Bible Review 1:2, Summer 1985

On the Road and on the Sea with St. Paul

Travelling conditions in the first century

By Jerome Murphy-O’Connor

In the Acts of the Apostles, we are told that Paul made three missionary journeys. In almost every introduction to the New Testament I have seen, the author discusses St. Paul’s journeys in terms of places and dates; his concern is to establish the location of the cities Paul visited and to fix the exact time he visited them. But when Paul himself speaks of his travels he emphasizes, not the “where” or the “when,” but the “how.” For instance, in defending himself against attacks on his authority in the church of Corinth, Paul writes:

“Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, … danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:25–27).

By this catalogue of hardships, the Apostle underlines his dedication to his ministry. But for us, too much is left unsaid for the evocative potential of Paul’s description to be fully realized. Paul’s contemporaries could easily have filled in the picture from their own experiences. We who travel at great speed and in security and comfort, however, need to transport ourselves consciously to a very different world if we are to appreciate the conditions under which Paul passed a great part of his life, and that contributed to the experiences that became integral to his theology.

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