Rome was incredible, but as I said in an earlier blog, I struggled with it for theological reasons. It was also lacking in good signage and guidance. Athens I love without reservation. Everything was signposted, its history easily explained, you always knew what you were looking at.
In Acts 17:16 Luke tells us that ‘while Paul was waiting for them (Timothy and Silas) in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.’ This is clear even today as we visit the ancient sites. The three temples of Acropolis dominate the city and are devoted to the patron goddess of Athens in particular, Athena. There is the remains of the Temple to Zeus completed by Hadrian after the time of Paul. There are temples everywhere. The Parthenon must have been a glorious site, resplendent with marble dominating the city. There were also temples on the other hills around the Acropolis.
Another key difference with Rome is that the historic sites are not overlaid with centuries of Christian tradition focused on Mary, Popes and the Saints. Mary is big here, but not on the sites of the historic temples. So one gets a strong feel for what spirituality was like at the time of Paul. In Rome it is lost underneath Christian churches and tradition.
One thing that blew my mind was the complete absence of any reference to the great philosophical tradition of Greece around the Acropolis and other sites we visited i.e. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. I expected a balance of religion and philosophy; all I saw was religion.
One thing seeing the Parthenon does for one is ponder how the ancients built such things! They had to drag these enormous buildings up piece by piece and then put them together. Crazy! Slavery no doubt provided the man-power. They are astonishing works and no doubt many died in the labour. The history of the Parthenon is amazing too, it being a temple to the gods, then a Christian church, then a mosque, and now a tourist attraction.
One most interesting afternoon was a visit to the ‘Jewish quarter.’ After walking up the to the Philippousus site atop the hill beside Mars Hill, I went looking for the Jewish synagogue. Acts 17:17 tells us Paul reasoned with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks at the synagogue. I thought that there might be a connection with the current synagogue location and the earlier one as in these ancient cities the Jewish quarter remained the same. It turned out that this was true of Athens, although the woman at the synagogue Rosa was not sure where the ancient synagogue had been situated. She thought it would have been in the area.
I pondered why it was that Paul was so ineffective evangelizing both Jew and Greek in Athens. I can imagine that the great philosophical and religious tradition of Greece was difficult to break through. In fact, Christianity did not really take root in Athens until about the 5th century unlike its early impact in Rome and other cities of the Roman world.
The trip to the synagogue led to a really interesting encounter with a young Greek woman. I got lost on the way and asked a young girl for directions. She said that she was walking that way and said we could walk together. As we walked, I asked whether she went to church. I had heard from a tour guide that 98% of Greeks consider themselves Christian and Orthodox. She was very sheepish and reticent. Later she said that there were two reasons for this. One was that it is decidedly uncool to go to church if you are young. Second, Greeks do not normally talk to foreigners, and not about those things. In fact a few people laughed at us as we walked along; she explained that it was weird thing for a young Greek girl and a foreigner to walk along talking.
Anyway, that aside, her response led to an amazing conversation. She told me that she had started going to church again recently because she was searching, she told me that she was looking for the meaning of life. Not being one to miss such an opportunity, I told her about my recently published book which was about the meaning of life and explained to her the five R’s of the Christian message. She was hungry to understand. She seemed to know little about Jesus and God’s glorious plan for the world. She was wide open.
She asked to join me at the Synagogue. We had a great chat with Rosa who told me of the anti-Semitism that is widespread across Greece. I sympathized with her. It seems that across Europe right wing ideals are on the rise; in Greece with the desecration of graves etc. Sophia, my Greek friend cried as she heard of this. I had noted she was greatly moved by the idea of God wanting all humanity to live together in peace without ethnic barriers. We had laughed at the idea of a kiwi dude walking along with a young Greek girl talking God-stuff. She clearly longs for the world God has in mind for us all.
After the synagogue visit we went to part company. I asked if I could pray for her. I did, and she wept. God touched her life. She then took off going her own way, and I mine. I had been touched by the hour or so we had talked; she seemed to be too.
Now this is where things get a little weird. When we were at the synagogue I had taken a photo of the synagogue. I had asked her to stand in the photo, she had happily agreed. However, when I looked at the photo later there was no person in the picture. It was all a little weird. I could have missed her out perhaps, or???? The whole thing was interesting. One more thing she did say was that she feels that the Greek culture is still living in its great past. She spoke of Greeks who are annoyed that the world has taken its philosophical and democratic ideals and seek a renaissance of Greek culture. Such people are very anti-foreigner. She was not happy with this and believed that Greece needs to stop living in its past. I hope she emails me, I left her my email and told her about my book. Please pray for her if your read this. Or was this an encounter with an angel?
Anywho, back to Athens. It is amazing. The Philippos Hotel is great if you ever visit there. The Acropolis Museum is amazing as is the Acropolis. A highlight was standing on Mars Hill at the place where the Areopagus supposedly met. I say supposedly, because it is really just a big rock and it is disputed. I pondered Acts 17, the unknown God, Paul’s use of Greek poets, his appeal for faith based on resurrection. It is generally accepted here that the male convert Dionysius was the patron saint of the city at the time. Acts 17:33 tells us that he was a ‘member of the Areopagus.’ I see no reason to dispute this, although many contemporary scholars do. So, even though the faith did not root deep as in other Greek cities and elsewhere, God still planted faith in the heart of the Athenian culture.
So, Athens is great. We are going back in a few weeks and I want to check out the archaeological museum and maybe the Jewish museum, if I have time.
Other things of note include first the impact of the recent riots. We saw a couple of burnt out buildings including the bank where three workers died. This seems to have taken the wind out of the anarchy as has the billions given to Greece to bail it out. However, there is clearly a problem with unemployment. There are many incomplete buildings. There are many youths hanging around doing nothing. As in Rome, there is graffiti everywhere. Second, the people are lovely. They are very friendly. They are gregarious, but not as excessive as the Romans. Third, they drive rather crazily, but perhaps not as mad as the Romans. Motorbikes are order of the day in both Italy and Greece. Emma now wants a Vespa and perhaps I will get a bike to get to and from Laidlaw? It looks a lot of fun.