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towards a sceptical enquiry into the origin of the papacy part 1: the acts of the apostles

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Ages ago I said I’d start each post with a nice quote, then I promptly forgot about it. So here at last is the first.

Quote 1: Wandering in a vast forest at night, I have only a faint light to guide me. A stranger appears and says to me: ‘My friend, you should blow out your candle in order to find your way more clearly.’ The stranger is a theologian. -Denis Diderot, philosopher (1713-1784) 

I find Wikipedia generally a solid, reliable resource on most matters, particularly matters scientific [as far as I can judge]. However, it is a bit disappointing in some fields, fields in which, admittedly, it’s often difficult to obtain reliable information. Fields such as religion, and religious history.

It was out of frustration with Wikipedia’s treatment of the origins of the Catholic Church that the idea of researching and writing my own piece on this subject first came to me. Wikipedia essentially presents as fact the idea that the apostle Peter was the first Pope, and that he was martyred, along with Paul of Tarsus, author of the letters to the Romans, Corinthians, Thessalonians and so forth, in the 60s CE, during the reign of the Emperor Nero. As far as I currently know, there’s no evidence for this claim. It was a view promoted by the Church historian Irenaeus in a work written about 185. Irenaeus named the first few Popes in a list, but I’m not sure if there’s any independent verification of the accuracy of this list.

What evidence is there of Paul’s martyrdom? By the time of Irenaeus it had become clear that martyrdom was great propaganda for the new religion – a religion based squarely on the martyrdom of Jesus himself, ‘to save humanity from its sins’, though it’s probable that the ‘reason’ for Jesus’s untimely death was still not settled upon in the second century.

There is no account or mention of Paul’s death in the New Testament. A rather bitsy narrative of Paul’s life is found in the Acts of the Apostles, which is apparently contradicted by some of Paul’s own letters, particularly in Galatians [and questions about the veracity of those letters just adds to the confusion]. A letter written by Clement, bishop of Rome, and dating to around 90, is said to refer obliquely to Paul’s martyrdom, but it could easily be argued otherwise, and provides no details whatsoever. Distance lends certainty to the views, and Eusebius of Caeserea, writing centuries later, decisively claims that Paul was beheaded under Nero. Wikipedia provides a list of Popes taken from the Annuario Pontificio [Pontifical Yearbook] which claims Peter the apostle as the first Pope, conveniently reigning from 33 CE, which many claim to be the year of Jesus’s death [in fact he’s most likely to have died a few years later], to the year 64 or 67. It further claims that he was executed by upside-down crucifixion, a claim possibly first made by Origen, as reported by Eusebius. Considering that it’s absolutely clear that no papacy could have existed before Jesus’s death, or even immediately afterwards, this should be taken as myth. It’s generally agreed by serious scholars that the papacy didn’t come into existence in any properly recognisable form until the second century CE.

The major claim for Peter the apostle as the first pope [avant la lettre, as they say] comes from the gospels, in which he sometimes appears to be treated as ‘first among equals’ by Jesus. The key passage is Matthew 16: 18-19:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

There’s a famous pun here on Peter/rock [pevtro], but a number of scholars have questioned the authenticity of the passage, claiming that ‘church’ is an anachronistic term, more or less meaningless in the lifetime of Jesus. This takes us into the endlessly tangled and murky world of Biblical scholarship, and questions of whether Jesus was meant to be speaking Aramaic or Greek at that moment, or whether the contested word [ejkklhsivan], which is only used twice in the gospels, but many times in the later writings of the New Testament, can be stretched to mean ‘assembly’ or some term other than ‘church’.

In any case, all this is sketchy evidence for Peter founding ‘the’ Church in Rome. And why Rome? Well, as a meandering way of getting to that issue, let’s look at the New Testament version of the early expansion of Jesus’s followers, from a small group, to a flock, to something like a rudimentary church. The NT book which best describes this is, of course, The Acts of the Apostles, generally ascribed to the author of the gospel of Luke. At the beginning of Acts, ‘Luke’ writes ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach…’, and Theophilus is also mentioned at the beginning of Luke’s gospel. From the very first chapter of Acts, Peter stands out, giving a speech in Jerusalem before the other apostles and a host of some 120 other believers [1:15], which leads to their choosing a twelfth apostle, Matthias, to replace the betrayer Judas. Then on the day of Pentecost [50 days after Easter Sunday], Peter gave another speech to a crowd in Jerusalem, attracted by the believers’ speaking in tongues. This stirring speech led to the conversion of 3000 [2:41] and has been commemorated by some as the ‘birthday of the Church’, though it seems clear to me from Peter’s speech that Jesus is still regarded as a messianic figure, a Jewish descendant of David, rather than as a deity or a deity’s offspring. Peter in fact is still referring to Jesus as God’s servant [3:13]. It wasn’t clear what they were about at this time, except perhaps renewal – a favourite theme of new religious groups. ‘Save yourselves from this corrupt generation,’ says Peter [2:40], and the notion of being ‘saved’, a variation of the Jewish notion of being ‘chosen’, becomes prominent [renewal and continuity].

And so matters continue. The new sect soon swells to 5,000 [4:4], but Peter and John have attracted the attention of the authorities and are imprisoned, questioned and threatened, the first sign of persecution. However, the pair are released, and more converts are gathered, as well as funds, as new believers sell land, houses, etc, and ‘put them at the apostles’ feet’ [4:37]. It all sounds like an excellent blueprint for present-day pentecostalism, and it gets even better with the tale of Ananias and Sapphira [5:1-11]. This married couple sell all their worldlies as the other newbies do, but they decide not to hand it all over, but keep a bit aside. It’s the woman who decides this, as you would expect. But when Ananias sets the money down at Peter’s feet, the apostle is not amused. He comes down on Ananias like a ton of bricks for holding out on him. Ananias, naturally enough, promptly falls down and dies. So they take the poor fellow’s body to Sapphira and Peter asks her if, perhaps, there aren’t some extra funds secreted about the place? No, you’ve got the lot, she says. The same rigmarole follows, she’s exposed as a liar and a hold-out, and she drops down dead. Now that’s what I call a powerful church with a guaranteed financial future.

So the signs, wonders and miracles continue and the number of new believers continues to rise, and the apostles are arrested once more, but are released through angelic intervention. Taken again, they’re brought before the Sanhedrin and rebuked for continuing to preach about Jesus. Their response again reveals that they didn’t see Jesus as the son of their god. They describe him as a prince, and a saviour specifically of the Jewish people [5:31]. A speech by one Gamaliel, who interestingly cites previous Messianic pretenders who turned out to be fizzers, convinces the Sanhedrin to let the apostles off lightly, with a flogging.

The growing group of believers start to factionalize, with Hellenic Jews claiming that they’re being discriminated against. A decision is made to set up a committee to oversee the distribution of food to the poor, headed by Stephen. Clearly things are moving towards a more formal organisation. But rumours are spread about Stephen and he’s dragged before the Sanhedrin, where he gives a rather lecturing speech about Moses, comparing the patriarch’s suffering and ill-treatment at the hands of his own people to the treatment of Jesus, the prophesied Righteous One. This outrages the Sanhedrin, who chase Stephen outside and stone him to death [7:57-60]. An apparent passerby, Saul, makes his first Biblical appearance in this scene.

After this first martyrdom comes the first systematic persecution of the new sect, with Saul represented as the primary persecutor [8:3]. However, this doesn’t stop them continuing to spread, and one of the apostles, Philip, is described as being very successful in Samaria [just to the north of Judea and Jerusalem], clinching the primary vote there for the new party. That’s when they send in the big guns, Peter and John, to secure the area with the laying on of hands [8:14-17]. Philip went on campaigning, travelling up and down the coast from Ashdod to Caesarea. Meanwhile Saul travelled to Damascus [quite a distance] to try to flush out believers in the new sect, and was struck blind on the road just before getting there, and heard the voice of Jesus and was thenceforth the new sect’s most vigorous campaigner, spreading the word in the Damascus synagogues [still, therefore, focussing solely on the Jews?]. What’s more, here we get the first really unequivocal claim, in Acts at least, about Jesus’s godhood [9:20]. Although the emphasis is largely on the Jews here, Saul is described – by the Lord apparently – as ‘my chosen instrument to proclaim my name to the Gentiles and their kings and to the people of Israel’ [9:16]. One of the first indications that this still-fuzzy new movement is not to be bounded by any particular culture or region.

There is plenty of Jewish resistance to the new movement however, and Saul is smuggled out of Damascus, barely escaping with his life. He returns to Jerusalem, where his outspokenness creates new converts and new enemies. He’s finally spirited back to Tarsus, his home town, in modern Turkey. Saul’s absence from the scene marks a period of peace and growth in Judea, Samaria and Galilee, and growth of the movement. It seems Saul was into argy-bargy, whereas Peter took the more popular route of healing the sick and raising the dead [9:32-42]. Peter also receives a sign, in a dream, that no animals are unclean, and interprets this to mean that no human is unclean either, and that the old proscription on Jews communing with unclean [uncircumcised] and unchosen gentiles is to be abandoned within the new movement [10:10-46]. It’s a key moment in the development of the sect, but Peter has a lot of explaining to do when he gets back to Jerusalem.

Meanwhile believers, spread by the persecutions after Stephen’s death as far afield as Phoenicia [the coastal area of modern Lebanon and Syria], Cyprus and Antioch [now in southern Turkey], continued to win over the Jews of these regions, but in Antioch many Greek gentiles also converted, so the Jerusalem apostles sent one of their big guns, Barnabas, to put their campaign on a more professional footing. Since he was in the area, he hopped over to Tarsus to fetch Saul to Antioch and together they preached the word – for a whole year. It was at Antioch that the term ‘Christian’ was first used [11:26]. It was apparently a time of famine, and the Christians of Antioch sent aid packages to their fellows in Judea [11:28-30].

Meanwhile again the situation in Jerusalem remained tense, with traditional Jews, angry at the flouting of sacred law by these new Christians, persuading Herod to arrest Peter. Of course he miraculously escapes, and it’s Herod who dies ‘eaten by worms’ because of his hubris and his refusal to ‘give praise to God’ [12:23]. The Herod mentioned here is Herod Antipas, son of Herod the Great. It seems more likely that Antipas died in exile, as Josephus claims.

Saul and Barnabas leave Antioch after their year of missionary work and pass over to Cyprus. It’s about here that Saul starts getting called Paul. They go on preaching but Paul gets into an argument with an attendant of the Cyprian proconsul, insults him and miraculously blinds him [Paul’s first miracle, and not such a positive one]. The Christians then sail to Pamphylia [now in south-west Turkey], then travel on inland to Pisidian Antioch in Galatia, always preaching in the synagogues [I’m not sure if this term should be taken literally, if there are large Jewish settlements in Asia Minor at this time]. However, the crowds they draw consist of ‘fellow Israelites’ and gentiles together [13:16]. Paul gives a speech in Antioch relating the stories of Moses, the forty years in the wilderness, Saul and David, and then bringing things ‘up to date with John the Baptist and Jesus. It’s basically a more thoroughgoing and ‘sophisticated’ version of the story Stephen was stoned to death for, complete with the standard claims about prophecies fulfilled. He also makes some pretty reckless campaign promises, the principal one being, ‘vote Jesus and all your sins will be forgiven’ – which really attracted the masses [13:38-39]. Which goes to show that the voters in those days were just as gullible as voters today.

Paul and Barnabas were chased out of Pisidian Antioch by the Jews and others, and they went to Iconium [modern Konya, in south-central Turkey], where they preached to ‘Jews and Greeks’ and sowed division, as they seemed to do everywhere. When things got too hot they fled to the surrounding country, preaching and campaigning all the while. In the town of Lystra we hear of the first clash with paganism. Interestingly, Wikipedia claims Paul’s first visit to Lystra as occurring in the year 48, but only cites Acts as a reference. Surely more evidence than this is needed for a date. Possibly because of language problems [14:11], the crowd take the Christian pair for gods [this seems a highly unlikely story, though the ‘fact’ that Paul had just healed a lame man might explain it], Paul as Hermes and Barnabas as Zeus. Of course the pair protest vehemently, and the crowd turn against them, stoning Paul almost to death. And so they continued, preaching and argy-bargying in the region, till finally setting sail again for the flourishing Christian centre of Antioch, where they related their exciting adventures among the distant gentiles.

Meanwhile in Judea, a crisis had arisen about the relationship between circumcision and being saved. So Paul and Barnabas bustled down to Jerusalem to sort things out. They were greeted everywhere like conquering heroes, but some Pharisees brought up the circumcision issue, insisting that every gentile who wanted to make the cut had to make the cut. Lots of discussion ensued, and finally James, quoting Peter [who may or may not have been in attendance], and quoting Bible prophecy, makes a judgement that only certain parts of Mosaic law need be kept by the gentiles, not including circumcision. The official written decision is taken back to Antioch. One of the first ‘universal’ decisions of the new religion, interestingly made by James, not Peter or Paul.

Soon Paul and Barnabas were itching to resume their missionary travels, but they quarrelled over who to take with them, and decided to part ways, Barnabas sailing back to Cyprus, and Paul heading north and west through Syria and Cilicia [15:36-41].

So Paul landed up at Lystra again, and met one of the residents, Timothy, who impressed him so much that took him on as a fellow-campaigner, but not before having him circumcised. Tim’s Dad was Greek, and Paul must have thought this was a sufficient liability that it required circumcision to overcome – an interesting indication that it was still predominantly Jews that the campaigners were targeting. It’s also stated that there was a large Jewish population in the area, a remark that may be reliable, as there’s no propaganda purpose to be served in making it [16:3]. It’s also interesting that Paul & Tim were prevented ‘by the Holy Spirit’ from preaching in ‘Asia’, the name of a Roman province which today covers the western extremity of Turkey, apart from a section to the north, known in ancient times as Bithynia. They confined themselves to preaching on the eastern borders of this region, until, heading west through Bithynia, they reached Troas, near the ancient city of Troy, where Paul was told in a vision to head for Macedonia, across the Aegean in Europe proper. At this point the narrative switches inexplicably from the third person to the first person plural. Nothing if not adventurous, they sailed out to the island of Samothrace, thence to Neapolis [modern Kavala] and finally Philippi, of historical renown.

Philippi, however, was a Roman city, and a much tougher nut to crack for the Christian campaigners, who found themselves [Paul & Silas] before the local magistrates, who sentenced them to be severely flogged and put in the stocks. But guess what, after a night of fervent prayer, an earthquake broke open the prison in which they were being held. But no, The Christian pair didn’t make good their escape, they stayed put, bringing about the conversion of their jailer, who’d thought he was done for because of their likely escape. The magistrates sent word in the morning to release the pair, but Paul made a fuss about their being Roman citizens [this is the first mention of this fact, I think], and complained about their treatment – an interesting piece of privilege-demanding, which had an immediate effect. They were treated more respectfully and escorted out of the place. They travelled and campaigned through Macedonia and into Thessalonica. They were gaining a larger following,including ‘quite a few prominent women’ [17:4], and of course many enemies who claimed that they were trying to proclaim another king in direct opposition to Caesar. There were many riots and struggles, and eventually Paul was smuggled out of the area for his safety, landing up eventually in Athens, where he soon found himself arguing with Epicurean and Stoic philosophers [when in Athens…]. They invited him to the Areopagus to discuss his latest research findings on his god and Jesus and so forth. Paul proceeds to lecture them, in his modest way, about who the real and one and only god is. ‘We are his offspring,’ he proclaims [17:28], cleverly quoting a Stoic philosopher [Aratus]. He also talks about the coming judgement day, thenceforth a major galvanising theme. Naturally this stuff thoroughly polarises his audience, but he keeps gaining new followers.

Next, he visits Corinth, meeting Jews there who have fled from Italy because the Emperor Claudius has banished Jews from Rome [18:2]. This claim is somewhat disputed, though Suetonius makes passing reference to it. It’s especially disputed that Claudius was acting to prevent escalating disputes between Jews and Christians, though it’s a tantalising possibility. We’re probably talking about a time period here of 49 or 50CE. We also learn, in passing, that Paul was a tentmaker by trade. Silas and Timothy joined Paul from Macedonia, but guess what, they had a falling out with him, apparently over the old Jew/Gentile issue. Paul seems to be more concerned with wooing gentiles than keeping faith with the Jews. He stayed eighteen months in Corinth, on the orders of his god. The Jews of the city complained bitterly to the proconsul Gallio about Paul’s flouting of Jewish law, but Gallio refused to intervene. Finally he left Corinth and returned to Syria, making a brief campaign stopover at Ephesus, then going down to Caesarea and reporting in at Jerusalem, then back up to Antioch.

Of course he was soon back on his endless campaign trail, gathering more baptisms for the cause in Phyrygia and Galatia. Everywhere, it seems, whether in Ephesus or elsewhere, he left behind disciples who kept up the Christian fervour. Some of them, however, taught false doctrines which Paul had to correct – the first sign of the ‘heresies’ that preoccupied the Christian movement in the pre-Constantine era, and beyond. Paul made his way inland to Ephesus again [it was on the coast of Asia Minor, modern-day west Turkey, and was a major trading port] and preached there for a long time – some two to three years [19:1-10]. Emphasis on the holy spirit and such like led to issues around ‘possession’ and exorcism, creating more controversy, which Paul, if the narrative is to be believed [ho ho], was always able to take advantage of, constantly swelling the numbers of the baptised. Finally he decided to return to Jerusalem, taking a roundabout course – in fact going in the opposite direction – through Macedonia and Achaea. But before he left a riot broke out in Ephesus, when pagan artisans, followers of the goddess Artemis, complained that people were being won over to the new religion, which denied the value of carved or sculpted images, affecting their trade. Christianity was devastating their economy [19:23-41].

Paul finally travelled to Macedonia, thence to Greece [gathering more and more fellow-campaigners, many with distinctly Greek names], but was prevented by some trouble from sailing for Syria. He returned to Macedonia, and from Philippi sailed back to Troas in Asia Minor. There’s a charming story from his stay there. While Paul was droning on and on about the greatness of Jesus to the locals in an upstairs room, one of the listeners fell asleep by the window. He fell out the window, down three stories, and lay apparently dead. Paul naturally brought him back to life and he was carried home, while Paul went back upstairs and continued his sermonising. No other incidents occurred. Perhaps they posted guards at the windows [20:7-12]. After a lapse, the narrative returns briefly to the third person, and the group of campaigners embarks on another complicated journey. Paul sets out on foot to Assos to the south, where he’s picked up by the others who have travelled down there by boat. Together they travelled further along the coast to Mytilene. Then they went island-hopping down to Kios and Samos, and then further down to Miletus, bypassing Ephesus. However, he sent for the elders of Ephesus, and gave them a stirring farewell and a pep talk, amongst tears and lamentations. After that, more island-hopping [what fun], over to Kos and then to Rhodes. Next they stopped in at Patara on the mainland [southern Turkey], and then sailed south of Cyprus and landed at Phoenician Tyre [Sour in modern Lebanon], where they were urged not to go on to Jerusalem. They sailed down to the Galilean port of Ptolemais [now Acre], and then further down to the familiar Christian outpost, Caesarea. Paul was continually warned, by prophets and the like, not to go on to Jerusalem, but he couldn’t be dissuaded. He went into the city sought out James and told him and all the faithful about his adventures. They told Paul that the traditional Jews were all stirred up against him. Still Paul went on with public acts of purification, until a crowd built up against him, dragging him from a temple and setting upon him [21:30]. The commander of the Roman troops rescued him, with much difficulty, the crowd was so incensed. As they were making their way into the safety of the barracks, the commander asked Paul “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?” [a rare moment of NT humour, mocking the Roman’s understanding of Jewish lore]. Paul clarified who he was, and asked to speak to the crowd. He spoke to them in their native Aramaic, tellling them of his previous life as Saul the persecutor of Christians, of his blinding before Damascus, of his witnessing of the martyrdom of Stephen, and sundry other events. When he told the crowd of his heaven-sent mission among the gentiles, they became hostile again and would listen no more. The commander ordered him to be flogged and questioned about why the crowd was so enraged, but he played the Roman citizen card again, and again it worked a treat [22:25-29]. Still, the commander wanted to find out what all the fuss was about, so he ordered a meeting of the Sanhedrin, and ordered Paul to appear before it.

Paul, having been brought up in Jerusalem, and having been a protégé of the Sanhedrin member Gamaliel, knew something of its inner workings, so he made a speech playing the Pharisees off against the Sadducees. He claimed to be a Pharisee himself – that’s to say, a believer in resurrection and other signs and wonders, which the Sadducees rejected. The meeting ended in violent uproar as the two factions fought it out, and Paul had to be rescued by the Roman commander once more. That night [and here we prick up our ears] ‘the Lord’ [Yahweh or Jesus?] came to Paul and told him to ‘testify in Rome’ as he has testified in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, a number of Jews had gotten together with a serious plan to kill Paul. Paul was informed, and the information was relayed to the Roman commander. He decided to send Paul, under armed guard, to Caesarea, the seat of the local governor, Felix [23:23-35].

Felix organised a comprehensive hearing in which the High Priest Ananias and various other officials put their case against Paul, whom they described as a ‘ringleader of the Nazarene sect’ [24:5]. It might be expected that all this sectarianism within Judaism, a bizarre enough religion at the best of times, would’ve left Felix completely indifferent, but in fact his wife was Jewish and he was quite familiar with these arguments. He didn’t resolve the dispute though, keeping Paul under ‘house arrest’ for two years, and occasionally questioning him, according to the narrator, in the hope of being offered a bribe. His decision not to favour one side or the other seems to have been deliberate and politic. However, after the two years, Felix was replaced as governor by Porcius Festus [24:27].

Festus had a preliminary hearing about the case in Jerusalem, but refused to bring Paul to Jerusalem, fearing that he might be assassinated. He then interviewed Paul in Caesarea. Paul, as usual, proclaimed his innocence, and ‘appealed to Caesar.’ So Festus decided he should be sent to Rome. Meanwhile, King Agrippa was in town, and discussed the issue with Festus. The discussion as presented in the NIV Bible is quite amusing, I must say. Here are Festus’ imagined words:

  “I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges. When they came here with me, I did not delay the case, but convened the court the next day and ordered the man to be brought in. When his accusers got up to speak, they did not charge him with any of the crimes I had expected. Instead, they had some points of dispute with him about their own religion and about a dead man named Jesus who Paul claimed was alive. I was at a loss how to investigate such matters; so I asked if he would be willing to go to Jerusalem and stand trial there on these charges. But when Paul made his appeal to be held over for the Emperor’s decision, I ordered him held until I could send him to Caesar.” [25:16-21]

It really reads like quite a modern legal dilemma, with an outside, imposed authority unwilling to get too involved in all the internal wranglings of these culturally incoherent ‘underlings’. King Agrippa asked to see this Paul fellow, and was invited into what was presumably Herod’s palace [where Paul was initially held] to question him. Festus was at a loss as to what sort of letter to write to Rome about Paul, so he hoped the interview might shed more light on the matter. So Paul re-presented his defence before Agrippa. This is an interesting scene, with interesting reactions, if faithfully recorded – and there’s absolutely no assurance of that. Paul tells again the whole story of his former life, his conversion, his adventures and misadventures, and the confused and confusing theology of the messiah. Festus reacts by suggesting his theological obsessions have driven him mad. Not an unreasonable claim, which could well apply to the whole Haredi movement as well as to Christian counterparts. Agrippa’s reaction is even more sensible: ‘Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?’ [26:28]. Both of the authorities agree that the man is harmless enough, and Festus even claims that, had he not appealed to Rome he would’ve been set free. But we all know that Paul was intending to be sent to Rome all along, don’t we?

So off Paul sails on his final journey. Interestingly, this section too uses the third person. The first stop is Phoenician Sidon, where he’s allowed to stay and confer with friends for a while. Then they sail south of Cyprus and up to Myra in Lycia [the south coast of Turkey], then, in difficult winds, to Cnidus, further west. Finally they set sail for Crete, travelling along its south shore to the town of Lasea. They put into the harbour there and argued about continuing in the stormy weather. They decided to sail on, westwards along the Cretan coast to a better harbour at Phoenix, but they were struck by a fierce storm and forced south. Paul, who’d advised against sailing on, told them that his lord had promised they would all be saved, so never fear but be prepared [27:21-26]. The storm raged for a long time. Soundings taken suggested they would soon be dashed against the rocks, and they prepared to abandon ship, but bossyboots Paul told them they wouldn’t be saved unless they stuck together [there were nearly 300 on board]. They finally ran aground on a sandbar which destroyed the ship’s stern. Everyone escaped unharmed to the nearest mainland, and found that they were on the island of Malta. They built a fire on the shore, and while doing so, Paul was bitten by a viper, but he suffered no ill effects, further proving his near-to-godliness [28:3-6]. Miraculously curing all the sick people on the island also helped.

From Malta they sailed to Syracuse in an Alexandrian ship, and then on to Rhegium and Puteoli in Italy. In Rome, Paul was treated well and given a modicum of freedom. He talked to the Jews there, to explain to them he had no quarrel with them. He was assured that there were no bad reports about him, but they expressed curiosity about this controversial new sect. The book of Acts ends with Paul preaching as usual, dividing the people into pro and con as usual, and it all ends on a positive note:

For two whole years Paul stayed there in his own rented house and welcomed all who came to see him. He proclaimed the kingdom of God and taught about the Lord Jesus Christ—with all boldness and without hindrance!

No sign at this point of any bad end for him, though clearly he was in a delicate and vulnerable position. I also note, in Acts, the diminished position of Peter, who gets no mention after the first chapter or two. You would think from this account that Paul rather than Peter should be accorded the title of first pope, from his arrival in Rome, presumably in the early fifties, to his presumed death under Nero. But did he die then? What evidence, however scant, do we have of this?

I’ve provided this commentary on Acts for my own education, and among other things to make myself aware of what isn’t in the book as well as what is. It’s obviously an important source of the early Christian movement, and it tells us, in this last chapter, that since the Jews know the sect only through hearsay [28:22], it seems clear that they hadn’t really established themselves in Rome before Paul’s arrival. So I’ll have a look at any other sources I can find about Christianity in Rome before the establishment of the papacy.

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Written by stewart henderson

April 21, 2012 at 1:01 pm

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