The Missions of St Paul
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The book of Acts structures Paul's work into three missions. We do not know if this reflects the reality, or is a literary device.
Paul's Lost Mission (31/3–50?)
There is a seventeen-year discrepancy between the movements of Paul as told in his letter to the Galatians, and those related in the book of Acts. Seventeen years out of a ministry of thirty years! Whoa!
Remarkably, few commentators and scholars have ever remarked on the problem of what I call Paul's Lost Mission. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul describes his movements after his call (which occurred somewhere between 31–33):
❶ Paul says he spends three years in Arabia Nabatea and Damascus.
❷ Then Paul briefly visits Peter and James in Jerusalem . Paul returns to Damascus.
❸ Paul spends the next 14 years in Syria and Cilicia.
❹ Paul returns to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus. That would be 48–50. There he is rebuffed by the disciples. Barnabas assuages the apostles, and Paul preaches in Jerusalem.
❺ Paul is bundled off to Tarsus after receiving death threats.
Paul's 1st Mission (40–45?)
The dating implied by Acts cannot be reconciled with Paul's account in the letter to the Galatians.
The book of Acts shows only a perfunctory interest in this mission. Barnabas retrieves Paul from his safe-house in Tarsus and takes him on a mission through the small provinces of Cyprus and Galatia. They defeat a false Jewish prophet in Cyprus, and convert the Roman governor. The highlight is Paul's speech in Antioch Caesarea.
Paul's 2nd Mission (50–52)
This is much more extensive than his first. Paul starts from his base in Antioch. If our chronology is right, in Antioch Paul has a face-off with Peter, and Paul's first companion Barnabas. Paul revisits the towns of his first mission in Cilicia and Galatia and acquires Timothy as a companion. He then gallivants across the province of Asia. He takes ship to Thrace, where he establishes a church at Philippi.
After an unfortunate misunderstanding with the local authorities, he travels down through Macedonia, where he establishes a church at the capital of the province, Thessalonica. Paul moves into Achaia, modern Greece, where he fails to impress the Athenians. He has better luck at Corinth, settling there for one and a half years. Again he falls afoul of the Jews, who bring before him the Roman governor Gallio. This event provides the one solid date for the life of Paul, since we know that Gallio ruled from 51 to 52
Thankfully, the governor has no interest in petty squabbles and dismisses the case. Paul arrives back in Antioch after a whirlwind three years. Compare that to the five or so years Paul spent on his first tour.
Paul's 3rd Mission (53–56)
Paul's third and final mission is usually dated to the years 53 to 56. Paul has been on the road for almost 20 years. As usual, Paul launches his final mission from the great capitol of Antioch in Syria. He travels through his old foundations in Galatia and Asia to the great city of Ephesus, on the Aegean coast. There he re-unites with his old chums from the second mission, Priscilla and Aquila, the Jews expelled from Rome. It seems Paul has a lot of work to do.
He stays in Ephesus for two years. His tenure ends in a riot that sees him slipping out of the city before he is lynched. In the Acts of Paul and Thecla, and one of his letters, Paul hints that he was imprisoned at Ephesus.
Paul continues to Troas and then through Macedonia, and Greece, then back to Troas in Asia. From there he sails along the Aegean coast. At the city of Miletus, he summons the Jesus club members of the near-by city of Ephesus to meet with him. Paul has no intention of going back to Ephesus. Paul eventually takes ship to Jerusalem. At the end of his long journey, Paul is arrested in Jerusalem. He will spend the rest of his life in remand, and die in Rome.