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Cyprus in the New Testament

June 2006 | by Nigel Faithfull

After being ruled by Egypt from 570 BC, Cyprus was enslaved to King Cyrus of Persia before becoming part of the Greek empire – which lasted until about 58 BC when the Romans took over until AD 330.

 

Barnabas

 

A letter from King Agrippa (Acts 25:13) to a certain Caius says, ‘Jerusalem was the metropolis of many regions’ and ‘there are Jewish colonies in Cyprus and Crete’. Barnabas, a Levite, came from such a Cypriot Jewish community (Acts 4:36). Although Levites were not allowed to own land in Israel, they could purchase it elsewhere. Thus Barnabas sold land and laid the proceeds at the apostles’ feet (Acts 4:36).

Barnabas was true to his name (it meant ‘son of consolation’, ‘son of exhortation’ or ‘son of prophecy’) and at Syrian Antioch (now Antakya in Turkey) he ‘encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts’ (Acts 11:23).

 

Saul’s help enlisted

 

In need of help at Antioch, Barnabas fetched Saul from Tarsus (Acts 11:25). They laboured together for a whole year, and it was here that the disciples were first called ‘Christians’.

When famine broke out during the reign of Claudius, Barnabas and Saul took gifts from the disciples at Antioch to their suffering brothers in Judea. At this time, Queen Helena of Adiabene (a Parthian state now part of Iraq), a convert to Judaism, bought figs from Cyprus and corn from Alexandria to feed the hungry Judaeans.

Barnabas and Saul returned to Antioch bringing John Mark as their helper (Acts 12:25), and became established as prophets and teachers. Set apart for an evangelistic ministry (Acts 13:1-3), the two missionaries and Mark sailed for Salamis in Cyprus, 135 miles to the south-west, in about AD 46.

 

Salamis

 

In the seventh century BC, Salamis was the first city of Cyprus. It was sacked in the Jewish revolt of AD 115-7 and later destroyed by earthquakes. It was rebuilt by the Emperor Constantius II (reigned AD 337-361) and named Constantia. It now lies in ruins again, which can be visited 10 km north of Famagusta.

The missionaries found several synagogues in Salamis in which they proclaimed the word of God (Acts 13:5). From here they travelled westwards through the whole island until they came to Paphos. The coastal route would have been about 125 miles, but they may have visited inland towns and villages as well.

 

Paphos (Pafos)

 

The Romans established Paphos as the capital city of Cyprus. Old Paphos (12 miles east of New Paphos) was originally a Phoenician settlement with a shrine which was later dedicated in the Mycaenean period to Aphrodite and yet later to Venus by the Romans. Old Paphos was deserted in the fourth century.

New Paphos survived and is now known as Kitma and Kato Paphos (Upper and Lower Paphos). The former lies inland on a hillside, from which one can look out towards the town and harbour at Kato Paphos.

The Romans built a large complex of villas at Paphos, which was expanded in the second century to include an odeon. The most remarkable features of this World Heritage Site are the mosaic floors.

The largest structure to have been uncovered in Cyprus so far (The House of Theseus, 120 x 90 metres) was constructed in the second century over an existing villa, and remained in use until devastated by earthquake in the seventh century. It boasts a striking circular mosaic depicting Theseus slaying the Minotaur.

It was a villa publica, and probably the residence of the Roman governor. The previous villa on this spot may well have been occupied by Sergius Paulus.

 

Sergius Paulus

 

Sergius Paulus served for three years as proconsul of Cyprus until AD 47, when (according to an inscription on a boundary stone at Rome) Claudius made him Curator of the banks and channel of the River Tiber.

Luke portrays him as an intelligent man who wanted to hear the Word of God (Acts 13:7). His attendant, a Jew called Bar-Jesus, or Elymas (derived from the Persic Aleem, a doctor or learned man) practised sorcery and claimed to be a prophet.

Elymas could see his favoured position being eroded when Sergius invited Barnabas and Saul to explain their message. Elymas opposed the Word of God and tried to turn Sergius away from the faith – but was stricken by temporary blindness for his deceit and perversion of God’s Word (Acts 13:11). Amazed, Sergius confirmed his personal belief in the gospel.

 

Christianity in Paphos

 

Near the harbour a small lane leads to the ruins of one of the largest Christian basilicas in Cyprus, the Chrysopolitissa. The first church on this site dates from the third century, and had mosaics with geometric designs and Christian symbolic scenes.

The present sixteenth-century cruciform church of Agia Kyriaki is used jointly by Catholics and Anglicans. A broken marble column bears a notice declaring it to be ‘St Paul’s pillar’ – where he reputedly received 39 lashes prior to the conversion of Sergius Paulus.

We know Paul received this terrible punishment five times from the Jews (2 Corinthians 11:24), but Luke would surely have recorded this fact had it happened here in Paphos.

There is a local Paphos Christian Fellowship International (PCFi) – an international fellowship of Christians from many denominations (www.pcficyprus.org).

 

John Mark

 

Leaving Paphos, the missionaries sailed 200 miles north west to Attalia (now Adalia), a port serving Perga in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13; 14:25). From now on Luke refers to ‘Paul and his companions’ rather than ‘Barnabas and Saul’ (Acts 13:13) – indicating the emergence of Paul, with a new name, as the leading apostle to the Gentiles.

Here John Mark left to return to Jerusalem. Paul considered this a dereliction of duty (Acts 15:36-41) but Barnabas later defended the young man (Acts 15:16-38). No doubt Barnabas was moved by family ties (Mark was Barnabas’ nephew or cousin).

Mark’s mother was the Mary in whose house the disciples met to pray after Peter’s imprisonment (Acts 12:12), and was wealthy enough to have a servant girl, Rhoda.

Mark later returned to Cyprus on a mission with Barnabas (Acts 15:39) and wrote the Gospel that bears his name.

This is an example of perseverance in the face of past difficulties. So also we must continue in the Lord’s service even if there have been disagreements with fellow­believers. Later, Paul himself would write, ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry’ (2 Timothy 4:11).

 

The last word

 

After his third missionary journey Paul returned to Jerusalem and lodged with a Jewish Cypriot called Mnason – who may have been converted at Pentecost because he is called an early, or original, disciple. The last mention of Cyprus in the New Testament is when Paul sailed past on his journey to Rome (Acts 27:4).

But our short excursion into the history of Cyprus shows how the Scriptures are rooted in history. They are not myths, dreams or fairy tales but real events that happened to real people in real places.