BMCR 2020.07.37

First urban churches 5: Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea

James R. Harrison, L. L. Welborn, First urban churches 5: Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea. Writings from the Greco-Roman world supplements 16. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2019. xxi, 457 p.. ISBN 9781628372618 $60.00 (pb).

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

The First Urban Churches 5 is the fifth installment of a series which builds on the pioneering work and methods of Wayne A. Meeks and is devoted to investigating the urban context of first century CE Christian assemblies connected to the Apostle Paul.[1] (For BMCR reviews of previous volumes in this series see The First Urban Churches 1: Methodological Foundations[2] and The First Urban Churches 2: Corinth.[3]) This volume takes up  material evidence from the Lycus Valley to place the nascent Christian assemblies of Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea connected with Paul and John the author of the Apocalypse in order to contextualize the New Testament writings associated with them, Colossians, Philemon, and the message to the assembly at Laodicea described in Rev. 3:14-22. The editors divide the volume into three parts. Part 1 consists of a chapter introducing the ancient cities of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Part 2 contains four chapters that respond to the seminal work on early Christianity in the Lycus Valley by Ulrich Huttner.[4] Part 3 consists of seven thematic essays on embryonic Christianity in the Lycus Valley.

Part 1 consists of a single chapter divided into three sections, each of which attempts to present the most pertinent known material evidence from Colossae, Hierapolis, and Laodicea respectively. Its goal is to provide the most up to date and accurate information for the contextualization of the New Testament documents associated with these cities. Alan H. Cadwallader, the author of the chapter’s first section, presents all known Colossian inscriptions, which, besides a few coins, form the bulk of Colossian material evidence (because the city is still systematically unexcavated). James K. Harrison, author of the chapter’s final two sections, provides short summaries of the respective histories of Laodicea and Hierapolis, including of their excavations, and an overview of material evidence from these two cities.

In the first chapter of Part 2, Ulrich Huttner furnishes a short examination of five coin–series minted in Hierapolis from 50 to 54 CE that depict Claudius, Britannicus, and/or Nero in order to argue that these coins showcase that Colossians adopts imperial images and vocabulary to convey its message. The three contributions that follow respond to Huttner’s work by focusing on his methodology, use of evidence, and/or conclusions. Rosemary Canavan’s chapter investigates the textile trade in the cities of the Lycus Valley, which formed a large part of their local economy, and how it contributed to Christian identity. She concludes that textiles were important to the lives, identity, and religion of the denizens of the Lycus Valley and that the letter to the Colossians uses clothing and the effects of donning it as the defining metaphor of legitimating Christian identity and praxis. Next, Cadwallader focuses on the method of reconstructing the history of Colossae in light of the dearth of its urban literary and archaeological evidence. He proposes that the most appropriate method is a comparative one that uses archaeological and historical data from the Lycus Valley but strikes a balance between treating the Lycus Valley as unique on the one hand and representative of larger general trends on the other. Harry O. Maier’s chapter interacts with the hermeneutical and historiographical implications underlying Huttner’s work. Maier contends that Huttner’s real focus is on early Christianity that would later be deemed orthodox and that his definition of the Lycus Valley is somewhat artificial. Both of these assumptions are problematic, Maier argues, and he advocates a more robust conception of them for future research.

In the first contribution of Part 3, Clinton E. Arnold investigates the nature of the enigmatic Colossian philosophy, which forms one of the prime reasons for the composition of the letter to the Colossians. He assumes that this philosophy relates to Judaism and attempts to identify the kind of Judaism that funded it.  He concludes that the leader of this philosophy was a well–respected, wise, and knowledgeable Christian Jew who was a religious expert in spiritual powers. In the next chapter Peter Arzt–Grabner uses papyrological evidence to reconstruct three facets of ancient life for a first century CE denizen of Colossae—a child’s birth, a census, and marriage—and to explore the way papyri can inform the Lycus Valley’s slave trade and textile production. Next, Angela Standhartinger, assuming that Colossians is pseudepigraphic and by a group of authors, asks why these authors chose this supposed destination for their letter and what was its occasion? She argues that Colossae, the least influential city of the three main ones in the Lycus Valley, was chosen intentionally to send a theological message about nascent Christianity, namely to undermine the culture’s system of values, and that the letter does not address a historic, concrete situation.

The fourth chapter by Michael P. Theophilos examines Laodicean numismatics and their significance for nascent Christianity in the Lycus Valley. He proposes that coins from the city demonstrate its loyalty to Rome, religious pluralism, and prosperity, all of which illuminate New Testament references to Laodicea. In the next contribution, Michael Trainor—relying on insights from Peter Temin’s work on the Roman economy[5] as one in which price, responding to conditions in the empire, allocated resources—tries to discover insights into how Rome’s market economy affected Christians in the Lycus Valley. He hypothesizes that Rome’s market economy resulted in the relative wealth and social stability of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, which the evidence for households in the New Testament documents associated with the Lycus Valley corroborate.

In the sixth chapter, Allen Brent explores the relationship or lack thereof between the fourth century CE work Vita Sancti Abercii and an epitaph of a certain Abercius from the Lycus Valley, which some scholars have identified as that of Saint Abercius. Brent argues that the former work influenced modern reconstructions of the latter’s epigraphic lacunae and that such a method is unsound. He contends that the Abercius of the Abercius epitaph is probably not an ancient Christian, but a devotee of Attis. In the final contribution of Part 3, Harrison attempts to place the Apocalypse into its larger oracular context of Roman Asia during the Second Sophistic. He concludes that the popularity of oracular prophecy predates the Second Sophistic to the time of first century Christianity and proposes that the Apocalypse should be interpreted as participating in this larger mantic context.

Overall, this work provides a summary of some of the Greco–Roman archaeological, numismatic, and inscriptional evidence from Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis that New Testament scholars, unfamiliar with these data, will find helpful. In the process, the contributors make interesting and, at times, provocative observations about the relationship between these material data from the Lycus Valley and the documents of the New Testament associated with the region.

There is, however, one major limitation to this work: it suffers from a lack of editorial direction, which is evident in three major ways. First, aside from the small description of the book on its back cover, Harrison and Larry Welborn provide no preface or introduction that places The First Urban Churches 5 into the larger context of their series. This omission is a hindrance for those uninitiated in the mysteries (see Col 2:18, pun intended) of their larger project. Second, this volume differs from previous ones in this series in that almost a third of it interacts with one scholar’s work, that of Huttner. There is no question that Huttner’s contribution to the study of nascent Christianity in the Lycus Valley is seminal. However, the decision to have an entire section of The First Urban Churches 5 interacting directly with Huttner feels forced. Finally, there are a few oversights that hinder the reading of this volume. For example, Brent’s chapter on the Vita Sancti Abercii and the Abercius inscription references plates and pictures of the latter. However, these illustrations are not found anywhere in the book. Given that one of Brent’s main arguments revolves around faulty reconstructions of the text of the epigraph, a picture of the inscription is of the utmost import.

These limitations notwithstanding, The First Urban Churches 5 is a contribution for New Testament scholars who wish to know more about the material context of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis. Along these lines, they will find the references to archaeological, inscriptional, and numismatic sources related to the cities of the Lycus Valley in the bibliographies of these chapters helpful.

Authors and titles

Part 1: Introduction to the Lycus Valley
Perspectives on the Lycus Valley: An Inscriptional, Archaeological, Numismatic, and Iconographic Approach: Alan H. Cadwallader and James R. Harrison
Part 2: Responses to Ulrich Huttner’s Perspectives on the Lycus Valley
Colossians, Hierapolitan Coins–and the Young Bearers of Hope: Ulrich Huttner
Unraveling the Threads of Identity: Cloth and Clothing in the Lycus Valley: Rosemay Canavan
On the Question of Comparative Method in Historical Research: Colossae and Chonai in Larger Frame: Alan H. Cadwallader
Salience, Multiple Affiliation, and Christ Belief in the Lycus Valley: A Conversation with Ulrich Huttner’s Early Christianity in the Lycus Valley: Harry O. Maier
Part 3: Thematic Essays on the Lycus Valley
Initiation, Vision, and Spiritual Power: The Hellenistic Dimensions of the Problem at Colossae: Clinton E. Arnold
Everyday Life in a Roman Town Like Colossae: The Papyrological Evidence: Peter Arzt–Grabner
A City with a Message: Colossae and Colossians: Angela Standhartinger
Employing Numismatic Evidence in Discussions of Early Christianity in the Lycus Valley: A Case Study from Laodicea: Michael P. Theophilos
Rome’s Market Economy in the Lycus Valley: Soundings from Laodicea and Colossae: Michael Trainor
Has the Vita Abercii Misled Epigraphists in the Reconstructions of the Inscription?: Allen Brent
The Inscriptions and Oracular Prophecy in the Eastern Mediterranean Basin: Assessing the Book of Revelation in Its Graeco–Roman Revelatory Context: James R. Harrison


[1] Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul. 2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003; originally published 1983.

[2] Ulrike Roth, “The First Urban Christians 1: Methodological Foundations. Writings from the Greco–Roman World Supplement Series, 7 Review,” (BMCR 2017.04.29).

[3] Laura S. Nasrallah, “The First Urban Christians 2: Roman Corinth. Writings from the Greco–Roman World Supplement Series, 8 Review,” (BMCR 2017.08.37).

[4] Ulrich Huttner, Early Christianity in the Lycus Valley. Translated by David Green. Ancient Christianity and Early Christianity 85. Early Christianity in Asia Minor 1. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

[5] Peter Temin, The Roman Market Economy. The Princeton Economic History of the Western World 44. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017.