Unearthing Ancient Colossae in Southern Turkey: theology and archaeology in dialogue
A FEW MONTHS ago, the Rev Nile suggested that Muslim women should not wear their distinctive burqa in public. He was afraid that the loose-fitting garb could conceal weapons or bombs that would maim and kill innocent citizens – in other words, he regarded Muslims as a threat to Australians. Across the country, his suggestions received well-considered responses from all sectors of the population, from religious commentators to political leaders of various persuasions. In the main, his comments were dismissed as inappropriate. But there is an aspect about his comments that needs further reflection. This is especially necessary given the explicit Christian stance which Fred Nile takes (presumably on behalf of all professed Christians) and the impression that his comments would leave on the wider community, Christians and non-Christians alike, especially Muslims. I add my commentary on Fred Nile’s anti-Muslim directive from a unique angle: from insights gained in travelling through the Middle East, in predominantly Muslim countries, and in the light of a unique archaeological project which the schools of theology and archaeology of Flinders University, South Australia, and the classics department of Adelaide University are developing.
It would be easy to dismiss Fred Nile’s comments as the uneducated rantings of a religious misanthrope or, more kindly, the reflections of an over vigilant anti-terrorist. From a theological point of view, however, his comments could be interpreted as representative of an expression of Christianity that regards all other religious traditions as at the least inauthentic, if not evil. Nile’s remarks represent a modern day form of Christian imperialism that regards non-Christians as pagans and enemies. It was this attitude that fundamentally led Western Christian countries between 1095 and 1291 CE to organise military campaigns to annihilate the Muslim powers. This resulted in great human suffering, perhaps surpassed only by that other tragic event of the twentieth century in which Christians played a significant part, the Jewish pogroms. Over these two events Pope John Paul II has explicitly invited Christians to join him in public repentance.
An Experience of the Muslim World
Every two years I invite theology students, colleagues and other interested people to join me on a study tour of the Middle East. Adelaide Archdiocese’s Catholic Adult Education Service, and the School of Theology of Flinders University located at the Adelaide College of Divinity campus promote the tour. It is an accredited unit for the Bachelor of Theology. Though I vary the itinerary each time we travel, I have one overall aim for the program: to insert participants into the culture, history and religious traditions of the Mediterranean region. For it is here that the Bible came to birth and Christianity thrived and spread, at least up until the Middle Byzantine period of the 13th century. Besides all the wonderful religious traditions and movements that sprang from this region, it has been the geographical stage of conflict, with every major army marching across it. This would include the Christian crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries. Fred Nile’s statement is a reminder that, in some Christian quarters, the crusading spirit is still alive.
On the study tour, I am keen that participants gain deeper insight into the cultural and historical origins of Christianity. This comes about through their physical engagement with early Christian archaeological sites. Given the tour’s explicit Christian focus, I am always amazed how easily our time is spent in a Muslim world, with a Muslim bus-driver and guide, experiencing Muslim hospitality. The Muslims that I have been associated with over the years have been welcoming and friendly. They are keen to interact with Christian theology students and support a clearly Christian-focussed tour.
The Lycus Valley
The valley is also important to scholars and students of the New Testament and early Christianity. It was the centre of three Christian communities in the first century CE, Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colossae. Writings from the New Testament, the Letter to Philemon, the Book of Revelation, and the Letter to the Colossians are associated with two of these centres. It is clear from the Letter to the Colossians that a close relationship existed between all three. The writer attests that the central pastoral minister to the Colossians, Epaphras, ‘has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis’ (Col 4:13) Thus the same Christian preacher is involved in ministry with Christians in these same communities. The same Christian leader held a pastoral responsibility for all three communities, given their relative geographical proximity to each other and the need for a form or style of evangelising ministry that ensured theological coherence and unity.
The New Testament Writings of the Lycus Valley
The Book of Revelation, the final in the NT writings, is addressed to the Church of Laodicea and six other Christian communities in western and southern Turkey. Its author, John (and not the John of the gospel or the letters) writes to comfort and encourage Christians experiencing desolation and paralysis in the face of political oppression from Roman Imperialism.
The third writing of the Lycus Valley, the Letter to the Colossians is one of the most intriguing and skilfully argued writings of the late NT period. Most scholars are convinced that it was not written by Paul, but by his disciple or colleague, possibly Epaphras. If they are correct, then it seems that the author pens the letter not long after Paul’s death, somewhere between the late 60s and early 70s CE, in Paul’s name, addressing a serious pastoral issue. Paul is, as it were, brought forth from the grave to speak authoritatively to the Colossian Christians.
The Letter to the Colossians
The task facing the author of Colossians was very delicate. Presuming for the moment that Epaphras was the letter’s author, he had to sift through the Colossian religious mix, identifying what was authentic and confirming the Pauline preaching they had received and into which they had been baptised. Epaphras also sought to reshape this preaching in a way that spoke into the local cultural and religious scene with which they were familiar. What resulted from Epaphras’ writing was a letter, written in a Pauline style, affirming the Colossians in their faith in Jesus. Though they possessed genuine spiritual wisdom and knowledge they had been attracted by a false religious asceticism that depended on ‘human tradition’, the ‘elemental spirits of the world’ (Col 2:8) and the ‘worship of angels’ (2:18).
In response, Epaphras’ letter refashions an original Pauline christology, adopting language and concepts familiar to the letter’s opponents, and presenting a cosmic christology. Christ’s power is cosmic and total—it involves the totality of the universe, including those elemental powers which seem in control of the hearts of some of the Colossian Christians. The writer argues that Christ is Lord over all creation and every principality and power (1:16-17), in whom is hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (2:3) and all the fullness of the divine reality dwells in bodily form (2:9). Remarkable here is the writer’s enterprising theological and educational method. With creative freedom, Epaphras reconstructs traditional Pauline theology in a way that explores the implications of cosmic christology. This presentation of Jesus is unique. The statement of 2:9 (‘For in him the whole fullness of the deity dwells in bodily form…’) can well be regarded as one of the high points of late New Testament christology: Jesus is the bodily and total expression of God; human beings are able to experience the fullness of God through Jesus. This statement in the Letter to the Colossians is christologically similar to the incarnational expression found in the Gospel of John, where the ‘Word has become flesh and dwells [literally, pitches tent] among us’ (Jn 1:14). The writer concludes that that which attracts the Colossian Christians to adopt syncretic religious practices—the desire for security and theological communion—is found in the cosmic Christ. The final section of the letter is taken up with how this reality can be lived out in practice.
The letter to the Colossians is a rich, tightly argued and rhetorically intricate piece of writing. It combines theological sensitivity and care for the letter’s intended audience with an educational methodology respectful of the Christian tradition into which the Colossians had been baptised. A contemporary reader, while marvelling at the way the writer addresses a very difficult pastoral situation, is also left with a few mysteries to ponder—among them, the meaning of ‘elemental spirits’ 2:8,20) and ‘worship of angels’ (2:18) which seem so influential in the religious ethos of the ‘errorists’ and the ascetical practices adopted by the Colossian Christians. Several excellent works in recent decades have shed some light on these expressions, though more work needs to be done, especially in light of the information that could be shed on the early cultural and social world of the Lycus Valley, enhanced by the fruitful results from such disciplines as epigraphy and archaeology.
Archaeological Sites of the Lycus Valley
Hierapolis (today Pamukkale) sits on the northern edge of the Lycus valley. Today, as in the time of Darius, Alexander the Great and Paul, it is a popular centre for recreation and healing. The warm mineral springs that bubble up from the earth’s inner recesses provide refreshment and healing. The cascading white limestone ledges, sacred pools and travertine basins that have resulted from the evaporation of the mineral waters over thousands of years are visitors’ introduction to this magnificent ancient city. Today the visitor passes through the city’s ancient necropolis before arriving at the Arch of Domitian, a colonnaded street at the end of which is a gate from the Byzantine period. Still visible are Roman baths, theatre and a temple to Apollo, all dating from c 3rd-4th century CE. Of Christian interest is the 5th century Martyrion of the Apostle Philip. Hierapolis is still spectacular and it is not hard to reason why the place was, and continues to be, excavated.
The second ancient site, Laodicea— though much larger than Hierapolis—has, up until recently, received only minor archaeological attention. There are several reasons for this: it is further from the modern highway than Hierapolis, does not have the popular tourist attraction of warm mineral springs, and its visible remains are fewer, more spread out over the site. Over the last two years, Pamukkale University archaeologists have begun a major excavation, concentrating on Laodicea’s forum.
Then we come to Colossae, located on the south bank of the River Lycus and 15 kilometres east of Laodicea. The site is magnificently unspectacular, and in comparison to Hierapolis and Loadicea, disappointing. All that the modern traveller sees is simply a huge mound (‘tell’) under which is buried the ancient city. Little remains above ground. A survey of the travel diaries of similarly interested pilgrims and archaeologists since the eighteenth century has revealed that the site had more to show: physical remains revealed a theatre, a necropolis, a large church, several pylons or pillars that made up the ceremonial processional way into the city, and several inscriptions. Over the centuries, all of these have been removed by local townspeople for reuse in buildings, pilfered by passers-by or buried and forgotten. The place has been a virtual quarry for about a thousand years. The necropolis area is barely identifiable and some tombs have been disturbed.
When I first brought a group of early Christian researchers to this site, two thoughts occurred to me. The first was the repeated comment from every modern scholarly commentator on the Letter to the Colossians: the site is unexcavated, and answers to questions that the letter raises will never be satisfactorily answered until archaeological work begins there. The second was in the form of a question: How feasible would it be to encourage archaeological work here? I instantly dismissed the question given the fact that I am not an archaeologist and recognising all the difficulties that would have to be overcome. In other words, an archaeological project initiated from Australia would be impossible.
Excavating at Colossae: Australian-based Project
In 2001 Claire and myself, with funding from Flinders, flew to Turkey, travelled to Denizli, the major city near Colossae and met the governor, local civic leaders, the mayor of the town of Honaz—the town closest to Colossae—and the principal archaeologists of Pamukkale University. On our return we invited Dr Margaret O’Hea of the Classics Department of Adelaide University to join us. The three of us then began to clarify our research proposal and to search out sources of funding. In 2002, we returned to Turkey to move the project forward, cement relationships with the locals, especially the people of Honaz, determine more precisely the archaeological strategy we would adopt and explore the way the Australian team would collaborate with Pamukkale University. In the meantime, we have received interest in the project from several tertiary institutions in Australia and the US.
As we have worked together and have met the local Turkish people interested in the project, several other things have become clear to me. These touch on the issue that began this paper. I suspect that in the theologically straitjacketed worldview represented in anti-Muslim comments, the cross-cultural, multi-disciplined, inter-religious archaeological project proposed by Flinders University and Adelaide University of South Australia would be impossible. At stake is a deep suspicion about anything non-Christian, especially Muslim.
Early Biblical Archaeology
Bible and Archaeology as Dialogue
Biblical research and theology seek to understand the sacred texts of the Israelite and Christian communities and the reason that these texts nurtured the faith lives of believers. The study of systematic theology helps us to articulate what Christians believed and how they expressed that belief. In the collaborative enterprise that we envisage in our Colossae project, archaeology can assist biblical researchers understand the culture and religious traditions out of which the texts came. Biblical study and theology can help archaeology isolate the particular questions and focus of its enquiry. From a theological perspective, any insight into the real lives of human beings offers fresh or confirming insights into the way people lived, believed and sought meaning in their lives. This touches at the heart of the religious and theological vision: the expression of the incarnation of religious meaning in the lives of people and how this might impact on the discipleship of Christian followers in the earliest centuries. In other words, one of the fruits of this unique collaborative project at ancient Colossae might throw light on some of the questions raised above: the growth and influence of a syncretistic folk religion influenced by Jewish, and non-Christian ascetical observances and angelic practices. It is conceivable that collaboration between theologians, biblical researchers and archaeologists at Colossae can help identify more clearly the process and meaning behind the letter’s cosmic christology. In this approach archaeology is not regarded as a servant of theology but as a partner in seeking meaning and understanding religious truth.
Muslim ‘conversion’ of Christians
When I think of the possibility of a group of theological students working alongside archaeologists and being housed in the town of Honaz, I can see important theological insights and truths emerging at a deeper, unexpected level for the open enquirer self-critical of the Western penchant for cultural imperialism. The people at Honaz will be teaching us. Living, even for a few weeks, in this economically depressed part of the world will raise for students and archaeological participants important questions about wealth, culture and religion. The daily village life of Honaz, punctuated by the Muslim call to prayer, could cause Western Christians to think seriously about their own values and truths from which they live. In other words, the Colossae experience has the potential to allow Honaz’s Muslims to initiate within committed Christians a deep sense of conversion about what really matters.