Here’s a quick question for you – who was the first person Paul led to the Lord? Well, no one knows for sure. Paul most certainly led a certain number to faith in Christ even before undertaking his first missionary journey. However, the first recorded in the scriptures took place on the island of Cyprus. It was here that the apostle led a Roman proconsul by the name of Sergius Paulus to Christ.
“Now when they had crossed the island (i.e. Cyprus) to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is how his name is translated) resisted them, seeking to turn the proconsul away from the faith. Then Saul, who is also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked at him intently and said, “O full of all deceit and fraud, son of the devil, enemy of all righteousness, will you not cease to pervert the straight ways of the Lord? And now, indeed, the hand of the LORD is upon you, and you will be blind, and you will not see the sun for a time. And immediately a dark mist fell on him, and he went to get someone to lead him by the hand. Then the proconsul believed, when he saw what had happened, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord. – Acts 13: 6 – 12
Cyprus must have been an interesting place to visit for Paul and his cohort, Barnabas. The island has been heavily influenced by Greek culture. It was a staging area for all manner of Roman activity throughout the eastern Mediterranean. And as the text suggests, he was influenced by the occult.
Their outreach to the Cypriots took place around 47 AD. Luke, the author of the book of Acts, is careful to refer to Sergius Paulus as “Proconsul”. Indeed, this is the appropriate title for a Roman ruler sitting in authority over Cyprus at that time.
Prior to this, a Roman ruler of the island would have been referred to as a “property”. In 58 BC, Cyprus was annexed by Rome. From then on, a person appointed by the Roman Emperor administered control of the island. In the Roman vernacular of the time, such a ruler would be called an “imperial legate” or “propraetor”.
In 22 BC however, Rome changed the status of Cyprus from that of an annexed territory to that of a province in its own right. Once a territory became a province, it came under the authority of a person appointed by the Roman Senate. As such, a “Proconsul” assumed the ruling authority of the island.
“One of the most remarkable signs of (Luke’s) accuracy is his certain familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned. . . Cyprus, for example, which was an imperial province until 22 BC, became that year a senatorial province, and was therefore no longer governed by an imperial legate (a propraetor) but by a proconsul.Thus, when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Cyprus around the year 47, it was the proconsul Sergius Paulus whom they met . . . (FF Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?)
Luke isn’t just precise in his use of titles. Historians and archaeologists have collected evidence of the existence of this particular proconsul.
In 1877, an archaeological dig took place in the area near ancient Paphos in Cyprus. Supervising the excavations was Luigi Palma di Cesnola. Cesnola had been a Medal of Honor recipient for his efforts during the American Civil War. After the end of the war, he was appointed American consul in Cyprus. Once there, he conducted numerous excavations. Incidentally, he would end up being named the first curator of the Metropolitan Museum in New York. He located an inscription which proved that a proconsul named Paulus existed. The inscription was in a block of marble which was used to consecrate a monument in the 1st century, and it read as follows:
“Apollonius to his father…dedicated this enclosure and monument according to the wishes of his family…having served as Market Clerk, Prefect, Registrar, High Priest and having been in charge as Director of the Records Office. Erected on the 25th of the month Demarchexusius of the 13th year (of the reign of Claudius). He also modified the senate by means of assessors during the time of proconsul Paulus. (http://www.biblehistory.net/newsletter/paulus.htm)
The 13th year of Claudius’ reign would be 54AD, or just after the time of Paul and Barnabas’ visit. He might be one in the same as the Sergius Paulus who was extended to Paul and Barnabas.
Additional evidence for the existence of Sergius Paulus comes from a 1st century Roman source. Pliny the Elder, as history refers to him, was a Roman naval commander who lived from AD 23 to 79. He was also a statesman, naturalist and historian. Much of what we know about ancient Rome comes from his writings. In such influential positions, he came to know personally many important Roman political figures of the time.
Pliny the Elder’s most important work is Naturalis Historia (Latin for natural history). It is, for all intents and purposes, the Roman encyclopedia of the day. It is also one of the greatest surviving works of Roman literature. He writes a lot about Cyprus. In fact, He refers to a certain ‘Sergius Paulus’ in his list of sources or authorities for Books 2 and 18 of his Natural History (Pliny, Natural History 1; LCL 1:29, 87).
In his discussions of Cyprus, Pliny reveals another detail relevant to Luke’s account in Acts 13: “There were different groups of magicians in the time of Moses such as Jannes and Lotape, of whom the Jews had spoken. And in fact, thousands of people every year follow the Zoroastrian ways, especially lately on the island of Cyprus. (Pliny the Elder, Naturalis Historia; Book XXX, Section II).
Here, Pliny the Elder confirms the presence of magicians (or what Luke calls “sorcerers”) in Cyprus in the 1st century. They were so important that he gives them a place in his discussion of the island.
Before leaving Sergius Paulus, another element deserves to be examined. The scriptures tell us that Asia Minor was the next place Paul and Barnabas went after leaving Cyprus. In fact, they are specifically heading for Antioch in Pisidia (see Acts 13:13–14).
An inscription is on display at the Yalvac Museum in Turkey which was found near Antioch in Pisidia. The whole word “Paulii” and parts of “Sergii” can be seen there. (http://www.padfield.com/2008/antioch-of-pisidia.html) It would seem that the family of Sergius Paulus owned a large estate in this area. The inscription itself may even be a reference to the Proconsul. Who knows? Perhaps Paul and Barnabas went there at the request of the Roman commander in hopes of leading his family to Christ!
The exercise we just did on these few verses of Acts 13 could easily be done on each chapter. Luke pays remarkable attention to detail and has yet to be proven incorrect in any facet of his work. The Bible is a history book. Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the writers of Scripture recorded without error the writings that make up Holy Scripture!
Here are some numbers worth noting about the book of Acts. Luke identifies 110 people by name. (http://www.thruthebible.org/site/c.irLMKXPGLsF/b.4380271/) Many of these have been verified in history by an extra-biblical source. (Geisler, Norman, I Don’t Have Faith Enough to Be an Atheist, Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois, 2004, p. 270) Additionally, Luke refers to 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands. (Geisler, Norman Baker Encyclopedia of Apologetics Baker Books, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991, p. 227). in Crete). (http://www.harvardhouse.com/correlate_1.htm)
Perhaps Sir William Ramsay summed it up best: “Luke is a historian of the first order; not only are his statements of fact trustworthy, but he possesses the true historical sense. . . In short, this author is to be placed among the greatest historians. (Sir William Ramsay, Saint Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen)