God ordained that the Apostle Paul would go to Rome and testify before Caesar (Acts 19:21 and 27:24). We therefore know he did, but the biblical record only explicitly describes the journey to his initial arrival and two year stay while awaiting trial (Acts 28). Though scripture is largely silent, a number of sites in Rome are associated with Paul’s activity there including his arrival, imprisonment(s), death and burial. These sites have been consecrated as genuine by the Roman Catholic Church, but their authenticity is subject to varying degrees of scholarly debate. This paper will examine the primary sites associated with Paul’s activity in Rome and will determine their relevant value in context of the Apostle’s impact on the early and contemporary church. This will include a limited discussion of the chronology and interconnectivity of his New Testament writings, including (where possible) a limited exegetical analysis. Though absolute and empirical evidence is ultimately lacking, the traditional Pauline sites in Rome are valuable historically to biblical scholarship and inspirationally to all followers of Christ.
Background and Context
Rome was the epicenter of geopolitical power during the decades concurrent to Christianity’s beginning, and through God’s direction, Paul was determined to travel there. He wrote to the church that he had longed to see them for some time but had thus far been prevented (Rom 1:13). His recorded journey was triggered by his trail before Festus and his subsequent appeal to Caesar (Acts 25:11-12). A number of emperors had governed since the birth of Christ, and Nero was Caesar during the ministry of Paul. Though a definitive and granular timeline is impossible given the scarce information in the New Testament, a chronology can be generally established by correlating scripture with historical and archaeological pinpoint events including the expulsion of Jews from Rome by Claudius and the proconsulships of Gallio and Festus. These pinpoints can be correlated with scripture placing Paul’s arrival in Rome circa the early 60s AD. The Bible only explicitly describes Paul’s arrival and house arrest in Rome, leaving the remainder of his life to be derived by the literary analysis of his epistles and through extra-biblical sources. The brevity of this paper does not afford a robust debate of chronology, but the reader is directed to “Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit” by F.F. Bruce where the matter is discussed at length. Paul’s journey to Rome is described in the twenty-seventh and twenty-eight chapters of Acts where certain sites are documented. A number of others are attributed through history and tradition. The authenticity of these site are neither established or disproven by the scope of scholarly debate, but some variables are herein considered.
The last chapter of Acts describes Paul’s arrival at Puteoli on the outskirts of Rome, his journey to the city proper via the Appian Way and his house arrest which the author describes as covering two years, at least by the time of writing (Acts 28). No mention is made of Paul’s adjudication or his activity through the remainder of his life. The abrupt ending of Acts has generated much discussion, and the general possibilities are (1) that the author anticipated another book, (2) that Paul was released because the charges were dropped, (3) that he died during this imprisonment or (4) that he stood trial, was acquitted and released, but subsequently rearrested and executed. Beginning with Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century, most conservative scholars ascribe to the fourth view, citing scriptural references in Paul’s epistles that lend themselves to a fourth missionary journey and harsher second imprisonment ending with his execution. The balance of this paper will review the principle Pauline sites in Rome including Puteoli, the Appian Way, Paul’s House Arrest, Mamertine Prison, the Tre Fontane Abbey and the Basicilla of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls.
Direct Biblical Site Consideration
Each site considered below has been consecrated as genuine by the Roman Catholic Church and without exception is also the location of a church. The history of each can be accurately traced back to its origin as such, but the veracity of their premise varies by site in certainty. Each site attracts thousands of visitors per year, including this writer who visited each a month ago.
Acts 28:13-14 describes Paul’s arrival at the port city of Puteoli saying “And thus we came to Rome.” The city, now called Pozzuoli, located about 130 miles from Rome, was already ancient at Paul’s time having been established hundreds of years before. The port has been in continuous operation and its current wharfs occupy the same proximity as those of the first century. It is a testimony to the importance of the city that it and Rhegium are the only cities in Italy other than Rome that are named in the New Testament. Here Paul is said to have found fellow believers who invited him to stay for a week before continuing on to Rome (Acts 28:12). No mention is made of how this congregation was established, or for that matter the Christian church in Rome itself. John Polhill notes the possibility that the establishment of the Roman church could have had its origins in Puteoli, but that is speculative at best. Today, a small Roman Catholic Church stands near the wharf area that was almost certainly where Paul disembarked.
The Appian Way
After Paul left Puteoli, he traveled to Rome on the Via Appia (the Appian Way), a road constructed in 312 B.C. by Appius Claudius Caecus, a Roman censor. Because of its remarkable engineering and construction, much of it is still existent and in use. One may see ruts in it that were created over time by wagon and chariot wheels. As the primary southern route into the city, the traveler would pass the Circus Maximus and the extensive Jewish section of Rome. The Bible says Paul was met on this road by believers who came from the Market of Appius and Three Inns and that their presence gave Paul encouragement (Acts 28:15).
As with Puteoli, there is no debate as to the authenticity of this road. The points of origin from which the fellow believers traveled are largely lost in obscurity, but many parts of the road itself still display the stones upon which Paul walked on his way into Rome.
Paul’s House Arrest
Once in Rome, Paul was allowed to stay by himself with the soldier who was guarding him (Acts 28:16). Further, he was accommodated in rented quarters that afforded him the ability to receive large numbers of visitors and to preach and teach with all openness, unhindered for two years (Acts 28:16-31). No other description of the lodging including its location in Rome is mentioned and Acts abruptly concludes with no reconciliation of Paul’s predicament.
Today, two Catholic churches compete as the site of Paul’s house arrest. They are San Paolo alla Regola and Santa Maria in Via Lata. Ironically, each is consecrated as the genuine site, however neither can be traced historically beyond their founding in the middle ages. San Paolo alla Regola sits next to the Tiber which has notoriously flooded over the centuries, and subsequently the new construction of houses and shops was on top of the mud packed structures resultant from the flooding. The structures today sit atop four distinct layers of buildings, the lowest of which dates back to the first century. Excavation has been done at San Paolo alla Regola revealing a home from that period, but no proof exists that it was the rented home of Paul.
While neither location can be definitively authenticated, each contribute valuably to our contextual understanding. The archeological work at San Paolo alla Regola in particular provides excellent insight to first century Roman life and helps in mapping the geography of the period. Cultural and historic nuance contributes to the deeper application of hermeneutical analysis and our Bible study is enriched by their influence.
Indirect and Extra-Biblical Site Consideration
Paul was an almost continuous traveler until he got arrested – a rather common occurrence. The two year imprisonment described in Acts twenty-eight was unusual in the sense that he enjoyed enhanced liberty apart from the soldier to which he was chained. J. B. Lightfoot, William Ramsay and many others following have written extensively about this period and (with some variation of sequence) generally agree that much of the New Testament (including Philemon, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians) might have been written during this period when Paul was required to remain in one place. There is general agreement by conservative scholars that Paul was released and conducted a fourth missionary journey, but was subsequently arrested and imprisoned under harsh conditions and eventually martyred (as especially reflected in the language of Second Timothy).
Since the time of Augustus (and perhaps as far back as 640 BC) the official state prison of Rome has been attributed to the structure (now known as Mamertine Prison) located on the northeast edge of the Roman Forum at the base of Capitoline Hill. A small Catholic church named San Giuseppe dei Falegnami was erected there in the Middle Ages and since then has been considered to be place of both Paul and Peter’s final imprisonment before their execution. If they were officially executed by the state, it is not unlikely that they were imprisoned there, but neither is it proven thereby.
Many Bible scholars believe that Second Timothy was written from there, especially given the dire tone of Paul’s writing. Having seen the site, this writer finds it hard to accept that anyone could have produced a letter from that locale for a variety of reasons. The cell area itself is a cistern deep in the ground accessible today by modern stairs, but in the time of its use prisoners accessed it by being thrown or lowered through a narrow hole in the ceiling. The conditions were wet, dark and highly unsanitary with little relief offered by the guards.
Tre Fontane Abbey
According to tradition from Eusebius on, Paul was beheaded three miles south of Rome at a site now occupied by Tre Fontane Abbey – thus named because tradition holds that Paul’s head bounced three times after decapitation and that a water spring arose at each point. Regardless of the veracity of this tradition, the springs still exists. Charles Talbert does not think the site is genuine since it can only be traced back to the sixth century as “a desire to enhance the prestige of the Abbey”, but Eusebius clearly referenced a physical place along the Ostian Way containing “the trophy of those who laid the foundation of this church” meaning the bones of Paul. That location is considered to be the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls (discussed below) which is about a mile from Tre Fontane along the Ostian Way.
The Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls
The present basilica is the largest church in Rome after St. Peter’s and was built over an original structure erected by Constantine. The ossuary of Paul was said to have been discovered during remodeling around the alter of the modern church. An inscription reading ‘To Paul, Apostle and Martyr” in Latin was found and is said to date back to the time of Constantine. The site was said to be originally owned by a Roman matron named Lucina who had Paul buried in her vineyard. Jack Finegan observed that there was otherwise little reason for a church to be built in that particular location because it was originally both swampy and a pagan cemetery.
The era of Paul in Rome was an inflection point for Christianity. The arch of Rome’s dominance was nearing its apex and it soon would be displaced in governance by institutional Christianity. In a span of less than three hundred years, from Rome’s seat of power Constantine would forever alter the trajectory of the church by legalizing and then mandating the Christian faith. A significant part of his transformative program was the consecration of physical sites that were deemed significant to the church’s foundational history. Beyond the events that occurred in these places, the sites themselves became sacred in consideration.
The sites discussed in this paper were no exception and today they are visited by thousands of people in search of proximity to the sacred. The sites of course are only locations and many may only be representative of an actual locus of history – if in fact the event occurred at all. In all of this dubious and sometimes commercialized environment, the power of God emerges. Beyond the mundane aspects of brick and mortar, the sites diminish to the powerful testimony of a life lived in service to Christ.
Paul’s longing expressed in the first chapter of Romans was that his eventual visit would facilitate the establishment of that body of believers. He certainly accomplished that wonderful goal because much of the three hundred year rise that followed his life was due in no small part to inspiration taken from his faithful obedience. By the time Constantine issued his edict, the critical mass of Christianity had organically reached a preponderance of influence. Believers today draw similar strength from Paul’s life by visiting these sites and for exactly the same reasons. The sites are valuable in incalculable ways, not from their intrinsic genuineness, but from their silent testimony of the prevailing purpose of God that was exhibited so mightily through his obedient servant Paul.
Grace and peace
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Bruce, F. F. Paul, Apostle of the Free Spirit. Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1977.
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John Mcray, Paul : His Life and Teaching (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2003), 61.
F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Free Spirit (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1977), 441-55.
Thomas D. Lea and David Alan Black, The New Testament : Its Background and Message, 2nd ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2003), 325-26.
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Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series, 14 vols. (New York,: The Christian literature company; etc., 1890), Vol 1, 123-25.
John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary, 26 (Nashville, Tenn.: Broadman Press, 1992), 536-37.
Darrell L. Bock, Acts, 746.
Richard Charles Henry Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Appostles (Columbus, Ohio.,: Lutheran book concern, 1934), 1110.
William Mitchell Ramsay, St. Paul : The Traveler and Roman Citizen, Rev. and updated ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1907), 349.
Joseph Barber Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (London,: Macmillan and co., limited, 1913), 26-27.
F. F. Bruce, Paul, Apostle of the Free Spirit, 444.
Brian Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody, The Book of Acts in Its First Century Setting, 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans ;Paternoster Press, 1994), 20-23.
Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts : A Literary and Theological Commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, Rev. ed., Reading the New Testament (Macon, Ga.: Smyth & Helwys Pub., 2005), 232.
Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Second Series, 128-30.
 F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2d ed. (London, New York,: Oxford University Press, 1974), 423.
 Jack Finegan, The Archeology of the New Testament : The Mediterranean World of the Early Christian Apostles (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press ;, 1981), 247.