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After Paul: Chasing a saint

Photograph of Greece


From the southern shore of the Greek island of Thassos in the northern Aegean Sea, I can see Mount Athos looming on the horizon like the home of distant gods. It would be perhaps a day's boat ride from here, if a boat were going there. But, like Paul of Tarsus, my destination is the mainland to the north and the older, less revered port of Neapolis, now called Kavalla, in Greek Macedonia. That is where the Apostle, after sailing from Troy on the coast of Asia Minor and passing through this very sea, first set foot on European soil. From there he would set out, in a wide counterclockwise arc, for Philippi, Thessalonika, and Corinth, establishing the earliest European communities of believers in the gospel he preached.

I don't consider myself a pilgrim. I am a traveler along the same roads Paul took, entering the same cities he did, or what's left of them. I'm looking for what the tourist misses and the pilgrim accepts on faith: a way to read these cities as I read Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles, and the histories that have followed, wondering what kind of Paul will emerge if I can see now even some of what he saw then.

But there's another reason why I'm on this journey. In the summer of 1998 I left my studies in the seminary, settled into a small apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and began reading Luke's Acts out of a desire (I realize, looking back) to find some grounding in the transition from religious to lay life. Acts rose to the top of my list because, while Luke always interested me as a writer, the person of Paul had begun to interest me as a man who was, in Homer's word for Odysseus, polytropos: much traveled and much turned.

Nine years prior, and one year before I entered the Society of Jesus, I lived for a summer in a Jesuit community in the South Bronx. That summer, contemplating religious life, I read Acts for the first time as a journey narrative. I became fascinated by the travels of Paul: his conversion (which in the Greek is literally an apocalypse); his intrepid itinerary, in which he seemed to become a paradoxical rendition of storm-battered Odysseus, journeying away from, rather than towards, home, tormented by the wrath of men rather than gods; and, as Luke would have it in the final chapters, Paul's miraculous, climactic (not without a shipwreck) arrival in Rome, the new holy city. Paul's hagiography struck me then, and still does, as the best story about a believer and a survivor I know.

Don't get me wrong. Mine is not a story of surviving adversity. Like Paul, after having been called to make a continental shift, I needed to know how to navigate the cities and towns of what had become to me a new world. So, in July of 1999, I traveled to the edge of Europe and Asia to put myself, almost methodically, in the midst of Paul's "straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi" (Acts 16:11).

Paul left the coast of Asia Minor with Timothy, Luke, and Silas some time around 50 c.e. Familiar with urban cultural centers of the East--Jerusalem, Damascus, Antioch, and Ephesus--Paul had been for some months preaching the "good news" of the risen Christ to the cities of Asia Minor. Paul was a Roman citizen with free access to the roads of the empire; a tentmaker who read, wrote, spoke--and therefore could do business in--the Greek language; and an Israelite who knew Hebrew scripture. But, according to Luke, Paul's Asian journey came to a screeching halt near what is now Istanbul: "They attempted to go into Bythynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them." The vast regions of Asia Minor had yet to be visited by any apostles of "the Way," but Paul was more interested in people, and the cities in which they gathered, than in vast regions. "During the night," Luke writes, "Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, 'Come over. . . and help us'" (Acts 16:7, 9). So he and his companions "set sail from Troas," on the winds of both evangelism and trade.

Philippi in the first century rivaled Corinth in size if not population (its population was about 50,000). The Roman Via Egnatia--a road that stretched from the Adriatic to the Black Sea--ran through the heart of the city. Today there is no counterpart to ancient Philippi. A local bus runs from Kavalla, over a narrow mountain range and down to the small town of Drama. At what once was Philippi, the driver stops before a booth set up as a gathering place for visitors to the site. Ruins are strewn along a hill that rises to the right and out across a plain to the left. I have the feeling that I am standing in the middle of a town that shut down at midday a thousand years ago and never woke up.

In the streets, shops, and market stalls that now lie half-buried here, Paul and his companions probably started out by orienting themselves. There is nothing in Scripture to indicate how Paul proceeded, but it's not hard to imagine: He assesses his needs, acquires some currency, buys a few things, and takes the opportunity to glean local information from a shopkeeper or fellow tradesman, such as where one might find a place to stay or what the local religious customs are. It may have been after "some days" like this that on the Sabbath, Luke says, Paul and his companions ventured outside the city to a riverbank where they "supposed there was a place of prayer" (Acts 16:13).

Beyond ancient Philippi's grid of ruins, a half mile down the two-lane road that has replaced the Via Egnatia, there is a stream called the Gangites. Travelers who sought to leave the city for its shade trees in Paul's time would have known it by the same name. A branch of the stream has been diverted into a fieldstone sluice, a baptistery for the Greek Orthodox church that stands out by the road. The spillway creates a small island upon which the church has built a grotto to St. Lydia, the first person baptized on European soil.

It is said that when Brutus and Cassius, Caesar's assassins, were defeated by Octavius and Antony at Philippi, the Gangites ran red with their blood. But not even Roman conquest compares historically to what happened when Paul wandered down to the banks of this river looking for a place to pray and found Lydia, who was there with several other women. Luke simply says that Lydia, a worshiper of God from the city of Thyatira in Asia Minor and a dealer in purple cloth, listened "eagerly to what was said by Paul." And, "when she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home'" (Acts 16:13-15).

Standing beside the Gangites, feeling the restorative magic of its cool water beneath the hot Macedonian sun, I find Luke's account of that day rushed. I imagine a tired Paul, silent and a bit unsure. The women, who must have known how this place can transform a person, greet him and feel sorry for the traveler from Asia. Paul has come to pray with them, as he has learned that this is where the "worshipers gather." When they have completed what psalms they might have sung, all defenses drop, a bit of food sharpens the senses, and conversation finds, perhaps, the topic of Hebrew scripture. With clear-eyed conviction, Paul begins to tell Lydia and the others why he is here.

In Lydia, Paul finds something of a soul mate. She too is an expatriate from Asia Minor, a person of business, and obviously in the practice of maintaining her faith outside of the institution (there was no synagogue in Philippi). Paul is a traveler with a message; Lydia is a townsperson with a home. When Luke says "she prevailed on us," enabling Paul and his companions to remain and begin their work of evangelization in Philippi, the first ecclesia, or "house church," in Europe is established. No small event, for the most visible ruins in Philippi today are the several generations of cathedrals that were built at the height of Philippi's prosperity in a Christian era, a history that began on the banks of this stream.

There is no way of knowing exactly how long Paul remained in Philippi. Judging from the tone of affection and concern in his Letter to the Philippians, he must have lived and worked there longer than the few weeks Acts suggests. Ultimately, though, Paul ran into problems with the business community in Philippi, which led to his arrest and imprisonment. When he exorcised the prophesying spirit of a slave girl, he destroyed her owner's livelihood. Paul and Silas were beaten and jailed for disturbing the city and "advocating customs that are not lawful for [the Philippians] as Romans to adopt or observe" (Acts 16:20-21). After an earthquake shook their chains loose and Paul and Silas refused to escape (drawing the jailer into their company of believers by their action), Paul played his trump card: He was a Roman citizen and had a right to a fair trial, which he apparently had not been given. In the end, the magistrates publicly apologized for the mistreatment and Paul was released (16:16-40). He and his companions visited Lydia one last time before heading west toward Thessalonika, perhaps entrusting her with the ongoing care of those Philippians for whom Paul said he always longed (Phil 1:7-8).

When Paul arrived in Thessalonika, a beautiful city that slopes out of the Gulf of Thermaikos and into the hills against which it is set, it was Macedonia's capital and, with 200,000 inhabitants, its most populous port. Luke's account of Paul's stay there is terse. He writes that they proceeded directly to the synagogue, where "for three weeks," Paul "argued with [the Jews] from the Scriptures" (Acts 17:2). Some were persuaded, others "set the city in an uproar" against Paul. This latter group went to the house of Jason, Paul's host, looking for the man, but Paul was nowhere to be found. Because the officials of the city were troubled by Paul's attempts to "turn the world upside down," they took "bail from Jason and the others," which meant Jason had to pay a fine and stay away from Paul (17:6-9). Under the cover of night, Paul and Silas absconded to Boroea, a town 50 miles west.

What Luke's account doesn't reveal, however, is that Paul stayed in Thessalonika long enough to establish yet another community of believers. The first letter we have from Paul is addressed to the community in Thessalonika--written only a few months later, while Paul was living, working, and preaching in Corinth. We find in this letter not only a different climate from the one Luke describes in Acts, but also different hearers of Paul's message.

In a tone of striking intimacy, Paul writes, "being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us" (1 Thes 2:8). In Thessalonika, it doesn't seem to have been the Jews who were drawn to Paul, but people who commonly worshiped idols and beasts, for Paul commends those who had "turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God" (1 Thes 1:9).

Paul's message of salvation could not have been an easy one to accept. It carried with it no connection to a status quo. The salvation Paul preached to his Thessalonians encompassed not only the belief that the risen Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah promised by Hebrew scripture, but also that Jesus' imminent return would mean the destruction of the world. These are the end times, "so let us keep awake and be sober" (1 Thes 5:6). Paul's journey to spread the gospel message was a race against time, every step a wager that the "good news" could be preached before the clock ran out.

Thessaloniki (as the city is now known) today is made up largely of young professionals and working class people. I wonder, as I walk by the noisy waterfront caf˘s, then climb the quiet streets that lead into the old neighborhoods that overlook the city, if Paul's message of salvation for anyone who believed appealed to polytheists of the first century because they knew that the gods whom humans worshiped were as capricious and partisan as the mortals who had fashioned them, gods who possessed much power and little sense of justice. Paul preached a God of righteousness and forgiveness who demanded only faith (Rom 3:21-26), a message of "good news" that seemed to level the salvific playing field.

Had Paul remained on the Via Egnatia, traveled west to the Adriatic Sea, crossed over at Brundisium, and followed the Appian Way north, he would have arrived in no time at Rome, a destination he spoke of frequently. From Boroea, however, he decided to turn south. Luke gives no indication of why. Perhaps Paul stayed in Greece because he was creating an effective network among the provinces; perhaps he was waiting to be called to Rome as he was called away from Asia Minor; or perhaps the pressing call was to Corinth, where Paul's message and resolve would both be tested.

Resting against a jutting mountain and pressing against two seas, Corinth was the Roman capital of the province of Achaia, situated in the northern end of the peninsula of Peloponnese. A coastal town with two harbors, Lechaion on the Gulf of Corinth to the west and Cenchreae on the Aegean to the east, Corinth had a population of 130,000 and was far more diverse than most other cities of the time. Its reputation was anything-goes. "Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth," one ancient proverb cautioned. The Greek comic playwright Aristophanes coined the verb to corinth, which meant "to fornicate."

Luke tells us that Paul's first contacts in Corinth were a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, fellow tentmakers who had "recently come from Italy. . . because Claudius had ordered all Jews to leave Rome" (Acts 18:2). Paul lived and worked with Aquila and Priscilla for much of the nearly two years he spent in Corinth, settling into making tents again, meeting fellow tradespeople during the week, and preaching in the synagogue on the Sabbath (18:3-4).

Corinth, in both Acts and the Epistles, is where we get our first real look into what Paul meant when he spoke of the ecclesia. Paul's ecclesia would gather at a private home for prayer and a meal, most likely the home of someone of means, such as Titius, whose house was next door to the synagogue (Acts 18:7). Social and class distinctions must surely have been visible in these gatherings ("There must be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognized among you"); the rich probably ate in the salon, while laborers remained in the kitchen, both groups perhaps imbibing more wine than was seemly (1 Cor 11:18-22). The result, we learn from the first letter to the Corinthians, was Paul's frustration with the community's degrading and divisive behavior at a time when he desperately wanted these people to see the truth of a unifying higher order before the present earthly one passed away. They were continually caught up in the things of "the flesh"--that which passes--and Paul seems to wonder if they would ever be ready to fully absorb the gospel he had to preach.

Still, it must have been the character of ancient Corinth--cosmopolitan, creative, and syncretistic--that allowed Paul to cultivate a broad social and religious strata of believers. Paul cast a wide net, then refused to let his singular message get bogged down in disputes that might tear that net; there was no time for that. He turned analogies of the body ("your bodies are members of Christ"), the appetites ("we all partake of the one bread"), pagan rituals ("we see in a mirror dimly"), and even work ("like a skilled master builder") into vehicles for his message of theological unity and urgency, language the Corinthians could not fail to understand and find compelling.

Standing among ruins of the shrines and trading stalls of the marketplace, where in the first century one could have offered a sacrifice to a favorite god, then settled on the price of a prostitute, I imagine the struggles Paul faced as he attempted to bring people together amid their property and poverty, their temples and promiscuity.

Luke's view this time of a Paul who abandoned a stubborn and abundant population of Jews in Corinth for the Gentiles doesn't jibe with Paul's message, nor his method of reaching the Corinthians. Luke writes that Paul said forcefully to the Jews, "From now on I will go to the Gentiles." But we find that Crispus, the official of the synagogue, became "a believer in the Lord," and that Titius Justus was also "a worshiper of God" (Acts 18:7-8). I wonder if Paul experienced in Corinth a need to combine all that he learned in Philippi and Thessalonika. Believers in the Lord, like Lydia and the others who prayed on the banks of the Gangites, could understand the genuine promise of the Messiah in Hebrew scripture. Worshipers of idols, like those whom Paul reached in Thessalonika, perhaps found the message of life in death an equalizing force in their harsh experience at the hands of gods and men. Paul found both kinds of people in Corinth, and he stayed longer there than any place, working to make the cacophony of disparate voices a sound community of believers.

The physical ecclesia Paul brought together in Corinth is long-buried under the dirt and ash of armies and fire. Even modern Corinth barely rises to the occasion of being "modern," and has been plagued by earthquakes. Five miles from today's city, the site of the ancient town is half-revealed and unkempt; a lack of money and resolve has paralyzed efforts to uncover what's left. The most prominent features are the Temple of Apollo, the excavated shops in the marketplace, and the raised stone platform known as the bema, the judiciary bench of the Roman magistrate. It was here that Paul was brought before Gallio, proconsul of Achaia, and charged as an instigator in 51 or 52 c.e. Gallio, however, was unmoved by the complaints of Paul's accusers, considering the difference of Paul's message one of semantics rather than sedition (Acts 18:15).

Paul's letters to the Corinthians are still the best evidence we have that the community he left behind there was, if sometimes divided and backsliding, a strong one. He would visit again, but as he left the shores of Greece for the first time, he cut his hair and took, from the fourth book of the Pentateuch, a Nazarite vow: "All the days of their vow no razor shall come upon the head; until the time is completed for which they separate themselves from the Lord" (Num 6:5).

As the train from Corinth to Athens crosses the isthmus that connects the Peloponnese with Attica and creeps in its tracks along the cliffs that overlook the widening, azure Aegean Sea, I look out and imagine Paul setting sail from the harbor of Cenchreae, bound for Ephesus in Asia Minor, a changed man who cannot know that he has changed history. Much traveled and much turned, he is certain only that the living faith of others attests to the validity of his own.

Andrew Krivak is a writer in New York City. He last wrote for BCM in Spring 1999. The article, entitled "Becoming," was about work and identity.

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