We can think of Pauline cities in three archaeological categories. Some are excavated—like Philippi, Corinth, and Perge; some are unexcavated—like Derbe, Lysta, and Colossae; some cannot be excavated because modern cities sit atop them—like Thessaloniki, Konya, and Damascus. But a more useful criterion for a Pauline city is not just visitation by the apostle Paul but revelation about Paul. Where can we still get, despite the vagaries of time, fundamental insights into the social matrix of his world? We might prefer, therefore, Aphrodisias, which he never visited, to Ephesus, which he certainly did.
Aphrodisias is about two hours east of Turkey’s mid-Aegean coast along the Meander Valley. The longest and most important Jewish inscription from antiquity that was discovered there in 1966 stood outside unprotected from weather until brought inside the site’s elegantly expanded museum in 2010. The marble column is useful both in itself and also for understanding Paul’s actual missionary program as distinct from Luke’s portrayal of it in Acts.
The inscription is from the early third century C.E. and originally stood at the entrance to the city’s synagogue. It records the individual names of 126 donors to the building’s construction. But the distribution of those names is truly startling: 55% are Jewish; 2% are “proselytes,” or converts; and 43% are “God-worshippers.” Only one Jewish woman, “Jael,” is mentioned, but her name tops the list as patron of the entire operation. Furthermore, the first nine “God-worshippers” on the stone’s second face are members of the “boule,” or city council.
God-worshippers (Acts 13:43; Acts 16:14; Acts 17:4, Acts 17; Acts 18:7), or God-fearers (Acts 10:2, Acts 22; Acts 13:16), were Gentiles who, out of respect for Jewish monotheism and morality, attended the synagogue regularly. With that many Gentiles as public donors at Aphrodisias, how many more were ordinary attendees? Was Aphrodisias an extraordinary exception—and, if so, why?—or were many or even most synagogues half-filled with pious Gentiles every sabbath—at least by the second century?
In light of that inscription and other evidence it may be that Paul did not go to the synagogue to convert his fellow Jews as Acts says directly—that would have been against both his mandate from God (Gal 1:16) and his agreement with the twelve disciples (Gal 2:7-9). He went instead, as Acts admits indirectly, to convert Gentile God-fearers, or God-worshippers, to Christian Judaism. Those who accepted his vision were already well instructed in Judaism, so they could understand his letters much more readily than pure Gentiles might have been able to do.
Paul’s primary focus on Gentile God-worshippers also explains why his action so exasperated his fellow Jews. He was, in effect, poaching their Gentile sympathizers. That focus also explains Paul’s astounding statement that, after only about twenty years, he had completed his task in the East and was moving to the West (Rom 15:28). Finally, and above all else, his focus on those synagogue-attending Gentiles explains why Pauline Christianity spread so fast—it did not have to introduce its converts to Judaism first.