The Life and Times of First-Century Christians
Traveling to the Most Distant Part of the Earth
“The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. And after declaring the good news to that city and making quite a few disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch.”—ACTS 14:20, 21.
COOL morning air fills the traveler’s lungs. He pushes tired feet into worn sandals. Another full day of walking lies ahead.
With the early morning sun on his back, he follows the dusty road beyond the vineyard, through an olive grove, and up the steep hillside. Along the way, he encounters other travelers—farmers trudging to their fields, merchants urging along animals packed high with goods, and pilgrims heading for Jerusalem. The traveler and his companions talk to everyone they meet. Their goal? To fulfill Jesus’ commission to be witnesses of him “to the most distant part of the earth.”—Acts 1:8.
This traveler could be the apostle Paul or Barnabas or any one of the hardy, first-century missionaries. (Acts 14:19-26; 15:22) They were tough, determined people. Travel was difficult. Describing his trials at sea, the apostle Paul wrote: “Three times I experienced shipwreck, a night and a day I have spent in the deep.” Journeying on land was not any easier. Paul said that he often encountered “dangers from rivers” and “dangers from highwaymen.”—2 Corinthians 11:25-27.
What would it have been like to travel with those missionaries? How far would you journey in a day? What would you need to take with you, and where would you stay along the way?
Travel Over Land By the first century, the Romans had built an extensive road system connecting major centers of the empire. Those roads were carefully designed and solidly constructed. Many were 15 feet (4.5 m) wide, paved in stone, bordered with curbs, and marked by milestones. On such a road, a missionary like Paul could walk some 20 miles (32 km) a day.
In Palestine, however, most roads were hazardous dirt paths, unfenced from fields and ravines. A traveler might encounter wild beasts or robbers; indeed, the road might be blocked altogether.
What would a traveler carry with him? Some of the essentials were a staff for protection (1), a bed roll (2), a money purse (3), an extra pair of sandals (4), a food bag (5), a change of clothing (6), a collapsible leather bucket for drawing well-water en route (7), a water flask (8), and a large leather carryall bag for personal items (9).
The missionaries would be sure to encounter traveling merchants, who were distributing goods between local markets. Those merchants relied on the sure-footed donkey. It had no equal on the steep and rocky roads. It is reported that with a full load, a strong donkey could cover up to 50 miles (80 km) a day. Oxcarts and wagons were slower, covering only 5 to 12 miles (8-20 km). But oxen could carry heavier loads and were ideal for short journeys. A traveler might pass a camel or a donkey caravan—dozens ofanimals ladened with goods from all over the world. A courier on horseback might speed by; he would be carrying mail and royal decrees to an outpost of the empire.
When night fell, travelers slept at the roadside in hastily prepared encampments. Some might stay at a caravansary, a walled enclosure with unfurnished rooms surrounding a courtyard. These dirty, unpleasant places provided only limited protection from the elements or from thieves. Whenever possible, traveling missionaries likely stayed with family or fellow believers.—Acts 17:7; Romans 12:13.
Travel on the Seas Small boats transported goods and people along coastal waters and across the Sea of Galilee. (John 6:1, 2, 16, 17, 22-24) Many larger ships traversed the Mediterranean, carrying cargo to and from distant ports. These ships supplied food for Rome and transported government officials and communications from port to port.
Sailors navigated by sight—landmarks by day, stars by night. Therefore, sea travel was relatively safe only from May until mid-September when the weather was likely to be calmer. Shipwrecks were frequent.—Acts 27:39-44; 2 Corinthians 11:25.
People did not choose sea travel because it was more pleasant than journeying by land. Passenger comfort on a cargo vessel, the main means of sea transport, was a low priority. Travelers lived and slept on deck in all kinds of weather. The dry space below deck was packed with precious goods. Passengers ate provisions that they brought with them. Only drinking water was provided. At times, the weather was extremely unstable. Unrelenting tempests and rough seas induced motion sickness, often for days on end.
Despite the hardships of land and sea travel, such missionaries as Paul spread the “good news of the kingdom” extensively in the then-known world. (Matthew 24:14) Just 30 years after Jesus told the disciples to witness about him, Paul could write that the good news was being preached “in all creation that is under heaven.”—Colossians 1:23.