Sunday, August 28, 2011

Paul in Troas - A Meditation of History

Hear me friends. A vision in a dream has come to me in the starry night—a figure in height and bearing very close to Nestor, standing above my pillow, saying to me: “Sleeping, son of Atreus, tamer of horses? You should not sleep all night, not as a captain responsible for his men, with many duties, a great voice in the conferences of war. Follow me closely: I am a messenger from Zeus, who is far away but holds you dear. ‘Prepare the troops,’ he said, ‘to take the field without delay: now may you take by storm the spacious town of Troy…’” —Agamémnon to his warlords. The Iliad, Book II.

THROUGHOUT her storied and difficult history, Jerusalem has suffered at least twenty sieges and destructions.  When Alexander the Great went up to lay siege against the holy city of the Jewish nation during his conquest of the Persian Empire, however, he did not take the city by laying a single hand against her, and no destruction of the city is evinced for the year 332 BCE, a remarkable fact when one considers Josephus’s statement in the Antiquities of the Jews that the Jewish high priest had spurned Alexander’s message requesting him to cede his loyalty to Darius and serve instead the Macedonian conqueror.  After sacking Tyre and Gaza, Alexander, seething in anger over the high priest’s reply, marched to Jerusalem with the full intention to lay siege against the Judean capital, his drooling Aramean and Samaritan allies in tow.  But when he saw the high priest and delegation of Jewish leaders approaching him from the city walls, he repented of his intentions and even bolted from the safety of his entourage to go greet them.  Why he did so is quite a interesting story, as Josephus recounts:

…when the Phoenicians and the Chaldeans that followed him thought they should have liberty to plunder the city, and torment the high priest to death, which the king's displeasure fairly promised them, the very reverse of it happened; for Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high priest. The Jews also did all together, with one voice, salute Alexander, and encompass him about; whereupon the kings of Syria and the rest were surprised at what Alexander had done, and supposed him disordered in his mind. However, Parmenio alone went up to him, and asked him how it came to pass that, when all others adored him, he should adore the high priest of the Jews? To whom he replied, "I did not adore him, but that God who hath honored him with his high priesthood; for I saw this very person in a dream, in this very habit, when I was at Dios in Macedonia, who, when I was considering with myself how I might obtain the dominion of Asia, exhorted me to make no delay, but boldly to pass over the sea thither, for that he would conduct my army, and would give me the dominion over the Persians; whence it is that, having seen no other in that habit, and now seeing this person in it, and remembering that vision, and the exhortation which I had in my dream, I believe that I bring this army under the Divine conduct, and shall therewith conquer Darius, and destroy the power of the Persians, and that all things will succeed according to what is in my own mind." And when he had said this to Parmenio, and had given the high priest his right hand, the priests ran along by him, and he came into the city. And when he went up into the temple, he offered sacrifice to God, according to the high priest's direction, and magnificently treated both the high priest and the priests. And when the Book of Daniel was showed him wherein Daniel declared that one of the Greeks should destroy the empire of the Persians, he supposed that himself was the person intended. And as he was then glad, he dismissed the multitude for the present…[1]

            While Alexander spared the holy city and its temple, his visit signaled the opening chapter in the dramatic story of Hellenism and the Jewish nation.  Judaism’s encounter with Hellenism is widely discussed and debated, but scholars have only lately begun to appreciate the resilience of Judaism in the Hellenistic and Roman periods, following in a long wake of scholastic attempts to downplay the distinctiveness of the Jewish people (especially Diaspora Judaism) in Greco-Roman society.  Judaism did undergo tremendous internal innovations as a result of both the external influences of Hellenism and the new sensitivities that resulted from the Jewish nation’s self-reflection and evaluation of its sacred scriptures during the post-exilic period.  Possibly no other period in history has left a greater legacy in the history of world religion than this extraordinarily creative period in Judaism.  The epoch of rebellions, sacerdotal intrigues, factionalism and political upheavals produced the two great religious streams to come out of second temple period Judaism, Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity, and helped set the stage for the rise of Islam.  The late Hebrew University professor David Flusser, an Israeli authority on first century Christianity and Judaism, observed that a humanistic strain of piety emerged in second-temple period Jewish thought that emphasized one’s empathic relationship with one’s neighbor as the aim of the Torah.  “Revolution broke through at three points,” said Flusser about that reevaluation of the ethical thrust of the Law of the Jews, “the radical interpretation of the commandment of mutual love (Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself), the call for a new morality, and the idea of the kingdom of heaven.”[2]  All three points were provoked in no small part by an intense theosophical undertaking that probed the character of God and plumbed the meaning and purpose of God’s work in history. 
            A passive, infinitely transcendent God is much easier to live with than an observant and jealous God, for the notion that God actually cares for humanity, and especially a portion of it, suddenly leads one to ask a slew of pernickety questions, most importantly, why on earth would a caring God suffer all those edifices of evil in our world?  Why does He allow the wicked to get away with their pillories, while allowing His people to suffer traumas and humiliations in their hands?  The problem waxed in Judaism even before the exile, for the author of the book of Ecclesiastes despairs, “I have seen everything during my lifetime of futility: there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his wickedness” (Eccle. 7:15).  In the course of his or her studies, every student of the Jewish apocalyptic will realize that the messianic hopes of the Jewish people during the second temple era were prompted in no small measure by the miseries imposed upon them at the hands of the Greeks and Romans.  The unrealized promises of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah were sure to guarantee such a royal dissatisfaction with the condition of post-exilic life in Eretz Israel.  Carl A. Keller, a specialist in mystical religious trends, claims that Gnosticism and Jewish apocalypticism were alternate responses to a profound dissatisfaction with the Jewish world-experience.[3]  
            In such an environment of discontent the apostle Paul crawled in from his youth, and it was in that context that an enigmatic vision was delivered to him one night as he tarried in the port of Troas during one of his missionary journeys, prodded by an unnamed restlessness.  His companion Luke, in his New Testament book of The Acts of the Apostles, recounted that before arriving to Troas, the Holy Spirit had not allowed Paul to preach anywhere in Asia (Acts 16:6ff).  It is important to note that the lands which Paul bypassed on this journey were regions where populous, thriving Jewish communities long existed, with important Christian communities already on the rise among them.  Paul traveled through Phrygia, which, according to the account of the Pentecost in the second chapter of Acts, had already gained Jewish adherents to the movement.  Traveling from Galatia (in the central interior of modern-day Turkey) to Mysia (in the northwest), Paul had probably passed through the environs of Gordium, Phrygia’s ancient capital of lore (by then in ruins), which had once housed King Midas’s legendary Gordian Knot.  An ancient Phrygian sibyl had once prophesied that whoever managed to untie the knot would become ruler over the entire earth.  In 334 BCE, Alexander the Great crossed the Hellespont never intending to return to his hometown in Macedonia.  Despite the fact that Alexander’s cavalry was outnumbered 4 to 1, his army slaughtered the Persians at the banks of the River Granicus, not far from the vicinity of ancient Troy.   After freeing the Greek cities in Asia, Alexander marched to Gordium in 333 BCE and “untied” the Gordian Knot by slicing through it with his sword,[4] an act that could be said would forever foreshadow the attitudes of the Western powers towards the intractable realities of the East.  The Greeks went on to shortly defeat Darius III at Issus in Cilicia (near Syria), and it was in his campaign to consolidate the empire that following year when Judea became one of the many Persian territories to fall into the hands of the young Macedonian king and his generals.  
            After passing through Phrygia, Luke recounts that Paul reached Mysia (the region south of the Sea of Marmara), where he attempted to travel eastward into Bithynia (the environs of present-day Istanbul), only to find himself redirected by the Holy Spirit in the opposite direction, down towards the Mysian seaport of Alexandria Troas.  The history of this city’s nomenclature is particularly interesting.  According to Strabo, this city, formerly called Sigia, was the largest remaining settlement of the Ilians in Alexander’s time.  It was colonized after the Macedonian conquest of Persia by Antigonus, one of Alexander’s four generals, who renamed the city “Antigonia Troas” after himself.  “Troas” was appended to it to designate the Troad, the region pertaining to Troy, and thus became the proud name-bearer of that city over which Zeus declared in Homer’s Iliad: “Of all the cities men of earth inhabit under the sun, under starry heavens, Ilion stood first in my esteem, first in my heart” (The Iliad, Book IV).  After Antigonus’ defeat at the Battle of Ipsus, his rival Lysamachus helped consolidate his rule in Thrace by taking control of the city, renaming it “Alexandria Troas” in memory of his late commander.  Caesar Augustus later enlisted the city as an ally in the Roman campaigns against Antiochus, eventually colonizing it with Romans and renaming it “Colonia Alexandria Augusta Troas”.  
            At the time of Paul, the port of Troas was one of the key nodes (along with its twin city Neapolis on the Greek mainland) of the east-west Roman communication route, the Via Egnatia, and would remain so until Constantinople would eclipse it in importance three centuries later.  Constantine, however, had initially considered putting the Roman capital at Troas, just as Julius Caesar, incidentally, had also once contemplated before him, but he changed his mind in favor of the strongly fortified Byzantium.  Although Troas had only a fifth of the population of Ephesus (the largest city in Asia), it was roughly equivalent to it in size at 1000 acres, causing the Ottomans to designate its sprawling ruins as “Old Istanbul”.  Troas was on its way to becoming the Chicago of the Roman Empire, and although Strabo mentions it only briefly, he notes its rising importance as “one of the notable cities of the world”. 
            Before the Byzantine period, Troas, along with Corinth, had been one of the most strategic cities in the Roman Empire, for the same reasons Troy, guarding the entrance to the Hellespont, had been so important in the ancient world.  It was not for nothing that the Spartans ended the Peloponnesian War by defeating the Athenian fleet in 405 BCE at the Hellespont, cutting off Athens from its major grain supply and forcing its surrender.  Control of the Troad meant immense wealth and geopolitical advantage for cities and empires in the ancient world, and (as Herodutus’ account of Xerxes at the Hellespont makes clear) the history of this region colorfully reflects the vicissitudes of history, its narrow, treacherous strait a potent symbol of the Homeric conflicts between eastern and western civilizations.  One could almost comment about the history of the last three millennia (up to the Battle for Gallipoli in WWI) from the vantage point of these shores. 
            The move of the empire’s capital to Byzantium is easy to understand.  The region near the Hellespont was not only the nexus between the western and eastern halves of the empire, bridging Europe and Asia Minor for the fastest and most dependable trade route to Rome across the Balkan Peninsula (as seafaring was seasonal), it also controlled the flow of trade north and south through the channel, important for agricultural trade.  In a real sense, it was a sieve in the streams of commerce and within easy access of the Balkans, Pontus and the rich lands of Asia Minor.  Asia Minor, in particular, had more than double the population of any other region in the Roman Empire (estimated around 15,000,000 at the time of Constantine); this is more than Italy (6,000,000) and Egypt (6,500,000) combined.  Not only was Asia the most cosmopolitan province in the Empire, it was one of its most fertile, important in an empire that always owned an agrarian based economy.  It was also the crucial link in the trade of luxury items such as silk and spices and dominated the textile industry.  In terms of wealth production, it was all-important for the prosperity and stability of the empire.  When the region began to suffer invasions, inflation and deteriorating civic conditions in the late third century, the entire empire suffered severe economic and political destabilization. 
            The Romans had early discerned the critical advantage of settling Roman merchants in the region.  But it was not only the commercial advantages and access to raw goods that spurred increased Roman presence of the area; two crucial administrative necessities also factored: the enforcement of heavy taxation in Asia and the suppression of out of control price gauging.  Asia, like many other provinces, had its share of savvy trade networks, which milked the Roman military complex for all it was worth.  To maintain its economic hegemony, Rome had to increasingly clamp down on these cartels with an iron grip and continually curb, break-up and police Asia’s guilds and corporations.  Constantine’s act to adopt Christianity as the state religion is not too unrelated from his move to put all corporations under state control (never was the empire more draconian and totalitarian in its scope as it was under the Byzantine emperors).
            Paul was born a Roman citizen, we can rightly assume thus, the scion of a Jewish notable or wealthy Jewish freedman[5] from the prosperous city of Tarsus.  Walking into the Latin colony of Troas (where business between non-Roman citizens was conducted in delicate, muted terms) would not have necessarily represented the edge of friendly territory to Paul. Gustave Doré’s engraving  “St. Paul Rescued from the Multitudes” (above) captures well the protections his Roman status granted him, a point not incidental to the success of missions. As a Roman citizen, he was granted the right, not only of protection to his person, but of guaranteed hearing in trial, the right to keep one’s level of citizenship in Roman colonies and immunity from corporal punishment, local taxes or other local jurisdictional compulsions in travel. In the Roman port of Troas, a city named after Troy, Alexander the Great and Caesar Augustus, a vision came to Paul one night around the year 50 CE.  The apparition of a man dressed in Macedonian garb appeared before him, entreating him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”
            “This episode in Paul’s mission to the heathen in the West was of enormous importance”, remarked David Flusser, “It was the will of God for Christianity to spread westward into Europe.”  Such providence indeed it was, for Luke penned the account more than a full two centuries before Constantine made Christianity the empire’s official faith.  Paul sailed to Neapolis and there first set foot on European soil.  In the banks of a Macedonian stream near Philippi, he baptized his first convert in Europe.  The rest, as we say, is history.  Slowly, over the course of his stay in the Greek mainland, the will of God to take the gospel to the pagans became more evident to Paul and more central in his mission, culminating with his dialogue with the pagan philosophers of Athens, in the cultural heart of the Greek world.  To a Christian, this journey bespeaks of the triumph of the gospel message in the West, but a sober reflection of history reveals the disheartening fact that neither Alexander going east nor Paul going west would result in much good fortune for the Jewish nation.  For Flusser, an Orthodox Jew, the solace laid elsewhere.  He comments on Paul’s vision at Troas by stating that Paul’s developing de-emphasis on the more ritualistic aspects of the Torah was necessary for Christianity to develop from a Jewish sect into an accepted European religion.[6]  To Flusser, the event was probably proof of the extent of God’s concern for humanity.  Flusser greatly admired Christ’s words in Matthew 5:48: “You must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect,” citing the best translation as: “There must be no limit in your goodness, as your heavenly Father’s goodness knows no bounds” (from the New English Bible).[7]  For Christ, the concern for your fellow human being was hinged on the imitation of the character of God (a very Rabbinic concept) and sublimated in the dictum he coined, “Love your enemies!...For (God) makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:44ff.).  A similar saying, pointed out Flusser, occurs in the Babylonian Talmud and is attributed to R. Abbahu (ca. 300 CE): “Greater is the day of rainfall than the day of resurrection.  For the latter benefits only the pious, whereas the former benefits pious and sinners alike” (B. Ta’anit 7a).[8]

[1] Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book VIII, ch. 5

[2] David Flusser, Jesus, 3rd ed. (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2001) 81.
[3] Cited in Thomas Puttanil, A Comparative Study on the Theological Methodology of Irenaeus of Lyon and Sankaracharya (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 1990) 17.

[4] Actually, some claim that Alexander’s “solution” may have been more subtle than it may at first appear.  He may not have technically cheated.  The knot would not have shown its ends, and recently, physicist Piotr Pieranski of the Poznan University of Technology in Poland and the biologist Andrzej Stasiak of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland (see have speculated that the rope may have been constructed as a loop (the two ends of the rope would have been spliced together—not easy to do!).  Those who attempted to unravel it may have already known this, including Alexander.  However, the loop would have been immersed in water and coiled into a knot while its still fresh threads were wet, so that, after drying out in the sun and aging, it would have contracted irreversibly to such a length that the required operations needed to unravel the loop would not have been possible.  Pieranski has proved that such a contracted knotted loop, indeed, can exist.  Alexander (who had been trained by Aristotle) may have deduced the problem and thereby figured out where it was necessary to slice off some of the thickness the rope so that it could unravel.   

[5] Freedmen were typically wealthy.  The engine of the Roman economy was driven in large part by the industrious, status-conscious freedmen merchants and artisans, upon whose trust-worthy clientage the landed gentry (that freed them) depended for their prosperity.  A Roman noble often increased his wealth not by retaining his best slaves but by freeing them, thus cultivating and eventually gaining loyal and ambitious clients or “friends” (amici) that extended and prospered his business ventures.  A perpetual slave has no stake in a venture except under threat and requires constant supervision, nor is he likely to think strategically.  Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper are quite apt here: “No longer do I call you servants, for a slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known to you” (John 15:15).

[6] See Flusser, p. 56ff.  He comments, “Christianity, thus, penetrated into the Graeco-Roman world and from there later became a European religion.  In contrast to the cultural setting of Judaism and the religions of eastern Asia beginning with Persia, Western culture contributed to Christianity’s de-emphasis on ritual or ceremonial prescription concerning “food and drink and various ablutions” (Heb. 9:10)….Had Christianity spread first to the eastern Asiatic regions, it would have developed specific ritual and ceremonial practices based on the Jewish law in order to become a genuine religion in that part of the world.”

[7] Flusser, p. 83.

[8] Ibid.