I’m not much of a history buff. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that, until quite recently, I detested history. Back in my school days (oh, so long ago!) I found the study of history to be nauseatingly dull. However, as I’ve ripened with age, I find history to be rather fascinating, likely because after almost half a century on the planet, one has amassed enough general knowledge to understand its value.
Perhaps this is why I found my plunge into the history of Philippi to be quite intriguing. Or maybe it’s because, after my journey to Greece and Italy last year, I now have a visual frame of reference. Having stood in ancient temple ruins and having strolled the streets of Pompeii, the most well-preserved Roman city discovered, I have a newfound appreciation for biblical history.
So before we jump into discussing the book of Philippians, let me throw out a few tidbits I learned about the city itself.
•Its original Greek name was Krenides, meaning ‘fountain’ or ‘spring’. It was settled by ancient colonists from the island of Thasos in 360 B.C. *. Krenides had gold mines nearby and when the area was attacked, the people asked for assistance from their neighbor to the north, Philip II of Macedonia. Philip was the father of Alexander the Great (There’s a name I know!) and he happily obliged, with an eye on the wealth of those mines.
•Philip then took over and renamed the city for himself in 356 B.C. Though Philippi/Krenides maintained its independent status, Philip brought in his own people to settle permanently in the area and he made many additions and fortifications to the city.
•In 168 B.C., Macedonia was conquered by the Romans. The overlap of Greek and Roman culture in Philippi begins.
•In 42 B.C., Mark Antony and Octavian (later called Augustus Caesar) join forces to battle the assassins of Julius Caesar, Brutus and Cassius. (Again, names I knew, if only from Shakespeare!). The killers had fled Italy and the battle raged outside of Philippi. It was a huge battle that ended with 40,000 men dead, but Julius Caesar was now avenged.
•In celebration of this victory, Philippi was made a Roman colony and given full Roman status which would afford its citizens the same rights as Italians, exempting them from certain taxes and allowing land ownership rights. Many veterans of the Roman army settled there.
•Eleven years later, Augustus Caesar (formerly known as Octavian) defeated the combined forces of Cleopatra and Mark Antony at The Battle of Actium. He exiled Antony’s supporters from Italy and relocated them in Philippi. So much for being war buddies before, eh? (Some sources place the changed status of Philippi to a true Roman colony here…I’m finding that the more I dig, the more squiffy dates and such get.)**
•So by the time the Apostle Paul shows up in 49 A.D., less than a century later, this is a very Roman city. Philippi’s legal system, religious practices, and language were Roman. Out of roughly 460 pieces of writing found in archaeological digs, most are in Latin; only a relatively small percentage are Greek.
Whew! I’m no scholar, but I’ve learned so much in my studies already. I have no wish to ‘data-dump’ on you, my friends, so I’ll end that part and move on. As Paul makes his way to Macedonia, based on a vision he had, we find him in Philippi for the first time in 49 A.D. Here’s a link to this account. Take a moment to read it. I’ll just sit here with my coffee and wait for you!
Now Philippi in Paul’s day was a prosperous city. The Via Egnatia, an important Roman trade road, ran through Philippi, adding to its importance. The people, in Paul’s time, would have been an interesting mix of Roman settlers and displaced but still present Greeks. Two cultures, both with strong national pride in their accomplishments, co-existed under the surface of this Roman colony.
It is into this culture the Apostle finds a pretty nonexistent Jewish presence. The absence of a synagogue indicates there were less than ten Jewish men to be found. Paul finds, outside the city, some women assembled to pray and he spoke to them, bringing the gospel to the first convert in Europe, a woman named Lydia.
(Interestingly, we don’t actually know if this was her name. The Greek wording may be saying she was a woman from Lydia. Thyatira was a city in the area the ancients called Lydia. Huh. It’s amazing what we don’t know, isn’t it? Either way, there’s no harm in us calling her Lydia. It’s a lovely name, after all.)
And so, the Philippian church appears to begin with the conversion of a gentile woman, a jailer, and possibly a slave girl. I absolutely love how God uses the least likely of folks to accomplish His purposes.
So there’s our background. Next time we’ll dig into the introduction to the letter itself, keeping all of this rich history in mind as we attempt to see through Paul’s eyes. Until then…
Grace and peace,
*I choose to use the traditional B.C. and A.D. designations as I was taught growing up. No politically correct silliness here. Since the BCE and CE designations also pivot upon the time of Christ’s birth anyway, I don’t really see an improvement in the change!
**I won’t pretend to be a scholar, and the scholars that I did consult can’t seem to agree on much so I presented this info to the best of my abilities. If you find any flagrant errors, feel free to (gently) point them out to me.
Photo by Andrea Albanese, courtesy of Pixabay.