Apostle Paul Life, Teaching & Theology

Apostle Paul & The Greek Society

Author: Ioannis D. Karavidopoulos, Professor of the Department of Theology of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

In the mid-1st century AD with the apostle Paul's preaching of Christ begins a major change in the Greco-Roman world. Particularly annoyed by the action of Apostle Paul and his associates, the Jews of Thessaloniki stir up the mob, creating riots in the city's society, and then calling out to the city officials: “…. have caused trouble all over the world have now come here…They are all defying Caesar’s decrees, saying that there is another king, one called Jesus” (Acts 17, 6). Without knowing it, they proclaim in this phrase the ongoing and imminent change in the world that leads to its fundamental transformation.

The Bema of Apostle Paul in Veria Berea
The Bema of Apostle Paul in Veria (Berea), Greece

This radical transformation promises the Apostle Paul in what he says in his preaching of Christ's redemption of man and of his responsibility to the fellow human in society. In a very brief, almost concise way, we can summarize the effect of Paul's message on the society of his time.

  1. In contrast to the theoretical and anthropocentric freedom of the Stoic philosophers who are dominant in his time, St. Paul proclaims freedom in Christ, the freedom that derives from the historical fact of the cross and the resurrection of Christ. A freedom that does not exist in the inner nature of man, but is offered as a gift of God. The failure of man to find solutions to his problems based only on his own internal forces, that is what in the theological language we call “sin”, made it necessary for God's historical intercession in the world in the face of Christ. Freedom, therefore, is God's offering in Christ to the world. However, the freedom proclaimed by Paul is not only a gift of God but also involves the response of man, his responsibility to the society and to the nature.
  2. In contrast to the despondent initiation of people of Paul's time in various mystical cults, which had no moral impact on their everyday lives, Paul proclaims his initiation to the primordial mystery, which is” mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3,4),which has now been revealed (Romans 13, 24). Mystery, which does not take place in the hidden from sight profane initiations but enters the bright way of history and is not meant for the few but for all people because the message of the Gospel has universal dimensions and must reach “To the end of the earth”.
  3. Peace and security are promised by Roman emperors,” While people are saying “Peace and safety”, destruction will come on them suddenly” (I Thes. 5, 3), Paul observes, perhaps hinting at the flagged but unrealized Pax Romana and Securitas of the Roman Caesars. Many historians parallelize the first Christian century with our own time, especially on issues of freedom and responsibility, initiation in various cults and imperial worship accompanied by Pax Romana, which today brings rather aggressive defining of another great power. I will add another point of parallelism. There is much talk today about globalization, not only at the economic but also at cultural levels and at many other levels. In the first century, the development and spreading of Christianity takes place within a framework, in keeping with the proportions of Roman globalization with the Greek cultural model and with one language, Greek, with culturally unifying and administrative organization. Apostle Paul never discussed with his associates whether the globalization of his days is a reversible course or not. He only thought of making use of what is offered by it and felt the missionary burden on his shoulders. He was saying: “…Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” (Cor. 9,16) And this way” have caused trouble all over the world” teaching of “another king, …Jesus”. What role did Apostle Paul play in theology and the Greek society of the 20th century and in the turn of the millennium?

    We will start from an important turning point in the middle of the 20th century, which is the Second World War, because after that the quantity of theological letters grew considerably in Greece, as evidenced by the explosive growth of theological literature, especially in the area of biblical and patristic studies, as well as in all other branches of the theological sciences. What caused this impressive growth?

    1. The ruins, material and spiritual, accumulated by the Second World War, led to the urgent need of the Church and Theology to confront the questions raised by humanity using a solid foundation, such as the biblical and the patristic sources of faith.
    2. The specialized studies of the Greek theologians at universities in Europe and America, where they received various challenges, resulted in the scientific dialogue between the tradition of the church and modern scientific trends. Even negative challenges have created fruitful concerns with positive results.
    3. The establishment of a second Theological School in Greece at the University of Thessaloniki in 1943 (after that of Athens founded in 1837), increased the number of theologists in the country and consequently also the education of students in the area of theological science.

All areas of theological science have attracted the attention of Greek researchers. But the area that dominated research, and particularly biblical research, is the study of Apostle Paul's letters. If to express this with statistical data based on research I, 35% of biblical theological production (and in particular of the New Testament) is covered by studies which have as their object and content the letters and theology of Apostle Paul. One will reasonably be wondering, because of this preference. We can come up with a satisfactory answer, considering the following:

The Bema of Apostle Paul in Corinth
The Bema of Apostle Paul in Corinth, Greece

The Apostle is the founder of the Church in Greece (Philippi, Thessaloniki, Veria, Athens, Corinth, Nicopolis), and it is therefore natural that Greek theological research is directed around his work and his letters. Moreover, in 1950, the anniversary of the 1900 years since the founding of the Church in Greece was celebrated in Athens with various speeches, events and the publication of panegyric volumes. Thus, among other things, this event gave an incentive for a wider study of Apostle Paul’s work. As early as 1925, the late Archbishop Chrysostomos Papadopoulos (1923-1938) established the feast of the Celebratory Vespers on the holy rock of the Areopagus, during the feast of the Apostles Peter and Paul, he even composed a special recessional for the Apostle Paul. On the other hand, the figure of Apostle Paul was manifested in every way by the various Christian organizations, which, although they did not have solid theological bases, as they are usually criticized, in the post-war years played an important role in the spiritual reconstruction of the country.

Finally, dealing with the letters of the New Testament, in general, did not present the thorny problems in Greece as it did in the West awaked by scientific research of the Gospels during the decades immediately following the war. Problems with which the Western (Roman Catholic) Church dealt in its own way not always accepted by the Eastern Orthodox Church.

To realize the extent and quality of Paul's studies in the second half of the 20th century, it is enough to make a comparison with the corresponding studies in the first half of the century, as reflected in N. Louvaris’ book,” Introduction to the Paul's study”, 1st edition 1919, 2nd edition 1960. In the prologue of the first edition, the author is quoting the opinion of the distinguished German philologist Wilamowitz -That three men, who can excite and amplify what most people think, are Plato, Goethe and Paul. N. Louvaris anticipates the legitimate surprise of the Greek reader of this phrase, since the Greek does not know, as he should, the legacy of Paul. This is attributed to the fact that Greek religious education is always inadequate. And the author continues: That's in 1919.

The Bema of Apostle Paul in Kavala
The Bema of Apostle Paul in Kavala, Greece

But the situation changed dramatically in the second half of the century, especially in Paul's studies.

There comes a delicate and difficult question: Was this eruption of Paul's scientific studies also having a similar effect on Modern Greek society? At first sight, the answer is rather pessimistic. Apostle Paul, who dominated the theological studies, did not appear to have had a particularly striking effect on Modern Greek society. Biblical phrases in the language of common people-which became proverbial or are spontaneously used in the daily speech-are usually derived from the Gospels, especially those read in divine worship and even more specifically those of Holy Week, but not particularly from the letters of Apostle Paul.

Of course, the use of Pauline expressions by the Greek people has been noted, but is considerably more limited compared to the daily use of Gospel expressions. Even the theological, in baptismal relevance, Paul's phrase: “…anyone who has died has been freed from sin “(Romans 6: 7), which declares the discharge from the power of the sin of the man who died with Christ during baptism in accordance with the general principle that the dead can no longer sin, is used commonly completely misinterpreted. It is stipulating the exemption of the deceased in the consciences of relatives and friends from accusations of any failings for which they should no longer be maligned. It seems that the high theological thinking of St. Paul who moved the cane of the fathers of the church and inspired the theologians through the ages did not stir the piety of people, which was more influenced by saints with great miraculous powers. As it is well known, that is what touches the soul of common people much more than the high-energy theological thought.

Another reason to stop Pauline teaching from spreading to Greek society can be found in the objections of some seemingly progressive intellectuals who, with frivolous and scientifically ungrounded publications, often perceive Paul as a misogynist, forgetting that Paul is the one who proclaimed the revolutionary: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Gal 3, 28) and many more similar to it.

Mars hill aeropagus
Mars' Hill where Apostle Paul delivered the Aeropagus sermon

As we began to address the issue of Paul's influence in Modern Greek society, we used the expression “at first sight”. And we recorded a reality as it falls into our observation at first glance. If we now try to penetrate a little deeper into Modern Greek reality, we will find that there are some basic preconditions that allow us to detect the presence of Paul, sometimes maybe latent and sometimes more prominent. This is supported by the following observations:

  1. Apart from the letters of Apostle Paul to the churches of the Greek cities of Philippi, Thessalonica and Corinth, the preservation of which, prior to their publication, was secured in thousands of manuscripts in the country's libraries, starting from the National Library of Athens to the small Local libraries (with possibly unfinished manuscripts) and culminating in the libraries of Mount Athos. Besides the holy temples in the name of Apostle Paul, the chapels and the numerous Byzantine icons, there are listed briefly, or even just mentioned the endless, and largely not recorded, local traditions for Apostle Paul, some of which are as follows:

    The settlement of Saint Paul in the Northeast of Thessaloniki is linked topographically with the passage of Apostle Paul, since in the same area nearby there are sites associated by the oral tradition with Apostle.

    The southern chapel of the Monastery of Vlatadon, dedicated to Apostle Paul in remembrance, according to tradition, of his preaching there, or, probably, of his passage from there during his fledging to Veria.

    The spring near there where the Apostle stopped for refreshment and since then it is known as the Holy Spring of Saint Paul, located today in the estate of the Philoptochos (charitable)brotherhood near the chapel of Apostle Paul.

    The great church in his name, which today rises near the foot of the Kedrinos hill.

    Paul's memories are echoed in many other parts of Greece. From Ierissos, Nea Fokea and Sithonia in Halkidiki, where Paul is said to have been carving with his sword the rocks (location "Spathies"), mountain Ai-Pavlos near Nikiti, in which the Apostle of Christ thirsty struck with his sword, like another Moses, a rock and spilled plenty of water still running today; to Crete, Cyprus and Kefalonia. Kefalonia, following the recent theory of a German geographer, that is Melita Of the Acts (Chapters 27-28), in which the shipwreck occurred. They are all the place names associated with Apostle Paul.

    All these and many other traditions testify that the Greek folk soul keeps alive the memory of the passage of Apostle Paul. Its memory is depicted in places, in narratives, or in other expressions that cannot be said to be irrelevant or independent of the piety of the Greek people.

    "We are a nation," Seferis said in 1964 at the ceremony of his inauguration the Honorary Doctor of the Philosophical School of Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, "with a bravely soul, who kept deep inside his memory in times of acne, in centuries of persecution and empty ideas. Now that our world around us seems to want to make us inmates of one universal guest house, will we deny this memory? Will we admit that we should become outcasts? I do not seek to stop or spin back, I search for the mind, the sensitivity and the courage of the people going forward.

  2. The preaching of Apostle Paul in the Roman Empire was, as we have already pointed out, a preaching of liberty but also a declaration of responsibility. But when freedom is not experienced together with responsibility by the same person, it is costly in both human and social aspect. The society of our times has many pathological symptoms, most notably the surplus of freedom, unfortunately accompanied by a lack of responsibility. But who can seriously argue that there is no responsible core that circulate around it a life of love and freedom; the love that derives from the One, «who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20), and freedom, "that Christ has set us free "; (Galatians 5: 1). Who can deny that this fruit of freedom of the spirit of God does not come from the seed that Paul sawed verbally and in writing in the Greek world?

  3. The deeper one is looking at Modern Greek society, so much so, though not in the surface realm of daily speech, but in essential human and social relations, is obvious the inspiration of Paul's theological message. The engagement of the believer in social activities, his participation as a leading or simple member of the church in works of reforming society, his critical discourse, especially of the ecclesiastical leaders, about what is happening around us, but also the practical behavior is nothing else but the implementation of the Pauline teaching overtime from the first century to the present. At the time when the Stoic, Epicurean, and Cynical orator of his era suggested inactivity and indifference in the application of the well-known slogan "Live hidden," Paul without losing his eschatological vision urges Christians to act as "brothers" to everyone, to the active participation of Christians in social activities, to help to fellow Christians in need but also to all people, clearly differentiated from the contrary impulses of rhetoric and philosophers of his time and pointing to what is known to everyone "if a man will not work, he shall not eat "(2 Thess. 3:10).

    Paul's vision is not limited to the brothers of one community but has universal dimensions. The "to be kind to each other and to everyone else" (1 Thessalonians 5, 15) is characteristic of his incentive not only in the two letters to Thessalonians but also in all his letters. The universality of his preaching, not only at the theological level of the salvation of the Jews and the nations but also at the practical level of "philandelphia" to all is the essential contribution of Pauline teaching. At a time like today's globalization era with its positive and negative points that have been highlighted, especially the latter, by Orthodox ecclesiastical leaders and by the theologian scientists, Paul’s contribution, both overtime and contemporary, to the society of our time is crucial.

    At the turn of the second millennium to the third we must confess that if Paul's word has not yet been experienced in all its aspects, the work that lies ahead of us, especially the new generations of theologians and other scientists, is obviously a lot.

    A seal of the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki bears the image of Apostle Paul and around it is his message to the Thessalonians "Do not put out the Spirit’s fire" (1 Thessalonians 5:19).

    The society of this city has long been resistant to its historical ordeals, to its falls and wars, and if not as a whole, at least in a strong sense it has shown faithfulness to the above-mentioned apostle Paul's message. The Thessalonian clergyman Ioannis Kameniatis in his Chronicle for the fall of Thessaloniki.

    After what we have said before, which is not, of course, a sociological study but simple thoughts of a biblical theologian, we believe that what Ioannis Kameniatis tells about the Thessalonians at the end of the first millennium is generally valid for the Greeks at the end of the second millennium. They take pride in "Paul, a praiseworthy teacher," not only as a valuable inheritance of the past, but above all and foremost, as an imperative obligation for the present and for the future.