THREE YEARS IN DAMASCUS

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP

When Paul rushed off to Arabia immediately after his conversion, he did not know what he was getting into. He acted impulsively without doing his homework on the situation there. A few questions in Damascus would have alerted him to a serious problem. Just at this moment the Nabataeans had very good reason to detest Jews.

The Jewish king of Galilee had repudiated his Nabataean wife. In response her father went to war and defeated the Galileans. They in turn screamed to Rome that the Nabataeans had disturbed the peace of the eastern frontier. The latter were now waiting anxiously for Rome to send its legions from Syria to devastate their country. Naturally they blamed the Jews for their misery.

I would be greatly surprised if Paul lasted a week in Arabia. The minute he opened his mouth he would have been known for what he was. No Jew would have been welcome.

No doubt somewhat chastened Paul returned to Damascus. It was beginning to sink in that to be an apostle of Jesus Christ was perhaps a little more complicated than he had anticipated. Pagans to whom he could preach would not have been a problem in Damascus. Merchants of many nations had trading bases there. Financial support was another matter.

As a student in Jerusalem Paul had lived on charity. Any supplement from his family would have been at risk as soon as he became a Christian. How was he to live? The church in Damascus could not afford to support its new converts, or even to give the impression that it was buying recruits.

Very much against the grain of his upbringing as a member of the leisured class, Paul quickly realized that he needed a marketable skill that would give him mobility. He would have to learn a trade. No doubt he thought long and carefully, and established a careful set of criteria.

It had to be a skill that was needed throughout the Roman empire, in great cities and small villages, on the road, and on the sea. It had to bring him into contact with all sectors of the population. The tools had to be small and easily carried. The job had to be quiet and sedentary so that he could preach as he worked. Finally his choice fell on the trade of tentmaker.

This might seem a curious choice to us, but in fact it was very clever. The essential skill is to join together pieces of canvas or leather in neat turned over seams. There were only six standard stitches. Travellers wore leather cloaks, belts, and sandals, and carried leather gourds. The wagons of the wealthy had canvas tops and leather tack. Paul could repair them all. He could thus pay his way on the great roads of the Greco-Roman world.

Experienced sea travellers knew that cargo ships had no cabins. So they brought small tents that they set up on deck to protect themselves from sun and spray. The tents also provided shelter when the ship docked at night. Paul could earn his passage by patching sails.

More importantly every town and village had its festival, and had to provide tented accomodation for visitors and traders. Corinth, for example, hosted the Isthmian Games, which were second in importance only to the Olympic Games. Every second year in the spring a hugh tent city blossomed at Isthmia (9 km from the city) to cater for the 50,000 or so visitors from all over the Greek world. Their needs were met by merchants from Corinth who lived in their booths for the week. To meet its obligations the municipality of Corinth employed tentmakers all the year round. It was there that Paul first worked with Prisca and Aquila, who had been converted in Rome, and were to become his advance party first in Ephesus and later in Rome.

The need to earn his way would often have slowed Paul’s departure from an inn in the morning. He could not afford to refuse work. But that might mean that he would not cover the 25 Roman miles to the next inn by nightfall. He tells us that he often had “sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, cold and badly dressed” (2 Corinthians 11:27). He had been caught in the open. He might have been desperately tired when he tramped into a strange town, but first he had to find food, a place to live, and above all a job. In the slums there was little charity. Paul needed extraordinary courage and stamina to struggle on day after day, “on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, in danger in the city, in danger in the wilderness, in danger at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:26).