Back From Pilgrimage: Paul in Asia Minor

I have just returned from Turkey, where my wife and I and Dom and Sarah Crossan led a two-week long pilgrimage. Our focus: Paul and early Christianity in the historical context of the Roman Empire and Roman imperial theology. Rome ruled the world of early Christianity: from Spain in the west, Britain in the north, the Euphrates in the east, into North Africa in the south.

Roman rule was legitimated by imperial theology.  According to it,

Caesar Augustus, the greatest of the emperors, was divine. Born Octavian around 63 BCE, he ruled as emperor from 31 BCE to 14 CE. His titles included “God,” “Son of God,” “Lord,” “savior of the world” who had brought “peace on earth.” He was the product of a divine conception, conceived in his mother by the god Apollo, god of light, reason and order.

Augustus brought peace on earth through military victory. At the battle of Actium, he ended the decades-long civil war that had torn the empire apart. Now peace reigned, the Pax Romana, achieved through military victory and sustained by Roman imperial power. All of this, according to Roman imperial theology, was the will of God. Roman theology legitimated Roman empire. It was omnipresent in the public media of the day: in images, inscriptions, and coins.

This was the historical context of Paul (and Jesus and early Christianity). The titles of Jesus – “Son of God,” “Lord,” “savior of the world,” the one who brings “peace on earth” – existed before he was born. They were titles of the emperor.

When Paul and other early Christians applied these titles to Jesus, they were saying Jesus is Lord and empire is not.

What is the difference between these two lordships? According to the seven letters of Paul that are universally seen by scholars as the earliest documents in the New Testament, all written in the 50s, and thus earlier than the gospels: Rome embodied peace through victory and Jesus proclaimed peace through justice and non-violence. Paul and other early Christians created communities radically centered in God that embodied a vision of life together very different from the vision embodied in Roman imperial theology.

To see Paul and Jesus and early Christianity in this context is to see how they (and the Bible as a whole) combine the spiritual and the political.  Christianity is spiritual – it is about our personal relationship to God (the sacred, what is, reality, isness). It is about a deeper and deeper centering in God as known in the Bible and especially in Jesus. And equally importantly, it is about participating in God’s passion for a different kind of world – a more just world, fair world, a world of peace and not war. This is “the dream of God” in the Bible and Jesus: a transformed world.

Our pilgrims were diverse even as they shared some things in common. Though most were Americans, a fourth were from the British Commonwealth: three Australians, three Canadians, and two New Zealanders. All were interested in Christianity and what it might mean to be Christian today, even as some were not currently involved in the life of a church. All were intellectually interested in understanding Paul and early Christianity more fully.

Pilgrimage is about more than being a tourist. Pilgrims are on a journey, whether they are conscious of that or not. Pilgrimage is about a quest for understanding and meaning, and not just about seeing other parts of the world.  In its fullest meaning, pilgrimage is about a date with God, the sacred.

A date intrinsically involves a time and place. For two weeks, the time and place was Turkey: we saw the world of Paul and early Christianity, the ruins of the Roman empire (and empires before and since), and we experienced being in a a group of intentional pilgrims. All of us pondered: what does this mean, what might this mean, for us today?

Please Note:
We – the Borgs and Crossans – will lead another Paul pilgrimage to Turkey next year, May 7 – 21, 2012. To be on the e-mail notification list, click here to send an e-mail to Donna. To learn more about past pilgrimages or to see pictures, please go to my Pilgrimages page.



  1. I like the idea of a pilgrimage – to intentionally travel to a place to find a deeper connection with God sounds like a wonderfully hope-filled experience.

  2. Dear Marcus,
    I have no website but I want to read more of your thought and writings. I was for years a Jesuit the last of then, 12 years a priest. My work was teaching in Jesuit High Schools and later in public secondary schools. I retired from the latter in 1997 and now at 86 live in a one bedroom apartment. I married in ’68 and we had two children (boys) ’69 and ’70. Divorced in ’91 and have lived alone since. I began counseling two years ago, long overdue, though I didn’t realize that reality. Over the years I have dropped belief after belief along with any acceptance of the the Bible’s Divine authorship. What appears fact to me now is that we come into this life from earth, are sustained therein by earth, and at its end, return to earth. Bare bones, pretty bleak, and no warm fuzzies, no Pauline hope in the substance of things not seen.

  3. and what a journey it was… and still is… and will continue to be.
    Again, thank you both for being you and for your companionship for at least part of my continuing journey.
    The teaching plan is under way. I’m thinking to take our Lay preachers and others through Reading the Bible Again for the First Time and next year move into Living the Questions & Meeting J. Again.

    My brother asked ‘what was the highlight’? My reply? Even though I saw some magnificent sights and experienced some truly mystical moments, the highlight was a comment that you made during our orientation session when you shared your passion for adult theological and biblical education. It was that you continue to do these pilgrimages and lecture tours in order to equip those who are working at congregation level to teach. For some time I’ve been wondering what my role is to be and being a teacher to the depths of my being (even though I don’t have the piece of paper to verify that), your comment resonated deeply within me. I knew what I had to do. I had been given my orders and you were the courier.
    Long may you continue to share your passion with other pilgrims and I look forward to another opportunity to meet you… perhaps Australia 2013.
    Grace & peace

    Anne Griffiths 🙂

  4. I certainly support studying and trying to get understanding of the Word of God/The Bible, cultures, places and events, rulers, etc., but are you suggesting visiting these historical/biblical locations thousands of years later, somehow heightens God’s work in us? If you believe in the literal importance of baptizing, must we all go to the Jordan River to be baptized for it to be effective?

  5. It was so good to be part of this pilgrimage. We walked through 15 Roman cities (sites) in fifteen days (more or less). For years I dreamed about an experience that would focus on the cities of the Roman Empire, and the Graeco-Roman environment of early Christianity. I was intrigued that Emperors and their supporters could conceive of themselves as divine. I had previously visited ancient Roman sites in Algeria, Egypt and the Middle East and I needed the experience of Asia Minor to better understand how imperial theology was essential to holding all these towering stone structures together as well as the loyalty of the people. The imperial theology was everywhere–on the shrines, in the temples and the Roman highways. One quickly senses how subversive it must have been for Jesus and the early Christians, especially those who wrote, to assign to Jesus the honorific titles claimed exclusively by the emperors. This pilgrimage gives students of the Bible and early Christianity a fresh framework or matrix. Dr. Crossan insists on the word “matrix,” beyond “context” or “environment,” to include the multiple Jewish and Graeco-Roman elements that worked upon first century followers of Jesus. Deepest thanks to John Dominic and Sara Crossan, Marcus and Marianne Borg and Turkish archeologist, Haluk Chetinkaya.

  6. Your idea of God as “a radiance pervades what is” has been very helpful to my understanding of God.

    Is the Trinity something I should continue to try to understand? I see it as somehow linked to the concept of Interbeing/relationships etc… It is such a frustrating concept, I’d like to forget about it. Any blogging on the Trinity would be appreciated.

    • Vladimir Eremine

      Dear Marcus and Carol,

      As I was reading the section God as Sacred Presence (Speaking Christian), I couldn’t help thinking about Plato’s Parmenides with its meticulous logical explorations of the category of One. Wasn’t it the case that Philo of Alexandria drew the sign of equality between One and God as it was revealed in Hebrew Bible thus bridging the Platonism (or its treatment of One) with Hebrew tradition? Could you comment on it?

  7. Several years ago, i read a non fiction book about the culture and times in the first century CE. It used an amusing premise of being an anthroplogic expedition with time travel as a literary device. The two researchers, a man and a woman, had an instant translating device implanted behind their ears (this was where you were asked to indulge the author a bit)’ they had to dress appropriately and the first place they went after being transported from the 20th century and before entering the city gates, was to the slave market, so they would not attract negative attention. There were interesting descriptions of the Roman baths and how bawdy they would appear to us today.
    Do you remember this book and who it was written by? It was an interesting device to help modern readers get an appreciation for how different the culture would have been in the first Century.

  8. Marcia & Roger Draft

    We were privileged to share this pilgrimage with you and our lives are richer for it. Although it was great to see the various sites, the highlight of the trip was the evening gatherings when you and Dom shared your thoughts and perspectives. There are no words of thanks sufficient to express our gratitude to you, Dom, Marianne and Sara for providing this experience. We would do it again in a heartbeat!