IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF PETER AND PAUL – CHAPTER ONE
Our group of one hundred and twenty-seven pilgrims following in the footsteps of Saints Peter and Paul arrived in Athens at varying times this past weekend. All arrived, however, and the weather in Athens was wonderful. On Monday, two-thirds of the group went with me to the Acropolis and then on to Corinth and this began our reflections on the missionary journeys of St. Paul.
St. Paul arrived in Athens on his first missionary journey having largely failed in his evangelization effort in Thessalonica, Philippi, and Macedonia. He did leave behind small, very small Christian communities in his wake but he was hoping for a more successful visit to Athens. Athens was significant for Paul for two reasons: it was the center of classical culture even though Rome was the political capital and the Romans were in control of Greece, and secondly, it was the home of philosophy which Paul felt prior to arrival would make his preaching even easier.
What Paul prior to his arrival had failed to understand was that unlike Palestine and Israel which was mainly monotheistic (believing in one God), Athens and the Athenians had many Gods: Mercury for speed, Athena for beauty, Zeus, Apollo, etc. and they liked it that way. There was already a small Jewish community in Athens and Paul began his preaching there but they wrote him off as a charlatan, huckster, snake-oil salesman or just some crazy guy when he began to speak of Jesus and His resurrection and the resurrection of the dead. He made the locals even madder as he spoke of a single God who was first, Creator, second, Sustainer, and third, Judge. The more Paul preached of the need for redemption and forgiveness, the angrier the Jewish listeners became and the more uncomfortable they made it for him to remain. It is possible that Paul made only two converts the whole time he was in Athens but while there he gave one of his finest speeches, to a Greek audience at the Aereopagus. The best of that speech is contained in the Acts of the Apostles [17:22-21]. Paul, in travelling throughout the city, came upon an altar dedicated to an unknown God and used that image to appeal to the pagan Athenians as to why they should consider his “known” God. I will not reprint here Paul’s speech which must have taken him about fifteen minutes to deliver (remember he spoke perfect Greek from his childhood education in Tarsus). It is a great summary of why we should believe and accept Jesus as God. Experiencing his fourth failure in a row, Paul decides to move on to Corinth, a small city roughly forty miles to the west of Athens, with a slightly larger Jewish community. There were to be no Pauline letters to the Athenians and everything, which we know about Paul’s time and work there comes to us from Luke in the Acts of the Apostles (with information likely provided by Paul’s friends and bishop, Timothy as well as Silas).
Like St. Paul our group left the area of the Acropolis with its temples dedicated to Athena, Diana, etc. and drove on to Corinth. Most Catholics with even a rudimentary understanding of the New Testament think of Corinth as “sin city” in the first century. It was all of that. It was not a port city as many people think. Ancient Corinth was inland from the water on a tiny isthmus about 3.5 miles wide with the Aegean sea on its east side and the Bay of Corinth on its west side.
In order to save about 260 miles of sailing around the lower end of the Corinthian peninsula, boats would be taken out of the water and moved overland from one body of water to the other. About midway was the ancient city of Corinth rising 1800 feet above sea level and since the sailors were not needed for the overland journey, they came to Corinth to relax, let their hair down and a whole litany of other vices, which I would delineate. It was not a nice place.
Paul arrived and moves in with a husband and wife who were likely converts to Christianity from Judaism from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla. They had a tent making business and to earn his room and board it appears that Paul helped them in their business. On Friday night and Saturday, he began preaching outside of the local synagogue. Again, he was not well received by the Jewish leaders and indeed when he began to preach about the resurrection, they had had it with him and brought charges against him. Corinth was a province of Rome but legal action was sought in two places – before the Roman consul Gallio and within the synagogue. The consul heard both sides out and since Paul held Roman citizenship because his father was a Roman citizen, the consul ruled that Paul had broken no Roman rules and was innocent leaving the matter to the Pharisees to adjudicate. Ruins of both the synagogue and the place where the trial of Paul was held are still extant as are some of the pillars from the ancient temple dedicated to the god Apollo. As ruins however, Corinth provides an opportunity to see more clearly than other places what it was like during Paul’s time there. The ancient Agora or market place though in shambles still remains with enough in tact to picture the place during Paul’s visit. I believe that all of us visiting ancient Corinth on Monday afternoon were impressed with what he saw and more clearly able to visualize the great apostle’s presence in that city.
Paul eventually calls for his colleagues, Timothy and Silas to join him but the former does not stay long as he is soon dispatched back to Thessalonica which is beginning to have its problems in the small Christian community. Satisfied that Corinth now has a nascent Church capable of managing itself, and also has a bishop, Paul decided to move on, leaving after seventeen months for Ephesus. From Ephesus he will write a total of five letters back to the Corinthians whom he has clearly come to love and appreciate (the five letters were later redacted [edited] into the two letters to the Corinthians which survive in our New Testament. In 57AD, Paul returns to Corinth for about three months and from there on his second visit, he writes probably his greatest theological treatise in his letter to the Romans.
I heard wonderful comments from our group who went to Corinth on Monday. We were blessed with two fine local guides with great understanding of and sensitivity to our purpose for going. I shared my thought on the two buses, one going and one returning. Later that evening we would be joined by our companion and Scripture expert, Monsignor Stephen Bosso.