City of philosophers, architects, & rebels

Sailing from there, the next day we arrived off Chios. The following day we crossed over to Samos, and the day after, we came to Miletus. For Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus to avoid spending time in the province of Asia, because he was hurrying to be in Jerusalem, if possible, for the day of Pentecost. Now from Miletus, he sent to Ephesus and summoned the elders of the church. When they came to him, he said to them: “I was with you the whole time, serving the Lord with all humility, with tears, and during the trials ... But I consider my life of no value to myself; my purpose is to finish my course and the ministry I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the gospel of God’s grace ... Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has appointed you as overseers, to shepherd the church of God, which he purchased with his own blood ... And now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you an inheritance among all who are sanctified” ... After he said this, he knelt down and prayed with all of them. There were many tears shed by everyone. They embraced Paul and kissed him, grieving most of all over his statement that they would never see his face again.
The Apostle Paul to the Ephesian Elders at Miletus (Acts 20)

Historical Spotlights

A calm and beautiful location some 20 miles south of present day Soke, Miletus sits at the mouth of the Menderes (Büyükmenderes) River. Once known as an economic behemoth on the Aegean coast, the city produced philosophers, city planners, architects, and rebels. It hosted emperors, conquerors, ancient founders of cities and apostles. But its undoing occurred because of slow-moving deposits of silting sand produced by the Meander River beneath city foundations, which distanced it from the coast, shut down its seaport, and diminished its importance.

Miletus was one of the oldest, most powerful settlements among the Ionian League, along with Ephesus. Archeological evidence suggests Minoans from Crete settled Miletus in the sixteenth century B.C.E. Mycenaeans gained control of the city in 1400 B.C.E., and the Ionians came in 1000 B.C.E. Like many cities in the region, Miletus spent the next few centuries with control shifting from the Persians, to Alexander, to Seleucids, and finally into the grasp of Rome.

The Sacred Way, from Miletus to Didyma, dates back as early as the seventh century B.C.E., and Emperor Trajan repaved it in the second century A.D. Throughout Hellenistic and Roman times, the Miletus people made an annual pilgrimage along the Sacred Way, beginning at the Processional Way in the city’s center and ending at the Temple of Apollo at Didyma. The total distance was 12 miles (20 km). Didyma contained one of the most important oracles in the ancient world. Diocletian consulted the oracle as he contemplated continuing the empire’s persecution of Christians in 303 A.D. The oracle responded in the affirmative, and persecution persisted. 

Other famous citizens of ancient Miletus included Anaximander and Anaximenes, both philosophers of nature and the universe; the historian and geographer Hekataios, who first used the word “history” in its modern sense; Hippodamus whom city planners today can thank for the Hippodamian grid; and Isidorus, one of the designers of the Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul). After the third century, Miletus began to decline. By the sixth century, the silting of the Meander River had destroyed the city’s harbors and attracted malaria.

Erastus has remained at Corinth; I left Trophimus sick at Miletus.

Paul, 2 Timothy 4:20

Miletus in Christian History

According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Romans intervened to guarantee freedom of religion to Jews in Miletus; an inscription found in the theater points to Jewish God-fearers who lived in the city. The importance of Miletus in Christian history lay not in receiving a letter from an apostle or church father, but in its proximity, both relationally and geographically, to those cities who did. In Paul’s time Miletus was strategically located for quick passage to Jerusalem, providing a prime spot to meet, encourage, and inspire the Ephesian church elders.

Miletus was one of St. Paul’s stops on his third missionary journey. According to Acts 20:15-38, Paul was hurrying back to Jerusalem because he wanted to reach the holy city by the day of Pentecost. Coming from Troas, he bypassed Ephesus, but paused at Miletus and called Ephesian elders to meet him there. Another visit to Miletus is suggested in 2 Timothy 4:20, which describes Paul leaving Trophimus in Miletus due to illness. 

During Paul’s time, no direct statement is made about a church in Miletus. However, its proximity to Ephesus (where Paul spent two years) suggests that a church existed there. What’s more, the fact that Paul felt comfortable to hold an elders’ meeting with his ailing companion, Trophimus, in the city (presumably under the care of fellow believers), we can assume a Christian community was established.

Hope is the only good that is common to all men; those who have nothing else possess hope still...The past is certain, the future obscure.

Thales of Miletus

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