Saint Paul on Cyprus: Archaeology and the Transformation of an Apostle

Article excerpt

The cool evening breeze provides a welcome respite from the warmth of the day. The two travelers look warily around the crowded atrium, unsure of what to do and where to be. All of the elite of the community are there, and the two latecomers are ill at ease. The official who has delivered the invitation has made it quite clear that their attendance is strongly requested. "We are but simple Jewish merchants," protests the spokesman for the pair; "we do not dine with governors." The Roman official is unperturbed. "The proconsul is an intelligent man and wishes to engage you in conversation. He enjoys having philosophical discussions after eating." After a disquieting pause he adds flatly, "He expects your attendance."

The Pauline Comfort Zone


"The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down [from Antioch] to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus" (Acts 13:4); (2) so the Acts of the Apostles records the beginning of the most important missionary trip in the history of the Christian church. The first missionary journey of the apostle Paul from Antioch to the island of Cyprus led to a revolutionary change in the Christian message. At Antioch, Paul of Tarsus had been within his comfort zone, a world that he knew intimately. It was a mercantile world, a Hellenistic world, and a Jewish Christian world. On Cyprus, specifically in Paphos, he was forced to enter a new reality outside his immediate experience: a political world, a patrician world, and a pagan Roman world. I believe this challenged his understanding of his calling, which changed profoundly the way he continued his missionary endeavors.

The Comfort Zone

At the beginning of the Cyprus narrative Paul is in what I describe as his "comfort zone"--the urban world of the eastern Roman Empire. Paul is an urban man. (3) After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Paul spends fourteen years in Syria, Cilicia, and Arabia. After visiting Jerusalem at least once, he bases himself in Tarsus (Acts 11:25). He reflects an urban self-understanding when he tells the arresting Roman in Acts 22 that he is from "Tarsus in Cilicia," no ordinary city. Paul has a typical Hellenized self-identity, which is city based. He has the urban pride of the Hellenistic world, where one's city is more important than one's province or kingdom. He divides the world into city, wilderness, and sea in 2 Corinthians 11:26. Throughout his career Paul travels through the wilderness and on the sea, but makes his home in cities. The churches he plants are urban associations, and he illustrates his lessons with images of urban life.

Paul is a business man, by profession a skenopoios, a tentmaker or, more generally, a leather worker. According to Acts 18, Paul works his trade while living in Corinth. In a speech recorded in Acts 20, Paul reminds the elders of the church in Ephesus of his business acumen: "You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions" (Acts 20:34). In his own writings, Paul complains that it seems that only he and his colleague Barnabas have had to work for a living (1 Cor. 9:6)! Paul is in his comfort zone in the shop and the street market.

It is par excellence, for Paul, a Jewish world, or at least a Jewish-Christian world. His Jewish ethnos is a core element of his identity. (4) In 2 Corinthians he states what he calls "a little ... foolishness" (2 Cor. 11:1) in the defense of his mission, laying out his strong Jewish roots against challenges: "Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham's descendants? So am I" (11:22). In Galatians 1:14 Paul speaks of his zeal for "the traditions of my fathers." After his conversion he remains a synagogue attendee. He is among Greek "God-fearers" in Antioch and feels called to reach out and welcome them, but it is still a Jewish world he inhabits comfortably.


Antioch-on-the-Orontes, one of the great cities of the ancient world, becomes the "home church" for Paul for his first missionary journeys and is the heartland of the comfort zone for Paul. …