Evidence for the Circulation of Paul’s letters in Africa in the Second Century CE

One thing we do not know a lot about (and wish that we did) is the history of the nascent Christian movement in northern Africa. While there are a few scattered references to people from that part of the Mediterranean Basin in the NT (Acts 2.10; Apollos, Acts 18.24; Simon from Cyrene, Mark 15.21), our only early extant Christian historiographical work, Acts, traces the history of what became known as Christianity from its beginnings in Jerusalem to its spread in Asia Minor, Greece, and Luke ends his work with Paul in Rome. As a result, we are abysmally ignorant of how Christianity spread in northern Africa, what difficulties the movement had, and what their Christianity looked like.
Despite this dearth of evidence, there are a few tiny fragments that shed a little bit of light upon Christianity in that part of the world within a first 150 years of the movement. For example, we have a record of the legal proceedings of a trial of Christians in Carthage that Roman authorities conducted, which is dated 180 CE. The legal proceeding begins with a detailed date, which is followed by questions from the proconsul of the province of Africa, Vigellius Saturninus, and the responses of six Christians. What interests me about this work is that at one point the proconsul Saturninus asks, “What are the things in your box?” To which one Christian named Speratus answered, “The Books, and the letters of Paul, a just man” (R. Knopf, Ausgewählte Märtyrerakten, no. 6; translation taken from Lewis and Reinhold, Roman Civilization , 2.565).
While neither Speratus elaborates on his answer nor Saturninus asks qualifying questions, there are a few things that we can glean from this statement.
First, the Christians in Carthage viewed Paul as authoritative for their faith and practice. This is evident in that they kept “the letters of Paul” with what they referred to as “the Books” in a box. As a result, within 120 years of Paul’s death, as least some of his letters (unfortunately we are not told how many), made their way from the churches to which he wrote them to the Roman province of Africa and more specifically to Carthage. This is amazing considering the location of Carthage to the cities in which Paul’s churches existed! (see map below) Moreover, Speratus notes that Paul was a just man.
Notice the location of Carthage compare to Asia Minor, Greece, and even Rome
Second, and somewhat related to my first observation, this is proof that Paul’s letters (once again we are not told how many) circulated as a corpus of writings among early Christians, and not just among the churches that Paul founded.
Third, it seems that these Christians made a distinction between “the Books” and “the letters of Paul.” There is no way for us to know to what Books these Christians are referring. It could be some gospels or, as I am more inclined to think, it could refer to the writings of the Old Testament.

Finally, it is interesting to think about what Speratus does not say. He does not say that the box contains any gospels, letters from any other person except Paul, or the book of Revelation. Did these Christians know about gospels, letters from other people besides Paul, or the book of Revelation? Did they consider them authoritative or not? Furthermore, and something I have stressed from the beginning of this post, Speratus does not say how many letters of Paul are in the box. Thus we have no idea which letters he considered authoritative. That Speratus did not mention how many letters or to whom those letters were addressed is to be expected since he is addressing a non-Christian Roman proconsul who could care less about the intricacies of Christianity. Nevertheless, this reference still begs the question, how did they come to possess Paul’s letters?

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