15 Comments

The Five Countries Called Greece

I go to Greece every year, with several others from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts (www.csntm.org), to photograph biblical manuscripts. And every year, we ‘discover’ manuscripts too—that is, we inform the Institut für neutestamentliche Textforschung in Münster about New Testament manuscripts that they were unaware of, and give them the details so that they can give these manuscripts a new Gregory-Aland number.

We always spend some time in Athens, but also try to get to other places as well. In the process of canvassing the countryside, I have come to realize that Greece is five different countries, all connected by the same language, government, and the ubiquitous old men sipping their Greek καφές in outdoor cafés.

There is Athens, a typical big city with more graffiti per square kilometer than any other city in western Europe. Typical—except for the Parthenon, Areopagus, other archeological sites, and magnificent museums and libraries.

Then there is the Peloponnese—the lower half of Greece, which boasts Corinth, Olympia, Sparta, and many other historic and beautiful sites. The Mediterranean Sea outside of Corinth is as clear and blue as the Caribbean. I’ve been told that the Peloponnesians are not as friendly as the rest of the Greeks, but this tidbit came from someone far north of Athens. I’ve not experienced it for myself.

The small islands—including Patmos, Samos, Icaria, Andros, and nearly 3000 other islands—make up the third country. These are always enjoyable sites and usually out of the way places. Cruise ships port at Skala harbor in Patmos every day, with the eager travelers scurrying off the vessels to board big buses and go up the mountain to see the Monastery of St. John the Theologian and the Cave of the Apocalypse. These folks only stay for two or three hours before they are whisked away to another island, checking off their bucket list this island famous for its connection to the Bible; we usually stay for two or three weeks.

We don’t take a cruise ship to get there, but an overnight ferry. There are only 3000 residents on Patmos during the summer months; we know almost all of them. Only four are not friendly, two of whom are not Greeks (I’d tell you their nationality but they would find me out!). We’ve eaten at nearly every restaurant and traversed every dirt road. This is the “Holy Island of the Aegean” because this is where John penned the Apocalypse and therefore it is the only island in all of Greece that does not allow nude sunbathing. It may well be my favorite place in all of Greece–and certainly the one my wife approves me visiting!

The fourth country consists of big islands and famous islands—like Rhodes, Cos, Lesbos, Santorini, and Mikonos. Amazing sites, but very expensive. They know what they’ve got. I’ve never been to Santorini or Mikonos for the simple reason that they are not known to have biblical manuscripts.

Finally, there is the Greek countryside. Villages that have no names. Access lanes still not paved that lead to major highways. Mountain roads that are dotted with crosses where people have driven over the edge and lost their lives because guardrails are often non-existent in this country that is 80% mountainous. Pathways that drive the GPS crazy. And people so friendly they turn the American value-system on its head.

At first, I was taken aback by their friendliness. It seemed to be a used-car-salesman kind of friendliness. That was ten years ago. People that friendly in the States are likely to take you to the cleaners. But in Greece, money is not the driving principle, and genuine friendships are prized like fat bank accounts are in the U.S. Most rural Greeks are poor—dirt poor. Yet they share what they have with strangers and live to show hospitality to visitors. Some of the best lamb and pork chops anywhere on the planet. And a gaggle of friends we’ve made along the way. I truly love Greece and the Greek people. And I pray that this country with its rich heritage in politics, conquest, art, sports, medicine, and, of course, biblical manuscripts, will survive its current financial crisis.

In my next post I will tell about driving up to Meteora from Athens, and of a particularly interesting manuscript we examined in one of the monasteries of Meteora in 2011 and 2012. For now, I’ll simply close with this: If you ever get the opportunity to visit Greece, check out all five countries. Athens and Santorini are not the whole experience! And get to know the people. It just might change your value system.

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15 comments on “The Five Countries Called Greece

  1. Thank you very much for this insightful post Dr. Wallace.
    I never realised that Greece could be divided into these parts.
    Are the majority of manuscripts that you “discover” in Greece and the surrounding areas of a reasonably late date, due to the climate where Greece is situated?
    Do you also visit Egypt and places where very ancient manuscripts may be better preserved?

    Favour and Peace

  2. Greece has a lot of manuscripts, to be sure. But the climate is not a factor for modern libraries. Although the great majority of manuscripts were produced in the second millennium AD, Greece still has a number of earlier MSS. And yes, we also visit Egypt and many, many other countries. The manuscripts, in fact, are in 253 different sites throughout the world.

  3. Well, you are not Macedonian. I’m interested in Roman history or early Byzantine history, when coming across some blogs by Greeks orMacedonians sometimes they go teeth and nail since most Greeks did not approve of the Country of Macedonia being called that for some historical reasons. This is my experiences is that Eastern Europe tends to be more nationalistic than Western Europe currently hence the name calling between Greeks and Macedonians.

  4. In April 2009, I began a six-week expedition in Greece with CSNTM. This was my second, and there is nothing like them. We wake up on foreign soil and work with documents that almost appear other-worldly, written in an ancient time, for a different people, in a place and culture quite removed from our own. Most living or deceased have never even seen these manuscripts much less labored over them like we have. What would appear to a distant onlooker as some sort of self-inflicted tedium is actually quite the opposite. The task is exhilarating: digitizing Christianity’s oldest, treasured relics. You will, however, never hear the word “trapezoidal” more often than what you will from the computer operator as he instructs the one maneuvering the manuscripts so that they get the shot just right. Nothing short of perfect is permissable. You really cannot understate the painstaking care that CSNTM demonstrates while photographing these ancient New Testament manuscripts until you actually witness it in person. Working with these texts is always the highlight of every trip.

    Yet, great memories, experiences, and explorations are found in between the work; memories that do not leave you. Especially if you have even an inkling of fascination with history, these expeditions never disappoint. With regard to antiquity and fun in Greece, well, it will blow your mind. You almost have to have blinders on to miss the history that is literally at every turn in Greece. For instance, we stayed in Pikermi and commuted to Athens each day. The very first right you take on the commute is onto Marathonos Avenue where the statue of the “marathon man” is still running in suspended animation in all his nude glory. I think of the time that Eric and I almost passed up an amphitheater on our way to Cape Sounion. Although no tourist trap, it is actually the Theater of Thorikos dating around 3,000 years in age and still very much in tact! Upon arriving at the Temple of Poseidon, I jumped off a cliff into the Aegean Sea. Not to suffer the fate of King Aegeus by which that sea got its name, but to jump into the very sea that the temple of the god of the sea overlooks! I remember the time Andy and I were in Patras peering at the mountains across the Patriakos Kolpos and had decided it would be a good idea to climb one of them. Once we almost reached the summit and it grew dark, we regretted our good idea. It took us two hours in daylight scaling massive rocks and wading through sharp, bristly bushes on the way up. The descent was not as “easy.” Needless to say, there was a fair amount of blood, sweat, and fear as we could not see where to step next. We even ran into a couple herds of goats and bulls that put a healthy amount of trepidation in our souls. Thankfully, they must have felt pity and left us alone. I especially have fond memories of just sitting outside with you, whether we were discussing life or trying to make out a potential palimpsest on the computer. I could go on and on.

    Dan, you’re absolutely right about the hospitality of Greece. Toward the end of my first day there, I ran inside a café adjacent to the Acropolis to get coffee. I had not known that it had been closed for an hour. Still, one of the workers insisted that I sit and he whipped up some coffee for me. He also refused to take any payment for it because he was simply showing kindness. I had to hide it under the cup and walk quickly out the door just to pay the guy! That was just the beginning of the trip. I love Greece.

  5. I fit the exact stereotype you describe. I flew into Athens yesterday, I saw the Akropolis this morning and tomorrow I fly to Santorini to stay for a few days before leaving Greece for Turkey.

    I’m not proud of it. I would love to see some more ancient (preferably Christian) sites but time does not permit. I was going to go to the Dafni monastery later this afternoon but it isn’t open today! At least in Turkey I will be able to visit Efes.

  6. Any chance of ever visiting Hydra on one of the trips? There might be a chance that there is an interesting Gospels-cover there.

    Yours in Christ,
    James Snapp, Jr.

  7. So, Dan, are you able to communicate with these Greek people in the hinterlands in modern Greek? Have you become fluent in modern Greek? I cannot imagine that they all speak English. God bless you all richly. It is a privilege to be a “friend” of CSNTM.

    • I wish! I can barely get by in modern Greek, but I’m working on it. Now, if I can write out my comments and they write back, I’m OK. We try to bring a fluent speaker with us on these expeditions.

      • Dr Wallace is there such a big difference between modern greek and biblical greek? I didn’t realize that.

  8. Modern Greek is quite similar to ancient, although it has simplified the language in numerous ways. There is no dative case, no future tense, no subjunctive or optative mood, no infinitive, etc.

  9. I understand also, Dan, that modern Greek pronounces the Greek words significantly differently from the way most of us have learned biblical Greek (i.e., the Erasmian pronunciation). I have been told that if you try to speak Greek according to the Erasmian system, the native Greek speakers have puzzled looks on their faces. But languages are constantly changing, right? If someone spoke to us in King James English (only 400 years back, not 2,000 years), we might try to suppress a laugh. Godspeed to your work, Dan.

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