I’ve been posting about a recent trip to Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor, discussing Roman religion, Roman influence, and Roman architecture. In this post, I’ll switch my focus to the Apostle Paul, who was a missionary to Galatia and Asia, two provinces in Asia Minor, as well as to Greece and Rome. The things I’ve learned (and discussed in earlier posts) about the cultural context in which Paul evangelized have given me a better appreciation of his strategy.

Sociologist Rodney Stark indicates (in The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History) that, as a new religion, Christianity appealed initially to those who were likely to be early adopters of cultural innovations. As he describes them, early adopters tend to be above average in income and education. They are attracted to new ideas and have the sophistication to understand those ideas and see the need for them. As Paul traveled, he encountered two groups that had such qualities: Hellenized Jews and upper-class Gentiles.

Jews had settled in Asia Minor well before the first century and thus had for decades or even centuries been influenced by Hellenistic culture.  They were often well-to-do and lived in the major cities in the region. Many had taken Greek names and had accepted some elements of pagan religious thought. At the same time, they continued to meet in synagogues and study the Torah. An example of such a congregation was located in Sardis; the remains of the synagogue there showed strong Greek and Roman influences, such as this altar flanked by statues of lions:

When Paul came to a city, he typically went first to the synagogue and spoke to the congregation there about the gospel of Jesus Christ. Mark Strauss, the New Testament scholar who accompanied our tour, pointed out an example of this strategy recorded in Acts 13. Paul had come to Pisdian Antioch, went to the synagogue, and was invited to speak. He began with a recitation of the history of Israel–the stay in Egypt, the exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the judges, and the start of the monarchy. All this would have been familiar to his listeners. He paused when he got to David, describing him as not only royalty but as obedient, a man after God’s own heart. Paul used David as a springboard to leap over the next thousand years, to Christ:

“From this man’s descendants God has brought to Israel the Savior Jesus, as he promised.” (v. 23, NIV)

His hearers would know the promise Paul was alluding to: that God would raise up a descendant of David who would establish an everlasting kingdom. That person would be the savior of Israel. In his commentary on Acts, N.T. Wright explains why a first-century Jewish audience would recognize the need for a savior:

“…Israel, though God’s people, were not living in freedom, were not being much of a light to the nations, and were often finding it difficult to keep their own law, whether because of pressure from pagan society or laziness within the Jewish community. All was not well: when would God’s purposes finally come true, when would Israel be rescued from her continuing plight? That is the implied question, a corporate as well as an individual problem, to which Paul offers the solution of Jesus the Saviour.” (Acts for Everyone, Part 2)

Paul went on to describe selected events of the gospel, culminating in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. “We tell you the good news,” he adds. “What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.” (v. 32, 33a) He supported his argument by quoting from Psalm 2, Isaiah 55, and Psalm 16. He was speaking to them as fellow Jews, recipients of the promises contained in scripture. At the same time, his description of what Christ has accomplished has more universal appeal:

“Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin…” (v. 38,9)

Stark describes the appeal of the Christian message to this Jewish audience:

“Christianity offered twice as much cultural continuity to the Hellenized Jews as to Gentiles. If we examine the marginality of the Hellenized Jews, torn between two cultures, we may note how Christianity offered to retain much of the religious content of both cultures and to resolve the contradictions between them.”

But this raises additional questions. Paul’s appeal in Acts 13 seems to focus almost entirely on his listeners’ religious roots in Judaism. How did his message appeal to the other main cultural influence on Hellenistic Jews, the Greek and Roman view of the world? And how did it resolve contradictions between them? To answer that, have to look at how Paul spoke to followers of Greek and Roman religion. I’ll consider that in my next post.

Entrance to Perga, another city where Paul preached.

I’ve been writing about a recent trip to Biblical archaeological sites in Asia Minor (current-day Turkey). I’ve written about the architectural features of Greek and Roman cities and about Roman religion, including the cult of emperor worship. It wasn’t until I returned that I realized something was missing from first-century Asia Minor. This was occupied territory at the time but there wasn’t much evidence that there had been a military presence–no soldier’s barracks, armories, or other military installations. At the time, there was no Roman legion stationed in the area. The situation was quite different from Palestine, which had a strong occupying force. According to Richard A Horsley, who edited Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, there wasn’t even a bureaucracy in place to ensure compliance with Roman policies. So what controlled the populace?

There’s no need to exercise control over people if those people are controlling themselves, and it seems that’s what happened. The historian renowned for explaining how this happened was S.R.F. Price; his thesis was described in Rituals and Power: The Imperial Cult and Asia Minor (1984). The highly civilized Hellenistic cities of the region had succumbed under the onslaught of Roman power. For centuries before, they had a tradition of venerating local rulers who had been benefactors of their cities. These royal cults were associated with religious worship–the honor given to benefactors was similar to the honor given to the ultimate benefactors, the gods. The emperor received the same sort of treatment, and it didn’t take much to go from ‘the emperor is like a god’ to ‘the emperor is a god.’ After all, in polytheism there’s always room for more divinities. And worshiping the emperor gave people a sense of meaning and identity that had been lost to them when they came under Rome’s control. As Horsley explains,

“Since the subject peoples cannot change the dominant order, they need to justify, perhaps even want to glorify that order and articulate their own place within it.” p. 24

Sites for emperor worship were typically located outside Rome, not in Rome itself. It was usually not the emperor who took the initiative in establishing shrines, temples, and festivals in his honor but the local elites, who had an interesting relationship with the Roman authorities. Roman power  was exercised not via administrators but through a complex web of patron client relationships. Your patron protected and helped you; you were obliged in turn to praise and honor him. The emperor was the ultimate patron; local cities and aristocrats were his clients. What better way to honor your patron than build a temple or conduct a festival in his name? The elites competed for the opportunity to underwrite such elaborate demonstrations of veneration for the emperor. Here, for example, are the remains of a large fountain building erected by Ephesian bigwig Tiberius Claudius Aristion and his wife in honor of the goddess Artemis and Emperor Trajan:

And religious activities such as worshiping the emperor weren’t cordoned off from the rest of life. Those of us familiar with the separation of church and state, or even those from nations that have a state church, can’t fully appreciate how intertwined religion was with public affairs. At the theatre there were statues to the gods, including the emperor. The same was true if you shopped at the agora or visited the baths. An excerpt from Prince’s book reprinted in Horsley’s volume points out how the upper square of Ephesus, redesigned during the reign of Augustus, was built so as to foster emperor worship. For example, between the magistrate’s office (where the sacred fire to Hestia burned) and the small auditorium where the city council met, there was a temple dedicated to Julius Caesar (or perhaps Augustus: scholars are uncertain):

Another example of the intrusion of the imperial cult in public spaces is a the large statue of Hadrian outside the baths in Aphrodisias:

It was a mark of divinity that Hadrian was portrayed naked and with an idealized male form.

There were regular feasts and festivals designed to give divine honor to the emperor. Spectacles were held in his name. Bruce Winter, in Divine Honors for the Caesars: The First Christian’s Responses, indicates that gladiatorial contests and animal fights were almost always organized by the high priest of the imperial cult. Winter also provides a calendar from the early first century giving the high and holy days to be celebrated by the populace. Most of the days listed called for some sort of veneration of the emperor. Here is the calendar for January:

January 7      On this day Caesar first took the fasces.

January 16    On this day Caesar was named Augustus. Supplicatio to Augustus.

January 30    On this day the altar of Peace was dedicated. Supplicatio to the imperium of Caesar Augustus, Guardian of the Roman Empire.

What will you do, then, if you’re a gentile convert to Christianity and your trade guild holds a feast in which the food has been sacrificed to the emperor? Or what if there’s a procession honoring the emperor going past your house and everyone along the route is expected to offer a sacrifice in the great one’s honor? What if you’re asked to proclaim that Caesar is god and lord? You can’t cite separation of church and state–there’s no such concept. Nor is there such a thing as religious freedom. It’s your duty as a good citizen to take part. The peace and stability of the empire depends on the devotion of its people, so to refuse is to undermine the well-being of society (or so everyone believes). What will you do?

I recently wrote about a recent group tour to Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. The cities in which fledgling churches were planted by the Apostle Paul were under Roman rule, though many had been built by earlier kingdoms–Hittite, Lydian, Persian, Greek, Seleucid, Pergamene. Thus, we saw archaeological remains representing many nations, but the majority were Greek or Roman. Similarly, the temples and religious objects we saw were mostly devoted to the Greek pantheon of gods or their Roman counterparts. This post will be about that religious tradition and the challenge it posed for first century Christians.

According to the Ancient History Encyclopedia, Roman religion was initially animistic but gradually added gods. From an initial triad of Mars, Quirinus, and Jupiter, the Romans added the Greek deities and others from conquered peoples, so that eventually there was a large collection of gods to be worshiped. Worship typically took the form of communal rituals. Cities would often adopt a patron deity that became a particular object of devotion.

Temples were seen as a home of the god, and building your favorite deity such a dwelling was a way to have him or her present among the populace.  According to Wikipedia, “Their construction and maintenance was a major part of ancient Roman religion, and all towns of any importance had at least one main temple, as well as smaller shrines.” Virtually every archaeological site we visited had one or more large temples. In many instances, virtually nothing remained, as with the massive temple of Artemis in Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world:

Others had sufficient remains to suggest something of their original grandeur, such as the Temple of Apollo in Didyma:

Here is another impressive site, the Temple of Aphrodite in Aphrodisias:

Most of the  temples were rectangular and were on a raised platform, with steps leading up to the portico and entrance. Sacrifices were typically offered somewhere on the temple grounds but not in the central room of the temple. That central area was reserved instead for a cult statue of the god. Here is such a statue of Artemis, now in the Ephesus Museum:

And here is an altar for sacrifice to Apollo in Didyma:

When the first Christian churches were established in Asia Minor, the believers had to decide how to interact with Roman religion. The Romans did not demand belief in their pantheon of gods, but they did expect that everyone would participate in civic feasts and festivals, which inevitably included homage to those gods. One aspect of Roman religion that put special pressure on the Christians was the imperial cult. Starting in the time of Augustus, many emperors were named as gods. Augustus himself wasn’t enamored of the idea, but that didn’t keep the Senate from deifying him upon his death. Often, an emperor would ask that his predecessor be declared divine. Some emperors decided in their lifetime that they were gods and should be worshiped. For example Domitian (r. AD 81-96) had a temple built to himself in Ephesus: only the elevated base still stands:

The monumental head and arm from the statue of Domitian that stood in the temple is now in the Ephesus Museum:

Domitian may have thought of himself as a god, but the population didn’t agree with him. After his death, the Senate condemned his memory to oblivion, and his temple was rededicated to his father and brother.

I didn’t have an appreciation of how important emperor worship was until we visited the ruins at Aphrodisias. There we saw the partly reconstructed Sebasteion, a first-century temple devoted to worship of emperors. There was a large courtyard flanked by three-story porticoes; this was no small enterprise!

The porticoes were covered with friezes celebrating the exploits of various emperors. Many friezes were recovered and are on display in the nearby Aphrodisias Museum. For example, here is Claudius about to apply the death blow to Britannia:

To the Romans, emperors weren’t just politicians. They were deities sent to bring peace and deliverance. Jennifer Greer, an adjunct professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who was on the trip, read to us a translation of the Priene Calendar Inscription found on two stones in the marketplace of the ancient city of Priene. It called for the institution of a new calendar system starting with the date of Caesar Augustus’ birth. Here’s part of the text:

“Since Providence, which has ordered all things and is deeply interested in our life, has set in most perfect order by giving us Augustus, whom she filled with virtue that he might benefit humankind, sending him as a savior, both for us and for our descendants, that he might end war and arrange all things, and since he, Caesar, by his appearance (excelled even our anticipations), surpassing all previous benefactors, and not even leaving to posterity any hope of surpassing what he has done, and since the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world that came by reason of him…”

A savior sent to benefit humankind. Christians who read this would have thought of someone else sent to save us, Jesus Christ. The question they faced was who to worship: who is the true savior of the world?  It’s a question for every age, just as pertinent now as it was then. In future posts, I’ll explore the Christian response to the claims made by Roman religion.

I recently went on a study tour that visited Biblical archaeological sites in Turkey. This entailed seeing the ruins of cities that were thriving during the mid-to-late first century CE, when Paul evangelized in what was then called Asia Minor and, a few decades later, when John wrote a letter, preserved as the book of Revelation, to several churches in the area. In the first century–and for some time before and after–the region was ruled by Rome. So the ruins we looked at were mostly Roman ruins, though some earlier (Greek, Persian) and later (Byzantine) ruins were in the mix as well. Thus, we spent a good deal of time considering what it was like to live in Roman lands, what might have attracted some of the population to the good news as preached by Paul, and what pressures were felt by those who converted.

Rome must have seemed beneficial to many of those under its sphere of influence. It was a civilizing influence, and brought peace and prosperity to millions. At what cost to those it ruled, though? In a BBC article on Roman power, Andrew Wallace-Hadrill summarizes  how the Roman world looks to modern eyes:

“[R]oman style conquest now seems not the solution but the problem. Centralised control, the suppression of local identities, the imposition of a unified system of beliefs and values – let alone the enslavement of conquered populations, the attribution of sub-human status to a large part of the workforce, and the deprivation of women of political power – all now spell for us not a dream but a nightmare.”

We can’t know exactly what it was like to live in Roman times, but Roman artifacts, ruins, and documents give us some idea. In this post, I’ll describe three types of structures found in most of the cities we visited. The prevalence of such structures reflect their importance in the culture. In subsequent posts I’ll reflect more on Roman society and on the Christian alternative.

So, in most cities we visited, we saw:

One or More Agoras

The agora was an open space where people assembled. The term is Greek; the Roman term ‘forum’ is a near equivalent. Often there were two agoras: a commercial agora, where business was conducted, and a state agora, devoted to matters of government. Here, for example, is the commercial agora at Ephesus:

And here is the commercial agora at Perge:

Notice the columns surrounding the central areas. These were part of covered walkways (known as stoas) onto which shops opened. Notice also the round structure at the center of the agora in Perge. This is thought to be a temple to Hermes, the patron deity of merchants. Our guide suggested that the merchants would gather there every day to offer sacrifices. Was this form of civic religion expected of all merchants? There was probably an early Christian presence here; how did Christian merchants handle pressures to worship Hermes?


Both Greek and Roman cities had large communal baths. These were not just places to practice personal hygiene, but centers of social and recreational activity. Baths typically had a series of pools. Bathers came into the apodyterium (changing room) then progressed through pools that were cool (frigidarium), warm (tepidarium), and hot (caldarium). For example, here are the frigidarium and the caldarium of the Baths of Faustina at Miletus:

The two statues beside the frigidarium are of a river god and a lion. Portrayals of the gods were everywhere, though many are no longer on site since archaeologists have relocated them into museums.

Sometimes the bath was combined with a gymnasium, as in the huge bath/gymnasium complex at Sardis:

The picture was taken from the far end of the palaestra (exercise yard), looking toward the bath. This complex and some of the other ones were huge. They depended on remarkable feats of engineering–besides the pools themselves, there had to be aqueducts to bring the water and furnace rooms to supply the heat. A modern-day practice somewhat similar to Roman bathing might be going to a spa. It’s easy to see that this amenity may have prompted both Romans and the others under their rule to think that the Roman way of life was felicitous.

The Theatre

The Greeks had a long theatrical tradition and by the 5th century BCE were building venues where plays could be presented. The Romans developed a similar interest in the theatre. The structures they built for this purpose were quite similar to the Greek model, though there were some differences. Often, a theatre was built into a hillside, with the orchestra and pulpitum, where the chorus and actors were, at the bottom of the hill. There was usually a scaenae frons, a two- or three-story backdrop to the stage that served as architectural decoration. The audience sat on stone seats in the auditorium, which sloped up from the orchestra and gave a good view of the stage. Here is the theater at Aspendos, built during the reign of Marcus Aurelius. According to the Lonely Planet guide to Turkey, it is considered the best-preserved Roman theatre of the ancient world:

The auditorium seats 15,000. Our guide told us that the rule of thumb is that the size of the city was about ten times greater than the seating capacity of the theatre. I doubt that any of our modern arts complexes have seats for 10% of the local population! And sometimes theatres were much larger than would be warranted by this ratio. Clyde Fast and Mitchell Reddish, in their Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey, say that the town of Priene, in the hills south of Ephesus, never had more than 5,000 residents. The theatre there, shown below, seated. 6,500, more than the entire population. They must have been expecting out-of-town visitors!

Notice the large, elevated stone seats in the front row. Premium seating for dignitaries is by no means a new phenomenon!

Though theatres were mainly venues for plays, sometimes there were other activities scheduled. Theatres (as in Ephesus, shown below) that had an entryway beneath the stage and a high wall separating the orchestra from the auditorium were used for gladiatorial fights; the wall was to provide greater security for the paying customers.

There were many other architectural forms that we saw frequently–fountains, shops, stadiums, and temples, to name a few. The last of these were the focus of Roman religion, and I’ll turn to them in my next post.