Beyond the Mainstream: The Cultural Environment of Asia Minor as a Matrix for Expressions of a Highest God

Author: Joan Riley

Riley, Joan, 2017 Beyond the Mainstream: The Cultural Environment of Asia Minor as a Matrix for Expressions of a Highest God, Flinders University, School of Humanities and Creative Arts

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In the first three centuries CE Asia Minor supported a diverse network of human communities within an overarching Hellenistic cultural mainstream. Within this network existed cultural and ethnic groups described in this thesis as minority groups. Here I build on studies which bring out the tenacity of minority cultural groups against a cultural mainstream. Through processes which I explain by assimilation theory, minority groups remained distinct from mainstream traditional Hellenistic pagan culture even as they engaged with it and with each other.

Conflict and competition between groups, Hellenisation, Romanisation and minority group influence on the cultural environment of Asia Minor contributed to the development of a new religious situation. In an atmosphere of religious change, the role of individuals became more prominent. This resulted in a rise in the presence of cults requiring conscious choice of membership. Cults of this type included those which looked to one highest god.

In the acculturating spaces of interaction between different groups creative new ideas about god emerged. These ideas were expressed in cult through religious practices which included: public confession, the rule of divine justice, angeloi devotion, identification of abstract deities, theosebeis, worship of Theos Hypsistos, and the production of theological oracles. In the first three centuries CE, these practices and the ideas about god which gave rise to them, crossed cultural groups, and they indicated a shift toward monotheism.

Other scholars have said there was a trend toward monotheism in Asia Minor. This thesis explains within a framework of assimilation theory, and by challenging assumptions about syncretism in these practices, why there was a developing trend toward monotheism.

This thesis tests whether the cultural environment of Asia Minor was a matrix for expressions of a highest god by studying evidence for cultic practices indicating monotheism, and by considering the theological texts that emerged from this context. Some of the oracles produced in the second and third centuries give insight into new ways of talking about god, which was a shift from traditional pagan religion.

In this thesis, I suggest that a theological oracle from Oinoanda in Asia Minor and the Kolossian hymn contain monotheistic expressions of god which are based in common cultural origins and a shared environment. These texts speak about the nature of god in language which was current and which gained greater currency as the cultural environment made way for the intersection and exchange of theological ideas.

This thesis contributes to scholarship in biblical and classical studies in Asia Minor by using a modern framework of assimilation theory to expose an ancient cultural environment in which monotheistic expressions of god emerged in cult and theology.

Keywords: pagan monotheism, assimilation theory, Kolossai, Oinoanda, oracle, confession stele, Theos Hypsistos, theosebeis, Aphrodisias, Kolossian hymn, Letter to the Kolossians, Judaism, early Christianity, Apollo, Hellenisation, Romanisation

Subject: Humanities thesis, Theology thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2017
School: School of Humanities and Creative Arts
Supervisor: The Rev'd Dr Michael Trainor