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How early Christians lived

Religion | Christians had constant reminders that they were aliens and strangers-and also salt and light-in these ancient cities

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2004," Dec. 11, 2004

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.

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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."

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