Second semester of seminary is now in full swing, and what a ride it has been so far. I cannot think of a more exciting time in my educational career than what I am experiencing right now. The depths and riches of the faith we hold dear is more profound than I could have possibly imagined, and the Lord has blessed me with the opportunity to bring that truth to reality in my own life by sitting under the teaching of some of the most brilliant people I have ever met.
This blog comes from an encounter I had through the reading of my textbook for my New Testament survey course. New Testament II is the official title and it deals with the Book of Acts and the letters of Paul. These are books I have been familiar with for many years now having grown up in the church. But much of this course, so far, has been focused on the person of Paul, who he was, where he came from, and speculation on what he was like. As a history nerd, this gets my juices flowing every time!
I have loved history for a long time now, and having the opportunity to study history in relation to the Bible has been an amazing opportunity. Recently, it led me to a “lightbulb” moment in my studies. I was reading the book, “The Cradle, The Cross, and The Crown” by Andreas Kostenberger. One of the chapters in this book is dedicated to the study of the person of Paul, and while reading this chapter, something happened. I finally felt like I had met Paul. Not just learned about his letters or his missionary journeys that Scriptures tell us about, but because of history and historical research I felt like I finally had a picture of the greatest missionary the world has ever seen – the man who was Paul of Tarsus.
We have a good chunk of Paul’s biography in the book of Acts, and some details in his own letters fill in a few more gaps about his journeys and who he was as a person. For example, Galatians gives us evidence that Paul had a serious eye disease or condition, and this was perhaps the “thorn in [his] flesh” that he referred to in 2 Corinthians. Later in the Galatians this theory is supported in 6:11 when he says he has to write in large lettering.
You may see that and think “Yeah, so what?” But to me that was amazing! A little detail like that was right in front of me the whole time and I never noticed it. Through verses like those I began to get a glimpse of the person writing a letter I had known for years. For the first time in my life, perhaps, Paul was a real person writing a real letter in real time to real people 2,000 years ago. He had gone from mystical giant of the Christian faith, to a handicapped man writing a letter to people he cared about. He had become human. He had become real.
Maybe it’s just me, but learning that small detail, among others, made Paul’s writing much more personal. It’s as if I could feel Paul writing to me. He was pouring his heart into this letter so that the reader in the first century, and in turn myself, could finish the race well.
But what history says about Paul goes beyond what the Bible mentions. Through historical study, we have learned that Paul was imprisoned in Rome twice. The first time he wrote what have become known as the “Prison Epistles,” which are Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon. This is where the book of Acts ends. The end of Acts tells us Paul spent two years under house arrest in Rome, and he would visit and preach the Gospel to anyone who came to see him.
Mamertine Prison, Rome, where Paul was believed to have been held.
But history tells us more. After the time Acts ends, we learn that Paul was arrested and imprisoned a second time. It is likely during this arrest that Paul writes his “Pastoral Epistles” to Timothy and Titus.
Knowing this history, for me personally, brings life to my reading of these letters. For example, I now read the pastoral epistles with a sense of urgency, as I imagine Paul would have felt. Having been arrested in Rome for a second time, I can only imagine Paul knew his time on earth was almost at an end. So, he writes three final letters to two young pastors that he has entrusted to carry on his work. As a father to his sons, Paul tells them that he has fulfilled his ministry, pleading with them to do the same. In movies, we always hear the executioner ask if the guilty party has any last words. I imagine these would be Paul’s concerning his ministry.
The Tomb of Paul, Basilica of St. Paul Oustide the Walls, Rome
History then tells us how Paul’s race came to an end. Condemned to death by Emperor Nero, Paul was beheaded. Not only do we know how he died, but we most likely know where he died! History tells us that Paul was beheaded on the Ostian Way in Rome at a place called Aquae Salviae. Today, a church stands on this site. A basilica also sits on Paul’s final resting place. The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls sits two miles away from where Paul was killed. In recent years, a sarcophagus has been discovered at the basilica confirming that this is the site of Paul’s burial.
Facts like these help the Bible come alive to me. History can help us see the Bible as not just words on a page, but as evidence of real events and people that have walked the earth. The words of the Bible testify to their experiences and how the Gospel was real to them and shows that the Gospel has been true and stood the test of time in a tangible and real way.
I write all of this to encourage you. If you don’t like history, I understand. Not everyone does. But when it comes to your faith and your Bible, I would ask you to give history a chance. Use your mind to learn the history of what you hold in your hand every Sunday. Learn the people, the places and the events. I believe this will help you experience the words of Scripture in a new and refreshing way. The Bible will come alive to you in a new way, just as it does when it’s living words speak to our souls. I believe in many ways history can help us do the same.
I can only imagine Paul approaching the place of his execution, crowds all around, staring death in the face, and he whispers to himself as he lays his head in place, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” This Paul was real. His journeys were real. They are not just words in our Bible. They are history. And history has something to tell us. I would encourage you to listen.