Paul’s First Preaching Mission?

The first-century travels of Paul as outlined in the New Testament Acts of the Apostles help to shed light on the formation of some of the earliest Christian house churches in the world. Certainly Acts uses some fanciful imagery and supernatural events to combine tradition with evangelization but this need not stop us from gaining insight into one of the first organized outreach efforts of the young movement, those sponsored by Antioch and therefore appropriately deemed “Christian.” Acts’ chronology and organization of events may not be entirely trustworthy, however. Reasons exist, for example, for questioning its story of Paul and Barnabas’s join mission to Cyprus and Asia Minor, their first reported trip together.

For one thing, their first stop is said to be the island of Cyprus (Acts 13:4-12). There is no reason to question the Antioch church’s efforts there; it seems to have sponsored several such missionary trips to Cyprus (e.g. Acts 15:39). However, at this point in the story of Acts, Barnabas is the leading apostle in Antioch (Acts 11:22, 13:1) yet Paul is depicted as performing all the important work on Cyprus. Paul, it must be remembered, is the author’s hero in Acts and we can be suspicious of his elevation in status at this point. Barnabas is said to have actually been born on Cyprus (Acts 4:36) and would have known the island and many of its inhabitants including a number of its synagogue members. His cousin, John Mark, is said to accompany the two (Acts 13:5); he may also hail from Cyprus. Paul would therefore be unlikely to have driven events there if he even went.

Also important to note is that this trip follows one in which Barnabas supposedly went from Antioch to Tarsus specifically to bring Paul back to Antioch to help him manage the church (Acts 11:25-26). Only about a year later, it says, did they embark for Cyprus. This is questionable as well. Barnabas had other means to send for Paul without making the journey himself. We will revisit this event in a moment.

After the trio of evangelists depart Cyprus, according to Acts, they land near Perga (probably at Attalia) on the coast of Asia Minor. Here they strangely make the arduous eighty-mile, six-day journey north climbing 3,000 feet across the rugged hill country of the Taurus Mountains to reach Antioch in Pisidia. True, there is evidence of a Jewish population there as well as a synagogue. But the visit is fraught with peril as they are chased from the city as they will be from every village they preach to on their strange trip east to Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. The latter two had no Jewish presence and their citizens did not speak Greek or Aramaic. (Yes, Paul is a self-styled “apostle to the Gentiles” but how could he communicate?) Even stranger, after being expelled from every town even to the point of death, the two are said to retrace their steps back through these same towns! Afterward they head back over the mountains from Pisidian Antioch and set sail from Attalia. Why did they not just proceed from Derbe, their easternmost destination, on to Tarsus and then back to Syrian Antioch?

There are at least two possible solutions. One is that the author of Acts has taken the events of this trip from a later one, either Paul’s “second” or “third” missionary journey. He may have heard that Paul conducted an early mission (Paul himself says he preached to “the regions of Syria and Cilicia” (Gal. 1:21) though the trip outlined in Acts includes neither) and took some events from a later mission to write a story of an earlier one. A hint that this is possible comes from the fact that when Acts depicts these later missions, Paul is said to go through this same territory but nothing is ever described as happening there. (The exception is the circumcision of Timothy at Lystra (Acts 16:1-3), already said to have been a disciple, thus this may have occurred earlier.)

Another possible solution, one that preserves the traditions of an early Paul-Barnabas mission, begins with Barnabas’s journey to Tarsus to collect Paul. It is quite conceivable that the two then joined together to conduct a limited mission in Asia Minor to just the towns described in Acts, only in reverse order from that given. In other words, they crossed through the Cilician Gates of the Taurus Mountain range, headed to Derbe, then Lystra, Iconium, and Pisidian Antioch. Having been rejected at these locations, they opted to risk the possible attacks by Pisidian bandits known to lurk in the foothills of the Taurus Mountains and made for the coast rather than trespassing again through those hostile villages. A coast-hugging cargo vessel afforded them space to make the trip home.

Additionally, it is my view that Paul did not missionize to Cyprus. There is no mention of it in his letters and no other early tradition that he was ever there. Barnabas and Mark, however, did missionize the island at least twice according to Acts and likely found no need to take Paul. In fact, Acts reports that Barnabas and Paul split up precisely over the presence of Mark who supposedly abandoned their tripartite mission just as they reached Asia Minor. This makes little sense. Why would Mark sail all the way to Asia Minor then decide not to continue and sail for home. It is not impossible, just strange. In any event, this solution preserves most of Acts’ source material but untangles some of the confusion caused by the author’s rearrangement of the story.

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