Keeping up with St. Paul as he traveled the ancient world on evangelizing missions was a tall order, local scholars say.
It is believed that the saint traveled up to an estimated 20,000 miles in his lifetime and likely walked 12 to 15 miles a day just to get to a place where he could eat or sleep, according to local Biblical scholars.
Yet Paul was not alone in his mission of spreading the message of Christ. According to local scholars, some of his friends may have traveled with him, cowritten his letters, or carried the letters to places where he had been or planned to go.
Paul’s letters can be read as letters of introduction and recommending his friends to the small Christian communities in far-flung locations where he was attempting to establish or maintain relationships, said Laura Nasrallah, professor of New Testament and early Christian origins at Harvard Divinity School and author of An Ecstasy of Folly: Prophecy and Authority in Early Christianity.
"The system of letters of recommendation was very important not only for Paul but for travelers at that time," Nasrallah said.
Nasrallah spoke as the keynote lecturer for the Spirit Alive! 2009 Year of the Bible on "Paul the Christian, Paul the Jew: Making Sense of Paul for the Church Today" at Pittsford’s St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry on March 13.
In many of Paul’s letters, he commends his various friends, who were presumably carrying the letters, and sent greetings to other acquaintances. Paul relied on these friends to make sure the message of Christ was spread.
"He sometimes left them (his friends) behind in certain cities to make sure things were going well and to re-establish relationships in these cities because he was often traveling," Nasrallah said.
In Paul’s day, missionaries would walk from city to city looking for public places and people who were willing to hear their message about deeper meaning in life, said Father Sebastian Falcone, professor emeritus and professor of New Testament at St. Bernard’s. Father Falcone spoke about Paul’s life during a talk March 3 at Rochester’s Peace of Christ Parish at St. John the Evangelist.
Paul most likely traveled using the hospitality of friends who would give him accommodations and share meals with him. Through this hospitality, Paul was able to teach about the Eucharist, he said.
"They didn’t have a full set of Scripture readings," Father Falcone said. "They didn’t have a choir. The church got started in a very humble way by people that wanted to hear the message of salvation that had come through Jesus."
Father Falcone noted these friends also took on responsibility for spreading Christ’s message as well. He noted Paul’s letter to the Romans was most likely carried by Phoebe, whom Paul commends in the letter to the Romans as a friend and benefactress.
"She carried a major responsibility to carry the most important letter he ever wrote, because (the Romans) were raising some questions about how Paul is carrying out his activities and his understanding of the Gospel," Father Falcone said.
In addition to making connections and establishing his credentials for his teachings through accounts of his conversion and life, the letters also give an overview of Christ’s teachings. For example, in writing to the Romans, Paul is addressing an audience that has heard of Christ from other followers, but that had not met Paul personally, Nasrallah said.
"He writes a very long letter to explain more systematically, as he can, what his understanding is of the status of people in Christ and how people can enter into God’s people," she said.
Paul’s letters were most likely read out loud at assemblies of people, at which point they were most likely passionately debated as they have been by theologians and scholars for centuries, she said.
"Interpreting Paul’s letters has been a challenge since the minute Paul put pen to papyrus," she remarked.
Additional information about the company Paul kept can be gleaned from the account of Paul’s missionary journeys in the Acts of the Apostles. Yet Nasrallah points out that the use of Acts to draw conclusions about Paul’s life and his friends can be problematic.
"The challenge is that the story Luke tells us in Acts is so powerful," Nasrallah said. "There are many more things about Paul that Paul does not say. I think we need to read Acts as a later account — maybe even 70 years after Paul’s own writings."
For example, Paul’s identity as a Roman citizen is something found solely in Acts.
"We don’t know from Paul’s own letter that he is a Roman citizen," Nasrallah said. "In Acts, it is very literally his get-out-of-jail-free card."
While Acts paints a picture of a mighty, persuasive speaker, Paul himself belittles his own presence and speaking abilities, she said. The truth, scholars say, may never be known, since so much of Paul’s history is unwritten, including his final resting place. Though scholars theorize he may have died in Rome, Paul said in his letter that he hoped to journey through Rome to the west, possibly to Spain.
"From Paul’s own writings, he wanted to go to what were the furthest reaches of the world," Nasrallah said.
It is through his writings, not his travels, that he accomplished his goal.
EDITOR’S NOTE: St. Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry is hosting a symposium on St. Paul April 17 at the school, 120 French Road, Pittsford. The day includes three sessions, and registration is $15 per session or $35 for all three. An optional lunch is $10. Videoconferencing at sites in Apalachin, Auburn and Watkins Glen also may be available. For details, call 585-271-3657 or visit www.stbernards.edu and click on "upcoming events."