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Philippi: Birthplace of Christianity in the West

by Brother Christian Leisy

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Nestled in a quiet corner of northeastern Greece, the ancient city of Philippi now lies in ruins. But the very stones still speak of a once bustling city, a place rich in meaning for Christians, since St. Paul preached the Gospel, won converts, and suffered imprisonment here.

Like St. Paul, modern travelers can reach Philippi by way of a busy seaport town that has been inhabited since the seventh century before Christ. Now called Kavalla, it was known in St. Paul’s day as Neapolis, the “new city.” Perched on the shore of the majestic Aegean Sea, Neapolis served as the port of the more important Philippi, just 10 miles north.

Philippi was named for its founder, Philip II of Macedonia (382-336 B.C.), father of Alexander the Great. It was conquered by Rome in 168 B.C., and in 42 B.C. it was the scene of Octavian’s and Mark Antony’s victory over Brutus and Cassius. Eleven years later, in 31 B.C., Octavian made Philippi a Roman colony. Its inhabitants included many Roman war veterans, as well as Thracians, Greek-Macedonians, and a small Jewish community.

Located on the Via Eqnatia, the stone-paved road that linked Asia to the West, prosperous Philippi was at the crossroads of two worlds. A steady stream of merchants and travelers passed through its gates. It never grew very large, yet St. Luke describes Philippi in the Acts of the Apostles as “the principal city of that district of Macedonia.”

Though it is long forgotten as a city of trade, Philippi is deeply significant in Christian history: it is the place where Christianity was preached for the first time in Europe. When St. Paul landed at Neapolis, he became the first missionary to set foot on the European shore.

Paul would not have been aware of the significance of Philippi as Christians are today. When he left Troas and set sail for Samothrace and Neapolis, he was simply traveling from one Roman province to another. Yet the Christian community he established in Philippi marked the birth of Christianity in the Western world.

In the Acts, St. Luke recounts that Paul received in a mysterious way his commission to preach the Gospel in Macedonia.

One night Paul had a vision: a Macedonian appeared and appealed to him in these words, “Come across to Macedonia and help us.” Once he had seen this vision we lost no time in arranging a passage to Macedonia, convinced that God had called us to bring them the Good News. (Acts 16:9-10)

St. Luke’s account in the Acts indicates that the disciple Silas accompanied St. Paul. It is probable that Timothy and Luke himself were with them.

On the Sabbath, a few days after their arrival in Philippi, Paul and his companions wandered outside the city gates and down along the river. Because the Jewish community in Philippi was too small to have an established synagogue, devout Jews often gathered at the riverside on the Sabbath to pray. They were there when Paul and the other men approached. Luke describes the encounter.

We sat down and spoke to the women who were gathered there. One who listened was a woman named Lydia, a dealer in purple goods from the town of Thyatira. She already reverenced God, and the Lord opened her heart to accept what Paul was saying. (Acts 16:13-14)

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