Look at a Turkey map and you can note the familiar Biblical names of Harran where Abraham lived; Mt. Ararat where Noah’s boat landed; Antioch where the believers were first called Christians; Ephesus where a significant church was founded and where Paul’s presence caused a riot; Tarsus where Paul was born; Cappadocia where early Christians fled when persecuted; and Myra where St. Nicholas was born.
While many Christians do not think of Turkey as a biblical land, during much of the first century it was the centre for the young church. Two-thirds of the 27 books in the New Testament were either written in Asia Minor (the term for the Asian portion of Turkey) or were addressed to communities there. The apostles John, Paul, and Peter lived, preached, and prayed here. Turkey is also home to the Seven Churches of Asia, where the Revelations to John were sent. Apostle John is reputed to have taken Virgin Mary to Ephesus in western Turkey after the crucifixion, where she spent the last days of her life in a small house on the Mount Koressos, known as the House of the Virgin Mary, which still survives today and has been recognized as a holy site for pilgrimage by the Catholic and Orthodox churches, as well as being a Muslim shrine. The cave of the Seven Sleepers is also located in Ephesus.
THE FIRST CHRISTIANS
At the beginning of the Christian movement, in the first hundred years of the post - Jesus era, encounters with Jewish Christians (also called Judeo-Christians) distinguishable from gentile Christians were a daily occurrence both in the Holy Land and in the diaspora.
During his days of preaching, Jesus of Nazareth addressed only Jews, “the lost sheep of Israel” (Matthew 10:5; 15:24). His disciples were expressly instructed not to approach gentiles or Samaritans (Matthew 10:5). On the few occasions that Jesus ventured beyond the boundaries of his homeland, he never proclaimed his gospel to pagans, nor did his disciples do so during his lifetime. The mission of the 11 apostles to “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) is a “post-Resurrection” idea. It appears to be of Pauline inspiration and is nowhere else found in the Gospels. Jesus’ own perspective was exclusively Jewish; he was concerned only with Jews.
After the crucifixion, the apostles began to champion a new faith in Jesus and the ranks of the Jesus movement (known as “the Way” at the time) swelled to 3,000 Jewish converts. At first, these followers were distinctly Jewish, following Mosaic Law, Temple traditions and dietary customs.
The Jesus movement began around 40 AD with the admission into the church of the family of the Roman centurion Cornelius in Caesarea (Acts 10). Later came the gentile members of the mixed Jewish-Greek church in Antioch (Acts 11:19–24; Galatians 2:11–14), as well as the many pagan converts of Paul in Syria, Asia Minor and Greece. With them the Jewish monopoly in the new movement came to an end. Jewish and gentile Christianity was born.”
After the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, many of the early Christians, escaping from persecutions in Jerusalem, came to Asia Minor and settled in different cities like Ephesus, Hierapolis and Cappadocia.
Anatolia, often labelled the cradle of civilization, can without exaggeration also be titled the cradle of Christianity.
The Armenians, Assyrians and Aramaic-speaking Suryanis of eastern Anatolia were among the first non-Jews to adopt the new religion. The Armenians, converted by St. Gregory the Illuminator, became the first nation to accept Christianity as the state religion.
St. Paul, a native of Tarsus, took advantage of the excellent Roman road system to travel three times through southern and western Anatolia, preaching and converting as he went. He also lived for over two years at Ephesus. Many of his epistles are addressed to the peoples of Anatolia; the Cappadocians, the Ephesians, the Galatians, etc.
John, Philip, Barnaba and Peter also proselytised in Anatolia. St. John stayed for a while in Ephesus together with Virgin Mary and, after he returned from Patmos where he was exiled, died in Ephesus. His Book of Revelation was written while in exile on the island of Patmos, and was addressed to the seven churches of Asia Minor - Laodicea (near Pamukkale), Sardis (east of Izmir), Philadelphia (Alasehir), Thyatira (Akhisar), Ephesus, Smyrna (Izmir), and Pergamum (Bergama).
St. Peter settled in Antioch and built the first Christian church carved in a cave. St. Philip settled in Hierapolis but was killed together with his family by the Romans.
THE EASTERN ANATOLIAN CHURCH
The Apostle Paul, following his visitation by Jesus Christ on the road to Damascus, returned to his hometown of Tarsus. Tarsus is located on the eastern Mediterranean coast between the modern cities of Adana and Mersin. From there Paul ministered and planted house churches throughout the Roman provinces of Cilicia and Syria (Galatians 1:21). Several years later he moved with Barnabas to Syrian Antioch to disciple the many new Christians in that region (Acts 21:39; 22:3). It was in Antioch that the followers of Jesus were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:25-26). The mission thrust from Antioch not only moved westward through Paul’s apostolic journeys, but also eastward to the city of Edessa (modern Urfa), through northern Mesopotamia (eastern Turkey) to Central Asia, and, eventually, even as far as China.
THE WESTERN ANATOLIAN CHURCH
Because of Paul’s extensive ministry in Ephesus, the church in western Anatolia was established and grew rapidly. While he was under house arrest in Rome, Paul wrote several letters to the western Anatolian churches. The letter of Ephesians was written to the churches of the entire Aegean region. The letter of Colossians was sent to the churches in the Lycos Valley cities of Colossae, Laodicea, and Hierapolis, located approximately 161 km (100 miles) inland from Ephesus. Upon his release from Roman custody around 63 AD, Paul wrote leadership letters to Timothy in Ephesus. However, Paul was arrested again and returned to Rome. There he was martyred around 65 AD.
THE NORTHERN ANATOLIAN CHURCH
Acts 2:9 tells us that Jews from the Roman province of Pontus in northern Anatolia were present at Pentecost in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit was poured out in fulfilment of the prophesy of Joel 2. Numerous Pontus Jews put their faith in Christ in response to Peter’s preaching (Acts 2:14-41). They returned home to the Black Sea region. We know, for example, that Aquila was a Pontus Jewish Christian (Acts 18:2).
Following Pentecost, while Paul was engaged in missionary journeys in southern and western Anatolia, the Apostle Peter likely travelled through northern Anatolia spreading the gospel and planting churches. Around 65 AD Peter wrote two letters from Rome addressed to the northern Anatolian Christians “scattered throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia” (1 Peter 1:1). Peter’s greeting probably identifies the northern Anatolian provinces he travelled through during his missionary work and the circular itinerary that the carrier of his letters (likely Silas) would have travelled.
CHRISTIANITY AT TIME OF THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
For two centuries the Roman authorities fought the rising spread of Christianity with persecution and terror. The turnabout came when Constantine the Great embraced Christianity and in 330 AD dedicated Constantinople the new capital of the Roman Empire, thus establishing the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire, which was to last for well over a thousand years until it was conquered by the Ottoman army. With the seat of Christianity located at Constantinople, believers set about stamping out all remaining traces of Paganism. Monasticism and ascetism emerged in the fourth and fifth centuries, and became very influential. In Antioch the anchorites demonstrated their piety by living on pillars, while the dendrites lived in trees. In 537, Justinian I built the cathedral of St. Sophia, an architectural masterpiece and the greatest legacy of the Byzantine Empire.
The early Church was plagued by deep-rooted doctrinal and theological disputes, the most contentious of which was the true nature of Jesus Christ; man, God or both at once. In an effort to solve these differences and define the doctrinal faith of the Christian Church, seven Ecumenical Councils were held. These Councils, convened by the Emperor, excited much public interest and speculation. The First Ecumenical Council took place in Nicaea (now Iznik) in 325 AD, and drew up a declaration of faith, the Nicaean Creed, which is still used today. At the second Council Emperor Theodosius declared Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Subsequent Councils, held in Ephesus and Constantinople, debated the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the human versus the divine nature of Christ and the function of icons in worship. The fourth Council resolved that Christ was ‘truly God, truly man’ in one being, but the Armenian and Syrian Orthodox refused to accept this, stressing Christ’s single Godlike nature, and did not take part in subsequent Councils. In 1054 a schism took place between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches which was both theological and political. Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius excommunicated each other. These orders remained in effect until they were annulled in 1965.
In 1095 Pope Urban called for a holy war against the 'infidel' Selcuks who had taken Jerusalem in 1071, thus launching the Crusades; Christian wars with motives as much political and materialistic as spiritual. The first four Crusades were fought partly on the lands of Asia Minor. Following successful campaigns in Anatolia, the Crusaders built a chain of castles along the southwestern coast, the ruins of which can still be seen today. In 1204 the declining Constantinople was sacked by the Crusaders who ruled for sixty years before the Byzantines retook it.
The Catholic Community in Turkey dates back to the Crusades and to expatriate settlers who came since for diplomatic or commercial purposes. Similarly there have been small Protestant and Anglican Communities in Turkey since the nineteenth century.