Formerly the Gospel was always seen in Acts as going out from Jerusalem, but from chapter 13 and onward, Luke has it going out from Antioch, and he is silent about Jerusalem’s activities. Antioch was the third largest city in the Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria. As in every major city of the Empire, Antioch was the home of a large Jewish colony, which attracted many gentile God-fearers and proselytes. It was here in Antioch that the first predominantly Christian church arose, and it was here where we were first called Christian. Luke tells us now of how Antioch began to send out emissaries with the Good News outward to Cyprus, Asia Minor and eventually to Europe. The new age of God’s rule extending to the uttermost parts of the earth began to take shape at this time and from this city.
Luke tells us that Barnabas and Saul were chosen by the Holy Spirit to represent Christ to both Diaspora Jews and non-Jews, carrying his word to gentile communities which heretofore had never heard of Jesus. One might ask, when in the 1st century CE should we place this first journey; how long did it last; and how long was it before Barnabas and Saul (Paul by that time) decided to go on their second journey?
We are told in Acts 11:25-26 that Barnabas went to Cilicia to find Saul and brought him back to Antioch where they both taught the new gentile Christians for a whole year. So, both Saul and Barnabas were numbered with the ‘prophets and teachers’ of Antioch (Acts 13:1) for at least a year. The Greek states specifically that the year was complete or fulfilled in their labor of teaching. Does the text imply that they didn’t teach much longer than a full year? That is difficult to say, because elsewhere the Greek word translated year has the meaning of season that lasted a longer time than a year (cp. Luke 4:19; John 11:49; 18:13). So whether it means a little over a year or a season lasting two or three years, they fulfilled their time in doing so and were comfortable with entrusting the new Christians to the leadership of the local elders. If Saul’s later missions are any help to understand how long this young church was tutored by Barnabas and Saul, Paul, as he was soon to be known, spent two years in Asia (Acts 19:10), and if we include the time he spent taking up the offering for Jerusalem, in which time he also sent the churches epistles (some of which may not be extant), it was three years before Paul finally bid them farewell (Acts 20:31). So, I believe we can give the sense of two or three years to what Luke says in Acts 11:26, and understand Luke to mean season rather than 12 months.
We are also told in Acts 11:27-28 that during this season ‘prophets from Jerusalem’ came down to Antioch and prophesied of a coming famine that would be particularly difficult for folks in Judea. Luke says this occurred during the reign of Claudius Caesar, implying either word had not yet come to Antioch that Caligula was dead and Claudius replaced him or that they had just received word of those events, and they didn’t know how long Claudius’ reign would be. Since Claudius’ reign began in January of 41 CE, we cannot date the coming of the prophets from Jerusalem to Antioch much after the Passover of 41 CE. Nevertheless, if the prophets from Jerusalem came to Antioch just after Saul and Barnabas began to teach the church, and if they began in 41 CE just before or just after news of Claudius’ reign reached them, we may stretch that season to the spring of 43 CE or even 44 CE, if their teaching lasted for three years.
This would mean that what is traditionally called Saul’s first missionary journey may have begun about a month or two before or just after the Passover of 43 CE, or about the same time of year in 44 CE, which would place the team’s journey just before or about the time Peter fled Jerusalem after his escape from Agrippa and a few months before Herod’s death. The latter date is probably the more likely of the two. Both dates are probably two to three years earlier than most scholars like to date their journey, but I don’t see the scriptures leaving that much room for a later date. So, if Barnabas and Saul set out on their evangelistic outreach in the spring of 44 CE, they wouldn’t have returned before the spring of 46 or 47 CE, if we take into consideration that two to three years was an intended outline of their evangelistic plan.
I hope to show in later blogs that Paul (as he was known by this time) didn’t return to Jerusalem until the time of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, and this occurred at the beginning of the worst part of the famine predicted by Agabus and the other prophets in Acts 11:28. Although Barnabas may have returned to Jerusalem before this time without Paul, Paul didn’t go to Jerusalem until the spring of 48 CE or fourteen years after he met the Lord on the way to Damascus (cp. Galatians 2:1). That would have been the year of the Jerusalem Council and the worst part of the famine. It was probably after the Passover the next year (49 CE) that Paul and Barnabas intended to return to the churches in Galatia to see how they were getting along (cp. Acts 15:36).