What Was Crete like in Paul’s Day?

The apostle Paul’s charge to Titus is “to set right what was left undone and, as I directed you, to appoint elders in every town” (1:5). A literate audience would be familiar with the statement by the famous classical poet Homer, who spoke of “Crete of the hundred cities” (Homer, Iliad 2.649), no doubt by way of poetic hyperbole. Along its extensive coastline, many of Crete’s cities were connected by sea as well as roads on land. During the Hellenistic period, some forty towns are known. About twenty such towns are attested in the Roman period, issuing coins of their own and being administered by their own magistrates. The most prominent cities in the early Roman period were Gortyn (the administrative capital, known for its celebrated “Gortyn Code,” a set of classical codified laws), Knossos (a Roman colony most likely established by Augustus famous for its Bronze Age palace), and the less-explored Eleutherna, Hierapytna, and Kydonia. Gortyn, located in the south of the island, was not far from the places Paul passed along the Cretan coast on his voyage to Rome.

At one time, Crete served as the center of the Minoan civilization (c. 2700–1420 BC), which many regard as the earliest recorded civilization in the continent of Europe. In the first century AD, the cult of Augustus and Roma appears to have been practiced in Gortyn, while the cult of the deified Claudius is attested for Knossos. The cult of Asclepius, a god of healing, was confirmed in at least eighteen locations. The Egyptian cult of Isis and Serapis is attested as well. Under Tiberius (ruled AD 14–37), Crete was used for exiles from Rome (Tacitus, Ann. 4.21). In addition to the Roman administrators, a local leading official, the Koinon, organized quinquennial games and issued coins, seeking to maintain a distinct Greek identity.

In view of the frequent use of the term “Savior” in the letter to Titus (1:3, 4; 2:10, 13; 3:4, 6; cf. 1 Tim 1:12 Tim 1:10), it is noteworthy that an inscription was found at the sanctuary of Asclepius at Lebena near Gortyn, reading, “Diodorus dedicated to you, Savior, two dreams in return for twofold eyes, light being restored” (2nd cent. AD?). Another similar Greek inscription, addressed to Zeus and attributed to a Corinthian named Plotius, was found at Knossos. This evidence for the use of “Savior” pertaining to Greek deities provides a crucial backdrop for Paul’s references to God and Jesus as “Savior,” designating them as the true provider and exclusive mediator of salvation, respectively. There is also evidence for the presence of a Jewish community on Crete (Acts 2:11; note the references to “the circumcision party” and devotees to “Jewish myths” in Titus 1:10 and 14). Thus the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo writes in the early 40s AD that “not only are the mainlands full of Jewish colonies but also the most highly esteemed of the islands, Euboia, Cyprus, Crete” (Leg. 282).

In light of this background information, it is possible that Titus was based in or near Gortyn, the provincial capital, and that his task as apostolic delegate was to establish a body of elders in the churches of every one of the twenty or so cities on the island. As George Wieland notes in his essay on “Roman Crete,” “Gortyn is traditionally held to be Crete’s first ecclesiastical centre, and it would not be surprising if a Christian mission located itself in such a leading town, nor that both recruits and opposition to the Christian movement should come from the Jewish community already established there.” Crete is 3,219 square miles (8,336 m2) in size, and because of the mountainous nature of the island, travel is not always easy, especially, as D. W. J. Gill points out in “Saviour for the Cities of Crete,” since “there is little evidence for a Roman road system.” Thus, Titus was faced with a formidable challenge, both logistically and theologically (in view of the false teachers). It also shows how ambitious Paul and his associates were in targeting the entire island and all its cities for evangelization.

Note: This post is excerpted and slightly adapted from Andreas J. Köstenberger, 1-2 Timothy & Titus, Biblical Theology for Christian Proclamation (Nashville: B&H, 2017), 296–99. Please see this publication for full documentation of all primary and secondary sources. This post originally was published on the Biblical Foundations website.


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