Shipping the gospel

Screen Shot 2015 01 06 at 3 45 56 pm\ Within three decades of the death and resurrection of Christ, groups of believers were firmly settled from Spain to Persia. David Parish applies his experience as a strategy manager for a major global transportation company to ask, How did they do it?

How did the early apostles do this? Let’s set aside for the moment the powerful work of the Holy Spirit [ed. that’s a big ask!].

What were the means by which the gospel spread across this vast region?

1. Key Ministry in Ports

From Acts we know that Paul travelled by using both Roman roads (often paved) and commercial shipping. Travelling by ship was expensive, equivalent to first class air travel today in cost per mile, but it was the fastest and, in the summer months, the safest. But shipping was not as primitive as we might be lead to believe.

The shipping of the first century had been developing in both technology and speed over the previous seven centuries. Written records of trans-national shipping go back to the Phoenicians, who inhabited a coastal strip to the north of Israel. They rose to power around 700 B.C., about the time of David and Solomon, and used their expertise in building warships to also develop outstanding ships for commercial use. What may be the first written record of a supply chain appears in 1 Kings 5. The passage contains a commercial contract for supplying timber for building the temple in return for wheat and olive oil from Israel. In addition, detailed designs of ships appear on pottery of this period.

However, it is in the Greek and Roman empires that commercial shipping really develops. Estimates vary; the Roman merchant shipping fleet had in it around 3,000 ships.

Along with the ships came the construction of large ports. Take Corinth, which had two ports. The west-facing port across the isthmus was Lechaeum, and Cenchreae faced to the east. Lechaeum was the port for ships to Rome and Cenchreae was for ships going to the Greek islands and the Levant.

Corinth had the kind of reputation for low life and aggressive trading practices that is typical of ports up to the present day. David Prior, in the introduction to his commentary on Corinthians, writes, “Like most sea ports, Corinth had become both prosperous and licentious—so much so that the Greeks had a word for leading a life of debauchery: Korintiazein. Homer talks of ‘wealthy Corinth’ and Thucydides refers to its military importance.”

Prior also quotes scholar Austin Farrar’s description of Corinth: “This mongrel and heterogeneous population of Greek adventurers and Roman bourgeois, with a tainting of Phoenicians; mass of Jews, ex-soldiers, philosophers, merchants, sailors, freedmen, slaves, trades people, hucksters and agents of every form of vice.”

Luke tells us that Paul stayed “for some time” (scholars estimate about 18 months) in this port city teeming with men and women in desperate need of the gospel. Its shipping culture made it a crucial hub in the Roman Empire, bringing in people from all corners of the empire.

From here, Paul took one of the 20 daily sailings out of Corinth’s two ports to go to Syria (Acts 18:18–19) to further his work.

2. Ancient Sailing

What would have one of these ships have been like?

The larger grain-carrying ships could accommodate several tons of cargo and around 100 passengers. The ancient historian Josephus describes one vessel that carried 600 people. Perhaps half would have been crew to man the sails and to row when the wind was weak. This would still allow for a passenger load of around 300, the capacity today of a medium-sized passenger ferry from Seattle to the outer islands.

Marine archaeologists have discovered ancient models and images on pottery of vessels of this period. These show that the large trading ships had a broad beam to carry large cargoes and were powered by a large sail amidships and a smaller forward sail. This meant that it was not easy to sail across the wind, so the captains as much as possible followed the direction of the wind.

Catherine Hezser, in an article in The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Palestine, notes, “During the winter months, shipping on the Mediterranean would come almost to a standstill.” Ships that did venture out in the winter months stayed close in to shore, and as Luke vividly describes in Act 27, it was very dangerous when a storm blew in. Acts tells us that Paul and Luke left after the Day of Atonement in October, so the centurion in charge of Paul likely knew the risk. They might have picked up one of the last large grain ships returning from Alexandria via Myra to its home port of Rome for the winter.

Luke’s description of how the captain handled the ship is accurate and indicates good knowledge of seafaring, no doubt picked up by observation on his many journeys with Paul. If the captain had heeded Paul’s advice to stay in port in Crete, they would have avoided the wreck on Malta that followed.

In summer, on the other hand, sea travel was fast and relatively comfortable. As these were cargo vessels, passengers had to bring their own provisions. The fast cargo ships made few stops and sailed at night using astral navigation. On one of these vessels, it would have been possible to travel from Rome to Athens in five to six days, compared with a month or longer overland. (Another sign of Luke’s accuracy is shown in Acts 28:13, where he notes the time taken to sail from Rhegium to Puteoli as one and a half days.)

3. Traders and Merchants

Modern communications have enabled global trade on an unprecedented scale, but the first-century Roman Empire enjoyed a comparatively sophisticated system: a vast network of paved roads (stretching from the Atlantic coast of Europe to the borders of India) as well as efficient shipping routes that crossed the Mediterranean. Networks of traders exploited the relative peace and prosperity of the era to trade products across the empire. From English tin to Palestinian olive oil and pottery and gold, everything passed through Rome.

And merchants of various sorts—all dependent on shipping and paved roads—played a vital role in the early church. Paul and the other apostles were quick to use this network to further the gospel cause. Phoebe, a wealthy woman who lived in the port of Cenchreae, was a patron to Paul and others. Travel was particularly expensive by sea, and contributions from disciples like Phoebe and Gaius no doubt paid for Paul’s journeys. Lydia, a cloth merchant, also features in accounts of the activities of the early church.

The other role played by wealthy merchants in the early church was to provide couriers to move letters and Gospel copies between the churches. Phoebe is the one who carries Paul’s letter to the Romans to the capitol. There are 5,800 copies of books or fragments that have been found all over the Mediterranean, from North Africa to Albania and the Levant. They are written in Greek, Syriac, and Coptic languages.

The original letters would have been circulated by hand, and as they became worn would have been copied by scribes who earned their living by copying commercial and legal documents. These copies would then have been sent out quite widely to the new churches as they were established, either by paved Roman roads or by ship.

One of the best known documents is Ryland’s Library Papyrus P52, also known as the St. John’s Fragment. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger holds the view that the fragment is very early, from around 100 a.d. It is believed to be a copy written to be used in public worship, as the print is quite large and widely spaced. It was found in Egypt, and though it is impossible to be certain, it is likely—from the style of the penmanship—that it originated in Ephesus and was brought by a courier.

One could write a similar article about the transportation systems that helped spread the gospel through Europe in the Middle Ages, and then again across the world in the 1800s, the great missionary century. I find it fascinating to see the means that God uses to spread the faith. And it’s no more fascinating than how that occurred in the first century.

Now here’s my question: These conditions existed equally for all faiths in the first century, so why did Christianity outstrip them all?

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