Once Again In Rome
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
The last person the persecuted Christians of Rome wanted to see was Paul. They could be sure that he had very definite ideas on how the situation should be handled. And it did not seem probable that they would agree.
They had experienced his intransigence in the matter of his mission to Spain, and feared that now he would not pay any heed to their preferences. Unobtrusiveness would have been anathema to his absolute temperament. Fearlessness in proclaiming the gospel, he believed, was the way to infuse a demoralized community with new courage and hope.
The Roman Christians had no desire to have the imperial spotlight focused on them once again. It was their responsibility to determine their own road to recovery. They resented Paul’s arrogant assumption of leadership, particularly since it carried the wounding implication that they were skulking cowards.
Just how deeply the Roman believers resented Paul became evident when he was eventually arrested. At his first appearance before the magistrate, absolutely no one turned up to support him by their presence and prayers.
This court appearance was purely formal. Its purpose was to determine the identity of the accused, and the general validity of the charges against him. If reputable citizens spoke out forcibly in favour of the accused, he had a very good chance of being discharged, particularly if it appeared that the accusation had been motivated by malice.
The fact that Paul had no relations, friends, or even business contacts to identify him naturally made the magistrate very suspicious. As a self-confessed Christian was Paul perhaps in Rome to take revenge on the emperor for his treatment of other members of the Jesus movement? Might he have connections with those members of the nobility who desired nothing more than to get rid of Nero, and who might provide logistical support for a fanatical assassin with his own agenda?
These possibilities alone would make any prudent magistrate do two things. First, hold the prisoner until the whole situation was thoroughly clarified. Second, take advice from superiors who knew the thinking of the political echelon before making any decisions.
No Roman Christians had the courage to visit Paul in prison. It was safer for them to distance themselves from him. His only visitor was Onesiphorus, who came all the way from Ephesus. It was an extraordinary achievement for him to find Paul in a city of over a million inhabitants, where the streets had no names and the houses no numbers.
Once having found Paul, Onesiphorus made frequent visits. But then something happened that cost him his life. Perhaps an accident, or more likely a senseless murder for a few coppers in a backstreet of Rome.
Paul must have been shattered. His sense of isolation increased as those who had come with him from the east drifted away on one excuse or another. Only Luke stayed with him.
Nonetheless Paul remained optimistic. In his last letter from prison in Rome he wrote to Timothy, “Do your best to come to me soon. . . . Get Mark and bring him with you for he is very useful in my ministry. . . . When you come, bring the cloak I left with Carpus at Troas, and also the scrolls and codices. . . Do your best to come before winter” 2 Timothy 4:9-21.
Timothy was somewhere in the interior of Asia Minor, a good 1200 miles from Rome. The letter would take at least two months to reach him. Even if he moved at top speed Timothy could hardly have reached Rome in less than a further three months.
Thus, writing in the spring of AD 67, Paul confidently expected to be alive and active at the end of the summer. His previous sojourns in Roman prisons had always turned out well, and he could not imagine what sort of new evidence could be brought against him.
Yet this time, at the back of his mind, Paul was not entirely sure. It would have been kinder, and perhaps more effective, to correct Timothy in person when he arrived in Rome. The fact that Paul goes into detail in the letter regarding the changes he desires in Timothy’s life and ministry betrays his unconcious fear that he might not be alive when Timothy arrived.
We will never know if they in fact met. In the last quarter of AD 67, Paul was again summoned before the magistrate. This time the decision went against him. The mere fact that he admitted to being a Christian was sufficient. Nero had established the sinister precedent that the guilt of Christians could be presumed, and that the appropriate penalty was death.
Paul’s Roman citizenship won for him the privilege of a clean death by beheading. His “desire to depart and to be with Christ” Philippians 1:23 was finally realized under the best possible conditions. As he serenely bared his neck for the sword of the executioner he knew that his death would be the resonant proclamation that he had kept the faith.