Spain and back to the East
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
After several years of semi-imprisonment in Rome Paul was set free. How and why is anyone’s guess. A general amnesty? An over-worked magistrate shortening his list by dismissing unimportant prisoners? We shall never know.
No doubt when Paul walked free he was received into the bosom of the Roman church, but not with the enthusiasm that he had worked hard to generate. His plans had been based on reaching Rome in the late summer of AD 56. It was now 7 years later. Both his letter to the Romans and the propaganda of Prisca and Aquila had been long forgotten.
For Paul, however, nothing had changed. He still wanted to bring the gospel to the ends of the earth, and he still wanted Rome to commission him for a mission to the Iberian peninsula. He was not getting any younger, and the wasted years in prison had intensified his appetite for work. Understandably his approach to the Roman community was rather aggressive. What they should do was obvious, and needed no discussion.
The church in Rome refused. It would decide if and when to send an apostle to Spain. Moreover, Paul was unsuitable. He would have been linguistically challenged in the Latin-speaking colonies, and knew none of the dialects of the hinterland.
Given Paul’s tendency to identify his desires with the will of God, he undoubtedly countered such sensible arguments with a vitriolic outburst contrasting his total commitment with the complacement detachment of the Romans, whose church apparently had no daughters!
Over the objections of the Roman church, Paul went to Spain. It would have been totally out of character for him to have done anything else. A ship from Ostia, the port of Rome, could have gotten him to Barcelona in four days.
Once he landed, Paul was in trouble and, as the Romans had foretold, he achieved nothing. It was as ignominious a flop as his abortive attempt to convert the Nabataeans immediately after his conversion. While inspired by great enthusiasm, both ventures were ill-conceived and ill-prepared.
The debate in Rome and the disaster in Spain can easily be accomodated in the summer of AD 62. What was Paul to do now? His experience in Spain had shown him that he could not hope for success on the southern littoral of Gaul or in northern Italy where conditions were similar. His linguistic limitations left him no alternative to a return to the east.
In the East there was one bit of unfinished business, which could serve as a focus for his energies. The need to rush to Corinth in the late summer of AD 55 had interrupted his mission in Illyricum. The church there had not been nurtured to the same degree as his other foundations. The fact that his baby was now eight years old would not have deterred him. His input into its development had been truncated.
If Paul arrived in Illyricum at the end of the summer of AD 62, he probably left when the roads became passable in the spring of AD 64. His continued presence would be an impediment to normal development. Only when freed of the weight of his prestige could the charisms of other members, particularly the gifts of leadership, develop naturally.
Where was he to go? He had been so successful that he had worked himself out of a job. There was nowhere in the east that was not now someone’s elses missionary responsibility. Perhaps he could still render some small service to the churches that he had founded when he was young and active.
Thus when Paul set off east along the Via Egnatia his frame of mind was the antithesis of the driving enthusiasm that had animated him as he walked buoyantly west to freedom on that same road some nine years earlier. From his silence regarding his visits to Thessalonica and Philipi we are entitled to infer that they continued to fulfil his hope that they would radiate the truth of the gospel.
Despite the warmth of the welcome that enveloped him in these his favourite communities, Paul had to keep moving. It would be unfair to his hosts to stay too long.
It was mid-summer when he sailed from Neapolis to Troas. We know this because the great heat made Paul’s heavy winter cloak burdensome. He left it with Carpus at Troas, together with the scrolls and the small parchment codices that he used as notebooks.
It was 210 miles to Ephesus, and Paul looked forward to the visit with keen anticipation. His three years there had been extremely fruitful. More importantly he would be reunited with Timothy, his old companion-in-arms, whom he had not seen for some eight years.
The meeting was to prove a terrible disappointment.