In this issue of The Good News we proceed with our survey of archaeological and historical findings that verify and illuminate the accounts recorded in the Bible. In our last issue we surveyed the first 12 chapters of Acts, in which the focus is on the exploits of the original apostles.
We pick up the story as the emphasis shifts to the travels of the apostle Paul. How accurate are these accounts?
Sergius Paulus, governor of Cyprus
"So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they [the apostles Paul and Barnabas] went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus ... Now when they had gone through the island to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man" (Acts 13:4-7, emphasis added throughout).
From Antioch Paul and Barnabas first went to Cyprus, Barnabas's birthplace (Acts 4:36). Historians have confirmed several background details about this account. For example, the Roman orator Cicero mentions in one of his books that Paphos was indeed the Roman headquarters of Cyprus during Roman rule (Ad Familiares, XIII.48).
Also, Luke is correct in mentioning that Cyprus was governed by a proconsul when Paul and Barnabas visited the island. Before A.D. 22 Cyprus had been administered by a direct representative of the emperor, called a propraetor. But after 22 the island's rule was turned over to the Roman senate, whose representatives were called proconsuls. "Annexed by the Romans in 55 B.C.," notes The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, "Cyprus became a senatorial province in 22 B.C., with a governor bearing the title of proconsul, as Acts 13:7 correctly names Sergius Paulus, who received Barnabas and Paul" (1962, Vol. 3, p. 648).
The Expositor's Bible Commentary adds: "That Luke distinguishes correctly between senatorial and imperial provinces and has the former governed by a proconsul on behalf of the senate and the latter governed by a propraetor representing the emperor says much for his accuracy, for the status of provinces changed with the times" (Richard Longenecker, Vol. 9, 1981, notes on Acts 18:12-13, p. 485).
Archaeologists have also found evidence indicating Sergius Paulus was indeed a Roman governor of Cyprus. In 1877 an inscription was uncovered a short distance north of Paphos bearing Sergius Paulus's name and title of proconsul.
In addition, in 1887 his name was found on a memorial stone in Rome. "On a boundary stone of [Emperor] Claudius, his name [Sergius Paulus] is found among others, as having been appointed (A.D. 47) one of the curators of the banks and the channel of the river Tiber. After serving his three years as proconsul at Cyprus, he returned to Rome, where he held the office referred to" ("Sergius Paulus," Easton's Bible Dictionary, Bible Explorer software).
It is also true that in those days proconsuls used seers for advice. "These were intensely superstitious times," writes William Barclay, "and most great men, even an intelligent man like Sergius Paulus, kept private wizards, fortune tellers who dealt in magic and spells" (Daily Study Bible, 1975, Bible Explorer software).
To the Unknown God in Athens
From Cyprus Paul eventually made his way to Athens, the capital of Greek philosophy. "Now while Paul waited for them at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him when he saw that the city was given over to idols ... Then Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, 'Men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious; for as I was passing through and considering the objects of your worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Therefore, the One whom you worship without knowing, Him I proclaim to you" (Acts 17:16, 22-23).
Why was Paul so incensed with the idols in Athens? Is this an accurate description of the place? A.T. Robertson notes: "Pliny [the Roman writer] states that in the time of Nero [A.D. 54-68], Athens had over 30,000 public statues besides countless private ones in the homes. Petronius [a Roman satirist] sneers that it was easier to find a god than a man in Athens. Every gateway or porch had its protecting god" (Word Pictures of the New Testament, notes on Acts 17:16).
What about the altar "to the unknown god"? Has there been any confirmation that such altars existed? Archaeologist John McRay mentions: "Pausanias [the Greek historian], who visited Athens between 143 and 159 A.D. saw such altars. In describing his trip from the harbor to Athens he wrote: 'The Temple of Athene Skiras is also here, and one of Zeus further off, and altars of the 'Unknown gods' ... Apollonius of Tyana, who died in A.D. 98, spoke of Athens as the place 'where altars are set up in honor even of unknown gods' ..." (Archaeology & the New Testament, 1991, p. 304).
In 1909 an archaeological expedition uncovered an altar with the inscription "To unknown gods" in Pergamum, a Roman province. McRay comments that the idolatry in Athens was so widespread that Athenians built altars to unknown gods so they would leave no one out. "The adherents of ancient polytheistic religions," he says, "characterized as they were by superstitious ignorance, may have simply erected altars to unknown gods 'so that no deity might be offended by human neglect'" (ibid.).
Jews expelled from Rome
From Athens Paul traveled a short way to another Greek city, Corinth. "After these things Paul departed from Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a certain Jew named Aquila, born in Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla (because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome), and he came to them" (Acts 18:2).
Were Jews expelled from Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius? The Roman historian Suetonius records such an order: "As the Jews were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus, he banished them from Rome" (Life of Claudius, 25.4). It is estimated some 20,000 Jews eventually were expelled, among them Aquila and Priscilla.
It is worthwhile to note this expulsion decree is a key date for fixing Pauline chronology. "One example of how archaeology has contributed to establishing a Pauline chronology," writes Professor McRay, "is that now we can set the approximate beginning of Paul's work in Corinth on his second journey. The key is found in Acts 18:2 where we learn that when Paul arrived in Corinth he found Priscilla and Aquila, who had lately come from Italy, having been banished from Rome in a general expulsion of Jews under Claudius, who reigned from 41-54. This event is referred to by Suetonius and others and can be dated to A.D. 49" (McRay, pp. 225-226).
Who was this Chrestus who was responsible for the Jewish riots? The subject has been intensely debated. Since the name Chrestus and Christus are pronounced alike, it is likely that it had to do with the dissension in the Jewish community over the newly established Christianity and the teachings of Christ.
F.F. Bruce mentions that Chrestus could have simply been a Jewish troublemaker, but he adds: "It is more likely that [Suetonius] had the Founder of Christianity in mind, but that, writing some seventy years after the event and not being particularly interested in Christian origins, he consulted some record of the riots and imagined wrongly that Chrestus, who was mentioned as the leader of one of the parties concerned, was actually in Rome at the time, taking a prominent part in the strife. In fact, what we have in this statement of Suetonius is the dissension and disorder in the Jewish community at Rome resulting from the introduction of Christianity into one or more of the synagogues of the city" (The International Commentary of the New Testament, 1974, p. 368, "Acts").
Later Aquila and Priscilla were to become instrumental in Paul's ministry. They gave him a job in Corinth (Acts 18:3) and traveled with him to Ephesus (verse 19). They then served as hosts for a church group in their home and sent their greetings to their Corinthian friends in one of Paul's letters (1 Corinthians 16:19). Sometime after Claudius's death in 54, they returned to Rome and were included in Paul's greetings to the church members there (Romans 16:3).
Gallio, proconsul of Corinth
During Paul's long stay in Corinth his preaching eventually led to conflict with the Jews there. "And he continued there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them. When Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him to the judgment seat" (Acts 18:11-12).
Here Luke mentions another Roman governor of the time. Has any evidence been found to corroborate the existence of Gallio?
It turns out Gallio was prominent in Roman history. He was the brother of the great Stoic writer Seneca, who was Emperor Nero's tutor. Gallio came from an illustrious family in Spain that eventually moved to Rome. His real name was Marcus Annaeus Novatus, but he was adopted by the orator Lucius Junius Gallio and afterwards bore his adoptive father's last name. His brother Seneca, who mentions him in his writings, said, "No mortal is so pleasant to any one person as Gallio is to everybody."
It is striking that Luke also describes Gallio's stable and affable personality. After Paul's persecutors trumped up charges against Paul, Gallio quickly saw through their lies and dismissed the false accusations. To prevent such incidents from occurring again, he had the Jewish leaders punished for filing false charges (Acts 18:14-17). This set a legal precedent throughout the Roman Empire concerning Paul's mission and the Christian religion.
"If Gallio had accepted the Jewish charge," adds The Expositor's Bible Commentary, "and found Paul guilty of the alleged offense, provincial governors everywhere would have had a precedent, and Paul's ministry would have been severely restricted. As it was, Gallio's refusal to act in the matter was tantamount to the recognition of Christianity as a religio licita [an authorized religion]; and the decision of so eminent a Roman proconsul would carry weight wherever the issue arose again and give pause to those who might want to oppose the Christian movement ... For the coming decade or so, the Christian message could be proclaimed in the provinces of the empire without fear of coming into conflict with Roman law, thanks largely to Gallio's decision" (Longenecker, p. 486, notes on Acts 18:14-16).
It is remarkable that archaeological evidence has also been found confirming Gallio was the proconsul of Achaia, just as Luke had recorded.
"At Delphi," writes Professor McRay, "archaeologists found a stone which probably was once attached to the outer wall of the Temple of Apollo. Inscribed in it is a copy of a letter from Claudius to the city of Delphi, naming Gallio as the friend of Claudius and proconsul of Achaia" (McRay, p. 226).
What happened to Gallio after his encounter with Paul? Regrettably, after Claudius died in 54, Nero became the emperor. For a while Nero governed wisely under the tutorship of Gallio's brother Seneca. But five years later Nero did an about-face and gave himself to his passions and lusts. He expelled his mentor from his sight. His debauchery eventually caused Nero to become insane, and soon Nero was feeling tormented by Seneca's and Gallio's integrity and presence, so he had them both executed in 65.
F.F. Bruce says about Gallio: "He left Achaia because of a fever and went on a cruise for his health (Seneca, Moral Epistles, 14.1) ... In 65, along with Seneca and other members of his family, he fell victim to Nero's suspicions" (The International Commentary of the New Testament, 1974, p. 374, "Acts").
Such were the times in Rome. During this same period Nero began his murderous rampage of Christians in Rome after he falsely blamed them for having set the city on fire, which historians generally blame Nero as having started.
We will continue with our survey of Acts in the next article in this series. GN