"ON THE TRAIL OF PAUL OF TARSUS" Turkey Travelogue by mtncorg

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Pilgrimage: 1 a journey to a sacred place or shrine; 2 a long journey or search, especially one of exalted purpose or moral significance.

Christianity did not begin with Paul of Tarsus but the movement got a huge jump start from both his evangelizing journeys and the letters he wrote to various communities in which he had helped to start. Paul figures in more of the New Testament than almost Jesus, himself. It was through Paul’s efforts that the Way was expanded beyond the Jewish world that had been the original target for both John the Baptist and Jesus. Paul allowed non-Jews – Gentiles – to join the party without fully following the Jewish law – the crucible being circumcision. By opening this door, the Way would evolve into an entirely new religion – actually, a new family of religions – which was far different from the original stream that Jesus or even Paul had drifted along.

Many Christian scholars do not think Paul wrote all of the letters ascribed to him in the New Testament. Of the fourteen letters, seven –written in the 50’s – are thought to have a Pauline source with three others being disputed – may or may not be Pauline in origin – and the last three are considered as inauthentic with no Pauline source. That said, some scholars still say that he wrote them all. Whether he wrote them all or not has a large impact upon the overall message.

Progressive – liberal – Christian scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan divide the letters of Paul into three groups:

Radical/Authentic Paul: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Philemon and 1 Thessalonians
Conservative/Pseudo Paul: Ephesians, Colossians, 2 Thessalonians
Radical/Anti Paul: 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus

In both the conservative and reactionary stages, Borg and Crossan see the latter developing Christian church as amending some of Paul’s original ideas and accommodating the Christian message to what passed for normality within the Roman Empire. They contend that the original message of both Jesus and Paul was Peace on Earth through a nonviolent Distributive Justice which ran counter to the Roman imperial theological message of Peace on Earth through military victory. It is interesting to note that the idea of Peace on Earth through Distributive Justice is not unique to Christianity but one that is shared with other religions, for example, Islam.

What is known of Paul comes down to us in most cases from what has been written in the New Testament – his letters and his journeys recounted by Luke in his Book of Acts. Paul made a series of trips to Asia Minor and Greece during the 50’s and these were the main effort of his evangelical career.

Borg and Crossan, along with their wives, have led pilgrimage tours for over a decade now since they retired from active teaching. Originally their trips went to Israel and Palestine but now they concentrate mostly on Turkey to see sites associated with where Paul traveled some 2000 years ago. They hope that by journeying where Paul had gone, a modern day pilgrim/tourist can gain a better insight into both Paul and the world context in which he worked. One of the definitions of ‘pilgrimage’ is a visit to any site revered or associated with a meaningful event. Definitely fulfilling this meaning of the word, I enrolled in their 2012 venture and became, by definition, a pilgrim. The group I joined consisted of some 38 other pilgrims – 4 were our leaders. A good third of the group were directly from the ranks of Christian clergy – Episcopal and Lutheran. Most could be considered both liberal in political outlook and liberal/progressive in religious viewpoint, as well.

Our trip to Turkey started in Antalya, a port through which Paul left Turkey from at the end of his first mission to Asia Minor, a trip he probably did under the tutelage of Barnabas of Cyprus. We spent the first few days in Antalya as our home base. Antalya is a rapidly growing city that serves as a starting point for millions of sun/beach seeking tourists. Most tourists do not see much of Antalya except the airport.

Our first visit was to the Antalya Museum, one of the finer regional museums in Turkey outside of Istanbul or Ankara. Many of the statues on display came from the nearby ancient city of Perge. In addition, there are other statues, sarcophagi, Christian icons, coins and a multitude of other treasures that have come out of the surrounding ancient provinces of Lycia and Pamphylia to be seen too.

The next day, having seen the statues, it was time to see the site of Perge - a town that Paul passed through at the beginning and end of his first trip to Turkey. He spent some time here with Barnabas preparing to push northward into the provinces of Pisidia and Galatia over the high Taurus Mountains. Trotting through the ruins of Perge - the stadium, the baths, the agora and the colonnaded canal street - is to begin to catch glimpses of life in the 1st and 2nd Centuries. Perge is not far from the Antalya airport so the ruins contrast incongruously with 747 jumbo jets roaring high above.

The following day, we followed Paul’s footsteps to the north – approximately. Paul and Barnabas had walked north on the Roman Via Sebaste while our bus drove north on Turkish National 650, the main highway connecting Antalya with Istanbul and Ankara. The magnificent Bey Dağları rising high above the sea to the west of Antalya – a grand sight – are soon put in our rear view mirror as we climb up into the Taurus gaining our first pass of the day at Çubak Coeçdi – 925 meters. Descending and then traversing a basin valley, we accomplished in an hour what it must have taken Paul the better part of a week to cover. Just past the town of Buçak, we turned off the main highway onto a smaller local one which quickly twisted and turned its way upward to another pass. Slowly winding our way down on the other side, we could finally make out our day’s destination – the anastylosized ruins of the ancient city of Sagalassos, one of the main cities of the old Roman province of Pisidia.

Sagalassos had seen settlement for thousands of years until earthquakes and the unsettled times during the long decay of the Byzantine Empire brought life up here to an end. People ended up moving away or down to the present small town of Ağlasun which we proceeded to drive through, winding up ever steeper slopes. Paul is not recorded to have ever visited Sagalassos – the Via Sebaste did not come up here. We stopped here because the excavations have uncovered and restored much of the glories of the ancient city in such dramatic fashion that Sagalassos is yet another one of Turkey’s many World Heritage sites with ongoing work that promises to show more as time goes on. The ruins are gleaming white, a sign that they have only recently been uncovered with little indications of weathered grey. Off the beaten path, few tourists get up here as of yet. The ruins, the magnificent physical site, the history and the silence all combine to mold a unforgettable image. And then, too soon, we were driving back down from on high, circling around more mountains on our way to our next base for the next two nights, Eğirdir.

Eğirdir is a bit of Turkish delight that is more for domestic consumption. Local tourists know about the town and its gorgeous lake and for once, they outnumber the foreigners. The setting – imagine a vast mountain lake at 916 meters ringed by mountains with only a couple of small towns around its shores – is of world class beauty. There is a reason the Turkish Army has their commando school here and it is not just to do with military applications. Paul probably didn’t come through Eğridir either though he did walk on the old Roman road that ran along the northern shores of the lake, some 40 km north of the town, as he and Barnabas made their way to their first main destination in Pisidia – Pisidian Antioch, our next day’s destination.

From Eğirdir it is about a 70km drive -first, around the south and east edges of the lake and then off to the northeast – to the town of Yalvaç, the modern day successor to Pisidian Antioch. Here, we were still far off the tourist highway. We had the crumbling ruins to ourselves as thunderclouds slowly began to form to the north. Pisidian Antioch was the Roman colonial successor town built atop even more ancient ruins. Rebuilt as a home for retired legionnaires and for the short term base of the VIth Legion, the town and the road leading through it – the Via Sebaste – were all instruments of Romanizing the until then independent tendencies of the locals. The road was finished in 6 BC and the legion’s work was accomplished between then and 4 CE. So complete was the task that the VIth Legion was removed from Pisidian Antioch and never returned.

Some people think Paul and Barnabas came to Pisidian Antioch because of an earlier meeting on that same journey with Sergius Paulus, a proconsul – governor- serving on the island of Cyprus – Acts 13: 27. Paulus was from Pisidian Antioch and could have recommended Paul and Barnabas to his friends in his home town. Evidence of the historical evidence of Sergius Paulus exists in the form of an inscription with a name that is possibly his son carved out which you can find in the Yalvaç Museum. It is thought further that Paul could also have changed his name from Saul in honor of their high standing benefactor.

Here at Pisidian Antioch, Paul’s first missionary messages are recorded – Acts 13:14-49. Speaking to the theosebeis – god fearers or god worshippers, Gentiles who had been attracted to the morality and theology of Judaism but not willing to take the final step of circumcision – Paul and Barnabas were able to get their message out enough before heading on to the next town along the Via Sebaste, Iconium – Konya, today. They returned through Pisidian Antioch on their way back at the end of their trip which took them further into Pisidia and the southern fringes of Galatia. Paul would also later journey through Pisidian Antioch on his next two missionary sojourns, each time working to galvanize those he had converted. His letter to Galatians is probably partly directed to those he had connected with in Pisidian Antioch as well.

The ruins at Pisidian Antioch take some imagination in order to recover a mental image of what once was. The anastylosis – painstaking partial restoration of ruins – that has taken place at many other sites has not gone on here. The former diaspora synagogue at which Paul preached has not been found, probably built over as the foundation of a latter church. The high point of the city – the Temple of Augustus who was only the latest in a series of earlier gods and goddesses revered here – has been somewhat restored. Built on an east-west axis as was common with ancient Greek and Roman temples, the altar faced Rome, home of the living gods. Signs of Paul’s success here at Pisidian Antioch are remembered with the ruins of a large 4th Century basilica that was thought to be dedicated in Paul’s honor. It was one of the largest churches in the world at the time.

Lightning now began to flash over the Sultan Dağları coming towards us as we returned to the bus and made our way back to Eğirdir. That afternoon, storms lashed the lake with wind and rians somehow appropriately for a biblical pilgrimage.

The sun returned the next day as we set out westward back into the world of package tourism – the world heritage site of Hierapolis-Pamukkale. Our visits over the next two days were centered on the extensive ancient northern necropolis of Hierapolis – the largest in all Asia Minor – and the ongoing excavations at the nearby ancient site of Laeodicea. It is not known whether Paul ever visited the area though local churches are mentioned in his disputed letter to the Colossians. Laeodicea was one of the seven churches of Asia Minor mentioned by John of Patmos in Revelations. The necropolis scene segued into Paul’s ideas offered up to the Thessalonian community in 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18 – those of the community whom died before Christ’s return to the earth would rise up first and with him, they would meet those left alive and rise altogether at the same time into heaven. Similarly, here, as we come into Hierapolis, we meet the dead before the living.

Next up on the voyage of Pauline exploration, passing through the bustling city of Denizli, we climbed behind the massive Akdağ - with towering Baba Dağı, 2308 meters crowning the range –to a date with the ruins of Afrodisias. We visited Afrodisas not for its connections with Paul – there are no direct links we know of – but because here we can directly witness firsthand the Roman theological system monumentalized. The magnificent restored base-reliefs that used to adorn the three-storied Sebasteion of the city show the story of gods and man. Heroes interact with the gods for the benefit of mankind attaining mythical status in their own right. Similarly, the Roman imperial family achieves world peace through their superhuman actions, becoming gods themselves in the process.

For our last week, we based ourselves in Kusadası, certainly one of the busiest touristic centers in all of Turkey. Package tourism is the order of the day here as the leviathans of the cruise ship industry lumber in daily bringing thousands onto the local scene for a wander about the town or a quick shore excursion. Development has swamped Kusadası for better and/or worse.
Our visits here were centered on trips to Ephesus as well as the ancient Greek cities of Priene and Miletus – from where we also branched out to the Temple of Apollo at Didyma which housed an ancient oracle second in importance in the Greek world to that at Delphi.

Ephesus was the Roman capital of Asia Minor and the largest city in Anatolia. Paul spent three years – 52-55 – in Ephesus evangelizing, organizing and occasionally going to jail while he made a living as a tent/awning maker. With a large Jewish population present, there were also a lot of affiliated Gentile god worshippers, as well. Plus, being a provincial capital, there were lots of visitors who could go out from here spreading Paul’s messages to the hinterlands.

To visit Ephesus is to share its excavated glories with thousands of others. Probably just as many people walk down the marble slabs of Curetes Street today as in Roman times. The temples to the emperors are here. Rising above the street on the south are the magnificently excavated – and newly protected – Terrace Houses of the former wealthy class of Ephesus. The restored Celsus Library with its four plaster cast statues – the four virtues – stand as backdrops for the throngs of modern day visitors wanting to prove that they too had visited Ephesus. Standing to the right of the library is the Gate of Mazeus and Mithridates leading into the commercial agora – more imperial ideology on display.

Our visit was marked by a special visit to the Cave of St Paul – or the Cave of Thecla per John D. Crossan. Here 6th Century images recount the story of Thecla. With the defacement of her mother Theolklia, standing in a preaching stance next to Paul, we can see the early theological clash between those who followed two different schools of Christian thought: those who thought that Paul meant for Christian communities to be open equally to all; male or female; Christian Jew or pagan; free man or slave – the radical Paul; and those who later accommodated Christianity to everyday Roman values – male hierarchy; the place of slaves under their masters; the godly authority of rulers – the reactionary Paul.

Our last Pauline excursion took us to Priene and Miletus which are south from Kusadası separated by the mass of Mount Mycale – Dilek Dağı – 1237 meters. In Priene we find the Temple of Athena Polius, re-dedicated to the “Imperator Caesar, the Son of God, the God Augustus” – it had originally been dedicated to another man-god, Alexander the Great. Here again is the divinity of the emperor loudly proclaimed. Also, from here on two inscriptions – now found in the basement of the Pergamon museum in Berlin – which announced the good news – gospel – of Augustus, “the global Lord, divine Son and cosmic Savior” in Crossan’s words. Time was to be reordered to match the birth date of the new god. New Year’s Day was to be reset to 23 September, the birthday of Augustus, the one who ended war and brought peace; the one who outdid all who had come before him and all who would ever come after him.

Across the long silted Gulf of Latmos – now cotton fields amongst the delta of the Büyük Menderes/Meander – was the ancient twin harbored port of Miletus which preceded Ephesus in regional importance. The large theater here was rebuilt in Roman times using vaulted tunnels for spectators to use to gain access to the upper seats. On the fifth row up on the south side, inscribed in among the benches is one reserved for god worshippers, theosebeis – more evidence of those to whom Paul directed his evangelical message to. It was also here in Miletus that Paul spoke his farewell to the Ephesian Christian leaders before his last journey to Jerusalem and imprisonment.

The trip was truly a pilgrimage to Pauline sites and others from which the both the context of Paul’s world and the hopes of a new world that he hoped to help bring about could better understood. To give Crossan the last word:

“… that Paul opposed Rome with Christ against Caesar, not because that empire was particularly unjust or oppressive, but because he questioned the normalcy of civilization itself, since civilization has always been imperial, that is unjust and oppressive.”

Two books further the ideas of Borg and Crossan, The First Paul written by both in concert and In Search of Paul written by Crossan with Jonathan Reed. They have written other fine books about early Christianity, the life and death of Jesus among others which I recommend for the ideas that these gentlemen bring to the fore.

  • Page Updated Jun 9, 2012
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