The first missionary tour of Paul and Barnabas is recorded in Acts 13–14, and near the end of this evangelistic campaign, elders were appointed in each of the newly established congregations (14:23). While most scholars postulate that the entire journey lasted only about two years or less, a major question arises. How can this be reconciled with what Paul later writes in 1 Timothy 3:6, that an elder is not to be a neophutos (a “novice” or “recent convert”)?
The problem is further complicated when one considers the amount of time that was required just for traveling. The entire journey covered a distance of about 1,400 miles or 2,240 kilometers. Realizing that rates of travel depend on variables such as road and weather conditions, terrain, and mode of transportation, what would be a reasonable approximation of how long it would have taken Paul and Barnabas to travel from Syrian Antioch, through Cyprus and southern Galatia (across the Taurus mountain range), as far east as Derbe, and then back again? A conservative estimate of travel by foot would be around 15-20 miles (20-30 km) per day, and under favorable conditions a sea voyage would cover 112-168 miles (180-270 km) per day. Assuming the missionaries made optimal time as they journeyed by land and by sea, the amount of time required merely to travel this distance would have been approximately two months.
The next question is, how long was needed for congregations to have been established and organized (with qualified elders) in the cities of Pisidian Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra? This, of course, does not count Derbe, where “many disciples” were made but elders may not have been appointed at this time. Neither does it count the city of Perga or the various communities in Cyprus or the “surrounding region” of Lycaonia, where the gospel was proclaimed with no definitive record of church plantings at this time. The frequently asserted less-than-two-years estimation, minus two months of travel and minus the time spent evangelizing in other areas, then divided among the three Pisidian and Lycaonian cities, seems to squeeze the allotted time (only a few months in each place) beyond realistic possibilities. I would suggest that the problem has been created not by the biblical record but by narrow human “guesstimations.” The apparent dilemma crumbles if the brief period commonly allotted to this missionary endeavor is seen as an unwarranted and unfortunate miscalculation.
A more reasonable timeframe can be determined by considering the historical markers that stand on each end of the journey. The 12th chapter of Acts concludes with the death of Herod Agrippa I (v. 23), which we know from secular history occurred in early March AD 44 (Josephus, Ant. 19.8.2). Luke’s account then gives the impression that Barnabas and Paul departed for their first missionary campaign around this time or shortly thereafter (12:25–13:3), providing a relatively sure starting point.
After their evangelistic tour, the next major event was the meeting of the apostles and elders in Jerusalem (Acts 15). There has been much discussion among scholars about the date of this conference, with most suggesting 48 or 49, although few attempt to explain why this particular date is given. By proceeding further in the biblical record, however, and noting more of Luke’s historical information and then calculating in reverse, the Jerusalem council should actually be dated later than what is commonly assumed.
According to Acts 18:11, Paul spent at least eighteen months in Corinth. His arrival was sometime after the edict of Claudius expelling Jews from Rome (v. 2), and his departure was before the end of Gallio’s proconsulship (v. 12). We learn from extrabiblical sources that Claudius issued his decree around 49 (Orosius, Historiae 7.6.15-16) and that Gallio began his one-year office in Achaia in the summer of 51 (based on an inscription discovered at Delphi and published in 1905). From this evidence and other chronological data, we can determine that Paul arrived in Corinth around autumn of 50 and departed in spring of 52.
Counting backwards from late autumn 50 (as travel would have been more restricted in winter), how much time would be necessary to get Paul back to where he started? Notice that he appears to have been in Athens, Berea, Thessalonica, and Philippi only briefly, not due to planned strategy but because of a general lack of receptivity in Athens and forced departures from the other places (Acts 16:12–18:1). Although we do not know exactly how long the apostle spent in these locations, allowing up to a month in each of the above cities, estimating travel time from Jerusalem via Syrian Antioch, and including preaching stops along the way, the Jerusalem conference can readily be dated in early 50. Moreover, this timeframe is consistent with other chronological data if the three years of Galatians 1:18 and the fourteen years of Galatians 2:1 are added consecutively.
Now with relatively fixed dates on either end of the first missionary journey, what conclusions can be drawn? Acts 12 closes with events that occurred in the spring of 44, and the opening of Acts 15 can reasonably be dated early 50, therefore Acts 13–14 accounts for about six years. This establishes a more reasonable timeframe for the first missionary tour, and it also accords well with information recorded elsewhere of Paul staying extended periods at mission points where he was not compelled to leave (cf. Acts 18:11; 20:31).
Matters of Pauline chronology notwithstanding, the alleged discrepancy between Acts 14:23 and 1 Timothy 3:6 is more apparent than real. That a new convert could realistically acquire the qualifications of an elder in just a few months is unlikely (cf. Hebrews 5:13-14), but a few years (as seems to have been the case in Acts 13–14) is evidently possible.
We also learn something about the missionary strategy of Paul and Barnabas that is quite different from what is sometimes practiced today. When they reached Derbe, the end of their evangelistic trail, it would have been much shorter, quicker, easier, and safer for them to have carried on eastward, through the passes of the Taurus mountains to Paul’s hometown of Tarsus, boarded a ship for a brief voyage to Seleucia, where it was only 16 miles (25 km) further to their home base in Syrian Antioch. There they could have successfully reported the number of baptisms that had resulted from their concerted mission.
Apparently, however, the baptisms were not meant to be the sum total of this outreach effort. Rather, the evangelists returned to the cities where churches had been started, despite the difficulties and hardships previously encountered, “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith, and saying, ‘We must through many tribulations enter the kingdom of God’” (Acts 14:21-22 NKJV). Further, as has already been noted, “when they had appointed elders in every church, and prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed” (v. 23).
Six grueling years of preaching the gospel, making disciples, and establishing autonomous churches: this sums up the first missionary journey of Paul and Barnabas. And the report given to their sending congregation did not focus on what the missionaries themselves had accomplished but on “all that God had done with them . . .” (Acts 14:27). This serves as an exemplary model for missionary activity today. The Great Commission is not fulfilled when people are insufficiently taught, prematurely baptized, and then left to fend for themselves because Christian workers are in too much of a hurry to get back to the comforts of home.
The first missionary journey, like those that followed, was an extensive church-planting mission. We see what the Lord can accomplish when the initial saving of souls is accompanied by sufficient follow-up work, i.e. an investment of the necessary time and energy that ensures the establishment of faithful, growing, self-sustaining communities of believers. As we continue the noble task of seeking and saving the lost, realizing that missionary work has never been easy, let us avoid the allure of short cuts that only produce the temporary appearance of “success.” Rather, may we learn from and utilize biblical methodology – tried and tested by the first Christian missionaries and clearly validated by the Lord of the harvest.