Fewer than forty-eight hours ago, I returned home from a two-week trip through Turkey and Greece visiting the sites of the seven churches of Revelation and following the journeys of Paul. We went to the seven ancient church sites as well as Istanbul, Aphrodisias, Patmos, Corinth, Troas, Neapolis, Philippi, and Athens.
One sentence out of the mouth of a guide in Corinth provided a key that unlocked the mentality of some cities we visited. She mentioned that while American visitors seem generally uninterested in talk of gods and goddesses, knowing which member of the Greek pantheon a city worshiped is essential to understanding that city’s mentality. The more I thought about this, the more sense it made. Consider...
Athens. Athena was the goddess of wisdom, so citizens of Athens wanted their city to reflect culture, religion, and philosophy. And sure enough, in Acts 17 we find Stoic and Epicurean philosophers hanging out at the Areopagus (Mars Hill). Paul affirms them for being religious, and rather than dissing their many false gods, he zeroes in on their altar to the unknown God and tells them about this Almighty one who was not made with hands—One who is never far from any of us.
Corinth. Corinth was the home of Aphrodite, goddess of love (and not the agape version). Behind the city ruins stands a towering hill at the top of which sat Aphrodite’s temple. One could not walk down the street without being conscious of its prominence. Might that explain why the Corinthians had so many issues with sexual immorality, and why Paul tells them that it’s good for a man not to touch a woman (1 Cor. 7:1)? For the sake of the kingdom, he encourages them to consider embracing sexual abstinence rather than marrying. How fitting that in a city that prides itself on being a center of love, Paul pens the beautiful definition of true love—known to us as the love chapter (1 Cor. 13).
Ephesus. Ephesus was home to the virgin Artemis who loved her virgin status and was immune to Aphrodite’s love arrows. Among other things, Artemis was the goddess of the hunt. If you take a close look at the Artemis statues from the first and second centuries, you find her covered with numerous animals and flanked by a couple of deer. Now, usually we think of women as gatherers and men as hunters. And the fact that Artemis was a hunter suggests she had a less-than-feminine persona. In Ephesus we find stone work with the Amazon story (these women were way independent!), and guides tell visitors that the city was founded by an Amazon queen. The Book of Ephesians was probably intended for more than one city (like Laodicea), so we don’t find much that points to a specific city’s mentality in that book. But we do find 1 Timothy directed to Paul’s protégé in Ephesus, and in it we find an emphasis on widows, women teaching false doctrines, and the need to marry and have children.
Next time you read an epistle directed to believers in a specific city, consider finding out what member of the Greek pantheon its readers were up against. How its authors approached the cities' demons can provide insight for us into engaging a culture that's in love with worldly wisdom, immorality, and a low view of family.