Paul Went to Spain


Paul went to Spain. Bon voyage to its status as myth. 

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This theory that Paul travelled to Spain always seemed to me founded in romantic idealism, as if going to the western tip of Europe would be more fulfilling for Paul’s legacy that merely going to Rome. From Jerusalem down the Damascus Road across modern Turkey to Greece to Rome—really, hadn’t he done enough? After all, he took the gospel to the capital of the Empire, caput mundi, “head of the world,” the Romans called their city. Even when Paul writes in Romans 15:24, he speaks with certainty, “Whenever I go to Spain”…but he had yet to actually go. In fact, at the time of this writing he was currently going in the opposite direction: “But now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints” (15:25). And the book of Acts ends with his epic arrival in Rome. His legacy needs no enhancement. 

However, scrutinizing the apostles beyond Acts not only convinced me, but the potential for a Pauline travel to Spain was persuasive enough to overcome my skepticism. A good theory of this voyage centers on two principles. 

First, we recognize two tones in his Roman sojourn. On one hand, Acts 28 depicts him on house arrest (v.16), while the other prisoners were delivered to the captain of the guard. Paul himself calls together the synagogue rulers and they come to his place of his lodging for further dialog, from morning to evening (vv.17, 23). He dwells like this for two years, hosting visitors “in his own hired house” (v.30). This is quite a bit of flexibility for a prisoner under the auspices of death. On the other hand, this optimistic experience can be contrasted to the tone of Paul in his late epistles when he feels his earthly journey is ending. He writes: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day...Only Luke is with me” (2 Tim. 4:7-11). Such passages imply his weariness, a sense of finality, and a quality of aloneness. 

Second, we recognize that there are multiple claims to his imprisonment sites in Rome. House arrest likely occurred across the Tiber River in the Jewish quarter where the tanner guild was centered, corresponding to Paul’s own trade when he dwelt among the tentmakers in Corinth (18:3). Here, the Church of Santa Maria della Regola claims a historical spot to Paul’s incarceration. Meanwhile, Santa Maria Via Lata maintains a tradition of his holding. Likewise, the notoriously harsh Mamertine Prison by the Caesar palaces would require confining imprisonment unlike the freedom described in Acts. Rather than seeing these other places as inventions of Pauline legends, perhaps they hold some veracity to a second, more confining imprisonment that leads to martyrdom. Any historicity in the later centuries’ Acts of Peter and Acts of Peter and Paul claim there is an entirely other experience of Roman imprisonment. 

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Harmonizing these two tones and multiple imprisonment spots suggests an intermediate period of absence from Rome. Perhaps his first captivity did not prove worthy of capital punishment because the accusation of Palestine Jews was lost across the Empire. Perhaps Paul talked his way into acquittal after his first Roman trial. Fourth century Eusebius remarks, “Paul passed two whole years in Rome…after pleading his cause, he is said to have been sent again on the ministry of preaching, and after a second visit to the city, that he finished his life with martyrdom” (Ecclesiastical History 2.22.1-2). Cyril, Jerome, Chrysostom accompany his voice. The Muratorian Fragment reads, “He set out for Spain” (38-39). The words of first century Clement that Paul goes “to the limit west” (I Clement 5:7) suggests something beyond the Rome from which Clement wrote. Coincidentally, the motto of this modern nation is “further beyond.” 

Meanwhile, a trip to Spain could take place from Rome in a mere four days. F.F. Bruce remarks, “For Luke, Paul’s western goal was Rome, but for Paul himself it was not Rome but Spain” (Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free, 48). Bryan Litfin gives the tradition a grade of a “B” (After Acts, 182). The church fathers and the apocryphal acts perpetuate the evidence. Two tones and multiple imprisonments suggest two sojourns, two sojourns allow for a hiatus, the hiatus allows for Spain, and I became convinced. 

Learn more about the apostles after the New Testament in Quest for the Historical Apostles: Tracing Their Lives and Legacies (Baker, 2018):