How Far East Could Missionaries Go?
LESS than 30 years after Jesus’ death, the apostle Paul wrote that the good news was being preached in “all creation” under heaven. (Colossians 1:23) His statement is not to be taken literally, as if meaning that every person alive at that time had heard the good news. Even so, Paul’s point is clear: Christian missionaries were preaching extensively in the then-known world.
Just how far might they have gone? The Scriptures relate that commercial shipping enabled Paul to extend his preaching activity as far westward as Italy. This intrepid missionary also wanted to preach in Spain.—Acts 27:1; 28:30, 31; Romans 15:28.
What, though, of the opposite direction? How far east did early Christian evangelizers go? We cannot say for sure, since the Bible does not comment on this. However, you might be surprised to learn just how far trade routes between the Mediterranean and the Orient extended in the first century C.E. At the very least, the existence of such routes indicates that there were good possibilities for travel to the east.
Alexander the Great’s conquests took him eastward through Babylonia and Persia and as far as the Punjab, in northern India. Those expeditions enabled the Greeks to become acquainted with the coasts stretching from the mouth of the Euphrates, in the Persian Gulf, to the mouth of the Indus.
Spices and incense soon flowed into the Greek world from across the Indian Ocean, via the Red Sea. This trade was first controlled by Indian and Arab merchants. But when the Ptolemies of Egypt discovered the secrets of the monsoon, they too entered the Indian Ocean trade.
In that sea, winds blow steadily out of the southwest from May to September, allowing ships to sail from the mouth of the Red Sea either along the southern coast of Arabia or directly to southern India. Between November and March, the winds switch to the opposite direction, facilitating the return journey. Arab and Indian seamen had been exploiting knowledge of these winds for hundreds of years, traveling back and forth between India and the Red Sea with cargoes of cassia, cinnamon, nard, and pepper.
Sea Routes to Alexandria and Rome
When the Romans conquered the lands ruled by Alexander’s successors, Rome became the main market for precious goods from the East—ivory from Africa, incense and myrrh from Arabia, spices and precious stones from India, and even silk from China. Ships carrying such merchandise converged on two main ports on the Egyptian Red Sea Coast—Berenice and Myos Hormos. Both were served by overland caravan routes to Coptos, on the Nile.
From Coptos, goods descended the Nile, the main artery of Egypt, to Alexandria, where they were loaded onto ships bound for Italy and elsewhere. An alternative route to Alexandria was via a canal that joined the head of the Red Sea—close to modern Suez—with the Nile. Of course, Egypt and its seaports were relatively close to the lands where Jesus preached and could readily be accessed from there.
According to first-century Greek geographer Strabo, in his time, 120 Alexandrian ships sailed from Myos Hormos to engage in trade with India every year. A first-century handbook on navigation in this area has survived to our day. It was probably written by a Greek-speaking Egyptian merchant for the benefit of fellow traders. What can be learned from this ancient book?
The guidebook, often referred to by its Latin title, Periplus Maris Erythraei (Voyage Around the Erythraean Sea) describes maritime routes stretching thousands of miles south of Egypt, as far as Zanzibar. Looking eastward, the author lists distances, anchorages, emporiums, goods traded, and the disposition of local people along the south shore of Arabia, down the west coast of India to Sri Lanka and then back up the east coast of India as far as the Ganges. The book’s accurate and vivid descriptions lead to the conclusion that the author had visited the places he describes.
Westerners in India
In India western merchants were known as Yavanas. According to the Periplus, one of their regular destinations in the first century C.E. was Muziris, located close to the southern tip of India.a Tamil poems, dating to the early centuries C.E., refer to these traders continually. “The beautifully built ships of the Yavanas came with gold and returned with pepper, and Muziris resounded with the noise,” says one poem. In another, a prince of southern India is urged to drink fragrant wine brought by the Yavanas. Among other Western goods that found a ready market in India were glassware, metals, coral, and textiles.
Archaeologists have found much evidence of Western imports into India. For example, at Arikamedu on the southeastern coast of India, discoveries include fragments of Roman wine jars and dishes bearing the stamps of potters who produced these wares in Arezzo, central Italy. “The imagination of the modern enquirer kindles as he lifts from the alluvium of the Bay of Bengal sherds bearing the names of craftsmen whose kilns lay on the outskirts of Arezzo,” says one writer. Commerce between the Mediterranean and India is further attested to by numerous hoards of Roman coins, gold and silver, that have been found in southern India. Most of these coins date to the first century C.E. and bear the images of the Roman Emperors Augustus, Tiberius, and Nero.
The possibility that Roman citizens established permanent trading colonies in southern India is raised by the evidence of an ancient map, a medieval copy of which still exists. This map, known as the Peutinger Table—which is said to depict the Roman world as it was in the first century C.E.—indicates a temple of Augustus at Muziris. “Such a structure,” says the book Rome’s Eastern Trade: International Commerce and Imperial Policy, 31 BC–AD 305, “would have been built only by subjects of the Roman Empire, and presumably ones who were living in Muziris or who spent a significant proportion of their time there.”
Roman records mention the visits of at least three Indian embassies to Rome during Augustus’ reign, from 27 B.C.E. to 14 C.E. “These embassies had a serious diplomatic purpose,” says one study on the subject—that of agreeing where business between people of different lands could be transacted, where taxes could be imposed, where foreigners could reside, and so on.
In the first century C.E., then, travel between the Mediterranean basin and India was neither infrequent nor unusual. It would have been simple for a Christian missionary at the north of the Red Sea to board a ship bound for India.
Just how far eastward Mediterranean merchants and other travelers ventured—and how early—is hard to establish. However, it is believed that by the first century C.E., some westerners journeyed as far as Thailand, Cambodia, Sumatra, and Java.
The Hou Han-Shou (Annals of the Later Han Dynasty), which cover the period from 23 C.E. to 220 C.E., fix the date of one such journey. In 166 C.E., an embassy from the king of Daqin, named An-tun, arrived at the Chinese court bearing tribute for the Emperor Huan-ti. Daqin was the Chinese name for the Roman Empire, while An-tun appears to be the Chinese rendering of Antoninus, the family name of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor at the time. Historians suspect that this was not an official embassy but merely an effort on the part of enterprising western traders to obtain silk directly from China instead of through middlemen.
Coming back to our original question, How far east could ancient ships have taken first-century Christian missionaries? To India and beyond? Perhaps. Certainly, the Christian message spread far enough so that the apostle Paul could say that it was “bearing fruit and increasing in all the world”—that is, to the far-flung reaches of the then-known world.—Colossians 1:6.
a While the exact site of Muziris is unknown, scholars locate it close to the mouth of the Periyar River, Kerala State.
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An Emperor’s Complaint
In 22 C.E., the Roman Emperor Tiberius lamented the boundless excesses of his countrymen. Their reckless appetite for luxuries and the immoderate yearning of Roman matrons for jewels were dissipating the wealth of his empire, diverting it to “strange or hostile nations.” Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 C.E.) also complained about similar expenditures. “At the very lowest computation,” he wrote, “India, the Seres, and the Arabian Peninsula, withdraw from our empire one hundred millions of sesterces every year—so dearly do we pay for our luxury and our women.”b
b Analysts calculate that 100 million sesterces represented about 2 percent of the Roman Empire’s total economy.
Museo della Civiltà Romana, Roma; Todd Bolen/Bible Places.com
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Where Merchants Sought Their Goods
Jesus spoke of “a traveling merchant seeking fine pearls.” (Matthew 13:45) The book of Revelation likewise mentions “traveling merchants” whose stock included precious stones, silk, scented wood, ivory, cinnamon, incense, and Indian spice. (Revelation 18:11-13) The sources of these goods lay along trade routes to the east of Palestine. Fragrant timbers, such as sandalwood, came from India. Pearls of gem value could be found in the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and, according to the author of the Periplus Maris Erythraei, in the vicinity of Muziris and in Sri Lanka. Indian Ocean pearls were likely of the best quality and the most costly.
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Some of the trade routes that existed between Rome and Asia in the first century
↓ Northeast monsoon
↑ Southwest monsoon
Bay of Bengal
INDIAN OCEAN (ERYTHRAEAN SEA)
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Model of a Roman cargo ship
Ship: Pictorial Archive (Near Eastern History) Est.