Who Was St. Nicholas?

Until two years ago, St. Nicholas was little more than a legendary historical figure to me. Then my friend Stuart Bennett enlisted me as the academic resource to make a documentary video on his life—“St. Nicholas: The Real Story.” Researching his life and shooting scenes on location in Turkey and Italy gave me a fresh appreciation for this important church father and the legacy that he left. Here are some things about Nicholas that I learned from this experience.

According to tradition, Nicholas was born in Patara, the capital of Lycia. Paul stopped at its Mediterranean harbor to change ships on his way to Jerusalem on the third journey (Acts 21:1–2). Unfortunately the harbor is silted in today, but Turkish excavators have recently uncovered one of the two lighthouses that once guarded its entrance. The council building that housed the Lycian League, which Nicholas would have seen, has recently been restored. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison saw the league as an ancient model of government to imitate in the founding of the new republic.

Tradition holds that Nicholas was the only son of wealthy Christian merchants when this new faith was still illegal in the Roman Empire. The persecution inaugurated under Decius in 250 C.E. began to touch the local community of faith. In 258 C.E. two Patarans, Paregorius and Leo, were also among those martyred under the emperor Valerian. Into this hostile environment Nicholas was born around 260 C.E. It is believed that his parents died of the plague when Nicholas was young and that he made pilgrimages to Palestine and Egypt while a youth.

Nicholas was perhaps in his 20s when the story occurs that made him a legend. Near him lived a father and his three daughters who had fallen on hard times. Because the father was unable to supply a dowry for their marriages, he was considering an appalling alternative: to send them into prostitution for survival. Nicholas somehow learned what was happening and one night threw a bag of gold coins through his neighbor’s window. The father thanked God for this mysterious provision and arranged for the marriage of his eldest daughter. Encouraged that the father was using the gift properly, Nicholas returned some nights later and threw another bag of money through the window to provide the dowry for the middle daughter. After this marriage the father realized that the mysterious benefactor would probably repeat his previous actions. So he waited night after night for the stranger to return so he could thank him for his generosity. Of course, Nicholas provided the third dowry, and as he departed, the father caught the visitor and thanked him for saving his daughters from a life of debauchery. Not wanting to be exposed, Nicholas pleaded with the father to preserve his anonymity. However, the father was so moved by this young man’s generosity that he told everyone in town. And so the legend started about the generosity of Nicholas.

Sometime later Nicholas was ordained bishop of Myra, another major Lycian city east of Patara. Myra is known as the place where Paul changed ships at its port of Andriake on his captivity journey to Rome (Acts 27:5). The church at Myra had also experienced persecution under Valerian: the bishop Themistocles was martyred. Little is known about this period of Nicholas’ life other than he was busy discharging his duties as a pastoral leader in this important bishopric.

Church council fresco from the St. Nicholas Church in Myra. Photo: Mark Wilson.

Trouble started again in 303 C.E. when Diocletian instigated another persecution that lasted for a decade. Copies of Scripture were destroyed and church property was confiscated. Christians were removed from public office and the military. Unless they sacrificed to the pagan gods and the emperor, they could not testify in court. The esteemed Methodius, bishop at the nearby Lycian city of Olympos, was martyred around this time. Diocletian’s junior colleague Galerius issued an additional edict in 304 ordering all bishops to be imprisoned and that all Christians make a public sacrifice or face punishment. Nicholas was undoubtedly among those bishops imprisoned and tortured, surviving the persecution to emerge as a “confessor.” On his deathbed Galerius issued another decree on April 30, 311, that repealed the anti-Christian laws on the condition that the Christians keep good order and pray for his safety.

However, that reprieve was short-lived. After Galerius’ death on May 5, 311, his successor Maximinus Daia reversed the decree and resumed the persecution of Christians. His actions were probably prompted in part by appeals from civic leaders in Asia Minor who were jealous of the rising power of bishops and wanted to curb the influence of this new faith. An important edict found in Arycanda is a copy of such a letter sent to Maximinus Daia and his co-emperor Licinius. The citizens of this Lycian city near Myra requested penalties be handed out to the “turbulent Christians” who had long suffered from “madness.” Their refusal to worship only Jesus was considered an offense to the established gods. An inscription found in the Pisidian city of Colbasa records Maximinus’ reply. He stated that apostates who had been restored to a good frame of mind from their blind ways could again enjoy a pleasant life. However, those Christians persisting in this abominable cult should be separated and removed from civic society.1 Eusebius (Church History 9.7.2-15) recorded a similar rescript from Maximinus that was seen in Tyre. This church historian from Caesarea Maritima wrote that many Christians in Phoenicia, Egypt, and Thebais also died at this time (Church History 8.7–9). He records that soldiers surrounded a Christian city in Phrygia, the region north of Lycia, and lit a fire that consumed every man, woman, and child in it (Church History 11.1). This was Nicholas’s world and of the church he was serving.

On June 13, 313 CE, that world was turned upside down again. The Christian apologist Lactantius (On the Death of Persecutors 48.2–12) tells us that Licinius, the new emperor of the Eastern Empire, issued an edict from his palace in Nicomedia that guaranteed religious freedom and restored confiscated property including churches. Christianity was finally a legal religion.

Over a decade later the emperor Constantine convened the first ecumenical council in 325 at his summer palace in Nicea. Whether Nicholas attended is debated as well as the number of delegates, for at least six lists exist. The list of early arrivals numbers only 200 including a sole delegate from Lycia, Eudemus of Patara. Multiple representatives participated from neighboring provinces, so the absence of delegates from Myra is noteworthy on the shorter lists. Eusebius of Caesarea names 250 attendees (Life of Constantine 3.9), Eustasthius of Antioch gives 270 (Theodoret, Church History 1.7) while Athanasius of Alexandria counts 318 (Letter to the Bishops of Africa 2). Since these three all attended the council, it is interesting that their numbers differ. However, all lists with at least three hundred bishops include the name of Nicholas. The difference in numbers and names among the lists perhaps stems from their time of arrival at the council.

Relics of St. Nicholas, Antalya Archaeology Museum, Turkey. Photo: Mark Wilson.

One story from the Nicene council, seemingly spurious, is that Nicholas was so provoked when Arius was promulgating his heresy that he walked across the room and slapped the heretic’s face. The Roman historian Julian Bennett believes that Nicholas was not at the council and suggests that he did not “agree to the adoption of the homoousian creed decided there, with its identification of the Son as being of the same essence or substance with the Father.” Thus “the Christians of Lycia favoured strongly another doctrine, perhaps the doctrine espoused by Arius that had now been declared heretical.”2 That Nicholas was an Arian is highly speculative and indeed doubtful. If so, his reputation would certainly have been tarnished, and his memory undoubtedly suppressed and forgotten unless he had not been orthodox in faith.

Nicholas died sometime before 343 C.E. The list of bishops maintained by the current Metropolitan of Myra gives the date as December 6, 330. Over a century later his memory began to be venerated in Myra through the construction of a church in his honor. Two centuries later a second Nicholas, undoubtedly named after the legendary bishop, led a monastery at nearby Sion. He too was noted for his piety and miracles just like his namesake. Beginning in the ninth or tenth century the stories of the two became confused and combined, whether accidentally or deliberately. So it is difficult to know which Nicholas is being depicted in the scenes of the 12th-century frescoes in the Myra church annex. We do know that Nicholas of Myra became the patron saint of many, especially sailors, fishermen, and all things nautical, probably because his bishopric was in an important port city.

In 1087 merchants from Bari, Italy, stopped in Andriake harbor. Disguised as pilgrims, they went to the Myra church and stole Nicholas’s bones from his sarcophagus. These bones were installed in a new shrine in Bari that soon became an important pilgrimage center. Today these bones rest beneath the apse of the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in Bari. When restoration work was being done on the crypt in the 1950s, the Vatican allowed measurements and X-rays to be taken of Nicholas’s skull and other bones. From these, facial anthropologist Dr. Caroline Wilkinson constructed a model of the saint’s head in 2004. Using 3D interactive technology in 2014, Dr. Wilkinson updated the facial reconstruction. The results show a man in his 60s with a long beard, round head, and square jaw whose severely broken nose had healed asymmetrically. How the nose was broken is unknown, but torture under persecution might account for the disfigurement.3

Crypt of St. Nicholas, Bari, Italy. Photo: Mark Wilson.

Research about the historical Nicholas continues to be conducted by a Dominican priest, Dr. Gerardo Cioffari at the St. Nicholas Study Center in Bari, which was founded by him in 1990.4 One document that has caught Cioffari’s attention is the Praxis de Stratelatis (“Practice of Military Officers”) that was written by an anonymous Greek author around 400 C.E. The Praxis describes how Nicholas rescued three innocent civilians who had been falsely accused of stealing from local Myrans. The Roman governor Eustathius had ordered their execution, but Nicholas intervened by grabbing the sword from the executioner. After releasing the men from their chains, he rushed to the governor’s office and confronted Eustathius. Nicholas chastised him and accused him of corruption, even threatening to inform the emperor Constantine about his evil governance. If historical, and Cioffari thinks it is, this episode well portrays the fearlessness of Nicholas.

St. Nicholas Chapel, Nijmegen, Netherlands. Photo: Mark Wilson.

As mentioned in the opening, I’ve become much more aware of things related to Nicholas. His relics can be found in many churches and museums, including our local archaeology museum in Antalya. Churches and chapels dedicated to Nicholas have been built on every continent. A gazetteer of these on the St. Nicholas Center website lists hundreds, many with pictures. While recently visiting a colleague at Radboud University in Nijmegen, I made it a point to visit the 11th-century St. Nicholas Chapel there, one of the oldest buildings in the Netherlands. On a family cruise to Alaska in 2016 we stopped in Juneau and made our way to the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church built in 1894. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1974. The St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in New York City, destroyed when the south tower fell on September 11, 2011, was rebuilt and dedicated on September 11, 2017. Designed by well-known architect Santiago Calatrava, the plan of the church draws its inspiration from the Hagia Sophia and Chora Churches in Istanbul, ancient Constantinople. To see this church is a certain stop the next time I visit New York.

St. Nicholas Church, Juneau, Alaska. Photo: Mark Wilson.

St. Nicholas is more than just a holly, jolly saint to be remembered once a year at Christmas. Rather his holy life of generosity, bravery, and service continues to inspire people everywhere all year long.


  1. Stephen Mitchell, “Maximinus and the Christians in A.D. 312: A New Latin Inscription,” Journal of Roman Studies 78 (1988), pp. 105–24.
  2. Julian Bennet, “Christianity in Lycia: From its Beginnings to the ‘Triumph of Orthodoxy,’” Adalya 18 (2015), p. 270.
  3. This reconstruction along with other depictions of Nicholas can be found on the website of the St. Nicholas Center:
  4. Dr. Cioffari publishes his research in a newsletter called “St. Nicholas News.”

 This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on October 11, 2017.


Site-Seeing: The Hometown of Santa Claus

Myra is on my top-ten list of Biblical sites in Turkey. Often bypassed by groups because it is out of the way, Myra (modern Demre) is a two-hour scenic drive through the Taurus Mountains and along the Mediterranean coast from Antalya. The international airport at Antalya makes it an ideal jumping-off point for your excursion. Along the way you might want to stop at Limyra, where Austrian archaeologist Martin Seyer discovered two menorah plaques recently chronicled in Biblical Archaeology Review.1 The nearby town of Finike is noted for the best oranges in Turkey, so have a freshly squeezed glass from a roadside vendor while passing through.

St. Nicholas Church (Noel Baba Müzesi), Location: Myra (Demre), Turkey.

Thirty minutes later—after driving along a VERY curvy coastal road—you’ll arrive in central Demre. There signs point to the Noel Baba Müzesi, that is, the Museum of St. Nicholas, whose life serves as the foundation for the Santa Claus tradition. In the late third and early fourth centuries, Nicholas was the bishop of Myra.

In the fifth century, a church dedicated to Nicholas was built in Myra, but archaeologists know little about this early phase. After an earthquake in 529 C.E., the church was repaired, and remains of this sixth-century structure are the earliest found at the site. The sixth-century church was typical of the period; it had a central nave with an apse facing east and aisles on each side. It was entered from the west via a courtyard and then a narthex. Over the centuries, the church was modified numerous times, especially from the ninth through 13th centuries.

Frescoes depicting scenes from the life of St. Nicholas adorn the church. For example, the story of the gift of the dowries—when St. Nicholas secretly provided dowries for a poor man’s three daughters by tossing bags of gold into the house through an open window at night—appears in the 12th-century grave room. The narthex also features scenes of six of the ecumenical councils held in Turkey. The floors still contain remnants of the colorful opus sectile mosaics that originally covered them.2

Pilgrims, mainly Russians, stop in the south nave to pray at a sarcophagus believed to belong to St. Nicholas. However, the sarcophagus in the grave room is a better candidate. It has two holes drilled in the top of its lid through which oil was poured to pass over the bones. This oil was then collected and distributed to pilgrims. (This custom is still practiced at the cathedral in Bari, Italy, where Nicholas’s bones were taken in 1087.) Unlike many churches in Turkey, the Church of St. Nicholas was never converted into a mosque.

While filming a video on the life of St. Nicholas in 2015, I met the Turkish archaeologists led by Dr. Sema Dogan of Hacettepe University, who are still excavating the church. Their ongoing work of preservation and restoration is challenging because tens of thousands of visitors file through the church each year. The current excavations west of the courtyard are uncovering additional rooms and crypts related to the church. To get to these areas, the excavators must dig through 10–12 feet of alluvium deposited by the Myros River over the centuries. Their work further clarifies the use of the church complex during the Byzantine period.

If you happen to be in Myra on December 6, as I was in 2016, you can participate in the annual Orthodox service celebrating St. Nicholas’s feast day. The church museum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. November–March, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. April–October. The current admission cost is 20 Turkish lira (about $5).

The well-preserved Roman theater of Myra is located 1 mile north of the church at the base of Myra’s ancient acropolis. Built in the second century C.E., its capacity was 11,500 persons. Nearby are excellent examples of Lycian rock-cut tombs. The Lycian civilization flourished in this region during the first millennium B.C.E. With a columned façade, the house- and temple-style tombs are the most visible reminder of Myra’s rich culture.

From the theater, it is a short drive to the harbor where tourist boats depart regularly on Mediterranean day trips. In antiquity this was Andriake, the harbor of Myra. The apostle Paul, who was a prisoner at the time, stopped here on his journey to Rome and changed to an Alexandrian grain ship (Acts 27:5). The harbor lagoon is now silted, but the settlement has recently been excavated by a team of Turkish archaeologists led by Nevzat Çevik of Akdeniz University. In 2009, their excavations uncovered one of three ancient synagogues found in Turkey (the others are at Sardis and Priene).

Accommodations in Demre are limited to only one hotel, but 45 minutes west is the picturesque coastal town of Kas (pronounced Kash), ancient Antiphellos. Situated opposite the Greek island of Kastellorizo, Kas offers many hotels and pensions. Plan to stay a couple of nights, for Myra and its surrounding area are so archaeologically rich that it takes several days to see everything.

 “Site-Seeing: The Hometown of Santa Claus” by Mark Wilson was originally published in the November/December 2017 2017 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. It was first republished in Bible History Daily on December 4, 2017.


  1. Martin Seyer, “Mysterious Jewish Building in Roman Turkey,”   Biblical Archaeology Review, January/February 2016.
  2. Frankie Snyder, Gabriel Barkay and Zachi Dvira, “What the Temple Floor Looked Like,”   Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2016.

Alternative Facts: Domitian’s Persecution of Christians

Was Roman emperor Domitian really the great persecutor of Christians?

As I revisited a critical biography of the Roman emperor Domitian by the scholar Brian W. Jones recently,1 I was reminded that “alternative facts” and “fake news” are not just a contemporary phenomenon. On occasion ancient writers similarly tried to spin their version of the truth. Jones tackles the familiar line that Domitian, who reigned between 81 and 96 C.E., was a great persecutor of Christians. This “fact” is now standard stock in much popular writing on the book of Revelation and is even found in some scholarly tomes. In his discussion, Jones carefully rehearses how this “fact” developed.

Ancient portrait of Roman emperor Domitian (r. 81–96 C.E.) set into a bust by Guglielmo della Porta (16th c. C.E.) at the National Archaeological Museum, Naples. Photo: Dan Diffendale/CC BY-SA 2.0.

Eusebius in his Church History (CH) provides the first reference to Domitian persecuting the church. Writing over three centuries later in the early fourth century C.E., this ancient Christian historian first quotes Melito of Sardis, who mentioned that Domitian brought slanderous accusations against Christians (CH 4.26.9). He also cites Tertullian, who claimed that Domitian was cruel like the emperor Nero (r. 54–68 C.E.), but that Domitian was more intelligent, so he ceased his cruelty and recalled the Christians he had exiled (CH 3.20.9). Eusebius also quotes Irenaeus, who claimed Domitian’s persecution consisted only of John’s banishment to Patmos and the exile of other Christians to the island of Pontia (CH 3.18.1, 5).

Despite these cautious statements by three earlier authors, Eusebius then spun his own alternative fact by claiming that Domitian, like Nero, had “stirred up persecution against us” (“anekinei diōgmon”; CH 3.17). From here the tradition was enlarged by Orosius (d. 420 C.E.), who, in his History Against the Pagans, wrote that Domitian issued edicts for a general and cruel persecution (7.10.5). Despite a lack of evidence, Jones observes that the tradition concerning Domitian’s persecution persists: “From a frail, almost non-existent basis, it gradually developed and grew large.”2 Thus the alternative facts sown by these ancient historians grew to a truism of Christian history.

No pagan writer of the time ever accused Domitian, as they had Nero, of persecuting Christians. Pliny, for example, served as a lawyer under Domitian and wrote in a letter to Trajan (r. 98–117 C.E.) that he was never present at the trial of a Christian (Letters 10.96.1). This is a strange claim for one of Domitian’s former officials if Christian persecution were so prevalent. The archaeologist Julian Bennett, who has written a biography of Trajan, also fails to mention any general persecution of Christians at this time. Domitian’s execution of Clemens has sometimes been linked to the senator’s apparent “atheism,” a term sometimes given to Christians. However, there is no “smoking gun” linking Clemens’s death to Christian persecution.3 So Jones concludes, “No convincing evidence exists for a Domitianic persecution of the Christians.”4

A related “fact” is that Domitian claimed the title Dominus et Deus (“Lord and God”). The evidence here is mixed. The poet Statius (Silvae 1.6.83–84) states that Domitian rejected the title Dominus as his predecessor Augustus (the first Roman emperor) had done. The historian Suetonius (Life of Domitian 13.2) does report that Domitian dictated a letter that began, “Our Lord and Master orders…,” but it was only his sycophantic officials who began to address him in this way. The story was again embellished by later historians to the point that Domitian is said to have ordered its use. Jones thinks the story incredible because Domitian was known for his habitual attention to theological detail in traditional Roman worship, so he would not have adopted such inflammatory divine language. After their deaths, the best that emperors could hope for was to be called Divus (Divine), not Deus (God). If Domitian were such a megalomaniac who ordered worship to himself, why haven’t any inscriptions been found using this formula? In fact, no epigraphic evidence exists attesting to Christians being forced to call him “Lord and God.”

Why is Domitian’s legacy so clouded in the ancient sources? Domitian’s assassination in 96 C.E. brought an end to the Flavian dynasty, and the dynasty founded by Nerva, the next Roman emperor, lasted into the third century C.E. Because Domitian had offended the aristocratic elite, the Senate ordered the damnation of his memory. Even though Suetonius (Domitian 8.1) stated that Domitian carefully and conscientiously administered justice, later writers such as Dio Chrysostom (67.2.4) perpetuated his damaged reputation using alternative facts.

Jones writes as a Roman historian outside of Biblical studies, but a New Testament scholar has similarly articulated this view. Leonard Thompson notes that a more critical reading of Eusebius raises doubts about a widespread persecution of Christians under Domitian. He concludes that “most modern commentators no longer accept a Domitianic persecution of Christians.”5 Some writers consider Revelation as a source for a persecution by Domitian, although John never identifies a specific emperor. If so, then Revelation would be the only ancient source pointing to such a persecution.

Over two decades since two Roman historians and a Revelation scholar have pronounced a Domitianic persecution moribund, such claims continue to circulate in articles, books and sermons. This shows how long it takes to repudiate “alternative facts” that have circulated for over 1,500 years in Christendom. Literary texts may sow alternative facts, but archaeological realia, such as inscriptions and coins, have assisted in discrediting those alleged facts. The “fake news” that Domitian instigated a severe persecution of Christians and that his claim to be “Master and God” provoked this persecution needs to be removed from our “facts” about the early church.


  1. Brian W. Jones, The Emperor Domitian (New York: Routledge, 1992).
  2. Jones, Emperor Domitian, p. 114.
  3. Julian Bennett notes that the charge against Clemens and his family was that they had adopted Jewish religious ways. He then considers whether Judaism or Christianity is meant and opts for the latter as “more likely.” See Julian Bennett, Trajan: Optimus Princeps (London: Routledge, 1997), p. 68.
  4. Jones, Emperor Domitian, p. 117.
  5. Leonard L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1990), p. 16.

Visiting Turkey: Museums of Archaeology Dazzle

Turkey museums boast mosaics, statues and more

The business of archaeology is booming these days in Turkey. For some sites, there is no longer a “season” for excavations; they continue year round. With each new discovery, this mantra is repeated: “More tourists will now visit the site.” To house all the fresh finds, new museums are being built. So I recently hit the road to see several of these.

Statue of King Suppiluliuma in the Hatay Archaeological Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

While the archaeology museum in Antakya (ancient Antioch) was formerly in the city center, the new Hatay Archaeological Museum has been built north of the city past the Grotto of Saint Peter. Its displays are arranged chronologically with excellent presentations of the nearby sites of Tell Atchana and Tell Tayinat. The “Smurf-like” statue of King Suppiluliuma grabs one’s attention. The Roman period is represented with a well-preserved milestone from the period of Vespasian. Pride of place still goes to the Late Roman mosaics from the villas and bathhouses of nearby Daphne. However, their restoration has been shrouded in controversy with charges of an incompetent job. Compared to the mosaics in the other museums that I visited, the colors in these were dull and lifeless.

In Gaziantep I stopped at the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, the world’s largest mosaic museum. Although this museum is now several years old, I had only visited the old mosaic museum. Rescue excavations at Zeugma in the late 1990s on the Euphrates River brought to light outstanding mosaics from its Roman villas. These are now displayed in an attractive, well-lit fashion. I almost missed the mosaic with the iconic face of the gypsy girl, featured on all of the museum’s souvenirs. It is tucked away in its own corner room, so fortunately a guard directed me into its darkened corridor. This museum is a must-visit while in the area.

The Zeugma Mosaic Museum in Gaziantep is the world’s largest mosaic museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

At Şanlıurfa I was astounded by the massive new archaeology museum there. Again arranged chronologically, artifacts from the Paleolithic site of Göbekli Tepe comprise many of these displays. The dioramas depicting life at that time were visually appealing to Turkish children visiting the museum. The artifacts from Late Antiquity were especially interesting because Edessa, the city’s ancient name, was a center of Syriac culture. The dress of the figures was definitely eastern, and their inscriptions were in Syriac. I was disappointed that no displays featured the rich Jewish and Christian history of Edessa, chronicled decades ago by Judah Segal. Several years ago construction work south of the museum revealed a number of mosaics. To their credit, local officials preserved the mosaics and built a large, dome over them. Unlike the mosaics in the museums at Antakya and Gaziantep, the mosaics in Urfa’s Haleplibahçe Museum are in situ. Displayed near the exit is the Orpheus mosaic repatriated from the Dallas Museum of Fine Art.

Mosaic depicting the Amazon queen Melanippe in Urfa’s Haleplibahçe Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

My visits to these super-sized new museums raised a comparison with the Ephesus Archaeology Museum that reopened earlier this year. Rather than build a new structure to house the multitudinous artifacts from Ephesus, Turkey’s most visited archaeological site, local authorities simply remodeled the old, small museum. The result is a disappointing display of familiar pieces with minimal explanation; for example, “Roman period.” Given that the Austrian Archaeological Institute has been excavating in Ephesus for over a century, it is surprising that the signage is not in German as well as in Turkish and English.

It is wonderful that the signage in these museums is now in English. But why isn’t a native English speaker brought in to proofread these? Frequent grammatical errors dotting these signs create an unnecessary annoyance. One object’s mistranslation brought a smile to my face in the museum at Urfa: “Wave Tunes.” The artifact was in a display of cooking utensils, and the Turkish phrase “Ezgi Taşı” should have been translated “Grinding Stone.”

Because of the unstable security situation along the Syrian border, few foreign tourists are visiting southeastern Turkey now. Our BAS trip to the area was cancelled two years ago. The only group that I saw was a small American one in the Gaziantep Museum. I purposely traveled by public bus between and in these cities and walked extensively in their streets. I never felt unsafe at all. Normal life continues, although many Syrian refugees can be seen in the cities. Hopefully the marvelous artifacts in these new archaeology museums will soon be seen by more than just local people.


The Starbucks Guide to Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology

Participants on my tours buy a variety of souvenirs—olive-wood crèches in Bethlehem, ceramics in Corinth, carpets in Ephesus and parchment in Pergamum. These days, however, I usually bring home only one thing—Starbucks mugs featuring archaeological sites.

Author Mark Wilson’s collection of Starbucks mugs featuring archeological sites. Photo: Mark Wilson

On a recent trip to Crete I visited ancient Kydonia. Walking around the historic port of modern Chania, I saw the familiar Starbucks symbol. After drinking a cup of Ethiopian blend, I spotted a lacuna in my collection—Crete. The mug depicted the Minoan palace at Knossos. On this trip I also picked up the Rhodes mug showing the Doric Temple of Athena Lindia at Lindos. Paul visited both islands on his journeys (Acts 21:1; 27:7–13).

Starbucks has no shops in either Italy or Israel, so they are unrepresented in my collection. However, Turkey, Jordan, Greece and Cyprus are amply represented.

The city mug belonging to my hometown Antalya, ancient Attalia (Acts 14:25), depicts the temple of Apollo in Side. Only six columns still stand at the temple, which is now under restoration. A second Antalya mug depicts the theater at Aspendus (see below), the best-preserved Roman theater in Turkey. With a capacity of 7,000 persons, it still holds operatic performances. The back of the mug shows the falls of the Katarrhactes mentioned by the geographer Strabo, which today cascade over 100 feet into the Mediterranean Sea. Nearby is Magydus, the seaport of Perga, where Paul arrived in Pamphylia (Acts 13:13).

The theater at Aspendus in Antalya Province, Turkey. Photo: Mark Wilson.

The Ankara mug shows its ancient citadel with walls dating from the Hellenistic to Ottoman periods. Ancient Ancyra, Turkey’s capital today, was formerly a Galatian center before becoming the capital of the Roman province of Galatia in 25 B.C.E. The colorful mug from Bodrum (ancient Halicarnassus) displays the Castle of the Knights of St. John on the back. Built with stones from the Tomb of Mausolus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, the castle now houses the noted Museum of Underwater Archaeology. Last but not least, the Turkey country mug shows the monumental heads of King Antiochus and some of the Commagenian gods standing on Mount Nemrut. This tumulus, 161 feet tall and 499 feet in diameter, was constructed in the first century B.C.E. and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Cyprus city mug shows the Greco-Roman theater at Kourion. Situated with its breath-taking view of the Mediterranean, it could seat some 3,500 spectators. The excavations there are now being led by my friend Tom Davis. A second Cyprus cup shows a rock-cut chamber from the Tombs of the Kings in Paphos, also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Paul visited Paphos on his first journey (Acts 13:6).

The Jordan mug shows the Artemis temple at Gerasa (Jerash) completed during the reign of Antonius Pius. Eleven columns of the hextastyle portico still stand. Situated on a high point, the temple dominated Gerasa’s landscape.

On Thessaloniki’s city mug is its iconic structure—the White Tower. Although dating from the Ottoman period, it still reminds me of Paul’s multiple visits to the city (Acts 17:1; 20:2–3). Missing from my Greece collection, however, is the country mug depicting the tholos at Delphi and the Athens city mug showing the Parthenon. Hopefully on a future visit I can locate them.

I haven’t visited Egypt or Lebanon yet so more of the Biblical world still awaits me. Since the Starbucks mugs from these countries also feature archaeological sites, I look forward to adding them to my collection. It’s wonderful that this Seattle-based coffee vendor has put the archaeological wonders of the eastern Mediterranean on its mugs. Coffee drinkers like me get to appreciate them anew each time we take a sip.


Tradition or History? BAS Travelers Encounter Both on Rhodes

Exploring the island of Rhodes, where Paul visited in the Bible

“Tradition, tradition! Tradition!” Tevye belts out in the opening song of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. In the world of Biblical archaeology, tradition can sometimes prove helpful. But as travelers on the recent BAS tour “Sailing with Paul in the Mediterranean” discovered, tradition can also provide a false trail.

The so-called St. Paul’s Bay by the ancient town of Lindos on Rhodes. According to tradition, Paul’s ship sought shelter here during a storm. Photo: Mark Wilson.

We departed from the Turkish city of Marmaris and motored in our wooden-hulled gulet (schooner) to the Mandraki harbor on the Greek island of Rhodes. The visit was exciting for me, since I had never visited Rhodes before. Paul stopped at Rhodes during his third journey while returning to Jerusalem (Acts 21:1). But where? One purpose of our visit was to examine the historical and archaeological evidence related to his stopover.

Our Greek guide Maria met us on the quay to begin our walking tour of the town. At the base of the Crusader Castle near the shore, she pointed out where archaeologists believe the Colossus of Rhodes had stood. Completed around 280 B.C.E., this 100-foot-tall bronze statue of Zeus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world before an earthquake toppled it in 226 B.C.E. Did Paul try to wrap his arms around one of its gigantic thumbs during his visit? Maybe, if this was where Paul had stopped. Tour highlights included visits to the impressive archaeology museum housed in the Hospital of the Knights of St. John built in the 15th century. At the Palace of the Grand Master a permanent exhibition presented the Hellenistic and Roman history of Rhodes. The polis was founded in 408 B.C.E. as a synoecism, or amalgamation of the island’s major towns. A major factor in locating the new city on the island’s northern tip was its five harbors. A map displayed in one hall illustrated these harbors: West, Military (Mandraki), Great, Acantia and South.

Relief dating to 180 B.C.E. of a trihemiolia, a Rhodian military vessel, at Lindos. Photo: Mark Wilson.

The next morning Maria led our BAS group on a 30-mile bus excursion down the eastern coast to Lindos. This ancient town is situated spectacularly on the rock acropolis of a small peninsula that overlooks the sea. Our first stop was at the so-called St. Paul’s Bay. Tradition states that Paul’s ship sought shelter in this small, sheltered harbor during a storm. The archaeological guide to Lindos produced by the Hellenic Ministry of Culture studiously omits any reference to such a visit. Yet a large sign and a small Christian chapel pointedly remind visitors that this is where Paul stopped in 57 C.E. Lindos was an archaeological highlight of our visit to Rhodes. I was particularly impressed by the relief dating to 180 B.C.E. of a trihemiolia carved into the rock near the base of the acropolis. This military vessel was developed by the Rhodians to counter the swift warships of the pirates. Even after the Romans abolished their navy in 46 B.C.E., the Rhodians continued to display a few as ceremonial vessels. So Paul undoubtedly saw such ships in the Rhodes harbor during his visit.

Sometimes tradition can point us toward history. But in the case of Rhodes the tradition about Lindos is dubious. Instead history suggests that Paul actually landed in Rhodes town. Why would the captain of his coasting vessel sail the extra distance to Lindos when some of the Mediterranean’s best harbors were at hand? In his account of this voyage in Acts 20–21, Luke names specific harbors, not just the general names of islands. And Patara, the next stop on the Anatolian coast, lay directly east. As our BAS group sat on the deck and bid farewell to the harbors of Rhodes, our gaze fell upon the same waters that welcomed Paul some 1,950 years ago.


Ancient Phoenix: The Harbor That Might Have Been

Explore a Pauline site on Crete with Dr. Mark Wilson

Mother’s Day found me in the Tsiknakis country bakery on the island of Crete. I was eating a muffin and drinking a cappuccino while sending good wishes to my wife Dindy via Skype. My morning started at Fair Havens—Kalloi Limenoi—where I took photos of the harbor where Paul’s ship had stopped on his voyage to Rome (Acts 27:8–12). The ugly facilities of a modern oil terminal failed to dispel the magic of the location. Here Paul had tried to persuade the ship’s owner, its captain and his guard that continuing on their voyage could prove fatal. However, the promise of a large payout, if successful, caused them to ignore Paul’s warning. What did Paul know anyway? Quite a bit actually: He had already experienced three shipwrecks and had spent a day and night adrift at sea (2 Corinthians 11:25–26).

The west harbor at Phoenix. Photo: Mark Wilson.

My drive westward had taken numerous turns along a spectacular coastal route beneath Crete’s White Mountains. A weather phenomenon related to these mountains is well known to meteorologists: northerly winds from the Aegean strike their northern face. After ascending to its peaks, the winds then flow down the southern slopes and cause intense turbulence in the sea below. A blast of air from the northeast—the Euraquilo—caused the tremendous storm that threatened Paul’s ship (Acts 27:13–15).

The tower of the winds in Athens includes decorations of the personified winds on its eight sides.

The plan had been for Paul’s ship to winter in Phoenix, a port with natural harbors facing southwest and northwest. My own travel to Phoenix was easy: Disembarking by ferry from Hora Sfakion, I arrived at its eastern harbor, modern Loutro. I passed the ruins of ancient Phoenix as I followed the path to the other side of the peninsula. A half hour later I was drinking iced coffee in the Old Phoenix Hotel. A copper plate hanging on a wall caught my attention: It was a wind rose written in ancient Greek. A month earlier I had never heard of wind roses. But after reading a doctoral dissertation by Dan Davis on ancient sailing on the Mediterranean, I knew their purpose. Ancient sailors used these graphs, which name either eight or twelve winds, as primitive compasses to orient themselves on the open sea and to determine the direction for sailing. A wind rose naming the Euraquilo wind was found inscribed in a stone pavement in Thugga, Tunisia. The Tower of the Winds in Athens is the most famous example of a wind rose with personifications of the eight winds carved on its elegant friezes.

But Phoenix was not to be for Paul. The Euraquilo caused Paul’s ship to be blown south toward the island of Cauda, modern Gavdos. My hope was to visit Cauda also, but the ferry’s twice-weekly schedule did not fit mine. Cauda likewise failed to provide a refuge for Paul’s ship, which was cast adrift for two weeks with 276 persons aboard before wrecking on the coast of Malta (Acts 27).

As I looked back at Phoenix’s eastern harbor from the ferry returning to Sfakion, I got to thinking: What if Paul’s ship had made it there? He wouldn’t have had an angelic visitation announcing the salvation of all on board. Paul wouldn’t have received the hospitality of Malta’s governor Publius or healed his father. Phoenix represented those “might have been” places that I had never reached either. But Paul did eventually arrive at his goal: Rome. And I decided that I will arrive at my destination too, if I persevere and don’t dwell on the places that might have been.


The Serendipities of Archaeological Travel with BAS

Basilika Therma. Photo: Mark WilsonOrganizing and leading archaeological tours in the Middle East can be challenging, given its unstable political situation. Two years ago when I planned that the BAS Abraham Country’s tour begin in southeastern Turkey, I was unable to divine that in mid-September 2013, a perfect political storm would develop. Ten days before the tour was to begin, the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning that strongly discouraged nonessential travel to the region. The American embassy in Ankara told me by phone that the consulate in Adana was closed and that there would be no support in the region should an incident occur. The reason: the anniversary of 9/11, the anniversary of the consulate deaths in Benghazi and the threatened air strikes in Syria. So we were forced to cancel the Urfa-Tarsus portion of the tour. I quickly revised the itinerary, and Tutku Tours scrambled to make new domestic flight and hotel reservations. Needless to say, the registrants were greatly disappointed that these last-minute adjustments had to be made, because they had looked forward to visiting the archaeological wonders of southeastern Turkey. Despite this, 21 of 23 of them still decided to come.

Basilika Therma. Photo: Mark Wilson

The upside was that the group got to see other significant archaeological sites. At Limyra, Austrian archaeologist Martin Seyer gave a personal tour of the site, including a look at a possible synagogue discovered at the city’s East Gate. A visit to the Neolithic site of Çatalhöyük helped assuage the disappointment of not seeing Göbekli Tepe. Ours became the first American group to visit the new excavations at Derbe with a personal tour provided by student archaeologists from Konya University. Our “brief” stop at the Roman bath complex at Basilika Therma (Sarıkaya) turned into an interesting cultural experience. The local Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) reporter showed up and interviewed our guide Meltem Çiftçi and me. According to the archaeologist from the Yozgat Museum, we were likewise the first American group to visit this new excavation.

The BAS tour was the first American group to visit the excavations at the Lycian city and New Testament site of Derbe.

The final stop on Day 5 was at the nearly mile-high fortress of Kerenes Dağ (Mountain), tentatively identified by its excavators as ancient Pteria of the Medes, a city best remembered from Herodotus’s accounts of the campaigns of the legendary king Croesus. The Medes are well known from the Bible with Darius their most famous king (Daniel 5:31; 11:1). In 612 B.C.E., the Medes allied themselves with the Babylonians and overthrew the Neo-Assyrian kingdom. They then expanded westward into central Anatolia. Led by King Cyaxares, they engaged the Lydians under Alyattes II in a five-year war that culminated in the “Battle of the Eclipse” on May 28, 585 B.C.E. The eclipse was interpreted as a heavenly sign that hostilities should cease, so a peace treaty was brokered. The Halys (Kızılırmak) River became the Median kingdom’s western boundary and Pteria its western capital. Kerkenes Dağ is the largest Iron Age city discovered on the Anatolian plateau. As our group climbed into the city, we could see part of its 4.4 mile-long defensive wall made of solid, uncut stone that is visible from space. Most impressive was the excavated Cappadocian Gate with its glacis walls and entrance with five towers. The city is believed to have been burned and abandoned a generation after its founding, when the last Median king Astyages was overthrown by Cyrus the Great in 550 B.C.E. The Medes were then absorbed into the Achaemenid Empire, and with the Persians became its two most important peoples (Daniel 5:28; 6:8, 12, 15).

None of the aforementioned sites were in the original itinerary. By the tour’s end, the participants expressed enthusiasm with the new agenda and the outstanding sites they had seen. So the serendipities of archaeological travel can sometimes provide alternative gems.


Treasures in Clay Jars

Earlier this year a well-known New Testament scholar visited Antalya, Turkey. The two of us spoke to a group of pastors and their spouses from international churches in Europe and the Middle East.

A coin hoard stored in a clay jar at the Aydın Museum. Photo: Mark Wilson.

During one session my friend spoke about a familiar text written by the apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” The Greek word for clay is ostrakinos, from which the archaeological term “ostraca”—pottery sherds—is derived. He argued that the references to light in verses 4 and 6 strongly suggest that clay lamps were the ceramic objects in Paul’s mind when he wrote this passage. So Paul developed his analogy about the fragility of the human body from the clay lamps used in antiquity to provide light. Such lamps are discovered regularly at archaeological excavations. My friend’s idea seemed plausible, but because Paul used the general word vessel (skeuos) and not the specific word for lamp (lychnos), I was not totally sold on this interpretation.

On the post-conference tour we joined a group traveling to Cyprus. There we visited the Cyprus National Museum in Nicosia, which houses a small but rich collection of artifacts. One display in particular jumped out at me—a clay pot lying on its side with a bunch of coins spilling out of its mouth. The description said it was a coin hoard found nearby dating from the first century C.E. The topic of coin hoards caught my interest, and I discovered that archaeologists and treasure hunters working in the Greco-Roman world have found thousands of such hoards. The size of these hoards ranges from fifty to fifty thousand coins. The coins were buried in clay jars for safe keeping, often in times of warfare or instability. Coins were also hoarded for ritual purposes as votive offerings. The phenomenon was so well known that Jesus told a parable about a man who found such a hoard and sold all his possessions to buy the field (Matthew 13:44). The Greek word for “treasure” (thesaurus) used by Jesus is the same word that Paul used in 2 Corinthians 4:7. So they seem to be talking about the same thing!

Coin hoards can be seen in many archaeological museums in Turkey. One of the most famous—the Elmalı Hoard—is now on display in the Antalya Archaeological Museum. In 1984 three Turks with a metal detector discovered a clay jar buried in a muddy field. The jar contained some 1900 silver coins struck by the Attica-Delos League. The hoard included fourteen rare, medallion-sized decadrahmi produced by Athens to celebrate its victory over the Persians. The hoard was smuggled illegally out of Turkey and sold to collectors, much of it going to the wealthy American businessman William I. Koch. After a decade-long lawsuit initiated by the Turkish government, Koch returned 1,661 coins to Turkey in 1999. While visiting the new archaeological museum at Aydın (ancient Tralles) recently, I saw two coin hoards on display. The hoards were found at excavations nearby and consisted of Hellenistic bronze coins (4th century B.C.E) and silver Roman coinage (40–270 C.E.). The clay jars that contained these hoards were well-preserved and displayed next to the coins (see one in photo).

The ubiquity of hoards in antiquity, both in time and region, suggests that the phenomenon was so well known that Paul could reasonably use it as an analogy. However, these treasures—the coin hoards mentioned in 2 Corinthians 4:7—were never placed in clay lamps but rather in clay jars.


Destroying a Temple

The burning of the Ephesian Temple of Artemis by Herostratus

The apostle Paul, writing from Ephesus to the Christians in Corinth, warned: “If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:17).

The remains of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The magnificent structure was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Photo: Mark Wilson.

July 21 marked the anniversary of one of the most infamous destructions of a temple in history. On that night in 356 B.C.E., an Ephesian named Herostratus set out to make his mark in history. He walked to the Temple of Artemis with fire and flammable materials with the intention of burning it down.

The construction of this temple, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was sponsored in part through the benefaction of Croesus, the wealthy king of the Lydian empire. Begun around 550 B.C.E. under the direction of the Cretan architect Chersiphron and his son Metagenes, 36 of its columns were decorated with relief carvings, according to Pliny the Elder. A massive structure—it was 377 feet long and 151 feet wide, the size of a football field—it was supposedly the first Greek temple built of marble.

Herostratus must have been an unhappy man who had failed to achieve honor and status in Ephesus. So he became determined to put his name in the history books. Herostratus knew that he could not do much damage to the marble itself. However, if he could get to the wooden furnishings inside the temple, he would have a great chance of success.

Sneaking past the temple guards, Herostratus placed the rags in key places inside the naos, the inner sanctuary. He then lit each one, probably using the small flame from the olive oil lamp he would have carried. Soon fire was raging with flames climbing up the wooden beams to engulf the wooden ceiling. Even the cult statue of Artemis, made of ebony or grapewood by the noted Athenian sculptor Endoios (also spelled Endoeus), was burning. By morning all that remained was a smoldering ruin of 40-foot high columns.

The Ephesian Artemis. Ephesus Museum, Selçuk, Turkey. Photo: Mark Wilson.

Instead of fleeing the scene, Herostratus was boastful about his deed. He surrendered to the temple authorities and was imprisoned. Ephesian officials, to discourage similar acts in the future, quickly executed Herostratus and attempted to remove his name from memory by forbidding its mention under penalty of death. However, an ancient historian named Theopompus recorded Herostratus’s arson in his book Hellenics. The arsonist’s name that the Ephesians had tried to erase has thus been preserved to this day.

Later Greek and Roman tradition states that Alexander the Great was born in Macedonia on that same night, July 21, 356. The Roman historian Plutarch suggested in his Life of Alexander that the goddess Artemis was so busy attending to Alexander’s birth that she failed to protect her temple. Alexander later tried to pay for the temple’s rebuilding, but was told by Ephesian officials that it was not right for a god to build a temple for another god.

Herostratus’s destruction of the Temple of Artemis led to the coining of the phrase “Herostratic fame” meaning someone who commits a criminal act in order to receive the notoriety that follows. And reference to him and his arson has appeared in the works of noted authors such as Chaucer, Cervantes and Sartre.

The Temple of Artemis that stood during Paul’s visits to Ephesus was the successor to the one Herostratus had burned down. Is it possible that Paul and his audience in Corinth knew the story of Herostratus and his infamous destruction of the Temple of Artemis? I think it is probable that this incident was in mind when Paul wrote the well-known verse (quoted above) to the Corinthians. He was accusing them of perpetrating a similar shameful act: destroying the temple of God in Corinth—the church—through their immature and immoral behavior.