Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

5. St Paul the Missionary |
Westward to Europe and the world

St Paul the Missionary is drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 116, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit Books.TheChristians.com.

Ignoring bandits, pagans, beatings, and imprisonment, Paul takes his message to new churches, and the Gentiles

St Paul the Missionary - Westward to Europe and the world

St Paul the Missionary – Westward to Europe and the world
Defending the legitimacy of his ministry to the church at Corinth, Paul lists his tribulations on behalf of the faith. “I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again. Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked. . . . I have been in danger from rivers, bandits, friend, and foe . . . known hunger and thirst . . . been cold and naked. . . . So, who is weak and I am not weak?”

Standing like a fortress wall along the south coast of Turkey, the Taurus Mountains glower down upon the Mediterranean. Steep, jagged, cut by deep, twisting ravines through which the waters of winter crash down in torrents, they are a formidable barrier to road builders, travelers, pilgrims, tourists and invaders. Toward the great sea’s northeastern corner, however, the Tauruses retreat slightly from the coast, creating the Cilician Plain, in the midst of which stands the ancient city known as Tarsus, Turkey’s seventieth city in terms of population.

Tarsus has known greater days. Probably its greatest came unspectacularly, in the spring of a.d. 50 or thereabouts. The Jew named Paul, destined to become Tarsus’s greatest-ever son, took the road north, toward the ominously shadowed barrier of the Tauruses. About thirty miles ahead of him lay the single crack in the great mountain barrier. From here, the road ran west, a mere trail, barely wide enough for two men to walk abreast, through a series of narrow, hazardous defiles. Nearly two thousand years later, travelers would still call them the Cilician Gates.

The gates had seen much history. Through them in 401 B.C., the Greek survivors of the Battle of Cunaxa had fled for home after their leader, Cyrus the Younger, was slain. Through the tight passage, coming the other way sixty-eight years later, squeezed the mighty forces of Alexander on their way to conquer the known world. Now, through the same pass, the greatest conquest Europe would ever know was about to begin, and the force that would accomplish it was an army of two–Paul and, beside him, his companion Silas.

Silas was a Jerusalem Jew, his name probably derived from the Talmudic name Shila, and he clearly had the confidence of James, Peter, John, and the Jerusalem church leadership. They had entrusted him and a companion with the vital letter formally exempting Gentile Christians from circumcision. He had delivered it at Antioch and in the ensuing weeks had become persuaded it was Christ himself who had commissioned Paul as apostle to the Gentiles. Thus, when others abandoned Paul, Silas did not. He offered Paul something more. His Latin name, Silvanus, disclosed him as a Roman citizen, a distinct advantage in the tumultuous adventures that would follow. Hence, it was a party of two that crossed the Tauruses through the Cilician Gates and headed west to the Roman provinces of Galatia, Asia, Macedonia, and the world.

About ten days beyond the Gates, they reached the town of Lystra, which would become Zostera, near Hatunsary on the maps of the future Turkey. Here, they added a third member to the party–young Timothy, in Greek Timotheos, whose name was to be associated with Paul’s in six of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, two of which would be addressed directly to Timothy, whom Paul would call “my true-born son in the faith.” Lystra held some bad memories for Paul. He had been stoned by a hostile crowd here and given up for dead. But he and Barnabas had escaped, leaving behind a durable Christian community. One member of it was a certain Eunice, a Jewess married to a Gentile. Timothy, their son, was therefore considered Jewish by birth,1 but since he had never been circumcised he was, by Jewish law, an apostate, a rebel against his own religion.

Timothy was highly recommended to Paul by his fellow believers, but he posed a problem. If Paul acquiesced in Timothy’s apostasy, this would make Paul an apostate as well, thereby denying him access to any synagogue. Paul soon solved this. He circumcised Timothy, regularizing his status in the Jewish community.

All three now moved deeper into the province of Galatia, the locale that had held such dread for John Mark that he had abandoned Paul and Barnabas and gone home. But John Mark had good reason to be nervous. The Galatians had never become enamored with Greek civilization. They were, in fact, the race known as the Celts, who made their first appearance in history in what would one day be north-central Germany, about four thousand years ago. From there, they moved west, becoming known in the future Spain as the Celtiberians, in Ireland as the Gaels, in Scotland as the Picts, in England as the Britons, in France as the Gauls, and in the Low Countries as the Belgae.

They struck south too, once actually sacking and burning Rome, though they were soon hurled out. They became such a problem to the Greeks, Macedonians, and Thracians that the king of Bithynia made a deal with them. They could have the whole pasture land of Asia Minor, he said, if they would stay there and leave Bithynia and its neighbors to the north alone. They agreed, and in 288—287 B.C., some twenty thousand of them–men, women, children, and baggage–crossed over from Europe and occupied the great, bleak, dry, rolling, treeless plateau that accounts for about twelve thousand square miles in the center of the future Turkey. There they became the Galatians.

They kept their promise and did not return to Europe. But for the next two centuries they made themselves the terror of Asia Minor, supplementing the meager income of their pastoral, drought-prone property by robbing, pillaging, and slaughtering their neighbors, or, whenever the market was good, selling them into slavery. The civilized peoples of the coastal cities loathed and dreaded them. To the Greeks, writes the historian Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, they were “large, unpredictable simpletons, ferocious and highly dangerous when angry, but without stamina and easy to trick.” They went into battle naked, and they drank too much.

However, they were also honest, truthful and oddly generous to visitors. “They invite strangers to their feasts,” writes Diodorus Siculus (80—20 B.C.), “and do not inquire until after the meal who they are and of what things they are in need. And it is their custom, even during the course of the meal, to seize upon any trivial matter as an occasion for keen disputation, and then to challenge one another to single combat without any regard for their lives. . . . They are also boasters and threateners, and are fond of pompous language, and yet have sharp wits and are not without cleverness at learning. Among them are found lyric poets whom they call Bards.”

In 88 b.c., a neighboring king summoned sixty of their leading men to a great banquet, where he massacred them all. The Romans helped them avenge this reversal. That made them permanent and dependable allies of Rome, and by Paul’s time, Galatia was a Roman province. However disgusting to the Greeks, to Paul they were merely one more variety of Gentile human souls whom Christ had died for. He and Barnabas had founded churches in at least four Galatian centers.2

When he returned to visit them, Paul did not like what he found. He discovered, as he had no doubt already heard, that he was not conducting the only mission to the Gentiles. Others, probably out of Antioch but claiming authority from Jerusalem, had actually reached the Galatian churches, spent considerable time with them and largely persuaded them that he, Paul, was a compromiser and a fraud. The Law, they argued, had been given to Abraham, and Jesus had now made it possible for all the peoples of the world to come under the Law. But like the Jews, all must submit themselves to the Law’s commands and, among other things, be circumcised. Otherwise, in no sense could they be true followers of Christ.

The implications of such thinking had long been clear to Paul. For one thing, circumcision made no sense whatever to the Gentiles. The spiritual point of it was entirely lost on them, and many saw it as a weird eastern form of self-mutilation, like castration, something the Egyptians were given to. Worse still, the effect would be to render Christianity as simply another sect of Judaism. Worst of all, if faith in Christ were reduced to mere adherence to a number of moral, social, and dietary rules, the liberation from the Law that Jesus had come to bring, the freedom it was Paul’s responsibility to preach, would be utterly lost. The Law, impossible by itself as a means of salvation, could be fulfilled because one could now live in Christ and, through him, in the very life of God. What mattered now, therefore, was the relationship of the individual to Jesus Christ. This was a war, in other words, a war that he must not lose.

How Paul replied on the spot to the Galatians, history does not record. How he replied to them in a subsequent letter was to become one of the books of the New Testament. The Epistle to the Galatians, addressed to wayward congregations in the lonely grasslands of central Asia Minor, would be read in homes and churches all around the world for centuries to come.

Paul knew the disputatious Galatians. To pick a fight with them, he realized, would accomplish nothing. He addresses them as “O you dear idiots of Galatia,” and the tone is more affectionate than accusatory. He goes on to strike two notes–heartbreak that they had been led astray and reasoned argument to lead them back.

He is “amazed,” he says, that they had actually embraced “another gospel”–because there really is no such thing. Peter, James, and John, the “pillars” of the church in Jerusalem, had all agreed that Gentiles need not come under the Law. Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile, had actually been at the conference, and no one had proposed that he be circumcised. So why now the Gentiles of Galatia? But beyond that, did they not realize that salvation cannot be won by obeying a system of regulations? What matters is not the Law, but faith in Jesus Christ.

Abraham, they might recall, had two sons, one by a slave and one by a free woman. Those who descended from the slave were under the Law and therefore remained, spiritually speaking, slaves of the Law. But they, the Christians of Galatia, had come to God through faith in Jesus Christ. “So then, my brothers, we are not to look upon ourselves as the sons of the slave woman, but of the free, not sons of slavery under the Law, but sons of freedom under grace” (Gal. 4:30—31 JBP).

But this did not mean, Paul warned, that they could abuse their freedom by yielding to their lower nature, by indulging in sexual immorality, impurity of mind, sensuality, worship of false gods, witchcraft, hatred, strife, jealousy, bad temper, rivalry, factions, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and the like. Rather, they should see within themselves the product of the Spirit–love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, fidelity, tolerance, and self-control.

Whether the Galatian response was to return to Paul’s “gospel” is not known. He would visit them again in a subsequent mission journey “to strengthen” them. That would be about four years later, and it was perhaps after that occasion that he wrote his letter to them. In the meantime, his next step was determined by a dream in which he saw a Macedonian man beckoning him to “come and help us.” That seemed clear enough. The trio had already moved more than five hundred miles by the Roman roads to the port of Troas near the northwest corner of Asia Minor, jump-off point for the Macedonian ports on the north coast of the Aegean. In Troas, they had been joined by a fourth, a man who was to become Paul’s companion and the narrator of his struggles, a man whose polished Greek, eye for detail, and knack for storytelling would enable him to write approximately one quarter of the New Testament. His name was Luke.3

The voyage taken in response to Paul’s dream went well. They made the 120-mile crossing to Macedonia in less than two days. (The same trip in the reverse direction some eight years later would take them more than a week.) This put them into Neapolis (modern Kavalla), port city for the Macedonian center of Philippi. It lay just fifteen miles ahead, along one of the best roads in the empire, the Via Egnatia, a masterpiece of construction by the Roman army that snaked across the mountains of Macedonia to connect the Adriatic and Aegean.

Philippi’s claim to historical renown was fairly recent. Though it was founded four centuries earlier by Philip of Macedonia, father of Alexander the Great, as a town atop a hill, it was best known throughout the empire as the place where an army under Brutus and Cassius, two of Julius Caesar’s assassins, was trounced in 42 B.C. by Caesar’s avengers, Marc Antony and Octavius (later known as Augustus). Eleven years after the Battle of Philippi, Octavius defeated his erstwhile partner Antony and transferred Antony’s defeated veterans out of Italy and into Macedonia, a safe distance from Rome. They settled alongside the veterans of the Brutus-Cassius force, who had already been planted in the place. Thus, these ex-Legionaries and onetime enemies formed a Latin-speaking island in a sea of Greek. By now the city had sprawled down the hillside, encroaching upon the marshland that lay between it and the sea, but looking out also on the fertile and beautiful farmlands to the west.

Paul, as was his practice, first sought out the synagogue, only to discover there wasn’t one, meaning that in all Philippi there were not even the requisite ten male Jews to form a congregation. However, he was told, a few devout women, some Jewish-born and some converts to Judaism, met on the Sabbath beside a little stream, about a mile from the town, to worship God, read the Scriptures, and sing. Paul and his companions joined them and told them of Jesus the Messiah, his death, his Resurrection, and the grace he conferred upon those who were baptized and believed in him. The women’s enthusiasm seems to have been instant, deep, and durable. Philippi became the strongest and most problem-free of Paul’s churches, backing him with words, deeds, and money. The Philippian church had one other idiosyncrasy. It began and remained in Paul’s time a church mostly of women.

One in particular became a powerful supporter. Her real name is unknown. Luke records it as Lydia, which (says the historian F. F. Bruce) simply means “a woman from Lydia.” She came, however, from Thyatira, a center over on the Asia side, where the people for centuries had extracted from the mollusks found along the shore porphyry, a purple dye that would not fade. Lydia had moved to Philippi and set up a business, importing the dye and selling it in Macedonia. At Thyatira, where there was a strong Jewish community, she had become a God-fearer, a convert to Judaism. Hearing Paul’s message, she was baptized along with her whole household, which would include not only kinfolk, but slaves and freedmen. She gave her home over to Paul and his companions.

But there were other women active in the Philippian church on whom Paul relied. Two in particular–Euodi and Syntyche–are singled out in a letter Paul wrote to the Philippians about ten years later, after these two quarreled. “They worked hard for me in the gospel,” he writes (Phil. 4:3), and exhorts the rest of the community to help them resolve their differences. But he also admonishes the two, with advice that would be cited to resolve the congregational and marital quarrels of Christians down through the ages: “Live together in harmony, live together in love, as though you had only one mind and one spirit between you. Never act from motives of rivalry or personal vanity, but in humility think more of each other than you do of yourselves. None of you should think only of his own affairs, but consider other people’s interests also” (Phil. 2:3—4 JBP). It was good advice, observes Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, but Paul himself didn’t always take it, as his fulminations against his own rivals would amply demonstrate.

Many historians note another, but more positive, inconsistency. Paul had an ambiguous attitude toward women. On the one hand, he was a product of the ancient synagogue. “Let women be silent in church,” he decrees (1 Cor. 14:34—35 JBP). “They are not to be allowed to speak. They must submit to this regulation as the Law itself instructs. If they have questions to ask, they must ask their husbands at home, for there is something improper about a woman speaking in church.” On the other hand, he conferred major responsibilities on women, not only at Philippi, but at Corinth, Ephesus, and elsewhere. And whatever his prejudices, women obviously admired, served, and trusted him.

Perhaps they had heard his assertion: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 KJV). By the twenty-first century, those words would become a cliché. In the first century, they bespoke a revolution, and they were matched in Christian practice. The use of baptism as the central rite, says the historian Alan F. Segal (Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee, Yale University Press, 1990), made women full partners with men in Christian communities. Though women might actually have retained an inferior place in society, and though slaves, out of necessity, must have been returned to their masters, Paul felt that the distinctions between Jew and Gentile, which were based on ritual status, could be erased by new rituals of unity.

Paul’s appeal to women did not escape the attention of their husbands, notes F. F. Bruce (Paul: Apostle of the Free Spirit. Exeter, UK: Paternoster Press, 1977). At Thessalonica, he recruited into Christianity the wives of some of the foremost citizens. Gentile husbands did not object to their wives flirting with Judaism; it was becoming trendy. “But they would look quite differently on their wives’ association with a very odd collection of enthusiasts who (as it seemed to them) were hypnotized by these strangers who had come to their city from goodness knew where and who (they might be sure) meant no good. It was their wealth that they were after, if not something more discreditable still.”

Paul’s ministry in Philippi lasted, by some estimates, about a year. It came to an end abruptly and violently. Paul and his company one day found themselves followed by a slave girl who incessantly shrieked out, “These men are servants of the most high God, and they are telling you the way of salvation!” This girl was regarded locally as “possessed,” but by a peculiar demon which enabled her, said her owners, to forecast the future. They offered her services at a price. To Paul, she was simply a nuisance. The endorsement of a reputed lunatic did little for his credibility, and besides, she made so much noise, people couldn’t hear what he was saying. Finally exasperated, he turned on her fiercely, directing his voice not at the girl but at the demon within her: “I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her!” Instantly the intruder left her.4

Though Paul’s attentions had undoubtedly cured the girl, her owners were far from grateful. By being recognizably rid of her demon, she had also been deprived of her supposed gift of prophecy, and everybody knew it. Paul had cost them their major asset. They pressed through the crowd, seized Paul and Silas, and dragged them to the town square, denouncing them as troublemaking, property-destroying Jews. Then they called on the magistrates to punish the two for trying to convert Roman citizens. Such proselytizing, however, though officially discouraged, was not technically against the law.

The magistrates arrived in state array, preceded by their lictors in emulation of the consuls at Rome. The lictors bore before them the fasces, rods bundled around axes symbolizing the power of the Roman state to enforce laws and punish offenders. With neither a trial nor, for that matter, even the clear infraction of a law, the magistrates disregarded the protests of Paul and Silas and ordered them stripped and beaten with rods, a sentence the lictors carried out there and then. The crowd, which didn’t like Jews, cheered them on, Luke reports.

Bruised and bloodied, the pair was then hauled off to the local jail, where their legs were clamped into stocks. As the night approached, they began to cheer themselves up by singing hymns and praying aloud. The historian Giuseppe Ricciotti (Paul the Apostle.

Milwaukee: Bruce Publ., 1952) imagines the hoarse voices, the cursing and swearing of the other prisoners. Near midnight, Luke reports, there was suddenly a deafening rumble. The building began to shake, the bars jangled free in the windows, the doors swung open, the fetters on their wrists and legs fell loose. The horrified jailer rushed to the scene, saw the open doors, and gave up all hope. If the prisoners were gone, he knew his life was as good as lost. Perhaps he’d even heard that King Agrippa, down in Judea, had put sixteen jail guards to death when another of these so-called Christians, a man named Peter, had under similarly dumbfounding circumstances escaped jail in Jerusalem. The jailer drew his sword and prepared to fall on it. Better death this way than under torture. Then he heard a voice shouting at him. It was that prisoner, Paul. Why had Paul not fled? What was going on?

“Stop!” shouted Paul. “Don’t do that. We’re all here.”

The jailer was thunderstruck. He called for lights to be brought forward, and entered what was left of the jail. It was true. Paul and Silas were standing right there. He began trembling. Who were these people? He led them outside. Then it dawned on him. Just as the poor, wretched little slave girl had said, these men were in fact and in deed “servants of the Most High God.” He led them from

the jailhouse and fell at their feet. “Sirs,” he said, still trembling, “what must I do to be saved?” Their answer was immediate: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.” He took them into his house, washed their wounds, fed them, and his whole household was baptized. He would be their last convert in Philippi. And this one was male.

But the story wasn’t quite over. Constables arrived from the magistrates and ordered the two released. Not just yet, replied Paul; there was a little matter that remained to be resolved. They had been punished with no hearing, no evidence, no trial, and no law. The magistrates might like to know that both he and Silas were Roman citizens.

Consternation no doubt registered on the faces of the constables. Paul’s ostensible offenses were nothing compared with the charges that now faced the magistrates. Roman law was very specific and very strict on this point. You don’t convict a citizen without a trial. A hundred years before, the great jurist Cicero had said, “If a Roman citizen is bound, it is a misdeed; if he is struck it is a crime; and if he is killed it is almost parricide (murder of a kinsman).” Backing up Cicero was legislation that was half a millennium old. The Lex Valeria of 509 b.c., says Ricciotti, prohibited striking a citizen without a previous and explicit popular decision. The Lex Portia of 248 b.c. prohibited scourging a citizen for any reason whatever. The magistrates knew this. Worse still, they knew that Paul knew it. They also knew that in similar cases, whole cities had been penalized for the action of a single magistrate.

What could they do to right this dreadful wrong? They could apologize, said Paul. So they did. Profusely. But they had one more request of him. Would he and his party please get out of town? The people were angry. Controlling them would be difficult. Paul agreed, bade farewell to Lydia, and headed west with Timothy and Silas on the Via Egnatia, leaving Luke behind. But a church had been planted in Philippi that would be a joy to him for the rest of his life.
== Paul’s Missions ==
=== Paul’s First Mission ===

Something else had been accomplished that they could not realize at the time. Though there were already Christians at Rome (and how they got there nobody knows), the first formal Christian mission had been established beyond the Aegean, on the continent called Europe. For the Christians, Philippi would provide the gateway to Europe, just as Europe, fourteen hundred years later, would provide the gateway to the world.

Things would not work out nearly so well at their next destination, however. It was Macedonia’s capital and largest city–Thessalonica, founded by Cassander, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, in 315 b.c., and named for Cassander’s wife, Thessalonica, who was Alexander’s half sister. Construction of the Via Egnatia, coupled with the fact that its harbor was the best port on the Macedonian coast, gave it a thriving economy. But by Paul’s day, it was not a happy place. Murphy-O’Connor portrays it as run by a dominant business and bureaucratic elite, closely tied to Rome. These saw to it that the working people did not share its prosperity. To make a bare living, they had to work twelve hours a day, seven days a week. Moreover, such solace as they were able to derive from their religion had, like everything else, been usurped by the wealthy, or so the story went. The god Cabirus had been their protector, but for reasons unexplained, Thessalonica’s gentry took a fancy to Cabirus and incorporated him into the state religion as a god for the upper class. So now even spiritual sustenance was denied them.

Thessalonica’s manifold business opportunities had attracted a large Jewish population, and it was to the synagogue congregation that Paul and Silas first made their overtures. For three successive Sabbaths, they were heard gladly. But then critics gathered, and the controversial nature of their message got them expelled. Even so, a number of wealthy women and a prominent Jew named Jason continued loyal to them, while they turned their attention to the Gentiles, in particular to the hard-pressed working population. Paul got a job as a tent-maker, putting in the usual twelve-hour day.

To the poor, the message of a messiah with no material possessions whatever, who regarded the poor as favored by God, who said it was the wealthy who had to tremble at the divine judgment, came with especial meaning. The little congregation soon became a large congregation, and growing steadily. This success did not please the synagogue leaders. They went to the marketplace, organized a gang of bullyboys, and set out to drag Paul and company before the magistrates. Failing to find them, they grabbed Jason and some of the other local leaders instead. “These,” they said, “are the people who are turning the world upside down.”

F. F. Bruce makes a point: This description of the early Christian community–that they were upsetting the world–has provided a subject for countless sermons. Few of the preachers, however, realize how dangerous was this charge at the time. Jewish resistance to Rome was growing steadily in Judea and Galilee, and involving some Jews throughout the Diaspora as well. The authorities would take this “turning the world upside down” as evidence these were Jewish conspirators against Rome, being supported by a local man, Jason. However, they decided on a prudent course. They told Jason: Get these men out of town and the charges will be dropped. Paul had no option but to concur.

But he left in misery. His poor converts would now face the jeering, and perhaps violence, of Thessalonica. Bruce reconstructs what they would be saying: “A fine lot these Jewish propagandists are. They come here and entice you to leave the synagogue and follow them, but the moment trouble arises, off they go and leave their dupes to face the music.” Cowardice was something of which Paul had never before been accused. But if he remained, then he, his companions, Jason, and his converts would all be jailed. So he departed–under cover of darkness. It was humiliating.

His plan, some say, had been to keep moving west across Macedonia to the Adriatric terminus of the Via Egnatia at Dyrrhachium, then to cross the Adriatic to Italy and Rome. But the hostility following so close now on his heels voided this plan, and instead, the trio moved south to Berea, a quiet little place bypassed by the march of progress, since it lay about thirty miles off the Via Egnatia. There, the synagogue congregation again welcomed the visitors and listened intently to them. However, when the inevitable delegation arrived from Thessalonica, warning against these interlopers, Paul again had to leave town in a hurry, his new converts at Berea advising him that because all the roads would be dangerous to him, his party should split up.

This made sense. It was Paul they were after. So Silas should remain at Berea to foster the work there. Timothy–poor, shy, delicate Timothy–should return to the lions’ den at Thessalonica and see what had happened. Had any of the Thessalonians remained faithful? Or when the retribution of the city’s elite came down upon them, had they all abandoned the faith? The two could follow Paul later. Meanwhile, he would continue south. Not too far ahead lay a city that positively thrived on theological and philosophical controversy, relished it, and indulged in it day in and day out as an irresistible sport. All three would be safer there than anywhere. That city was, of course, Athens.

The name alone conveyed a whole catalogue of values–social, political, cultural, philosophical, and theological–everything that was meant by the word Hellenism, which Paul as a well-instructed Jew of the Diaspora had been trained from his childhood to both understand and resist. The armies of the great Alexander had burst out of Macedonia in the fourth century b.c. and had conquered the known world and much of the hitherto unknown. But those were merely military victories. The real conquest came behind them in the form of trade, books, art, music, drama, lifestyles and, above all, language. To get anywhere in the Hellenistic world, you must be bilingual, speaking your native tongue along with a peculiar Greek called Koine, the common Greek spoken at Athens.

By the first century A.D., however, the glory of Athens lay about four hundred years behind–frozen in time by the magnificent memorials the past had bequeathed to the present, chief among them the Parthenon, the temple dedicated to Athena, which presided over the city from the top of the Acropolis, so that, as the historian Paul Maier observed (In the Fullness of Time. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel, 1991) it was difficult to decide, even twenty centuries after Paul, which view was the most magnificent–that of the Acropolis seen from the city below, or that of the city below, seen from the Acropolis.

Alexander had conquered Athens too, of course, along with everything else, but he was sensible enough to leave it as an independent city. The Romans lived at peace with the city until the first century b.c., when Athens rose in an abortive revolt. The Romans stormed the place and took it back in 86 b.c., but soon restored the city’s freedom. Now Athens was conquering Rome, as was its habit. Greek plays translated into Latin were all the rage in Roman society, as were Greek attitudes and sexual proclivities, much to the dismay of those who remembered, both accurately and nostalgically, the high morality of the old Roman republic before Caesar Augustus had converted it into an empire.

Paul walked through the teeming streets shuddering, the severe monotheism of his Jewish heritage, the sure knowledge that there could be only one God and one alone, deeply offended by nearly everything he saw. He had known paganism at Tarsus, of course, but on nothing like this scale. Here there were all manner of gods, hundreds of them, of every conceivable shape and identity. The place seemed a citadel of idolatry.

He went first, as usual, to the synagogue, where to his astonishment, the ocean of paganism around them apparently didn’t alarm the Athenian Jews, who, of course, were accustomed to it. From there he moved unerringly to the agora, the marketplace, where the Athenians traded not only in goods, but also in ideas. The agora was, in fact, a kind of forum for the discussion of everything and anything, and Paul had a great deal to discuss.

Unfortunately, the reception was not encouraging. When he spoke of God, people no doubt wondered which god. When he spoke of the Law, people would ask, which law? When he spoke of sin the term would have been at least comprehensible, since the Greeks fully understood moral failure. But the mention of salvation would have been devoid of any sense. He could not cite the Scriptures, the prophets, the patriarchs, because all these were meaningless. Moreover, the people were unkind, haughty, snobbish. “What is this bird-brain trying to say?” said some of the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers who frequented the agora. “He seems,” replied others, “to be trying to proclaim some more gods to us, and foreign ones at that.”

True, such problems were hardly new to Paul. While his hearers in the past had been mostly Jews or converts to Judaism, he had also brought Christ to pagans, who had no knowledge of either the Law or the Scriptures. So whatever their skepticism, Paul managed, at last, to pique the interest of the agora crowd. “May we know what this new teaching of yours really is?” said one. “You talk of matters which sound strange to our ears and we should like to know what they mean” (Acts 17:20). Would he perhaps address their council? It was named for the site on which it met, the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, just northwest of the Acropolis, in the very shadow of the Parthenon itself. Paul readily agreed.

Here, surely, was a heaven-sent opportunity. He could present the Christian case to the intellectual elite of the world’s most intellectual city. Certainly, he would be regarded more as a curiosity than as a source of illumination, because Athens was notoriously fascinated by novelty. Worse yet, he must make sense to an audience upon whom most of the terminology essential to his message would be lost. Still, it was an opportunity.

Paul began his address to the assembled crowd diplomatically. Athens, he said, was certainly a religious city. (That was a compliment, not a sarcasm. It would please his listeners.) There were temples and altars to gods everywhere. But one in particular he had noted–it was dedicated “to the Unknown God.” He was there today to talk about the Unknown God.

There was a murmur of interest. He had them; they were listening. He was there to speak, not of a god, but of the God, he said, the God who made the world and everything in it, the God who was Lord of heaven and earth, the God who could not possibly live in a temple, or be somehow waited on by human hands as though he needed things that his creatures could provide him with, he being the one who had given breath itself to men and every other breathing creature. From one ancestor, he had created every human being. This was the God who would determine where each creature would live, and how long, in the hope that during this lifetime, each might search for God, feel for him, and find him.

But he was never far from any of us. In fact, we live in him, move in him, and have our very being in him. We ought not, therefore, to think of him in terms of gold and silver, or picture him in shapes that we ourselves can fashion.

There were nods of approval. After all, what Paul had said was generally compatible with the Stoic philosophy. All through the ages, he continued, God had allowed men to live in ignorance. But now this had changed. God was commanding all men everywhere to repent from the ways they had taken. He had fixed a day when he would judge all by the standards of a man appointed to fulfill this function. A distinct chill became discernible. And God, said Paul, had guaranteed the unique office of this man by raising him from the dead.

That did it. Jeers, hoots and taunts broke out in the crowd. If the Athenians were persuaded of anything, it was that people who died stayed dead. The concept of a resurrected human being was to them utter nonsense, and they did not shrink from letting Paul know. So his careful sermon ended in a disaster, and he left the Areopagus humiliated. Yet, not quite a disaster. A certain Dionysius, a member of the council, was won over by Paul’s sermon and became Christian. So did a woman named Damaris. Luke reports nothing further about them, and they are not mentioned in any of Paul’s subsequent epistles. But the fourth-century church historian Eusebius records that Dionysius became the first bishop of Athens.

Disgusted and discouraged, Paul himself was not impressed with his own performance. He knew he must leave Athens. “We preach Christ crucified,” he would later write. “To the Jews it’s a stumbling block, and to the Greeks, foolishness.” Athens was to remain intransigently hostile to Christianity. More than 250 years later, with the new faith proliferating all over the empire, Athens stayed stubbornly pagan. The day would come, however, when the Parthenon would stand above the intersection of “St. Paul’s Street” and “the Avenue of Dionysius the Areopagite,” when a Greek Orthodox church would dominate the site of the agora that once saw a “babbler” named Paul ranting on about some crucified criminal who was humanity’s savior, and when embedded in a bronze plaque at the foot of Mars Hill would be the text of Paul’s sermon.

But the greatest dividend of all from Paul’s endeavors at Athens lay well beyond even his perceptions. There was more to Athens than paganism and philosophical mind games. The city held within itself a treasure of which Paul was at best only vaguely aware. The philosopher and historian W. G. de Burgh sums it up in his great twentieth-century work, The Legacy of the Ancient World (London: Macmillan, 1924). “Among the peoples of the ancient world there are three,” he writes, “who bequeathed a legacy that is a living power at the present day. These three peoples are the Hebrew, the Greek, and the Roman. The creations of their genius . . . constitute a heritage of lasting inspiration to mankind.”

From the Hebrews, he explains, comes our knowledge of God, from the Romans our concept of equality before the law and the political organization essential to effect it, and from the Greeks, our concept of a representative republic. This means that every time a twenty-first-century man or woman casts a vote, or assumes a right to stand and speak at a public meeting, or asserts an opinion in challenge of established authority, he or she is exercising a prerogative invented and conferred upon us by the Greeks in general and by the Athenians in particular. And the Christian church, the instrument through which all three legacies would be combined, preserved and conveyed over the centuries from that era to this, had its Athenian birth that woebegone day when Paul the Apostle assumed he had failed miserably on Mars Hill.

Even so, as Paul saw himself at the time, almost everything was going wrong. Galatia was falling to the legalist faction, while Thessalonica, Berea, and Athens had all, so far as the human eye could see, been cheerless failures. Only Philippi offered any hope. And there was no word from either Timothy or Silas, meaning perhaps that the worst had happened. Finally, look what now lay ahead. The next logical stop was Corinth. Could any place on the face of the earth be less promising than Corinth?

Corinth was the boomtown of the empire, rolling in wealth, swirling with every known human species, every known human sin, and every known human profession, especially the oldest one. By reputation, Corinth was one enormous brothel. Even its religion was sex. The Latin name of the Corinthian goddess was Venus, in Greek Aphrodite with the title Pandemos appended, meaning goddess of all the people. This was not an exaggeration. The temple of Aphrodite stood atop the Acrocorinth, where one thousand prostitutes were on duty around the clock, many of them beautiful. They had been purchased as slaves by wealthy men, bestowed upon Aphrodite as a benefaction, and were paid as civic employees. There were two other classes of prostitute–the hetairai, for the luxury trade, and the common tarts, who worked the bordellos lining streets emblazoned with lewd and suggestive advertising. In the center of the city cemetery stood a statue dedicated to Lais, a celebrated whore from the temple, memorialized by the figure of a lioness tearing apart and devouring its lunch. Thousands upon thousands streamed into Corinth from every corner of the empire, arriving with money and frequently leaving with syphilis, for which there was no known treatment. In Paul’s day, it was called “the Corinthian Disease,” while “playing the Corinthian” meant committing adultery, and a “Corinthian girl” was another name for a floozy. Into this cesspool of the Mediterranean would come Paul, with his message of bodily restraint and holy poverty.

Moreover, he was, frankly, broke. He must now trudge alone the fifty miles from Athens to Corinth with no money, no home, no friends to look forward to.5 These reflections, observes Bruce, gave him a new resolve. No longer would he depend on rhetorical eloquence or intellectual brilliance. Henceforth he must rely on the only force he had found wholly dependable, Christ himself. Very truthfully, he would later write to the Corinthians: “My brothers, when I came to you… I did not come with any brilliance of speech or intellect. You may as well know now that it was my secret determination to concentrate entirely on Jesus Christ himself and the fact of his death upon the cross. As a matter of fact, in myself I was feeling far from strong; I was nervous and rather shaky. What I said and preached had none of the attractiveness of the clever mind, but was a demonstration of the power of the Spirit. Plainly, God’s purpose was that your faith should not rest upon man’s cleverness, but upon the power of God” (1 Cor. 2:1—5 JBP). So much for snooty Athens, so much for the intellectual gurus of the Areopagus. It was a different Paul who prepared to leave for Corinth.

That’s when the first good news arrived. Timothy and Silas showed up from Macedonia. The Thessalonians, said Timothy, had not broken. Neither the hostility of their former friends nor the threat of official harassment had discouraged them. Nor had they lost confidence in Paul when he left town by night. They could see the necessity for this. They had not only kept the faith, they were spreading it. The Spirit was visibly at work among them.

A buoyant Paul sent a letter to them at the first opportunity. “Although accepting our message meant serious trouble, you experienced the joy of the Holy Spirit,” he said. “You thus became an example to all who believe, both in Macedonia and Achaia.6 You have become a sort of sounding board from which the Word of the Lord has rung out, not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but everywhere that the story of your faith in God has become known. We find we do not have to tell people about it. They tell us the story of our coming to you; how you turned from idols to serve the true and living God, and how your whole lives now look forward to the coming of his Son from Heaven–the son Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, and who delivered us from the judgment which hung over our heads” (1 Thess. 1:6—10 JBP). Paul could not have known that his exuberant commendation to the tough, tenacious Christians at Thessalonica would conclude the opening chapter of the first book to be written in what would one day be called the New Testament.

When the trio reached Corinth, Paul looked for a job. In this boomtown, finding one wasn’t hard, and now came his second bit of good news. He was “directed,” as Christians would see it, to the tent-making shop run by a husband-wife team. Oddly, however, in four out of six references in the New Testament, it is identified as a wife-husband team, with the wife’s name first. That name was formally Prisca, informally Priscilla, indicating a noble Roman family of ancient origins. Her husband, Aquila, was a Jew from Pontus, a Roman province on the south shore of the Black Sea. They apparently met and married at Rome. Since Paul nowhere claims to have brought them into the faith, it’s probable they were members of the earliest Christian community there. However, when the emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from the capital in a.d. 49 (because of riots caused by “Chrestus,” says the Roman historian Suetonius, though some historians think he simply guessed this), the couple moved their business to Corinth. They provided Paul with far more than a job. He lived with them in Corinth, and they later became founding members of the church across the Aegean at Ephesus, principal city in the province of Asia. Later still, they would encounter Paul at Rome, where it’s probable they met their deaths as Christian martyrs.

But that lay some fifteen years ahead, and for now Paul could work for his livelihood and work for the gospel in the unpromising city of Corinth. It was a place of fevered activity night and day. The mainland of Greece was connected to the massive peninsula in the south, known as the Peloponnese, by a three-mile-wide isthmus that separates the Gulfs of Corinth and Saronicos. By running through the two gulfs, sea traffic could avoid the onerous and dangerous passage around the Peloponnese, but the isthmus stood in the way. The obvious solution was a canal, and as far back as the sixth century b.c., there had been talk of building one. It had never happened, however, and for thirteen hundred years, freight and small ships were portaged over the isthmus on huge flatcars whose wheels ran in ruts that served as rails, great gangs of men and animals pushing and dragging them. Presiding over all this, and the attendant activity it produced, was Corinth.

It was a major port, chief city of the Peloponnese, and capital of the province of Achaia. It had a history that reached back nearly a thousand years before Paul. It had become renowned for its wealth and licentiousness in the days of classical Greece, but as the Romans began supplanting the Greek empire, it led a rebellion against them in 146 b.c. The Roman response was to level the whole place, except for the temple of Apollo, and sell the entire population into slavery. The site remained vacant for a century, until Julius Caesar recreated it as a Roman colony. Now, as the commerce of the eastern Mediterranean grew, Corinth grew with it, its limits constantly expanding, its old habits rapidly reviving. By Paul’s day, it had become as New York at the turn of the twentieth century, Dallas in the 1970s, or Shanghai at the turn of the twenty-first. Every known language of the Roman and much of the Persian world could be heard on its streets, and people made money as they never had before. Paul by now had known a great many cities–Tarsus, Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens–but never had he experienced anything like this. He began, as usual, in the synagogue, encountering the usual response–genuine interest at first, followed by fierce opposition. Paul’s rebuttal seems equally fierce. “Your blood be on your own heads!” he cried. “From now on I go with a perfectly clear conscience to the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6 JBP).

That was easily spoken, but the prospect of how to actually approach this great, swirling, raucous human zoo seems to have daunted him. “Then one night,” Luke reports, “the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision. ‘Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and let no one silence you, for I myself am with you and no man shall lift a finger to harm you. There are many in this city who belong to me’” (Acts 18:9—10 JBP). However improbable this must have sounded to him, Paul dug in. To his undoubted astonishment, he discovered that Corinth, far from indifferent to God, was wholly receptive to religious ideas. The Corinthians would flock to his message in numbers far greater than those of any other city, meanwhile creating problems that were greater still.

Over the next eighteen months, Paul’s work prospered as it never had before. First, it turned out that his failure at the Corinthian synagogue was not complete. Crispus, the synagogue president, became Christian, as did another senior synagogue official named Sosthenes. So did Titus Julius, a convert to Judaism, whose house became a Christian meeting place. To the house of Titus and to other house churches in Corinth flocked a polyglot array representing all classes of Corinthian society. There were people like Erastus, the city treasurer and a notable philanthropist, whose subsequent political career does not seem to have been impeded by his Christian commitment.7 There were Stephanas and his whole family, whom Paul described as “the first fruits of Achaia.” There was a professional secretary called Tertius, a slave named Achaias, freedmen, and probable former slaves like Fortunatus and Quartus; and there were Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater, otherwise unidentified. From Cenchreae, the port at the eastern end of the Corinthian isthmus, came Phoebe, who became a deaconess. Finally there were “Chloe’s people.” Chloe ran a business out of Ephesus, which frequently took her or her employees to Corinth. Like Lydia at Philippi and Priscilla in Corinth, Chloe was a businesswoman who became Paul’s zealous helper.

This success, however, did not meet with universal enthusiasm. The people at the synagogue, having lost two of their foremost elders in Crispus and Sosthenes, as well as the wealthy convert Titus, and beholding the progress that Paul was making at every social level, brought a charge against him. He was not advocating Judaism, they said; he was preaching a new religion. This would be illegal. The case came before Lucius Junius Gallio, the new governor of Achaia, a man with top-drawer credentials at Rome. (He came from an old Spanish family, and was the nephew of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, tutor of the future emperor Nero.) The new governor listened to the evidence, deemed the whole thing a theological dispute among Jews, and threw the case out. How could he, a Roman, be expected to settle a Jewish ecclesiastical dispute? he asked. The plaintiffs relieved their resentment by beating up Sosthenes in front of the courthouse. But Gallio’s decision, as it happened, was indeed fortunate for Paul. Had it gone the other way, it would have rendered his entire ministry illegal everywhere in the empire.8

Satisfied that the church in Corinth was established, Paul decided to move on. That it was firmly established he probably doubted, since the social and moral instability inherent in the whole city was almost bound to cause problems in the church. However, he had to get back to Jerusalem (for reasons undisclosed in either the Acts or his letters), so he set out for Ephesus, the big port on the west coast of modern Turkey. With him came Priscilla and Aquila, to open another branch of their tent business there and take complete charge of the Ephesus mission. After preaching briefly in the synagogue, Paul took the next available boat for Caesarea.9 Before leaving Corinth, however, he had cut his hair short, evidence, say some historians, that he was heading back to Judea in fulfillment of a vow.

After landing in Caesarea, Paul went to Jerusalem, paid his respects to the church there, then spent a period of time in Antioch. Beyond that bare-bones account, the events of these visits are not reported. However, with the legalist movement emerging from the Christian community at Antioch, there must have been significant discussions, if not heated confrontations. One thing is definitely known. Paul returned to his missions persuaded that his Gentile converts must make some meaningful gesture of friendship toward their brother Christians in Jerusalem, probably by then impoverished through their abortive attempt at communal living. What was needed was a Jerusalem Fund, a gift of money showing genuine concern that would keep Jew and Gentile together in the faith. That must be a top priority. So Paul revisited his churches in Galatia, then took the road west to Ephesus where much news awaited him, most of it bad.

Reports reaching Ephesus, many of them from Chloe’s people, described scenes of utter bedlam at Corinth. Sexual promiscuity of every kind was rampant, the faithful (so-called) were suing each other in the pagan courts, some were eating meals in the pagan temples, fights over the food had broken out at the Last Supper observation, and the congregations had divided into various parties, some claiming loyalty to Paul, some to Peter, some to a man named Apollos, whom Paul had never met. Worst of all, some were claiming themselves more spiritually advanced than others because, they said, they were in direct contact with Jesus through the Holy Spirit.

Little if any of this was being done furtively or quietly. The Corinthians did nothing quietly. They had even sent Paul a letter. Should they eat meat that had been offered to idols? And since they were no longer under the Law, that is, since all the rules had been set aside, what should they do about marriage and sex? They were eagerly awaiting his advice.

Priscilla and Aquila hastened to bring Paul up-to-date on the mysterious Apollos. This man, they said, had an unusual background. He came from Alexandria and had become familiar with the teaching of John the Baptist and also of Jesus. He was a Jew, well versed in the Scriptures, a commercial traveler, and a superb speaker. He had turned up as a guest preacher in the Ephesus synagogue. Curiously, while he knew a great deal about Jesus, he did not know of Jesus’ rite of baptism. When they had shown him how the prophecies of the Jewish Bible had been wholly fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ, Apollos had responded with undisguised joy. His work had taken him from Ephesus to Corinth, and they had given him a letter introducing him to the Christian community there. At Corinth, they were sure, he would do nothing but good.

As events turned out, they were absolutely right. Apollos became one of Paul’s most effective lieutenants. “On his arrival he proved a source of great strength to those who had believed through grace,” writes Luke in the Acts, “for by his powerful arguments he publicly refuted the Jews, quoting from the Scriptures to prove that Jesus is Christ” (18:27—28). The rivalry to Paul suggested by the competing Apollos party at Corinth never became a reality. “I have planted; Apollos watered,” Paul would later write. “But God gave the increase” (1 Cor. 3:6 KJV). Years later, Martin Luther would contend, and many others would agree, that Apollos was in fact the unknown author of the remarkable Epistle to the Hebrews (see sidebar, p. 144).

Paul’s response to the crisis at Corinth was the letter known to history as the First Epistle to the Corinthians, not his greatest, but undoubtedly the most quoted of all his writings. In it, he addresses the reports he was hearing about them and the issues raised in their letter. There must be no such thing as parties in the church, he warns. They were not baptized into Paul or Apollos or Cephas. (Paul always calls Peter by his Aramaic name.) Paul was not crucified for them, nor was Apollos, nor Cephas. It was Christ who died for them, and all were baptized into Christ.

He then turned to the appalling stories of sexual profligacy. A case of incest was actually being condoned, something even pagans wouldn’t tolerate. These scandals should leave them “in mourning,” yet they were actually “puffed up” about themselves, he observed. Didn’t they realize a thing like this could poison the entire community? Drunks, thieves, idolaters, extortionists should be shunned by the whole group. As for their notion that liberty from the Law entitles them to every form of license, this was ludicrous. “As a Christian I may do anything, but that does not mean that everything is good for me. I may do everything, but I must not be a slave of anything” (1 Cor. 6:12).

They should therefore “avoid sexual looseness like the plague” (6:18). “It is a good principle for a man to have no physical contact with women. Nevertheless, because casual liaisons are so prevalent, let every man have his own wife and every woman her own husband. The husband should give his wife what is due her as his wife, and the wife should be as fair to her husband. The wife has no longer full rights over her own person, but shares them with her husband. In the same way the husband shares his personal rights with his wife. Do not cheat each other of normal sexual intercourse, unless of course you both decide to abstain temporarily to make special opportunity for prayer. But afterward, you should resume relations as before, or you will expose yourself to the obvious temptations of Satan” (1 Cor 7:1—5 JBP).10

But as for this business of keeping rules versus having faith, there was another way of looking at that whole question. We should pray, said Paul, for God to bestow upon us “spiritual gifts,” in particular one gift that surpasses all the others, the gift of “love.”11

“If I were to speak with the eloquence of men and of angels,” writes Paul, “but have no love, I become no more than blaring brass or crashing cymbal. If I have the gift of foretelling the future and hold in my mind not only all human knowledge but the very secrets of God, and if I also have that absolute faith which can move mountains, but have no love, I amount to nothing at all. If I dispose of all that I possess, yes, even if I give my own body to be burned, but have no love, I achieve precisely nothing.”

Then he defines love, the quality that would become the highest of the Christian virtues. Love is patient; it tries to be constructive; it is not possessive; it does not try to impress, nor cherish inflated ideas of its own importance. It has good manners, doesn’t seek its own advantage, doesn’t gloat over other people’s faults, and rejoices in the truth. There is no limit to its endurance, no end to its trust, no fading of its hope, and it never falters. Other cherished qualities will become unnecessary. A gift of prophecy will mean nothing when all is fulfilled. So will knowledge when all is known.

In fact, we are now like children; we have not spiritually matured. “When I was a little child I talked and felt and thought like a little child. But now I am a man I have done away with childish things.” At present we look at only the reflection of reality as in a mirror, he says, but the day will come when we see it face to face. “For in this life we have three lasting qualities–faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor.13:1—13 JBP).

That description of love would descend through the centuries, memorized by children, studied by saints, framed on schoolroom walls, living room walls, faculty room walls, boardroom walls, quoted over and over again by bishops, ward politicians, Hindu gurus, and atheistic communists, providing aphorisms in every language, and challenging translators throughout the ages to create a rendering adequate to its meaning. Yet, it began as Paul’s admonition to a bunch of misbehaving Christians in a rather squalid port city of the first-century eastern Mediterranean.

Paul dealt summarily and specifically with the way the Lord’s Supper should be observed (see sidebar, p. 147) and provided a picture of the Christian community that would become the permanent basis for its understanding of itself. The Christians were not an institution, not an organization. Rather, they were like a human body, composed of thousands of individual parts, all different from one another, but all working together in common purpose (1Cor.12:4—31).

Finally, Paul broaches the issues raised by those called the “spirit people,” and here the patient tone of the letter changes into one of acid sarcasm. Since their baptism came, so they said, from the Holy Spirit, they assumed a superiority over others. “Who makes you different from anybody else,” he demands, “and what have you got that was not given to you? And if anything has been given to you, why boast of it as if you had achieved it yourself?”

He taunts them for living in comfort while he and his helpers suffered every manner of deprivation. “Oh I know you are rich and flourishing,” he writes. “You’ve been living like kings, haven’t you, while we’ve been away? I would to God you were really kings in God’s sight so that we might reign with you. I sometimes think that God means us, the messengers, to appear last in the procession of mankind, like men who are to die in the arena.

“For indeed we are made a public spectacle before the angels of heaven and the eyes of men. We are looked upon as fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in the Christian faith. We are considered weak, but you are become strong; you have found honor, we little but contempt. Up to this very hour we are hungry and thirsty, ill-clad, knocked about and homeless. We still have to work for our living by manual labor. Men curse us, but we return a blessing. They make our lives miserable, but we take it patiently. They ruin our reputations but we go on trying to win them for God. We are the world’s rubbish, the scum of the earth, yes up to this very day.

“I do not write these things merely to make you feel uncomfortable, but that you may realize facts, as my dear children” (1 Cor.4:9—14 JBP). As it would turn out, observes Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Paul made them very uncomfortable indeed, and he would suffer severely for this. For the legalist faction was about to descend on Corinth, and the “spirit people” would wholeheartedly join them in a concerted effort to discredit Paul and root out the seeds that he had planted and Apollos was so diligently watering.

However, the “spirit people” gave Paul occasion to write another immortal passage in his letter to Corinth. Whether Christ actually rose from the dead didn’t really matter, they said. Our bodies are only illusory anyway. What mattered was our spirit. Wrong, thundered Paul. Especially in view of the testimony of so many witnesses to the Resurrection still living, altogether wrong.

For if the dead do not rise, neither did Christ rise, and if Christ did not rise your faith is futile and your sins have never been forgiven. Moreover those who have died believing in Christ are utterly dead and gone. Truly if our hope in Christ were limited to this life only we should, of all mankind, be the most pitied. But the glorious fact is that Christ was raised from the dead. He has become the very first to rise of all those who sleep the sleep of death. (1 Cor. 15:16—20 JBP)

Death came into the world through one man (Adam), and all the descendants of Adam die, Paul writes. But another man, Jesus, defeated death. All those who believe in him shall be made alive. Had they not noticed? A seed does not really come to life until it is buried in the ground as though dead. When it rises, God gives it a new body. Just so, our bodies are “sown” rotting in corruption, but raised beyond the reach of corruption.

So listen, and I will tell you a secret. We shall not all die, but suddenly, in the twinkling of an eye, every one of us will be changed as the last trumpet sounds! For the trumpet will sound and the dead shall be raised beyond the reach of corruption, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature of ours must be wrapped in imperishability, these bodies which are mortal must be wrapped in immortality. Then the scripture will come true: “Death is swallowed up in victory.” 15:51—54 JBP

With that, Paul faces the specter of death itself in fierce defiance. “Death,” he demands, “where is your sting? Grave, where is your victory? Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Paul dispatched his letter to Corinth, then waited for a report from Titus, who was already over there with Apollos trying to bring order out of the mess. It wasn’t long in coming and it wasn’t all bad, nor good either. While the more blatant misconduct had apparently been corrected, and the individual accused of incest had been ousted from the community (Paul in fact now recommended he be forgiven and restored), and while the “party” factionalism was no longer mentioned, something else, even more serious, had arisen. The legalist faction had been well received by many–especially, speculates Murphy-O’Connor, by the “spirit people.” The only thing they had in common with the legalists was their loathing of Paul, but that was enough to create a coalition that split the church.

Paul’s answer came in his Second Letter to the Corinthians, a document so divided in its tone that some historians think two letters have been conflated.12 If he must boast in order to establish his qualifications, says Paul, then boast he will, though it is a silly business. In so doing he inventories his experiences as an apostle of Christ:

Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I have more claim to this title than they. This is a silly game but look at this list: I have worked harder than any of them. I have served more prison sentences. I have been beaten times without number. I have faced death again and again. I have been beaten the regulation thirty-nine stripes by the Jews five times. I have been beaten with rods three times. I have been stoned once. I have been shipwrecked three times. I have been twenty-four hours in the open sea.

In my travels I have been in constant danger from rivers, from bandits, from my own countrymen, and from pagans. I have faced danger in city streets, danger in the desert, danger on the high seas, danger among false Christians. I have known drudgery, exhaustion, many sleepless nights, hunger and thirst, fasting, cold, and exposure.

Apart from all external trials, I have the daily burden of responsibility for all the churches. Do you think anyone is weak without my feeling his weakness? Does anyone have his faith upset without my burning with indignation?

Oh, if I am going to boast, let me boast of the things that have shown up my weakness! The God and Father of our Lord Jesus, he who is blessed forever, knows that I speak the simple truth. 2 Cor. 11:22—31 JBP

That Paul’s view eventually triumphed over that of the legalist movement is evidenced best by subsequent history, since Christianity followed him, not them. In fact, says F. F. Bruce, as it turns out they made less headway at Corinth than they did in the other cities. But what finally doomed Judaistic Christianity, observes historian Paul Johnson (History of Christianity. London: Penguin, 1984) was not Paul’s mission, but the coming disaster at Jerusalem, which would all but terminate the influence of Judaistic legalism and force the Christians to center themselves elsewhere.

Paul, meanwhile, had much to contend with in Ephesus. Priscilla and Aquila had done well there, and he arrived back from Jerusalem to find a thriving church already established, which met in their house. Excavations at Ephesus have uncovered seven two-story houses perhaps much like theirs, belonging to the well-to-do, though by no means the most opulent in the city.

Ephesus lay at the mouth of the Cayster River, on Turkish maps the Kucuk Menderes. By the twenty-first century, the city would exist only as a ruin, yet one of the most complete ruins left from the ancient world. In its heyday, its artificial harbor had to be dredged constantly to keep it navigable and rid it of the sediment deposited by the Cayster. As the Roman empire fell, the dredging stopped and Ephesus declined rapidly. By A.D. 1090 it had become a small town; by the fourteenth century it was deserted; by the twenty-first century the harbor was a marsh while the site of the city lay eight miles from the sea. In Paul’s day the harbor made Ephesus the western terminus of the major road across Asia Minor to the Cilician Gates, more than five hundred zigzagging mountainous miles to the east. The road brought the city great prosperity, enabling it to build, among other things, an outdoor theater accommodating more than twenty-five thousand people. Much of Ephesus survives as an archeological treasure trove. Rome took over Ephesus late in the second century B.C. and made it the capital of the province of Asia.

By then the Greeks had been settled in the place for nearly a thousand years and had built the original temple to Artemis (called Diana by the Romans) whose numerous breasts proclaimed her a mother-goddess, protectress of wildlife and nature. She appealed to a popular piety, influencing politics, education, business and culture, and was in no sense a sex symbol. An earlier temple was destroyed by an arsonist in 356 b.c. on the night, so it was said, that Alexander the Great was born.13 The magnificent temple that replaced the original was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Nearly three times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, the building was 375 feet long and 180 feet wide. Its columns, variously estimated at 106 to 127 in number, stood in a double row around it, about forty feet high, a spectacle that drew thousands of travelers to the city and therefore represented a significant source of its income. Antipater of Sidon, writing in the early second century b.c., describes the temple as “mounting to the clouds.” He adds: “Lo, apart from Olympus the sun never looked on anything so grand.”14

Paul’s reception in the Ephesus synagogue was unusually congenial–it took three months before he was expelled. By that time he had arranged to use the facilities of a private tutorial school run by a man named Tyrannus, about whom nothing else is known. At the same time he established Ephesus as the missionary base for the whole area. One region was particularly fruitful. An assistant named Epaphras opened missions in three towns of the Lycos Valley, about one hundred miles east of Ephesus, at Hierapolis, Laodicea, and Colossae. The second would be preserved for posterity as the seventh of the seven churches named in the Book of Revelation (3:14), while a letter addressed to the third, Colossae, would become another book in the New Testament.

Though it consists of only four short chapters, the epistle to the Colossians became theologically pivotal. Paul wrote it in response to ideas that had gained currency among the Christians there, ideas that Paul sought to counter. Christ is the image of God, he writes (Col.1:15). All wisdom and knowledge are concentrated in him (Col.1:16—18) and through him made available to his people (Col.1:21—22). He is the sole mediator between God and man (Col.1:19—20). Through Christ, all things were created (1:16), and through the cross he vanquished all the principalities and powers of the world (Col.1:20).

Paul was rewarded at Ephesus with what seems a repetition of the Pentecost experience of the apostles in Jerusalem. He found there a dozen “disciples” of Jesus, all of them, like Apollos, baptized by John in the Jordan, but none baptized in the name of Christ, nor receiving the Holy Spirit. Paul baptized them and immediately they began “speaking in tongues” and prophesying.

Another incident at Ephesus proved equally edifying and mildly comic. The seven sons of a man named Sceva, who was identified as “a Jewish high priest,” wandered the country as traveling exorcists, driving devils out of the possessed. Hearing about Paul, they decided to add his name to their incantations (Acts 19:13). “I exorcise you by Jesus whom Paul proclaims,” one of them pronounced over a local madman. The devil, speaking through the man, retorted, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know, but who are you?” Whereupon the possessed individual flew at the seven like a wild beast, tearing the clothes off their backs and wounding them as they fled in terror. The story spread quickly through a city that teemed with magicians. Many of them on hearing this burned their books of magic and other paraphernalia that were worth, Luke notes in passing, about fifty thousand drachmas.15

All this success, fruitful as it was for Paul and the Christians, was not viewed at all positively by the businessmen of Ephesus. What about Artemis, the goddess who kept the city’s silver fabrication trade flourishing? The silver statuettes of her were sold all over the empire, eagerly sought by visiting devotees, a triumph of the city’s artisans. Every convert to Christianity was another customer lost, declared Demetrius, president of the local silversmiths’ guild. No Christian would allow one in his house. How should the industry respond to this menace?

He sounded as though he were addressing a protest rally, and he soon was. He had assembled the whole industry–owners, managers, artisans, workers–in the Ephesus theater. Would they stand idly by while these interlopers wrecked the city’s economy? Others flocked into the theater wondering what all the fuss was about. The rally was turning into an unruly mob. A chant began and was everywhere taken up: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians! Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” Two Macedonian Christians, in town to help Paul, were seized by the crowd and dragged into the theater.

Paul, hastening as always to exploit such a splendid opportunity to preach the word, was intent on getting into the theater too, until civic officials–with whom, for a change, he was on good terms–persuaded him to stay away because his life would certainly be in danger. Meanwhile, the town clerk addressed the mob. Rome, he warned, would not take kindly to this exhibition. Rome disliked mob rule, and conduct like this could easily cause it to withdraw the special privileges of independence that the city had always enjoyed. These people, after all, had committed no sacrilege against the goddess. They did not threaten her. If the silversmiths had a case against these Christians, then the proper place to bring it was to the courts, not here. With that the crowd gradually dispersed. Luke, the sole source of the story, drops it there, and reports that Paul soon after left on a trip to Macedonia that would take him briefly back to Corinth.

Most historians, however, are not content to drop it there. Paul spent between two and three years in Ephesus, and they are satisfied that he spent some of it in jail. While neither a charge nor a trial is anywhere reported, there are clues in his letters. He reports figuratively “fighting with beasts” at Ephesus (1 Cor. 15:32). He speaks of enduring “a mortal peril” in the province of Asia (2 Cor. 1:8—10). He mentions “many adversaries” at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:9) without naming them. Soon after the silversmith incident, notes F. F. Bruce, the governor of Asia, Marcus Junius Silanus, was recalled and murdered at the instigation of Agrippina, the emperor Nero’s mother. A new administration, much less sympathetic to Paul, may have heard and accepted the silversmiths’ case and put Paul in jail.

However Paul’s last recorded visit to Ephesus may have ended, his experience there by no means ended the city’s Christian history. The city was to play a key role in the events that lay ahead. It was to Ephesus a few years after Paul’s departure, for example, that tradition records the arrival of the apostle John Zebedee, brother of the executed James and author of the Fourth Gospel of the New Testament, and it was at Ephesus that John as an old man, or perhaps through a disciple, produced that gospel. It’s also generally assumed that John was “the beloved disciple” to whom the dying Jesus in one of his last words from the cross entrusted the care of his mother (John 19:26­­—27).

John is believed to have been exiled by the emperor Domitian to the island of Patmos in the Aegean where he wrote the book of Revelation. Then, under Domitian’s successor Nerva, he returned to Ephesus aboutA.D. 97 as a very old man for the writing of the Fourth Gospel. There too he is believed to have instructed the young Christian Polycarp, who in turn had a pupil named Irenaeus, both of whom would play pivotal roles as Christian evangelists in the years immediately ahead, as the next volume will describe.

Finally, four hundred years after Paul’s visit, Ephesus would add a dark page to Christian history as the site of the so-called “Robber Council,” where clerics from Alexandria collided violently in theological dispute with those from Constantinople, whose patriarch was beaten up by monks when the council dissolved into a riot. He died of injuries three days later. The council was later repudiated.

Paul’s trip to Macedonia and Achaia had a clear objective, namely the Jerusalem Fund. He had urged it upon his converts in his earlier letters; now came the time to collect it. After meeting with the usual generosity from the relatively poor churches at Philippi and Thessalonica, he expected even greater sums from prosperous Corinth. He was bitterly disappointed, and found instead that the “spirit people” and the legalist faction were raising questions as to his honesty while jeering at his unimpressive preaching style. (Murphy-O’Connor speculates that it was in response to this slander that Paul wrote the furious final three chapters of 2 Corinthians and that they were in fact a third and final letter in his own defense.)

With the fund assembled–no record exists of its final amount–Paul booked passage by sea to Syria. He was warned against this: His enemies now really meant business and were plotting to do away with him at sea. So he changed plans, went back through Macedonia, and then crossed to Troas, the port from which he had first set sail for Europe nearly ten years before. He addressed the congregation there at length one warm evening. At such length, in fact, that a young man named Eutychus, sitting on the ledge of an open window, fell asleep and plunged three stories to what seemed his death. Paul rushed from the room, took the young man in his arms, and pronounced him alive and well. So he was. Paul went back upstairs and finished his sermon. What Eutychus did is not reported.

From Troas, Paul continued south by sea, bypassed Ephesus, and put in at the port of Miletus. The elders of the church at Ephesus had traveled there by land to meet him. Luke in the Acts records his final farewell to them. They will never see him again, he says. The Holy Spirit had urged him to take this voyage, but warned him he would be persecuted and imprisoned in every city. What concerned him more, however, was the certainty they would now be attacked by “savage wolves” who would seek to rip them apart. Keep alert, he says. Hold fast the message of Christ he had given them. Thus he commended them to God, knelt with them and prayed. “All of them were in tears,” reports Luke, “and throwing their arms around his neck they kissed him affectionately… and went with him down to the boat” (Acts 20:36—38 JBP).

With that, Paul of Tarsus, like his Lord some thirty-two years before, steadfastly set his face toward Jerusalem.

This is the end of the St Paul the Missionary category article drawn from Chapter Five, beginning on page 116, of Volume One, The Veil is Torn. To continue reading more about St Paul the Missionary from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at Books.TheChristians.com