It’s always odd when you see something in a text that seems incredibly out of place. I took a lot of Latin in high school and college. I remember the first time I was doing some translation and ran across the word Britannia. I looked up the word in the Latin dictionary to see that it was the Roman word for Great Britain.
I don’t know about you, but when I think of ancient Rome, I somehow don’t think of Great Britain having been a thing. Or maybe I thought they would have been familiar with the region, but that it would have had a different name or something. I don’t know. It was just a really unexpected thing to come across.
A similar experience happened when I was going through the book of Galatians for the first time. In the opening chapter, Paul is telling the story of his conversion, and he randomly says that after he became a Christian, he went down to “Arabia” for three years to, in a sense, figure out what this Gospel was that he would bring to the Gentiles. This is a very odd gap in the understanding of Paul’s life, and no scholar has any idea what he was doing in this time. But, more oddly, Arabia? Again, another regional name I wasn’t expecting to see casually thrown into a Mediterranean-based ancient biblical text.
I bring all of this up because I had this happen to me again recently. For my Hebrew class, I’ve been spending the past six months or so deep into the four chapters of Jonah. For my final paper, I had to spend some time doing a bunch of research into the book.
Now, most people know the story of Jonah. God comes to his prophet and tells him to cry out against the city of Nineveh because their evil had arisen before his face. Nineveh is, presumably, to the East of where Jonah is. So naturally, Jonah instead heads West to “Tarshish”. Apparently, it’s a big scholarly discussion as to where exactly “Tarshish” is.
In my reading, I saw that most scholars think that Tarshish, in fact Spain. Now, I was not expecting that. Once more, I just didn’t think that part of the world was within the purview of ancient Israelites. It reminded me of another odd appearance of Spain in the Scriptures.
It randomly appears in Romans. Paul is giving his goodbyes to the recipients of that letter and says, “I desire, as I have for many years, to come to you when I go to Spain.” You hear about a lot of places and peoples in the Bible. Spain is not one you grow accustomed to seeing, and it certainly wasn’t one I was expecting to see in one of Paul’s letters. So did Paul make it there? It certainly seems reasonable. Here are some early church references to it:
1 Clement 5.5-7: [writing within about ten years of Paul’s death] Through envy Paul, too, showed by example the prize that is given to patience: seven times was he cast into chains; he was banished; he was stoned; having become a herald, both in the East and in the West, he obtained the noble renown due to his faith; and having preached righteousness to the whole world, and having come to the furthest reaches of the West, and having borne witness before rulers, he departed at length out of the world, and went to the holy place, having become the greatest example of patience.
Muratorian Fragment: … as well as the departure of Paul from the city [of Rome] when he journeyed to Spain.
John Chrysostom: 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: [Paul], who from Jerusalem, and even unto Illyricum, fully preached the Gospel, and instructed even imperial Rome, and carried the earnestness of his preaching as far as Spain, undergoing conflicts innumerable, and performing signs and wonders.
Anyway, thinking about it, I couldn’t help but relish the irony of this. Jonah, on one side of the cross, tries to run to Spain to get away from preaching to Gentiles. On the other side, God commissions an apostle to the Gentiles, the Holy Spirit prevents this Apostle from preaching in the region where Nineveh is, and this Apostle’s great desire is to go to Spain to preach to them. There’s such a beautiful symmetry to it.
The geography of redemption sure is funny.
Oh, one more thing. Some scholars don’t think it’s right to identify ancient Tarshish with Spain. They have another theory as to where it was: Tarsus–Paul’s hometown.
[image credit: “Jonah Preaches in Nineveh” woodcut by Jacob Steinhardt]