaway slave Onesimus and the parable of the Prodigal Son: the gospel calls for an extravagent welcome home for a runaway.
N.T. Wright thinks that the letter to Philemon was written from prison in Ephesus (John Pollock thinks that Paul spent time in prison in Ephesus, but wrote Philemon from his later imprisonment in Rome). As mentioned above, the book of Acts does not directly state that Paul spent time in prison in Ephesus, but that may have been due to the political sensitivity of association with Proconsul Silanus. I found a couple of academic papers that also make the case that Paul spent time in prison there.
I hope some of my readers found this post interesting. I'll finish it off with a link to an unrelated but insightful sermon on Cain I listened to recently.