Discovering St. Paul's Greece: Part 2 of 3

Sprawling ruins, stunning islands, and ancient cities: Explore some of the holy and historic sites where the Apostle traveled

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By Julie Rattey


In Part 1, St. Paul began his travels in Greece, making his first European convert to Christianity in Philippi and establishing communities there as well as in Thessaloniki and Veria before traveling to Athens.

Standing on the deck of the vessel carrying him across the Aegean Sea, Paul squinted against the bright sunlight reflecting off the water and looked to the shore beyond. After leaving Veria, he had (many scholars believe) traveled from Dion, the nearest port, to catch a ship to Athens. Though it was not the mecca it had been in the fifth century B.C., when the Parthenon was built and when some of the greatest Greek dramas were making their debuts, it was still an impressive city. And there in the distance, in testament to the region’s glory, rose the towering columns of the Temple of Poseidon, god of the sea.

Paul watched the columns gleam in the sunlight, vast and immovable. Perhaps the Athenians would be just as immovable when he would call upon them to trade in their panoply of deities for a humble man who had died as a criminal on Calvary. Paul could not impress the Athenians by describing majestic temples built to honor Christ; his only monuments were the flames of faith burning in the hearts of Christ’s Apostles, and the small but tenacious communities taking root like olive trees.

Paul’s ship continued to the port of Piraeus, guided by the sight of the Parthenon and its famous statue of the goddess Athena. When at last Paul arrived in Athens, waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him, he quickly grew exasperated at how awash the city was in idol worship. In the agora, the marketplace and center of city activity, there were pagan temples and statues galore. “He debated,” the Bible tells us, “in the synagogue with the Jews and with the worshipers, and daily in the public square with whoever happened to be there” (Acts 17:17). It is widely believed Paul was then taken to Areopagus Hill (Hill of Ares/Mars, god of war) to speak his views.

Two thousand years later, visitors can clamber atop the slippery rocks of that very hill and command a spectacular view that, in some respects, is similar to what Paul would have seen in the middle of the first century. In the distance, clouds and mountains, a vast spread of city buildings; closer still, the agora, notably marked by the fifth-century B.C. Temple of Hephaestus, the best-preserved temple of the ancient world. To the east rises Lycabettus Hill, the highest point of Athens at about 910 feet and now boasting an open-air theater, an elegant restaurant with a glorious open-air view, and the small whitewashed chapel of Ayios Giorgios (St. George), a popular spot for weddings. Farther to the east, atop the Acropolis, stand the magnificent Parthenon and the Temple of Erechtheus with its famous “Porch of the Maidens,” with six draped female figures as supporting columns. Today the marble of these buildings is beige due to the iron oxide it contains, but it was once a beautiful white and elaborately painted in striking blue, red, and gold.

Before this impressive display of pagan glory Paul would have stood as he faced the Athenians on Mars Hill. His speech, recorded for us in Acts 17:22-31 and commemorated today on a plaque at the spot, reveals a shrewd speaker who was respectful in his tone of address, gentle in his call to conversion, and clever in employing quotes from Athenian figures to express and support his views.

“You Athenians,” he began, “I see that in every respect you are very religious. For as I walked around looking carefully at your shrines, I even discovered an altar inscribed, ‘To an Unknown God.’ What therefore you unknowingly worship, I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and all that is in it...does not dwell in sanctuaries made by human hands...Rather it is He who gives to everyone life and breath and everything...For ‘In Him we live and move and have our being,’ as even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his off spring.’ Since therefore we are the off spring of God, we ought not to think that the divinity is like an image fashioned from gold, silver, or stone by human art and imagination.

“God has overlooked the times of ignorance, but now He demands that all people everywhere repent because He has established a day on which He will ‘judge the world with justice’ through a man He has appointed, and He has provided confirmation for all by raising Him from the dead.”

When the crowd heard Paul speak about resurrection, “some began to scoff , but others said, ‘We should like to hear you on this some other time’” (Acts 17:32). He converted some of them, including Dionysius, who was a member of the Court of the Areopagus, and a woman named Damaris. Then Paul left Athens and continued on to the ancient city of Corinth, at the northern edge of the Peloponnesian peninsula.

 

CORINTH

When Paul arrived, Corinth had been recently restored (44 B.C.) by Julius Caesar after having been almost entirely razed by the Romans about 100 years before. Prior to this, the city had been so splendid that a Greek proverb, “See Corinth and die,” intimated that after seeing the sights of Corinth, there was nothing left to see. At the time Paul visited, it was somewhat of a melting pot, populated with Romans, Greeks, and Jews; with slaves (and freed slaves), merchants, sailors, and people from various parts of the Roman Empire. It was also home to the Isthmian Games, second only to the Olympics and unique because women were allowed to compete.

This wealthy seaport city, called “the crossroads of the world” for commanding ship traffic between the two halves of Greece as well as traffic from Rome to the East, had a reputation for being especially licentious (the Greek geographer Strabo once claimed, apparently without foundation, that it had 1,000 sacred prostitutes), but recent scholarship reveals that Corinth was no worse than any other Mediterranean port. Nevertheless, Paul would certainly have his work cut out for him.

In Corinth Paul met and stayed with a Jewish man named Aquila and his wife, Priscilla, who had possibly already converted to Christianity before their arrival from Italy. All three worked in the tentmaking trade, and every Sabbath Paul spoke in the local synagogue (Acts 18:1-4). When Silas and Timothy joined him from Macedonia, Paul then devoted himself full time to preaching.

But the local Jews did not want to hear Paul’s message. He then preached to the Gentiles, and received a vision encouraging him in his mission. “Go on speaking,” said the Lord, “and do not be silent, for I am with you. No one will attack and harm you, for I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10).

Today, Corinth’s population is about 33,500, and since the city has actually been located away from the ancient site, which was hard hit by earthquakes. But remnants of its glory can be seen in the ancient site, on the Isthmus of Corinth, the narrow stretch of land that joins the Peloponnesus to the mainland of Greece. After pausing at a tourist area to snap photos of the impressive 19th-century canal that cuts across the isthmus, buy handpainted pottery, and snack on souvlaki (small pieces of meat, and sometimes vegetables, often grilled on a skewer), visitors travel to the ancient site to see the archaeological museum — with its beautiful statues, pottery, and mosaics — and stroll the city ruins, imagining the sights and sounds of Paul’s time.

The first thing Paul — and visitors today — would likely have noticed was the Temple of Apollo, god of light. Built on a low hill in the sixth century B.C., the temple overlooks the Roman agora and Lechaion Road, which ran from the market to the port of Lechaion and by which merchants transported goods to and from the city. As Paul walked through the busy market streets, he would have passed shops with a variety of wares for sale, and overheard customers and shopkeepers discussing their sales and the news of the day.

Perhaps in the market he saw men resting under the shade of a nearby tree, rubbing sore arms after a hard day’s work hauling ships on sledges over the isthmus to Corinth. Perhaps his eyes drifted to the sight of the Acrocorinth, a hill rising nearly 2,000 feet above the city and home to one of the two Corinthian temples to Aphrodite, goddess of love. He may have mused over what he would write to the Christian community in Thessaloniki on keeping strong in the face of such pagan worship while stopping for a drink at the Fountain of Peirene, named for a woman who, according to Greek myth, wept so profusely for her dead son that she dissolved into a spring. Perhaps he looked down in the dirt to grimace at a message from one of the local prostitutes, whose shoes left enticing imprints reading, “Follow me.” We can imagine Paul scuffing some of these marks as he walked along, urging Corinthians to follow instead the footsteps of Christ.

 

Although footprints fade quickly, ruins of many of the structures standing in Paul’s time remain. The Temple of Apollo, for instance, though retaining only seven of its 38 columns due to repeated earthquakes, still stands impressively against blue sky and mountains. The ruins of market shops and buildings are still present, as are those of structures surrounding the Fountain of Peirene, including cave-like chambers from which the water flowed into an open-air well, now sprouting with tufty vegetation. Here also is the bema, or small stage for public speakers where, frustrated with his preaching, the Jews in Corinth brought Paul before the Roman governor Gallio in 52.

Paul remained in Corinth for a year and a half, after which he, along with Aquila and Priscilla, sailed away to Syria. He would soon arrive in the Turkish city of Ephesus, the place where the Virgin Mary spent her final days and where Paul would once again preach about Christ to all who would hear him. His adventures were far from over.  CD

Read Part 3 in the June issue of Catholic Digest.

Managing Editor Julie Rattey

Julie Rattey is a Boston-based writer and editor. She is the author of If I Grew Up in Nazareth, available from 23rdPublications.com.