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6. St Paul the Martyr |
The long journey home

St Paul the Martyr is drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 162, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Paul’s determination to face his enemies sets off a riot in Jerusalem, and sees him through trial and storm to his final reward

St Paul the Martyr - The long journey home

St Paul the Martyr - The long journey home
After being arrested and held in the Roman barracks in Jerusalem (bottom left), Paul was taken under armed guard to Caesarea, the provincial capital of Judea. Here he began a two-year ordeal of imprisonment and interrogation. He was summoned before Felix, the Roman governor, who questioned him in the presence of a hostile delegation from Jerusalem led by the high priest, Ananias (top left). Paul strongly denied causing trouble of any kind while in Jerusalem and, as a Roman citizen, insisted on being tried under Roman law. Uncertain as to what to do with him, Felix let Paul languish in jail. When Felix was eventually replaced, Paul was brought before the new Roman governor, Festus, and King Herod Agrippa and his wife, Bernice (this page). Speaking directly to the king, he once again forcefully, and successfully, defended his position. But having raised the issue of his Roman citizenship, he was sent to Rome for a final determination of his case.

It was no doubt the Agabus incident that proved the clincher–proved, in short, that Paul the Apostle was headed for certain imprisonment, if not death, unless someone could dissuade him from going on to Jerusalem. No one could. Again and again, as he moved toward the Holy City, faithful people, those whose fondness for him was self-evident, had kept telling him: Don’t go. He ignored their warnings.

But now, here came Agabus–dear, odd, but seemingly infallible Agabus, acclaimed as a prophet, the man who had years earlier, at Antioch, accurately prophesied the great famine of the forties.

This time, the aging Agabus had traveled all the way from Judea to Caesarea, boldly showing up at the home of Philip the evangelist, with whom Paul was staying after his poignant farewell to the Ephesian Christians at Miletus. Agabus was determined to make Paul see what he was about to walk into if he went on to Jerusalem. And make it clear Agabus did, borrowing Paul’s belt, tying it around his own wrists, and uttering a prediction that chilled the gathering of Christians who witnessed it.

The Holy Spirit, Agabus said, thrusting his bound hands into the air, had made it plain to him: The Jews at Jerusalem would tie Paul up in the same way and would deliver him into the hands of the Gentiles. Those who saw this demonstration were deeply moved, weeping in dismay as they begged Paul not to go up to Jerusalem.

Agabus, of course, did not need to be a prophet to foresee the outcome he had portrayed so vividly. By now, Paul had enemies everywhere. The Jews detested him as a complete turncoat. He had joined the other side, with dire consequences to congregations all over Achaia, Macedonia, and Asia Minor. For their part, some Christians opposed him because he seemed to be blatantly undermining the ancient Law, in favor of what he called grace. Even the Romans were growing weary of him, because everywhere he went, he seemed to cause major trouble.

Of all this he was entirely aware, Paul told the dismayed assembly. But he was also aware that it was the voice of God himself, of the Holy Spirit, that clearly spelled out his duty. He must walk into the cauldron at Jerusalem. Yes, he agreed, he would certainly be persecuted, and might be imprisoned or even put to death. But he would go anyway. That was the will of God, and it was, therefore, a necessity. Some of the disciples from Caesarea joined Paul’s band of missionaries as they set out on foot for the approximately sixty-mile trek to the Holy City.

Whatever his outward assurances to the others, Paul could not have avoided his moments of doubt. Even patient, tireless, clinically objective Luke had warned him against it. Did the impulse to go really come from God? Or was God, speaking through the others, actually warning him not to go? Or was God testing him? Or was God preparing Paul so that he could stand fast when the inevitable end came, as so many times it had threatened and as one day must? Something else: It was in Jerusalem that Paul had dealt so harshly with so many Christians, where he had stood by approvingly as Stephen was martyred. Perhaps it was only just that Paul would follow Stephen to the same end.

If he had enemies among the Christians at Jerusalem, as he had good reason to believe, they were far from evident when he arrived. His appearance was an occasion for celebration. Everyone seemed delighted to see him. After resting up overnight, he and those with him paid a visit to James and the church elders and brought them up-to-date on his work among the Gentiles.

The elders were deeply impressed, but they were also cautious. The Jews in Jerusalem, they knew, had heard all kinds of stories about Paul–that he urged his followers to forsake Moses, that he forbade them from circumcising their children or observing the old customs. Though these accusations were false, they were bound to cause trouble. So the elders offered a plan. In their community were four devout Jewish Christians who had taken Nazirite vows, meaning that they had publicly consecrated themselves to God under the Law and were bound to ascetic discipline and strict regulations regarding ceremonial purity. Paul, the elders said, should join these men, paying for their Temple sacrifices and participating in the Jewish purification rituals himself. By doing this in public, he would refute those from the Christian legalist faction who were campaigning wholeheartedly against him.

Paul, recognizing the proposal’s wisdom, agreed, and went into the Temple with the men for the seven-day purification ceremonies. He and the four had almost completed the week of rituals when a group of Jewish pilgrims from Asia spotted Paul in the Temple. They were outraged. They began shouting: “Men of Israel, help! This is the man who is teaching men everywhere against the people and the Law and this place.” Worse still, Paul had also brought Greeks into the Temple and thereby “defiled this holy place” (Acts 21:28 RSV).

This was a serious charge. Inscriptions on stone slabs within the Temple carried a public notice in both Hebrew and Greek that anyone caught aiding or abetting the admission of a Gentile to the inner Temple would be put to death–even Jews, even Romans.1 Paul was both, but that wouldn’t stop him from being dealt with in the strongest possible manner if what the Jewish pilgrims said was true. The whole Temple was soon in an uproar. A crowd assembled around Paul, seized him, and dragged him outside, shutting the gates behind them. Mob psychology was at work, emotions were high, and Paul’s life was in danger.

But from the Antonia Tower, overlooking the Temple, Claudius Lysias, the tribune of the Roman cohort of Jerusalem, spotted the turmoil and quickly summoned some soldiers and several centurions. They forced their way through the crowd, separating Paul from his attackers. Paul’s assailants became enraged and began shouting at the tribune. How could the Romans interfere with them? They were just doing their duty. Wasn’t it their responsibility to safeguard the purity of the Temple? “Away with him! Away with him!” shouted the crowd. The uproar made it impossible for Lysias to determine what was going on. So he ordered Paul brought to the barracks by his men, who dragged him away, carrying him bodily, to protect him from what had by now become a lynch mob.

As he had done before, Paul seized control of the situation. He spoke a few polite words to the tribune in Greek. Surprised, Lysias voiced his own suspicion–that Paul was that known Egyptian troublemaker who had recently led thousands of men out of Jerusalem, bent on revolution. Paul brushed all that aside, saying that he was no Egyptian but a Jew from Tarsus and asking that he be allowed to address the crowd. Lysias, not knowing what else to do, cleared a space for Paul on the steps of the barracks and told him to go ahead.

Standing before the mob, Paul raised his hand. Those who had been about to kill him fell silent. He began to speak, not in Greek but in Hebrew, a touch they didn’t expect. Few Hellenistic Jews knew Hebrew. He sketched the outlines of his life: born a Jew, raised and educated in the strict Jewish traditions by the respected teacher Gamaliel, persecuted the Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere. Those in the crowd relaxed somewhat. He was, after all, one of their own, they began to believe, not some foreign agent provocateur.

They listened quietly as he described his experience on the road to Damascus: the bright light from heaven falling on him, the voice asking him, “Why do you persecute me?” and then the declaration, “I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” Paying close attention, the mob listened to Paul talk of his blindness, how other members of his party led him into Damascus, his encounter with the devout Jew Ananias, “highly respected by all the Jews who lived there,” how Ananias spoke and Paul’s sight was restored. It was at Ananias’s suggestion that Paul was baptized. Then, he told his attentive audience, he returned to Jerusalem and entered the Temple–the very one in which he had just been assaulted–to pray.

So far, so good. Lysias was pleased. The situation had been easily resolved after all. Just by letting the man speak to his fellow Jews, he had defused a potential explosion and restored order. Paul, however, was still speaking.

Yes, he prayed in the Temple, Paul continued. And what he heard as he prayed was the voice of God. Flee from Jerusalem, that voice had said, because the city’s inhabitants would not accept his testimony. Paul then argued with God. Why should the Jews reject him? “They themselves know that in every synagogue I imprisoned and beat those who believed in thee. And when the blood of Stephen . . . was shed, I also was standing by and approving, and keeping the garments of those who killed him.” And to that, God had replied: “Depart, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.”

This met with a roar of fury. There it was again. The hated Gentiles! The mob began to push forward, some yelling, some shrieking, some waving their arms wildly, some taking off their cloaks and swinging them in the air, some pitching handfuls of dirt and shouting. Death, they cried. Death to this man. Quickly, Lysias’s men hustled Paul into the barracks and shut the gates behind them.

Greatly troubled by all that had occurred, and determined to get to the bottom of it, Lysias gave his usual order: Find out what this is all about by beating the prisoner until he talks. The men tied him up and were about to proceed when Paul directed a monumental question to one of the centurions: “Is it lawful for you to scourge a man who is a Roman citizen, and uncondemned?”

It was not lawful, of course, not at all lawful, and the centurion knew that if Paul actually was a Roman, and was illegally scourged, the centurion would be held to blame. Lysias, the tribune, was also deeply concerned. He had bought his own citizenship for a large sum, he told Paul. Paul replied, proudly, that he had been born a Roman citizen. Lysias immediately released him from his bonds, as the Law required.

Roman or not, the Paul problem was far from solved. The following day, Lysias called for an assembly of the Sanhedrin, the supreme council and highest Jewish court in Jerusalem. He then had Paul taken in front of the men. What, they demanded of Paul, was all this controversy about?

Standing before this august body, Paul began by identifying himself with them. “Brethren,” he said, looking directly at each of them as his eyes swept the room, “I have lived before God in all good conscience up to this day.”

The implication was not lost on them. He served God, not the Sanhedrin, and he was satisfied that he had done as God wished him to do. This was not the way an accused suspect was supposed to address the distinguished council. The high priest, Ananias, deeply offended, ordered those nearest him to strike Paul on the mouth, but before they could act, Paul exploded. “God shall strike you, you whitewashed wall! Are you sitting to judge me according to the Law, and yet contrary to the Law you ordered me to be struck?”

Shocked, those who had been about to hit Paul told him that he was addressing the high priest–a fact of which Paul was unaware. He apologized. “I did not know, brethren, that he was the high priest, for it is written, ‘You shall not speak evil of a ruler of your people.’” (Ananias was known for having a quick, vicious temper–later, when the Jewish rebels waged war against Rome, they would discover Ananias hiding in an aqueduct and eagerly kill him.)

Paul sensed on the faces of the council a deep division in the way they regarded Ananias. Some were doubtless offended to see Paul bark at him so sharply; others failed to disguise their quiet satisfaction. Paul also realized that some members of the Sanhedrin were Sadducees and the others were Pharisees. The Sadducees did not believe in “resurrection, nor angel, nor spirit,” while the Pharisees acknowledged them all.

That was all the opening Paul needed. Amid the clamor and confusion, he cried out: “I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees; with respect to the hope and the resurrection of the dead I am on trial!” Though he was indeed a Pharisee, there was more to the matter than that, of course–Paul had been hauled before the Sanhedrin because of the great commotion his connection with the Christians had caused. As a Christian, he believed in resurrection, and it was true that he was on trial precisely because of his beliefs. Recognizing a potential attack on their own theology, some of the Pharisees sided with Paul, saying, “We find nothing wrong in this man. What if a spirit or an angel spoke to him?” Soon the two sides were brawling with one another.

The bewildered Lysias could only look on. This man Paul, a Roman, whose mere presence had started a riot yesterday, seemed now to be provoking another one among the members of the highest court in Jerusalem. Fearing that Paul might be killed–and that he, Lysias, would be held responsible–he sent soldiers into the midst of the tumult. They successfully extracted Paul and brought him back to the Antonia fortress. There, Paul had another experience that Luke describes as a direct communication from God. “Take courage,” was the message, “for as you have testified about me at Jerusalem, so you must bear witness also at Rome.”

Meanwhile, Paul’s presence remained a thorn in the side of the Jewish establishment. Words were spoken into the appropriate ears, and soon a plot was hatched, involving more than forty men. Those in on the scheme vowed that they would neither eat nor drink until they had killed Paul. With the chief priests and elders in full agreement that Paul should die, the conspirators told the council to summon Paul before them again. But this time, the plotters swore, Paul would not live to face the Sanhedrin.

In uneasy Jerusalem, such a secret would leak beyond those sworn to carry it out. A nephew of Paul’s, the son of his sister, happened to be in the right place at the right time and heard the details. Alarmed, he went straight to Paul in the barracks and reported what he had learned. Paul sent him up to Lysias with his story, and the tribune realized that he must act, once again, to prevent this troublemaker Paul from being killed on his watch.

Lysias summoned two centurions and ordered them to organize a party of two hundred soldiers, seventy horsemen, and two hundred spearmen, and to bring them all together about nine o’clock that night, along with a horse for Paul. He also wrote a letter to be carried to the governor Felix, putting himself in the best possible light as he related what happened: “I found that he was accused about questions of their law, but charged with nothing deserving death or imprisonment. And when it was disclosed to me that there would be a plot against the man, I sent him to you at once.” The soldiers brought the horse for Paul and in the darkness spirited him from the fortress. Once they were out of danger most of the escort returned to Jerusalem, while the horsemen charged on with him to Caesarea, delivering Paul and the letter to the governor.

This ended Paul’s last visit to Jerusalem, and Luke’s account of it in the Acts of the Apostles leaves curiously vague the outcome of the Jerusalem Fund, which Paul had so diligently collected in his missions. Luke makes a single reference to it, that Paul came to Jerusalem “to bring alms to my nation and offerings” (24:17). But as to its actual delivery and the response to it, there is no word. Historians offer several explanations for this–that the fund was essentially a peace offering by the Gentile Christians to the Jerusalem church, and since Luke tends to minimize this conflict, he could not account for the need of a peace offering. Or that relations had grown so strained that the offering had been rejected by the Jerusalem church, a rupture Luke did not want to report. More likely, other historians reply, the fund was delivered and accepted gratefully, but its significance was simply overwhelmed by the other events, which Luke describes in detail.

At Caesarea, the provincial capital of Judea, the governor Felix had gained the reputation as a powerful and savvy politician–one whose harsh administration helped spark the Jewish rebellion some eight years later. He was certainly not about to rush into any situation without examining it thoroughly for whatever benefit it might hold for himself. He put Paul under guard at Herod’s palace, waiting patiently for the Jewish officials to arrive from Jerusalem and level their accusations against the man.2

The Jerusalem delegation, which included Ananias and some elders, along with a spokesman named Tertullus, arrived five days later and met with Felix to outline their grievances. Felix summoned Paul. Tertullus, who had been selected for the task precisely because of his public relations skills, delivered an elaborate and flattering introduction in which he praised Felix’s wonderful government and expressed deep gratitude on behalf of all his subjects. On the other hand, he described Paul as a “pestilent fellow, an agitator among all the Jews . . . and a ringleader of the sect of the Nazarenes. He even tried to profane the Temple, but we seized him.” The others who had come from Jerusalem nodded in agreement and assured Felix that what Tertullus alleged was true.

Paul, called to speak in his own defense, proved to be Tertullus’s equal in laying out his case. He did so cheerfully, he told Felix, “realizing that for many years, you have been judge over this nation.” And he refuted Tertullus forcefully. Rather than being a “pestilent agitator,” he said, he had merely gone up to worship at Jerusalem, and no one had found him disputing with anyone or stirring up the crowds, not in the Temple or synagogues and not in the city itself. Nowhere, in fact. So why was he charged with anything?

Moreover, Paul continued, although he was indeed a follower of the “sect,” there was nothing wrong with that. “I worship the God of our fathers, believing everything laid down by the Law or written in the prophets, having a hope in God which these people themselves accept, that there will be a resurrection of both the just and unjust.” He always took pains to maintain, he said, “a clear conscience toward God and toward men.”

As for Tertullus’s claim that Paul had profaned the Temple, Paul waived it aside. He had merely come to the Temple to bring alms and offerings, when some agitators raised false charges against him. As Roman law required, those men should be present and offer their own evidence, if he had done anything wrong, he said.

Felix quickly realized that he was in the midst of an impossibly intricate religious squabble, and that the further he could distance himself from it the better. If he turned Paul loose, the Jewish officials would be upset; if he handed Paul over to the Sanhedrin he would violate Roman law–it was clear to him that Paul was a Roman citizen, with all rights to the law’s protection. As he had done when Paul arrived, he decided to wait. These things often sorted themselves out if allowed to sit long enough, he reasoned. He told the Jewish officials that he would make his decision later.

Besides, for Felix there was another, more congenial, aspect to the case. Paul was well spoken and well dressed. There must be some money in his family, or perhaps among these Christians. If he played his cards right, he might be offered a substantial bribe to release Paul, and Felix had no problem at all accepting bribes. So he ordered Paul kept in custody. But the arrangement was more like house arrest than confinement behind bars. Paul was to be well treated, and his friends could visit him freely and take care of him.

Moreover, Felix was frankly intrigued by Paul, whom he found to be a very interesting fellow. Felix had made a point of learning as much as he could about what was called “the Way,” the sect to which Paul belonged. Now here was a leader of that sect, an obviously intelligent and quick-witted man, who might provide him with greater insight into this movement and its implications. So after a few days, Felix summoned Paul to meet with him and his wife, Drusilla, herself a Jewess. Luke records that Paul spoke to the couple about his faith in Christ Jesus, and “argued about justice and self-control and future judgment.” Because there was nothing but trouble in any of those topics for Felix, he became alarmed and sent Paul away again.

This situation dragged on for two years, with Paul held in loose confinement in Caesarea. He spent the time well, writing letters to the churches he had started–letters that would eventually be included in the New Testament. There is a sense, therefore, in which the Christians down through history owe Felix an ironic debt.

What is usually recognized as the greatest of those letters was the one Paul wrote to the city he had long wished to visit and was now about to. It was, of course, Rome. He appears to have been conscious of the fact he was now addressing a letter to people in the imperial capital, and he took much greater care than usual with the style and language. It would appear as the sixth book in the New Testament, the first of the twenty-one letters included therein.

The Epistle to the Romans has other idiosyncrasies. It is the only letter Paul wrote as a theological treatise; his other letters are addressed to specific problems in the churches. (This assumes, as do most scholars, that Paul was not the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, which is also a treatise.) It’s also the letter in which Paul addresses most directly the question that most beset him. “To Paul, brought up under the rigid Jewish law,” writes the British author and translator J. B. Phillips (The New Testament in Modern English. New York: Macmillan, 1958) , “God was pre-eminently the God of Righteousness, i.e., of moral perfection. In these days when the majority of people assume God to be a vague easy-going Benevolence it is difficult to appreciate the force of Paul’s problem, or the wonder of its solution.”

To Paul, God is eternally aflame with beauty, truth, and goodness, so that sin must die instantly in his presence, much as certain germs die instantly if the sun touches them. One solution to this, says Paul, is the Law, either the Law as codified and revealed to the Jews or the universal moral law of human conscience. But man habitually violates these laws, and laws as such can do nothing to remove man’s guilt. We are, therefore, lost.

In this letter, says Phillips, Paul explains that the heart of the Christian gospel “is that God himself meets this deadlock by a personal visit to this world. God, as Jesus Christ, became representative man, and as such deliberately accepted the eventual consequence of evil, namely suffering and death.”

Paul’s eventual visit to Rome would come about not as the result of his own planning, but because of what seemed a strategic error in his conflict with the Jerusalem Jews. Toward the end of the 50s, Felix became embroiled in a political squabble with the emperor Nero and was recalled. His successor was Porcius Festus. The Jews in Jerusalem had been waiting for such a break. They wasted no time in making the trip to Caesarea to reopen their case against Paul, and another hearing was set.

They had yet another plan. They would convince Festus to send Paul to Jerusalem, where he could stand trial in a religious court for the religious offenses of which he was accused. They did not tell Festus, however, that their plan included another little wrinkle: An ambush was all set up and ready to go, and Paul would die along the way before ever reaching Jerusalem. Festus liked the idea, as he understood it. There wasn’t much evidence against Paul that he could see, and holding a man on such flimsy charges for two years wasn’t a good idea. He asked Paul what he thought about it.

Paul, knowing full well where the danger lay, played the trump card of his Roman citizenship once more. If he was a wrongdoer, he said, then he should be tried and convicted. If there was nothing in the Jewish charges against him, theirs was not the court in which he should be judged. “I appeal to Caesar,” he said.

Festus would be happy to oblige, to pass the whole problem on to Nero. All he needed was some kind of writ or bill to send along with the accused man–but as he explained a few days later to the visiting King Agrippa and Agrippa’s wife, Bernice, the charges raised by the Jews were flimsy.

Agrippa was as curious about Paul as Felix had been, and told Festus he’d like to see the man for himself. The following day, Agrippa and Bernice “came with great pomp,” Luke writes, and “entered the audience hall with the military tribunes and the prominent men of the city.” Summoned before them, Paul listened as Festus outlined the matter for the distinguished gathering. Paul had appealed to Caesar, Festus said, “but I have nothing definite to write to my lord about him.” Maybe the royal couple could get to the bottom of things.

Paul spoke to the dignitaries with his usual confidence and strength. He had lived his life in strict accordance with Jewish law, he said, as a Pharisee, and he was on trial for his belief in the resurrection of the dead. He had at one time vigorously persecuted the Christians, but when he became convinced, on the Damascus road, that what they believed was true, he had joined them. “I stand here,” he said, “testifying to both small and great, saying nothing but what the prophets and Moses said would come to pass: that the Christ must suffer, and that, by being the first to rise from the dead, he would proclaim light to the people and to the Gentiles.”

Festus, suddenly embarrassed by having brought this strange man before the king, interrupted with a loud voice: “Paul, you are mad; your great learning is turning you mad!” But Paul addressed himself directly to the king. None of what he had said was untrue, Paul said, and Agrippa knew much of it already, because it had not happened in secret, not “in a corner.” Then, looking Agrippa squarely in the eye, Paul demanded: “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know that you believe.” Agrippa, amused, retorted, “In a short time you think to make me a Christian!” Paul said he prayed, indeed, that Agrippa and the rest of those within his hearing would become, whether quickly or not, “such as I am–except for these chains.”

Ending the hearing, Agrippa told Festus that Paul had done nothing to deserve imprisonment or death. He could have been set free, in fact, Agrippa said, if he had not appealed to Caesar. And to Caesar, and to Rome, he would therefore go.

The sea voyage was quickly arranged. Paul would be accompanied by a Roman centurion named Julius, very likely a man with whom Paul had become friendly during his long confinement. Luke would go along too, as would Aristarchus of Thessalonica. That Julius regarded Paul more as a companion than as a prisoner became obvious when the ship sailed off and put in at Sidon, and Julius allowed Paul to go ashore and visit with his Christian friends there.

The winds were stiff, and as they set sail again they had to detour around Cyprus before landing in the port of Myra, in southwestern Asia Minor. Julius then arranged for the party to board an Alexandrian ship, laden with grain and bound for Italy. The ship was among the well organized fleet that carried passengers as well as manufactured goods such as pottery and metalware from Italy to Egypt, where it exchanged the cargo for grain and took on more passengers, and returned to Italy. With favorable weather and winds, the run from Italy to Egypt could be made in two weeks.

The return trip, however, took the grain-heavy ships against the winds, requiring them to maneuver and tack. It was not a voyage for an inexperienced captain or crew. Paul and his companions endured long periods of waiting along the coast for winds that would enable them to make progress. The captain decided to take the ship under the lee of Crete, seeking shelter from the northwesterlies, and they lost much time. When they arrived at a Cretan bay called Fair Havens, Paul–who spent his childhood in Tarsus near the sea, and was so well traveled that he would endure three shipwrecks–advised the company that because the sailing season was over, they were in danger if they continued. In fact, he said, “I perceive that the voyage will be with injury and much loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.”

The ship’s captain and the owner were determined to set to sea anyway. Fair Havens wasn’t suitable as a winter harbor. They would attempt to reach Phoenix, another harbor of Crete about forty miles away, and spend the winter there.

As they sailed out, hugging the shore, they found a gentle wind, and seemed to have made the right decision. Soon, however, a fierce blast of air swept down upon them from the land, catching the ship in all its fury. There was nothing the captain and crew could do but to give up and allow the wind to blow them where it would. On and on they blew, tossing and turning, as the wind drove the vessel ever farther out to sea and out of the shelter of the coast. Soon, dire measures became necessary. The crew dropped thick loops of cable at the ship’s bow and stern, pulled them beneath the hull, and tied them above the deck, tightly undergirding the vessel.

Then came another problem. The wind and the great swells sweeping in from behind were driving the vessel directly onto the graveyards of the Mediterranean, the fearful shoals of Syrtis, a stretch of sandbanks and quicksand off the coast of Tripoli from which no ships ever escaped. The crew dropped their sails to slow their movement, and they all dumped grain to lighten the vessel. The next day they threw the ship’s equipment and furniture overboard. Night and day, the great waves crashed against the frail craft, loosening its timbers, causing them to creak and groan with every heave. All aboard were soaked; nearly all were seasick, so sick they began to yearn for the end. The weather grew bitterly cold. “Neither sun nor stars appeared for many a day,” wrote Luke, another passenger on that voyage, “and no small tempest lay on us.” Soon “all hope of our being saved was at last abandoned.” Wet, afraid, cold, and hungry, they turned to Paul.

He had foreseen just this eventuality if they headed out from Crete. He had predicted the destruction of the ship and the cargo. What did he foresee now, they wondered. “I bid you to take heart,” Paul encouraged them. “There will be no loss of life among you, only of the ship.” He was certain of this, he told his wretched shipmates. An angel of God had appeared to him in the night and told him not to be afraid–that he, Paul, was destined to stand before Caesar, and that God would also save the lives of all who sailed with him.

For two weeks now they had been adrift, driven onward by the winds, expecting the end with every wave. But the vessel held together. The wind had shifted and they were no longer being driven on the Syrtis Shoals. By now they must be somewhere beyond the middle of the Mediterranean, nearing Sicily maybe, or Malta. Then, one day, some of the crew began talking about land, perhaps recognizing the sounds or smells that meant some kind of coastline must be near. They dropped their sounding lines and found their hopes rewarded. Bottom lay at twenty fathoms, one hundred and twenty feet! Then again at fifteen fathoms. They must be nearing land.

But land did not mean safety, only a new and more terrible kind of danger. Land, for any ship adrift, is as likely to mean death as life. Land could mean sharp, jagged rocks, with the ship hurled against them as the mountainous waves crashed against the shore. Or reefs or sandbars on which the vessel is grounded and then smashed to pieces with the shore still a mile or more away. The crew knew that their lives were at risk, and some of them tried to get away on the ship’s lifeboat, but at Paul’s urging the centurion Julius and the soldiers who were with him cut the boat loose so that they could not use it.

Just before dawn, Paul addressed the passengers and crew again, telling them to eat some food, because they would need all their strength for what lay ahead. “And when he had said this,” Luke writes, “he took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat.” Feeling better, they tossed everything else, including all the remaining wheat, into the sea, cut loose the anchors, and hoisted the foresail to carry them to shore. Soon, as was expected, with an awful tearing of timbers, the vessel ground up onto a shoal. Crew and passengers lurched. Then the ship lay helpless, each wave crashing against it. The pounding on the rocks did what weeks at sea could not do. The ship began to break apart.

The Roman soldiers, knowing they must prevent their prisoners from escaping in the confusion, decided to kill them. No, said Julius, and he ordered everyone off the ship, to swim to shore or catch on to the flotsam and drift landward. So they did, every one of them. And as Paul had promised, all escaped alive, washing up one by one on the shores of the island of Malta.3

There, they received a friendly welcome from the natives, who started a bonfire to warm them up and to dry the waterlogged clothing they had been wearing for weeks. And there, another of the small, strange incidents that marked Paul’s voyages and adventures occurred. Helping to build the fire, Paul gathered up a bundle of sticks and brought them toward the flames. He had also unwittingly picked up a snake. Alarmed by the fire’s heat, it sprang from the bundle and attached itself to Paul’s hand. When the Maltese natives saw it, they knew Paul was doomed. The snake was particularly venomous, likely the very sort of asp that Cleopatra had allowed to bite her so that she could die. “No doubt this man is a murderer,” the natives said among themselves when they saw what happened. “Though he has escaped from the sea, justice has not allowed him to live.”

Paul, stung by the bite, shook the snake into the flames. The natives waited, certain that he would “swell up or suddenly fall down dead,” Luke says. But he did not. And “when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.”

During the three months that Paul and the others stayed on Malta, he prayed and healed the father of the chief magistrate, Publius, and when the other Maltese heard about it, they brought their sick to him too, and they were cured. Finally the winds were right, and Paul and the others boarded a ship that had also spent the winter on the island. Their Maltese hosts loaded them up with gifts and food and all that they needed for the voyage.

They sailed to Syracuse in Sicily, then to Rhegium, through the Straits of Messina (known to Homer as the site of the deadly rocks and whirlpool Scylla and Charybdis4). And on they went to Rome. When Paul landed, Christians came from miles around to greet him, and he was greatly encouraged. Paul then settled down and waited for his appeal to be heard by the emperor Nero.

Luke’s account of Paul, the only contemporary history of his life that exists, does not end happily. In fact, it does not end at all. It reports Paul as waiting for his hearing, and then the whole book simply stops. The Acts of the Apostles was probably never finished. It halts abruptly at the twenty-eighth chapter. That left it to writers forty or more years later to relate what happened to Paul, Luke, and Paul’s myriad of converts throughout the eastern Mediterranean, so many of them fondly named in his letters. All those later writers are in accord that Paul was martyred just outside Rome, probably in the Neronian persecution (see Chapter 8).

However, Paul lives more in his own letters than in Luke’s narrative account of him, and the letters portray a man of many contradictions. His gentle patience with the errant Galatians contrasts sharply with his caustic contempt for the “spirit people” at Corinth. At one point, he lays down an agenda of sexual regulations for his converts in the sex-driven city of Corinth; at another, he reassures the Christians at Rome that one man’s rule could be another man’s license, and that the only really important thing is that whatever we do, we do it for Christ. More striking still, the same man who does not shrink from urging others to follow the example he has set for them, can also write with equal sincerity: “My own behavior baffles me. For I find myself doing what I really loathe, but not doing what I really want to do” (Rom. 7:15 JBP).

While such contradictions arise from Paul’s letters, a much greater contradiction arises in the modern world’s reaction to them. “I hold St. Paul,” writes the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill, “to have been the first great corrupter of Christianity,” while theologian Paul Tillich observes: “To the man who longs for God and cannot find him, to the man who is striving for a new imperishable meaning to his life and cannot discover it–to this man Paul speaks.” The dark German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche sums up: “A god who died for our sins, redemption through faith, resurrection after death–all these are counterfeits of true Christianity for which that disastrous, wrong-headed fellow Paul must be held responsible,” and a later German scholar, Adolf Deissmann, notes: “There has probably seldom been anyone at the same time hated with such fiery hatred and loved with such strong passion.”

“What Jesus preached was a new birth of the human soul,” writes the early British science fictionist H. G. Wells, “but what Paul preached was the ancient religion of priest and altar and propitiatory bloodshed.” Says another man in similar disgust: “Christ was an Aryan. But Paul used his teaching to mobilize the underworld and to organize an earlier Bolshevism.” That man’s name was Adolf Hitler. “St. Paul would almost certainly have condemned tobacco,” notes novelist Samuel Butler. “St. Paul was wrong about sex,” declares Episcopalian Bishop James Pike. “No one understood Paul until [the heretic] Marcion,” writes the great biblical critic Adolf von Harnack, “and he misunderstood him.”5

Thus it was that St. Paul’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics established the greatest contradiction of them all, a contradiction between perception and reality. In the era of modernism, Paul was popularly regarded as the pillar and founder of doctrinaire Christian authoritarianism, the man who took the “simple religion” of Jesus Christ and converted it into a morass of hair-splitting ideological and theological dogmatism. In fact, Paul of Tarsus devoted his life, from his conversion on the Damascus road, to a cause that is the precise reverse of this. More than any other first-century Christian, excepting perhaps only Jesus himself, Paul insisted, often at the peril of his very life, that each soul had a unique relationship to Christ, that a religion that consists of categorical rules means certain spiritual death, and that the way of salvation is through the grace that Christ confers on any man or woman who asks for it, so that each of his followers becomes a “new creation.” As the historian F. F. Bruce put it in the title of his magnificent biography, Paul was preeminently “the apostle of the heart set free.”

Perhaps, however, the greatest benefaction Paul left to the hundreds of millions of Christians who would follow him lay neither in what he taught nor in what he wrote, but in what he did. For though his letters would be diligently collected and assembled to comprise about one quarter of the New Testament, what seemed to give him the greatest joy were those he brought into the faith, his beloved converts. For it was they, men and women of every caste, of every race, and of every Mediterranean language, who bore the Word of God from man to man, woman to woman, parent to child, worker to worker, saint to emperor, moving silently, unobserved, as the leaven works in the bread, just as Jesus had said; it was they who through the grace of Christ fashioned Christianity and laid the foundations of the most powerful movement the world would ever know.

That Paul should find himself embattled on every side came as no surprise to them because they, more than anyone, understood the terrible task he must accomplish. “I am now ready to be offered,” he wrote to Timothy, probably from prison in Rome, “and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight. I have finished my course. I have kept the faith” (2 Tim. 4:7 KJV).

So indeed he had, but it would remain for a Christian writer sixteen hundred years later to portray Paul in such a way that his beloved converts of the first century would have recognized him instantly. For Paul is the undoubted model for Mr. Valiant-for-Truth, the hero figure of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, which C. S. Lewis describes as “a book that astonished the whole world.”

Mr. Valiant, his face slashed and scarred from a lifetime of fighting, at last receives the call to cross the river of death to the Eternal City beyond it. Drawing from Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, Bunyan describes the passing of Mr. Valiant and, therefore, of Paul himself.
He called for his friends, and told them, “I am going to my Father’s place. Though with great difficulty I have got this far, yet now I do not regret all the trouble I have had to arrive where I am.

“My sword I give to him that shall succeed me in my pilgrimage, and my courage and skill to him that can get it.

“My marks and scars I carry with me, to be a witness for me that I have fought His battles who will now be my rewarder.”

When the day that he must depart had come, many accompanied him to the riverside.

As he went down into the water, he said, “Death, where is thy sting?”

And as he went down deeper, he said, “Grave, where is thy victory?”

So he passed over, and all the trumpets sounded for him on the other side.

This is the end of the St Paul the Martyr category article drawn from Chapter Six, beginning on page 162, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about St Paul the Martyr from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at