Saul and Barnabas On Cyprus
4 The two of them [Saul & Barnabas], sent on their way by the Holy Spirit, went down to Seleucia and sailed from there to Cyprus. 5 When they arrived at Salamis, they proclaimed the word of God in the Jewish synagogues. John was with them as their helper.
6 They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, 7 who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. 8 But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. 9 Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, 10 “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? 11 Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”
Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. 12 When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.
The very first missionary journey of Paul started with a short boat trip to the famed island of Cyprus. Cyprus was home to one of the most dense and lush forests of cypress trees which were highly valued. The cypress trees and the cedar trees were very strong woods that were used in major structural projects, such as temples and long ships. These forests were also part of the ancient folklore and religious practices. A peak named Mount Olympus was located in the middle of the island and the forest which was long held to be the dwelling place of the Greek gods, however, the actual location of Mount Olympus was in Greece. To what extent the Cyprians viewed their Mount Olympus as similar to the Mount Olympus, I do not know. However, Cyprus was the birthplace of Aphrodite and Adonis, as well as the home of the mythical King Cinyras, Teucer and Pygmalion.1
Additionally, the waters surrounding the island was thought to have been teeming with water deities and mythical water creatures, such as biblical Leviathan. By traveling to Cyprus, Saul and Barnabas are heading straight for the theological center of ancient Greece.
It is most likely, however, that the trip to Cyprus was a logistical matter and not a spiritual matter, as Barnabas was actually from the island of Cyprus.
and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.
36 Joseph, a Levite from Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (which means “son of encouragement”), 37 sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet.
While on the island, Saul and Barnabas have a run-in with Elymas who was a magician of sorts. The passage is not clear if this is how the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, heard about Saul and Barnabas or if the proconsul called for them before meeting Elymas. It is quite possible that their run-in with the sorcerer was because of his connection to the proconsul and that the proconsul heard of the pair preaching through the Jewish leaders. Either way, the proconsul was earnestly desiring to hear the words of Saul and Barnabas and in the end became a believer. It is interesting that the miracle performed by Saul was to strike a non-believing trouble-maker with blindness. This was exactly how Saul became a follower on his way to Damascus.
Sergius Paulus, the proconsul, is a very helpful character for Luke to mention by name because he shows up in the Roman archaeological record. In a few pieces dating back to about 40-50AD, Sergius Paulus is recorded as proconsul of Cyprus. The first is a boundary marker of Emperor Claudius which mentions Sergius Paulus. Emperor Claudius ruled from 41 to 54 CE which means we can rather precisely determine when Sergius Paulus was prconsul and then Saul and Barnabas visited the island.
“Paullus Fabius Persicus
Gaius Eggius Marullus
Lucius Sergius Paullus
Gaius Obellius Rufus
Lucius Scribonius Libo (?)
The commissioners of the banks and beds of the Tiber, by the authority of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus [the emperor Claudius], leader of the Senate (?), marked the boundaries [of the Tiber floodplain] by placing boundary stones on the bank from the Trigarium to the Pons Agrippae.”
(Ohio State University, CIL 6.31545)
Second, a family monument on the island also helps to date Paulus’ time as proconsul.
Apollonius to his father…consecrated this enclosure and monument according to his family’s wishes…having filled the offices of clerk of the market, prefect, town-clerk, high priest, and having been in charge as manager of the records office. Erected on the 25th of the month Demarchexusius in the thirteenth year [of the reign of Claudius – 54 AD]. He also altered the senate by means of assessors during the time of proconsul Paulus…
(Joseph M. Holden and Norman Geisler, The Popular Handbook of Archaeology and the Bible, IGR III, 930)
Assuming Paulus was appointed by Claudis, at the latest a few years before the end of his reign, Sauls’ trip to Cyprus must as been between 41-50 CE. Furthermore, some believe that that Paulus family was actually well connected to Antioch both before and after Sergius served as proconsul.2 If true, this would shed some light on Luke’s positive description of the man and could also serve as a reason why Barnabas and Saul went to Cyprus first. Perhaps they saw Cyprus as having a sympathetic leader who might aid them in their mission.
Regardless of the relation, it seems clear that it’s the Lord’s powers that is having the day. Could Paulus have been convinced to believe with Elymas being struck blind? It’s certainly possible. However, it seems much less likely. All through the Acts narrative, we see that the work of the Holy Spirit is the driving force behind the spread of the gospel. This is something we should take note of today. We can reason with the scriptures and with men but at the end of the day it is the power of God that brings the gospel to life.
Stass Paraskos, The Mythology of Cyprus (London: Orage Press, 2016)