Bible Archaeology

From  the  book  by  the  same  name


Since the time of Alexander the Great in the fourth century B.C., Greece has been a country of major historical and archaeological importance. In New Testament times it was divided into two sections: Achaia in the south and Macedonia in the north. Several of its cities were visited by the apostle Paul and his traveling companions as they spread the gospel to the non-Jewish world. Between Asia and Europe, about midway across the Aegean Sea, lay the island of Samothrace.


On his second missionary journey Paul was divinely led to Troas on the west coast of Turkey where he received a heavenly call to go to Macedonia and preach the gospel. Paul and his companions sailed toward Macedonia in the straightest possible route, which Luke calls a "direct voyage" (Acts 16:11), stopping only for the night at the island of Samothrace, and then continuing on to Neapolis, the harbor city of Phihppi. Whether they went ashore that night is not stated, but Paul did not remain at Samothrace even one day to preach to the islands inhabitants. There was no Jewish synagogue on the island, and Paul was answering the heavenly call to go to Macedonia (Acts 16:9-11), which did not include stopping on the island to preach at the Sanctuary of the Great Gods. The nighttime activities of the cult at this internationally known sanctuary were open to anyone who wished to attend, unlike the Eleusinian Mysteries, which were only open to participants. On Samothrace Paul could have attended and observed.  In the fourth century B.C. Philip and Olympias, the mother and father of Alexander the Great, met here while attending and perhaps during the actual celebration of one of these festivals.

The apostle probably arrived in Samothrace in the fall of A.D. 49 during the reign of the emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54). An inscription on a well-preserved stele mentioning Claudius was found there in excavations in 1986.

Samothrace is a pleasant island with lots of farmland and scrubby hills but few trees; it consists of 69 square miles of lovely coastlines, but has no natural harbors. It is unlikely that the modern harbor on the western tip of the island at Kamariotissa was used by ships in Paul's time. Remains of an old harbor mole may still be seen on the north coast near the ruins of the ancient sanctuary, and Paul's boat probably dropped anchor in this vicinity.

The Sanctuary of the Great Gods, lying to the west of the ancient city, was entered through a propylon of Thracian marble opening to a beautiful terrace view northward to the sea and overlooking the rotunda of Queen Arsinoe. This rotunda, 65 feet (20 meters) across, is the largest circular building presently known in Greek architecture and was an imposing structure dedicated to the Great Gods of the Samothracian Mysteries. Its foundations are still impressive to behold. Several of the sanctuary's structures are partially preserved and may be seen by today's visitor. They were all standing and in full operation in Paul's time.


During the time of Paul's visit, the two major cities of Achaia were Athens and Corinth.

Athens was accessible from the south by sea through the port of Piraeus, which continues to function as its harbor in modern times. Although it was destroyed in 86 B.C., it was restored and functioning when Paul was in Athens.

Athens, the heart of Greek culture

Paul escaped to Athens from Berea, farther to the north, where the Jews were stirring up the crowds against them, waiting for Silas and Timothy to join him.

The acropolis

The acropolis was a huge rock hill on which stood the Parthenon, which was a temple of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, and a major center of idol worship. A significant portion of the structure remains today; though much of it was destroyed during the Crimean War. Paul referred to this pagan idolatry when he spoke to the Stoics on Mars Hill adjacent to the Acropolis and said: "We ought not to think that the Deity is like gold, or silver, or stone, a representation by the art and imagination of man" (Acts 17:29).

Other temples stood on the summit of the Acropolis, including the Erechfheion and the temple of Athena Nike. Less well known, but more significant for Paul and his "new religion," was the Ionic circular columned temple of Roma and Augustus, only a few yards east of the Parthenon. This temple was built soon after the inauguration of the emperor Augustus in 27 B.C. in honor of him and the goddess Roma and represents the importance of emperor worship in the Mediterranean world, during the time of the New Testament. Remains of the temple include a circular stone inscription with the name of Augustus (Greek—Sebastos) on it.

The marketplace

Acts 17:17 states that Paul argued daily with the Jews and religious Greeks in the marketplace (called an agora by Greeks and a forum by Romans). These discussions took place not in the well-known agora of the Classical period but in the eastern portion of the large market area adjacent to the north side of the Acropolis. This Roman marketplace was endowed by Julius Caesar and completed by Augustus in the last decade of the first century B.C.

The Areopagus

In the midst of his discussions in the agora, Paul was arrested and taken before the Areopagus Council of Athens on Mars Hill (Acts 17:19). Paul had been speaking about "foreign divinities" (Acts 17:18) and therefore fell under the jurisdiction of the Areopagus, which had surveillance over the introduction of foreign divinities into Athens. The council derived its name, Areopagus  (which means Mars Hill in Latin), from the hill on which it met, adjacent to the west side of the Acropolis. The hill is still a prominent landmark.

Paul began his speech to the Areopagites by referring to an altar he had seen containing an inscription that read "to an unknown god" (Acts 17:23). Altars with this inscription are mentioned by early authors. Apollonius of Tyana wrote in the first century that Athens was a place "where altars are set up in honor even of unknown gods." Pausanias, who visited Athens in the mid-second century, described his trip from the harbor to the city in these words: "The temple of Athene Skiras is also here, and one of Zeus further off, and altars of the 'Unknown gods'..." At Olympia, he described the altar of Olympian Zeus and wrote that "near it is an altar of the unknown gods ..."

Tower of the Winds in Roman forum, Athens. The best-preserved ancient monument in Greece is located in the agora. This combined water-clock, sundial, and weather-vane served as a public timepiece for the city. Paul would have checked the time of day from this dock.

Acrocorinth, the huge hill that overlooked Corinth, with ruins of the ancient city in the foreground.

Corinth, where Roman culture prevailed

Corinth is a city of even greater importance than Athens for New Testament studies. It is located about 50 miles south of Athens on the Peloponnese, the large peninsula south of the mainland. While Athens had a population of about 25,000 in the New Testament period, Corinth's population has been estimated at approximately 150,000, plus slaves. It had walls extending 6 miles around the city.

The Temple of Aphrodite 

Paul wrote to the church in Corinth that "because of the prevalent fornications in Corinth, each man should have his own wife and each wife her own husband" (1 Corinthians 7:2). A temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of "Love," was located on the Acrocorinth, a huge hill beside Corinth. According to Strabo, the first-century geographer, just prior to the time of Paul, this temple "owned a thousand temple-slaves, prostitutes, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess." Because of these, he maintained, "The city was crowded with people and grew rich." Excavations of the Acrocorinth have found evidence of the temple's foundations, and determined its size to have been no larger than 33 feet by 52 feet (10 meters by 16 meters). Although the thousand prostitutes Strabo mentioned could not have functioned in this small, isolated temple, which was difficult to access, they certainly could have in the populous city below. The accuracy of Paul's observation about Corinth's well-known reputation for immorality is supported by the ancient use of the term "Corinthianize" for being immoral (much as the term "Sodomize" is used today) and by the traditional association of Aphrodite with immorality.


Corinth is also important for the large number of inscriptions that have been excavated there, 104 of which date from 44 B.C. to the early second century A.D. Of these, 101 are in Latin and 3 are in Greek.

The speaker's platform

One of the paving stones excavated beside the northeast corner of the city's 14,000-seat theater contained part of an abbreviated Latin inscription that reads, "Erastus in return for his aedileship laid [the pavement] at his own expense." He was the treasurer for the city. In Pauls letter to the Romans (16:23), which was written from Corinth, he said, "Erastus, the city treasurer greets you." The name is an uncommon one in Corinth and is not otherwise found in the literature and inscriptions of the city. This is undoubtedly the same Erastus who later remained in Corinth when Paul was taken to Rome (2 Timothy 4:20). He was also in Ephesus with Paul on his third journey (Acts 19:22).

Another important discovery that relates to the New Testament is the tribunal, the speaker's platform, from which official proclamations were read and where citizens might appear before appropriate civic officials. According to Acts 18:12-17, Paul stood here before Gallio.

The bema was identified by several pieces of an inscription found nearby and dated to the period between A.D. 25 and 50, just prior to Paul's arrival in the city. The beginning of Gallio's reign as proconsul is dated to A.D. 51 by fragments of a stone inscription found in the city of Delphi across the Corinthian Gulf. Since  Paul  stayed  in  Corinth  eighteen months (Acts 18:11), and arrived there at the time of the emperor Claudius' expulsion of Jews from Rome (Acts 18:2) in 49, this establishes the year 51 as the date of his leaving Corinth after appearing before Gallio in the summer of A.D. 51. (See also page 20 in chapter 1.)


Neapolis, the major harbor in Macedonia

Archaeological remains of the New Testament period have been found to the north of Achaia, in the region of Macedonia, at the harbor city of Neapolis where the apostle Paul first entered Europe from Asia (Acts 16:11). There is little in the city from this period except some remains of the ancient harbor and, in the yard of the museum, some milestones that stood beside the Egnatian Way, the international highway that passed through Neapolis. Paul undoubtedly traveled this road from Neapolis to Philippi (Acts 16:12).

Philippi, where Paul founded the first church in Europe

Acts 16:1-15 records Paul's conversion in Philippi of a woman named Lydia, a godfearing Gentile who was worshiping "outside the gate beside the river."

The scene of Lydia's conversion 

The exact location of Lydia's conversion is not known but might have occurred in one of three locations. One possibility is beside the Gangites River. Another possible site is by the Krenides Stream west of Philippi and near the Krenides Gate in the city wall. If so, this gate may be the one mentioned in Acts. 16:13. This stream, which still flows with abundant, cold water, is about half a mile from the forum and is referred to locally as "the River of Lydia." A small excavation has revealed part of the pavement of a road that ran westward toward the stream and some inscribed Roman burial monuments.

The third possibility for the location of Lydia's conversion is the Neapolis Gate, the eastern gate of the city, a portion of which has been excavated next to the theater on the south side of the modern road. A stream bed may still be seen immediately outside the gate. A fourth-century church was excavated beside this stream in 1956, and recently an octagonal church with mosaic floors was found on the south side of the road just inside the Neapolis Gate. The church, which was dedicated to Paul, was reached through a gate from the nearby Egnatian Way, on which Paul was traveling when he entered the city a few days before his encounter with Lydia. The location of these churches near the eastern gate may indicate an early recollection that Paul converted Lydia near here.

Arrest and imprisonment 

Portions of this stone-paved road have been excavated in Philippi adjacent to the north side of the Roman forum, the marketplace in the heart of the city, to which Paul and Silas were dragged by the owners of the slave-girl. There they were set before magistrates, who ordered them to be beaten and then thrown into prison, for disturbing the city (Acts 16:19-24). Just as Paul was later accused before Gallio at the tribunal in Corinth (Acts 18:12), so he was in Philippi. Paving-stones from the time of Paul still stand in this forum and portions of a tribunal (called a bema in Greek) have been excavated in the north side of the forum. This would have been the place where Paul and Silas stood before the magistrates of the city.

A theater, built about the time the city was founded and remodeled into a Roman theater in the second century A.D., was standing when Paul was in the city. The current seats in the theater are not original but were restored in 1957 to 1959 for modern use.

Vitruvius, an early Roman architect and a contemporary of Jesus, wrote that prisons were normally built near the forum of an ancient city. It is, however, not clear from the archaeological remains whether the stone crypt that has been considered the prison of Paul since the fifth century could have been big enough to have constituted a larger complex with an inner prison as stated in Acts 16:24. Paul and Silas were divinely released when the doors of this prison were opened by an earthquake, their Roman citizenship became known, and they were admonished by the Roman authorities to leave the city (Acts 16:37-38).

Amphipolis and Apollonia

Since it was their missionary method to stop in cities that had Jewish synagogues and preach the gospel "to the Jew first and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16), when Paul and Silas left Philippi, they bypassed Amphipohs and Apollonia. According to Otto Meinardus, a leading Greek archaeologist, there was no synagogue in Amphipohs or Apollonia at this time. Luke may refer to such a strategy by Paul when he says: "They came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews" (Acts 17:1); the natural inference is that Amphipohs and Apollonia had none. No archaeological evidence of a Jewish population in either of these cities has been found, although extensive work has been done at Amphipohs, showing it to have been a large and prosperous capital city of the first district of Macedonia.

Excavation has revealed that a wall extended four and one half miles around the city of Amphipohs. A gymnasium, which is really a typical palestra (exercising area) has been partially excavated and its identification confirmed by seven inscriptions.

One lengthy inscription from 21 B.C., found outside the north entrance of the gymnasium, contains an Ephebic Law (that is, a Law for Youth), which provides detailed instruction about athletic activities and equipment in the gymnasium as well as references to the city's road system, factories, a theater, and an agora. This confirms the impression of Amphipohs as a major city. Neither the agora nor the theater have been found. Nothing of significance has yet been found at Appollonia.

Excavations of the Roman forum area in Thessalonica, modern Salonika -

as we see quite elaberate

Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews

The city of Thessalonica is beautifully situated in a natural amphitheater at the head of the Thermaic Gulf. Little is to be seen here from the time of Paul because this second largest city in Greece still functions busily over the buried remains of Roman Thessalonica. Systematic excavations were done here for the Greek Archaeological Service during which a typical rectangular forum with a paved open court and small theater were uncovered.

Opposite: Politarch inscription in Thessalonica. Archaeology has made a positive contribution to a problem that has centered around Thessalonica for many years. Critics of the New Testament asserted that Luke was mistaken in his use of the term politarkes ("politarch") for the officials before whom Paul's followers were taken in this city (Acts 17:6). However, an inscription from an arch containing this term was found in the excavations at Thessalonica, and eventually a list of thirty-two inscriptions that contain this term was published, nineteen of which come from Thessalonica. Three of these date to the first century A.D.



Two of the politarch inscriptions are housed in the museum in Thessalonica and another in the museum of Berea, a town Paul visited after leaving Thessalonica (Acts 17:10). The museum and its courtyard in Berea contain a large number of excellent statues, inscriptions, and funerary altars, one of which is a stone monument containing an inscription with the name Berea in the center of the top line.


Years after Paul's release from his first Roman imprisonment, he journeyed to the eastern Mediterranean, left Titus on Crete (Titus 1:5), went to Colosse and visited Philemon as planned (Philemon 22), and then eventually made his way to Macedonia, leaving Timothy at Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). During this time Paul -wrote 1 Timothy and Titus. Macedonia seems to be the most likely setting for the composition of these two Pastoral Epistles (1 Timothy 1:3), best fitting the historical and geographical setting.

Paul then traveled south to spend the winter on the west coast of Epirus, the southwestern sector of modern Greece. He had stated in his letter to Titus, written from Macedonia, that he intended "to spend the winter there [not here] in Nicopolis" and urged Titus to do his best to join him there (Titus 3:12).

Among the archaeological remains in this city are a small Roman theater, portions of a bathhouse, and fragmentary portions of a stadium.

Perhaps the most important artifact at Nicopolis, located on a hill north of the ancient city, is a monument built by the Roman emperor Augustus Caesar celebrating his victory over Mark Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C. Many stones of the monument lie around the southern edge of the hill. They contain portions of a Latin inscription commemorating the victory and dedicating the newly founded city to the Roman god Neptune.