Barnabas and Saul having fulfilled their commission at Jerusalem, returned to Antioch, taking with them that John, otherwise called Mark, the house of whose mother, Mary, was first visited by Peter on his deliverance from prison. Mark was nephew to Barnabas, and as his father seems to have been dead, the care of him necessarily devolved upon his uncle, who probably wished to introduce the young man into the labors of the Gospel under his own eye, with probably an ulterior intention of making him acquainted with his relations in Cyprus.
It is to be noted that, from this time forward, the sacred historian confines himself almost exclusively to the proceedings of Saul.
Soon after their return, it was intimated to the Church at Antioch by the Spirit, on a day which had been set apart for prayer and fasting, that Saul and Barnabas were to go forth upon a missionary expedition. They were accordingly set apart for this service; and we soon find them, still accompanied by Mark, proceeding down the Orontes, unless they preferred the shorter route by land to Seleucia, which was lately mentioned as the port of Antioch. They went to Seleucia in order to take passage for the island of Cyprus, which, in a clear day, is visible, from this place, and with a fair wind might be reached in a few hours. They landed at Salamis, which had formerly, under the Greeks, been the metropolis of the island, and was still its chief port and commercial town, though the seat of government seems to have been removed to Paphos, at its opposite extremity. There, and throughout this journey, it seems that the Gospel was only preached in the Jewish synagogues; and indeed it appears to have been the general practice to make to the Jews the first offer of its blessings. As a maritime commercial town, the Jews probably formed a large proportion of the population of Salamis.
From Salamis the apostles travelled the whole length of the island to Paphos, a place famous for its splendid temple to Venus, who was worshipped throughout the island, whence her designation of “Cyprian goddess,” and “Paphian goddess.” Here was the seat of the Roman governor, who at this time was Sergius Paulus, described as “a prudent,” or rather, “an intelligent or open-minded man.” Notwithstanding this, he had given his confidence to a Jewish impostor, named Bar-Jesus, who had taken upon him the Arabian title of Elymas, magian, or wise man. This title, originally, and then still properly, applicable to sages, learned men, and philosophers, was also affected by charlatans and pretenders to occult knowledge, just as, at this day, quacks in medicine call themselves by the goodly names of “doctors” and “professors.” The term is hence used in a good, an indifferent, or a bad sense in Scripture, just as, even in our own language, “a wise man,” which is the highest of characters, does also, in a popular acceptation, denote a fortune-teller—one who professes by his arts to be able to disclose hidden things. This latter sense seems to be reflected from that of wizard (wise-ard), a word of similarly equivocal import with that of “wise man,” and together illustrating well the indefinite sense of the term magus, which, in both senses, has exactly the same meaning. The Scriptural sense is usually indicated by the context; and in the present instance the bad sense appears from the fact that Bar-Jesus is expressly designated as a “false prophet.”
But it may well be asked how a man of this sort could acquire such influence and close connection, as Bar-Jesus possessed, with a Roman of the rank and character of Sergius Paulus?
To explain this, it is necessary to point out that such hold upon the Gentile mind, as the old systems of heathen philosophy, and the old customs of heathen belief, may have once possessed, had at this time been broken up, for all practical uses of comfort or confidence, and a general disbelief and unrest pervaded the public thought. Cast adrift from their old stays, which gave way before the pressure of advancing intelligence and cultivation, the minds of men floated listlessly upon the dark waters of skepticism, or sank in sullen despair into their depths. But it was not thus with all. Very many minds, still craving for the rest not to be found at home, sought it among foreign gods, and occult rites, and fertile superstitions; and since the ancient oracles were dumb, they sought light for their feet in the astrologies, the necromancies, the soothsayings, the various strange and marvellous beliefs and systems offered in large profusion by the prolific East, so recently opened up to Western knowledge by the Roman conquests and consolidations. Hence the writings of this period abound in painful disclosures of the most deadening skepticism, and the most lurid superstition—not always separated, but often united in the same individuals: for let men say what they will, and however great may seem the contradiction, skepticism has always been more superstitious than faith. In this state of things grew up a number of impostors and pretenders, of various descriptions and qualities suited to all classes of people, who swarmed in all the chief places of human concourse. The East poured them forth in abundance, avenging its conquest by material arms by enslaving the minds of the conquerors. Palestine claimed its share of the prey. Very many runagate Jews, trading in the reputation of their ancient prophets, came forth as foretellers of things to come, and disclosers of mysteries. And these too were of all sorts—from the grave and scholarly persons who, like Bar-Jesus, made emperors and proconsuls their prey; down to the gipsy like Jewess who whispers in the ear of the Roman lady that she will tell her fortune, for that she being a high-priest’s daughter, Note: She might make this claim—but no Jewess could make that claim which, in true Roman haughty ignorance of Judaism, the satirist ascribes to her, of being “high priestess of the tree.” Conscious of this, Dryden translates—
A high-priest’s daughter she.”
A priestess she,
An hierarch of the consecrated tree.” is versed in the arcana of the Jewish law, and well able, therefore, to interpret the will of heaven; for this she needs but to have her hand crossed with money, however sparingly, for “the Jews,” adds the satirist, Note: Juvenal. Sat. vi. 540-546. to whom we owe this latter description, “will, for the smallest coin, sell you what fortunes you desire.”
For the confirmation of these positions, and of the picture of the state of the heathen world which Paul himself gives at the commencement of his Epistle to the Romans, a large collection of positive facts and authentic declarations is given in an able and instructive essay by a German theologian of high name, Note: Professor Tholuck On the Nature and Moral Influence of Heathenism, especially among the Greeks and Romans, viewed in the light of Christianity. Translated by Dr. Emerson, in the American Biblical Repository for 1852. from which we may condense a few particulars.
Already, before the birth of Christ, the belief in a future state appears to have been lost among the cultivated Romans. Cato and Caesar confessed in the senate, that the belief in a future existence was fabulous, and that beyond the grave neither joy nor sorrow were to be expected. Caesar declared—“Ultra nec curae neque gaudio locum esse.” Cato highly approved of these words; for he said—“Caius Caesar has just spoken in this assembly well and strikingly concerning life and death, declaring those things to be false, as I also think them, which are related of the infernal world, that the wicked are separated from the virtuous, and inhabit terrific, loathsome, shocking uncultivated places.”
A still more melancholy declaration of despairing unbelief is given by the elder Pliny, who, after scouting the idea of a providence in human affairs, goes on thus—“Still, it is of use in human life to believe that God takes care of human things and that punishments, though sometimes late (since God is so much occupied in his vast cares, will never fail of being inflicted on crimes; and that man is not therefore the most nearly allied by birth to the Deity, in order that he should be next to the brutes in debasement. But it is the special consolation of imperfect human nature, that God cannot indeed do all things. For neither can he call death to his own relief, should he desire it—a noble refuge which he has given to man in the midst of so many evils; nor can he endow man with immortality, etc.; by which things the power of nature is doubtless declared, and that is what we call God.” Note: Hist. Nat. Lib. ii. ch. 7.
It was impossible that the inferior multitude should remain uninfected by this loosening of all belief. Servius, in a note on Virgil’s Aeneid, remarks, expressly, that “unbelief is equally spread among the high and the low.” The lines of Juvenal are well known:
“Esse aliquos manes, et subterranæ regna,
Et catum, et Stygio ranas in gurgite nignas
Nee pueri credunt, nisi qui nondum ære lavantur.” Note: Sat. ii. 149. Thus rendered, or rather paraphrased, by Gifford—
“That angry justice formed a dreadful hell,
That ghosts in subterraneous regions dwell,
That hateful Styx his sable current rolls,
And Charon ferries o’er unbodied souls,
Are now as tales or idle fables prized,
By children questioned, and by men despised.”
So Seneca says: “No one is any longer so much a child that he must be shown there is no Cerberus nor Tartarus.”
While now on the one hand the educated and the uneducated suffered themselves to be deceived by the infidelity of their times, another and a larger portion—and in some measure the same portion—of the people threw themselves into the arms of the most unbounded superstition, as had already been done by the philosophers. The first effect of this superstition was, that men were not content with their own and the Grecian gods, but brought to Rome the gods of all lands and worshipped them. They gloomily felt the incapacity of their own gods to satisfy; they fancied they could supply the want by increasing the number; and the more foreign the deity, the more did their excited minds promise themselves from it. To the unhappy heathen, who were running, in the disquietude of their hearts, now to the heathen temple, now to the Jewish synagogue, an affecting address was made by Commodianus, a simple and unaffected Christian of Africa: “They must not, in the disquietude of their hearts, seek for rest there; the true and real peace of mind can be imparted to them only through Christ.”
Since the number of gods was in this manner continually increasing, it was natural, too, that the superstitious worship of them, and the multitude of their priests, and temples, and rites, should increase above all measure. Thus in Lucian, Momus is made to say: “Thou Apollo, with thine oracles, art no longer alone celebrated; but every stone and every alter utter responses; every stone, at least, upon which oil has been poured, and which is crowned with a garland, and has beside it a juggler, of which there are now so many.” The more abominable vice and licentiousness became, on the one hand, the more did men yield themselves up, on the other, to superstition, in order to quiet conscience and appease the gods. Indeed, why should we wonder at the mass of superstition among the common people, and in later ages, when such man as Augustus, the Roman Emperor, could dread to be alone in the night; when he was afraid of thunder and lightning, like a child, and carried about with him magical remedies in order to avert these dangers; and when, too, he was frightened, whenever he happened in the morning, instead of his right shoe, to put on his left shoe first. Note: Suetonius, Vita Augusti. C. 78, 90, 91, 92.
Particularly pernicious under this state of things was the influence of the enormous multitude of soothsayers, interpreters of signs and of lightning, astrologers, palmisters, and necromancers. These all ministered to the ungovernable passions of the populace, who tormented by a thousand anxieties and cares for the consequences of their own vices or the wickedness of others, longed to penetrate the darkness of futurity. In this form of superstition, heathenism was particularly distinguished. The Indians, Persians, Egyptians, Gauls, and Germans, had their soothsayers; and among the Greeks and Romans this art had been carried to such an extent, that a hundred different kinds of divination are enumerated. The great kept astrologers and soothsayers continually by them in their palaces; and the case before us is, therefore, very far from being a rare instance of the practice.