Lystra: Human Nature on Display (Pic Of The Day, 12 May 2019)

A follow-up to my previous Pic of The (special) Day post is in order. Last week, I held forth on the “Genesis of the Accepting Church” using the Apostle Paul’s first visit to the city Antioch of Pisidia, as narrated by Acts 13. This was occasioned by my use of the passage for a special combined Sunday School session on the 60th anniversary of University Baptist Church’s own Genesis. As it happens, the Narrative Lectionary used by UBC covers Paul’s continued work on the same journey in the cities of Lystra and Derbe, also in the Roman province of Galatia. If you haven’t read the one about Antioch of Pisidia, it might be helpful and can be found here.

The mound, or Hüyük of Lystra, with random students distributed for scale (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Immediately after Antioch of Pisidia, the same sequence of events is reported at Iconium but with far less detail: Paul going to the synagogue, having an opportunity to preach there because of his status, resistance by unbelieving synagogue Jews, and eventual persecution and departure (Acts 14:1-7). From Iconium, they moved on to nearby Lystra. Today Lystra remains a largely un-investigated and non-descript ruin in the Lycaonian plain. The site is dominated by a large hüyük; a mound of ruins built up over centuries or millennia of human occupation (more familiar by the Arabic word tell). The active agricultural fields surrounding the mound are devoid of architectural features, but abound in those indicators of an ancient site: sherds of broken pottery and small stone objects turned up by the plow. It is a prototypical example of an unpreserved and unexcavated ancient site.  

View from the crest of the mound at Lystra with not-so-ancient-Daniel and worked fields below (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-05-21)

At Lystra the biblical narrative focuses on Paul’s healing of a cripple—very possibly at the synagogue where Paul was speaking (Acts 14:8-10)—and the aftermath of that miraculous event. Some of the locals, amazed by what Paul had done, declared him and Barnabas to be “the gods” in human form. Paul, “since he was the chief speaker,” was called Hermes (the messenger of the Olympian Greek gods) and Barnabas—apparently more quietly dignified and stately(?)—was deemed to be Zeus! The priest of Zeus brought out “oxen and garlands” to offer a sacrifice, but Paul and Barnabas declaimed that they were mere men and scarcely managed to avert the sacrifice (Acts 14:11-18). Then, with no indication of time passed after the previous scene, the reader of Acts is told that Jews from Antioch (of Pisidia) and Iconium came and “persuaded the people,” so that “they stoned Paul dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (v. 19). How could the same people declare Paul and Barnabas to be gods worthy of sacrifice and in the next verse stone Paul and leave him for dead? The answer, I sadly conclude, is human nature.

A modern recreation of the stoning of Paul just outside of Lystra; note the stone in flight at left center (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17) [NOTE: no Charlies were injured in the creation of this picture]

We, as most mammals do, have something of a pack mentality which causes us to readily accept a potential leader who demonstrates (or sometimes only claims) an ability to “save” us from whatever we may fear. This desire leads to irrational beliefs and actions. We see as much in this story; but also throughout history, in politics, in sports, and even entertainment. In the Roman world, the practice of worshiping the emperor as divine may strike us as “ignorant,” but it operated on the same psychology. And it worked! —as seen in the impressive temple to Augustus at Antioch of Pisidia (pictured in my previous post) complete with an entablature featuring bulls decorated with garlands, the very items brought out for sacrifice in our story.

Antiochia Pisidia: one of the many bull and garland fragments from the Temple of Augustus (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Apparently refusing the role of physical/political savior, failing to provide what the crowds demand, or not being what people first hoped, is a dangerous business. This is the human side of what physically happened to Jesus; and Paul’s experience is an echo. The Lycaonians of Lystra demonstrate, in the extremes of their actions, the foibles of human temperament.

Happily, we don’t have to leave Lystra (or this blog) completely depressed about humanity. Paul returned to the city on the so-called “Second Missionary Journey” (Acts 16:1-3) and found the good side of people and their instincts. In Lystra Paul met a disciple named “Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; but his father was a Greek.” This Timothy was the product of a mixed marriage, which may have been a social burden and certainly created the potential for theological discrimination (Acts 16:3). It might be argued that Timothy’s mother is only mentioned because of her contribution to his mixed heritage, but note that only she is cited as a believer. And, assuming we can take it as authentic (many do not), 2 Timothy 1:5 has Paul remarking to Timothy about his faith: “a faith that dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, dwells in you.” Timothy clearly received much more than Jewishness from his mother and his grandmother.

Lystra with a bouquet of wildflowers
Lystra in full Spring bloom; the hüyük rising in the background (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2014-05-21)

The love and nurture of a mother reveals and passes on the best part of human nature. We see it at Lystra in this story, and I feel it in my own life and in the lives of my children. As Tim[othy] might have said, “God bless[ed] us, every one!”

Happy Mother’s Day!

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Pisidian Antioch: Genesis of the Accepting Church

This post is the result of my being asked to teach a special combined Sunday School session for University Baptist Church’s 60th anniversary, 5 May 2019. I decided to cover the Acts 13 passage in which the Apostle Paul established the first Christian church in Antiochia Pisidia, “Antioch of Pisidia.” And, I’ll take any opportunity to put pictures of a place to a story. Hence this “Pic of the (special) Day” entry.

The mountainous backdrop of Antiocha Pisidia in the Anatolian highlands; with the platform and remains of a Temple of Augustus, cut from the living rock in an apsidal recess at the end of a long courtyard (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Antiochia Pisidia is one of several cities named “Antioch” in the Greco-Roman world, and distinct from the Antioch for which so many rural protestant churches are named in the American Bible Belt region. That earlier Antioch is often called “Antioch on the Orontes” or “Antioch of Syria,” and it is where the early Christian church made its breakout in the Hellenistic world (Acts 11:19-26). It is also the “home church” for the so-called “Missionary Journeys of Paul—the first of which brings the Apostle to the Antioch of Pisidia.

Ancient Dan’s daughter, Rachel, inside the well-preserved baths at Antiocha Pisidia; note the aqueduct visible through the back door (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Paul had assumed leadership of the First Journey, originally led by Barnabas, it seems (Acts 13:1-4), as the group left Cyprus and arrived in at Perga Asia Minor (Acts 13:13). No work is described at Perga and, for reasons unexplained by the biblical text, Paul continued inland an appreciable distance to Antioch of Pisidia. Antioch was made a Roman colony by the Emperor Augustus, to whom an impressive temple was built. Augustus also established the Via Sebaste, a major road that connected Antioch with Perga to the southwest and Iconium and Lystra to the east, all cities visited by Paul on that First Journey.

Antiocha Pisidia; Aqueduct above the city (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Antioch of Pisidia was a typical Roman-Hellenistic city, with the usual institutions and structures: the Temple of Augustus, public fountains and baths powered by an aqueduct, and a minority community of Jews with a synagogue. As in many Roman cities, some number of non-Jews (Gentiles) attended the synagogue because of their interest and belief in the one God of Judaism. Such Gentiles were called “God Fearers” and were part of the synagogue community, but not considered Proselytes (converts)—no doubt because of the difficult requirement of circumcision for full conversion.

Antiocha Pisidia: the large basilica known as the St. Paul Church; claimed by one archaeologist who worked at the site to be built over the synagogue, but this view is not widely held (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2009-03-17)

Paul and his company went to the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia on the sabbath day (Acts 13:14). This is the first city to which the missionary group arrived with Paul in the full leadership position, and the author (traditionally Luke) gives a rather complete outline of what occurred. The account provides an outline of Paul’s procedure/experience in each succeeding city with only minor variations. Because of his rabbinical training under Gamaliel, the most respected Rabbi of the period, Paul would automatically be asked to deliver a homily after the Torah and other biblical readings in the synagogue service. This is what is described (Acts 13:15-16), and Paul delivered a sermon (vss 16-41) that was well-received by some Jews and God Fearers alike (42-43). The next sabbath many more people appeared at the synagogue (44). These were no doubt other Gentiles who came because of reports from the God Fearers who had heard Paul the previous week. The unbelieving Jews were “filled with jealousy” when they saw the crowds—people different from them, from which the synagogue was something of a refuge. They contradicted Paul, which is to be expected as theological debate and argumentation over the Law is a well-established Jewish tradition. But more alarmingly they “reviled him” (45), leading me to the conclusion that this was not just about theology: they used theology as an excuse and a tool for exclusion of those who were different—in this case the Gentiles; especially those not in conformance with the Jewish Law.

Antiocha Pisidia: the distinctive Byzantine basilica apse of the St Paul Church (photo © Daniel C Browning Jr, 2012-05-23)

Paul’s reaction at Antioch of Pisidia, as in every other city save one, was to leave the synagogue and form a new faith community—a church—with the believing Jews and God Fearers (46). It was successful and grew (48-49). Its eventual persecution by the synagogue Jews underlines the latter’s attitude and my conclusion that, here and in many similar situations (ancient and modern), theology divides while inclusion builds community.

Paul went on to repeat the same basic sequence at other cities of the First Journey, all of them (with Antioch of Pisidia) in the Roman province called Galatia. There is considerable debate but, for purely logical reasons, I maintain that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written to those churches founded on the First Journey about the time of the “Judaizing Controversy” (Acts 15), in which the “Judaizers” attempted to force Gentile Christians to keep the Jewish Law as a condition of salvation. The letter to the Galatians is clearly in the context of this controversy and lays out the case that Gentiles are not required to keep the Jewish Law (of which circumcision is the most painful prescription). In that letter occurs the “focal verse” of University Baptist Church, Galatians 2:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is worth noting that “Greeks” (Gentiles/God Fearers) were separated from full Jewish males in the synagogue, as were women of any persuasion. The verse focuses on the elimination of distinctions—distinctions which continue to arise through Christian history. It is refreshing to belong to a congregation that understands this foundational tenet of building truly Christian communion.

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