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The Global Christian Mission: The Maritime Global Expansion

This article is part of The Gospel in History series by Woodrow Walton.
Image: The Books of Kells by way of Wikimedia Commons.

The Black Sea, also called the Euxine Sea, was as important in New Testament times as it is in our present time. On its north shore was the Crimea and the Ukraine. It eastern extension is part of western Asia and its western shorelines are those of eastern Europe. The Crimea was one of the Roman Empire’s food baskets. Egypt and Sardinia were the other two.

These seas were the ones most familiar to the Apostles. The southern shorelines of the Black Sea were shorelines of Pontus, Cappadocia, and Galatia, well known to the Apostles Peter, Paul, and others. One other body of water that was well known as it is now, the Red Sea separating northeastern Africa from the Arabian peninsula to enter into the Arabian Sea. Last of all was the Sea of Galilee, actually a large lake, also known as Lake Tiberias.

The point of these descriptions is that these various bodies of water were not broad oceans as the Atlantic, the Indian, and the Pacific. The ships that carried the apostle Paul, other apostles, and later evangelists were not built for ocean travel. Ships during Biblical days kept principally in sight of shorelines. Even the ships of the adventuresome seamen of Tyre and Sidon did not strike out across the middle of the Mediterranean during the spring and winter seasons when strong winds blew out of the northeast. The Carthaginians who were masters of maritime voyages and the first to round Africa’s Cape of Good Hope stayed in sight of the western coastline of Africa and then veered northward along Africa’s shorelines toward where the Red Sea emptied into the Arabian Sea. The confluence of the Red Sea and the Arabian were in close proximity with the Persian Gulf. This area was well traveled in Biblical days, serving as a maritime highway for the peoples of the Ancient Near East and as a link between the eastern Mediterranean and the coastal shores of Persia.

Along with the Silk roads connecting Eastern Europe and the Palestinian-Syrian Mediterranean world with Central Asia and beyond, the waterways just described furnished the sea-lanes for travel between East and West. The Red Sea, which runs from northwest to southeast and vice versa, was a much-used passage between Alexandria, Egypt and the Indus River delta separating southeastern Persia (modern Iran) from India. In fact, Roman coins have been found along that coastline and down the Malabar Coast of India. This find lends credence to the apocryphal story of St. Thomas, a tradition which says this apostle gave witness to Jesus in that part of southern Asia.

It was, however, the exploratory voyages of Pero de Covilha of Portugal in the late 1480s which led to the most extraordinary period in maritime missionary journeys. One of the objectives was to reach the Christian king of Ethiopia and to ascertain the possibility of reaching the Indian Ocean by sea. He did visit Aden at the tip of the Arabian Peninsula and also Cannanore, Calicut, Goa, and the coast of East Africa. It was, however, Bartolomeu Dias who led three ships on a voyage into the Indian Ocean for the first time. He would eventually dock in Mossel Bay, 160 miles east of the southern tip of Africa, on February 3, 1488. Vasco De Gama, in 1492/3, reached the Malabar Coast of India and then docked at Goa along the Gujarat coast of India. Catholic priests from Portugal that came with De Gama reported having met Christians who identified themselves as Mar Thomas Christians, speaking a language akin to Syriac. This was a critical moment in the history of global Christianity.

The Red Sea and Persian Gulf were well traveled in Biblical days, serving as a maritime highway for the peoples of the Ancient Near East and as a link between the eastern Mediterranean and the coastal shores of Persia.

During the next seven years, Portugal took the lead in the maritime expansion of the Gospel with Spain close behind with the voyage of Cristobal Colombo [Christopher Columbus] into the South Atlantic in 1493 taking him into the Americas with landings in the Bahamas and then in Hispaniola in the Caribbean.

Even with this Spanish incursion, the South American country of Brazil came under Portuguese oversight, as did Angola on the west coast of Africa, Mozambique on Africa’s southeast coast, and eventually the island of Macao, just east of Canton, where the waters of the South China Sea and the Pacific intermingle north of the Philippines.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2020

About the Author: Woodrow E. Walton, D.Min. (Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions), B.A. (Texas Christian University), B.D. [M.Div.] (Duke Divinity School), M.A. (University of Oklahoma), is a retired Seminary Dean and Professor of biblical, theological and historical studies. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, Texas. Walton retains membership with the Evangelical Theological Society, American Association of Christian Counselors, American Society of Church History, American Academy of Political Science, and The International Society of Frontier Missiology.

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