BiblePlaces Newsletter

Vol 19, #2 - June 16, 2020

Volume 20: Western Mediterranean

I did not plan to release volume 20 in the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands during BiblePlaces.com’s 20th anniversary. I actually did not expect there would ever be 20 volumes. But through the years, the Lord has given us unexpected opportunities and fresh ideas, and 2020 marks the growth of the collection to 20 volumes and 20,000 photos.

The Western Mediterranean volume may not strike you as part of what we normally think of as biblical lands. It’s true that we have no certain events in the Bible that occur in ancient Gaul and Hispania (France and Spain). But this region was very much part of the biblical world, particularly in the days of the New Testament, and my appreciation for its value grew immensely in the course of this project.

The Western Mediterranean volume includes more than 1,400 photos and 25 PowerPoints. Covering the major Roman sites in Gaul (France) and Hispania (Spain), it provides a unique collection of sites and scenes from the New Testament world. Our launch price this week is $25 with immediate download and free shipping in the US. You can purchase it as DVD+download or download-only. As always, our goal is to over-deliver with this collection and I think you’ll be quite pleased with what you see.

In today’s newsletter, I want to show you how the Western Mediterranean helps the reader of the Bible to better understand and enjoy the world of the New Testament. I have too much to include in a single newsletter, so today I am going to give you part 1, and I’ll send out part 2 in the coming week. Today’s focus is on Paul’s intention to travel to Spain, and in the next newsletter, I’ll compare East and West, to show you the difference between rubble and monuments. 🙂

Todd Bolen
Photographer, BiblePlaces.com
Professor of Biblical Studies, The Master’s University

The Value of the Western Mediterranean:
Paul in Spain

The value of a photo collection of the Western Mediterranean for biblical studies may not be immediately obvious, for unlike sites in Israel, Turkey, and other regions in the Mediterranean world, there is no evidence that any biblical events occurred in ancient Gaul and Hispania. How then does this part of the ancient Roman Empire help the student or teacher of the New Testament? Today I want to mention the first of two chief contributions.

For all of Paul’s ministry recorded in Acts, he traveled through the eastern Mediterranean world—Judea, Galatia, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia. But as time passed, his heart ached for the lost in Spain, and he desired to travel there to spread the good news of Jesus Christ. To this end, he penned an epistle to the church in Rome, explaining his plans to visit them on his way to Spain and expressing his desire for their support in the mission (Romans 15:24-28).

Though the Book of Acts does not record Paul’s visit to Spain, early church fathers such as Clement of Rome and Chrysostom write that Paul traveled to Spain to bring the gospel to new lands. If this is so, Paul visited at least some of the major Roman cities in Hispania and possibly also in southern Gaul.

The city of Tarraco (modern Tarragona) on the east coast of Spain has a long tradition concerning Paul’s visit, and in 1963, a statue of Paul was erected to commemorate the 19th centenary of his arrival. Scholars continue to debate whether church tradition is accurate on this count, and a conference held in Tarragona in 2013 on The Last Years of Paul reflects the continued interest in the subject.

This statue in Tarragona commemorates Paul’s arrival in Spain in the year AD 63. Though church tradition suggests that Paul fulfilled his desire to visit Spain (Rom 15:24), scholars today are divided on the question.

Even if church tradition is wrong and Paul never arrived in Spain, a tour of the remarkable Roman remains readily reveals why Paul was so eager to travel here. These large and impressive cities were filled with people who were without hope and without God, in desperate straits apart from a Savior. Before I saw the Roman cities west of Italy, I did not grasp the great need that so spurred Paul’s passion.

A simple way of describing this to those familiar with the lands of Greece, Turkey, and Israel is that Gaul and Hispania provide a mirror image of the eastern Roman Empire. That is to say, what you find in the east in terms of Roman civilization, you also find in the west. This should not be at all surprising, but it was a reality that remained only a vague notion in my thinking until I walked the streets of Ambrussum, Italica, Vasio, and others.

This model of Tarraco shows the city and its harbor as it looked in the 2nd century AD. Pliny the Elder wrote that it was a four-day voyage from Rome to Tarraco, the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior.

Since we are not sure if Paul reached Hispania, we cannot be sure where he might have traveled. But the apostle’s missionary strategy is clear from his work in Galatia, Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Achaia—he sought out major cities where the gospel could be spread throughout the surrounding villages (cf. Acts 19:10). What then are the western equivalents of Ephesus, Philippi, Thessalonica, and Corinth?

Paul often traveled by land, and it is possible that he journeyed to Spain on the Via Domitia and over the Ambroix bridge. Today only one of eleven original arches remains of the bridge that once spanned the River Vidourle near Ambrussum.

This we can answer quite decisively. Tarraco was the capital of the Roman province of Hispania Citerior, with a large harbor easily accessible from Rome. Corduba was the capital of Hispania Baetica, situated along the important Guadalquivir River. Emerita Augusta was the capital of Lusitania, and its name commemorates Emperor Augustus who founded it in 25 BC. If Paul had pressed a little bit further, he would have reached Gades (modern Cadiz), on the shore of the Atlantic, known in Roman times as “the ends of the earth” (cf. Strabo, Geography 3.1.8; Diodorus Siculus, History 25.10.1).

In the next newsletter, I’ll explain another contribution of the Western Mediterranean photo collection: how the well-preserved remains help us to visualize the temples, theaters, triumphal arches, monuments, and aqueducts that are often poorly preserved in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. For now, continue reading to see photos of sites that Paul may have visited in Spain.

A Photo Every Day

Every weekday I choose an interesting photo from the biblical world and post it on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram. Follow us to see our latest photos as well as some classics.

Featured BiblePlaces Photos:
Paul in Spain

The featured photos this month focus on sites to which Paul likely desired to bring the gospel, whether or not he ever actually made it to Spain. We do not have any letters in the New Testament “to the church in Tarraco,” but early Christian writers claim that he visited Spain after being released from house arrest in Rome. For more photos, download the free “Paul in Spain” PowerPoint. These and more than 1,400 other photos are included in the new Western Mediterranean volume in the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands.

Tarraco Amphitheater

Church tradition suggests that Paul visited Hispania, despite no clear reference to such a trip in the New Testament. Scholars usually assume that Paul traveled to Spain via ship, and if he did, he likely docked in the harbor at Tarraco. Whether or not Paul ever reached Spain, Tarraco was certainly one of the major Roman cities that Paul was thinking of in his desire to bring the good news to Spain. The seaside amphitheater seen here was built after Paul’s time. In the 3rd century, the first recorded Christian martyrs in Tarraco were burned alive in this amphitheater.

Via Domitia and the Trophy of Pompey

It is also possible that Paul traveled to Spain by land. If so, he would have traveled on the Via Domitia—the road shown here—over the Pyrenees. The Trophy of Pompey was built on the crest of the mountains, where today’s border between France (left) and Spain (right) lies. The Via Domitia led to the top of this ridge from the north (left) and the Via Augusta continued into Hispania to the south. Some low walls remain of the Trophy of Pompey, a monument built to commemorate the Roman general Pompey’s success in quelling a revolt by the Hispanic tribes.

Imperial Temple in Emerita Augusta

Emerita Augusta was founded by Augustus in 25 BC as a veteran settlement. Less than ten years later, it was made the capital of the Roman province of Lusitania. In Paul’s desire to evangelize Spain, he likely would have considered Emerita Augusta as essential to his efforts, given its prominence in the Roman Empire and its influence as a provincial capital.

It is not known if Paul reached Spain, and if he did, if he traveled this far. On modern roads, Mérida (ancient Emerita Augusta) is located about 540 miles (900 km) from Tarragona (ancient Tarraco).

The building pictured above, traditionally known as the “temple of Diana,” more likely was built as an imperial temple. It was constructed late in the 1st century BC or early in the 1st century AD.

Gades (Cadiz) – the “Ends of the Earth”

A number of writers in the early church report that Paul traveled to Spain after being released from house arrest in Rome. Clement of Rome wrote circa AD 95 that Paul was “herald (of the Gospel of Christ) in the West,” and that “he had gone to the extremity of the west.” Chrysostom wrote, “For after he had been in Rome, he returned to Spain, but whether he came thence again into these parts, we know not.” Cyril of Jerusalem said that Paul “carried the earnestness of his preaching as far as Spain.” The Muratorian Fragment mentions “the departure of Paul from the city [of Rome] when he journeyed to Spain.”

If Paul’s intention was to travel to “the ends of the earth,” as expressed in his quotation of Psalm 19 in Romans 10:18, he may well have intended to visit Gades. A port city on the southern coast of Hispania, Gades was identified by the historian Strabo as being located “at the end of the earth” (3.1.8) and “at the most westerly point of the inhabited world” (2.5.14). Likewise, Diodorus Siculus (ca. 90–30 BC) wrote that Gades was “situated at the end of the inhabited world” (History 25.10.1).

This week you can purchase the Western Mediterranean volume at our launch price of $25, including immediate download and free shipping. This unique collection includes more than 1,400 photos and 25 PowerPoints of major Roman sites in Gaul (France) and Hispania (Spain). Purchase the collection as a DVD+download or download-only.


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All contents © 2020 Todd Bolen. Text and photographs may be used for personal and educational use with attribution. Commercial use requires written permission.