“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” — Acts 1:8 (NIV)
Jesus and Paul are the two greatest evangelizers of the Christian faith. Jesus established the church and Paul was its leading builder. Their ministry styles, though, were almost exactly opposite. Jesus ministered in Palestine and, in particular, Galilee. He walked the rural hillsides and the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Only occasionally does scripture put him in urban areas such as Jerusalem. Paul took the message to “ends of the earth” of the first century, which was the region of the Roman Empire. He traveled by sea and by foot to metropolitan cities such as Rome, Corinth and Ephesus. Rarely does scripture put him in rural areas of any kind. As a result, and largely thanks to the Romans, their cities were instrumental in the proliferation of Christianity.
While Jesus was born in the small village of Bethlehem, with a population of less than 1,000, he grew up in the Nazareth which likely had a population of only about 500 people and covered about 60 acres in area. Archaeological findings indicate it was an agricultural town which could lend to the theory that Jesus and Joseph might have had to find carpentry work in the rebuilding of the nearby city of Sepphoris. Called the “Ornament of Galilee,” Sepphoris was rebuilt during Jesus’s pre-ministry years and had a population of around 20,000 people. It was an opulent seat of government for Herod Antipas and, even though never mentioned in the Bible, it was one of three instrumental Roman cities in Galilee. Jesus likely would have known it well.
While neither Jesus nor Paul based their ministries in Jerusalem, it was still a holy city to Jews and Christians and it has always been considered sacred. While some estimates of Jerusalem’s population in the first century were as many as 120,000 citizens, it likely was home to 60,000-90,000 residents. With his extravagant building and priority on water availability, King Herod the Great, Antipas’s father, successfully grew it and the population of the entire region.
Located on the Mediterranean coast, Caesarea Maritima was the first artificial harbor of the ancient world. It probably had a population of about 40,000 people during the time of the first century. Those two factors made it one of the most important cities in Palestine. The God-fearing Roman centurion Cornelius, mentioned in Acts 10, lived in this city. Caesarea Maritima was the site of a 13-mile aqueduct (partially preserved) built by Herod the Great and it contained concrete and ceramic pipe. Caesarea was also a tribute to Herod’s ingenuity and that of Roman thinking and innovation. It was the first building project in the Middle East to extensively use hydraulic concrete. One block discovered there was found to be 39 feet by 49 feet by 5 feet.
We probably don’t picture New Testament cities as being even this large. Under Roman rule, all of Palestine may have had a population between one-six million. Palestine had sizeable populations for sure, but not as many concentrated masses as those in other areas of the Roman Empire. Even though Jesus started the church in the countryside with common people, the church was overall an urban movement. God sought an evangelist to reach the larger masses.
Paul was born Saul of Tarsus and was born a Roman citizen even though he was a Jew. That privilege was why his life was spared in lieu of a death-sentence appeal directly to Caesar in Rome. Tarsus was a large urban city of 100,000-500,000 and was one of the top five intellectual cities in the Roman Empire and vital for trade in south-central Asia Minor. Since his early life was as a Pharisee, Paul was very intellectual. His educational background was likely influenced greatly by the Stoics found at Tarsus but likely was not influenced by other Greco-Roman culture. From his birth, Paul understood the culture of the important cities of the Empire.
So, where did Paul and the first apostles choose to start the church? Acts 11:26 states that the disciples were first called “Christians” at the church in Antioch of Syria, located just outside Palestine. This cosmopolitan city had a population of about 150,000-300,000. All those people were crammed into a very small geographical area. There was an average of 117 people per acre, compared to only 37 in all of modern-day New York City. The borough of Manhattan alone has the same density at 117 per acre even with all of its high-rise housing. Antioch, as in other Roman cities, only had buildings that reached four to five stories high. To further Antioch’s density, much of the minimal landmass of the city housed civic buildings and places of worship.
Peter is believed to have been the founder of the church in this city and Paul arrived there in A.D. 43. The large Jewish population at that time was wealthy and their religious ceremonies attracted the God-fearing Greeks, the Gentile groups of people who often became Christians. It was a liberal city full of excitement (the Olympic Games were instituted at the time of Paul’s arrival) where the lines of religion, race and nationality were easily blurred by all the cultures.
Also similar to most Roman cities, roads in and leading out of Antioch were narrow and housing units were wall-to-wall, literally, adding to the density. As in most urban Roman cities, density led to very little privacy in the home. It also led to the threat of fire and poor quality of life in the living space. This forced people into public places, such as forums and cardos. These large gatherings of people would have given Paul a perfect platform in which to evangelize.
Rome was the largest city of the Empire at more than one million people. The importance of that city is obvious and a topic of discussion all its own. Instead, let’s take a look at some of the other cities that populate the New Testament and likely harbor cultural questions for all of us.
We all understand the importance of the church at Corinth to Paul. After all, he wrote two letters to it. Corinth was destroyed in 146 B.C. and rebuilt by Caesar in 44 B.C. At the time of Paul it had a population of around 800,000 people and was important to the region’s commerce. In Corinth, the density of people per acre was 137 people. Since Augustus rebuilt the city that likely led to a faithful allegiance to the Emperor and a large Imperial Cult (Emperor worship). The importance of commerce would have aided Paul’s ministry. For example, he was a tent-maker and may have set up shop at the large marketplace in Corinth. The book of Acts 18:1-3 states that Paul left Athens for Corinth. He stayed there with Priscilla and Aquila and made tents.
Pergamum, located on the western coast of Asia Minor, had a population of more than 300,000. According to the Book of Revelation, it was the location of the throne of Satan. While the Bible doesn’t specifically mention that Paul traveled to Pergamum, the book of Acts 16:7-8 states that Paul traveled through the area where the city was located. There was a long-standing church there, likely planted or influenced by the apostle John. Archaeological evidence has turned up countless temples to different Greek and Roman gods, including Asclepius and Zeus. It was at Pergamum that Zeus was heralded as the savior. It was also the site of the first Imperial Cult to honor Rome and Caesar Augustus. It’s pretty clear why God referred to it as the location of Satan’s throne.
The book of Ephesians is one of the most quoted in the New Testament. The city of Ephesus had a population of about 200,000 and one archaeological inscription described it as “a most illustrious city” (most likely referring to cities of Asia Minor). It would have likely been comparable to a modern-day New York City in terms of importance to the area. It was a center of commerce, banking and trade. Despite its preeminence and apparent prosperity, the average resident of Ephesus was believed to be poorer than many. It was this demographic of people that was most open to the “The Way,” or the new Christian movement. In Acts 19:1-7, Paul baptized 12 disciples there and they prophesied and spoke in tongues after receiving the Holy Spirit.
Other sizeable cities Paul visited included Thessalonica, the capital of the Macedonian province and had a population of about 200,000. Acts 17:1-9 states that he preached in the synagogue there for “three Sabbaths” and it started a riot. The city of Smyrna had a population of 100,000-200,000 and was considered the “most beautiful of all” the cities on the western coast of Asia Minor. It contained a theatre, stadium and library and was likely the birthplace of Homer.
Jesus said in Luke 4:43 that he ‘“must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other towns also, because that is why I was sent.”’ Jesus brought the good news to the towns in Palestine and commissioned Paul to bring it to the urban cities of the entire Roman Empire. God knew the time was right to establish the church. What better time than in the first century when people were packed into cities where the “fishers of men” net could be cast at its widest?
How did you picture the cities where Jesus taught?
How did you picture the cities where Paul planted churches?
Did you envision their ministries reaching such diverse settings?