ANTIOCH, EPHESUS, and PERGAMUM, Turkey - Tidings of comfort and joy," we sing almost 2,000 years after the first words of good news began to spread. But into what kind of world were the tidings poured?
At Christmastime especially we tend to associate the origins of Christianity with shepherds in the field, keeping watch over their flocks at night. But a visit to this city once known as Antioch, and now named Antakya, suggests that Christianity grew up in an affluent urban society.
Antioch was the city where, as chapter 11 of the book of Acts notes, "the disciples were first called Christians." It was the launching pad for the mission trips of Paul and Bartholomew, as chapters 13-15 of Acts relate, and the place where gentiles were told that they could be Christians without undergoing circumcision. It was also the third-largest city of the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria, with a population that topped out probably at half a million.
Antioch was also a prosperous city devoted to politics, wine, erotica, and religious argument. It was a city with engineering that impressed all but with morals that depressed even pagans. The first-century Roman satirist Juvenal wrote that Antioch "has poured its sewage into our native Tiber-its lingo and manners, its flutes, its outlandish harps . . . and the whores who hang out round the race-course."
Antioch was a city in which Roman authority could stop-or at least reduce-cheating in the marketplace. Officials called agoranomas checked the cleanliness of shops, examined measuring and weighing instruments, and assessed prices. The Romans could bring water from afar by impressive aqueducts and could even move rivers.
A tunnel at Antioch's port city, Seleucia Pieria (now called Cevlik), shows that this last claim was no exaggeration. With the harbor silting up and winter rains leading to flooding, Emperor Vespasian (a.d. 69-79) decided to change a river's path by constructing a diversion canal almost a mile long. For the last 425 feet of the canal the Romans cut through mountain rock and did so in style, creating a wondrous tunnel that you can still walk through today, and leaving an inscription at the end with the names of Vespasian and his son Titus.
Paul and the other early Christians, instead of being overawed by Roman power and trying to fit in, stood for Christ at great personal risk. What may have been Christianity's first church was a natural cave on the western slope of Antioch's Mt. Silpius. Now called St. Peter's Church, it has an interior of limestone fissured from erosion and dripping water. Visitors can climb up to the cave church and stand where Peter, Luke, and Paul are all said to have preached.
Significantly, the cave had an escape passage useful in times of Roman persecution. That passage is now largely blocked, but a small opening still leads up and to a mountainside honeycombed with small tunnels and tombs. The apostles knew there was a time for in-your-face demonstrations before the Roman authorities, and also a time for escape.
To gain a further sense of Christianity's early growth amid affluence, it's useful to visit Ephesus, the city where Paul voluntarily stayed the longest on his missionary trips. Aqueducts and impressive homes with courtyards show that the Roman Empire could have had the traditional DuPont Company slogan, "Better things for better living."
The things provided material comfort. Remnants of aqueducts show how water came from afar, to be heated for baths in big cauldrons made of copper. Ephesus even had a communal latrine where people, instead of crouching, could sit on slabs of stone with well-situated holes and water running alongside and underneath. With needs properly cared for, Romans could ban asocial tendencies. One wall bears the inscription, "Whoever urinates here, may the wrath of Hecate fall upon him."
And yet, as that reference to a pretend-goddess indicates, spiritual needs were dealt with in less satisfactory ways. All were supposed to worship the great statue of Artemis, which displayed a slender goddess with about 20 bull testicles hanging breast-high-but in Paul's time and probably earlier, thoughtful Ephesians understood the silliness of the cult and listened to Paul's explanations of a true way.
The book of Acts records that Ephesians did not rebut Paul theologically, just materially: "A man named Demetrius, a silversmith who made silver shrines of Artemis, gathered together the craftsmen and said, 'Men, you know that our prosperity depends upon this business. . . . This Paul has persuaded and turned away a considerable number of people, saying that gods made with hands are no gods at all.'" Demetrius noted that if Paul was not stopped, the whole temple could "be regarded as worthless," and the idol makers' trade could "fall into disrepute."
Walking around Ephesus today, you can see easily how the riot recorded in Acts would have grown: "Filled with rage, they began crying out, saying, 'Great is Artemis of the Ephesians.' The city was filled with confusion, and they rushed with one accord into the theater." The huge outdoor theater (also used as an arena) is still there, looming over the Ephesian marketplace. The sound of a mob shouting "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians" could have been heard far and wide. It's not surprising that some who joined the throng didn't even know what had precipitated the riot.
What a threat Paul represented, when he proclaimed that God created heaven and earth-which means that humans are not in control! The rites of the Roman Empire were all designed to glorify man and the gods men created in their own image. For example, a big arena day would begin with the slaughter of wild animals, which was designed to reassure the audience that even beyond the boundaries of the arena, man was in control. At noon came executions, designed to show that the empire is a place of order. Crucify the prisoners. Have animals tear them alive. Burn them.
The afternoon brought gladiator fights, which brought the emotions of WWF wrestling events but even more so, because gladiators played for keeps and were supposed to show the triumph of valor over fear. Spectators came to see blood and gore, sure, but they also wanted to see how the gladiators confronted the inescapable eventuality of death. Each spectator was to come to terms with his own mortality.
Artemis could not save the Ephesians from death, nor her city and temple from a slow death. Today, hawkers outside of the Temple of Artemis site are still in business, selling statuettes of Artemis for about $3.50. They also sell what one sign called "genuine fake watches" and offer a bargain for bathroom use: "only 50 cents to experience the magic atmosphere." But any magic that existed is long gone, as chirping crickets and humming locusts perform their concert over fallen pillars.
Visits to the sites of the other six cities that the apostle John wrote about in Revelation-Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, all in what is now western Turkey-also show that the goals of the city builders eventually proved to be vanity, vanity.
Only one of the seven cities, Smyrna (renamed Izmir), is now big: With a population of 3 million, it is Turkey's third-largest city and sports the typical contrast of wealth and poverty. Men wearing three-button suits and square-toed shoes bustle downtown, but houses with corrugated metal roofs and walls of junk stand by the railroad tracks.
The other sites have only goatherds and shepherds as regular residents, often with small towns nearby. The olive trees growing amid heaps of ruins display thick trunks, as if they have been pruned back many times. Locals, instead of treating the sites with awe, accept and incorporate them into daily living, with only souvenir sellers pointing out that dead men can still tell tales.
Once these sites were awesome and awful, and there's no better place to see that than Pergamum, which the apostle John called the site of "Satan's throne." It's easy to see why: Marble temples on a steep, apparently impregnable site would have given it the appearance of a shining city on a hill, gleaming like the sun or like some understandings of heaven. The large outdoor Pergamum theater, steepest in the ancient world, still beckons.
And then, as visitors came closer, they could see close-up what John may have identified as the throne itself: the great Altar of Zeus. King Eumenes II had it built as a tribute to Zeus around 180 b.c. The altar celebrated the purported victory of gods made in man's image-Zeus, Athena, Artemis, Apollo, etc., etc.-over their opponents. The east frieze showed Athena, and the serpent often depicted with her, killing a giant.
The altar is now in a Berlin museum, close to where crowds in the 1930s worshipped Hitler. Raiders of the Lost Ark did not make up the dictator's fascination with archeological discoveries. He apparently imagined himself in ancient days, hearing cries of devotion at Satan's throne.
Today, the sounds at Pergamum are different. Temple salesmen offer come-ons for souvenirs. "Cheaper than Target," one yells. "Cheaper than Wal-Mart," another says. On summer days an ice cream vendor shows his cross-cultural literacy by reciting in accented meter, "I suc-reem, you suc-reem, we all suc-reem for ice-ca-reem."
From below, in the town now known as Bergama, the call for prayer comes from several mosques as the sun sets over a ruined wall. Above, at Satan's throne, comes the constant roaring of the wind through trees and arches by which grow thistles the size of a fist. Almost all of the flowers have massive thorns.