Wednesday, May 27, 2015


For Christians, the high point of a visit to Turkey has to be Ephesus on the Aegean coast. It became the operations base, the launching position if you will, for Paul’s forays into Europe. It was the center of Johannine Christianity, perhaps the place where the 4th Gospel and the Johannine Epistles were written. The Church here was one 7 recipients of the oracles of St. John the Divine from the nearby Isle of Patmos and an Epistle from St. Ignatius of Antioch on his way to martyrdom in the 2nd Century. It was the site of the 3rd Ecumenical Council where Mary’s status as Theotokos or Mother of God was confirmed and Nestorianism was condemned in 431. What’s more it is a large and well-excavated site.

Here Paul was imprisoned and fought with wild beasts. According to Acts, here the silversmiths rioted in response to Paul’s teachings, in part because his anti-idol religion would cut into their business and in part because he was casting aspersions on their beloved Temple of Artemis, one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.

I am frankly overwhelmed by Ephesus. I cannot say a fraction of what is on my mind. I will limit myself to just one point: As we were standing in the agora (market place), our leader observed how cosmopolitan Ephesus was in Paul’s day -- the 2nd largest city in the Empire and located at the tip of Asia just cross the water from Greece – so that Paul’s conversations with travelers here in this market place helped to “propel Christianity into the world.” That felt to us like a good thing.

As I went to take pictures, I passed a secular tour group and heard the guide say, “all completely destroyed by the Christianity.” I don’t know what exactly he was talking about but it did not sound like a good thing. The glorious Temple of Artemis was mostly destroyed by barbarian Goth invaders but was finished off by a Christian mob led by St. John Chrysostom in the 6th Century. We saw the ruins of the Temple of Isis where the large Egyptian population used to worship their goddess of magic, healing, and resurrection. Our guide said the Christians had destroyed it, but this web site says it was destroyed during the reign of Augustus, which would give us an airtight alibi.
Whoever razed the Temple of Isis, there is no doubt our Christian forbears defaced a lot of pagan art and violently attacked pagan religion in the centuries after Constantine as the pagans had attached their forbears in the centuries before Constantine. The different attitudes toward “the Christianity” being expressed in the two different tour groups called this to mind. We also sat in the magnificent theater of Ephesus where the silversmith’s riot occurred and heard the story read from Act. 19.

My take away from this recollection of interreligious hostility in the Roman world: Whether we think of Christians long ago or Christians of recent memory (like Mother Theresa and Fred Phelps) we have a lot to live up to and some things to live down. We have sometimes been beacons of hope in the world (Theresa) but we have not always behaved well (Fred).

How we should feel about some of our “intolerance” is not entirely clear. Not everything should be tolerated. Since the Renaissance, we have indulged a rather romantic and sometimes na├»ve view of Greco-Roman society. It was characterized by unspeakable violence, oppression, and abuse all countenanced and often encouraged by the examples of their amoral to immoral deities. Classics scholar Sarah Ruden has helped me reimagine Paul as a liberator by setting him in the context of that culture which he critiqued. See Paul Among The People. Violence and destruction are never defensible but the hostility of Christians toward Greco-Roman religion had more moral force than we usually recognize.

The last thing I would want to see is Christianity that goes about decapitating Buddha statues and smashing Ganeshas. But I do hope for a Christianity that stands for a few things and is willing to be deemed “intolerant” even “judgmental” in the face of cruelty and injustice. There is plenty of cruelty and injustice in today’s world. When we stand against it, our own people are apt to say that it is none of our business, that we are being “political.” I’d like to see us find a bit of the fire that led John Chrysostom to attack what was left of the Artemis Temple so that we might make a difference in the world here and there.

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