So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands. But the people of the city were divided; some sided with the Jews and some with the apostles. When an attempt was made by both Gentiles and Jews, with their rulers, to mistreat them and to stone them, they learned of it and fled to Lystra and Derbe, cities of Lycaonia, and to the surrounding country, and there they continued to preach the gospel. (Acts 14:3-7)
Apart from its place in early Christianity, the city of Derbe is something of a mystery. It’s first mentioned by the first century geographer Strabo as a city of Galatia, though set along a border region it seems to have changed hands frequently and is listed among the cities of Lycaonia, Cappadocia, and Isauria. Mentioned in only a handful of historic accounts little is said about the nature of the city, making it difficult to identify.
Thanks to a pair of inscriptions found at a simple mound in the modern Turkish province of Karaman, we can finally be fairly certain about Derbe’s location and begin to learn something of what this city was like. Excavations are still active.
The city of Derbe seems to have gained most of its importance from its strategic position along a highway connecting the Roman Colony of Pisidian Antioch to the eastern Mediterranean via the interior cities of Iconium, Lystra, and the Cilician Gates. Along this road Derbe sat at the border between the provinces of Galatia and Lycaonia and served as a tax collection station.
Today’s visitor to Derbe will find little more than a low, wide mound with fragments of broken pottery mixed in with the soil. Excavations have unearthed the remains of stone foundations but there is still much to be learned about this city.
But when the disciples gathered about him, he rose up and entered the city, and on the next day he went on with Barnabas to Derbe. When they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, with prayer and fasting they committed them to the Lord in whom they had believed. (Acts 14:20-23)
Derbe in Christian History
While the Biblical account tells us little about Derbe, the city holds a special place in the story of the early spread of the Gospel. In Acts 14 we see Paul and Barnabas narrowly escape Iconium where a Jewish faction had plotted to stone them. Paul and Barnabas flee from Iconium to the nearby city of Lystra where, after being taken for a god, Paul is stoned by the crowds, stirred up by Jews from Antioch and Iconium. Narrowly surviving, Paul and Barnabas go on to Derbe where they simply preached the Gospel and made many disciples. In stark contrast to the cities of Iconium and Lystra, the city of Derbe is unique in the New Testament as the only city to accept the message of the Gospel from the beginning and seemingly without trouble.
Paul came also to Derbe and to Lystra. A disciple was there, named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer, but his father was a Greek. He was well spoken of by the brothersat Lystra and Iconium. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, and he took him and circumcised him because of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek. As they went on their way through the cities, they delivered to them for observance the decisions that had been reached by the apostles and elders who were in Jerusalem. So the churches were strengthened in the faith, and they increased in numbers daily. (Acts 16:1-5)
Destination photos and content courtesy of Josh Ryvers and artofwayfaring.com.