May 26, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: He begins his missionary journeys

After Saul met with Peter in Jerusalem in the year 37, we don’t hear about him for three years. He wrote later that he spent those years in Syria and Cilicia (Gal 1:21), but says nothing about what he did there. He apparently returned to his home in Tarsus because that’s where Barnabas found him.

Barnabas had been sent by the Church in Jerusalem to find out what was happening in Antioch after word filtered back that Gentiles had joined the Church there. Barnabas not only learned that it was true, but he encouraged this development. Then he found Saul in Tarsus and brought him to Antioch, where they lived for a year.

Antioch was the third most important city in the Roman Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria. It was the capital of Syria and the most Roman of all the cities of the East. It was at Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians because of the Gentile members.

It was also from Antioch that Barnabas and Saul left for their first missionary journey. Since they would be traveling mainly among Gentiles, this is probably when Saul began to call himself Paul, a Roman name, rather than his original Jewish name. This is, at any rate, when the Acts of the Apostles switches from calling him Saul and begins to call him Paul.

The first missionary journey is reported in Chapters 13 and 14 in the Acts of the Apostles. Many Bibles include maps that show Paul’s journeys, and you can see from those that this first journey covered a relatively short distance.

Paul and Barnabas sailed to the island of Cyprus and from there by ship northwest to Perga, a seaport in Asia Minor. Then they traveled by roads to another town named Antioch, this one Antioch-in-Pisidia. They visited the cities of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. After making disciples in those cities, they retraced their steps, revisiting each city, before sailing back to Antioch.

Acts doesn’t tell us how long this journey lasted, and we don’t know how much time Barnabas and Paul spent in each city. Dominican Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor figures that it was a minimum of two years and a more realistic maximum of four years.

The interesting thing about this journey is that, afterward, Paul never wrote letters to the Churches in those cities, in sharp contrast to the Churches he was to found in his later journeys. He apparently felt that Barnabas, not he, had the primary responsibility for those Churches. Paul was cooperating with Barnabas, much as Timothy would do with Paul.

It’s revealing that when Paul cured a crippled man in Lystra and the people thought that they were gods, they called Barnabas “Zeus,” the chief of the Greek gods, and Paul “Hermes,” the Greek god usually identified as the herald and messenger of the gods. Barnabas was seen as the leader, but Paul as the chief speaker.

Paul would, however, return to those cities at the beginning of his second missionary journey. †


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