Sergius Paulus the Proconsul and the Apostle Paul

Sergius Paulus was the Roman official presiding over the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean Sea near the middle of the 1st century AD according to the book of Acts. During his first major journey, the Apostle Paul met a man named Sergius Paulus while traveling across Cyprus to the city of Paphos (Acts 13:4-7). Luke, the author of Acts according to ancient sources of the 2nd and 3rd century AD and indicative evidence from the New Testament, calls Sergius Paulus the “proconsul” (Greek anthupatos) of Cyprus and notes that he was situated in Paphos at the far end of the island. Did a Roman official named Sergius Paulus exist during the 1st century AD, did he rule over Cyprus, was his title proconsul, was the government of the island based at Paphos, and if so, approximately when?

According to Strabo, a 1st century BC and 1st century AD geographer and historian, Cyprus was a senatorial province during the Roman Empire in the 1st century AD, meaning that the senate appointed a proconsul to rule the island each year. Ancient Roman records, such as the writings of Cicero, also demonstrate that the religious center of Paphos was selected as the capital of Roman Cyprus. The city of Paphos, as the book of Acts indicates, is located on the far west side of the island of Cyprus and archaeological excavations indicate a that a substantial Hellenistic city existed there during the 1st century AD. This city functioned as the Roman seat of power where the proconsul would have been situated during his term of office.

Multiple inscriptions contain the name Sergius Paulus appear to portray the man as a person of prominence in the Roman Empire during the 1st century AD. A Greek inscription discovered at Soloi in Cyprus, north of Paphos, mentions a proconsul named Paulus during the 1st century AD (IGR III, 930). A portion of the inscription translates as “He also altered the senate by means of assessors during the time of the proconsul Paulus.”

Although the text only mentions the Paulus part of his name, it does specify him as the proconsul. Of linguistic significance is the fact that Luke, the author of Acts, uses the Greek term anthupatos to designate the position of Sergius Paulus as proconsul (Acts 13:7). This Greek term is the equivalent of the Latin term proconsul (A Greek-English Lexicon by Liddell, Scott, Jones, and McKenzie.). In ca. 22 BC, Caesar Augustus made Cyprus a senatorial province which meant one would expect to find a proconsul there rather than a prefect, such as in Judaea Province where Pontius Pilatus is called a prefect and Luke uses different Greek terminology to designate this. Further, mention of the 13th year of Caesar Claudius places the date of the inscription in the early 50s AD and necessitates that the proconsul Paulus referred to as being in power at an earlier time than the inscription had ruled on Cyprus prior to the early 50s AD. A boundary stone inscription recording Curators of the banks and channel of the Tiber river in Rome mentions “L. Sergius Paulus” as one of these Curators during the reign of Claudius, and specifically allows the year to be determined as 47 AD (CIL 6.31543). The “L” probably abbreviates for the name Lucius. Since only men of the highest political and social ranks could rule provinces and received prestigious appointments in Rome, it is likely that only one Sergius Paulus of high rank in the Roman Empire existed during the middle of the 1st century AD. Another stone inscription, found at Pisidian Antioch, appears to again mention a “L. Sergius Paulus,” but due to the fragmentary state of the inscription, that reading of the name must be tentative and no information about the potential official titles or positions of the person is known (Yalvac Museum).

Although neither the exact identity of this potential L. Sergius Paulus or his possible role in the Roman government is known, perhaps he was a relative of the Sergius Paulus ruling on Cyprus or even the same Sergius Paulus. This particular inscription is not as clear as the two previously mentioned, but it may connect Sergius Paulus with Pisidian Antioch. This could be significant because according to Acts, after Sergius Paulus converted to Christianity, Paul and Barnabus traveled to Antioch (Acts 13:12-14). It is possible, though unconfirmed and only a hypothesis based on circumstantial evidence, that the reason Paul and Barnabus traveled to Antioch after Cyprus is because Sergius Paulus had family ties there. If so, the L. Sergius Paulus mentioned on the stone inscription from Antioch may further illuminate the life of the proconsul Sergius Paulus who held positions on Cyprus and in Rome. A fourth, and most tentative inscription also exists which has been suggested as possibly attesting to the Sergius Paulus mentioned in the book of Acts (IGR III, 935).

Subsequent epigraphic investigation of this inscription by scholars suggests that the Caesar mentioned in the text is Caligula, not Claudius, placing the official referred to in the text slightly earlier during the reign of Emperor Caligula (37-41 AD). This chronological material alone would not pose a major issue for connecting the inscription with the Sergius Paulus of Acts, but instead would give additional insight into the life and chronology of this official. However, a key problem does exist with this inscription. The section of the text that may mention a Sergius Paulus is so fragmentary that the “Paulus” portion of the name is or would be completely missing, and the text coming before Sergius appears to be the name “Quintus,” which is not associated with Sergius Paulus anywhere else. Therefore, connecting an inscription that appears to mention a Quintus Sergius during the reign of Caligula with the proconsul Sergius Paulus of Acts, the proconsul Paulus inscription from Cyprus, or the L. Sergius Paulus of two other inscriptions would be unfounded. Yet, the inscriptional attestation of a prominent Sergius Paulus in the Roman Empire who held the position of proconsul of Cyprus during the reign of Emperor Claudius appears to be substantiated by multiple sources. Therefore, at least two, but perhaps three references to powerful Roman officials at this time named Sergius Paulus probably refer to the Sergius Paulus on Cyprus also mentioned in the book of Acts. Interestingly, Pliny the Elder in his Natural History published ca. 77 AD may even note this Sergius Paulus as one of the sources for his material about the island of Cyprus.

While the dates which Sergius Paulus held the position of proconsul on Cyprus are not exactly known, two of the inscriptions demonstrate that his career as a Roman official encompassed the middle of the 1st century AD, and specifically during the reign of Claudius (ca. 41-54 AD). Following the chronology of the book of Acts, Paul and Barnabus should have arrived on Cyprus around 45 AD or slightly after. If Sergius Paulus was appointed a Curator in Rome in 47 AD, then he may have moved to Rome upon his return from Cyprus, which was typically considered a province that Romans did not want to live in. Thus, the proconsul Sergius Paulus encountered by the Apostle Paul not only appears in ancient Roman records, but the chronological data situates him as proconsul in Cyprus during the reign of Emperor Claudius, likely just prior to 47 AD, and one inscription may even connect him with the city of Pisidian Antioch, in accord with the narrative in the book of Acts.


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