Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
Paul’s intense fortnight’s reflection on the historical Jesus with Peter in Jerusalem must have filled him with fervour to tell the story of this extraordinary man. We should have expected Paul to rush into an intense missionary campaign. If so, it took place in Syria and Cilicia, but it has left no trace, and Paul effectively disappears for three years. We pick up his story again around AD 40 when Barnabas recruited him to work in Antioch-on-the-Orontes.
The infant church there had suffered persecution. The mother church in Jerusalem responded by sending a Jewish Cypriot convert called Joseph, to stabilize the demoralized community. His nickname Barnabas (meaning ‘son of consolation’) might explain why he was chosen for the task, or reflect the memory of what he achieved at Antioch.
His bringing Paul to Antioch was a stroke of genius. Paul’s conversion demonstrated that the power of God could turn a persecutor of the church into one of its most fervent members. In him grace was not a theory but a reality. God did work miracles. There was hope for the future. Antioch was to be Paul’s home base for the next decade.
Antioch was one of the most magnificent cities in the Roman empire. Two earthquakes during Paul’s time there did little to tarnish its immense dignity. No doubt Paul was impressed by its striking buildings and beautiful boulevards, but what he really liked was the tolerant nature of the Christian community. It was a roughly equal mixture of Jewish and pagan converts, and they had worked out a delicate compromise that permitted the two groups to eat together. In the ancient world a shared meal was the most solemn affirmation of unity.
Paul recognized the effort that pagan converts made to love their Jewish brethren. At the same time he believed that the Jewish dietary laws no longer had any salvific value. Once Jesus was recognized as the Messiah there was no further place for the Law. However, given the delicate balance in the community, Paul was not prepared to insist on principle. The dietary laws had been transformed in his mind into merely ethnic customs, and Jewish converts should continue to behave as usual.
After a year, when the community had settled down, Antioch commissioned Barnabas and Paul as missionaries. According to Luke, they went first to Cyprus and then into the heart of modern Turkey. I think it more likely that their plan was to establish bridgehead churches in central Turkey, which would then act as a staging point for a mission to the densely populated western coast.
To reach the high plateau of central Turkey the missionaries had to get through the Taurus Mountains (7000 ft). There was only one pass, the Cilician Gates, which at its narrowest point was only some 60 feet wide, equally divided between the Roman road notched into the cliff and the river. This pass would have been blocked by snow for most of the winter. Travel was really practicable only between late April and September.
Once out into the windswept high country of Anatolia the missionaries tramped along the south side of the great plain of Lycaonia, establishing churches in Lystra, Derbe, and Iconium (modern Konya). Their westernmost foundation was Antioch-in-Pisidia (near modern Yalvaç).
The whole journey from Antioch-on-the-Orontes was roughly 515 miles. If Barnabas and Paul averaged 20 miles per day it would have taken them just over three weeks. They could have been home in two months. This purely theoretical figure, however, makes no allowance for illness, excessive heat, or accidents. Also we must not forget the need to work to pay one’s way or to wait for a caravan when the road was infested with bandits or wolves. Nor do we know how long they spent in each town or village. I would estimate that this mission took between two and four years.
Barnabas was the leader of this expedition. Paul was merely his assistant. Presumably Barnabas carried the ongoing responsibility for these communities. This at least would explain why Paul showed no further interest in any of these churches. Certainly he never wrote to them. He did visit them later but just because they happened to be on his route to the west. On that occasion in Lystra Paul was joined by Timothy, who was to become his closest friend and collaborator. He served as Paul’s eyes and ears on several delicate diplomatic missions.