Accents From Abroad
Through the kindness of a Christian friend our Lord made it possible for me during the latter half of May to visit three different Bible lands, the major portion of the two-week having been spent in Israel. This article, and at least one more to follow, is only an attempt on the part of a novice to share some impressions which have been gleaned on this my first sojourn to Italy, Greece, and the Holy Land. Our first concern will be with the prominent cities of Rome, Italy; and Athens, Greece. In our second article we will center our attention on Israel.
The city of Rome, Italy’s capital, has a population today of almost 3,000,000. It was the ancient center of the Roman Republic and Empire, and the home of the Roman Catholic Church. The city is located in western Italy on the banks of the Tiber River, and for centuries it was the leading city in Europe. The Romans call it the “Eternal City,” and to this day it remains the living symbol of Eur0pean civilization .
Rome was originally built on seven hills and was traditionally believed to have been founded in 753 B.C. by Romulus, the wolf-weaned twin of Remus. The seven hills are all on the east side of the Tiber River, while present-day Rome consists of three major areas: Old Rome, New Rome, and the Vatican City. The city witnessed the founding of the Roman Republic, the rule of Caesar and Augustus, the beginning of Christianity, the coronation of Charlemagne, the Renaissance the counter-reformation, Italian statehood, the rise and fall of Mussolini, and the foundation of a new republic. Mussolini’s regime was responsible for the restoration of many ancient historical sites. Rome was bombed several times during World War II, but on September 11, 1943, it was declared an “open city.” While the city is chiefly a centre of culture, government, administration, and education, and not important industrially, there is no question but what it is one of the most magnificent cities in the world today. As Lord Byron once said, “Sooner or later everybody comes to Rome.”
Rome is mentioned in the Bible only nine times in the Books of Acts, Romans, and 2 Timothy, although in the Old Testament Daniel’s vision clearly identifies it as the empire of “iron” (Dan. 2:31-43), this last great world empire having left its visible influence and impact not only throughout Europe, but on the land of Palestine as well.
Visits to St. Peter’s Basilica, the Pantheon, the Roman Forum the Colosseum, the Vatican Museum and the magnificent Sistine Chapel all left lasting impressions, and not the least of them the realization of Michelangelo’s great and varied genius to which the Sistine Chapel, among other things, so eloquently attests. Yet I am reminded of the fact that men like Michelangelo were paid with the indulgence money squeezed from German peasants, and that it was in protest against such injustices that Martin Luther started on the road that led to the Protestant Reformation.
Nevertheless, to me personally the real highlight of my memorable visit to Rome was seeing the Mamertine Prison from which the Apostle Paul wrote 2 Timothy. Some think that was from this same infamous prison that he wrote Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon, but I personally do not share this conviction. At any rate, the upper chamber, or prison proper, was in ancient times connected to the lower dungeon only by a hole in the rock floor, through which prisoners were thrown down to await death by starvation or at the hands of an executioner in the charnel house below. Writers always described this prison with horror, one writer having said that it was “exceeding dark, unsavory, and able to craze any man’s senses.” The only exit from the wretched confines of the lower dungeon was a drain leading to the Cloaca Maxima which was used for the disposal of the corpses.
Two other things deserve special note, each quite in contrast to the other. First, there was a visit to one of the early burial places of Christians, commonly known as the catacombs, the most significant one being beneath the Basilica of Saint Sebastian. It is estimated that the length of the catacombs is anywhere from 350 to 600 miles with some 1,175,000 to 4,000,000 Christians having been buried in them. Second, just a few hours before leaving Rome, Roy Gustafson took my friend and me in a taxi to a large Jesuit church called “Jesus’ Church.” Believe me, the taxi ride in itself was a traumatic experience! Inside the church, among other items of interest, is a large statue of the Virgin Mary. Two other figures represent Luther and Calvin in hell with Mary’s foot on the former. A fourth figure represents an angel tearing up the writings of both men, the entire representation being called “The Faith pulls down the Heresy.”
Most of us are familiar with historian Edward Gibbon’s five basic causes for the collapse and destruction of the Roman Empire, but perhaps you are not familiar with his causes for the success of early Christianity, which are as follows:
1. The inflexible and … intolerant zeal of the Christians.
2. The doctrine of a future life.
3. The miraculous powers ascribed to the primitive Church.
4. The pure and austere morals of the Christians.
5. The union and discipline of the Christian republic, which gradually formed an independent and increasing state in the heart of the Roman Empire.
A study of Revelation 17 and 18 reminds us that Rome is by no means the “Eternal City.” On the contrary, some day she will be utterly destroyed along with every vestige of her diabolical religious system, and this, within a twenty-four-hour period (cf. Rev. 18:8).
As we take leave of Rome let us continue to prayerfully remember those true servants of Christ who are seeking to bear a faithful witness in such an extremely difficult place.
On the afternoon of May 17th we left Rome for the honey-colored city of Athens, Greece, having arrived in the early evening. Athens is the ancient fountainhead of Western culture, rising above the Plain of Attica between the Cephissus and Ilissus rivers. Almost 2,500 years ago the city witnessed a burst of artistic creativity that profoundly influenced the Western world in its cultural development, and this heritage lives on midst the glass and steel of modern Athens. The city was named for the goddess Athena, and a good Bible Dictionary or encyclopedia will give you the details of its ancient history.
Modern, Athens began in 1834 when it was proclaimed the capital of the independent Kingdom of Greece. Otto I, the first king of the Hellenes, rebuilt the city and it has grown steadily ever since, its present population being around 1,000,000. Athens is the center of Greek industry, producing textiles, steel, machine tools, armaments, and ships. One impression of the city is that it either has, or shortly will have, a serious pollution of its atmosphere, particularly in its large industrial section.
On the morning of May 18th we journeyed about 55 miles by bus to the ruins of New Testament Corinth. The drive west from Athens is quite picturesque with rugged mountains to the north and the Saronic Gulf to the south. It was easy to envision the Apostle Paul making the same trip, although his mode of travel would have been a far cry from our comfortable air-conditioned bus (Acts 18:1). Nearing the ruins of ancient Corinth we stopped at the famous Corinthian Canal cut through a narrow isthmus which links the Saronic Gulf with the Corinthian Gulf. This project had been thought of long before Paul’s day, Julius Caesar having considered it and Nero having employed Jewish slaves for the task in an attempt to cut through the isthmus in 66 A.D. Nevertheless, it was not until 1893 that the French completed the canal which is 3.9 miles long, 69 feet wide, 260 feet at its highest point, and having a water depth of 23 feet.
It is easy to understand why Corinth occupied such a strategic geographical location, situated as it was at the southern extremity of the isthmus and at the northern foot of the impregnable Acrocorinthus, a rugged mountain rising almost 2,000 feet above sea level. While Athens was a city of culture, Corinth was a city of corruption. Among the ruins can be seen remnants of the Lechaeum Road, the Temple of Apollo with its splendid Doric columns, the market place, shops, and an elevated platform or bema linked with the market place, undoubtedly the very spot where Paul faced his Jewish accusers in the presence of Gallio (Acts 18:12-17). It was here that I was called on to read 1 Corinthians 13 to our tour group, and after visiting the site of the ancient city one cannot help but have a fuller appreciation of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.
Upon our return to Athens, and a break for lunch, the afternoon was spent visiting the famous Acropolis, the sacred hills of classical times which dominates the city. Atop the 512-foot high Acropolis are magnificent temples built during the reign of Pericles in the 5th century B.C. The most beautiful of these is the Parthenon, dedicated to the goddess Athena. Also on the Acropolis are the Propylaea (the imposing entrance to the hill). the Temple of Athena Victorious, and the Erechtheum with its monumental porch supported by the Caryatids — columns in the shape of women.
To me the highlight of the entire afternoon was my scramble up Mars Hill, known also as Areopagus (i.e., the hill of Ares, god of war), where the Athenian court customarily met.
It is a bare rocky place, some 377 feet high, and located just a little north-west of the Acropolis. This was the place of Paul’s address in Acts 17:22-31. Having had a pocket Bible with me, I first read the words of the passage on my own and was then asked to read it aloud as several stood around and listened.
It should be noted that today throughout Greece there is token religious freedom, but the Greek Orthodox Church holds the vast majority of the people with a firm grip, making it quite difficult for the conducting of any evangelical witness. A good work is carried on in Athens with an outstanding Christian lawyer as one of the main leaders, but the way is by no means easy for those who take a firm stand for Jesus Christ.
Our two-day visit in Athens went all too quickly, but the best was yet to be. Our TWA 747 jet flight was four hours late arriving as a result of a bomb scare in Rome, but at last we found ourselves aboard and “bound for the Promised Land” (as someone had appropriately written on large letters on his suitcase).