Prisoner in Palestine
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
Even though Paul planned for his journey to Rome and mission to Spain during the winter of AD 55-56, he knew that he could not go there immediately. He had first to go to Jerusalem.
For the past five years he had been collecting funds for the poor of Jerusalem. He had accepted as a personal obligation the commitment he had made on behalf of the church of Antioch at the meeting in Jerusalem in the autumn of AD 51.
Paul had known the pinch of poverty as a student in Jerusalem. As Christianity forged a more and more distinctive identity, institutional Jewish charity became progressively less available to believers in the Holy City. But over and above the gesture of charity, Paul wanted the collection to narrow the widening gap between the pagan and Jewish wings of the church.
Paul and his companions would have greatly lessened the danger of theft by taking a ship from Cenchreae, the eastern port of Corinth, to the littoral of Palestine. A thief could not go far aboard a ship at sea. Instead Paul made a circuit of the Aegean Sea, which put them at risk every time they stopped at an inn. This can only be interpreted as an emotional gesture. He was afraid that he might never see those communities again.
Paul could be sure that a report on his completely negative attitude towards the Law had reached Jerusalem. He feared for his life if he went there. He may have exaggerated, but when he was a Pharisee Paul would happily have killed any Jew who showed such utter contempt for the Law.
Paul’s anxiety climaxed in Miletus. He could not face the wrenching farewell to the church in Ephesus. Instead he summoned the elders to meet him. He sent Timothy back with them. Naturally Timothy objected, but Paul simply could not face the thought that he would be putting his closest friend in danger by bringing him to Jerusalem. It was to be almost ten years before they met again.
Paul did in fact get into trouble in Jerusalem. On the basis of an accusation of impiety in the temple he would have been torn to pieces by the mob, were it not for the vigilance of a Roman sentry on the tower of the Antonia fortress. The tribune with a squad of soldiers smashed into the crowd and rescued Paul barely in time.
When the tribune became aware of the level of hostility to Paul in the city, he decided to play it safe. In the dead of night he sent a detachment of cavalry and soldiers to bring Paul to his superior in Caesarea, the governor Felix.
The governor took no action against Paul, who was still in prison two years later when Felix was replaced by Porcius Festus. The latter also did nothing until Paul forced his hand by exercising his privilege as a Roman citizen by appealing to the Emperor for judgment.
The centurion assigned to take Paul and other prisoners to Italy was inexperienced, and decided to go by ship rather than overland. He paid no attention to warnings that the sailing season had closed and that storms were to be expected. Shortly after leaving Crete a storm struck. They were battered by high winds for two weeks before being shipwrecked on Malta.
It was Paul’s fourth time to suffer such a fate. This time the danger was greater than usual, because the soldiers wanted to kill the prisoners lest they escape. The centurion had been so impressed by Paul, however, that he would not permit it, and gave them all a chance to swim or float ashore.
Paul and his minder spent the rest of the winter on Malta, and arrived safely in Rome in the spring of AD 61 when the sailing season began again. Curiously Paul was not held in prison. He was permitted to rent lodgings where he dwelt with the soldier assigned to keep an eye on him. Luke tells us that for two years “he welcomed all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God, and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ quite openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:31).
These are the concluding words to Luke’s account of the life of Paul. He does not tell us what happened to him subsequently. In my view he walked away a free man to have other adventures.