Acts 14:5-6  When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, 6 they learned of it and fled [from Iconium] to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country. (ESV)

This passage was in historical dispute for many years because it says Lystra and Derbe were cities in the district of Lycaonia, implying that Iconium (from which Paul had just come) was not.  This conflicted with later Roman writers such as Cicero(106-43 BC), who said Iconium was in Lycaonia.  In the words of William Ramsay, this made as much sense as talk of leaving London to go to England.[1]

At this point in the story, many apologetic treatments of this will tell you that in 1910 Sir William Ramsay, the famed archaeologist, discovered an inscription which proved that Iconium was not part of Lycaonia, but part of Phrygia.  Some even add that it proved Iconium was in Phrygia between AD 37-72.  I have read this a million times.  In fact, I have even taught it.  But as I was preparing for this series I became skeptical of the claim for a few reasons.  First, I noticed that different sources provided different years for the discovery (1910 and 1911).  Secondly, no one ever quoted Ramsay himself.  If any footnotes were provided at all, it was always to some other source.  Thirdly, no one ever provided a translation of the inscription.  All of this made me think “urban legend.”  So I did some digging and discovered that the claim is a mixed back of truth and error.

What convinced Ramsay that Iconium was in Phrygia was not the discovery of an archaeological artifact, but ancient literary texts.  He cites several sources in The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament:

  • Xenophon identified Iconium as city of Phrygia in 394 B.C. (Anabasis).
  • In AD 145 Pliny says Iconium was a Phrygian city.
  • In AD 163 several Christians, including Justin Martyr, were put on trial in Rome for their Christian faith.  One man at the trial—a slave named Hierax—was asked who his parents were.  Hierax replied, “My earthly parents are dead; and I have been brought here (a slave) torn away from Iconium of Phrygia.” This is the only report we have from a native of Iconium.
  • Firmillian, bishop of Caesarea, is said to have attended a council in AD 232 at Iconium in Phrygia.[2]

Apparently it was not until AD 372 when Valens instituted a new province of Licaonia that Iconium was included in that region.[3]  So Iconium was not just a city in Phrygia for a few decades, but for hundreds of years.  Where, then, did Christian apologists get the AD 37-72 date from?  It appears to be from Ramsay’s comments in St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen.  Ramsay did speak of the political boundaries unique to the years AD 37 to AD 72, but he was speaking about the region of Lycaonia, not the city of Iconium.  In the context of his remarks on Acts 14:6, Ramsay wrote:

Now, in v. 6 a Region comprising part of Lycaonia is distinguished from the rest as consisting of two cities and a stretch of cityless territory (i.e. territory organised on the native pre-Greek village system) … Is the description accurate?  If so, was it accurate at all periods of history, or was it accurate only at a particular period?  To these questions we must answer that it was accurate at the period when Paul visited Lycaonia; that it was accurate at no other time except between 37 and 72 A.D.; and that its only meaning is to distinguish between the Roman part of Lycaonia and the non-Roman part ruled by Antiochus. … Territory subject to Rome…was designated after the province to which it was attached; and this district was Galatica Lycaonia, because it was in the province of Galatia.  It was distinguished from “Lycaonia Antiochana,” which was ruled by King Antiochus.[4],[5]

Apparently, someone misunderstood Ramsay to be speaking of Iconium here, and conflated these dates with Ramsay’s comments in The Bearing regarding Iconium.

What about the inscription Ramsay is said to have discovered?  Ramsay did find an inscription of archaeological importance related to this issue in 1910, but what he found did not identify Iconium as a city in Phrygia, nor did it provide any dates.  Ramsay writes of the discovery in chapter four of The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament:

It was not until 1910 that the final proof was discovered [that the inhabitants of Iconium spoke the Phrygian language].  Only one kind of evidence in regard to a question of language is perfect and unanswerable: and that is epigraphic proof of its use. … The walls which we uncovered were the basement of the old Seljuk Palace. … These basement walls of the Seljuk Palace contained a number of inscribed stones, about forty-five in all.  They belonged to the century between 150 and 250 A.D., and among them were two inscribed with the Phrygian language. … Both the Phrygian inscriptions are engraved on altars.  The longer and more important is here added. … It is a mixture of Phrygian and the Greek of the Koine dialect, showing the way in which the old language was being supplanted by the colloquial Greek.[6]

Ramsay provided the following translation of this funerary monument.: “Helios Giaos purchases an empty(?) place in Kaoania (Iconium) state-sanctioned(?) on which also he places a basement and super-structure for his sister(?) Aurelia Basa. Whosoever shall forcibly enter, shall pay to the Fiscus one thousand denarii.”[7]  As you can see, the inscription does not mention Phrygia, Licaonia, or any dates.  What it does provide evidence for is that the inhabitants of Iconium were descendants of the Phrygian people, and continued to speak Phrygian.  They were culturally distinct from their neighbors in Lycaonia, who spoke in their own Lycaonian language (see Acts 14:11).

Significance:

  1. This confirms the accuracy of Luke’s historical reporting.

[1]William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament 2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), 39.
[2]William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament 2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), 56-7.
[3]William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament 2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), 58.
[4]William Ramsay, St. Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, 3rd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1897), 110-1.  See Google books at http://books.google.com/books?id=g1UuAQAAIAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false.
[5]If you find it difficult to make sense of Ramsay’s explanation, a better one is provided by the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia: “In Acts 14:6 Lycaonia is summed up as consisting of the cities of Lystra and Derbe and the district (including many villages) lying around them. This description refers to a particular division of Lycaonia, which alone is mentioned in the Bible. In the time of Paul, Lycaonia consisted of two parts, a western and an eastern. The western part was a ‘region’ or subdivision of the Roman province Galatia; the eastern was called Lycaonia Antiochiana, after Antiochus of Commagene under whom it had been placed in 37 A.D. This non-Roman portion was traversed by Paul; but nothing is recorded of his journey through it (see DERBE). It included the important city of Laranda; and when Lycaonia is described as consisting of the cities of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding district, the writer is clearly thinking only of the western portion of Lycaonia, which lay in, and formed a ‘region’ of, the province Galatia. This is the tract of country which is meant in Acts 18:23, where it is called the ‘region’ of Galatia, and placed side by side with Phrygia, another region of Galatia. The province Galatia was divided into districts technically known as ‘regions,’ and Roman Lycaonia is called the ‘region of Galatia’ in implied contrast with Antiochian Lycaonia, which lay outside the Roman province.” See http://topicalbible.org/l/lycaonia.htm.
[6]William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament 2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), 69-72.
[7]William Ramsay, The Bearing of Recent Discovery on the Trustworthiness of the New Testament 2nd ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1915), 72.

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