Colossae

History

Colossae is one of the few cities mentioned in the New Testament that has never been excavated.  All that remains of the site is a large mound of dirt – a tell.  Thus, it is unclear both from history and archaeology when Colossae was founded.

The city of Colossae was located about 120 miles east of Ephesus.  While the Asian cities of Ephesus, Smyrna, and Miletus were located on the western coast of what is now Turkey, Colossae was located inland in a region known as the Lycus River Valley in the ancient kingdom of Phrygia.  Colossae shared this valley with two other cities, Laodicea and Hierapolis.  Each were only about fifteen miles distance from the others.

The ancient historian Herodotus identified Colossae as a city of great size when the Persian king Xerxes marched through the city.  This would date the founding of the city back to at least 480 BC, and we can conclude that it must go back even further if it were already a large city at that time.  Similar to Herodotus a century earlier, Xenophon mentioned Colossae while chronicling Cyrus and his army’s march through the region, this time on their way to northern Babylonia to attempt to overthrow his brother, Artaxerxes II.  The Cyrus being referred to here is sometimes referred to as Cyrus the Younger, not to be confused with Cyrus the Great of Biblical renown.

Colossae … Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Further references to Colossae are scant until the second century BC, when it was part of the Roman province of Asia (though still often referred to as a Phrygian city).  The Seleucid ruler Antiochus III ruled the region in the third century BC for over fifty years.  But like many kingdoms at that time, he attempted to challenge Roman expansion and was defeated at the battle of Magnesia in 190 BC.  When Attalus, the last in a line of rulers of Pergamum, died childless in 133 BC, he left his domain directly to Rome, making Roman rule of the region officially recognized.  The region was reorganized as the Roman province of Asia, and Ephesus became its capital city.

At the turn of the first century AD, Strabo wrote that the two largest Phrygian cities were Apamea and Laodicea.  He does mention Colossae, but identifies it as being a smaller town in the vicinity of Laodicea.  Thus, by the time of the New Testament, Laodicea was being recognized as the leading city of that region.  The third city of the Lycus River Valley may also have surpassed Colossae in prominence.  Hierapolis became known for its hot springs and mineral baths, which can still be experienced today.  It also became a center for pagan religious worship, at least in part because of the healing properties of the mineral baths, as well as the toxic fumes emanating from some of the caves around the hot springs.  So by the time that the Apostle Paul would have written to the city in the first century AD, Colossae’s heyday was well in the past, taking a back seat to both Laodicea and Hierapolis.

Colossae In The Bible

Unlike other cities to which Paul addressed his letter, Colossae was not a significant city in the Roman Empire or the ancient world.  By the time of the Apostle Paul in the first century AD, Colossae’s heyday was well in the past, taking a back seat to both Laodicea and Hierapolis.  One biblical commentator even goes so far as to say, “Without doubt Colossae was the least important church to which any epistle of St. Paul is addressed.”

Yet Paul did write to this church community in Colossae.  No doubt one reason was that Paul worked closely with Epaphras in Ephesus and Epaphras went on to found the churches in the Lycus River Valley, including the church in his home town of Colossae.  So it appears that this was a way to support Epaphras’ leadership in the Lycus Valley churches.

The only direct reference to Colossae in the Bible is in Colossians 1:2, when Paul addresses the saints in Colossae.  Otherwise, scripture is silent on this city.  It would seem that Paul never visited the city, as his letter addresses all those who have not met him personally.  So our only source of Biblical information on Colossae is from Paul’s letter to the Colossians.

There are, however, two indirect links in the Bible to the city of Colossae.  The first is the personal letter to an individual named Philemon that was delivered along with the letter of Colossians.  When we align the opening verse of Philemon, where Paul addresses the letter to Philemon, “our dear friend and fellow worker … and the church that meets in your home,” with Colossians 4:9, where Paul mentions Onesimus “who is one of you,” the situation becomes apparent.  Paul’s messenger Tychicus was not only delivering letters to the church in Colossae, but also the personal appeal to Philemon, whose home was where the church in Colossae gathered.

The second indirect reference to Colossae in the Bible is found in the book of Revelation, that final book of the New Testament.  In the early chapters of Revelation, John conveys letters to the seven churches of Asia, with Ephesus being the first church addressed.  The churches that were addressed were Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodicea.  When addressing these churches in Asia, it would indicate that these churches represented the primary churches in that province at the end of the first century.  So while Colossae is not addressed, the church in Laodicea likely represented all the churches in the Lycus Valley.  Revelation 3:14 – 22 envisions a church that had grown wealthy and self-sufficient but lacked a vibrant faith.  The response called for from the Laodicean church is that of repentance.  The church in Laodicea gives us a potential glimpse into the spiritual temperature of the neighboring church in Colossae as well.

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