The Christian Athens and the Mystic Babylon

Athens from Mount Lykavittos

This Fall, I was in Berlin, working on an article on the image of Athens in early Christian literature. Interestingly, both Berlin and my hometown, Nashville, have in their past identified with Athens. In the late-19th century, Berlin began to call itself “Spree-Athen,” that is, “Athens on the River Spree.” The city has a collection of museums in the middle of the river, known as Museumsinsel (Museum Island). The museums house many statues, vases, artifacts, even entire market gates and temple altars, of Greek, Roman, Babylonian, Egyptian origins. The moniker “Spree-Athen” highlights Berlin’s desire to be full of art, as Athens was many centuries before.

Bode Museum on Museum Island, Berlin. TV Tour in the background.
Bode Museum on Museum Island, Berlin. TV Tower in the background.

Nashville adopted the Athens-image around the same time as Berlin. During the centennial celebration of the founding of Tennessee, Nashville hosted a world’s fair and built a collection of plaster copies of world monuments in Centennial Park, on the west side of the city. Nashvillians fell in love with the plaster Parthenon, and when the end of the fair brought the removal of the plaster monuments, they decided to build a more permanent, full-size Parthenon out of the Tennessee version of marble, concrete. The city, like Berlin, aspired to be full of art, the “Athens of the South.”

The final scene of Robert Altman's 1975 film Nashville, at the Parthenon.
The final scene of Robert Altman’s 1975 film Nashville, at the Parthenon.

Athens is so identifiable and brings such a specific image and emotion to mind that it is immediately obvious what “Spree-Athen” or “Athens of the South” connotes. It was a city of grand marble and lyrical poetry, as well as a place that experienced the growing pains of democracy and education. Berlin and Nashville’s nicknames serve to transfer Athens’ reputation for culture and innovation to each of the newer cities.

Saint Augustine
Saint Augustine
Saint Jerome
Saint Jerome









Two early church fathers, Augustine and Jerome, created similar nicknames for cities, which illuminate some of the early Christian conceptions of cities and their understanding of how their new religious movement fits within their world. Jerome views Jerusalem, the city where he lived his last years, in terms of Athens. In a letter written to his friend Marcella while he lived in Bethlehem, he called Jerusalem “the Christian Athens.” He encourages Marcella to travel to the Holy Land, suggesting that such a pilgrimage would be “the finishing touch” on her Christian devotion. He writes: “If a famous orator blames a man for having learned Greek at Lilybaeum instead of at Athens, and Latin in Sicily instead of Rome (on the ground, obviously, that each province has its own characteristics), can we suppose a Christian’s education complete who has not visited the Christian Athens?” (Ep. 46). Jerome highlights education as the defining feature of Athens, and the feature that he transfers to Jerusalem. Place is important for Christian belief, or, for that matter, any skill or worldview that requires education.

Augustine had a more negative view of Athens and did not associate it with Jerusalem but with another city. In his apologetic treatise City of God, he articulated the problems with the earthly city in contrast to the heavenly city that was home to Christians. The anti-thesis between these cities runs through the entire work, and the two actual cities that most often signify them are Jerusalem and Babylon. In Book 18, he devotes attention to Athens, “that city, the mother and nurse of liberal doctrines, and of so many and so great philosophers.” For Augustine, Athens is not the city of great art and famous architecture. Instead, he sees Athens as representing the Greek polytheistic religious system, which goes hand-in-hand with what he sees as philosophy’s errors. He grants that sometimes the philosophers got things right, but “even if some true things were said there, yet falsehoods were uttered with the same license; so that such a city has not amiss received the title of ‘the mystic Babylon'” (City of God 18.41). The mystic Babylon. For Augustine, Babylon means confusion, and this is the aspect of that Mesopotamian city that he transfers to the Greek city.

Augustine and Jerome had very different goals for writing these texts that include images of Athens. Augustine was engaged in apologetic arguments for Christianity, over and against Greek and Roman religions. Christian apologetic started much earlier, with the author Tatian the Syrian, and in most of these treatises, Athens is the negative symbol for all that is wrong with the Greek-speaking world: idolatry, philosophy, excess. Augustine fits into this tradition with his “mystic Babylon” idea. Jerome was a linguist and translator of biblical texts, who lived in Bethlehem, near Jerusalem, for the last years of his life. He therefore emphasized education and pilgrimage, both of which characterized common views of Athens and Jerusalem.

The early church fathers did not have a monolithic view of what Athens stood for, but it was indeed a symbol that helped them define their cultural world. It could be both aspirational, as it has been for Berlin and Nashville, as well as repulsive.

***Edited to add: As I have delved more into Jerome’s letters, I have realized that Letter 46 was not written by Jerome, but by his friend Paula and her daughter Eustochium who settled with Jerome in Bethlehem and wrote to Marcella encouraging her to come to Jerusalem. This makes sense, as Jerome is much more negative about Jerusalem in another letter. Letter 46 is a fascinating letter, full of the two women’s reflections about Jerusalem, the “Holy Land,” and how one should interpret the various and divergent statements about Jerusalem in the Old and New Testaments. I hope to discuss this letter further in a later post…***

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Jerusalem in the Four Gospels


Jerusalem is, as to be expected, the most often named city in each of the canonical Gospels. But, as I worked through the city data, I noticed how differently each Gospel treats the importance of Jerusalem.

In Mark and John, Jerusalem is the first city mentioned: In both cases, people are coming from Jerusalem to see what John the Baptist is all about (Mark 1:5; John 1:19). In both Luke and Matthew, however, two cities are mentioned before Jerusalem: for Matthew, Babylon (in the genealogy) and Bethlehem; for Luke, Nazareth and Bethlehem. This makes sense, as the latter two are much more interested in Jesus’s lineage and birth than Mark and John are.

In Mark, Jerusalem is mentioned 7 times. The first four references record various people coming to John or Jesus from Jerusalem (Mark 1:5; 3:8; 3:22; 7:1). The final three references are part of Jesus’s final movement to Jerusalem and his death (Mark 10:32-34; 11:1-27; 15:41).

Matthew mentions Jerusalem 11 times. He adds to Mark four items unique to the First Gospel: (1) the wise men go to Jerusalem to ask about the Messiah (Matt 2:1-3); (2) the instruction, “Do not swear by Jerusalem” (Matt 5:35); (3) the prophecy, addressed to “the daughters of Zion,” that the king is coming on a donkey and a colt (Matt 21:5); and (4) after Jesus’s death, resurrected people come out of the tombs and enter the holy city (Matt 27:53). Matthew shares with Luke two additions: (1) the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple in “the holy city” (Matt 4:5) or “Jerusalem” (Luke 4:9); and (2) as Jesus and his disciples are traveling to Jerusalem, Jesus tells them what will happen to them and laments over Jerusalem (Matt 20:17-18; 23:37; Luke 13:33-34). “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it.”

Luke mentions Jerusalem more than any other Gospel–23 times. Not only is Jerusalem quantitatively dominant, it is also qualitatively the most important city for Luke by far. Luke begins and ends the story in the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2: 22-30; 24:52-53) and he notes that Jesus and his family return to Jerusalem every Passover (Luke 4:41-50). In Luke, there are fewer mentions of the places around Galilee where Jesus and his disciples traveled. For example, Luke doesn’t seem to care where Jesus went after he fed the multitude (Luke 9:11; cf. Matt 15:29; Mark 6:45; 8:10). Rather, in Luke, Jesus “set his face to Jerusalem” early in the narrative–at Luke 9:51-53 (cf. Matt 20:17-18; Mark 10:32-34). And, after this point, like a drumbeat growing steadily louder, Luke constantly notes that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem–at 13:22, 13:33-34; 17:11; 18:31; 19:11–until his final entry at 19:28. Jerusalem is the centripetal force in Luke’s Gospel.

And then there’s John. As I mentioned, Jerusalem appears first for John in a way similar to what we see in Mark and Matthew: People come to John the Baptist from Jerusalem (John 1:19; cf. Matt 3:5; Mark 1:5). And his last mention of Jerusalem is similar: Jesus’s final entry into the city with Hosannas, palms, and a young colt (John 12:12; cf. Matt 21:1-10; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28). In between, John is John. Six of 10 mentions of Jerusalem are associated with festivals: Passover (John 2:13-23; 4:45; 11:55), Booths (John 7:25), Dedication (10:22), and an unnamed festival (John 5:1-3). For John, Jerusalem is where festivals occur. This aligns with another significant mention of the city: In John 4:20-21, the Samaritan woman asks Jesus about the correct worship place–this mountain (in Sychar) or in Jerusalem? Jesus says, “Eventually, neither.” In John, Jesus goes up to Jerusalem several times and ends up there quite early–in 12:12 at his final entry. Interestingly, Jerusalem is not mentioned in the aftermath of Jesus’s death (cf. Matt 27:53; Luke 24:18, 33, 52-53). Eventually, neither.

For Mark, Jerusalem sends people to see about Jesus and is the location of Jesus’s death. Matthew keeps the same general view of the city and adds some narratives, sayings, and prophecies about “the holy city.” For Luke, Jerusalem is THE city, the centripetal force of the narrative. For John, Jerusalem is where people worship, but not for long.

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Image: Jerusalem by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

All of the Cities

I’ve created a Google Map with layers from the Gospels, Acts, Paul’s Letters, and Revelation. You can play with removing and adding the layers back, and as in my other maps, you can click on city icons to see where and how they are mentioned in the text.

Cities in the Catholic Epistles


I don’t have a map for cities named in the Catholic Epistles because they are so few: only Jerusalem, “Babylon,” and Sodom and Gomorrah.

James and the Letters of John mention no cities at all.

Jude and 2 Peter have the same reference to Sodom and Gomorrah, cities that are examples of what will come to the ungodly (2 Peter 2:6; Jude 7).

1 Peter refers to Jerusalem as Zion in a quotation of Isaiah: “See I am laying in Zion a stone, a cornerstone chosen and precious” (1 Peter 2:6). This is a favorite scripture for early Christians; it is used also by Paul in Romans. In the closing greeting of 1 Peter, the author sends greetings from “Babylon,” that is, Rome: “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you greetings” (4:13). He is writing to the “exiles of the dispersion in Pontus, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia” (1:1).

Hebrews is the most interesting of these letters with regard to cities. It only mentions one city, Jerusalem, in one verse: “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering” (12:22). Hebrews has in its sight the heavenly Jerusalem, much like Revelation does. Two other mentions of unnamed cities echo this statement. First, Abraham “looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (11:10). Second, the author states that Jesus suffered “outside the city gate” to sanctify people. Therefore, he urges his audience to go outside the camp and endure the abuse that Jesus endured. In this location, they can look forward to a city that will come: “For here we have no lasting city, but we are looking for the city that is to come” (13:12-14). The anticipation of a city, a heavenly Jerusalem, is at the heart of this string of statements.

My goal in these last few mapping posts has been to lay out the New Testament resources for interpreting cities. I haven’t been too concerned with interpreting patterns for each of these texts. This will be my next step, along with determining how I will proceed with examining early interpretations of cities in the NT.

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Image: Jerusalem by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Cities and villages in the Gospels

Cities in the Gospels

Here is my map for cities (or villages or small towns) in the four canonical Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Making this map was more interesting than I anticipated–I am generally more interested in the larger Greek and Roman cities in which Paul traveled and Acts recorded than in the landscape of the Gospels.

Working through these texts made me think more about what qualifies as a city. Are we even in the realm of “cities” in the Gospels? Mostly, I’ve recorded mention of smaller villages and some bonafide cities (Jerusalem, Tiberias, the Decapolis), but not mention of regions or unnamed cities. The actual locations of some of these are questionable (which Cana? Bethphage? Dalmanutha/Magadan/Magdala — which is it??).

Unsurprisingly, the most mentioned city in all of the Gospels is … Jerusalem.  Second place in the synoptic three is … Nazareth, most often in the phrase “Jesus of Nazareth.” Second place in John is Capernaum, while the bronze goes to Nazareth, Cana, and Bethany (near Jerusalem).

As in Acts, Paul’s letters, and Revelation, we have “semi-mythical” cities: Cities in which Paul, John, Jesus, or any other Christians do NOT interact: Sodom (Rom 9:29; Matt 10:15[and Gomorrah]. Rev 11:8; Luke 10:12), Babylon (Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2-24; Matt 1:11-12, 17), Nineveh (Luke 11:30-32; Matt 12:2). Matthew and Luke alone among the Gospels trade in semi-mythical cities. But, note the difference between how Matthew treats Babylon compared to Revelation– for Matthew, Babylon marks eras in Jewish history. Sodom and Nineveh are used as foils for present day cities in Galilee that do not accept Jesus and his disciples: At judgment day, they will be judged more harshly than Sodom, and Nineveh will recognize something greater than Jonah.

The cities on the map are color coded according to which Gospels they appear in:

Red – Cities in all four Gospels

Yellow – Cities in the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke)

White – Cities in Matthew, Luke, and John

Green – Cities in Matthew and Mark

Blue – Cities in Matthew and Luke

Pink – Cities in Matthew only

Purple – Cities in Luke only

Teal – Cities in John only

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Cities and villages in the Gospels by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Cities in Revelation

Revelation cities

Here is my map of the cities in the Book of Revelation. Revelation, of course, is written to the seven cities of Asia (modern Turkey)–Ephesus (modern Selçuk, Smyrna (Izmir), Pergamon (Bergama), Thyatira (Akhisar), Sardis (Sart), Philadelphia (Alaşehir), and Laodicea. All of these cities are marked in pink.

I’m not sure that you can really call Patmos a city–it is a beautiful island, and not a bad place to be exiled.

Finally, I’ve marked the three semi-mythic cities mentioned in Revelation in white. Jerusalem is the “new Jerusalem” throughout the text, and its buildings and gates and other physical features are described in Chapter 21. Sodom and Babylon are epitomes of evil–the latter more so. I’ve also marked Rome with a star, since it is not actually mentioned in Revelation but is perhaps the most present city in the book. Babylon, mentioned more than any other city, stands for Rome.

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Cities in Revelation by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Cities in Paul’s Letters

Cities in Paul's letters

I’ve mapped the cities mentioned in Paul’s letters, including deutero-Pauline and pastoral letters. I include the disputed Pauline letters for two reasons: (1) I’m looking at the reception of cities in biblical interpretation, and early interpreters would have read these letters as authentic Paul. (2) They provide a larger base of cities associated with Paul, remembered by his followers.

The green markers are cities to which Paul wrote letters. The blue markers are other cities mentioned in Paul’s letters, mostly cities to which he or his colleagues travel.

Paul mentions cities in most of his letters, usually in the opening and closing of the letters in greetings and descriptions of his and others’ travel plans. Jerusalem comes up often in scriptural quotations or interpretation, discussion of the offering that Paul intends to take to Jerusalem, and description of the early days of his apostleship.

In three letters, Ephesians, 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon, Paul does not mention cities other than Ephesus (Ephesians) and Thessaloniki (2 Thessalonians).

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Cities in Paul’s Letters by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Travel Routes in Acts

Paths of travel in Acts

One of my most vivid memories from Greece is sitting in the middle of a row in an overcrowded hydrofoil boat, hurtling from Amorgos to Santorini in stormy waters, holding a gyro sandwich in my hands (that didn’t look so appetizing anymore), and thinking that I made a huge mistake. My friend Rocha was right there with me, and he’ll tell you the same story. That was one hell of a ride. We should have known it would be, since the boat was about two hours late because of the wind and waves it went through to get to us.

I dreaded my trip from Santorini to Rhodes that would happen in the next few days. If Amorgos to Santorini was that bad, I couldn’t imagine an eight hour overnight trip, which essentially would take me all the way across the Aegean to Turkey. (Luckily, I would find out, the ships that make those trips are massive, and you can’t feel any movement at all.)

I say all of this to put ancient travel in perspective. I think I had it bad? Can you imagine Paul’s trip from Caesarea to Rome? Or overland travel, for that matter? The amount of time and danger to get through the Anatolian highlands may have been even worse!

Using Orbis data, I’ve mapped the travel, by foot and boat in the winter, for many of the paths mentioned in Acts. Not every route mentioned in Acts is represented here, but the main ones are.

The study of cities must consider travel between cities and the networks that grow overland and oversea. One day, I’ll try that road trip from Iconium (Konya) to Troas.

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Travel Routes in Acts by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Cities in Acts

Google Earth Image with cities mentioned in Acts

One of my favorite toys for procrastinating is Google Earth. One summer, when I was working **diligently** on my dissertation, I decided to plot all of the cities mentioned in Acts with descriptions of their stories and characters. Acts is full of cities and revels in the spread of Jesus’s followers’ message from city to city. You can see the result in the image above, and explore the map at my Cities in Acts Google Map.

I have color-coded the markers according to how the cities appear in Acts:

Yellow = places associated with Jesus or mentioned as places where the apostles are from.

Green = Jerusalem and Rome = starting point and ending point.

Teal = locations associated with Peter and other early apostles’ ministry.

Blue = locations associated with Paul’s ministry.

Pink = just passing through.

White = someone is from there, but narrative does not go there.

Red = the places mentioned in Paul’s boat trip to Rome.

If you see anything missing or any errors, please send me a message!

These are some of the cities that I’ll address in NT interpretation. Maps forthcoming for Paul’s letters, Revelation, and the Gospels!

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Cities in Acts by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?

Athens and Jerusalem

“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?” Tertullian, the second-century Christian apologist from Carthage, penned this famous and often misunderstood question in his Prescription Against Heresies. The question has little to do with the locations of Athens and Jerusalem or the characteristics of the cities themselves; rather, they are symbols for philosophical inquiry (Athens) and Christian faith (Jerusalem). These symbols are part of Tertullian’s argument that philosophical modes of thinking formed the foundation of heresies in early Christianity and therefore should be avoided. “Jerusalem” was preferable to “Athens.”

With this question, Tertullian makes three interpretive movements: First, he understands real cities–places that can be physically experienced–as symbols of abstract ideas–faith and philosophy. Second, he uses these city-symbols to negotiate Christian identity–here, what is and is not “heretical.” Third, he forms his views about cities and Christian identity through his interpretation of scripture.

Since cities are symbols in the biblical interpretation and early definition of Christianity, can we say more about how cities, cultural identity, and biblical interpretation interact in the emergence of Christian discourse? This site aims to answer this question by collecting and commenting on representations of specific cities–Jerusalem, Athens, Rome, Ephesos, Corinth–in New Testament interpretation. I’m asking how someone like the North African Tertullian, whose experience of Jerusalem or Athens may have been limited, would have formulated his conception of these cities.

Welcome to New Testament Cities.

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Images: Athens and Jerusalem by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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Header Image: NT Cities by Jill E. Marshall is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.