Paul’s House Arrest Apartments Discovered?
“Do you know what they’ve found below the palace?” We were staying at the Anglican Centre in Rome this summer. The Centre is hosted in a series of apartments in the palace of Prince Doria-Pamphilj. These were given to the Anglican Centre fifty years ago, shortly after Vatican II as a way to foster Anglican-Roman Catholic unity. Archbishop David Moxon was our most excellent host when we were there for four days in July. Melissa and I had arrived ten hours later than we expected in the eternal city. It was long after dark and the Anglican Centre was closed for business. I had emailed Louise at the centre’s office throughout our long day and a half of delays and connecting flights. We were still expected but by the time we arrived we found ourselves in a foreign city neither of us had ever been to, late at night, standing before an an imposing medieval gate in a wall of buildings that wrapped the city block. The driver had unloaded our bags and was waiting for us to go inside safely. There was a bell, but no way to tell if it really worked. I was grateful that I easily found the number to the centre, grateful that my international dialing worked, and that David Moxon was still up and near the phone. The archbishop provided the most excellent hospitality and Christian charity, including preparing a hot meal for two weary travelers. After dinner, as he was pouring the limoncello (as a “digestive” he said), he asked if we knew what was being discovered just 200 feet below the room we were sleeping in. “Paul’s place, the apartments he was in while under house arrest for two years.” He went on to explain that is was one of the most significant Biblical archaeological discoveries in recent history. The book about it would not be available for another three years. It’s an active excavation site today and the public is only allowed to take a walk-through at the end of each day between 4 and 6 p.m.
Basically, there’s nothing like it anywhere in first Century Rome.
Oral tradition has always said these apartments were here, that Paul had spent his last two years under guard, with his friend Luke on this spot. No one knew for sure, though. Like many church traditions, it was simply a story passed down that others built upon. Over the centuries monasteries and churches grew up over this site. As Rome built on top of itself older buildings were buried. What is being unearthed below the Anglican Centre is certainly a series of early first-century, Roman, domestic apartments.
I confess, beyond the major letters and general stories, I have not been as familiar with the intimate details of Paul’s life and travels as a Christian priest should be. I’ve spent more of my study time among the ancient Israelites and, when “in” the first century I was usually deep in the Gospels, especially working to give each Evangelist their own voice when proclaiming Christ Jesus. Less so of Paul. I knew Paul was under house arrest and lived in Rome before his execution, I’m familiar with the scholarship that notes that some letters we attribute to Paul have likely been written or edited by others. However, I couldn’t have told you the contents of 2 Timothy with any real confidence before David Moxon gave us a special tour of the excavation site.
After a night of good sleep and then a day of holy sightseeing, Melissa and I returned to the Centre to find David happily willing to give us this particular tour at the end of the archeologists’ work day. We walked through the palace, out a side entrance and into an alcove where a convent church prays over the site of this oral tradition. Descending the stairs that led to this ancient home was traveling backwards in time, each step was a new century into the past.
Very quickly I saw what David Moxon had been describing. There were frescoes on every inch of every available wall, most of it was faded and the large frescoes have been removed for preservation and pictures put in their place. There was a pillar that had been inscribed (in Latin), “The Word of God is not chained” from, carved, possibly, in pre-Constantinian days; a first century well that had been kept active longer than any other well from that time period; rooms that could accommodate “as many as would visit”; frescoes that told tales of martyrdom; and an altar as old as the apartments and fashioned like a pagan altar of early Rome but, unusually, lacking the expected pagan iconography. “The evidence is mounting up,” said David, “Basically, there’s nothing else like it in first century, Roman archeology.” Traveling to Europe, an American must learn to think in centuries. We are so used to thinking in decades but I had to begin to interpret the symphony of centuries at play from the layers of ground and brick and artwork and stonework. There was a helpful map on the wall show the development of the architecture over time. The 17th-century altar on higher ground was still in place, the eighth century frescoes were relatively easy to spot, but the first century bricks covered in bits of fresco spoke most deeply about Paul’s likely life and death from here.
This house once looked out onto the Via Lata, or broad street. It was the parade route to the city center where gladiators would process in great triumph to receive their green victory laurels, literally a ring of bay leaves placed on their heads. Up the Via Lata, Roman generals paraded to the city center to receive their laurel leaf crowns made of gold. From the front doorway and windows looking over the first century, Roman porch, Paul would have witnessed this victory parade very regularly over the two years he was held here.
One could easily imagine Paul contemplating his own, inevitable martyrdom from this view as he writes, “I have run the race, I have crossed the finish line; when I get to the judge at the end of this route, I will receive the victory crown of righteousness.”
I have a renewed love of Paul and especially for 2 Timothy, the letter that would have been written in this spot, if archeology and scholarship come together as discoveries develop. Some will argue 2 Timothy is not really Paul’s hand, not his theology, his thought nor customary way of expressing things. I disagree and stand with the minority of scholars who recognize that difference in contexts and circumstances will impact the nature and form of things we write. (Thank you Bp Ed Little for pointing this out.)
The site still had four feet of river silt in the last, back room, conjectured to be Paul’s bedroom. I hope to read more about the site’s revelation in years to come. Melissa and I may indeed have walked where Paul spent his last days. Ultimately, however, this current archeological discovery has opened my eyes to hearing Paul afresh, especially in 2 Timothy.