BMCR 2020.03.18

Early Christianity in Asia Minor and Cyprus: from the margins to the mainstream

Stephen Mitchell, Phillipp Pilhofer, Early Christianity in Asia Minor and Cyprus: from the margins to the mainstream. Ancient Judaism and early Christianity, 109. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2019. xx, 280 p.. ISBN 9789004410800 €110,00.


The influence exercised by marginal factors on the mainstream contributes to the picture historians draw of early Christianity. But it is not so easy to decide where the margins are and where the mainstream is. In their introduction the editors ask whether the abundance of epigraphic material can say anything about the intensity of a religious movement: for example, should we date the Christianization of Phrygia and Lycaonia earlier given the large number of Christian epitaphs belonging to the third century? One might argue that urban structures guarantee a long duration of pagan traditions; on the other hand, Christianity seems to be a typically urban phenomenon. These contradictions and other topics are investigated in a series of nine illuminating papers treating areas that range from Armenia and Cappadocia in the east, as well as Cyprus, Pisidia and Caria, to Constantinople as the centre of a new ecclesiastical organization. Indexes of sources, names, places, and subjects conclude this extremely useful volume.

Margherita Cassia (“Between paganism and Judaism: early Christianity in Cappadocia”) draws a new picture of Christian Cappadocia in the pre-Constantinian period. She introduces her discussion with a letter written by Caesarea’s bishop Firmilianus to Cyprianus in 256 (Cypr.ep.75): There are numerous indications that the Christian church in Cappadocia was already a well-structured organization strongly linked with other provinces. Cassia doesn’t content herself with direct testimonies of Christianity, but also takes into account Jewish and other monotheistic movements that facilitated its diffusion.[1] Being a Hypsistarian, the father of Gregory Nazianzus was certainly influenced by Jewish ideas, though he was not himself a Jew. Although until now we know only one inscription attesting to the cult of Theos Hypsistos in Cappadocia, there may have been more adherents of this sect in the region. Cassia concludes that pagan henotheisms and “Judaizing syncretisms” (39) competed with the Christian church in Cappadocia even in the fourth century.

Stephen Mitchell (“Hagiography and the great persecution in Sebastea and Armenia Minor”) puts hagiographic traditions in the centre of his treatment of the Diocletianic persecution in Lesser Armenia. The legend of the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia (the „Passio“), expanded by the so-called “Testament”, was a popular text whose historical core is difficult to discover. Although the Passio dates the execution to the reign of Licinius, it is probable that it took place during the great persecution under Diocletian, and the fact that Agricola is mentioned as governor appears to confirm this date. The “Testament” comprises four different texts, the earliest of them giving a genuine insight in the organisation and networks of Christian communities. Mitchell investigates two other hagiographical traditions, with interesting results: The Passio of Athenogenes contains detailed topographical information for the region to the north of Sebasteia. The interrogation of Athenogenes by the governor Agricola can be traced to authentic documents of a lawsuit. Agricola also plays a part in the Passio of Eustratius, where the geographical focus is set to the east of Sebastea. But here the interrogation before Agricola is loaded with fictional and dramatizing elements, which block an authentic glimpse of the lawsuit.

Gaetano Arena (“Martyrs, monks, and heretics in Rocky Cappadocia”) begins by emphasizing the importance of the Passio of Hieron, a text difficult to date and until now often treated as largely fictitious. But Arena reveals some details that correspond exactly to Cappadocian topography in late antiquity.[2] According to the Passio, Hieron was a vine dresser from the village Matiane, who was recruited by force, interrogated and executed. Later, in the 10th/11th century, he is one of the popular military saints, represented several times in the paintings in the rocky churches of Cappadocia. Regarding Christian settlement in the area of Göreme, it is not so easy to bridge the gap between the 4th and he 10thcentury. Beside Hieron’s Passio archaeological markers, tombs or cells in the tufa-cones, are an important part of this bridge. Moreover the Cappadocian Fathers here and there hint at settlements of monks that may be placed in rocky Cappadocia.[3]

Hagiography stands also in the focus of Aude Busine’s paper (“The origins and development of the cults of Saint Gordius and Saint Mamas in Cappadocia”), in which she tries to trace the tradition of two martyrs whose feasts evoked two of Basil’s most famous homilies, even though Basil knows hardly anything about these shadowy saints. The sanctuaries of the saints were located in the surroundings of Caesarea, and these cult-places may have developed without any relation to historic victims of the persecutions. Regarding Gordius, Busine mentions a dedication to Zeus Gordios as possible starting-point for a Christian cult. Further, she makes some interesting points showing how Basil uses the sacred tradition of nearby Mount Argaeus and transforms it into a Christian story in which the bishop himself takes important initiatives to establish the cults of Gordius and Mamas in his town. In the future, both saints became “the heroes of fictitous passio accounts” (117) in Caesarea.

Christiane Zimmermann (“Faith and verse: Gregory of Nazianzus and early Christian village poetry”) envisages an important step in Christian literature about Asia Minor by relating the poetic opus left by Gregory of Nazianzus to epigrams in Christian epitaphs of central Anatolia.[4] So, for example, she shows how Gregory successfully fits Christian elements and ideas into the structure of epigrams based on Homeric and classical traditions. The same mechanisms can be observed in the less elaborate epigrams of Lycaonian epitaphs. There is much to suggest that the poetic inscriptions of Lycaonian Christians owe a lot to contemporary literature. Zimmermann’s considerations about the influence of Gregory and above all of his cousin Amphilochius, bishop of Iconium, are convincing, even if it is impossible to reconstruct the exact webs of communication.

Turhan Kaçar’s paper (“Constantinople and Asia Minor: ecclesiastical jurisdiction in the fourth century”) investigates the jurisdictional frame the bishop of Constantinople had to respect. Normally every bishop was not allowed to interfere in the city affairs of another bishop. But Constantinople, as the imperial residence, was a special case. More than once, the bishop ordained or deposed other bishops in the neighbouring provinces without giving rise to greater conflicts. Kaçar questions whether the third canon of the Council of Constantinople, by establishing the “primacy of honour” for Constantinople in the East, changed the structure of ecclesiastical administration. Beginning with Nectarius, but above all with John Chrysostom one can observe an increase of authority, and, with good reason, Kaçar calls the third canon “a legal armour for the bishop of Constantinople” (161).

Gazing at the religious history of a particular town often reveals the diversity of conditions to be taken into account when discussing Christianization in general. The question Peter Talloen (“The rise of Christianity at Sagalassus”) poses is whether Christianization in Sagalassos should be understood as “a relatively quick event” or “a lengthy development” (165). Unlike other towns in Pisidia, Sagalassos doesn’t show any traces of Christians before the second half of the 4thcentury. During the 2nd/3rd century Sagalassos was known as a flourishing centre of the imperial cult, and this partly explains the absence of early Christian traces. Around 370, an official inscription erected by the demos and boule, mentions the “sanctuary (temenos) of the gods”. A little later, however, an important sanctuary of Tyche was converted into an honorific monument for the imperial family. The desacralization of the old cults in the urban center may have been complete around 400, but there were no churches built yet in their place, and the city gate was still protected by the busts of Ares and Athene. Only in the course of the 5th century do we find Christian symbols in the households of Sagalassos and they only become clearly dominant during the 6th century. Church-building began around 500 inside and outside the town, and Talloen defines the 6th century as “the age of Christianity” (187). He concludes that the rise of Christianity in Sagalassos was a “drawn-out process” (196) with a special turning point in 378, the conversion of the Tychaeum.

Ancient Caria stands in the shadow of regions like Phrygia or Pisidia regarding the history of early Christianity. We should be thankful that Anna M. Sitz has chosen Caria for an interesting experiment (“Inscribing Caria: the perseverance of epigraphic traditions in late antiquity”) to investigate the effect of temple inscriptions on early Christian readers. She has good reason to set the focus on this region because monumental architectural inscriptions – for example architrave dedications – have a long tradition there. It is not astonishing, then, that at Mylasa the temple formerly dedicated to Roma and Augustus was used as billboard for official documents still in the 5th century. On the other hand, the Temple of Hecate at Lagina, already covered with older inscriptions, was provided with Christian graffiti, obviously as a deliberate attempt to Christianize pagan space. Of similar interest is the basilica in Aphrodisias built in place of the Temple of Aphrodite. Some inscriptions of the temple can still be read, including the name of Aphrodite on columns originally dedicated to her. At least in some cases, Sitz concludes, older inscriptions were transferred to Christian buildings deliberately to signify the historical dimension of the space to which the inscriptions now belong.

Daniela Summa presents an eminently useful survey of Christian inscriptions in Cyprus (“The Christian epigraphy of Cyprus: a preliminary study”). More than 150 were found on the island, around 50 of them in the region of Salamis / Constantia, the capital of the province in late antiquity. Following D. Summa (231-232), one of the relatively few Christian epitaphs is put to the beginning of the 3rd century, although this may be too early a date for an epigraphic staurogram (in spite of the papyrological evidence). Christian building inscriptions belong to the 5th/7th century. One of the most important is a mosaic-inscription from Timithus, composed in iambic metre and commissioned by bishop Spyridon. One of the building inscriptions in Soloi explicitly testifies to two disastrous Arab raids in the years 649/50. Inscriptions mentioning a certain Eustorgios found in the gymnasium and in the theatre of Constantia as well as in the theatre of Paphos confirm not only the management of these buildings in the 5th/6th century but also the capital expenditure provided by this high magistrate.

It is clear this volume will be of great value for researchers interested in the history of early Christianity in Asia Minor.


[1] The material testifying Jewish presence in Cappadocia collected by Cassia could be completed by the evidence investigated by W. Ameling (Inscriptiones Judaicae Orientis. 2004, 534-543): Cassia has only one inscription, Ameling has eight.

[2] Above all the lunar landscape around Göreme with its inhabitable tufa-cones is mentioned.

[3] But that is not all: Following Arena the labeling of heretics as Troglodytes (Thdt.haer.4,3) may well have something to do with cave-settling in rocky Cappadocia.

[4] Gregory was a very productive poet, and there is missing a full critical edition of his poetic work.