Trade and Travel

I. Trade in the Old Testament. Abraham came from a trading port, Ur of the Chaldees, which stood in those days at the head of the Persian Gulf, on whose waters man first learned deep-sea navigation. Pottery from Ur has been identified in the ruins of Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus, and Ur was no doubt a trading station between the seaborne commerce of the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, and the caravan routes of the Euphrates Valley. The most negotiable route between East and West ran this way. The fact that Abraham was rich in gold and silver as well as in the nomad wealth of flocks and herds (Gen.13.2; Gen.24.22, Gen.24.53) is an indication of the wealth of his birthplace and of the commerce that no doubt existed between the desert and the town. The middlemen of this early commerce in the Middle East were the people of the desert.

Egypt, from earliest times, had been a great trading nation. A famous wall painting tells pictorially the story of the exploratory trading expedition sent by Princess Hatshepsut to Punt on the Somali coast fourteen centuries before Christ, and an interesting papyrus speaks of Wen-Amon’s quest for fine cedar on the Lebanese shore three centuries later. Hatshepsut’s venture had been a quest for myrrh trees, for the embalming practices of the Egyptians needed vast imports of spices and incense. Arabia Felix owed its name to the myrrh and frankincense produced there, and the bulk of this commerce followed the caravan routes NW through the Arabian Peninsula with Egypt as the chief market. Slave trading formed a profitable sideline, and it is significant that Joseph was sold to a company of Ishmaelites carrying myrrh into Egypt (Gen.37.25). The rich imports of the land were balanced by an export trade in corn, and by tribute money from the neighboring spheres of Egyptian dominance. It is recorded that corn was paid for in weighed silver (Gen.41.57; Gen.42.3, Gen.42.25, Gen.42.35; Gen.43.11). Egypt was a heavy importer of precious stones and metals, some of which must have been of Indian origin brought up the Red Sea and through the canal, which was periodically open between the head of the waterway and the Nile. Egyptian monuments speak of similar commerce with the North and with the Minoan thalassocracy of Crete, the Keftiu of early records.


Tyrian traders brought fish into Jerusalem and distressed Nehemiah by their Sabbath trading (Neh.13.16). The timber trade too continued into postcaptivity days, and Ezra made arrangements similar to those of Solomon to secure his supplies of Lebanese timber (1Kgs.5.6, 1Kgs.5.9; 2Chr.2.16; Ezra.3.7). Oil was also exported to Egypt (Hos.12.1), and a small domestic export trade in woven goods from Judea seems to be implied in Prov.31.24.

When the Hebrew monarchy fell apart after Solomon’s death, it is possible that an interesting commercial situation may have arisen. Israel, the northern kingdom, must have inherited the profitable but seductive alliance with the Phoenician trading towns. Jezebel, daughter of the prince of Sidon, married Ahab to seal this partnership. The southern kingdom, however, lay across communication lines to Aqabah and the Red Sea, and there is every evidence that Judah had reverted, after Solomon, to an agricultural economy with nothing more than petty trading. Apart from a half-hearted attempt by Jehoshaphat to revive it (1Kgs.22.48), the eastern trade seems to have vanished with the king who inspired and ordered it. It may have been at this time that Phoenicians, denied the convenient route down the Red Sea, discovered the sea route to India by way of the Cape of Good Hope. A passage in Herodotus (4:42) seems to imply that the intrepid traders succeeded in this amazing achievement. The prosperity of the Phoenician cities certainly continued, and Ezek.27.1-Ezek.27.36 is an eloquent record of the wide and tireless trading activity of Tyre. Ahab’s prosperity is also vouched for by the archaeologists’ confirmation of the king’s “ivory palace” (1Kgs.22.39).

The commercial consequences of the break with Baal worship and the death of Jezebel is an interesting speculation. Tyre, without great difficulty, could strangle the economic life of Israel. Tyre’s dependence on the hinterland for primary produce would provide a strong deterrent, but there is no doubt that the choice on Mount Carmel with which Elijah confronted the people involved economic as well as theological considerations. The Hebrew kingdoms from this time onward fell into the background as far as commerce was concerned. The Captivity brought vast depopulation, and the restored Israel was a largely agricultural economy. Internal interchange of goods was vigorous enough from earliest times, and provisions in the law lay stress on fairness of dealing, and honesty in weights and measures (Lev.19.35-Lev.19.36; Deut.25.13-Deut.25.16). The petty trading in the temple, castigated by Christ, was a sample of the seamier side of this internal commerce; but the foreign trade, which invited investment (see Moffatt on Eccl.11.1: “Trust your goods far and wide at sea...take shares in several ventures....”) and brought great wealth, was no more. Palestine at the close of the OT and in the time of Christ was a poor land.

II. Trade in the New Testament. Trade and commerce have small place in the Gospels. The people of Palestine were aware of the activities of merchant and trader, for such parables as those of the talents, and the merchant who found a “pearl of great price” were obviously meant to be understood by those to whom they were addressed. Trade, in the wider sense of the word, all through NT times, was supremely in the hands of Rome and of Italy. There was a growing interference of the state in matters of commerce. The legal machinery by which a “mark on his right hand or on his forehead” could prevent the nonconformist from buying or selling (Rev.13.16-Rev.13.17) was early apparent.

The foreign trade of the Empire was extensive and varied; it was also one-sided, in important cases, for the hoards of Roman coins commonly found in India are an indication of perilously unbalanced trade and great leakage of bullion. Latin and Greek words in early Irish, German, Iranian, and even in Indian and Mongolian tongues, suggest the influence of trade. Archaeology, especially on the South Indian coast, provides similar evidence. Roman merchants were ubiquitous. There was a Roman market at Delphi outside the sacred precincts for the trade in amulets and souvenirs, and this was probably typical of Italian enterprise abroad wherever crowds were gathered for sacred or profane purposes. From the second century a Roman city stood on Delos, the Aegean center of the slave trade, and when Mithridates in 88 b.c. massacred the Italian residents of Asia Minor and the surrounding coasts, twenty-five thousand fell in Delos alone out of a total of one hundred thousand, mostly traders and the agents of commerce.

Rome itself was a vast market, and a grim satiric chapter in Revelation (Rev.18.1-Rev.18.24), constructed after the fashion of an OT taunt song, partly in imitation of Ezek.27.1-Ezek.27.36, speaks of the wealth and volume of the capital’s trade and the disruption of the world’s economy at the fall and passing of a market so rich. Roman trade extended far beyond the boundaries of the Empire. It is certain that merchants from Italy carried their goods into unsubdued Germany, Scandinavia, India, and perhaps China. All this activity sprang from Rome’s dominance, the peace that she widely policed, and the absence of political frontiers. There was reason in the merchants’ lament predicted in the chapter quoted. Fortunes could be made and lost and made over again. And of Augustus the merchants said that “through him they sailed the seas in safety, through him they could make their wealth, through him they were happy.” The fascinating account of the last journey of Paul to Rome (Acts.27.1-Acts.27.44), first in a ship from Adramyttium and then in an Alexandrian freighter, probably under charter to the Roman government for the transport of Egyptian corn to the capital, gives a firsthand picture of the hazards of trade, and of the navigation, the ships, and the management of Mediterranean commerce.

There is not much information about the commodities of export trade. Oysters came to Rome from Britain in barrels of sea water. The tin trade of Cornwall, first exploited by the Phoenicians, doubtless continued under Rome. Northern Gaul seems to have had the rudiments of an exporting textile industry, and Gaul certainly exported Samian pottery. Underwater archaeology on wrecked ships has revealed that large cargoes of wine were carried. A monogram of a double “S” seems to indicate that one such freighter, wrecked near Marseilles, was the property of a shipowner who lived at Delos, one Severus Sestius. On the subject of mass production for such trade there is little information, and none concerning the business organization involved. Certain localities, however, became famous for special commodities, and the commerce implied was no doubt in the hands of specialist traders working a market of their own choice and creation. Lydia, for example (Acts.16.14), “a dealer in purple cloth from the city of Thyatira” in Asia Minor, was found at Philippi in Macedonia in pursuit of her trade. Corinthian bronze and the Cilician cloth that was the raw material of Paul’s “tentmaking” were probably distributed, locally or abroad, by similar private enterprise (Acts.18.3). The imagery of John’s apocalyptic letter to Laodicea (Rev.3.14-Rev.3.18) is based partly on trade and industry of the rich Asian town. An important item of trade in Ephesus, now that the harbor was silting and the port losing its trade and prosperity to Smyrna, was the manufacture of silver shrines of Artemis to sell to the pilgrims and tourists who visited the famous temple.

Ramsay’s illuminating research revealed a Laodicean trade in valuable wool garments of various kinds. Glossy black fleeces were produced in this district and the neighboring Colosse by some system of crossbreeding, the genetic effects of which were apparent in the Anatolian flocks of the area until comparatively recent times. There is also evidence of a Laodicean eye salve, based probably on the thermal mud of the nearby Hierapolis. Hence the taunt in the letter about “white garments,” and the anointing of the eyes of the spirit with a more effective medicine. Another of the seven churches of the Apocalypse was a center of trade and commerce. More trade guilds are named in the records of Thyatira than in those of any other Asian city. Lydia’s trade (Acts.16.14) possibly fell under the category of the dyers. They brewed a red dye, perhaps the modern turkey red, from the madder root, which grows abundantly in the district. This “purple” was nearer in color to scarlet than blue, and Lydia’s presence in Macedonia, 500 miles (833 km.) away, suggests that the commodity was an important export. It is curious to note in this connection that John uses the figure of Jezebel, the woman given to Ahab of Israel to seal a commercial and political alliance with Phoenicia, to describe a “Nicolaitan” of Thyatira, whose fault may have been some spiritually damaging trade association with the surrounding pagan world.

The trade guilds were a major source of difficulty for Christians who sought in their work and in their social activity to emerge from a pagan world with their conscience intact. The guilds or collegia are mentioned in Acts.19.1-Acts.19.41 as a source of organized opposition to the preaching of Christianity. The guilds were not trade unions in the modern sense of the word. Their functions were primarily social, and they covered all trades and professions. There are records of guilds of bankers, doctors, architects, producers of linen and woolen goods, workers in metal or stone or clay, builders, carpenters, farmers, fishers, bakers, pastry cooks, embalmers, and transport workers. Like the modern Rotary Club, the guilds satisfied the need for social intercourse, but in the close-knit society of the ancient world they exercised a function and demonstrated an influence unlike that of any comparable organization today.

In Ephesus the guild of silversmiths and allied trades exerted enough pressure on authority and public opinion to check the free activities of Paul in the city. The famous letter of Pliny (Ep. 10.96), in which the repression of vigorous Christian activity in Bithynia in a.d. 112 is vividly described, is fairly clear indication that the guild of the butchers, alarmed at the falling-off in sales of sacrificial meat, was the ally of the pagan priesthoods in rousing the official persecution of the thriving church. Nor was it easy for a Christian to prosper in his trade or business if he attempted to refrain from membership in the appropriate guild or participation in its activities. Since those activities included periodic feasts in the temple of the god or goddess whose patronage was traditionally acknowledged by the trade or calling concerned, what was the faithful Christian to do? Hence the activities of the “Nicolaitans,” the “followers of Balaam” and of “Jezebel” of Thyatira, castigated by Jude, Peter, and John. The simple functions and operations of trade and commerce may thus have proved a source of embarrassment, controversy, and division in the early church.

III. Travel. Trade implied travel, and many of the great journeys of the ancient world were made in the pursuit of commerce and remain unrecorded. Those who pioneered the trade routes from the Euphrates and the Persian Gulf to the Indus civilization and Ceylon must have been intrepid voyagers. The blazing of the “amber route” from Italy to the Baltic coast, the “incense routes” from Arabia Felix through Petra to Palestine, or the Phoenician seaways to Cornwall and the West African coast, not to mention the circumnavigation of the continent, must have been by experienced and determined travelers. All this voyaging was in the interest of ultimate commercial gain. But there were other motives:

A. Colonization. Motivated first by the pressure of increasing population on the limited resources of the Greek homeland, Greek colonies spread around the coasts of the Mediterranean and Black seas, unbroken save for the length of African coastland from the Gulf of Syrtis Major westward. These colonies were places of trade as well as of settlement, and the population often remained distinctive and apart from the natives of the area. Communication was maintained between colony and metropolis, and this was a major occasion of ancient travel. Motives similar to that which sent Abraham’s steward to the homeland in search of a bride for Isaac kept people moving over such routes of folk migration.

B. Exploration. Curiosity and a desire for knowledge have always been important objects for human wandering. Curiosity accounted for the journey of the queen of Sheba to visit Solomon (1Kgs.10.1-1Kgs.10.29); and if the Magi, as their gifts imply, also came from Arabia Felix, it was the same SE caravan route that, in a nobler curiosity, brought the Nativity visitors to Bethlehem. Curiosity, with historical ends in view, had been the travel motive of the Greek Herodotus in the fifth century before Christ. His journeyings covered a wider area even than those of Paul. Exploration was organized by Hatshepsut around the Somali coast, by Alexander around Arabia, and by Nero up the Nile. Trade and conquest were the motives in mind. Less complex were the aims of the daring party from the Bay of Tripoli who, according to Herodotus (4.174), crossed the Sahara, discovered the Pygmies, and first saw the Niger.

C. Migration. Great folk movements fill all ancient history from neolithic times onward, and the Bible mentions directly and indirectly instances of such mass travel. Abraham left Ur by the NW caravan routes that followed the Fertile Crescent in a great curve up the Euphrates Valley and around into Canaan. The same route continued down the Jordan Valley and by the coast road into Egypt, or by way of the Arabah into the Sinai triangle or Egypt. It was along this southern route that Jacob’s family journeyed on their various movements into and out of Egypt.

The nomad movements of the Israelites after the Egyptian captivity form a record of mass migration like the “folk-wanderings” of the Indo-European tribes that peopled Europe and determined the character of Iranian and Indian ethnology in the second millennium before Christ. When Abraham’s tribe moved into Palestine, a colony from Crete was already established on “the Gaza Strip.” After the fall of Crete toward the close of the second millennium before Christ, this movement assumed much more massive shape. A sudden influx of refugees would account for the aggressive imperialism of the Philistines in the time of Saul and David. The movements of conquest and deportation might find a place under this head. It was a policy of Assyria and of Babylon to transfer large masses of subject populations, and such travel, arduous and enforced though it was, occasioned much movement geographically. There was some freedom of communication between the deportees and those who remained behind, as might be illustrated both from the books of Nehemiah and Ezra and from the apocryphal Book of Tobit.

D. Pilgrimage. Religious centers like Jerusalem have always been an occasion of travel. The Gospels mention the annual influx from Galilee into Jerusalem, and the account of the Crucifixion speaks of one Simon from Cyrene in Libya who was present in the Holy City as a pilgrim. Paul (Acts.20.16) was anxious to be in Jerusalem in time for Pentecost and was prepared to travel from Greece for the purpose.

E. Preaching. The necessities of preaching and teaching caused widespread travel in both Greek and Roman times; and this, of course, is most strikingly illustrated in the well-defined and admirably recorded journeys of Paul. The apostle was only one of many people who traveled for that purpose. It is traditionally believed that Thomas traveled to India, and a large Christian group in that subcontinent is traditionally believed to have descended from his original foundation. Apollos (Acts.18.24-Acts.18.28) had moved about, no doubt on teaching missions, between Alexandria, Corinth, and Ephesus. The Emperor Claudius, in a stern communication to the Jews of Alexandria, spoke of troublemakers who had journeyed to the delta town by sea from Syria, and it is likely that this is the first reference in secular literature to the widespread missionary travels of early Christian preachers. Acts.11.19 and Acts.28.15 similarly refer to such unrecorded travelers. It is likely that their journeys were very extensive. The tradition, for example, that Joseph of Arimathea traveled to Glastonbury in Britain may not be history, but the story could have arisen only in a world that took for granted the widest and the most distant traveling.

F. Business. Search of a livelihood, as distinct from the pursuit of trade, took thousands on long journeys in the ancient world. Juvenal, at the end of the first century, complains that the Orontes had long since flowed into the Tiber, that the city had become so cosmopolitan that native merit could find no place, and that the needy and the bad from the ends of the earth had sought refuge there. The inhabitants of the Roman ghetto were Jews whose business had brought them from Palestine and the many provincial centers of the Dispersion, and such uprooted groups were not necessarily static.

G. Service. There were Roman soldiers who had traveled the whole world, and the record of Paul’s journey to Rome is an illustration of an official journey of a centurion with an armed escort, engaged on a long and highly responsible courier task. In OT times we find Abraham’s steward undertaking a long journey at his master’s express command; Tobit acting as agent for the king of Assyria; and Nehemiah adroitly turning a cherished personal project into a royal commission, with all the travel privileges and facilities such a task conferred.

H. Exile. Moses’ flight into Midian was an early instance of a journey undertaken to escape from justice, and more formal banishment was an accepted penalty in ancient penology. After the troubles in the ghetto, associated, if the Nazareth Decree is rightly interpreted, with the first Christian preaching in Rome, Claudius banished all the Jews of the capital (Acts.18.2); and Aquila and Priscilla are found in Corinth. It is interesting to note that Aquila had come originally from Pontus in Asia Minor.

Travel was not without its hazards, and Paul in an eloquent passage (2Cor.11.25-2Cor.11.27), which finds confirmation in more than one ancient writer, speaks of the perils of road and seaway. Luke’s superb account of the voyage and wreck of the Alexandrian grain ship is further illustration (Acts.27.1-Acts.27.44). In NT times, however, travel was rather safer by land than it has been at most periods in history.

Roads were the great contribution of the Romans to Mediterranean civilization, and roads promoted the rapid movement of travelers and contributed substantially to their safety by facilitating the rapid movement of troops. The Persians had invented a swift postal system, but it was used mainly for official communications, and no engineering of any major importance was involved. Persia and Babylon relied on the enforced local labor for the opening of highways, and the imagery of Isa.40.3-Isa.40.4 is based on the call to such contributions of manpower. The Romans, on the other hand, formed and planned their roads, engineered them boldly, and for the most part paved them. Hence the major contribution to rapid travel. In NT times, in spite of the continuing dangers listed by Paul from his own experience, the roading system was speeding up travel, and the Roman Peace was quelling lawlessness.

Regular passenger services by land or sea were unknown, and there is no evidence that the pattern of procedure changed from OT times to New. “Jonah,” the record runs (Jonah.1.3), “ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish. He went down to Joppa, where he found a ship bound for that port. After paying the fare, he went aboard and sailed for Tarshish.” Nine centuries after the approximate date of Jonah’s flight a similar record reads: “When we had sailed across the open sea off the coast of Cilicia and Pamphylia, we land at Myra in Lycia. There the centurion found an Alexandrian ship sailing for Italy and put us on board” (Acts.27.5-Acts.27.6). Travelers evidently made their own arrangements, attached themselves to official parties, accompanied caravans, and coordinated their movements with those of trade and commerce.

The relative convenience of travel by land and sea cannot be estimated. In Claudius’s communication to the Alexandrians it is expressly stated that the troublesome envoys who came from Syria came by sea. A perfectly good land route south from Palestine existed, for the Ethiopian eunuch of Queen Candace was using it and riding in a chariot (Acts.8.26ff.). On the other hand, the centurion in charge of Paul disembarked his party at Puteoli and proceeded to Rome probably via the canal through the Pontine Marshes and certainly by the Via Appia (Acts.27.11-Acts.27.15), the route described by the poet Horace who negotiated it a century before. Why Paul decided (Acts.20.13) to go afoot across the base of Cape Lectum by the Roman road to Assos in Mysia is difficult to explain, unless it was because he sought the privacy for meditation impossible aboard a crowded ship. Discomfort must have been the common lot of travelers by sea.——EMB