In the Footsteps of Paul during COVID-19

Each spring I am somewhere in the eastern Mediterranean, leading a BAS group that’s visiting archaeological and biblical sites. But with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, all such tours have been canceled through much of 2020. One of my favorite itineraries follows the footsteps of Paul in Turkey. We begin in the southeast at Antakya, ancient Antioch on the Orontes, and end on the northwest Aegean coast at Alexandria Troas. It takes about two weeks and around two thousand miles to visit the twenty-three sites in Turkey related to Paul. Participants, exhausted after long bus rides each day, always comment about the vast geographical landscape that Paul walked on his missionary journeys.

Presently Turkey, like other countries in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, has imposed regulations to curb its spread. Stay-at-home orders have been issued, social distancing is practiced, and masks are required when shopping in grocery stores and fruit/vegetable markets. For the past four weekends there has been a total lockdown in many provinces, so no one is allowed outdoors. These lockdowns have been a bit stressful for me, maybe because I grew up on the wide-open prairies of North Dakota and am used to the freedom of going outside at any time. Such anxiety is not peculiar to me, I’ve learned; many others are experiencing various degrees of “cabin fever” and also longing to get outdoors once again.

In the midst of trip cancellations and mandated lockdowns, I’ve begun to realize that I was missing one dimension of Paul’s journeys. Although aware of his extended imprisonments in Caesarea and Rome, each for approximately two years (Acts 24 –28), I had largely glossed over them. Why? Because they didn’t concern land or sea travel, but presented Paul as a prisoner constrained and immobilized. During his two decades of traveling freely in ministry, Paul had experienced brief incarcerations, as in Philippi (Acts 16:23 –40) and in the Antonia Fortress in Jerusalem (Acts 21:34 –23:22). But little did he know that, following his arrival in Caesarea Maritima, his freedom was about to be curtailed for an extended period. As a Roman citizen, perhaps he presumed speedy exoneration from the false charges brought against him. However, after his first hearing before Felix, Paul’s case was continued, and he was confined under guard (Acts 23:35 –24:27). The only positive outcome was that Paul would not be hindered from receiving visitors to provide for him. For under Roman law a prisoner did not become a ward of the state but relied on family and friends to supply his material needs.

Saint Paul Writing his Epistles

Saint Paul Writing His Epistles: Early 17th Century, probably by Valentin de Boulogne

To learn more about Paul’s confinements, I turned to Brian Rapske[1]. He suggests that Paul was kept in Herod’s praetorium (NKJV; ESV), also translated “residence” (NIV; NET) or “headquarters” (NRSV; NLT). Regarding the architecture of this structure, Israeli archaeologist Ehud Netzer[2] notes that it had two sections—a Lower Palace built by Herod around 22-20 B.C.E. and an Upper Palace added a decade or so later. Modern tours of Caesarea always visit the remains of this palace situated on a rocky promontory jutting into the sea and adjacent to the hippodrome. The Lower Palace, with its elaborate pools and baths, was Herod’s private residence. The Upper Palace was used to host public receptions and meetings. After the Romans made Judea a province in 6 C.E., they converted the palace to the governor’s residence as well as a praetorium and staff headquarters.

In Paul’s day the Roman governors Felix and Festus resided here. His frequent appearances before them suggest that he was housed nearby in the Upper Palace. Its large peristyle courtyard measured 210 ft x 138 ft. Its north side had a large wing of rooms measuring 203 ft x 79 ft. The basilical hall on the western side was probably where his audience with the governors along with King Agrippa and Bernice were conducted. The complex had bathing facilities, so at least Paul could wash himself. Despite such accommodations with a sea view of the Mediterranean, Paul was likely chained to a centurion throughout his stay. For as Seneca (Epistle 5.7) analogizes, “Just as the same chain fastens the prisoner and the soldier who guards him….” Locked down as a prisoner, Paul must have quickly found this two-year confinement tedious and restrictive.

Paul’s “stay-at-praetorium” ended with his appeal to Caesar, and soon he was on his way to Rome, still chained to a centurion. Surviving a shipwreck and a rescue on Malta, Paul finally arrived in Rome (Acts 28:16 –31). There he was permitted to rent a private lodging at his own expense. The residence was probably near the Castra Praetoria in Rome, where the centurion delivered his prisoner upon arrival. Once again believers could attend to his physical needs, and he was visited by Rome’s Jewish leaders as well. According to Rapske[3], the size and type of Paul’s of lodging is unknown but certainly large enough to host groups of visitors. Nevertheless, he remained chained to a soldier and not allowed freedom of movement. This Roman imprisonment stretched into another two years of stay-at-home.

Reading these accounts in Acts again about Paul’s two prolonged lockdowns suggested to me parallels with our situation during the COVID-10 pandemic. Even as Paul could receive guests and visitors, we can entertain friends and family virtually in our dwellings through Skype, Zoom, and FaceTime. However, our present stay-at-home situation pales in comparison to what the apostle experienced both in length and conditions. Consider: a chain continually chafing his wrist, iron links rattling when he turned over in bed, the same four walls staring back monotonously, an open road and glassy sea now just fading memories. Pondering my own sense of anxiety at this time, I have realized that I was traveling, in part, on a similar inward journey that Paul probably experienced during his two confinements. The time when this global lockdown will ease is unknown. Meanwhile, we are all praying for the containment of COVID-19 so that life can somewhat resume to normal. Maybe next year we can again travel in the footsteps of Paul. But while we are waiting, let’s not waste this opportunity to reflect on Paul’s four years of lockdown and to join him on a different kind of journey, which the final word in Acts reminds us, was truly “unhindered.”

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