The Mediterranean World of the New Testament
By the 1st century AD the Roman Empire surrounded the Mediterranean Sea, extending eastward from the far western frontier of Spain all the way to North Africa, Judea, and Syria. During the Lord’s earthly ministry, while concentrating mainly on Galilee and Judea, his influence and teachings impacted lives as far north as Syria, as far east as the Decapolis and Perea, as far south as Idumea, and all in between (Matt. 4:24-25; Mark 3:7-8)—a radius of approx. 18,000 square miles (29,000+ sq. kms). Even so, Christ’s message is universal in scope and was ultimately designed to reach “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; 13:47, author's own translation).
The book of Acts covers the first 32 years of the Christian mission, and when the historical narrative closes, Christianity has spread as far as Italy but no definitive record is given of the gospel having reached areas west of Rome, east of Syria, or south of Palestine. However, Acts was not intended to be an intricately detailed account of every single event that occurred in the early church (cf., e.g., Gal. 1:15–2:14; 2 Cor. 11:24-29). Whatever did not suit Luke’s immediate purpose was naturally excluded. Nevertheless, there are indications that the Christian movement did extend farther (Acts 2:5-11; 8:4, 27, 39).
Places mentioned in Acts where the gospel was definitely preached, although no specific reference is made as to when or by whom this initially occurred, include Galilee (Acts 9:31), Cilicia (Acts 15:23), various parts of Syria (Acts 9:2, 10; 15:23; 21:3-4, 7),1 Cappadocia and Pontus (Acts 2:10; cf. 1 Pet. 1:1), Bithynia (Acts 16:7; cf. 1 Pet. 1:1), multiple cities of Asia Minor (Acts 16:8-11; 19:10; 20:6-12; cf. Col. 1:2; 4:13-16; Rev. 1:11), Cenchrea (Acts 18:18; cf. Rom. 16:1), Crete (Acts 2:11; 27:7-8; cf. Tit. 1:5), and in Italy—Puteoli and Rome (Acts 28:13-15).
Places mentioned in Acts where the gospel was likely preached, although no specific reference is made as to when or by whom this occurred, include Arabia (Acts 2:11; cf. Gal. 1:17), the eastern regions of Parthia, Media, Elam, and Mesopotamia (Acts 2:9), as well as the African nations of Egypt (Acts 2:10; 18:24), Libya and Cyrene (Acts 2:10; cf. 11:20; 13:1), and Ethiopia (Acts 8:27, 39).
Places not mentioned in Acts where the gospel definitely spread include the city of Nicopolis in northwest Greece (Tit. 3:12),2 and the province of Illyricum (Rom. 15:19)—northwest of Macedonia,3 the southern part of which was Dalmatia (2 Tim. 4:10). Of the places not mentioned in Acts where the gospel potentially spread, Spain would be included in the west (Rom. 15:24, 28), and Scythia in the east (Col. 3:11).4
While there are a number of general statements in Paul’s writings about the widespread dissemination of the gospel,5 early in 62 he claims that the gospel had been diffused “in all the world …. among all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:5-6, 23). Hyperbolic expression notwithstanding, the extent of the gospel’s proclamation seems to have been much greater than what is specifically documented in the New Testament. Evidence of churches in various areas of the world in the 2nd century (and beyond) further suggests origins dating back to the 1st century.
After congregations of the Lord’s church were established in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (Acts 1:8; 9:31), the gospel was taken farther north to the Roman province of Syria, particularly the cities of Damascus (Acts 9:2, 10), Antioch (Acts 11:19), Tyre (Acts 21:3-4), and Ptolemais (Acts 21:7). The gospel also spread westward to the island-province of Cyprus (Acts 11:19; 13:4) and possibly to Cyrene in N. Africa (Acts 11:19). In Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), the southern provinces seem to have been reached first, viz. Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 41), Galatia (Acts 13–14), and Asia (Acts 18:19–19:10; Rev. 1:11). Eventually there were established churches in the northern provinces of Cappadocia, Pontus and Bithynia as well (1 Pet. 1:1). Farther west, across the Aegean Sea, the gospel spread to the province of Macedonia, viz. the cities of Philippi, Thessalonica, and Berea (Acts 16:12–17:15); also the Achaia province, viz. the cities of Athens (Acts 17:34), Corinth (Acts 18:1-18), and Cenchrea (Rom. 16:1). At some point Paul was able to take the gospel as far north as the Illyricum province (Rom. 15:19; cf. 2 Tim. 4:10).
By the mid-1st century there were established congregations in the capital city of Rome and nearby Puteoli (Rom. 1:7; Acts 28:13-15), which may have been planted by ethnic Jews and proselytes converted to Christ in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:10; 8:4). The outermost western province was Spain [Lat. Hispania], and Paul expressed his desire to take the gospel there with the help of his Roman brethren (Rom. 15:23-29). While unforeseen circumstances altered the original plan, it is entirely possible that he went on to achieve this goal after his first Roman imprisonment; it would have taken less than a week to sail from Italy to Spain.6
Clement of Rome, near the end of the 1st century, affirms that Paul preached the gospel in the extreme west of the Roman Empire, which at the time would have included Spain (I Clement 5.1-7). The 2nd-century Muratorian Fragment (lines 38-39) and Acts of Peter (chap. 3) take Paul’s Spanish journey for granted, as do the 4th-century testimonies of Cyril of Jerusalem (Cat. Lect. 17.26), John Chrysostom (2 Tim. Homily 10), and later Jerome (Amos 5).
Whenever Paul includes geographical references in his letters, he is almost certainly recalling the names and faces and stories of those he dearly loved in these places. When he speaks of Macedonia, for example, it is not the provincial or geographical locality that interests or concerns him, but the Macedonians themselves (2 Cor. 9:2, 4) and the churches of Macedonia in particular (2 Cor. 8:1). These congregations were comprised of individuals whom Paul knew personally and cared for deeply.7
2 The location of this city is uncertain, since different cities shared this same name in various places, including Asia, Africa, and Europe. It is plausible that this particular Nicopolis was in Thrace (near the borders of Macedonia) or in Cilicia, but more likely in the province of Epirus in NW Greece.
3 Present-day N. Albania, Montenegro, Bosnia, and coastal Croatia.
4 Eastern Iranians around the Black Sea: modern-day SE Ukraine, S. Russia, W. Kazakhstan; according to tradition, evangelized by the apostles Andrew and Philip.
5 1 Thess. 1:8 (AD 50-51); Rom. 1:8; 10:18; 15:23 (AD 56-57).
6 See K. L. Moore, “The Background of the Letters to Timothy and Titus,” in Entrusted With the Faith (2018 FHU Lectureship Book, ed. D. Y. Burleson): 79-82.
7 See K. L. Moore, “The Macedonians Had Names,” Moore Perspective (20 May 2015), <Link>.