Friday, 19 July 2013

The story of St Paul at Paphos

This article continues the series on the early church focusing on St Paul. My earlier blogs are linked under the words Tarsus and Antioch.

The Roman gymnasium at Salamis, Cyprus
Saul of Tarsus, now ten or more years a converted Christian, was one of the five male elders of the church in Syrian Antioch. The church knew that some disciples had been teaching Jesus in the synagogues of Cyprus, a large island west of Antioch. So the Antioch church sent its own formal mission to the island, commissioning teaching leaders, Barnabas and Saul. The two sailed to Roman Salamis and then travelled on foot along the southern shore of Cyprus to New Paphos. This was the location of the pagan palace of Roman Governor, Sergius Paulus, an 'intelligent' Gentile. Its ruins and some of its superb Roman mosaics can still be visited as a UNESCO heritage site. 

Old Paphos a few kilometres away from New Paphos, in Roman times, was a major religious centre, a temple or open air sanctuary dedicated to Aphrodite. There was an open air altar surrounded by doors where Aphrodite, goddess of fertility (and lust) was worshipped. Today, if you travel to Cyprus, you will still be told it is the island of Venus where she supposedly rose from the sea, like a 1960s Bond girl.
Paphos - where Venus supposedly rose from the sea

Until the 3rd century AD, naked men and women would dance along the road to this sanctuary from another site of idolatry. At the Temple,  orgies and dehumanising temple prostitution took place - ancient rituals which debased innocent women (described in this academic paper). By coming to Paphos, the Christian missionaries were targeting the epicentre of pagan sexuality.

Roman mosaics at the palace of the Governor, Paphos

The Roman Governor asked to hear the two men from Antioch. It seems that the Roman Governor’s religious adviser was a Jew, who may have thought he was a Christian. He called himself Bar-Jesus (son of Jesus) or Elymas, a Magus. Bar-Jesus may have suggested inviting Paul to Sergius Paulus. (See academic paper on Bar-Jesus here)  If Bar-Jesus made out that he was a Christian, while subtly distorting the Gospel with quick fixes and false promises of healing or wealth (magic), this would fully explain the hostility of Saul towards him.

Power often likes magic, or quick fixes but the Christian Way requires a slower and and more inexorable development of disciplined Christian character which, according to St Paul is delivered by trials endured in faith.

“Suffering produces perseverance, perseverance produces [Christian] character”Romans 5.5

Saul or Paulas the Bible now calls him, knew the danger to spiritual growth of those who are seeking are engaging in false teaching. This makes them 'insider enemies' within the flock -  false brothers who so plagued Paul's ministry. Barnabas and Paul told Roman Governor Sergius Paulus about the God-centred narrow Way, while Bar-Jesus was trying to stop them! Bar Jesus may have sensed his own role, income and influence fading away and so frustrated Paul that by the power of prayer and the Holy Spirit, Paul blinds the false prophet in front of Sergius Paulus.

 This act clearly demonstrates that God was with Paul and Barnabas - not Bar-Jesus. Bar-Jesus is left in darkness asking for a guide. As with other miracles in the New Testament, this has a deeper truth. It supports the Pauline teaching that those who reject the light of God also lose the light that they have been given by nature.

                                          Raphael's depiction of this event in Acts 13 (Raphael cartoons)

Sergius Paulus was a historic diplomat. There is a Claudian inscription in Rome dated 47AD showing him as a 'curator' of the banks of the Tiber. Another stone with his name on it in Latin has emerged. His family owned large estates in Pisidian Antioch. Like Paul himself, Sergius Paulus was a native of what we would now call Turkey. In spite of not knowing his later story in much detail, it is not difficult to conclude that God used this conversion as a door for Paul to continue to Pisidian Antioch and start to make inroads to the provinces of Asia Minor. It is possible that Sergius Paulus’s conversion was also a major door for the church in Rome itself.
Academic articles
The Cypriot Aphrodite Cult by Philip H Young
Who was Bar Jesus? by Rick Strelan

Books for further reading
The Acts of the Apostles by John R W Stott

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