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Chapter 14: The Seven Churches of Asia

What thou seest, write in a book, and send to the Seven Churches; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamum, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.

Some manuscripts read in this passage “the Seven Churches which are in Asia”; but the added words are certainly an interpolation from the introduction, verse 4, “John to the Seven Churches which are in Asia.” The addition states correctly the limits of the area from which the Seven Churches were selected; but it loses the emphasis implied in the simple phrase “The Seven Churches.” From the context it is clear that they all belonged to Asia, i.e., to the Roman province called by that name; but here, in the very beginning of John’s vision, the Seven are mentioned as a recognised number, already to the hearer and the readers.

This remarkable expression, “The Seven Churches,” must arrest the attention of every reader. At the first glance one might gather that only those Seven Churches existed in the Province Asia, and that the Revelation had been composed at an early date when there were no more Churches than the Seven. But that is impossible. There never was a time when those Seven Churches existed, and no others. Their situation shows that they could not well be the first seven to be founded: several other unnamed Churches certainly must have been formed before Thyatira and Philadelphia. Moreover, references in the New Testament prove beyond question the existence of various other Churches in the Province before the earliest date at which the composition of the Apocalypse of John has ever been placed. A survey of the chief facts regarding those other Churches will prove instructive for the present investigation.

(1.) Already during the residence of St. Paul in Ephesus, A.D. 54 to 56, “all they which dwelt in Asia heard the word” (Acts 19:10). That would never have been recorded, except as an explanation of the rapid spread of the new religion and the growth of numerous Churches.

(2.) Already in A.D. 61 the Church of Colossae was the recipient of a letter from St. Paul; he asks the Colossians to cause that his letter be read in the Church of the Laodiceans, and that “ye also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16); and he mentions a body of Christians, who must have constituted a Church, at Hierapolis (Col 4:13). In this case it is evident that the three Churches of the Lycus Valley were considered by every one to stand in close relation to one another. They are very near, Hierapolis being about six miles north, and Colossae eleven miles east, from Laodicea, and they are grouped together as standing equal in the affection and zeal of the Colossian Epaphras. Any letter addressed to one of them was regarded apparently by St. Paul as common to the other two. This did not require to be formally stated about Laodicea and Hierapolis, which are in full view of one another on opposite sides of the glen; but Colossae lay in the higher glen of the Lycus. It has been suggested that Hierapolis and Colossae perhaps ceased to be Churches, because those cities may have been destroyed by an earthquake between A.D. 61 and 90. Such a supposition cannot be entertained. There is not the slightest reason to think that those cities were annihilated about that time. On the contrary Hierapolis continued to grow steadily in wealth and importance after this hypothetical destruction; and, if Colossae rather dwindled than increased, the reason lay in its being more and more overshadowed by Laodicea. The earthquakes of Asia Minor have not been of such a serious nature, and seem rarely if ever to have caused more than a passing loss and inconvenience. There was nothing in such an event likely either to kill or to frighten away the Christians of those two Churches.

(3.) Troas was the seat of a Church in A.D. 56 (2 Cor 2:12) and A.D. 57 (Acts 20:7ff). It was then considered by St. Paul to be “a door,” through which access was opened to a wide region that lay behind in the inner country: its situation in respect of roads and communication made it a specially suitable and tempting point of departure for evangelisation; it was a link in the great chain of Imperial postal communication across the Empire; and its importance lay in its relation to the other cities with which it was connected by a series of converging roads. The ordinary “overland” route from Rome to the East by the Appian and the Egnatian Way crossed the Aegean from Neapolis, the harbour of Philippi, to Troas, Pergamum, etc.; and there must have been continual communication, summer and winter alike, between Neapolis and Troas. Places in such a situation, where a change was made from land-travel to sea-faring, offered a peculiarly favourable opportunity for intercourse and the spread of a new system of thought and life. Troas, therefore, undoubtedly played a very important part in the development of the Asian Church; yet it is not mentioned among the Seven.

Figure 10

Figure 10: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum—“First of Asia”

(4.) It may also be regarded as practically certain that the great cities which lay on the important roads connecting those Seven leading Cities with one another had all “heard the word,” and that most of them were the seats of Churches, when the Seven Letters were written. We remember that, not long afterwards, Magnesia and Tralleis, the two important, wealthy and populous cities on the road between Ephesus and Laodicea, possessed Churches of their own and bishops; that they both sent deputations to salute, console and congratulate the Syrian martyr Ignatius, when he was conducted like a condemned criminal to face death in Rome; and that they both received letters from him. With these facts in our mind we need feel no doubt that those two Churches, and many others like them, took their origin from the preaching of St. Paul’s coadjutors and subordinates during his residence in Ephesus, A.D. 54-56. Magnesia inscribed on its coins the title “Seventh (city) of Asia,” referring doubtless to the order of precedence among the cities as observed in the Common Council of the Province, technically styled Commune Asiae. This seems to prove that there was some special importance attached in general estimation to a group of seven representative cities in Asia, which would be an interesting coincidence with the Seven Churches. Of the seven cities implied in the Magnesian title five may be enumerated with practical certainty, viz., the three rivals “First of Asia,” Smyrna, Ephesus and Pergamum, along with Sardis and Cyzicus. The remaining two seats were doubtless keenly contested between Magnesia, Tralleis (one of the richest and greatest in Asia), Alabanda (chief perhaps in Caria), Apamea (ranked by Strabo next to Ephesus as a commercial centre of the Province) and Laodicea; but apparently at some time under the Empire a decision by the Emperor, or by a governor of the Province, or by the Council of Asia, settled the precedence to some extent and placed Magnesia seventh. Neither Thyatira nor Philadelphia, however, can have had any reasonable claim to a place among those seven leading cities of the Province.

(5.) Another city which can hardly have failed to possess an important Church when the Seven Letters were written is Cyzicus. Not merely was it one of the greatest cities of the Province (as has been mentioned in the preceding paragraph): it also lay on one of the great routes by which Christianity spread. It has been pointed out elsewhere that the early Christianisation of Bithynia and Pontus was not due (as has been commonly assumed) to missionaries travelling by land from Syria across Asia Minor to the Black Sea coasts. Those cross-country routes from south to north were little used at that period; and it was only during the last quarter of the first century that Cappadocia, which they traversed, began to be properly organised as a Province; for before A.D. 74 Cappadocia was merely a procuratorial district, i.e., it was governed in the interest of the Emperor as successor of the old native kings by his procurator, who administered it on the old native lines. Moreover, it is stated that inner Pontus was hardly affected by Christianity until the Third century, while Pontus on the coast was Christianised in the first century and the pagan ritual had almost fallen into disuse there by A.D. 112, as Pliny reported to Trajan. Those maritime regions therefore must have been Christianised by sea, in other words by passengers on ships coming from “the parts of Asia” or from Rome itself. On the route of such ships lay Cyzicus, one of the greatest commercial cities of Asia Minor, which must have attracted a certain proportion of the merchants and passengers on those ships. It was along the great routes of international communication that Christianity spread first; and Cyzicus can hardly have been missed as the new thought swept along this main current of intercourse. But Cyzicus has no place among the Seven Churches, though it was the leading city and capital of a great district in the north of the Province.

It is therefore evident that those Seven must have been selected out of a much larger number of Churches, some of them very important centres of thought and influence, for some reason which needs investigation. Now it is inconceivable that St. John should simply write to Seven Churches taken at random out of the Province which had been so long under his charge, and ignore the rest. One can understand why St. Paul wrote (so far as his letters have been preserved) to some of his Churches and not to others: apart from the fact that he doubtless sent more letters than have been preserved, he wrote sporadically, under the spur of urgent need, as a crisis occurred now in one of his Churches, now in another. But St. John is here writing a series of letters on a uniform plan, under the spur of one single impulse; and it is clearly intended that the Seven Churches should be understood as in a way summing up the whole Province. That could only be the case if each was in some way representative of a small group of Churches, so that the whole Seven taken together represented and summed up the entire Province. Similarly, it is clear that the Church of Asia taken as a whole is in its turn representative of the entire Catholic Church.

Thus we can trace the outline of a complicated and elaborate system of symbolism, which is very characteristic of this book. There are seven groups of Churches in Asia: each group is represented by one outstanding and conspicuous member: these representatives are the Seven Churches. These Seven representative Churches stand for the Church of the Province; and the Church of the Province, in its turn, stands for the entire Church of Christ. Corresponding to this sevenfold division in the Church, the outward appearance and envisagement of the Divine Author of the Seven Letters is divided into seven groups of attributes; and one group of attributes is assumed by Him in addressing each of the Seven Churches, so that the openings of the Seven Letters, put together, make up his whole outward and visible character.

But how was this selection of the Seven Churches accomplished? There are only two alternatives; either the selection was made on this occasion for the first time, or it had in some way or other come into existence previously, so that there were already Seven recognised and outstanding Churches of Asia. The first alternative seems generally to have been accepted, but apparently without any serious consideration. It seems to have been thought that the sacred number, Seven, had a fascination for one who was so much under the dominion of symbolism as the writer of the Apocalypse evidently was. On this view, being presumably fascinated by the charm of that number, he chose those Seven from the whole body of the Asian Churches, and treated them as representative in the first place of the Province and ultimately of the entire Catholic church. But it is impossible to acquiesce contentedly in this supposition. There is no way of escaping the obvious implication in 1:4 and 1:11, that those Seven were already known to the world and established in popular estimation as “the Seven Asian Churches,” before the Vision came to St. John.

It is therefore necessary to adopt the second alternative. As the Church of the great Province Asia gradually consolidated and completed its organisation, there came into existence seven groups, and at the head or the centre of each stood one of the Seven Churches. This process had been completed up to this point before St. John wrote, and affected the imagery of his vision.

The genesis of one of those groups can be traced at the very beginning of the Christian history of the Province. Already in A.D. 61 the letter to Laodicea and the letter to Colossae were, as has been indicated above, treated as common to a group of three Churches in the Lycus Valley. But, although the Colossian letter was intended to be circulated, it was written to the Church of Colossae immediately and directly. In writing that letter St. Paul had not in mind the group of Churches: there stood before his imagination the Church of Colossae, and to it he addressed himself. In the primary intention it is a letter to Colossae; in a secondary intention it was made common to the whole group. The same may be presumed to have been the character of the unknown Laodicean letter.

The opinion has been advocated by some scholars that the Laodicean letter was the one which is commonly known as the Epistle to the Ephesians, and that it ought to be regarded as a circular letter, copies of which were sent to all the Asian Churches; though in that cast it might be expected that the Colossians would receive a copy direct. But Professor Rendel Harris has thrown serious doubt on the view that Ephesians was a circular letter, by his very ingenious argument that it must have been written as an answer to a question (see Expositor, 1898, Dec., p. 401ff): in that case it would be addressed to the Church which had proposed the question to St. Paul.

In the facts just stated it seems to be implied that the chief Churches of the Lycus Valley were already in A.D. 61 regarded as practically common recipients of a letter addressed to one. Their interests and needs were known to one another, and were presumed to be very similar; they were in constant intercourse with one another, and especially Laodicea and Hierapolis were not far removed from being really a single city; and evidently it was the aim and policy of St. Paul to encourage them to bear vividly in mind their common character and sisterhood.

Now, starting from this situation in A.D. 61, and taking into consideration the creative and constructive capacity which the Christian Church showed from the beginning, we must infer that the consolidation of the three Churches into a recognised group had been completed before the Seven Letters were written. In a vigorous and rapidly growing body like the Church of the Province Asia, a fact was not likely to lie for a long time inactive, and then at last begin actively to affect the growth of the whole organism. Rather we must conceive the stages in the Christian history of the Lycus Valley as being three: first, the natural union and frequent intercommunication of three separately founded, independent and equal Churches, as appears in A.D. 61; secondly, the equally natural growing pre-eminence before the eyes of the world of the leading city, Laodicea, so that letters which were addressed to one city were still intended equally for all, but Laodicea was the one that was almost inevitably selected as the representative and outstanding Church; thirdly, the predominance and presidency of Laodicea as the administrative head and centre amid a group of subordinate Churches.

How far this development had proceeded when the Seven Letters were written it is hardly possible to say with certainty. We can, however, feel very confident that the third stage had not yet been completely attained. The Seven Letters afford no evidence on this point, except that, by their silence about any other Churches, they suggest that Laodicea was already felt to stand for and therefore to be in a way pre-eminent in its group; while, on the other hand, the spirit of the early Church seems to be inconsistent with the view that Laodicea had as yet acquired anything like headship or superiority. But the whole question as to the growth of a fixed hierarchy and order of dignity among the Churches is obscure, and needs systematic investigation.

The case of the Lycus Valley Churches must be regarded as typical. It was the result of circumstances common to the entire Province. Hence, the inference must be drawn that a series of similar groups was formed throughout Asia; that the Seven Churches stood forth as in a certain degree pre-eminent, though certainly not predominant, in their respective groups; and that thus each in the estimation of the Asian world carried with it the thought of the whole group of which it formed a centre.

The subject, however, is not yet complete. The character of that first group in the Lycus Valley would suggest that the groups were territorial, marked off by geographical limits. But a glance at the rest of the Seven shows that this is not the case: there is here evidently nothing like a division of Asia into geographical groups: the Seven Churches are a circle of cities round the west-central district of the Province, while south, east, and north are entirely unrepresented.

Again, the classification is not made according to rank or dignity or importance in the Province. It is true that the first three, Ephesus, Smyrna and Pergamum, are the greatest and outstanding cities of the Province, which vied with one another for the title, which all claimed and used and boasted about, “First of Asia": there were three cities “First of Asia,” just as there were two First of Cilicia and two First of Bithynia; and Acts 16:11 shows that Philippi claimed to be “First of that division of Macedonia,” refusing to acknowledge Amphipolis, the official capital, as superior to itself. This might suggest that they, as the three greatest and most important cities of the Province, were selected as centres of three groups of Churches. Also it is true that among the remaining four, two, viz., Sardis and Laodicea, were, like the first three, the heads of conventus (i.e., governmental districts for legal purposes). But this principle breaks down completely in the case of Thyatira and Philadelphia, which were secondary and second-rate cities, the latter in the conventus of Sardis, the former in that of Pergamum. The Seven Churches, therefore, were not selected because they were planted in the most important and influential cities—had that been the case, Cyzicus, Alabanda, and Apameia could hardly have been omitted—nor is the order of enumeration, beginning with Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum, due to the fact that those were the three most important cities of Asia.

In order to complete this investigation, we must try to reach some clearer conception of the almost wholly unknown process by which the Church of the Province Asia gradually worked out its internal organisation during the first century. At the beginning of that process all those Churches of Asia, apparently, stood side by side, equal in standing, fully equipped with self-governing authority, except in so far as they looked up to St. Paul as their founder (either immediately or through his subordinate ministers) and parent, director and counsellor: their relation to one another was in some degree analogous to a voluntary union of States in a federal republic. Before the end of the century, the Province was divided into districts with representative cities, and Asia was advancing along a path that led to the institution of a regularly organised hierarchy with one supreme head of the Province.

Now let us try to imagine the situation in which this process occurred. The purpose which was being worked out in the process was—unity. The Christian Church was bent on consolidating itself in its struggle for the spiritual lordship of the Empire. The means whereby it attained that purpose, as has been shown in chapter 3, lay in constant intercommunication, partly by travel, but still more by letter. The result which was brought about could not fail to stand in close relation to the means by which it had been worked out. And a glance at the map shows that there was some relation here between the means and the result. Travelling and communication, of course, are inextricably involved in the road system: they are carried out, not along the shortest lines between the various points, but according to the roads that connect them. And all the Seven Cities stand on the great circular road that bound together the most populous, wealthy, and influential part of the Province, the west-central region.

It is only fair to observe that that great scholar, the late Dr. Hort, pointed the way to the true principle of selection in an excursus to his fragmentary, posthumously published edition of First Peter. In that excursus, which is a model of scientific method in investigation, he points out that the reason for the peculiar order in which the Provinces are enumerated at the beginning of the Epistle lies in the route along which the messenger was to travel, as he conveyed the letter (perhaps in so many distinct copies) to the central cities of the various Provinces. We now find ourselves led to a similar conclusion in the case of Asia: the gradual selection of Seven representative Churches in the Province was in some way connected with the principal road-circuit of the Province.

So far the result which we have reached is unavoidable and undeniable: it merely states the evident fact. But, if we seek to penetrate farther, and to trace the process of development and consolidation more minutely, it is necessary to enter upon a process of imaginative reconstruction. We have given to us as the factors in this problem, the state of the Asian Church about A.D. 60, and again its state about A.D. 90: we know that the process whereby the one was transformed into the other within those thirty years took place along that road circuit, and was connected with correspondence and intercourse. The details have to be restored; and as this necessarily involves an element of hypothesis, it ought to be treated in a special chapter.

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