Dear fellow travellers
Over these past weeks we have been really struck by Saint Paul’s extraordinary affection for stopovers. In these viral times, when we are staying so much closer to home, other people’s journeys suddenly seem so fascinating. And, the spell between Easter and Pentecost being a time when the Acts of the Apostles are liturgically favoured, we have been looking at the Acts as a travel narrative.
Paul wandered hither and thither, thus giving a number of places in Europe their first serious outing in the Bible. His travels took him to Athens, Thessaloniki, Rome, Malta, Corinth and beyond. And we find evidence in the New Testament that Paul spent time planning future journeys, some of which he probably never made. Paul recorded in his Epistle to the Romans that he was planning a trip to Spain - it’s very unlikely he ever made it to the Iberian Peninsula.
What’s striking in the Acts is that the entire narrative structure is shaped by place names, some of which seem very familiar to the modern reader, but others seem oddly distant and archaic. Little remains these days of the city of Troas near the Dardanelles; it’s a place which features strongly in the Acts of the Apostles. Beroea, where Paul, Silas and Timothy had an abbreviated stay after a hurried escape from Thessaloniki, is these days more commonly known as Veria. The ancient city of Neapolis is very close to the modern site of Kavala on the coast of the Greek province of Macedonia.
Today’s travellers who head inland from Kavala, following Highway 12, drive north-west towards the hills. Before long there are signs to Filippoi. This small community is the Philippi mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. It was founded by and named after King Philip of Macedonia and grew under Roman control to become one of the great cities of the Empire. It was the first place where Paul was to preach anywhere west of the Bosphorus and the city was also the locale for Paul’s celebrated encounter with the indigo-dye entrepreneur called Lydia. She is one of the few women to get a decent role in the Acts; like most travel narratives, past and present, the action is dominated by men.
We sense that Paul might have been quite a demanding travel companion. Sometimes he makes a straight course, and at other times he just dawdles as if he and his companions have all the time in the world. He skips a planned rendezvous in Ephesus, by-passing the city as he sails without a pause from Chios to Samos, and then asks that the elders in Ephesus hike over to Miletus, a distance of about 50 km, to meet him.
The enumeration of ports and cities is important in giving narrative impetus to the Acts, sometimes slowing the journey with recitation of way stations and sometimes giving decisive direction, as in “Sailing from Troas we made a straight run for Samothrace.”
Itinerary management is possibly not quite Paul’s strength as a tour organiser. And if the shift from ‘we’ to ‘I’ in the Acts reflects reality, there were times when he evidently just abandoned his travel companions for a few days. The standard of overnight accommodation was haphazard: fine hospitality by local elders, a homestay with Lydia near Filippoi and even an uncomfortable night in prison.
Even if you don’t have a thread of religious fibre in your body, try reading the Acts of the Apostles, and see what you make of it as a travel narrative. You may want to have a good atlas of the ancient world to hand as you follow Paul on his meandering itinerary through Lystra and Phrygia to Mysia and beyond.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)