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Paul McKechnie explores how Christianity grew and expanded in Roman Asia over the first three centuries of the religion. Focusing on key individuals, such as Aberkios (Avircius Marcellus) of Hierapolis, he assesses the pivotal role played by Early Christian preachers who, in imitation of Paul of Tarsus, attracted converts through charismatic preaching. By the early fourth century, they had brought many cities and rural communities to a tipping point at which they were ready to move under a 'Christian canopy' and push polytheistic Greco-Roman religion to the margins. This volume brings new clarity of our understanding of how the Christian church grew and thrived in Asia Minor, simultaneously changing Roman society and being changed by it. Combining patristic evidence with the archaeological and epigraphic record, McKechnie's study creates a strong factual and chronological framework to the study of Christianization, while bringing Church History and Roman history more closely together.
The gravestone of Aberkios, erected at Koçhisar in the 190s, is ‘the queen of Christian inscriptions’. Its text is echoed on the gravestone of Alexander, son of Antonios, dated to 216, from Karadirek. The Aberkios stone is displayed in the Museo Pio Cristiano in the Vatican. The text is full of biblical allusion from the beginning, and it draws on the Sibylline Oracles to liken Rome to Babylon, ‘for golden throne and golden sandal famed’. Other Christian inscriptions of early (i.e. second-century) date are comparable. Stephen Mitchell has recently argued for an early date for a number of Christian inscriptions from the Çarşamba Valley, south of Iconium. Gravestones of officials from the imperial palace in Rome form an intriguing parallel, because in the second century Rome and Isauria/Phrygia seem to have been the only regions where it was sometimes possible to make the Christian identity of the deceased clear on a gravestone. As well as a journey to Rome, the Aberkios epitaph narrates Aberkios’ journey across Syria to Nisibis. The costs of this journey and its symbolic value are discussed: it formed part of a campaign of controversy against the Montanist church.
At Apollonia (Uluborlu) after Augustus died the Res gestae was inscribed below statues of the imperial family. Apollonios, son of Olympichos, went on a mission to Germanicus Caesar in 18<AU: Pl. confirm date is correct>. Apollonios’ grandfather had been a priest of Zeus, but Apollonios was a priest of the goddess Rome. In the third century, a cross was carved on the pediment of the gravestone of Alexandros (also known as Artemon), a member of this same family. Still prominent in civic life, the third-century descendants looked to Christianity. In churches, feelings about holding public office were mixed. Origen advised against, and the Council of Elvira ruled that duoviri should not step inside a church during their term of office. But Christian city councillors are attested, and more in Phrygia than anywhere. At Synnada, Dorymedon, a councillor, was martyred during the reign of Probus (276–282), along with Trophimos, whose ossuary is now in the Bursa Museum. Another gravestone, from outside Apollonia, commemorates Zoulakios, whose father-in-law was ‘Diogenes the Christian’. Probably this Diogenes was born before the middle of the second century, so one can argue for a connection with the Montanist missionary endeavour.
Paul’s inland travels in Galatia and Phrygia are hard to trace: the narrative in Acts, long subjected to detailed scrutiny, is incomplete at best. Complex modern arguments based on the text of Colossians have linked tensions in the church at Colossae, in the Lycus valley, to contacts with Cynic or Middle Platonist philosophers; however, Colossae was not high on the philosophical food chain. The quality of philosophical debate there was probably provincial at best. ‘Worship of angels’ was a feature of popular religiosity in Asia Minor, in multiple contexts, and it is probably right to understand the ‘Colossian philosophy’ as a concoction formed from folk belief. The church at Laodicea is addressed in Revelation and a ‘letter from Laodicea’ is mentioned in passing in Colossians: but this text may be the epistle known as Ephesians. The complex of early texts relating to the Lycus valley cities is informative about the interface of the Jewish-Phrygian and Gentile-Phrygian worlds. The Jews in Phrygia were a successful community, but it is difficult to understand the sources relating to how Jewish, Christian, and Graeco-Roman polytheist communities interacted in the Lycus valley.
The New Prophecy (= Montanism), a movement which began about 170, originated in Phrygia, east of Philadelphia. Opponents found fault with the Montanists’ style of prophesying, but what they did was similar to prophecy in other Christian traditions. Priscilla and Maximilla, two women prophets, were key figures, along with Montanus, in the first Montanist generation. The Montanists based their church at Pepuza. According to Hippolytus, they wrote ‘countless books’ as well as carrying out missionary journeys to attract disciples. Montanus’ Odes may have been the Montanist hymnbook for almost four centuries. But Montanus, Priscilla, and Maximilla made their mark in less than a decade, Maximilla dying last, in or about 179. They built on an established prophetic tradition. At Thyatira, the church became Montanist from 172 to 263; and the New Prophecy spread far beyond Asia, to Lyon, Rome, Africa. The martyrs of Lyon (177) were influenced by Montanism, and a bishop of Rome acknowledged Montanist prophecies, before retracting his favourable judgement. At Pepuza, a hypogeum found in 2001 may (Peter Lampe argues) have been the burial place of Montanus and the prophetesses.
Bishop Aberkios was remembered in Asia, and some 200 years after he died, the Life of Abercius was written. It quotes the Aberkios epitaph and draws on other sources. Aberkios appears as a popular teacher. He heals Phrygella of blindness, then discusses Christianity with her son Euxeinianos. This philosophical conversation draws on Bardaisan’s Book of the Laws of Countries. Aberkios speaks in favour of free will and argues on Platonic lines that the human being takes pleasure in doing good. As well as a wide selection of sources, the author of the Life of Abercius had a literary education and a familiarity with Origen. Aberkios travels to Rome and delivers Lucilla, daughter of the emperor, from demon-possession. The Empress Faustina agrees to fund building a bathhouse at Agros; she then provides a ship for Aberkios’ use, and he sails to Syria, journeying to Nisibis where he meets Barchasanes. On his return, he hands his church over to a new bishop and dies peacefully. The Miracle of St Michael is a text with similar concerns. The apostles Philip and John pray at Chairotopa and predict miracles which will happen there: afterwards, a spring of water breaks forth on the spot.
In the second century, Ignatius and Polycarp made an impact across Asia Minor. Ignatius, travelling under guard to Rome, wrote seven letters, six to churches and one to Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna. This may be behind Lucian’s idea of Peregrinus, the Cynic philosopher, before his death, sending ‘letters to all the glorious cities that were Last Wills and Testaments’. Polycarp, Ignatius’ addressee, died in Smyrna in 155, after visiting Rome the year before. As a teacher of Christianity, Polycarp challenged the established sacred canopy – a system taught (at the elite level, in Smyrna) by Scopelian of Clazomenae. Polycarp’s contacts included people whose children would have been Scopelian’s students. He performed for the masters and mistresses of the world. Polycarp, by contrast, spoke from outside the dominant culture, so that listening to him constituted a ‘journey into darkness’ (Peter Berger). Paul and Thecla, the story of a woman from Iconium converted to Christianity because of Paul the Apostle, was written in Asia Minor after Polycarp’s time. A tract in novelistic form commending sexual continence, Paul and Thecla offers an insight into the Asian Christian experience.
At Eumeneia (Işıklı) distinctive phrasing was used in the third century on the gravestones of Christians. Even at the time of Decius (249–251), it seems, fear of persecution was not severe enough to deter Christians from making their gravestones identifiable in this way. Like other Phrygian cities, Eumeneia seems to have flown below the radar of official scrutiny – a fact which facilitated change in the sacred canopy. Over a hundred Eumeneian formula gravestones survive, some of them dated. The dated examples were erected between 246 and 274. These dated stones (reproduced in Appendix 2) are discussed. They commemorate a partial cross-section of the Christian community at Eumeneia and Apameia (Dinar). On the imperial estates in the Phrygian–Pisidian borderland to the east of Eumeneia, a series of inscriptions attests a cult-based association (the Tekmoreian Guest-Friends) whose purpose was to demonstrate loyalty to the emperor. These inscriptions, with their lengthy lists of contributors, show that polytheist religion was lively and capable of innovation in the rural districts at the time when the Eumeneian formula was in use not far away in Eumeneia and Apameia.
Philip the evangelist, one of seven deacons appointed in Jerusalem by the Twelve, and at least two of his daughters, died at Hierapolis in the Lycus valley. In a letter written between 189 and 198, Polycrates, bishop of Ephesus, names Philip and six other bishops as members of his family. This shows the importance of family networks in the growth of Christianity. Parallels include Jesus’ own family, members of which became bishops of Seleucia (Ctesiphon), and later, the family of Basil of Caesare – whose relatives were bishops of several churches in Cappadocia and Pontus. Also at Hierapolis, Papias wrote the Account of Logia about the Lord, a redacted account of Jesus. For this work, completed any time between about 90 and the 130s, Papias had interviewed anyone who came his way and ‘had been in attendance on the elders’. Like Laodicea, Hierapolis had a synagogue and an important Jewish community; there may even have been a Jewish quarter in the city. Glykon, buried at Hierapolis, left money to fund distributions to members of the carpet-weavers’ guild during the festival of Pentecost, and also at the Roman new year on 1 January. Glykon may have been a Godfearer.
In the upper Tembris valley, some 175 kilometres north of Eumeneia, there is another group of Christian gravestones, many of which use the phrase ‘Christians for Christians’. Only two extant ‘Christians for Christians’ epitaphs are dated, one to 249 and one to 305. There is a case for believing that many of these gravestones were made in the same workshop. This workshop expected to have more Christian than non-Christian customers. Gravestones were prefabricated in a range of decorative schemes and sold when only lettering remained to be done. Modern scholars have wondered if the ‘Christians for Christians’ gravestones commemorated people from a Montanist community, but the idea remains unproven. Stephen Mitchell has argued that the ‘Christians for Christians’ formula continued to be used until late in the fourth century, but Elsa Gibson’s view that the latest inscriptions in this category are from early in the fourth century is preferable. The first-century Colossian church, a place with distinctive characteristics perhaps not widely shared in the Christian churches of its time, may be a relevant comparison with the Christian community of the upper Tembris valley.
This book puts a periphery into the centre: it tells the story of the growth of Christianity in Asia Minor by taking the focus away from the cities of the coast and putting the up-country development of Asian Christianity, in Phrygia and neighbouring regions, at the heart of the narrative. Phrygia had a distinctive history from the sixth century BC onwards, having become a ‘highly fragmented, cellular agro-pastoral society’ (Peter Thonemann). Most of it fell within the large Roman province of Asia. There were cities, but few of them long established. The first Christian missionaries in Asia headed inland to a Phrygian region where the local language was still widely spoken – along with Greek, the language of the official and educational spheres. Some cities in the region were early adopters, in the sense of being among the first to bring the whole community under a Christian sacred canopy (Peter Berger). In the reign of Constantine, Orcistus (a Phrygian town) petitioned the emperor to grant city status – backing up the claim by saying that everyone in town was a ‘supporter of the most holy religion’ (Christianity). The success of the petition showed how much things had changed.