Monday, October 22, 2012

If Paul travelled back east...

Having made a few remarks about the style of 2 Timothy in my previous post, here I want to suggest where it fits into the life of Paul (as far as we can reconstruct that life).

There are two possible answers to this – one more satisfactory than the other. One of the problems is the fact that scholars tend to treat the so-called pastoral letters as though they were joined at the hip which is not entirely helpful (though the three do have a lot in common).

The first idea suggests that the Pastorals fit into a gap in Luke's account of Paul's ministry in Acts. The problem is determining where. John Robinson, for example, in his wonderful book Redating the New Testament, suggests that 1 Timothy was written in the autumn of 55 soon after 1 Corinthians, Titus in 57 soon after Romans and 2 Timothy a couple of months after the other so-called prison epistles in the autumn of 58. 

But this has all kinds of problems, the most serious of which is that it is hard to envisage Paul fitting in the travel itinerary envisaged by the pastoral letters. In particular, when would he have gone to Crete? 

So, the second answer argues that after Paul's two year captivity in Rome (Acts 28:30), he is released and able to travel or possibly he is expelled from Rome and forced into some kind of exile – a bit like the expulsion of some Jews following disturbances in 49AD. 

The question is where does he go? In Romans 15:28 he announced his firm intention to go to Spain from Rome – not that he was anticipating arriving in Rome a prisoner. Later tradition has it that he did go to Spain. So, Clement writing in the mid-90s says that Paul did 'reach the farthest limits of the west.' Later writers agree.

But three things count against this hypothesis. The first is that in Philippians 1:25f; 2:24, in a letter written while in prison and almost certainly from Rome (though some place the writing in Ephesus or Caesarea), Paul expresses his hope that he will be released and when he is, he'll travel to Philippi. Ahead of his visit he is intending to send Timothy. Philemon 22 also written from prison in Rome, also anticipates that upon release Paul will go East – this time to Colossae. We don't know if he made it. What this indicates that his Spanish ambitions appear to have been abandoned.

The second is that the Pastoral letters themselves make no mention of Spanish travel plans – they give no indication either that he has been or is planning to go to Spain. And finally, 2 Timothy 4:13-14 suggests that Paul was re-arrested in Troas – midway between Ephesus and Philippi. This suggests that for all the wishful thinking of later writers that Paul fulfilled his ambition to travel west, Paul in fact went back to the Eastern end of the empire when he was released. 

The problem, of course, is that we really have no idea of what he did. But if he was released from the imprisonment that Luke tells about at the end of Acts - and there are very strong, early traditions that he was - he may have settled in Corinth to direct operations among the troubled congregations at that end of the empire, arriving sometime in late 64AD. This would allow him to have fitted in a short Spanish trip if he was released from prison 12 months earlier – but why so short a visit? Perhaps it hadn’t gone as well as he’d hoped and he abandoned it to return to the more familiar culture of Roman east. 

The pastoral letters certainly suggest he travelled widely – Macedonia (Philippi? 1 Timothy 1:3), Crete (Titus 1:5), Nicopolis (Timothy 3:12), Miletus (2 Timothy 4:20) and, of course, Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3; 3:14; 4:13; 2 Timothy 1:15-18 – indicating that he faced personal difficulties in Ephesus, perhaps from the false teachers, especially Alexander – and 4:19 which might indicate a recent stay with his old friends Prisca and Aquila, but certainly tells us that they were now apparently settled back in Ephesus; perhaps Rome became too difficult a place for Jewish Christians at the time of Paul's imprisonment or in the early days of Nero's reign).

If Paul arrived back at the eastern end of the empire in late 64, he could have fitted in a mission trip to Crete, leaving Titus to get things established in the town where churches had been started (but the wording of Titus 1:5 doesn’t absolutely imply that Paul went to Crete, only that he sent Titus there and told him to remain until his task was finished), and a visit to Ephesus. He wintered in Nicopolis on the western side of Achaia – perhaps planting churches (Timothy 3:12) – in either 65/6 or 66/7. In between had he been to Corinth? If so, did he write from there to his co-workers in Ephesus and Crete sometime in the middle of 65? It’s possible.

In the late spring of 66 or 67 he travelled to Miletus and to Troas – since these two places are separated by Ephesus, did Paul sneak a visit there as well? He left essential stuff in Troas – including winter clothes and books – indicating that he either intended to return but was prevented or he left unexpectedly because he'd been arrested. 2 Timothy 4:20 suggests the latter. 

If he had been released from Roman imprisonment and told to stop doing what he'd been doing, then Alexander's informing on him could suggest that the silversmith told the local Roman officials that Paul was a bailed prisoner or one who'd been banished from Rome for doing precisely what he'd started doing in their city. If it was late 66, then the great fire of Rome had burned and Nero, blaming the Christians because they were a convenient scapegoat, had launched his wave of persecution against the church. Roman officials in other parts of the empire would soon have caught on – especially if it meant getting so prominent a figure as Paul.

Back in Rome – his citizenship almost certainly meaning that he would have appealed to Caesar in the hope of getting to preach once again in that city – Paul's prospects were bleak as Nero seemed to be out of control. So, he wrote 2 Timothy a few weeks before he met his death probably in the autumn of 67 – a few months before Nero himself took his own life.

Such a reconstruction of the possible setting of these letters is entirely plausible (though unprovable) and possibly serves to rescue them from being seen merely as manuals for running a church. They are so much more than that.

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