Body and Blood of Christ


Paul’s First Independent Mission
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP


After they returned to Antioch-on-the-Orontes Barnabas and Paul had a disagreement, after which they went their separate ways. It cannot have been a major issue, because several years later they worked harmoniously together
Paul is by Rembrandt, 1657 - Widener CollectionPaul recruited Silas (or Silvanus), and set off for Antioch-in-Pisidia. Clearly he intended to use it as a springboard to the west, as Barnabas and he had planned on the first expedition. This first independent journey took Paul into Greece. Only at the very end do we get a fixed date. He met the proconsul Gallio in Corinth in August AD 51. From it we work backwards, trying to fit everything in by guesswork. The beginning of this journey cannot be later than the spring of AD 46 when the snow had melted from the Cilician Gates and the high country beyond.

From Antioch-in-Pisidia Paul and Silas intended to follow the great ‘Common Highway’ down to Ephesus, the capital of the Roman province of Asia. For some reason this proved to be impossible. As an alternative they decided to strike north into the Roman province of Bithynia on the shores of the Black Sea. They never made it.

After crossing the bleak steppe known as the ‘Treeless Land’ and fording the river Sangarios (modern Sakaria) Paul fell seriously ill. With great difficulty Silas managed to get him to Pessinus (modern Balahissar) the nearest town.

No doubt it was some time before Paul recovered enough to fully realize where he was. The inhabitants of Pessinus were Galatians, the descendants of a Celtic tribe that had left the Pyrenees in the fourth century BC and settled in central Turkey in 278 BC. The Galatians fascinated the Romans, who had fought against them, and an array of sources permits us to see how Paul’s contemporaries would have seen them.

They were large, unpredictable simpletons, instinctively generous, ferocious and highly dangerous when angry, but without stamina and easy to trick. They were the archetypal barbarians. They had never been Hellenized. Rome had imposed its administrative system directly onto Celtic tribal structures. They continued to speak a Celtic dialect into the fourth century AD. Those in the three cities would have known some Greek.

Paul would never have chosen to evangelize such an alien people. As one might have expected, however, he made the best of it. It would have been a slow business. The Celts are adverse to accepting anything novel, particularly something as radical as a new perspective on religion. That he shared no common ground with them made his task all the more difficult. There were no synagogues in the area, and he so could not count on pagans who had been prepared by study of the Jewish Scriptures as he did elsewhere. Nonetheless after two years hard work he had established a number of house-churches in Pessinus.

Paul knew that he could not afford to stay too long with any new church. His dominant personality would inhibit its normal institutional development. Instead of working things out for themselves, they would have turned to him. Thus in the late spring of AD 48, when the snows had melted and the consequent floods had dried up, Paul headed west. His heart must have been heavy as he left those who had helped him in his hour of need. He did not expect to see them again. At this point in his career Paul believed that his vocation was to found churches and then to leave them in the hands of the Holy Spirit.

Paul’s plan was to make another attempt to get into the province of Asia, but this time in the far north. With Timothy and Silas he went through Mysia, which had a separate administration, and came to Troas, a coastal city, which Julius Caesar had once considered a prime candidate as capital of the Roman empire. They would have been exhausted after a journey of some 400 miles in the heat of the Anatolian summer.

Troas would have been an ideal apostolate, a large population and excellent communications. But something happened. Luke recounts it in words which later influenced Saint Patrick (Confessions, 3) “A vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing, beseeching him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’” (Acts 16:9). It is thought that the man was a native of Philippi who had been converted by Paul in Troas, and who persuaded Paul to go home with him.

Even though his mandate from Antioch-on-the-Orontes was to bring the faith to western Asia, Paul could not resist the thought of being the first to evangelize Europe. It was easy for him to convince himself of the providential character of the opportunity.

Paul’s First Stop in Europe: Philippi
Sometime during the summer of AD 48 Paul sailed from Troas. This would have been his first journey by sea. Like all his contemporaries he would have faced it with trepidation. This time, however, he was lucky. They made the crossing to Neapolis, the port of Philippi, in two days, having overnighted on the island of Samothrace. On other occasions it was a different story. Paul tells us laconically, “Three times I have been shipwrecked; once I spent a night and a day adrift at sea” (2 Corinthians 11:25).

the amphitheatre at PhilippiPhilippi was Paul’s first foundation in Europe. As he walked the 10 miles from Neapolis the milestones would have reminded him that he was returning to the familiar territory of a Roman colony. The bi-lingual milestones near the port gave way to exclusively Latin ones as he approached the city. Retired Roman legionaries had been settled there by both Marc Antony and Augustus. Presumably the propaganda of ‘the man from Macedonia’ had led Paul to expect something similar to Troas. If so, he would have been disappointed. Philippi was so small that one could walk across it in 10 minutes.

It was Paul’s custom when he entered virgin territory to look first for the Jewish synagogue. His message of salvation was open to Jews, but he knew that some pagans tended to cluster around the synagogue. They were drawn by its austere monotheism, which contrasted vividly with the often disgusting behaviour of the gods and godesses of the Greco-Roman pantheon. Paul sought them out because they were formed in the Jewish scriptures, and could understand his arguments from prophecy regarding the Messiah.

Curiously there was no synagogue in Philippi. Paul found only a group of Jewish women (presumably married to pagans), who met to pray on Saturdays down by the river. They had attracted a pagan woman, Lydia of Thyatira, who was in Philippi on business. Her hometown in Asia Minor was famous in the wool trade, and she specialized in purple dyed textiles, which were luxury items. It is not known whether she travelled on her own account or was the agent for a firm in Thyatira. In any case she was a vigorous, independent woman running an important business.

Lydia became a convert, but the masterful side of her character remained unchanged. She decided Paul’s mission in the city would be much more efficient if he had a businesswoman to run things for him. She insisted he and his companions, Timothy and Silas, should live in her house. This meant that they did not have to look for accomodation or jobs. They could preach full time. Then she used her contacts to guarantee an audience.

Women put an indelible stamp on the church of Philippi. When Paul looked back on his days in Philippi what he remembered above all was “your partnership in the gospel from the first day [in Europe] until now” (Philippians 1:5). No other church is given such a compliment.

Later in the letter Paul underlines the prominence of women in the evangelization of Philippi, “I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord. And I ask you Syzygus really to be a ‘partner’and help them. These women have struggled hard at my side for the gospel with Clement and the rest of my co-workers” (Philippians 4:2-3).

The verb used by Paul to describe the activity of the two ladies has given us ‘athlete’ and ‘athletics’. It highlights the energy and commitment that they invested in the spread of the gospel. They preached it in precisely the same way that Paul, Clement, and others did. No distinction is made between the contributions of men and those of women. They were all ‘co-workers’.

There was much to be corrected in all Paul’s churches but only here does he name individuals. This is correctly interpreted to mean that it was not a private matter. These women were powerful heads of house churches, whose disagreement was likely to infect their followers and so endanger the unity of the community.
Another feature makes Philippi unique, and I attribute it to the role played by women in the running of the church. They had the sensitivity to realize that other cities might not offer Paul such favourable circumstances for ministry. The harder he had to work to earn a living, the less time he would have to preach. Thus Philippi resolved to send him financial support on a regular basis. They certainly subsidized his ministry in Thessalonica, Corinth, and Ephesus.



Quill Pen








This article first appeared in the Irish Catholic.
 The picture of Paul is by Rembrandt, 1657 - Widener Collection,
and the amphitheatre at Philippi ""

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