Mission to the West
Paul's further travels
It was springtime, A.D. 62. The Apostle Paul stood in the streets of Rome, a free man. His trial was over and he had been acquitted. Henceforward he was at liberty to go where he would and conduct his evangelical work without hindrance.
Those two years in captivity had been ones of great activity. Not only had Paul enjoyed the constant companionship of Luke and Aristarchus throughout, but at some time during the two years Timothy, John Mark, Demas of Thessalonica, and Epaphras of Colosse had arrived to remain with him. With these six stalwart friends of long standing at his side it is easy to understand why the Christian cause in Rome prospered as it did. The faith spread among the slaves and the poor, the highborn and the wealthy, even into Caesar's household. These were the halcyon days when the joyousness of the teachings of Christ overwhelmed and extinguished the gloom of paganism. None knew of the ferocity of persecution that lay only a few short years ahead.
There were visitors who came and went. Epaphroditus arrived from Philippi and after a short stay returned home bearing with him Paul's Epistle to the Philippians (Phil.2.25). Onesimus, the runaway slave from Colosse, reached Rome, came into contact with the faith and was converted. When he returned to Colosse, a Christian, in company with Tychicus, the pair took with them the Epistles to the Colossians, the Ephesians, and that to Philemon (Col. 4.7-9, Eph.6.21, Philemon 12). Paul's enforced stay in Rome had been a productive time, and our New Testament is the richer in consequence.
Reconstructing the story— west, or revisit the east?
From this point the only clues to Paul's activities are casual allusions in his epistles to Timothy and Titus. Two of these were written during his subsequent journeys and the Second to Timothy whilst he was in prison in Rome for the second time. Why Luke ended the Book of Acts just before the first trial when it is obvious from Paul's own testimony that he remained with him to the end, is not known; this has been a matter of speculation for centuries. The fact remains that there is no record of Paul's later life and in consequence any picture of that period has to be founded on a reconstruction of these few allusions plus such basis of truth as can be concluded may lie beneath the traditions of the Early Church and the scattered statements of Early Church writers.
There are some half-dozen such reconstructions, all attempting to describe Paul's movements between his acquittal in A.D. 62 and his death in A.D. 67 or 68. Most of them seem to suffer from the demerit of having been built up on the basis of the literary allusions, without looking at the map. Consequently, they imply a bewildering sequence of to-and-fro crossing of tracks without any credit being given the Apostle for an orderly and economical planning of his journeys. A presentation of all the facts, evidence, and arguments for these unknown travels of St. Paul would take up a great deal of space and would be outside the scope of this treatise, but a brief outline of what seems to the writer to have been a possible sequence of happenings is offered and this will be based upon two important factors which do not seem to have received full weight in other expositions of the subject.
The first is Paul's own conviction that he had been called to preach the Gospel to the whole world of the Gentiles, which in that day meant the entire Roman Empire. Long before his appeal to Caesar he had cherished the idea of going to Rome as the first step in a wider programme embracing the western side of the Empire. Writing to the Roman church many years previously he had told them he proposed to visit them on his way to Spain. Now he was in Rome, free to go where he wished. Almost certainly, before returning to the East, he would want to fulfil his original plan and proceed farther west to preach Christ in Spain, and, a little less likely perhaps, extend his ministry through the remaining provinces of the west, Gaul and Britain, before making the long journey home. Once back in Asia, at his time of life ‑ he was now sixty years of age with indifferent health ‑ he might have thought it unlikely that he would again have the opportunity to return to the West. So if Paul went to Spain at all ‑ a point on which there has always been some doubt ‑ it must have been directly after his release.
The second factor is also connected with his age. Paul would have been less than human if he had not desired to see his Asiatic converts again before he died, and particularly his old friends of his own home Church, Antioch in Syria. After all, it was the Antioch Church which had originally commissioned him to set out upon these travels and had it not been for the riot in Jerusalem, his arrest, and despatch to Rome, he would long since have been back among them with his report. Memories of his fellow-elders in that Church, Barnabas, Simeon, Lucius and Manaen, must have inspired a longing to see them again and tell them of the experiences he had undergone. A final visit to Antioch after he had reached the uttermost parts of the Empire with the message, perhaps to end his days among his early friends, must have played an important part in his planning. Added to these considerations, to references in Timothy and Titus, with statements by Clement of Rome, Eusebius, Jerome, Chrysostom and other early writers, all are satisfied by the assumption that immediately upon his release Paul set out for Spain. During the next two or three years he travelled through the western part of the Empire, returning by way of Northern Italy and the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea. He went to the converts he had previously made in Illyricum and Crete, back through Greece by way of Corinth, Berea, Thessalonica and Philippi. He would go across the sea to Troas with the intention of visiting in sequence Ephesus, Colosse, Laodicea, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe and the other churches of the Asian hinterland, again taking ship at Tarsus, his birthplace, for Antioch in Syria as his terminus. The programme could take five or six years and he might well have felt by that time he would be too old for further travel. If, then, it so fell out that he completed this itinerary as far as Troas or perhaps Miletus and was there arrested and sent back to Rome, every requirement of the references in Timothy and Titus is met. This at any rate is the basis upon which this final picture of Paul's life is here drawn.
It seems, then, that on this spring day in A.D. 62 there was a rapid re-appraisal of the situation and a deployment of forces. Timothy was to go at once to Philippi (Phil.2.19). When next we hear of him, some years later, he is at Ephesus (1Tim.1.3). John Mark was to stay for the present in Rome, where during the next two or three years he would work with the Apostle Peter who seems to have arrived in Rome shortly after Paul departed. He would write the Gospel according to Mark, the first of the Gospels to be written. When next we hear of him he is also at Ephesus. Of Demas nothing is said. He may have stayed at Rome or gone to Greece. Luke certainly accompanied Paul wherever he went and was with him at the end. The other member of the trio, Aristarchus, who joined Paul during his third missionary journey and had stayed with him ever since, is likewise not mentioned. It can be taken as a tolerable certainty, that if Paul and Luke were off on another journey then Aristarchus would be insistent on going with them.
To one of Paul's ardent temperament there was no time to waste and probably before many days had passed he was taking his leave of the Roman brethren, with whom he had fellowshipped for the past two years. There was Flavius Clemens, nephew of Vespasian the coming Emperor, and Linus, soon to become Head of the Church in Rome after the martyrdom of Peter. There was Clement, a young man now but in later years to succeed Linus as Bishop of Rome, and a host of others some of whose names are recorded in Romans 16 and others in 2 Tim. 4. The three missionaries boarded the ship at Ostia, the port of Rome, and sailed out into the west, seven hundred and fifty miles across the blue Mediterranean, until the coastline of Spain appeared and the vessel tied up at the quays of the port of Nova Carthago (now Cartagena).
Spain? Gaul? Britain?
It is quite impossible to say what St. Paul achieved in Spain, if in fact he did go there. Not a whisper of tradition beyond the confident assertion that he went to Spain has survived. He would naturally make for the main centres of population and the first would most likely be Cordova where there was a considerable Jewish colony. From there he could make his way northward, perhaps spending a time at Toletum (Toledo) and Caesar Augusta (Saragossa) so that after eight hundred miles or so and the expiry of perhaps nine or ten months he found himself on the borders of Gaul (France).
Long distance travel was very easy in the days of the Romans. The famous road system covered the whole of the Empire and every road was equipped with Government rest houses a day's journey apart at which horses or asses for travellers able to pay for them could be secured for the next stage. Order was maintained by the legionaries, and military detachments were constantly traversing the roads en route to garrison duties in distant lands, so that travel for civilians was safe. It was safer than in later centuries after Roman power had been withdrawn. It must not be imagined that Paul had to pick his way over trackless wastes in imminent danger to life and limb. From this point of view there is nothing incredible in the idea of his having visited any part of the Empire, however remote.
At the conclusion of this ministry in Spain the Apostle would have to face alternatives. He could retrace his steps along the eight hundred miles to Nova Carthago and sail back to Rome and so eventually home to Asia. Alternatively, he could follow the road over the frontier to Lugdunum (Lyon) in Gaul where there was an important meeting point of roads to Spain, Italy, Northern France and Britain. One can hardly imagine the Apostle resisting this challenge. If he went to Spain at all and found himself on the northern frontier he would surely have continued into Gaul to preach the Gospel there. So, after another four hundred miles, the three companions could have arrived in Lyon.
The origin of the Church in Lyon is shrouded in obscurity. The celebrated Irenasus, Bishop of Lyon, lived in the 2nd century and the Church was already old in his time. No one really knows who founded it. The fact that a church existed apparently from the very earliest period at this important meeting place of the roads is at least an indication that some fervent missionary of the faith must have evangelised this district in the First Century.
Here again the Apostle had a choice. He could now consider his ministry in the West at an end and take the road for Italy and Rome, or by diverging before reaching Rome he could travel overland to Greece and home. On the other hand he could take the northerly road and set out to preach Christ in all Gaul as he had just done in Spain. He could cross the Oceanus Brittanicus ‑ the English Channel ‑ and preach Christ in Britain. There are not many scholars and protagonists who insist that there is sufficient documentary evidence to make it a certainty that Paul did in fact visit Britain and preach in London at this time. It is fair to say that the consensus of authoritative opinion is against the evidence being conclusive but there is no doubt that many early traditions do point this way. What does not depend upon tradition or documentary evidence, however, is that unless Paul did spend a couple of years or so in the west or north of the Empire it is difficult to understand why he only got as far as western Asia before being arrested the second time. During his five years or so of liberty he got no farther east than Troas in Asia ‑ not even to Ephesus where Timothy, whom he so ardently longed to see, awaited him. The conclusion is irresistible that Paul must have spent a considerable time in hitherto unvisited lands before he returned to Greece. The traditions concerning his visit to Britain may therefore have more substance in them than is generally supposed.
Did Christianity then really come to Britain on a day when Paul, Luke and Aristarchus walked across the gangway to the wooden pier at ancient Dover, where the ships from Gaul disembarked their passengers and unloaded their merchandise? No one can say for sure; Roman intercourse with Britain was only some twenty years old and even the Roman legionaries, some of whom were known to be Christians and took the faith with them wherever they went, had only been there that long. One thing is certain; there was a British Church in existence very early in the First century, nearly six hundred years before the famed Catholic Augustine had landed with his monks at Sandwich in Kent to introduce the Papal brand of Christianity. Paul may well have found believers here already to welcome him and accept his apostolic ministry. Nobody really knows; there must be some kernel of truth underlying the persistent traditions and assertions of ancient historians to the effect that the Apostle did in fact set foot in this country and preach Christ. And there certainly was a British church contemporary with the last days of the life of the Apostle to the Gentiles.
(To be concluded) AOH