Into the Heart of Paganism

ON HIS FIRST TWO JOURNEYS, Paul and his traveling companions—first Barnabas and then Silas—set fairly rigorous itineraries. They headed for the capital cities of districts or provinces, preached in the local synagogues, gathered those who responded—both Jews and Gentiles—into new church units, and then moved on. Their purpose was to remain only long enough to help a new church get established.

When Paul reached Corinth, however, he broke this pattern dramatically. Despite the sense of urgency he felt about the imminence of a judgment day, he decided to “take up residence” at Corinth (and later, as we shall see, at Ephesus). Why?

Is it simply that these were large, tradition-rich cities? Paul had passed through other cities impressive in size, such as Thessalonica, or rich in tradition, such as Troas. Athens had both impressive buildings and a rich classical heritage. Yet Paul did little more than pause there.

In fact, Corinth and Ephesus had special features that help explain Paul’s decision to abandon his frenetic travel schedule and establish residency.

The World at His Doorstep

Corinth’s strategic location was perhaps of prime importance. It was a hub city for travel between the eastern and western halves of the Roman Empire. The narrow isthmus separating the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf had been spanned as early as the sixth century B.C. by a stone-paved roadway (the diolkos), making it relatively easy to pull most ships across the low, three-mile land strip without even unloading them.

The diolkos saved some 200 miles of extra sea travel, and the sheltered waters of the Saronic and Corinthian Gulfs were far safer for sea-going ships than the treacherous winds around Cape Malea at the Peloponnese’s southeastern tip.

Corinth, therefore, was a natural funnel for traffic, receiving a steady and lively flow of travelers to and from all the Roman provinces along the northern shore of the Mediterranean.

At Corinth Paul continued to spread the gospel to many new areas by preaching to sailors, traveling merchants, and others who passed through the city. In Corinth Paul literally could spread his gospel more efficiently by staying in one place. Initially, he probably intended to move westward from Corinth as soon as a church was firmly established there, but after he arrived at Corinth, he seems to have decided that he could send the gospel on through others. He later claimed that he preached the gospel “from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum” (western Yugoslavia; Romans 15:19), perhaps reflecting that through his preaching at Corinth he already had extended it this far.

Pagan Pilgrims

Corinth was also a destination for two types of pilgrims. The first included people suffering from all kinds of maladies who came to Corinth’s asklepieion, a healing shrine dedicated to the deified Greek physician Asclepius. By the fourth century B.C., Asclepius had several other healing shrines; the one at Corinth remained popular well into the Roman Age. Supplicants would stay in Corinth, often with family members, for weeks or months, in the hope of receiving a cure.

The second type of pilgrim came to Corinth to attend the Isthmian Games, which were held every two years, including the summer of A.D. 51, while Paul was there. The games were held about ten miles from Corinth at a shrine of Poseidon, the sea god. Like the better known games at Olympia, the Isthmian Games were “panhellenic,” attracting athletes and spectators from Greek settlements throughout the Mediterranean.

The Isthmian Games and the health spa at Corinth may also have provided Paul, who was a tentmaker by trade, with a special opportunity to support himself. We know from Paul’s own statements that he was anxious to be independent of support from the churches he founded, lest he be mistaken for one of the professional itinerant philosophers of his day (1 Thess. 2:9). We also learn from Acts that when Paul came to Corinth he sought out a Jewish couple, Aquila and Priscilla, “and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them, and they worked, for by trade they were tentmakers” (Acts 18:2–3).

Most of the people who flocked to the Corinthian asklepieion and the Isthmian Games stayed in tent encampments. Paul thus found a ready means of supporting himself among the very people who provided promising audiences for his preaching.

Paul’s Attraction to Immorality

Paradoxically, Corinth offered another attractive feature for Paul: its long-standing reputation for immorality and licentiousness. The Greeks—who had a name for everything—coined the term corinthiazesthai to mean “immorality”; literally, the word means “to live a Corinthian life.” To call a girl a “Corinthian lass” was to cast aspersions on her virtue.

Corinth’s reputation was as notorious in Paul’s day as it had been in the Classical Age five centuries before. The account by the Roman geographer Strabo that a thousand cult prostitutes once served the temple to Aphrodite on the Acrocorinth, overlooking the city, may have been exaggerated. But the steady stream of sailors, traveling salesmen, and the ancient equivalent of soccer fans doubtless kept a good number of the cult prostitutes’ secular counterparts busy.

This is the reality that lay behind Paul’s reference, in his second letter to the Corinthians, to the “impurity, immorality, and licentiousness” that characterized the behavior of some church members before their conversions (2 Cor. 12:21). Paul knew what he was talking about when he referred to the “immoral,” the “idolaters,” the “adulterers,” the “homosexuals,” the “thieves,” the “greedy,” the “drunkards,” the “revilers” and the “robbers” of Corinth. “Such,” he writes to the church at Corinth, “were some of you” (1 Cor. 6).

Corinth also had strong associations with “pagan” religions. We have already referred to the worship of Asclepius, Poseidon, and Aphrodite. The city also had a venerable connection with Apollo. A Roman-period shrine to Apollo was located prominently on the main street leading from the forum to Corinth’s western port. Altars and temples to other traditional Greek gods—Athena, Hera, Hermes—lined the edges of the forum. One temple was even dedicated to “all the gods.”

On the road leading up to Acrocorinth was a shrine to the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis. A shrine to Octavia, the deified sister of Emperor Augustus, was located at the west end of the forum. Some of the newest “mystery” religions also flourished in Corinth; these offered their special kinds of personal salvation and communion with savior gods.

For Paul all this represented a special challenge—and a special opportunity. Paul had been preaching throughout his missionary journeys that Gentile converts to Christianity did not need to undertake circumcision and all the obligations of Jewish law. Now, in Corinth of all places, if Paul could establish a church of Gentile converts who were morally upright without relying on the constraints of Torah, then the Christian gospel could take root anywhere-even in the most hostile soil the Gentile world could offer.

Paul’s letters, later sent back to the Corinthian Christians, reflect his special zeal that their behavior be morally elevated. The church at Corinth was a “showcase” congregation for Paul; with it he hoped at last to convince the most skeptical among the Jewish Christian leaders in Jerusalem that Torah was not necessary for salvation.

World Wonder

Paul also found himself drawn to Ephesus because it had the same “attractions” that had detained him in Corinth—but to an even greater extent, so that he stayed in Ephesus two-and-a-half years.

The modern visitor to Ephesus is immediately struck by the extent and opulence of the archaeological remains, and only the center of the city has been exposed (although Austrian excavators have been working at the site since 1895). Ephesus was one of the three or four largest cities in the Roman world. Population estimates for Ephesus in Paul’s time range up to a quarter of a million people. Moreover, the city’s wealth was reflected everywhere, from its marble-paved main street to recently excavated mosaic floors in aristocratic homes.

Like Corinth, Ephesus was strategically located, and this surely accounts at least in part for its enormous size and wealth in Paul’s day. As the Roman Empire stretched eastward across the Mediterranean, Ephesus’s large and sheltered harbor became a major communication hub. Sea traffic from the Aegean Sea to the west, from the Bosporus and Dardanelles to the north and from Palestine to the east, stopped at Ephesus. Ephesus also served as a convenient collection point on the coast for agricultural products brought down the Maeander River Valley from the interior of Asia Minor. It’s not surprising that Ephesus was designated the capital of the rich Roman province of Asia.

Ephesus also boasted one of the most popular shrines in antiquity: the nature/fertility/mother goddess Artemis, who was worshiped by the Romans as Diana. From all over the Mediterranean, pilgrims flocked to the great Artemisium on the shore of the Kaystros River, adjacent to Ephesus. This great temple was four times the size of the Athens Parthenon and was considered one of the seven wonders of the world.

The shrine to Artemis would have been one of the special challenges that attracted Paul to Ephesus. Acts records that the most hostile opposition to Paul’s preaching came from adherents to this cult and from local entrepreneurs whose livelihood depended upon it. Near the end of Paul’s stay at Ephesus, a local silversmith named Demetrius, who made votive shrines of the Ephesian Artemis for the pilgrim trade, organized a near-riot against Paul and his associates, filling the 24,500-seat theater of Ephesus with devotees of the goddess chanting repeatedly “Great is Artemis of Ephesus!” (Acts 19).

Do You Believe in Magic?

Local magicians and exorcists also presented a challenge for Paul. Magic practitioners and their texts had proliferated during the Roman Age, particularly out of Egypt and even from some esoteric circles within Judaism. In 13 B.C., the Emperor Augustus unsuccessfully attempted to suppress the use of magical books. The practice of the magical arts was so closely associated with Ephesus that books of magic recipes and incantations were often referred to as “Ephesian books.” According to Acts, Paul was so successful in converting Ephesians from a belief in magic that many of them threw their magic books onto a public bonfire (Acts 19:13–19).

Paul was a pugnacious warrior, and we can be sure that he was attracted rather then deterred by the presence at Ephesus of the Artemis devotees and magicians. They gave him greater opportunities to do battle for the Christian gospel. As he wrote to the Corinthians, explaining to them why he was staying so long in Ephesus, “I will stay at Ephesus until Pentecost, for a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many adversaries” (1 Cor. 16:9).

Ephesus also had a strong tradition of scholarship and intellectual inquiry. This is most dramatically suggested by the recently re-erected facade of the magnificent three-story Library of Celsus, an important scholarly archive and meeting place for intellectuals in Ephesus. Although this library was not built until A.D. 110, a half-century after Paul’s time, the tradition of scholarly inquiry and activity in the region surrounding Ephesus went back to pre-Classical times. The founder of both philosophy and mathematics came from Ionia in the sixth century B.C. Such giants as Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes all came from Miletus, only a few miles south of Ephesus. Herodotus, the first historian, was born a few miles farther south, at Halicarnossos (present-day Bodrum). Hippocrates, the first physician, established his famous medical center on the nearby island of Cos. At Ephesus Paul could work in an atmosphere of genuine inquiry. There he could find learned scholars who were proud of a centuries-old tradition of open-minded exploration of new ideas.

Moreover, the intellectual climate of Ephesus reflected its geographical location on the threshold between East and West. More so than Corinth, which had been on thoroughly Greco-Roman soil, Ephesus provided a meeting place for ideas from both eastern and western cultural traditions. For Paul, who had labored hard to dissolve the barriers between east and west in the Christian fellowship and to unite Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian, Ephesus provided a comfortably eclectic atmosphere and a symbolic middle ground from which to preach both toward Rome and toward Jerusalem.

At Ephesus, then, Paul unpacked his traveling rucksack for the second time. The features that had led him to remain so long in Corinth were even more insistent at Ephesus. The city’s strategic location, the flow of pilgrims, a famous pagan cult, infamous magicians—all provided rich opportunities and worthy challenges for Paul’s preaching. CH

By Dan Cole

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #47 in 1995]

Dan Cole is professor of religion at Lake Forest College in Illinois and an editor with Biblical Archeology Review.
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