The Province of Asia Minor

The remains of the towns and villages of Galilee give evidence to the simple lifestyle of the Jewish people of the first century. Few were wealthy but most were hardworking people living comfortable lives as extended families. Their homes were plain and well built with rough cobblestone floors. The only public buildings were synagogues used as community centers, schools, as well as places for worship. Streets were normally unpaved and water was carried from springs or wells nearby. There were no sewers. Simple people, committed to God, living simple but mostly happy lives…that was Galilee.

The ruins of the cities of the Roman province of Asia Minor from the same period are stunning in contrast. The people of these communities, largely Gentile, were surrounded by great wealth and amazing architecture. Many were wealthy living in villas, impressive family estates. Their homes were elaborate, often decorated with mosaic floors, frescoed walls, and marble columns around peristyle courtyards. There were many large public buildings: theaters, temples, libraries and gymnasia, baths and brothels. Streets were paved and lined with extensive shopping areas. Public fountains were everywhere, bringing fresh water to every part of the community. Many homes had running water and every city had a covered sewer system. Wealthy pagan people who were very religious living in luxury and decadence…that was Asia Minor.

It is most amazing that a few people from among the simple Galileans traveled to Asia Minor and by their words and the witness of their lives produced an almost total change in the beliefs and lifestyle of wealthy pagans. Scholars believe there were 80,000 or more followers of Jesus by the year 100 and by the year 200 the province of Asia Minor was largely Christian. How was this possible? The most pagan province of the Roman world. Ordinary Galileans as the messengers. An almost complete change of culture. Clearly the power of God was at work.

What can we learn from these amazing events? How can today’s followers of Jesus make similar impact of our culture…a culture often remarkably similar to that of Asia Minor? The answer lies in part in Scripture, in part in the world of Galilee and not the least in the world of Asia Minor. The greater the knowledge of the world of Asia Minor, the clearer is God’s call to live radically Christian lives in our own world. Living confidently for God in the middle of paganism is an opportunity for the awesome power of God to impact our own world.

Geography of Asia Minor

Asia Minor (also known as Anatolia) is a peninsula which extends from the continent of Asia west toward Europe. Today it is known as the country of Turkey. It is bounded by the Mediterranean on the West and the south and by the Black Sea on the North. In the east high mountains separate Asia Minor from Asia itself. The center of this peninsula is a large rolling plateau which receives little annual rainfall and was lightly populated by widely scattered nomadic peoples and several major cities. It was isolated from the West coast by large mountain ranges broken occasionally by passes cut by rivers which allowed access to the coast.

The western part of Asia Minor was quite different. The mountains are at right angles to the sea allowing for penetration into the interior of the area. Rainfall is abundant as the clouds could penetrate inland. The wide valleys between the mountains contain major rivers fed by the rains and winter snow. These river valleys (Caicus, Cayster, Meander for example) provided access for the roads from the coast to the interior and beyond to Asia itself. The soil in the west is very fertile and was famous in the ancient time for its vineyards and fruit trees as well as other agricultural produce. The coast contains many natural inlets providing excellent locations for harbors. This area was heavily populated though out antiquity and there were many major cities near the harbors or the mountain passes through which the roads passes. It was this western part of Asia Minor that was the Roman province named Asia and provided the fertile soil for the growth of early Christianity.

The greatest significance of the province of Asia Minor is its location where East meets West, where Asia meets Europe. Major roads passed through the region from the harbors on the Mediterranean (like Ephesus and Miletus) to the great cities of the East (like Babylon) and the land route by way of Israel to Egypt. Major civilization centers developed along these roads by the harbors (Ephesus), along the roads (Pergamum), or where roads went through narrow passes from the interior of Asia minor into the province of Asia in the west (Laodecia). Commerce moved continually over the mountains and through the valleys to the huge seaports. With the caravans went the new faith. The center of the Roman empire in the first century was in the west but the demand for products from the east as well as the rich fertile farms of Asia made this region one of the key provinces of the entire empire as well as the richest. Initially the capital of Asia Minor was Pergamum but shortly before the time of Jesus the Romans relocated the capital to Ephesus the greatest city in the province.

The geography of Asia Minor helps to understand the rapid spread of the faith in this area. While it is important to recognize that it was the power of the Spirit of God that changed lives and eventually pagan culture, the early believers went to the crossroads of their world rather than seclude themselves in safe sheltered places. This carried great risk of course, both to their own lives and to their faith itself as they lived for Jesus in such a powerful pagan province. But it was here that culture was shaped. Here huge numbers of people lived or traveled. A witness for Jesus here was truly evident to the world. “Go into all the world” Jesus said to the disciples (Mark 16:15). They did in significant numbers. Asia Minor as the crossroads of the Roman world became the fertile soil in which the Church prospered in spite of the dangers. Paul preached here (Acts 18-20), John was apostle to this area writing Revelation to its churches (Rev. 1:4), and Peter wrote to the believers here as well (1 Peter 1:1). Paul taught for two years in one location (Ephesus) and “…all the Greeks and Jews who lived in the province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.” (Acts 19:10). This amazing accomplishment was possible in large part because Asia Minor was the crossroads of the Roman world. Somehow the early believers knew its strategic location was ideal for them to fulfill their Messiah’s mandate. Today’s followers of the Messiah would do well to learn from them the importance of living our faith on the crossroads of our world.

The History of Asia Minor

The history of the peninsula of Asia Minor is ancient and rich. It was the home to people who contributed to the foundations of human civilization and the Judeo Christian culture. The mountains of Ararat in Eastern Asia Minor were the resting place of Noah’s ark (Gen. 8:4). His sons who survived the flood settled in the area and apparently became the originators of many of the local people whose tribal names echo the names of Noah’s sons and grandsons. The Assyrians from Assur (Gen. 10:22), the Lydians from Lud (Gen. 10:22), and the Hittites from Canaan (Gen. 10:15) are believed to come from Noah. Each of these would play a part in the world of the Old Testament. The Assyrians would conquer Israel (2 Kings 17) and disperse them, the Lydians were the people among whom some of the exiles were sent (Obad. 20-21) and Esau married Hittite women (Gen. 26:34), Abraham bought a tomb from a Hittite (Gen. 49:29-30), Bathsheba?s husband Uriah was a Hittite (2 Sam. 11). Asia Minor itself was the location of the Hittite empire in the second millennium BC.

It is interesting to note in light of Noah’s bad experience with wine (Gen. 9:20-25) that the mythology of the people of Asia minor believe that wine originated in their region due to the blessing of the local gods of fertility. Later their beliefs were combined with the Greek Dionysus, the Greek god of wine. In fact their mythology records Dionysus’ excursion on a boat loaded with animals seems a faint memory of the Biblical story.

Beginning around 1200 BC the Aegean coastal area was colonized by Greek people and the Hittite empire ended though the people known as the Lydians in the interior of the peninsula continued their civilization These new immigrants settled the coast close to the river mouths. They established harbors and farms further inland. These small villages grew to larger independent city-states governed by kings though they also had ruling assemblies and councils in the fashion of the Greeks. Ephesus, Sardis, and Pergamum apparently had their origin in the settlement. They developed a rich blend of culture combining the Greek philosophy, architecture and religion with the oriental customs of the local population. Ruins of theaters, temples, libraries, fountains, gymnasia, council chambers, and markets are a silent witness to the wealth of the people of this area.

While the interior of Asia Minor was home of the Lydian people, they too had contacts with the people of the coast in the same way. This blending produced a distinct culture sometimes called “East Greek” which would have great impact of the rest of the world. The most negative result were the religions which resulted from the combination of the Eastern gods and goddesses with their Greek counterparts. While all ancient religions were pagan, the Greek deities had certain moral standards which shaped culture according to certain laws that have their origin in God’s law. But the combination of Greek with Asian beliefs produced deities which were highly immoral and were worshipped with the most perverted, degraded practices. There was no connection between religion and morality; only between religion and success. Though written to Rome, Paul’s letter to the Romans seems to be addressing the religions which developed in Asia Minor (Rom. 1:18-32). In addition, the people of Asia Minor viewed their rulers as divine manifestations. This would bear bloody fruit in the future.

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