Discovering St.Paul's Greece
Sprawling ruins, stunning islands, and ancient cities: Explore some of the holy and historic sites where the Apostle traveled
By Julie Rattey
The man who woke St. Paul from his sleep in 49 A.D. had a message to give. Paul, recognizing this to be a vision, was probably a bit wary. The last vision — the one that had launched his radical conversion from persecutor of Christians to ardent Apostle — had thrown him to the ground and blinded him for three days. Since then, spreading the Good News for Jesus had pretty much meant bad news for Paul: He’d been run out of town, stoned, and, one night, lowered secretly over the walls of Damascus in a basket to save his life from would-be murderers. All in all, it had not been a Picnic on the Mount. There must have been many a day when, however on fire for the faith, Paul thought wistfully of peaceful days in his hometown of Tarsus (in modern day Turkey), working his trade plying goat hair into tents, or of his time at the great Temple of Jerusalem, studying Jewish law under the great rabbi Gamaliel.
But that was Paul “B.C.,” when he was known as Saul — Roman citizen, upstanding Jew, Pharisee, and the man who severely persecuted Christians for preaching what he now knew to be the truth: Jesus was the Messiah.
All this may have raced through Paul’s mind that night as he beheld the vision of a man standing before him. He was a Macedonian — from a northern region of modern-day Greece.
“Come over to Macedonia and help us,” the man pleaded. Paul’s response betrayed no fear. He and his companions — Luke, Silas, and Timothy — immediately sought passage by sea to Macedonia from Troas in Asia Minor, where they were staying (Acts 16:10). Hopefully, Paul must have thought, this trip wouldn’t involve traveling over city walls in oversized storage bins.
After crossing the Aegean Sea, Paul arrived in Neapolis, an ancient port city now known as Kavala, and then, by the Egnatian Way, in Philippi, a Roman colony and leading city in Macedonia. One Sabbath day, Paul went down to the Gangitis River outside the city gates where, lacking a synagogue in their town, the local Jews gathered for prayer and ritual cleansing. Standing at the spot today, it’s easy to imagine how the sound of the river gently rushing over mossy stones must have refreshed the beleaguered Apostle. His missionary efforts were soon rewarded by the conversion of Lydia, a wealthy local woman. Not only did she submit herself for Baptism in the river by Paul; she also offered her entire household for the sacrament and opened her home to him (Acts 16:13-15).
Today, the site of Lydia’s Baptism is marked by a baptistery at the river, complete with several rows of stone seats, and, just a few hundred feet along a path strewn with gold and amber leaves, a modern Greek Orthodox church constructed of stone and with a red tile roof. The church’s marble interior is remarkably cool and refreshing. It is octagonal in structure, with a dome in the roof and a baptismal font in the center of the floor. Glittering mosaics and stained glass grace the walls while quiet flames crackle from long golden tapers. It seems like the perfect place for a Baptism, for a new beginning. And indeed, the church has a long waiting list of people who come from all over Greece to have their children baptized here by the river where Paul made his first European convert to Christianity. It’s also a popular site for pilgrims to visit. One such pilgrim, Mary Jane Fox from San Antonio, Texas, paused on her way back to her group’s tour bus to talk about how following in Paul’s footsteps has affected her faith.
“Spiritually, it’s been a joyous experience,” says Fox, who coordinated a pilgrim group that included Bishop Patrick Zurek of Amarillo, “an experience that’s leading me to a deeper desire to know the Scriptures, and especially the Pauline letters. When I go home,” she said, her face animated, “I want to learn so much more.”
This kind of eager response to the Gospel is exactly what Paul would have hoped for when he took his message beyond the riverbanks to Philippi’s agora, or marketplace. For the Greeks, the agora, an open square surrounded by covered passageways and public buildings (temples, shops, public baths, a library, administrative buildings, athletic facilities, etc.), was the local center of activity. Today the stone streets of Philippi’s agora are sprouting with grass and scattered with large rubble and eroding columns, but during the first century they would have been bustling with people buying and selling wares and slaves, with the braying of donkeys bearing their masters’ purchases, the clink of coins changing hands, the sizzle of early “fast food” being prepared for hungry shoppers, and with the sounds of public discourse and debate.
Today, visitors can wander through the ruins and conjure up these sights, along with the bewildering blend of aromas that must have greeted Paul when he entered the agora — fresh fish, pungent cheese, earthy animals, exotic perfumes. They can stand on the very spot called the bema, or “step” common to every agora and reserved for those who wished to speak to the public, where Paul preached the Gospel. Standing on that spot, they can imagine the reactions of the crowd Paul’s preaching would have received — some, perhaps, genuinely intrigued; others, perhaps more oft en, scoffing or amused. This was a Roman colony, after all, and the very agora in which Paul was preaching was flanked by temples dedicated to Roman gods.
Wondering what it would be like to stand on that precise spot where Paul preached, Terry Dickson of Biloxi, Mississippi, stepped around stone slabs and fallen columns to take the stage while an acquaintance took a photo. “It was awe-inspiring to stand exactly in the spot where Paul stood,” he later reflected. “I keep going back to the Gospel reading that we always hear on the Feast of the Ascension, where Jesus tells the Apostles to go out in all the nations and preach the Gospel. It’s amazing that we can be part of that journey.”
Unfortunately for Paul, his journey was taking a turn for the worse in Philippi. After an incident in which Paul un-possessed a slave girl of a fortune-telling spirit, her owners — angry at the profit they would lose — seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the main square before local authorities, charging them with disturbing the city and advocating customs unlawful for Romans to practice. The crowd attacked the disciples and imprisoned them, tying their feet to stakes. A holding cell where Paul was kept still stands today, just a few steps away from the ruins of other structures including a large basilica, temples to the Roman gods, and part of a 5,000-seat theater that is now used during summer festivals.
Fortunately, Paul and Silas did not languish in prison for long. Only a few hours after they’d been locked up, the Bible tells us, “About midnight, while Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God as the prisoners listened, there was suddenly such a severe earthquake that the foundations of the jail shook; all the doors flew open, and the chains of all were pulled loose” (Acts 16:25-26). The jailer and his entire family were converted and baptized that very night, and the next day, after it was revealed that Paul and Silas were Roman citizens, the disciples were set free. They left behind them the first Christian Church established in Europe, and a community that would flourish and stand by Paul throughout his future trials.
Paul and Silas now set out on the Egnatian Way for Thessaloniki, capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. On one side, Paul would have seen a seemingly endless expanse of sea — the Aegean — dropping away from the road; on the other, mountains rising toward the sky. He would have passed by olive and fruit trees, vineyards, fields of wheat and corn, small villages, and birdhouse-sized roadside shrines dedicated to Mercury, the god of travelers. It would have taken Paul about two to three weeks to travel to Thessaloniki, an important port and cultural mecca, including small stops along the way.
About 2,000 years since Paul visited it, Thessaloniki is still an important city — the second-most populous in Greece after Athens, and celebrated as “the mother of Macedonia.” Unfortunately, much of it has been destroyed over the years as a result of fires, earthquakes, and repeated bombing in World War II. Nevertheless, historic elements remain, including sections of the Byzantine city walls overlooking the Aegean Sea, a recently discovered (1978) corner of the agora where Paul preached for three Sabbaths to the people of the city, and the White Tower, a 16th-century structure that has become the city’s signature landmark. There are also many Orthodox churches to explore, including Ayios Dimitrios, built at the site where the patron saint of the city, St. Dimitrios, was imprisoned and executed in the year 304 for converting to Christianity and preaching the Gospel. Strolling by the waterfront at night, listening to the sounds of music and voices issuing from the many clubs and restaurants opposite the water, one can imagine that, many years ago, city dwellers of Paul’s time made their way about the area on similar business — sharing a meal, discussing the gossip and business of the day, laughing, and toasting each other’s health and prosperity.
When Paul arrived in the city, he preached the Good News to the local Jewish people. "Some of them,” the Bible says, “were convinced and joined Paul and Silas; so, too, a great number of Greeks who were worshipers, and not a few of the prominent women” (Acts 17:4). In his later letter to the Thessalonians, Paul describes how he treated these new converts: “We were gentle among you,” he writes, “as a nursing mother cares for her children. With such affection for you, we were determined to share with you not only the Gospel of God, but our very selves as well, so dearly beloved had you become to us” (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8). The converts in turn were dedicated to their newfound faith.
But Paul was not to share for very long the company of his new brothers and sisters in Christ. “The Jews,” the Bible says, “became jealous and recruited some worthless men loitering in the public square, formed a mob, and set the city in turmoil” (Acts 17:4-5). Once again, Paul and Silas were forced to flee, slipping away during the night to meet Timothy at Beroea (today known as Veria), located in the foothills of Mount Vermio about 44 miles southwest of Thessaloniki. The Gospel was well received there, though once again, persecution from the local Jewish community stirred up trouble. Undaunted, Paul traveled down the coast toward what would be one of his biggest challenges: Athens, seat of the ancient Greek religion, home of the Parthenon and the Temple of Hephaistos, birthplace of democracy and, as Paul would have hoped, of a new Christian community. CD
Read Part 2 in the May issue of Catholic Digest.