By Thomas W. Davis

“The two of them, sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down [from Antioch] to Seleucia and from there sailed to Cyprus” (Acts 13:4).

Acts of the Apostles records the beginning of the most important missionary trip in the history of the Christian church. The two missionaries, Paul and Barnabas, were joined by John Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, who was to serve as their assistant (Col 4:10; Acts 13:5). The first target of the mission trip is Cyprus, the third-largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. After Caesar Augustus gained solitary power in the Roman Empire, he made Cyprus a senatorial province, governed by a proconsul. By the beginning of the first century, Cyprus was already becoming a political backwater in the Roman Empire.

It is probably Barnabas who persuaded the Antioch church that Cyprus should be the first “foreign” mission field for the fledgling congregation. Perhaps it was a way for the Antioch believers to partially repay the debt they owed to their “spiritual midwives” from Cyprus who had brought them into the new faith. It also was a safe choice, since some of the congregation probably had family ties and commercial links to the island. The Cypriot city of Salamis, Barnabas’ hometown, was only a day’s sail from the port of Antioch at Seleucia. Pottery and coins from Antioch recovered in excavations on Cyprus document the strong commercial ties between the city and the island.

From Salamis to Paphos

Salamis, where the mission team landed, contained all the urban amenities characteristic of a successful and prosperous eastern Roman city. Travelers entering the city from the harbor would pass through a major bath/gymnasium complex graced with fine statuary and elegant frescoes. Paul and Barnabas then would have encountered a magnificent theater with a seating capacity of 15,000. Other excavated urban public spaces include the Hellenistic agora (marketplace), still functioning in the Roman period, and the famous temple of Zeus Olympios. An estimate based on the aqueduct capacity suggests roughly 120,000 people lived at Salamis in first-century. All of this would have been familiar and comfortable territory for Paul.

None of the excavations at the site focused on the domestic space of Salamis, so we lack any evidence of a synagogue. Even so, historical sources show that Salamis had a very large community of Jews, who were encouraged to settle there before Roman rule. Acts 13:5 supports the scenario of a large Jewish population when it reports that Paul and Barnabas proclaimed their message in the “Jewish synagogues”—plural, not singular. The mission team was almost certainly hosted by Barnabas’ family, but archaeology has not yet provided the proper domestic backdrop for this visit.

The missionaries’ journey across the island ends at Paphos, the capital of the Roman province of Cyprus. Paphos had been severely damaged in an earthquake, prompting Augustus to intervene and help repair the city. The Roman style-city Paul entered is hard to envision, and its remains are almost completely obscured by the monumental public buildings and magnificent urban villas of the second and third centuries. The city was graced with an excellent harbor that gave a strong impetus to trade. The main civic theater, recently uncovered, seated 8,500 people.

In Acts, the main focus of the Cyprus mission is the encounter in Paphos between Paul and the Roman governor, Sergius Paulus. Fragmentary evidence of a previous structure beneath a massive second-century villa may be all that remains of the governor’s residence at the time of the missionaries’ visit. (It also is possible that the governor occupied another residence that has not been located.)

A Pivotal Dinner Party

An examination of recent scholarship on Roman Cyprus suggests that the province was not as unified in the first century as previously thought. The elite of Paphos appear to have embraced elements of a separate cultural identity from the rest of Cyprus. New archaeological studies indicate an east/west economic divide in Roman Cyprus between Paphos and the eastern two-thirds of the island. Paphos appears to be a particularly “Roman” district. This may explain why, in the Acts narrative, Luke shifts the sequence of naming the apostles. Before this point Barnabas had priority, but from here on out Paul will be listed first. Barnabas is at home in Jerusalem, Antioch, and eastern Cyprus, but when the story shifts to Roman-oriented Paphos he is out of his depth, and Paul becomes the spokesman and leader because he embraces the cultural challenge.

It is most likely that Paul and Barnabas were invited to be part of the after-dinner “entertainment” at a banquet given by the governor. Philosophical readings and discussions would have been a normal part of the evening at the home of an “intelligent man”—that is, one who was educated and interested in philosophical questions and therefore open to a new faith. The inclusion of the Jewish magician Bar-Jesus makes it almost a certainty that this was more of a social occasion than an official meeting held during office hours.

A recent study of Roman Cypriot magic texts makes clear that Luke’s account of the contest between Bar-Jesus and Paul accurately reflects a Cypriot social setting. According to these texts, magic was often employed to prevent someone from speaking, and blindness could be used as a preventative measure in these cases. In the Acts account, Bar-Jesus is trying to prevent Paul from speaking to the governor about the Christian faith, so in typical Lukan irony the magician is struck down by the very weapon he was probably trying to use against Paul. The governor, on the other hand, speaks with Paul and is converted to faith.

The governor’s conversion probably changed the itinerary of the mission, since he was from Pisidian Antioch in Galatia. Although Paul and Barnabas sail from Paphos to Galatia, recent studies indicate that the Paphos-to-Perge (Galatia) voyage was not a normal journey in the first century. A more typical trade route from Paphos would have taken the apostles south to Egypt. Under this scenario, they seem to have changed their plans to fulfill the governor’s wishes to take the gospel to his family and hometown in Galatia.

It is now reasonable to propose that in Paphos Paul left behind the economic, social, and religious comfort zone in which he had spent his entire Christian ministry. Therefore, when Paul met the governor, it is certainly possible that he was for the first time forced to confront new possibilities in his Christian mission. The positive results of his encounter with the governor—in contrast to the apparent failure of the synagogue mission in Salamis, within Paul’s comfort zone—may provide the catalyst for a fundamental change in the Pauline ministry: Paul came to embrace the truly pagan world as his mission field. Luke underlines the profound importance of this shift by henceforth referring to the apostle using his Roman name, Paul, as opposed to his Jewish name, Saul.

Thomas W. Davis (far left), on the southern coast of Cyprus with his students.

Thomas W. Davis (far left), on the southern coast of Cyprus with his students.

Consequently, when Paul returns to Antioch after the journey to Cyprus and Galatia, he has been transformed, the gospel message has been transformed, and as a result the “Followers of the Way” will be transformed. “On arriving there, they gathered the church together and reported all that God had done through them and how he had opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27). The invitation to Jews to accept the Messiah of God had become an open door to the entire pagan world, and a Jewish messianic sect would become the Christian church. The crucible for all these changes is Cyprus.

Scripture quotations are from the New Internaional Version. Photos courtesy of Thomas W. Davis.

Thomas W. Davis is professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Thomas W. Davis is professor of archaeology and biblical backgrounds at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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