In the Christian Greek Scriptures the term Asia is used as referring, not to the continent of Asia, nor to the peninsula called Asia Minor, but to the Roman province occupying the western part of that peninsula.
The Romans wrested control of Asia Minor from Antiochus the Great by their victory at Magnesia (near Ephesus) in 190 B.C.E., and the territory W of the Taurus Mountains was given as a reward to Rome’s ally, the king of Pergamum. In 133 B.C.E. when King Attalus III of Pergamum died he bequeathed his kingdom to Rome. The Roman province of Asia was thereafter formed from this kingdom and included the older countries of Mysia, Lydia, Caria and, at times, part of Phrygia, as well as the adjacent islands. It was thus bounded by the Aegean Sea and the provinces of Bithynia, Galatia (which embraced part of Phrygia) and Lycia. The precise borders, however, are difficult to define due to repeated shifting.
Initially, the capital was located at Pergamum in Mysia, but during the reign of Augustus it was transferred to Ephesus, farther to the S. In the year 27 B.C.E. the province was made senatorial and thereafter governed by a proconsul. (Acts 19:38) It was also divided into nine judicial districts and subdivided into forty-four city districts.
NATIVE CULTS AND WORSHIP
An ‘Asian League’ was formed by the cities of the province, and their delegates met annually. The prime function of the league, however, was in relation to the worship of Rome and of the emperor, prayers and sacrifices being offered on behalf of the emperor, the Senate, and the Roman people, and games and festivals were arranged. The cult of emperor worship had originally been instituted at Pergamum, the Roman province of Asia being among the first to request permission to worship the living emperor. (Compare Revelation 2:12, 13.) Concerning this, one reference work states: “A[sia] M[inor] was also the home of the imperial cult, the attitude of Christians to which caused their faith to be proscribed and brought upon themselves bloody persecutions, which raged with greatest severity in A[sia] M[inor].”—Funk and Wagnalls, A New Standard Bible Dictionary, p. 74.
Among the native cults and rites was that of the worship of the Great Mother. (See The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol. 1, p. 259.) Concerning this we read: “From time immemorial among the Hittites and the Aryan invaders of A[sia] M[inor] the premier place was given in religion to a great Mother-Goddess, the representative of the powers of reproduction in all nature, with whom was associated a lesser male deity as spouse or son. . . . This divine personage was to make its contribution to the Christian Madonna.”—Funk and Wagnalls, A New Standard Bible Dictionary, p. 74; see EPHESUS; PHRYGIA.
Such native worship doubtless contributed toward the preference later shown toward the female deity Artemis, whose Roman counterpart was Diana, and whose worship was centered at the capital of the province of Asia, Ephesus.—Acts 19:23-35, see ARTEMIS.
The province of Asia had many Jews among its mixed population of Greeks, Romans, Persians, Lydians, Mysians, and others. In the first century C.E. their synagogues were found in many cities of the province.
The province was famous for its woolen industries and dyeing factories, as also for its banks. Of it, Cicero wrote: “In the richness of its soil, in the variety of its products, in the extent of its pastures, and in the number of its exports, it surpasses all other lands.” (De. Imp. Cn. Pomp. 14) Its corrugated coastline provided many excellent harbors and seaports.
These historical facts are illustrated in the account contained in the book of Acts. Luke, in describing the regions from which the Jews had come to Jerusalem at Pentecost time in the year 33 C.E., lists Asia along with the provinces of Cappadocia, Pontus and Pamphylia. (Acts 2:9; compare 1 Peter 1:1.) He there lists Phrygia apart from Asia, as he does again at Acts 16:6. Pliny the Elder, Roman author of the first century C.E., did likewise. (Historia Naturalis, v. 28) The account at Acts 16:6, 7 states that Paul was “forbidden by the holy spirit to speak the word in the district of Asia” when traveling westward on his second missionary tour (49-52 C.E.). He therefore moved through Phrygia and Galatia northward toward the province of Bithynia, but he was again diverted westward through Mysia to the seaport of Troas, the natural point for embarking to Macedonia. Here Paul received his vision inviting him to “step over into Macedonia and help us.” So, whereas Paul actually passed through the northern part of the province of Asia, he did not spend time there until his return trip after completing his work in Macedonia and Achaia. He now spent a short time in Ephesus, preaching in the synagogue, and then departing with the promise to return.—Acts 18:19-21.
During his third journey (52-56 C.E.) Paul spent over two years in that capital city of Asia, with the result that “all those inhabiting the district of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks.” (Acts 19:1-10, 22) It was evidently at this time (about 55 C.E.), in Ephesus, that Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, to whom he sent greetings from the “congregations of Asia,” thereby indicating good progress. (1 Cor. 16:19) He makes reference to the difficulties and grave danger experienced in that province, in his second letter to the Corinthians written later from Macedonia. (Acts 19:23-41; 2 Cor. 1:8) On his return voyage, not wanting to spend further time in Asia, Paul sailed past Ephesus, touching in at the island of Samos and landing at Miletus in Caria, part of the province of Asia, to which point he invited the “older men” of the Ephesian congregation to come for a meeting with him.—Acts 20:15-18.
When traveling to Rome for his first trial (60-61 C.E.), a trial that resulted from a mob action at Jerusalem instigated by “Jews from Asia” (Acts 21:27, 28; 24:18, 19; compare 6:9), Paul initially embarked on a ship that was going to “places along the coast of the district of Asia,” but then transferred to another ship at Myra in the neighboring province of Lycia.—Acts 27:2-6.
Paul’s words at 2 Timothy 1:15, evidently written from Rome about the year 65 C.E., may indicate that the strong persecution then beginning to rage against the Christians on the part of the Roman authorities had now caused many of the Christian ‘men of Asia’ to shun association with the imprisoned apostle Paul, turning away from Paul at a critical time. That the expression “all the men in the district of Asia” does not imply a total turning away of all Christians in Asia is seen by Paul’s commendation immediately thereafter of Onesiphorus, who was evidently a resident of Ephesus.—2 Tim. 1:16-18; 4:19.
A continuation of Christian faith is also manifest in the Revelation and the seven messages sent by John to seven congregations in prominent cities of Asia: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea, most of these congregations being commended for having endured tribulation. (Rev. 1:4, 11; 2:2, 3, 9, 10, 13, 19; 3:10) John was then (about 96 C.E.) in the island of Patmos, a short distance off the coast of the province of Asia. It is generally believed that John’s gospel account and three letters were written in or near Ephesus, subsequent to his release from Patmos.
Other cities of the province of Asia mentioned Scripturally are Colossae, Hieropolis, Adramyttium, and Assos.
Asia Minor, of which the province of Asia formed only the western part, comprises the entire peninsula bounded by the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Mediterranean on the N, W, and S, and on the E by the mountains lying to the W of the upper course of the Euphrates River. Branching out from the main body of the continent of Asia just N of Syria, Asia Minor formed a land bridge between SE Europe and Central Asia, and hence a strategic area that was the theater of war in many struggles between the world powers of East and West. Today it is occupied by the Republic of Turkey.
Two especially vital points of this region were located in the NW section: the straits of Bosporus (with the Black Sea on one side and the Sea of Marmara on the other), and the Hellespont (or Dardanelles), both of which separate Asia from Europe by very narrow margins.
Asia Minor was the scene of much of Paul’s missionary activity, and the names of most of its provinces and regions appear in the Bible account. In all, the peninsula included such regions as Bithynia and Pontus (earlier, Paphlagonia), Mysia, Lydia, Caria, Lycia, Pamphylia, Pisidia, Phrygia, Lycaonia, Galatia, Cappadocia, and Cilicia, many, but not all, of these becoming Roman provinces.
In a wider sense the term “Asia” was used, in some ancient writings, to refer to the Seleucid Empire of the third century B.C.E. as ruled by Antiochus the Great, which then included Syria, Mesopotamia, and much of Asia Minor. Both the apocryphal book of First Maccabees and the Jewish historian Josephus of the first century C.E. refer to Antiochus the Great as king of “Asia.”—1 Maccabees 8:6; Antiquities of the Jews, Book XII, chap. 3, par. 3.
The term “Asia Minor” did not itself come into use until the fourth century of the Common Era. The name “Anatolia” (meaning “rising of the sun”) was later given to this region by the Greeks.
[Map on page 146]
ASIA MINOR Roman Province Names
BITHYNIA AND PONTUS
KINGDOM OF POLEMON
KINGDOM OF ANTIOCHUS
CILICIA AND SYRIA
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ASIA MINOR Old Regional Names