• Paul and Places Comments Off on THE APOSTLE PAUL AND DR. LUKE ON THE ISLAND OF COS: Sin, Sickness, and Death


    The island of Cos played an important role in the history of medicine. In fact, one of the ancient medical discoveries made on this island is used on a regular basis today. Apart from the Band-aid, I’ll bet this “miracle drug” is in most, if not all, of our medicine cabinets at home. Some may carry a bottle of it in their purse, or have it in their cars’ glove compartment. This item is used for a host of things that ails us; including headaches, back pain, fevers, and to reduce the risk of heart attacks or strokes.

    A physician on the island of Cos noticed that the bark from the white willow tree relieved the aches, pain, and fever of his patients. It wasn’t until the 1820’s that the substance that relieved the pain was identified as salicin and was used to create salicylic acid. In 1897, Felix Hoffman, a chemist for the Bayer Pharmaceutical company in Germany developed acetylsalicyhe acid to help relieve the pain of his father’s arthritis. Today, that discovery is known as aspirin! It is only within the last 200 years or so that we have rediscovered what Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine (460-375 BC), discovered on this island – an ancient form of aspirin. 

    We will come back to Hippocrates later, but first, let’s introduce the island.

    Description of the Island

    The island of Cos, approximately 290 square kilometers (180 square miles), lies in the center of the Dodecanese, a chain of islands along the southwest coast of modern-day Turkey. On a map, the shape of the island looks like a dolphin or a whale swimming. It is the third largest island in this chain and is approximately 100 kilometers northwest of Rhodes and 250 kilometers east-southeast of Athens, or 192 nautical miles from Piraeus, the seaport of Athens.

    Pliny reports that the island is 100 Roman miles in circumference (Natural History 5.134; LCL 2:321). Strabo says the circumference was 550 stadia (Geography 14.2.19; LCL 6:287), which is about 90 miles and fairly close to reality.

    A mountainous region begins south of the city of Cos and runs along the southern coast of the island. This region includes Dikaio Christo, the highest peak at 846 meters above sea level.

    Today, the islanders make their living from agriculture, fishing, and tourism. The farmers raise vegetables, grapes, grain, olives, and citrus fruit. Beekeeping is a by-product of their agricultural work. They also raise livestock. In antiquity, the island of Cos was noted for its fruits and especially for its grapes (Pliny, Natural History 15:18; LCL 4:335; 17:30; LCL 5:93).

    The Greek historian and geographer, Strabo (64/63 BC to AD 21), gave a brief description of the island of Cos in Geography (14:2:19; LCL 6:287-289). Of the city of Cos he says, “… the city is not large, but it is the most beautifully settled of all, and is most pleasing to behold as one sails from the high seas to the shore.”

    For a brief overview of the history of the island of Cos, see Picozzi 1976: 465-467. For an in-dept analysis, see Sherwin-White 1978.

    Was there a Jewish Presence on the Island of Cos?

    The ancient sources state that there were Jewish connections with the island, but there are no sources that indicate there was a thriving Jewish community living on the island in antiquity.

    During the rule of Judah the Maccabee, some Jewish envoys received a safe-conduct letter from the consul C. Fannius Strabo to the magistrates of Cos for their trip from Rome to Jerusalem in 161 BC (Jewish Antiquities 14: 233; LCL 7: 573).

    A letter on behalf of the high priest, Simon (ruled 140-134 BC) was written by the consul in Rome, L. Caecilius Metellus (1 Macc. 15:23), and sent to a number of cities, including Cos.

    Josephus, the First Century AD Jewish historian, recounts an event that took place in 102 BC. In that year, Cleopatra III of Egypt “sent the greater part of her wealth and her grandsons and her testament to Cos for safe keeping [in the sanctuary of Asclepius]” (Jewish Antiquities 13: 349; LCL 7: 401). He goes on to quote Strabo of Cappadocia who relates what happened next. “’Mithridates sent to Cos and took the money which Queen Cleopatra had deposited there, and eight hundred talents of the Jews.’ Now there is no public money among us except that which is God’s and it is evident that this money was transferred to Cos by the Jews of Asia because of their fear of Mithridates” (Jewish Antiquities 14: 112-113; LCL 7: 505-507). The transfer of the “talents of the Jews” occurred in 88 BC. This money probably refers to gifts given to the Temple in Jerusalem or the yearly half-shekel Temple tax. Some have concluded that this number was too high for the annual Temple tax so suggested that this might be the private fortunes of the Jewish people living in Asia Minor.

    A Greek inscription found in the excavations of Cos refers to a Jewess or a “God-fearer” (Safrai and Stern 1974: 154). Whether she was part of a Jewish community on Cos is a matter of speculation. We have no absolute information in this regard.

    Josephus also tells us that Herod the Great (73-4 BC), the “king of the Jews,” “endowed (Cos) with revenues to maintain the annual office of gymnasiarch [the keeper of the gymnasium who was responsible for the conduct of the festal games and for the maintenance and payment of trainers and training-masters] to perpetuity, to ensure that this honourable post should never lapse” (Jewish Wars 1:423; LCL 2: 201). Herod the Great had sailed past Cos in the spring of 14 BC on his way to join Marcus Agrippa, Augustus’ chief lieutenant in the Black Sea region, on his expedition to Bosporus (Jewish Antiquities 16:17; LCL 8: 215).

    Another Greek inscription discovered on Cos mentioned Herod Antipas, the ruler of Galilee and Perea during the time of the Lord Jesus. He apparently followed in his father’s footsteps concerning diplomacy with the Greek world (Safrai and Stern 1974: 285).

    Artists from the Island of Cos

    One of the famous artists from Cos was Praxiteles whose workshop flourished between 364-361 BC. He worked in bronze, but his most famous works were in marble. On one occasion, he made two statues of Venus (Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty), one was draped with cloth and the other was not. The cultured and refined people of Cos were offended by the non-draped one, so they purchased the statue of her draped. The perverts from Cnidus loved the other statue of Venus so they purchased it and built a temple for her in their city. It became a major tourist attraction with people from all over the Aegean Sea sailing to see her in her birthday suit and all her naked glory! (Pliny, Natural History 36: 20-21; LCL 10: 15-17). The Apostle Paul sails by this city on at least three occasions, but there is no record of him, or the ship he was on, stopping there (cf. Acts 27:7).

    The Silk Trade on Cos

    The Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC), writing in his History of Animals, describes a caterpillar that goes through each stage of its metamorphoses in six months and leaves behind a cocoon. He records: “Some of the women actually unwind the cocoons from these creatures, by reeling the thread off, and then weave a fabric from it; the first to do this weaving is said to have been a woman of Cos named of Pamphila, daughter of Plateus” (5:19; LCL 10: 177). Silk was introduced to the Greek world by the Coans sometime before Aristotle. In the 1st century AD, a purple silk was produced that was highly prized and in demand in Rome (Juvenal, Satire 8.101; LCL 167). For a discussion of the silk trade, see Richter 1929:27-33; Forbes 1930:22-26; Sherwin-White 1978:242, 378-383.

    Some Coins from the Island of Cos

    In 1979 a coin was discovered in a burial cave in Jerusalem. This coin was struck with a crab on it that is typical of the coins from the island of Cos that were minted down to the second century BC. Dr. Rachel Barkay, the former curator of the numismatic collection at the Bank of Israel, explained the importance of this coin: “The coin of Cos, found in the excavations of the ‘Shoulder of Hinnom’ in Jerusalem, is thus one of the earliest coins found in Israel and among the earliest coins minted. Judging by its context, we would safely date it somewhere between 550-500 BC” (1984-1985: 5).

    The island of Cos minted coins in the first century AD. Most of the coins circulating on Cos when Dr. Luke and the Apostle Paul visited had the image of the bearded god Asclepius or a coiled snake, a symbol of the healing god, on the reverse side of the coin (Burnett, Amandry, and Ripolles 1992: 452-453; Plate 118; Kromann 1988). Incidentally, the medical symbol, the cross with a serpent around it, comes from the Asclepius cult, not Moses’ lifting up the serpent in the wilderness! (cf. John 3:14; Num. 21:7-9).

    Hippocrates and the Asklepieion on Cos

    The Asklepieion was the famous healing complex with its temples dedicated to Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. It was located in the suburb of the city of Cos. This center of healing was made famous by Hippocrates (460-377 BC), the father of medicine, who was born on the island (Pliny, Natural History 29.2; LCL 8:185).

    When Hippocrates lived on the island there was only an altar dedicated to the healing god Asclepius. The construction of the Asklepieion began after the death of Hippocrates in the mid-4th century BC and was built in his honor.

    Strabo describes this shrine: “In the suburbs [of the city of Cos] is the Asclepieium, a temple exceedingly famous and full of numerous votive offerings, among which is the Antigonus of Apelles. And Aphrodite Anadyomene [emerging from the sea] used to be there [this, too, was a painting by Apelles], but it is now dedicated to the deified Caesar in Rome, Augustus thus having dedicated to his father the female founder of the family. It is said that the Coans got a remission of one hundred talents of the appointed tribute in return for the painting. And it is said that the dietetics practiced by Hippocrates were derived mostly from the cures recorded on the votive tablets there. He, then, is one of the famous men from Cos; and so is Simus the physician” (Geography 14.2.19; LCL 6: 287-289, brackets are footnotes in the Loeb edition).

    Pliny the Elder mentions an inscription that was recorded on the temple to Asclepius on Cos. It gave the preparation for making a remedy for counteracting the poison of venomous animals. He adds a footnote, that “King Antiochus the Great is said to have used this preparation as an antidote for the poison of all venomous creatures except the asp” (Natural History 20. 264; LCL 6: 157).

    There are some notable physicians that came out of the Hippocratic Medical School on the island of Cos. For example, the Greek historian Arrian (AD 95-175) reports that after Alexander the Great was severely wounded in a battle with Indians and he tittered on the brink of death, Critodemus, a physician from Cos, successfully removed the arrow and saved his life (Anabasis of Alexander 4. 11. 1; LCL 2:131).

    Another physician, Gaius Stertinius Xenophon (ca. 10 BC-AD 54), was the personal physician to Emperor Claudius who reigned AD 41-54. Tacitus reports that Dr. Xenophon was one of the suspected culprits in the poisoning of Claudius when he ate mushrooms, the “food of the gods.” When the poison did not take effect right away; Agrippina, the wife of Claudius and mother of Nero, got Dr. Xenophon to intervene. According to Tacitus, “He, it is believed, under cover of assisting the emperor’s struggles to vomit, plunged a feather, dipped in a quick poison, down his throat: for he was well aware that crimes of the first magnitude are begun with peril and consummated with profit” (Annals 12.67; LCL 4:415). Indeed, it was a profitable act. According to Pliny the Elder, Dr. Xenophon and his brother, also a physician, left 30 million sesterces to their heirs (Natural History 29.7-8; LCL 8:187).

    There is a bit of irony in the actions of Dr. Xenophon because the Hippocratic Oath says: “I will use treatment to help the sick according to my ability and judgment, but never with a view to injury and wrongdoing. Neither will I administer a poison to anybody when asked to do so, nor will I suggest such a course. … Into whatsoever houses I enter, I will enter to help the sick, and I will abstain from all intentional wrong doing and harm, especially from abusing the bodies of man or woman, bond or free” (Hippocrate’s Oath, LCL 1:299-301; Kaipokas 1991: 13)!

    There is even more irony here. Emperor Claudius, in AD 53, exempted the inhabitants of the island of Cos from paying taxes because of their contribution to the medical field and the prayers of Dr. Xenophon (Tacitus, Annals 12.61; LCL 4:405).

    A biography of Hippocrates was written by Soranus, a Greek physician from Ephesus, who was trained in the medical school at Alexandria, but practiced medicine in Rome during the reigns of emperors Trajan and Hadrian (AD 98-138). Unfortunately, there are no known extant copies of this biography today.

    The Visit by the Apostle Paul and His Fellow Travelers

    At the end of his third missionary journey in AD 57, the Apostle Paul and his traveling companions bypassed Ephesus in order to get back to Jerusalem for Shavuot (Pentecost). He stopped in Miletus, most likely for a few days, in order to meet with the Ephesian elders and exhort and encourage them in the work of the Lord, and to warn them of false teachers in the church (Acts 20:19-38).

    After Paul’s tearful farewell to the elders, Dr. Luke picks up the account of their travels saying, “… when we departed from them we set sail, running a straight course we came to Cos, the following day to Rhodes …” (Acts 21:1). With a fair wind, the ship could cover the forty nautical miles due south in about six hours. If they left Miletus in the early morning, the ship would arrive at Cos by early afternoon and the Apostle Paul and his fellow travelers would have the rest of the day to engage in sight-seeing and evangelistic activities. They would have spent the night on Cos while the ship was off loaded and resupplied before continuing on their journey to Rhodes the next morning.

    As they approached the harbor of Cos, the sailors and passengers, would have noticed the famous Asklepieion on the northwest slopes of the island, behind the city. They would have observed three terraces in this complex, each with temples and buildings on them. Perhaps Dr. Luke had an interest in visiting the Asklepieion for a closer view of the buildings, statues, and inscriptions. More than likely, some people on the ship were visiting Cos in hopes of getting healed because of the reputation of this shrine.

    A guide book for Cos informs us that “the apostle Paul visited the island on one of his journeys, sharing and teaching his religion of love under the Hippocrates plane tree.” According to tradition, this plane tree [known to Americans as a sycamore tree, Platanus occidentalis], situated a few minutes walk from the harbor area, was planted by Hippocrates and was the place where he taught his students (Alexandri 1981: 14, 58-59). Whether this tradition of Hippocrates planting the tree is true or not, and whether Paul preached under this tree, I do not know. There is no way to verify either of these claims. The tree, however, is claimed to be the oldest tree in Europe today.

    How would the Apostle Paul have approached the people on Cos with the gospel or what would he have preached on the island? We could only conjecture. When Dr. Luke wrote the book of Acts he did not record all the events in Paul’s life because that was not his purpose. When he composed the book, under the inspiration of the Spirit of God, he selected those events that fit his overall theme, purpose and structure of the book. A detailed account of Paul’s visit to Cos was not included in Luke’s selection (Gooding 1995: 383-390). In fact, all he says about the visit to Cos is one line in one verse.

    Permit me to use my sanctified imagination for a few minutes as to what the Apostle Paul and his traveling companions might have done on the island. I can imagine Paul disembarking from the ship and proclaiming the gospel of God’s grace to the people of the island. His first objective, as was his custom, might have been to make contact with the Jewish community on the island, if there was one on the island. In fact, only a few months before, he penned his missionary strategy in a letter to the church in Rome. He wrote, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” (Rom. 1:16). If there was a synagogue he would have proclaimed the Lord Jesus as the Messiah of Israel and the fulfillment of the Messianic passages in the Hebrew Scriptures.

    Or, perhaps at the urging of Dr. Luke, they walked out to the Asklepieion for a sight-seeing tour. As they approached the shrine, the entrance to the complex was on the northeast side of the complex through a propylon (gate) that opened up into a large open courtyard with a horseshoe shaped stoa around it built during the Hellenistic period. They would not have seen the Roman baths to their left (east) because that was built during the 3rd century AD. As they approached the stairs leading to the second level they would have observed to the left of the stairs, springs in the retaining wall. To the right was a small, recently built temple that was built by the wealthy doctor and personal physician to the emperors, Gaius Xenophon. They would have observed a statue on a base with an inscription, probably dedicated to Emperor Nero.

    As they ascended the stairs to the second terrace, a large altar, built in the middle of the 4th century BC, came into view. Their tour-guide would have informed them that it was probably built by the sons of the famous artist Praxiteles. To the right of the altar was an Ionic temple to Asclepius dating to the 3rd century BC. To the left of the temple (south) was the priest’s residence, called an “Abaton,” where the sick waited for the priest to diagnose their sickness and proscribe a cure. The diagnosis was based on the appearance of Asclepius in a dream of the sick person. Behind the Abaton, in the southwest corner, was the entrance to the sacred spring. To the left of the altar (east) was a temple in the Corinthian order. This would not have been visible to Paul and Luke because that was not built until the 2nd century AD.

    As they climbed to the third terrace, the prominent Doric temple came into view. This structure was dedicated to Asclepius in the 2nd century BC and surrounded by a stoa. Many years later, this temple was turned into a church called the Panayia Tarsou.

    Or, as tradition states, the Apostle Paul might have preached under the plane tree of Hippocrates in the city of Cos. If so, what might have been the text he used, or the Bible story he would tell? The Gospel of John would not be written for another 35 years or so, but Paul might have been aware of the event described in John chapter five. Paul grew up and was educated in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3). He knew the city well. He had made several trips to the Holy City after his conversion and conferred with some of the original Twelve Apostles, including the Apostle John (Gal. 2:9). Most likely, someone, possibly the Apostle John, recounted the event of the man with the infirmity 38 years who laid in the “Beth Hesed” (the “house of mercy”) in Jerusalem (Franz 1989: 24-28; 2017: 125-133).

    It is my understanding that the “House of Mercy” was a healing shrine dedicated to the Semitic healing deity, Eshmun, who was known in the Greek world as Asclepius. What an opportunity the apostle had to proclaim the Lord Jesus as the true Great Physician. Everybody in his audience knew of the Asklepieion on the island. Perhaps some had been there for healing; maybe others had just disembarked from the ship in order to visit the famous healing shrine. Just as John would use this miracle, or sign, to present the truth “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and believing you might have life through His name” (20:31), so likewise Paul. He would proclaim the Lord Jesus as the Great Physician who not only heals the body, but also makes the soul whole and regenerates the spirit. Something Asclepius could not do!

    What was going through Dr. Luke’s mind as the ship approached Cos? He could not help but see the Asklepieion situated on the slopes behind the city. He knew this was the home of Hippocrates, the father of medicine, and the location of the famous medical center. I believe that Dr. Luke approached the island with mixed emotions. On the one hand, he was indebted to Hippocrates for much of what he knew about medicine. Yet on the other hand, he could not accept Asclepius as a healing deity. In fact, in his research for his gospel, Luke records many of the healing miracles of Jesus (Hobart 1882). This caused Luke to worship the Lord Jesus Christ as the Great Physician. Dr. Luke was thankful that Hippocrates broke the bondage of superstition among the Greeks of his day. They believed that a person was sick because the Greek gods and goddesses were angry with them. People would then offer sacrifices in hope of appeasing the offended god or goddess. Hippocrates, on the other hand, based on his careful observations of his patients, said: “No, a person is sick because of the way they live. In order to get well, they must change their lifestyle.” He understood we live in a “cause and effect” world. The Apostle Paul would go one step further and say sin was the root cause of sickness and ultimately death.

    Reflections on the Apostle Paul’s Visit to Cos

    The Apostle Paul would have “seized the moment” to proclaim the gospel as he always did. He saw how blinded the people were to a god who was not a god at all and proclaimed to them the Lord Jesus as the Great Physician and the only One who could truly heal a person (cf. 1 Cor. 8:4-6). With the book of Romans fresh in his mind, (he had written it only a few months before), Paul would have gone to the “root of the matter” and declared that sickness and disease was the result of sin. Ultimately, death was the result of sin (Rom. 6:23a; James 1:15). There were only a few exceptions to this universal law. The first was the Patriarch Job. God in His sovereignty allowed Satan to afflict Job with boils without him knowing about it (Job 2: 1-8). Also, the Lord Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth so that the works of God might be revealed in him (John 9:1-3). The third example was Paul himself. The Lord gave him an unnamed infirmity in order to keep him humble about all the revelations that he received from the Lord (2 Cor. 12: 5-10).

    The problem of sin, however, affected everyone, Jew and Gentile alike. Paul wrote in Romans, “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (3:23). The only solution to this problem is putting ones faith in the Lord Jesus, and Him alone, as the One who died on Calvary’s cross to pay for all sin and rose again from the dead three days later (Rom. 6:23b). If anyone would puts his  trust, or believe, in Him he can have forgiveness of his sins, a home in heaven, be justified and declared righteous by a holy God and clothed with His righteousness and be able to enter God’s presence forever (Romans 4 and 5). Have you trusted the Lord Jesus as your Savior?

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