Chapter 14: The Mission

While his beard grew and Prisca wrestled with her courage, Paul kept beating the streets of Corinth, watching and praying, looking for a point of entry, a place to begin.

He would need it, he knew, when things went sour at the synagogue. For in spite of the hope he tried to feel for Prisca’s sake, he knew they would turn sour. It never failed.

Not that he lacked possibilities. Every corner, every shrine, every passing slave and prancing dandy shouted: Cut here. Lance this superstition. Excise that abuse. Slice away the patent nonsense spewed by that street teacher. Pick a vice—greed, fornication, drunkenness, violence—and put it under the knife.

But with the sure instincts of a surgeon, Paul knew how important the first cut would be. It would shape so much about the ministry to come. So he probed his patient, looking for tender spots, feeling for swellings beneath the surface, hoping that something in the city would reveal where the scalpel should go.

There were the prostitutes, of course. The pitiful creatures standing on corners. The two-obol women striking their obscene poses outside the city walls. The younger, prettier girls playing flutes at dinner parties and then offering their bodies to the guests. It broke his heart to see them, to imagine what their lives were like. Oh, other cities used women this way. Even Jerusalem. But there were so many here. And the whole thing was so open, so blatant. There was no shame in Corinth. At least, not about this.

So perhaps he could begin here. Rail against this abuse of God’s daughters in the agora. Gather up the most broken of them and give them a place to recover … or to die with some dignity. He could run amok in a brothel or two, like Jesus among the money-changers. The thought of it made him smile. But he quickly abandoned the idea. He wouldn’t make his mark that way. Besides, he suspected that kicking Corinth in the groin was not the best way to win hearts and minds.

For a day, he considered starting his work at the top. Target the richest, most powerful citizens of Corinth. Win the leaders of the city in hopes that others would follow. He spent hours wandering from banks to government offices, past luxurious villas with sumptuous gardens, watching the elite come and go. Busy men. Self-important. Aware of their place in the city. He imagined playing Nathan to their David. A cutting parable, perhaps. A prophetic voice in the throne room. But the more Paul thought about it, the more he looked at his boots. Cracked leather. Worn-out soles. A poor man’s boots. Would these people listen to a man in boots like these? He doubted it. Besides, people with manicures had a hard time with crosses.

For a much longer period, he thought he might begin by taking on the gods of Corinth—a face-to-face confrontation like Elijah and the prophets of Baal. There was something about the idea of standing on a temple’s steps, arguing with priests and pointing to the darkness inside, that appealed to Paul’s combative side. For days, he made the rounds of the city’s temples, with a head-full of questions and an unembarrassed audacity in asking them.


Paul stood at the base of the temple pedestal, waiting for his next victim to emerge. When he appeared, fat and unsuspecting, Paul smiled to himself. Ah! Everything you’d want in a sacrificial lamb.

“Excuse me, sir,” he called as the gentleman negotiated the front steps. “You’ve just come from the temple.” He gestured to the towering columns and bestowed his friendliest, most earnest look upon the man.

“Of course,” the man acknowledged the obvious, stepping around this stranger to be on his way.

But Paul was faster and cut him off. “I’m new to your city and know little of your customs. Whose temple is this?”

The man shook his head impatiently. “That’s the Temple of Octavia, the deified sister of Augustus, the benefactor of our city. Now, if you’ll excuse me …”

“Ahh!” Paul shook his head solemnly. “So the sister of our former First Citizen is a goddess now. With a temple of her own, no less! How exactly does that happen?”

The stranger pulled a face, as though Paul were mentally deficient. “The senate of Rome passed a resolution after her death proclaiming her divinity. Now, really, I must …”

“I see.” Paul eyes widened. “I didn’t realize the Roman senate had such power!”

Paul’s prisoner was growing irritated. “Where are you from? Brittanica? How can you know so little about the Imperial cult?” He took a breath and then resigned himself to explain the matter. Using small words. “The gods have a special interest in Rome. They guide our Empire through their sons and daughters—the men who serve as our heads of state, and the women who rule with them. When these people die, they return to their divine parents and continue watching over Rome as gods themselves. So we worship them. How can you not know this?”

Paul opened his hands to explain. “I’m from a far country. Forgive my ignorance of Roman ways. May I ask what goes on inside the Temple?”

The man made an exasperated gesture. He’d had enough. “Go in and see for yourself, man! It’s open.” And he hurried off, muttering about the state of the Empire and the unwelcome flood of barbarians threatening to wash away all that was civilized.

But, of course, Paul could not “go in and see.” The problem wasn’t his mind. He knew well enough there was only one God, that idols were nothing. But his heart wouldn’t permit it. Paul could sense such a wash of superstition and darkness emanating from these temples that he found it physically impossible to go in.

He remembered his talk with Prisca in the agora. This is all about power, she’d told him then. They were talking about soldiers and the Proconsul at the time, about the protection of Roman interests. But as Paul looked up at the Temple of Octavia, he knew this was about power too. Not only the threat of a Roman sword now, he saw, but divine retribution. The curse of the gods. Mess with Rome and they won’t just send their soldiers after you. The heavens themselves will hunt you down.

He shook his head, thinking about how many ways Rome could hurt you, control you, use you. Taxes. Soldiers. Permits. Roads. Policies. Trade. Governors. And, now, even religion. The Emperor cult. Prayers to dead tyrants. Pinches of incense to prove loyalty. Power dressed up as piety.

It all made him deeply sad.


Early one morning, Paul happened to be at the north end of the city, near the walls. He stumbled across a large complex of buildings and pools, gardens and columned porches. A sizeable group sat or lay at a locked gate letting onto the grounds. He stared at them for a long while before stopping a passerby.

“Excuse me.” Paul held up his hand and then pointed to the complex. “Could you tell me what that place is?”

“That’s the Aesclepeion, Sir. A temple of healing. A place where people come to seek the miracle cure.”

“From this god Aesclepius?”

“Yes Sir. And from his daughter, Hygeia, who also knows the mysteries of healing.”

Paul noted the ring in his ear. A slave. But the man was neatly dressed. His boots were polished. And there was the gleam of intelligence in his eyes.

“And how do they seek this healing?” Paul asked.

“Well, Sir, being healthy myself, I’ve never had need of the Temple.” He made a circle of his thumb and forefinger and spat for luck through his fingers onto the ground. “So I don’t strictly know how it works. I’ve heard it said, though, that visitors bathe in that pool,” he pointed, “and make a sacrifice on that altar.” He pointed again. “Then they’re taken to the abaton,” he indicated a low dormitory beside the temple, ”where they spend the night and hope for a visit from the god.” 

“Interesting. And are many people cured here?”

“Again, Sir, I wouldn’t really know. There are stories told of miracles. I know some bring thank offerings to the temple—a replica of whatever body part was healed. An ear, for example, if the problem was deafness. I guess I’ll never know for sure, at any rate. I couldn’t afford to take the cure.”

“You have to pay for healing?”

He looked uncomfortable. “Well, no Sir. Not exactly. However, only people of means are admitted. A priest stops by their room in the evening, I’ve heard. To visit about their need. And to suggest a donation appropriate to the disease.”

“A donation.”

“I’m not sure they actually require a donation, you see. It’s just that the gift is seen by the god as a sign of faith. The larger the gift, the greater the faith, and the more likely it is the god will show mercy.”

Paul felt sick. “And who are those unfortunates?” he asked, pointing to the bodies that sprawled before the gate protecting the temple grounds.

The slave’s face hardened. “Those are nobodies. Sick. Most of them dying. Desperate with nowhere to turn. Poor people who can’t afford doctors. Slaves used up by their masters and dumped on the temple. Whores so eaten up with disease, only a miracle could help.”

“And the temple takes them in!” Paul felt a thawing inside.

The slave looked at him as if he were drooling. “Don’t be daft. The temple guards will round up this lot and dump them across the city before the temple opens. Can’t have these wretches clogging the way when people with coin show up.” His voice was brittle.

The slave glanced again at the huddled figures on the stairs, and Paul thought he saw a glimmer of compassion cross his face. But it passed quickly enough as he turned away to get on with morning chores. “Besides,” he tossed over his shoulder, “corpses lying in front of a healing temple are bad for business!”

Paul could hear the man’s hard laughter as he walked away.

Not the gods, Paul realized suddenly, the anger clawing at him as he watched that suffering throng. I couldn’t keep my temper.


The more he studied it, the more it seemed that the agora was his best chance. Every city had its gathering spots. And where there were crowds there was always an audience. The philosophers understood that. They gathered to the public spaces like flies to fresh meat.

Paul had done good work in the agorae of Philippi and Thessalonica. He thought he might do some good there in Corinth.

So he stood for hours watching various teachers sweep into the agora, surrounded by throngs of admirers and disciples. He listened closely when they stood to speak on the issues of the day. He studied the crowds, looking for their reactions and thinking about how to reach them.

To his dismay, however, Paul discovered that Corinth was no Athens.

In Athens, there was serious discussion. People were thirsty for new thoughts and listened carefully. Speakers brought a certain passion to their orations. They believed that ideas mattered, that some ideas could change the world.

But here, Paul found only a parade of pompous charlatans, each trying to outdo the other, impressing the crowds with rhetorical flash, intent above all on attracting the one thing they craved most—a wealthy patron.

Some sage would stand before the crowd and expound on the meaning of life, gesturing just so, modulating his voice to make a point, reaching for the crowds’ emotions even if, to do so, he neglected to make sense. He’d finish his speech, the final words hanging over the crowds like an elusive fog, and the listeners would erupt into cheers or jeers depending on how well they cared for the performance. Disciples would rush to surround their hero, offering congratulations or condolences as needed. Admirers would swell or diminish.

And then the next sage would stand, steeling himself for even greater rhetorical feats before a crowd already drunk on eloquence. Before the new man opened his mouth, the audience had forgotten the last speaker and everything he said.

It was parody. It was frivolous. It was mass entertainment. It made Paul sick.

“It’s all show and no substance,” he complained to Prisca and Aquila, stomping into their apartment one evening with a belly-full and a headache.

“I know the philosophers,” he raged. “I’ve read Plato and Aristotle, Epicurus and the Cynics. Those men were wrestling with truth. They believed in something.” He closed his eyes and quoted a passage, though his voice shook with anger.

“But the truth is, O men of Athens, that God only is wise; and he intends to show that the wisdom of men is worth little or nothing. When the oracle speaks of me as the wisest of men, he is only using my name by way of illustration, as if he said, ‘He, O men, is the wisest, who, like Socrates, knows that his wisdom is in truth worth nothing.’”

Paul shook his head in wonder at those words, at the contradiction they posed to the sophistry and shallowness he’d heard on the street. “The Apology of Socrates is one of the finest statements on honorable living I’ve ever read.” His hands fluttered to the top of his head, holding his bald crown, a gesture of frustration.

“And those cretins dare call themselves philosophers! Not one idea that has any substance. Not one thought you can lean on. Platitudes! They string together words that sound good even though they mean nothing! Do you know that how a speaker looks, the timbre of his voice, the way he gestures and pauses count for more with the crowds than what he actually says? Unbelievable!”

Aquila and Prisca could not look at each other. They had seen Paul tight-lipped with anger when he returned from the temples, and his anger then was a frightening thing. But to see him so incensed about a farce in the agora, to watch his hands wander about like lost children in his agitation, struck them both as very funny. Aquila lowered his head to cover his quivering lips.

“Paul,” he said finally, trying to calm his friend. “This is Corinth. What did you expect? Profound discussions before an audience of street urchins and bored shoppers?  Nobody takes those people seriously. They’re a diversion, an amusing way to pass an afternoon. It’s just words, Paul. It doesn’t mean anything.”

But Paul was in no mood to be calmed. He speared Aquila with his eyes. “All we have are words to win this city. If we’re going to persuade the Corinthians, if we’re going to convict them, we’ll have to use words. But if words are so devalued that they mean nothing, if speaking is just an excuse to display eloquence and technique, then how will we talk to these people about the Messiah?”

He sat down heavily and rubbed his eyes with the heel of his hands. He could feel the headache growing stronger and, with it, the familiar gloom creeping up like a danger in the dark. He sat back and stared at his companions.

“Look at me. I’m a broken old Jew. Short. Bald. My voice cracks and squeaks. I care nothing about polished gestures and the well-timed pause. I have a message. But I fear the messenger will get in the way.” He held his arms wide to invite their scrutiny. “The Corinthians will be looking at this while I tell them about the Christ. I wonder how long they will listen.”

The tailor and his wife looked at Paul and then at each other. Suddenly, the whole thing seemed less humorous.

[Next Chapter]

[Beginning of the novel]

© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.