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How early Christians lived

"How early Christians lived" Continued...

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

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."

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