Letters to the Churches of Asia - 15 - Origin of the 7 Cities

Chapter 15: Origin of the Seven Representative Cities

The analogous case, quoted from Dr. Hort in the conclusion of the preceding chapter, must not be pressed too closely or it might prove misleading. The fact from which we have to start is that the First Epistle of Peter enumerates the Provinces in the order in which a messenger sent from Rome would traverse them, and that, similarly, the Seven Churches are enumerated in the order in which a messenger sent from Patmos would reach them.

In the former case the letter was written in Rome, and the messenger would, in accordance with the regular customs of communication over the Empire, sail to the Black Sea, and land at one of the harbours on the north coast of Asia Minor. He might either disembark in the nearest Province, and make his way by land round the whole circuit, ending in the most distant; or he might choose a vessel bound for the most distant Province and make the circuit in the reverse order. There are some apparent advantages in the latter method, which he adopted. He landed at one of the Pontic harbours, Amastris or Sinope or Amisos, traversed in succession Pontus, Cappadocia, Galatia and Asia, and ended in Bithynia, at one of whose great harbours he would find frequent opportunity of sailing to Rome, or, if he were detained till navigation had ceased during the winter season, the overland Post Road, through Thrace and Macedonia, would be conveniently open to him. Such a messenger would visit in succession one or more of the leading cities of each Province, because the great Imperial routes of communication ran direct between the great cities. He would not concern himself with distributing the letter to the individual Christians in each Province; that task would be left to the local Church, which would use its own organisation to bring the knowledge of the message home to every small Church and every individual. His work would be supplemented by secondary messengers on smaller circuits in each Province and again in each city. In no other way was effective and general distribution possible.

In the latter case the letter enclosing the Apocalypse with the Seven Letters was written in Patmos, and the messenger would naturally land at Ephesus, and make his round through the Seven representative Churches as they are enumerated by the writer. The route was clearly marked out, and the messenger could hardly avoid it. He would go north along the great road through Smyrna to Pergamum (the earliest Roman road built in the Province about 133-130 BC, as soon as Asia was organised). Thence he would follow the imperial Post Road to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, and so back to Ephesus, or on to the East, as duty called him, using in either case the great Central Route of the Empire. At each point, like the other messenger, he would trust to the local organisation to complete the work of divulgation.

In those two circuits--the general Anatolian circuit of First Peter, and the special Asian circuit of the Apocalypse--it is obvious that the messengers were not merely ordered to take the letter (whether in one or in several copies) and deliver it, using the freedom of their own will as to the way and order of delivery. The route was marked out for them beforehand, and was already known to the writers when composing the letters. The question then arises whether the route in those two cases was chosen expressly for the special occasion and enjoined by the writer on the messenger, or was already a recognised circuit which messengers were expected to follow in every similar case. Without going into minute detail, it may be admitted that the route indicated in First Peter might possibly have been expressly selected for that special journey by the writer, who knew or asked what was the best route; and thus it came to be stated by him in the letter. Equally possibly it might be known to the writer as the already recognised route for the Christian messengers.

But the former supposition could not be applied in the case of the Apocalypse; it is utterly inconsistent with the results established in chapter 6, since it would leave unexplained the fundamental fact in the case, viz., that the writer uses the expression "the Seven Churches" in 1:4, 11, as recognised and familiar, established in common usage, and generally understood as summing up the whole Christian Province. Moreover, the messenger in First Peter was starting on a journey to deliver a real letter; but in the Apocalypse the letter-form is assumed merely as a literary device, and the book as a whole, and the Seven Letters as part of it, are literary compositions not really intended to be despatched like true letters to the Churches to which they are addressed. The list of the Seven Churches is taken over, like the rest of the machinery of epistolary communication, as part of the circumstances to which this literary imitation has to accommodate itself.

Moreover those who properly weigh the indisputable facts stated in chapter 6 about the growth of the Laodicean district, as an example of the steady, rapid development of early Christian organisation, must come to the conclusion that the writer of the Letters cannot have been the first to make Laodicea the representative of a group of Churches, but found it already so regarded by general consent. Now what is true of Laodicea must be applied to the rest of the Seven Churches.

In short, if there were not such a general agreement as to the representative character of the Seven Churches, it is difficult to see how the writer could so entirely ignore the other Churches, and write to the Seven without a word of explanation that the letters were to be considered as referring also to the others. St. Paul, who wrote before that general agreement had been effected, carefully explained that his letter to Colossae was intended to be read also at Laodicea, and vice versa; but St. John assumes that no such explanation is needed.

Another important point to observe is that the Seven Cities were not selected simply because they were situated on the circular route above described, nor yet because they were the most important cities on that route. The messenger must necessarily pass through Hierapolis, Tralleis and Magnesia on his circular journey; all those cities were indubitably the seats of Churches at that time; yet none of the three found a place among the representative cities, although Tralleis and Magnesia were more important and wealthy than Philadelphia or Thyatira. What then was the principle of selection?

In chapter 3 we saw that the Christian Church owed its growth and its consolidation under the early Empire to its carefulness in maintaining frequent correspondence between the scattered congregations, thus preventing isolation, making uniformity of character and aims possible, and providing (so to say) the channels through which coursed the life-blood of the whole organism; and the conclusion was reached that, since no postal service was maintained by the State for the use of private individuals or trading companies, "we find ourselves obliged to admit the existence of a large organisation" for the transmission of the letters by safe, Christian hands. Just as all the great trading companies maintained each its own corps of letter-carriers (tabellarii), so the Christians must necessarily provide means for carrying their own letters, if they wanted to write; and this necessity must inevitably result, owing to the constructive spirit of that rapidly growing body, in the formation of a letter-carrying system. The routes of the letter-carriers were fixed according to the most convenient circuits, and the provincial messengers did not visit all the cities, but only certain centres, from whence a subordinate service distributed the letters or news over the several connected circuits or groups.

Thus there emerges from the obscurity of the first century, and stands out clear before our view about AD 80, some kind of organisation for connecting and consolidating the numerous Churches of the Province Asia. The Province had already by that date been long and deeply affected by the new religion; and it must be presumed that there existed a congregation and a local Church in almost every great city, at least in the parts most readily accessible from the west coast.

Such is the bare outline of a kind of private messenger-service for the Province, similar in many ways, doubtless, to the private postal systems which must have been maintained by every great trading corporation whose operations extended over the same parts (the wealthiest and most educated and "Hellenised" parts) of the Province. The general character of this messenger service, in so far as it was uniform over the whole Roman Empire, has been described in chapter 3. A more detailed view of the special system of the Province Asia may now be gained from a closer study of the character and origin of the Seven Churches.

When letters or information were sent round the Churches of the Province, either the same messenger must have gone round the whole Province, and visited every Church, or several messengers must have been employed simultaneously. The former method is obviously too inconvenient and slow: the single messenger would require often to go and return over part of the same road, and the difference of time in the receiving of the news by the earlier and the later Churches would have been so great, that the advantages of intercommunication would have been to a great degree lost. Accordingly, it must be concluded that several messengers were simultaneously employed to carry any news intended for general information in the Province of Asia.

Again, either those several messengers must all have started from the capital and centre of communication, viz., Ephesus, or else one must have started from the capital, and others must have started on secondary routes, receiving the message from the primary messenger at various points on his route. The former of these alternatives is evidently too cumbrous, as it would make several messengers travel simultaneously along the same road bearing the same message. It is therefore necessary to admit a distinction between primary and secondary circuits, the former starting from Ephesus, the latter from various points on the primary circuit.

Now, if we combine this conclusion with our previously established results, the hypothesis inevitably suggests itself that the Seven groups of Churches, into which the Province had been divided before the Apocalypse was composed, were seven postal districts, each having as its centre or point of origin one of the Seven Cities, which (as was pointed out) lie on a route which forms a sort of inner circle round the Province.

Closer examination of the facts will confirm this hypothesis so strongly as to raise it to a very high level of probability: in fact, the hypothesis is simply a brief statement of the obvious facts of communication, and our closer examination will be merely a more minute and elaborate statement of the facts.

The Seven Cities, as has been already stated, were situated on a very important circular route, which starts from Ephesus, goes round what may be called Asia par excellence, the most educated and wealthy and historically pre-eminent part of the Province. They were the best points on that circuit to serve as centres of communication with seven districts: Pergamum for the north (Troas, doubtless Adramyttium, and probably Cyzicus and other cities on the coast contained Churches); Thyatira for an inland district on the northeast and east; Sardis for the wide middle valley of the Hermus; Philadelphia for Upper Lydia, to which it was the door (3:8); Laodicea for the Lycus Valley, and for Central Phrygia, of which it was the Christian metropolis in later time; Ephesus for the Cayster and Lower Meander Valleys and coasts; Smyrna for the Lower Hermus Valley and the North Ionian coasts, perhaps with Mitylene and Chios (if those islands had as yet been affected).

In this scheme of secondary districts it is evident that some are very much larger than others. The whole of Western and Central Caria must be included in the Ephesian district. The Northeastern part of Caria would more naturally fall in the Laodicean district, to which also a vast region of Phrygia should belong, leaving to the Philadelphian district another large region, Northern and West-central Phrygia with a considerable part of Eastern Lydia. But it is possible, and even probable, that Ephesus was the centre from which more than one secondary circuit went off: it is not necessary to suppose that only one secondary messenger started from such a city. So also with Laodicea and possibly with Philadelphia and Smyrna and others. An organisation of this kind, while familiar to all in its results, would never be described by any one in literature, just as no writer gives an account of the Imperial Post-service; and hence no account is preserved of either. While the existence of a primary circuit, and a number of secondary circuits going off from the Seven Cities of the primary circuit, seems certain, the number and arrangement of the secondary circuits is conjectural and uncertain.

The whole of the arrangements would have to be made to suit the means of communication that existed in the Province Asia, the roads and the facilities for travel, on which chapter 3 may be consulted. It lies apart from our purpose to work it out in detail; but the system which seems most probable is indicated on the accompanying sketch-map, and those who investigate it minutely will doubtless come to the conclusion that some of the circuits indicated are fairly certain, but most can only be regarded as, at the best, reasonably probable, and some will probably be found to be wrong when a more thorough knowledge of the Asian road-system (which is the only evidence accessible) has been attained. It will, however, be useful to discuss some conspicuous difficulties, which are likely to suggest themselves to every investigator.

The first is about Troas. Considering its importance as the doorway of Northwestern Asia, one might at first expect to find that it was one of the Seven representative Churches. But a glance at the map will show that it could not be worked into the primary circuit of the provincial messenger, except by sacrificing the ease and immensely widening the area and lengthening the time of his journey. On the other hand Troas comes in naturally on that secondary circuit which has Pergamum as its origin. The Pergamenian messenger followed the Imperial Post road through Adramyttium, Assos and Troas, along the Hellespont to Lampsacus. There the Post Road crossed into Europe, while the messenger traversed the coast road to Cyzicus, and thence turned south through Poimanenon to Pergamum. This circuit is perhaps the most obvious and convincing of the whole series, as the account of the roads and towns on it in the Historical Geography of Asia Minor will bring out clearly.

The second difficulty relates to Tralleis and Magnesia. As the primary messenger had to pass through them, why are they relegated to the secondary circuit of Ephesus? Obviously, the primary messenger would reach them last of all; and long before he came to them the messenger on a secondary Ephesian circuit would have reached them. Moreover, it is probable that the primary circuit was not devised simply with a view to the Province of Asia, but was intended to be often conjoined with a further journey to Galatia and the East, so that the messenger would not return from Laodicea to the coast, but would keep on up the Lycus by Colossae eastwards.

Thirdly, Caria does not fit well in the secondary districts and circuits. It is so great that it seems to require for itself one special circuit; and if so Tralleis was the one almost inevitable point of communication with the primary circuit. Yet Tralleis was not one of the Seven Churches. But probably a distinction must be made. Western Caria (Alabanda, Stratonicea and the coast cities) probably formed a secondary circuit along with the Lower Meander Valley; and Ephesus was the starting point for it. On the other hand the eastern and southern part of Caria lay apart from any of the great lines of communication: it was on the road to nowhere: any one who went south from the Meander into the hilly country did so for the sake of visiting it, and not because it was on his best way to a more distant goal. Now the new religion spread with marvellous rapidity along the great routes; it floated free on the great currents of communication that swept back and forward across the Empire, but it was slower to make its way into the back-waters, the nooks and corners of the land: it penetrated where life was busy, though was active, and people were full of curiosity and enterprise: it found only a tardy welcome among the quieter and less educated rural districts. Hence that part of Caria was little disturbed in the old ways, when most of the rest of Asia was strongly permeated with Christianity.

Fourthly, an immense region of Northern and Eastern Phrygia seems to be quite beyond any reasonably easy communication with the primary circular route.

As to Northern Phrygia, it is extremely doubtful whether it had been much affected by the new religion when the Seven Letters were written. It was a rustic, scantily educated region, which offered no favourable opportunity for Christianity. Some, indeed, would argue that, as Bithynia was so strongly permeated with the new religion, before AD 111, Phrygia which lies farther south and nearer the original seats of Christianity, must have been Christianised earlier. This argument, however, ignores the way in which Christianity spread, viz., along the main roads and lines of communication. The same cause, which made Eastern Caria later in receiving the new faith (as shown above), also acted in Northern Phrygia. A study of the interesting monuments of early Christianity in that part of the country has shown that it was Christianised from Bithynia (probably not earlier than the second century), and it was therefore left out of the early Asian system, as being still practically a pagan country. Southern Phrygia lay near the main Central Route of the Empire, and its early Christian monuments show a markedly different character from the North Phrygian monuments, and prove that it was Christianised (as was plainly necessary) from the line of the great Central Highway. This part of Phrygia lay entirely in the Upper Meander Valley, and fell naturally within the Laodicean circuit.

Eastern Phrygia, on the other hand, was Christianised from Iconium and Pisidian Antioch, and was therefore not included in the early Asian system which we have described. Doubtless, during the second century, a complete provincial organisation came into existence; and all Christian Asia was then united. But, as great part of Phrygia had for a long time been outside of the Asian system of the Seven Churches, it was sometimes even in the second century thought necessary for the sake of clearness to mention Phrygia along with Asia in defining the Church of the whole Province. Hence we have the phrase "the Churches (or Brethren) of Asia and Phrygia" in Tertullian, adv. Prax 1, and in the letter of the Gallic Christians.

In the case of Laodicea it seems natural and probable that two secondary circuits must be admitted. One would include the Lycus and the Upper Meander Valleys: the messenger would go along the great Central Highway and trade route through Colossae to Apameia, and thence through the Pentapolis and back by Eumeneia to Laodicea. Hierapolis, being so close to Laodicea, would share in any Laodicean communication without any special messenger. Another secondary circuit would follow the important Pamphylian Road (to Perga and Attalia), as far as Cibyra, and then perhaps keep along the frontier of the Province to Lake Ascania; but this road was rather a rustic byway, and it is hardly probable that the frontier region was Christianised so early as the first century. The Cibyra district, on the Pamphylian Road, was more likely to be penetrated early by the new thought; and the name Epaphras in an inscription of this district may be a sign that the impulse came from Colossae.

Thus we find that the Seven Letters are directed to a well-marked district embracing the greater part of the Province Asia; and natural features, along with indubitable epigraphic and monumental evidence, make it probable that the district of the Seven Letters contained the entire Asian Church as it was organised about the end of the first century. The importance of the Seven Letters becomes evident even in such a small though interesting matter as this.