🔼The name Paphos: Summary
- From the name Aphrodite, or the noun αφρος (aphros), foam.
🔼The name Paphos in the Bible
The name Paphos occurs twice in the Bible, but it's not immediately clear which town it denotes. What is sure is that the name Paphos belonged to two semi-capitals of the island of Cyprus, both situated on the west end of the island.
Palaepaphos or Old (original) Paphos was located on a hill, roughly three kilometers from the shore. It was founded in the third millennium BC, and had been prosperous from 1100 BC (the time of Samuel in Israel) and remained so until 500 BC (the time of the Babylonian exile). One of its main attractions to tourists from all over the known world was a huge temple of Aphrodite (the Greek equivalent of the Roman Venus, which originated as the Semitic Ashtoreth) and the doubtlessly much confirmed understanding that this goddess was born there.
Paphos Nea or New Paphos was founded around 300 BC, was situated on the shore, about ten kilometers north of the old town, and had rapidly become the island's main port. In classical literature, the name Paphos commonly refers to the old town, yet the Roman government of the island was situated in the new town. This makes it almost certain that the Paphos mentioned in Acts is the new town ostensibly referred to by the old name, and this may point towards the possibility that the story goes beyond anecdote.
Saul (who becomes known as Paul from Paphos onward), Barnabas and John Mark landed on Cyprus at Salamis on the east coast and "went through the whole island as far as Paphos," where they met a Jewish magician named Bar-Jesus, or Elymas (Acts 13:6). He was with the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus, who in turn had summoned Paul and Barnabas in order to learn more about the Word of God. The apostles explained the gospel to Sergius Paulus but for unclear reasons Elymas tried to sabotage them. Paul, in the Holy Spirit, gazed at him and called him a son of the devil and Elymas turned blind for an undisclosed length of time.
Subsequently, the proconsul was amazed at the teaching of the Lord (rather than Elymas' misfortune) and believed. Paul and company departed from Paphos (Acts 13:13) and arrived at Perga in Pamphylia, where John Mark famously abandoned them.
🔼Etymology of the name Paphos
The name Paphos probably comes from the word αφρος (aphros), meaning foam:
The noun αφρος (aphros) means foam: the structure that forms when liquid and air violently mix. It's commonly found on sea waves but also on the mouths of raging beasts or humans, and on wine and blood. The associated verb αφριζω (aphrizo) means to foam or to get very exited or spirited.
🔼The daimon of Aphrodite
It's folly and rather unproductive to maintain that Aphrodite was simply a figment of people's imagination and had no bearing on observable reality. Instead, classical deities are probably best understood to represent the modus operandi or primary attitude in life of people. Aphrodite would be appreciated by folks who expected that the best way to live was to focus on beautiful and lovely things (which by itself is not unbiblical, see Philippians 4:8, and only becomes corrupt when these things are elevated to divine status).
Aphrodite's primary origin-myth had to do with her rising from the foamy sea (made foamy by the deposition of Uranus' immortal yet severed genitals), and floating ashore on a scallop shell just off the coast of their capital Paphos (hence the name). Her fierce beauty made her desired by all, and the fire of Aphrodite's passion frequently burned holes in her marital discipline and fidelity (her husband was Hephaestus, the creator of Pandora — see our riveting article on Homer, and also note that Aphrodite's gift to Paris of Helen of Troy caused the Trojan War; legends had it that much of Cyprus, including Paphos, were built in the aftermath of the Trojan War).
Further myths tell of a Cypriot sculptor named Pygmalion, who created an ivory statue depicting a lady. The woman was so beautiful that one day, praying at Aphrodite's altar, Pygmalion wished for a bride as beautiful as his carved image. Aphrodite "knew what the prayer meant" and granted him his wish. When he returned home, he kissed the ivory, and lo!, her lips were warm and breasts were soft and she was alive! Pygmalion happily married his statue (who became known as Galatae; see our article on Galatia), who soon gave birth to a son they named Paphos, who in turn gave his name to the island (Ovid, Meta X.243-297).
It takes no literary mastermind to see the parallels with Ovid's myth and the story of the demoniac boy, flopping around in water and fire, whilst foaming and "gnashing his teeth" (which means always studying but never understanding), as the second is obviously the reverse of the first (Mark 9:29). Both that story and the account of Elymas the magician are commentaries on the political and religious history of Cyprus. Note that Cyprus was colonized by people from the Levant perhaps as far back as 10,000 BC.
The name Paphos means Foam and commemorates the emergence of Aphrodite from marine foam.