What Was Life Really Like for Christians in Ancient Biblical Cities?
We cite epistles of the New Testament off-handedly—the armor of God verses in Ephesians 6, the wedding reading from 1 Corinthians 13. It’s an ordinary thing to hear readings from the letters of St. Paul at Mass. It can be easy to forget that these letters were addressed to Christian communities in real cities. Details about the history of these ancient cities help shed light on the Scriptures, as well as why St. Paul or his fellow authors write the things that they do.
History and Geography: The ancient city of Corinth is found in present-day Greece. It’s located on the isthmus between the Peloponnesian Peninsula and the mainland of Greece. In ancient times, that isthmus was a key trade route between the two main parts of Greece. Corinth sat right in the middle. Julius Caesar re-founded the city in 44 BC and made it the capital of its province within the Roman Empire. By the time Christianity arrived in Corinth, it had grown again to a large, multicultural city of Romans, Greeks, and Jews.1 One of the major draws in the city was the temple of Aphrodite and the accompanying temple prostitutes, which St. Paul mentioned in 1 Cor 6:15-16. Every two years, Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games that included chariot races, boxing, wrestling, and poetry contests.
Corinth in the New Testament: St. Paul arrived in Corinth in Acts 18, about the year 51. He befriended Aquila and his wife Priscilla, who became key coworkers of Paul in his missionary efforts. Two of St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians are in the Bible, and many scholars think that there were more that either didn’t survive or whose fragments were combined to comprise 2 Corinthians. The theory has merit in the scholarly community, but without any hard evidence of other letters, it remains a theory.
Using St. Paul’s teachings and admonitions a guide, we can see that the early Christians in Corinth struggled to live in a pagan world. St. Paul was forceful at times in his letters to Corinth, for two reasons. First, a professed Christian living as a de facto pagan brings sin upon themselves. Paul highlighted particulars of idolatry, sexual immorality, problems with their celebration of the Eucharist, and the married state. Second, it serves as a terrible witness. If Christians don’t behave any differently than the rest of the pagan world—especially when it comes to moral issues—how can they evangelize? Why would a pagan want to join a church that doesn’t behave any differently than the rest of the world?
Post-Biblical: St. Paul’s two letters are the most well-known, but Pope St. Clement I also wrote to the Corinthians.2 St. Clement was the fourth pope, and according to Tertullian, was ordained a priest by St. Peter himself.3 The date of St. Clement’s letter is disputed among scholars, but they mostly agree that it was written between 70-96 A.D. Regardless of the exact date, that places it within a generation of the founding of the church at Corinth by St. Paul. The Corinthian community had fallen again into division; St. Clement warned them in his letter just as St. Paul did. “Envy and strife have overthrown great cities, and rooted up mighty nations,” Clement reminded them (ch.6). He exhorted them through scriptural examples to be obedient to their leaders, humble, and holy.
History and Geography: Ephesus is a coastal town in present-day Turkey. During the time that St. Paul visited and built on a community there (see Acts 19), Ephesus was the fourth-largest city in the Roman Empire. As a port city with a famous temple, Ephesus bustled as a city of commerce and local religion. It housed one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the grandiose temple to the Greek goddess Artemis. The temple was 418 feet (over one football field) long by 213 feet wide and featured over 100 columns that were 56 feet tall.4 The artisans who created souvenirs and statues of Artemis were a powerful group, as St. Paul found out in Acts 19:21-41. Besides the temple to Artemis, the city featured several other temples devoted to Roman leaders. Ephesus had two agoras for business, several Roman baths, and an ample water supply provided by six aqueducts. This was a large, advanced city in ancient times.
On top of that, Ephesus was a cultural hub. The Library of Celsus contained 12,000 scrolls in its heyday. There was also a large amphitheater that seated 25,000 people—likely the largest in the ancient world. Dramas and plays were produced there as well as gladiator contests.
Ephesus in the New Testament: St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians contained some of the pastoral problem-solving content that’s common to his letters. As the Ephesians were a fairly new community, St. Paul didn’t only address issues. He covered a lot of ground, teaching them about being one with Christ, urging the community to renounce its pagan ways, exhorting them to a holy family life, and ended with spiritual warfare. St. Paul had a personal tie to this community as well. In Acts 19, St. Luke reports that St. Paul stayed in Ephesus for over two years.
Even after spending a significant amount of time in Ephesus, doctrines began to get blurred among the community members. Every time Ephesus is mentioned in scripture, there’s a warning about false prophets. St. Paul addressed it in his letter to the community, but also saw the problem as large enough to send a personal emissary, St. Timothy, to correct those Ephesians who had gone astray. Paul’s two letters to Timothy (1 Tim & 2 Tim) were written while the latter was bishop of Ephesus. The city was also one of the seven churches addressed with a letter in the beginning of the Book of Revelation (2:1-7).
Post-Biblical: St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Ephesians as he was travelling to Rome to be martyred.5 Aside from praising the Ephesian community, St. Ignatius echoed his predecessors to beware of false teachers. Tradition names the apostle John as a later bishop of Ephesus. Also according to tradition (though not the authoritative kind in either of these instances), the Blessed Virgin Mary lived out the rest of her earthly life in Ephesus, living with St. John. Visitors can see what locals say is the location of the house of the Blessed Virgin Mary.6
Thessalonica (also Thessaloniki)
History and Geography: This Macedonian city had a dual advantage in commerce: its gulf opened to the Aegean Sea, and it was on one of the most important roads in the Roman Empire, the Via Egnatia. The Via Appia snaked south from Rome to the Adriatic Sea, where commerce was transported across the sea to current-day Albania. From there, the Via Egnatia made its way east across the northern part of Greece, and finally terminated at Byzantium. Thessalonica connected Rome and Byzantium, and was an important hub of trade. In the province of Macedonia, it was the largest city and also the provincial capital.
A recently-excavated Roman forum unearthed a 400-seat indoor theater, a coin mint, a bath complex, about twenty shops, and storage rooms likely used for commerce.7 The pagan cults of Dionysius (god of wine) and the emperor (e.g. Augustus and Julius Caesar) were popular in the city.
An interesting sociological feature was the city’s Cura Annonae, or grain dole. The Roman Empire provided free or subsidized grain/bread to poorer residents of the city.8 It was a practice in many cities in the Empire, including Thessalonica. When St. Paul admonishes the Thessalonians “that if anyone was unwilling to work, neither should that one eat,” it’s likely he had the Cura Annonae in mind (2 Thess 3:10).
Thessalonica in the New Testament: The community that received two letters from Paul, Silas, and Timothy, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, was mainly comprised of gentiles, though still with some Jewish converts. 1 Thessalonians is widely believed to be the very oldest of Paul’s letters, written in about 50-51 A.D.
A large community of Jews lived in Thessalonica, and Paul and Silas went to the synagogue to argue on Christ’s behalf. Some Jews were converted, but the remainder that weren’t caused a riot—hastening the departure of Paul, Silas, and Timothy from the town (Acts 17:1-9). As St. Paul noted in both letters, local persecution of that Christian community didn’t stop (see 1 Thess 1:6, 2:14; 2 Thess 1:4). Their love and steadfastness gave St. Paul a great affection for the community there, boasting of them and calling them his glory and joy (1 Thess 2:19-20).
History and Geography: Galatia was a Roman province in the center of the Anatolian Peninsula (present-day Turkey). The region itself lies inland and on the central plateau of the peninsula. One group among the population had emigrated there from present-day France and Ireland in the 3rd century BC. When the Romans first expanded their empire into Anatolia, the Celts of Galatia proved to be a tough nut to crack. With the death of key tribal leaders during the late 1st century BC, Galatia became an official province and somewhat of a provincial backwater during the reign of the Emperor Augustus.9
Galatia in the New Testament: Because the letter was addressed to a region—“to the churches of Galatia” (1:2)—we can’t pin down a single city or community like we can with Corinth or Ephesus. Cities in that region included Antioch of Pisidia (different from the major city Antioch in Syria), Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe.
St. Luke recorded three of St. Paul’s visits to Galatia in Acts of the Apostles. In Acts 14, Paul and Barnabas spread the Word of God in Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe and were nearly killed twice. On a return visit in Acts 16, Paul met his future co-worker Timothy at Lystra. Finally, in Acts 18, Paul “went from place to place through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples” (v. 23).
St. Paul’s dispute with St. Peter in Antioch (Gal 2:11-14), is not explicitly mentioned in Acts. It’s possible that it took place in Acts 15, when Paul and Silas left for Antioch after the Council of Jerusalem (v. 1-21). The key issue that Paul had with Peter was the latter’s avoidance of gentile Christians, reverting back to Jewish customs. The main issue of the Council of Jerusalem had to do with the same general issue: do gentile Christians have to get circumcised like Jews, and follow Jewish dietary laws? The Christian apostles and elders at the council decided no, gentile Christians did not have to adhere to those things. The issue persisted in Galatia, however, and “Judaizers” had a great deal of success—judging by the rebuking tone of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Why the severity? Those that had departed from what Paul taught had deserted the grace of Christ (1:6), and were presenting falsehood as truth. Believe in the true gospel, Paul exhorts them, and do not attempt to tie the salvation won by Christ to the Old Covenant!
Gaining some knowledge about the ancient world of the first Christians gives us a more filled-in perspective on our ancestors in the faith. Lest we be tempted to think of the early Church as the paradise of pure faith, saints, and martyrs, looking at their environments paints a more realistic picture. The saints and martyrs had the same kinds of problems with their society as we do with ours, although the details are different. How do we live in the world, but not fall prey to the fallen aspects of the world? The key to the success of those early communities is the same key to our success: our Savior, Jesus Christ.