„SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE, PHILIPPI AND PHILIPPOPOLIS“
The first missionary journey of Saint Paul the Apostle is considered the beginning of the Christian Epoch in European history. The main historical written source for this missionary journey is the story presented in the Acts of the Apostles. Although short, this story leaves no room to question either the events or the aims the Apostle pursued in his journey. St. Paul summarised its results in his Epistle to the Romans, saying that “Through mighty signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God; so that from Jerusalem, and round about unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ.” (Romans 15: 19), followed by him sending greetings to many of his helpers and followers. For some of them there are data that they became Bishops in the Christian communities established by him, including in Sirmium and in Philippopolis.
The Acts of the Apostles says: “And a vision appeared to Paul in the night; There stood a man of Macedonia, and prayed him, saying, Come over into Macedonia, and help us” (Acts 16: 9). Paul accepted this request as a task from God – to spread Christ's Message in the land of the Macedonians. He started his missionary journey without delay and arrived in “…Philippi, which is the chief city of that part of Macedonia” (Acts 16: 12). The Acts provide some information about this city, although it had been well known to educated men at that time. Saint Paul the Apostle obviously knew that the city was on a river and that it hosted a Jewish community with its place for worship close to that river. He went there on the next Sabbath, making his first preaching in Europe and baptising a woman in the river. She was later sanctified as Saint Lydia of Thyatira. In this city he established the first Christian Community in Europe, which is also the only Christian community mentioned in the story of his journey as being established by him personally. The continuation of his journey to the land of the Hellenes, today's Greece, to the cities of Athens and Corinth, was marked by failure and led to his return back to Ephesus. St. Paul's apostolic activity was again met with a strong opposition two years later, during his second missionary journey to the land of the Hellenes, his life being threatened by the local Jewish population. This forced him to return to Troas not by sea but by taking the river route, through Macedonia, and by sailing from Philippi by ship, to reach Troas five days later.
In the fifteen centuries that followed there has been little discussion about the real location of that “chief city of that part of Macedonia” and of Philippi. However, St. Dimitri of Rostov, the first Russian/Ukrainian theologian, identifies Philippi with Philippopolis in his Lives of Saints ("Chet'i-Minei") from 1714 AD.
Although the Acts of the Apostles provide exact information about the city where Saint Paul the Apostle began his missionary activities in Europe, the prevailing opinion is that St Paul visited the small city of Crenides/Philippi in Northern Greece. This opinion stems from two publications of a local archaeology enthusiast Stavros Mertsidis, one – in an official Greek scientific journal, and another, a monograph, that was published in Constantinople with the assistance and financial support of its Patriarch in 1897. In his monograph Mertsidis presented 49 inscriptions that had been actually composed by him and that are not supported by either sketches or photographs. Their alleged existence has also not been supported by any witnesses. These inscriptions affirmed Crenides/Philippi as the location of Saint Paul's visit and of the first Christian community in Europe. The news about this book spread rapidly at the time, although its contents was not based on scientific and historical facts. In order to spare Greece's embarrassment both publications of Mertsidis have been gradually recalled from public and private libraries and they are quoted no more in scientific publications. In 1939 the established French scientist and epigraphist Prof. Louis Robert, holding a chair at the Sorbonne, called these publications "shameless and bold" forgeries, unmatched in the science world. Having been repeated a thousand times, the “legend”, however, gets accepted, regardless of the fact that the town of Philippi had never been “the chief city of that part of Macedonia”. This small town close to the Aegean sea (near Kavala/Neapolis) also bears the name Philippi or Philippopolis. It was destroyed and abandoned in 42 BC after the large battle between the armies of Octavian August and Mark Antony and the armies of Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (known for Julius Caesar's assassination). Three decades after that battle a military colony (castellum) was built there for Roman veterans, who constituted the majority of its population until the VI century. Large-scale archaeological excavations in the 1930's revealed neither Jewish nor Christian communities in this settlement prior to the VI c. AD. Furthermore it had neither a Jewish place for worship, nor a large prison, as these are described in the Acts. Additionally there is no river passing through the city - just a small stream that does not flow out into the Aegean sea and is not navigable at all; sailing down the small stream is obviously out of the question. However at the same time pragmatic local people developed a whole pilgrimage industry and even labelled an old Roman water cistern as the “prison where Paul and Silas had been detained”.
The last two decades of the XX century saw the accumulation of 767 inscriptions from the Late Antiquity from the territory between the Rhodope mountains, the Aegean sea and the rivers Strymon/Struma and Hebros/Maritsa. This corpus of inscriptions was analysed by a joint team of German and Greek scholars under the leadership of Prof. Peter Pilhofer, and published as a two-volume set, containing also German translations of the texts, in 1995 and in 2009. These inscriptions are in Latin (apart from two inscriptions in Greek) and they testify that until the mid-VI c. AD the population of the castellum Philippi consisted almost exclusively of Roman citizens, which excludes Greeks or Macedonians or Jews, the peoples the Acts describe.
The archaeological excavations also show no traces of Christians or Christian communities in Philippi prior to the mid-VI c. AD. The remains of two large churches are represented by parts of their foundations and a part of the eastern wall of one of them. Their building was initiated at the site of pagan temples that had been in use until the mid-VI c. AD. However the basilicas were never completed.
In contrast to the little know Roman castellum of Philippi, populated exclusively by Roman veterans, the city of Philippopolis (nowadays Plovdiv in Bulgaria) is among the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world with a history spanning eight millennia. After conquering the city c. 342/1 BC, Philip of Macedon renamed it Philippopolis (sometimes written also as Philippi or Filibe). One of the two large navigable rivers on the Balkan peninsula – Maritsa (Hebros/Evros), flows through this large administrative city. Sailing by boat from Philippopolis down to Troas (on the river and then through the Aegean sea) takes about 5 days. A significant Jewish community existed at that time in Philippopolis. Its large synagogue was unearthed during the XX century and it contains a mosaic with a huge menorah (nowadays kept at the Archaeological Museum of Plovdiv). Philippopolis, the chief city of the province of Thracia in Roman times, played an important role in the early Christian history. Its first bishop St Hermas is known from the sources as one of the Seventy Apostles of Christ (mentioned also in the Epistles of St Paul).
Recent archaeological excavations in Plovdiv discovered Early Christian mosaics and churches, remarkable by their sheer size and quality, as well as many Christian tombs from the first centuries of Christianity. A number of travellers passing through Philippopolis over the next centuries record in their diaries that the belief of the local people that St Paul has preached in their city was alive till the XIX century.
In his new book "SAINT PAUL THE APOSTLE, PHILIPPI AND PHILIPPOPOLIS" (in Bulgarian) Prof. Dr Assen Tschilingirov brings evidence that the first Christian mission of Paul the Apostle in Europe took place in Philippopolis/Plovdiv. This book makes the reader re-evaluate the question whom Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, found in every Bible, is addressed to: „... to all the saints in Christ Jesus which are at Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: Grace be unto you, and peace, from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.“ (Phil 1:1-2).