Sorting by

Skip to main content

Temple of Apollo, Corinth, with temple of Aphrodite on the acropolis behind.

Thanks to Laura de Jong for filling in for me last time. I was on a tour of Greece with some long-time friends, and with others newly made. The object of our first week, on the mainland, was to visit sites associated with the second missionary journey of the Apostle Paul. Much of week 2 we toured various islands in the Aegean Sea. The whole trip was coordinated by a venerable professor of classics who also happens to be my brother and is super-smart (choose one) in spite/because of that. Happily, we were not able to get internet consistently, and so assorted email urgencies had to be left hanging for a time. All in all, a great way to detox from the semester and the tumult and the shouting of the current American scene.

Tourism is Greece’s #1 industry (thirty million visitors last year to a land of ten million inhabitants), and the guides who showed us around were uniformly excellent—knowledgeable and humorous, nicely balanced between pride and self-deprecation regarding their country, and in command of perfect English. (It helps that kids are required to start on a second language early in elementary school.) Plus, we came equipped with valuable background materials that helped improve our appreciation of the sites along the way.

All the while, however, I couldn’t help but hear echoes of commentaries offered by two travelers to these same places a hundred+ years ago. I mean Mark Twain and Abraham Kuyper. The latter attentive and earnest, though hardly uncritical; the former dripping with the skepticism born out of over-exposure as a child to tall tales from the American frontier. Then there are one’s own preconceptions and proclivities to deal with. It all makes for a complex set of impressions.

Here are a few of my outtakes.

The shrine of Lydia, Paul’s first named European convert, on the ancient site of Philippi. (Acts 16:13-15) I’m buying it. There’s only one stream outside the city walls, and the place identified as hers by tradition seems more than plausible. They’ve recently adorned it impressively. Full marks.

The navel of the world (the omphalos) with all the surrounding temple complex at Delphi. Most impressive, including the race-track at the top of the hill. A high hill. The first of many, many high hills one must master on a trip such as this. Most of them worth the effort. Coolest information here was that the oracle’s keepers placed her over the vent of a submerged hot spring and fed her mild hallucinogens. Sounds like a current national-security expert in Washington or any number of tin-horn autocrats around the world.

Thessaloniki doesn’t get much cred in Western Christian memory, perhaps because the two epistles Paul wrote to the church there represent early warm-up efforts. Still, the city is impressive enough. High (there’s that word again) above it stand remnants of a massive city wall and the neighborhood where, it is said, Jason harbored Paul during his turbulent time there. Before that, as the seaport of Macedonia, it was a launching pad for Philip and Alexander (the Great) on their ventures of conquest.

Later, it was the hometown of Saints Cyril and Methodius, pioneer missionaries to the Slavs; also, ironically, of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, founder of the Turkish republic who presided over the vast displacement—and property expropriation—of 1.5 million Greeks from Asia Minor. More positively, Thessaloniki provided a harbor for thousands of Sephardic Jews who were banished from Spain after the “Christian majesties” of that nation decided to purify it for Jesus in 1492. Until the Nazis took over during World War II, Salonika remained a significant center of world Jewry.

More “Paul was definitely here in this very place” places. A beautiful cove on the island of Rhodes where he was said to have come ashore on one of his trips back to Palestine. The Areopagus, or Mars Hill, in Athens where the apostle showed his classical learning chops. Not that it proved immediately fruitful. The judgment seat amid the ruins in Corinth where he was hauled before the proconsul Gallio, only to see the latter turn on the Jewish plaintiffs. (Acts 18:12-17) And, the tour guides’ piece de resistance, the very jail where Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi. Except that the cell identified is barely big enough for one person, let alone two, much less all the others said to have been in chains in the same place. (Acts 16:25-28)

Ok, since I’m channeling Mark Twain, let’s go to Patmos, to the very cave where St. John (or another John called the Revelator, although this theory is not to be voiced in these precincts) wrote the Book of Revelation. You can see, carved out right there in the floor, a curvy little niche where he lay his head while seeing his visions. And there, on the right, a perfectly angled stone slab where his amanuensis wrote them all down. And overhead, a crack in the cave ceiling caused by the sound of the loud trumpet with which John was called to duty. (Rev. 1:10) Which crack, to top things off, nicely split the cave face into three parts, representing—obviously—the Holy Trinity.

The Good and Bad, Calvinistically Speaking

Let’s turn to Kuyper to show a little respect. Actually, he had huge respect for the aesthetic ideals and technical triumphs of classical antiquity—common grace par excellence—and you can see whereof he spoke. Acres of old marketplaces still covered in their original marble. The columns of the immense library at Ephesus have been re-erected, right down the road from Hadrian’s arch (like the one of the same name in Athens, much more celebrative than his namesake wall across upper England. The guy got around.) Nearly two thousand years earlier the people we call Minoans had built a 1200-room palace at Knossos on the island of Crete complete with running water and an ingenious convection system of heating and cooling.

Kuyper wasn’t much impressed with the vital signs of the Orthodox churches he encountered in Greece and Turkey, and I have to say that, stunning as are many of the iconostases we saw, I was more bothered than I had expected by the way they completely walled off the sanctuary where the real business of the liturgy is performed from the nave where the hoi polloi are gathered. Call it my Protestant principle, or prejudice, but there’s something about me that doesn’t like that wall, gorgeous as it might be.

Walking in the pathways of Paul you get an idea of how much the man…walked. Thousands of miles over all those hills and through a lot of dust and danger. And all in less than two decades’ time. You catch some idea of his sense of urgency. The time is now, and the time is short. Dealing with the long time that nonetheless came after proved as great a challenge for his successors as the one the apostle faced in his own day.

Dealing with Time

In fact, the passage of—and the destruction wrought by—time is perhaps the most sobering takeaway from the whole trip. Paul hung around in big cities, Corinth and Ephesus being two of the largest of his era. Excavations at Ephesus have uncovered enough of the site (be it only 20%?) to give some sense of its scale and grandeur. But at Corinth—in Paul’s day some eight times the size of Athens, capital of its province, a new and booming city, a city that mattered—there’s so little left. You look across the isthmus it once dominated, where as far as the eye can see people once lived and worked and strutted or suffered, and there’s nothing there.

I’m only the millionth person to muse about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome, but the impulse is almost irresistible—and prompts no little reflection for our own day. Less than a century ago Detroit was the richest, fastest growing, and proudest city in the United States; now it is a parable of decline. Today Silicon Valley; in two generations…?

Perhaps the greatest change in the American temperament over the past thirty years has come from the dawning realization that it can happen here, this cycle of ruin and decay. All indications to date are that we’re not dealing with that well. Maybe we need another Paul to tell us that a new and better day can nonetheless dawn, and that it’s our part to work and pray and let loose some imagination to help make that happen.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

One Comment

  • David Stravers says:

    Thanks for the precious reflections on Paul’s travels and application to our own age. New York City in a thousand years? Not much left to look at?

Leave a Reply