The first person recorded by Luke in Scripture whom the Apostle Paul converted to Christianity was a Roman proconsul by the name of Sergius Paulus, but it wasn’t until the late 19th Century that archeological evidence was unearthed which corroborated the historical accuracy of Luke’s account:
“Now when they had gone through the island [i.e. Cyprus] to Paphos, they found a certain sorcerer, a false prophet, a Jew whose name was Bar-Jesus, who was with the proconsul, Sergius Paulus, an intelligent man. This man called for Barnabas and Saul and sought to hear the Word of God…Then the proconsul believed…” (Acts 13:6-7, 12)
Cyprus must have been an interesting place for Paul and Barnabas to visit. The island was heavily influenced by Greek culture. It was a staging area for all sorts of Roman activities throughout the eastern Mediterranean. And, as the text suggests, it was influenced by the occult.
Their outreach to the Cypriots occurred around AD 47. Luke, the author of Acts, is careful to refer to Sergius Paulus as “proconsul.” This is the proper title for a Roman ruler sitting in authority on Cyprus at that time.
Prior to this, a Roman ruler on the island would have been referred to as a “propraetor.” In 58 BC, Cyprus was annexed by Rome. From that point forward, an appointee of the Roman emperor administered control over the island. In the Roman vernacular of the day, such a ruler would be referred to as an “imperial legate” or “propraetor.”
In 22 BC however, Rome changed the status of Cyprus from that of an annexed territory to that of a full-fledged province. Once a territory became a province, it fell under the authority of an appointee of the Roman senate. As such, a proconsul assumed ruling authority for the island.
“One of the most remarkable tokens of [Luke’s] accuracy is his sure familiarity with the proper titles of all the notable persons who are mentioned…Cyprus, for example, which was an imperial province until 22 BC, became a senatorial province in that year, and was therefore governed no longer by an imperial legate (a propraetor) but by a proconsul. And so, when Paul and Barnabas arrived in Cyprus about AD 47, it was the proconsul Sergius Paulus whom they met…1
Luke is not just accurate in his use of titles. Historians and archeologists have collected evidence for the existence of this particular proconsul.
In 1877, an archeological dig was taking place in the area near ancient Paphos on Cyprus. Supervising the excavation was Luigi Palma di Cesnola. Cesnola had been a Medal of Honor recipient for his efforts during the American Civil War. After the war ended, he was appointed U.S. Consul in Cyprus. Once there, he led a number of excavations. (Incidentally, he would eventually be named the first curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum.) He located an inscription that proved a proconsul named Paulus did exist. The inscription was in a marble block that was used to consecrate a monument in the first century, and it read as follows:
“Apollonius to his father…consecrated this enclosure and monument according to his family’s wishes…having filled the offices of clerk of the market, prefect, town-clerk, high priest, and having been in charge as manager of the records office. Erected on the 25th of the month Demarchexusius in the 13th year (of the reign of Claudius). He also altered the senate by means of assessors during the time of the proconsul Paulus.
The 13th year of the reign of Claudius would be AD 54, or just after the time of Paul and Barnabas’ visit. It could be that he is one in the same as the Sergius Paulus who was reached out to by Paul and Barnabas.
Additional evidence for the existence of Sergius Paulus comes from a first century Roman source. Pliny the Elder, as history refers to him, was a Roman naval commander who lived from AD 23-79. He was also a statesman, naturalist, and historian. A good deal of what we know about ancient Rome comes from his writings. Being in such influential positions, he came to personally know many of the important Roman political figures of the day.
In his discussions on Cyprus, Pliny reveals one more detail that is pertinent to Luke’s account in Acts 13: “There existed different groups of magicians from the time of Moses such as Jannes and Lotape, of whom the Jews had spoken of. And in fact many thousands yearly follow after Zoroastrian ways especially during recent times on the Island of Cyprus.”
Here, Pliny confirms the presence of magicians (or what Luke calls sorcerers) on Cyprus in the first century. They were so prominent that he actually gives them a place in his discussion of the island.
Before we leave Sergius Paulus, one more item is worth reviewing. Scripture tells us Asia Minor was the next place Paul and Barnabas journeyed to after leaving Cyprus. In fact, they headed specifically toward Antioch in Pisidia (see Acts 13:13f).
An inscription is on display in the Yalvac Museum within Turkey that was found in the vicinity of Pisidian Antioch. The whole word Paulii and portions of Sergii are visible on it. It would seem that the family of Sergius Paulus had a large estate in this area. The inscription itself may even be a reference to the proconsul. Maybe Paul and Barnabas headed there at the request of the Roman commander with the hopes of leading his family to Christ.
Here are some figures that are worth noting about the book of Acts. Luke identifies 110 individuals by name. Many of these have been verified in history through some extra-biblical source. In addition, Luke references 32 countries, 54 cities, and 9 islands. Every one of these has now been located archeologically with certainty, with the possible exception of Phoenix (mentioned in Acts 27:12 as a port on Crete).
Sir W. M. Ramsay, a 19th-century English historian, held a pervasive anti-biblical bias and believed the historical accounts in the Book of Acts were written in the mid-2nd century. Ramsay was skeptical of Luke’s authorship and the historicity of the Book of Acts, and he set out to prove his suspicions.
He began a detailed study of the archaeological evidence, and eventually came to an illuminating conclusion: The historical and archaeological evidence supported Luke’s first-century authorship and historical reliability.
In his 1895 book, St. Paul the Traveler and Roman Citizen, Ramsay was forced to concede, “Luke is a historian of the first rank; not merely are his statements of fact trustworthy, he is possessed of the true historic sense… In short, this author should be placed along with the very greatest of historians.”