PAUL’S FIRST INDEPENDENT MISSION

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

After they returned to Antioch-on-the-Orontes Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement, after which they went their separate ways. It cannot have been a major issue, because several years later they worked harmoniously together.

Paul recruited Silas (or Silvanus), and set off for Antioch-in-Pisidia. Clearly he intended to use it as a springboard to the west, as Barnabas and he had planned on the first expedition. This first independent journey took Paul into Greece. Only at the very end do we get a fixed date. He met the proconsul Gallio in Corinth in August AD 51. From it we work backwards, trying to fit everything in by guesswork. The beginning of this journey cannot be later than the spring of AD 46 when the snow had melted from the Cilician Gates and the high country beyond.

From Antioch-in-Pisidia Paul and Silas intended to follow the great ‘Common Highway’ down to Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia. For some reason this proved to be impossible. As an alternative they decided to strike north into the Roman province of Bithynia on the shores of the Black Sea. They never made it.

After crossing the bleak steppe known as the ‘Treeless Land’ and fording the river Sangarios (modern Sakaria) Paul fell seriously ill. With great difficulty Silas managed to get him to Pessinus (modern Balahissar) the nearest town.

No doubt it was some time before Paul recovered enough to fully realize where he was. The inhabitants of Pessinus were Galatians, the descendants of a Celtic tribe that had left the Pyrenees in the fourth century BC and settled in central Turkey in 278 BC. The Galatians fascinated the Romans, who had fought against them, and an array of sources permits us to see how Paul’s contemporaries would have seen them.

They were large, unpredictable simpletons, instinctively generous, ferocious and highly dangerous when angry, but without stamina and easy to trick. They were the archetypal barbarians. They had never been Hellenized. Rome had imposed its administrative system directly onto Celtic tribal structures. They continued to speak a Celtic dialect into the fourth century AD. Those in the three cities would have known some Greek.

Paul would never have chosen to evangelize such an alien people. As one might have expected, however, he made the best of it. It would have been a slow business. The Celts are adverse to accepting anything novel, particularly something as radical as a new perspective on religion. That he shared no common ground with them made his task all the more difficult. There were no synagogues in the area, and he so could not count on pagans who had been prepared by study of the Jewish Scriptures as he did elsewhere. Nonetheless after two years hard work he had established a number of house-churches in Pessinus.

Paul knew that he could not afford to stay too long with any new church. His dominant personality would inhibit its normal institutional development. Instead of working things out for themselves, they would have turned to him. Thus in the late spring of AD 48, when the snows had melted and the consequent floods had dried up, Paul headed west. His heart must have been heavy as he left those who had helped him in his hour of need. He did not expect to see them again. At this point in his career Paul believed that his vocation was to found churches and then to leave them in the hands of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s plan was to make another attempt to get into province of Asia, but this time in the far north. With Timothy and Silas he went through Mysia, which had a separate administration, and came to Troas, a coastal city, which Julius Caesar had once considered a prime candidate as capital of the Roman empire. They would have been exausted after a journey of some 400 miles in the heat of the Anatolian summer.

Troas would have been an ideal apostolate, a large population and excellent communications. But something happened. Luke recounts it in words which later influenced Saint Patrick (Confessions, 3) “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing, beseeching him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” (Acts 16:9). It is thought that the man was a native of Philippi who had been converted by Paul in Troas, and who persuaded Paul to go home with him.

Even though his mandate from Antioch-on-the-Orontes was to bring the faith to western Asia, Paul could not resist the thought of being the first to evangelize Europe. It was easy for him to convince himself of the providential character of the opportunity.