St. Paul and the Spread of Christianity

Mosaic of Jesus at Hagia Sophia Museum, Istanbul

By foot over hot, dusty, steep roads, by jouncing horse cart, by rocky sailboat, St. Paul the Apostle journeyed the length of the eastern coast of Anatolia from Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Antakya) to Alexandria Troas (Odun Iskelesi south of Troy) during the middle years of the first century.

"I have been constantly on the road," Paul wrote. "I have met dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my fellow countrymen, dangers from foreigners, dangers in towns, dangers in the country, dangers at sea, dangers from false friends. I have toiled and drudged, I have often gone without sleep; hungry and thirsty, I have often gone fasting; and I have suffered from cold and exposure."

Beginning with Antioch about A.D. 40, Paul's influence and that of the early disciples spread Christianity throughout the eastern Mediterranean. Three centuries later Christianity had become the major religion of Asia Minor.

The tentmaker:

Paul was born in Tarsus, today a busy city in one of the richest agricultural regions of Turkey. As a boy he learned the trade of tent making. While studying in Jerusalem he was an accomplice in the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. But later, after seeing a vision of Jesus, he devoted himself body, mind and spirit to preaching Christ's word.

Paul's career as a disciple started when a follower of Jesus, Barnabas, called him to work in Antioch (Antakya) in A.D. 43.

The people whom Paul met in Antioch must have influenced his thinking. Of those attending the synagogue, there were Gentiles who had been attracted to the moral virtues they found in Judaism. Paul held firmly to the prime article of Jewish law: "The lord is our God, one Lord."

While other Jews believed they could be faithful to the law only by keeping to their own community, for Paul, God's very oneness meant that Jesus, who announced God's kingdom, was calling to all the people. Thus Paul's mission came to be focused on the Gentiles.

Paul was not always successful. He resented it when his companions, John, Mark and Barnabas, found him overzealous. Even in some of the churches he started there were many who did not like him. He often ran afoul of the law and was imprisoned more than once for his beliefs.

Bitter experiences:

In spite of all this, it has to be because of Paul's own bitter experiences and his inner certitude that he could understand and communicate across the ages his insight into Christ's teachings as the fulfillment of the law.

Considering that St. John wrote to the Christians in Laodicea (near Pamukkale), Thyatira (Akhisar), Sardis (east of Izmir), and Philadelphia (Alasehir), which could have been on Paul's route between Galatia, Phrygia and Ephesus, it is quite possible that Paul had visited them in addition to Ephesus where we know he spent a lot of time. It is also possible that he went to the others of John's "Seven Churches of Revelation" (Smyrna or Izmir and Pergamum or Bergama as they are called now).

Places where he definitely stopped off at are exceedingly interesting.

Temple of Daphne:

Antioch-on-the-Orontes (Antakya) was an important commercial and educational center, enriched by handsome public buildings. Known as a sports and recreation center, celebrations honoring Apollo were held at the Temple to Daphne in a sacred woods southwest of the city.

Among its bustling population of nearly a half million people was an important Jewish segment. Some of these people had fled Jerusalem during the persecutions of people who were friends of Stephen. In Antioch, the movement grew, and soon its members began using a name - Christians, the followers of Christ - to identify themselves.

Expulsion:

From this church in Antioch, Paul and his companions set out to carry their message abroad. Sailing to Cyprus and then to Perge, Paul preached his first sermon to the congregation at the synagogue in Pisidian Antioch (Yalvac between Konya and Afyon). The crowd he attracted was largely Gentiles, and the Jewish members so resented their intrusion that they got Paul and Barnabas expelled from the district.

The disciples then moved to Iconium (Konya). Again they preached to a large group of people, and narrowly escaped a plot to stone them. However, one young woman of Iconium, Thecla by name, was so captivated by Paul's preaching that she braved scorn and danger to follow him.

A second- century book, The Acts of Paul and Thecla, was written about her exploits and names her Christianity's first female martyr. It also gives a description of Paul: he was short and bald, had hollow eyes and a hooked nose, but was so full of grace that he seemed sometimes like a man and sometimes like an angel. Thecla later lived as a nun and established a hospital at Ayatekla on the peninsula south of Silifke.

Paul, in his first journey, concentrated on interior cities, in his next trips he spent longer periods of time in the major ports, hoping to convert people who would carry Christianity around the world.

Christianization of Europe:

Paul was in Alexandria Troas, a thriving Aegean port just south of today's Odun Iskelesi, twice. The first time he didn't stay long. Church historians date the beginning of the Christianization of Europe to that call, although there already were members of the sect in Rome.

Maybe it was not a coincidence that Luke, with his concern for the western movement of Christianity, appeared in the story at this point. (It is unfortunate that the records of the apostles who worked in Egypt or in the East have not been preserved as Luke's account has been.)

When Paul was back in Alexandria Troas on his third journey, he and his friends stayed up talking late into the night. Suddenly a child who had been perched in a window fell out and landed three floors down on the ground. Paul dashed out to find the boy and was able to reassure his family that he was only badly shaken up. The discussions resumed where they had broken off.

Beautiful Ephesus attracted pilgrims from all over the Mediterranean because of its Temple to Diana. Its theater, its Temple to Serapis, its Celsius library, its odeon, its gymnasiums, to mention only some of the grand public buildings, give us today a sense of the wealth of community life when Paul was there.

Performing miracles:

For two years Paul stayed in Ephesus teaching the word of Christ, converting people to Christianity, and performing his many miracles of healing. By then many people had joined the Christian community.

However, the silversmiths' trade in cult objects was hurt by Paul's condemnation of idols. The merchants created a serious disturbance during which a crowd collected in the theater yelling for hours, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians!" The demonstration threatened to turn nasty until the town clerk appeared to warn the crowd that while Paul was within the law they were not.

At the end of Paul's third journey he stopped in Miletus to visit the leading members of the church in that region. His farewell speech to his friends was full of wistfulness and affection as he reminded them of their long friendship and of how he had taught them everything he knew.

Paul was a controversial figure in the early church, partly because of the mixture in his teachings of Hebraic and Greek thought. The controversy over his teachings and his contributions to Christian dogma has not ended. But as important as his theology is his quality: a man who was passionately possessed to preach the news of the love of God as embodied in Jesus Christ.

 

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