Welcome, real friends and virtual travelers, to a study tour of Greece with a brief side trip to Ephesus, in Turkey. Twenty-five adventurous souls traveling with Campbell University Divinity School and Nurturing Faith Experiences embarked on Sunday, May 15, arriving in Thessaloniki (the modern spelling of Thessalonica) late Monday evening.
Very little of ancient Thessaloniki has been uncovered: the site was never abandoned, remaining an important city through the Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods. As a result, it has been constantly revised and rebuilt: the modern city of 1.5 million people sits atop the ancient site on the northern edge of the Aegean, where it continues to be an important harbor city. A Roman arch, a few Byzantine churches, and several Ottoman era buildings survive, but there’s no place that screams “Paul was here.”
We spent Tuesday on a day trip to Philippi, where Paul famously met Lydia and group of other God-fearing women who were praying by a river beneath the city. She and her entire family were converted, along with others, and Lydia hosted the early believers in her home. Paul and company later got into trouble for healing a fortune-telling slave girl, and were treated harshly as they were put in prison. Though freed by a miracle, Paul refused to leave immediately, converting the jailer and his household in the process (Acts 16).
Excavated ruins of Philippi are quite extensive. They include the remains of a relatively small theater that goes back to the Greek period, and a large rectangular forum that was built by the Greeks and expanded by the Romans. The Via Egnatia, a paved road the Romans built to transport their troops through northern Greece, passes along the edge of the city.
Inside, the remains of three basilicas can be found, indicating that Philippi became a strongly Christian city during the first few centuries of the church.
When Paul left Philippi, he traveled west through Amphipolis and Apollonia before reaching Thessaloniki. When he arrived, however, he and Timothy had set sail from Troas, stopping at Samothrace before docking at the harbor town of Neapolis, now known as Kevala.
While I enjoyed Philippi, I found myself wishing for something tangible from the first century in Thessaloniki, which had to have been one of Paul’s favorite churches.
When he wrote to them some years later, he was so impressed with the church and their witness that he thanked God for their “work of faith,” their “labor of love,” and their “steadfastness of hope,” remarking that they had become an example to everyone in the region, and beyond (1 Thes. 1:3, 7-8).
That’s quite a resume for any church.