"Asia" in the New Testament

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.

“Now when they had gone throughout Phrygia and the region of Galatia, and were forbidden of the Holy Ghost to preach the word in Asia, …” Acts 16:6, KJV

I have heard with my own ears more than one preacher quote this verse as certain proof that “if the Holy Spirit hadn’t stopped Paul from going to Asia, we’d have had to get the gospel from the Chinese.” The one instance that stands out most of these several involved the featured speaker at a missions conference a decade ago. This man was a Bible college graduate, had been 20 years in the ministry, and was (and is) a denominational bigwig.

Why this incident stands out is that a man of such training and experience should have known that the assertion he made was completely devoid of any basis in fact, as even a meager amount of study and thought would have immediately shown. The truth is, Paul later did preach in Asia, and for a period of more than two years. Not only so, he evangelized the whole of it and saw many churches started there, all without coming in contact with a single Chinese.

The problem involves the meaning of the name Asia. Of course, today the term includes that great land mass east of the Ural Mountains in Russia in the north, and east of the Caspian, Aegean, Mediterranean and Red Seas further to the south. This, the largest of the seven continents, is also the most populous. But what a geographical term means today and what it meant in Bible times may have little or no connection, and “Asia” is one glaring example of this.

 

The geographical term Asia occurs just under twenty times in the New Testament, and even a most casual examination of these references should send up red warning flags in anyone’s mind that biblical Asia could not possibly be the same as modern Asia.

 

First, in lists of place names, it is clearly associated with places in what today we call Turkey. In Acts 2, the homelands of the Jewish pilgrims assembled in Jerusalem are given in a generally east-to-west sequence: Parthia, Media, Elam, Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus, Asia, Phyrgia, Pamphylia, Egypt, Libya, Cyrene, Rome. Here Asia is straddled by two pairs of names of places in Turkey; it is not associated with the first four names of places further east. Similarly, in Acts 6:9, Asia is associated with Cilicia, another place in Turkey. Peter’s first letter is addressed to believers in five locations including Asia. All the other four are places in Turkey, and we should immediately suspect that Asia was too, even if we had no other evidence. And even in the context of Acts 16:6 we find mentioned Phrygia, Galatia, Mysia, Bithynia and Troas—all in Turkey, and at its western end.

 

Later in Acts, we find Paul in Ephesus, a city in far western Turkey, on the Aegean Sea directly across from Athens. The result of Paul’s two-year residence there is that “all the inhabitants of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10; see also 19:26). It is pretty obvious that Asia as used here by Luke simply must mean the region around Ephesus. When Paul decides to revisit churches in Macedonia and Achaia (the northern and central parts of modern Greece), he sends assistants on ahead, but he remains in Asia (19:22); of course, Paul is in Ephesus, not Peking, Calcutta or Tokyo.

 

When Paul sails for Jerusalem for the last time, he decides to sail past Ephesus, because he does not want to spend time in Asia (20:16, 18). And on the trip to Rome, the plan is to sail along the coast of Asia (27:2). Plainly, Asia must be seacoast country somewhere between Palestine in the east and Rome in the west, and cannot possibly mean what we call Asia today.

 

And then there are the “seven churches of Asia” (Revelation 1:4)—Ephesus, Smyrna, and the rest—all in western Turkey.

 

So by simple examination of Scripture alone, anyone could and would and should immediately realize that Asia in the New Testament does not mean what we call Asia today, and that though Paul was once forbidden to preach in Asia, he later spent much time there and did evangelize the whole region.

 

Second, in addition to the direct Bible evidence, there are maps in most printed Bibles which were put there to be consulted, but rarely are. “Asia” is easy to find on these. Likewise, there are dozens of Bible dictionaries available with articles on “Asia” in case the Bible student—and preacher—needs additional information. The briefest consultation of these resources would reveal that New Testament Asia is a Roman province, occupying roughly the western quarter of Turkey (with one or two of the New Testament references possibly referring to the whole of Turkey (i.e., Asia Minor), but having no connection at all with Asia as it is used today.

 

Such a mistaken notion and misidentification as that with which we opened our discussion might be excused in a new convert or a first-year Bible college student, but to find it in someone who has been by profession a student of the Scriptures for many years and according to his “job description” one who is “able to teach,” is clear evidence of negligence in study and preparation, and is simply reprehensible, and inexcusable. Those who are slackers in the study are unsafe guides in the pulpit.

 

R. L. Dabney well said, “To preach a sermon” —or to teach a Sunday school class, for that matter— “is a great and awful task. Woe to the man who slights it with perfunctory preparation and a careless heart!” (Lectures on Sacred Rhetoric, p. 344).

 


 

Doug Kutilek is the editor of www.kjvonly.org, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.

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JobK's picture

Turkey is 302,535 square miles. Of that, only 9200 square miles is in eastern Europe. The rest, nearly 97% of the country, is in western Asia. So even taking your statement "New Testament Asia is a Roman province, occupying roughly the western quarter of Turkey" would mean that as much as 88% of that territory was indeed in Asia. 

So I guess you have to define "but having no connection at all with Asia as it is used today." Even if you did so, "Asia as it is used today" is simply incorrect geographically and historically. If "Asia as it is used today" only refers to the far East or where people that the Asian racial group is generally applied to i.e. Japan, China, Korea and to a lesser extent Viet Nam, Thailand and the Philippines then some name needs to be used to describe where it is that folks from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Burma etc. are generally from.

I get that "Asia as it is used today" does not include the Middle East or Near East. The problem is that Iran borders Turkey and Iran most definitely is not in the Middle East. Iran is lumped in with the Middle East because of its religion and its political alliances, but Iran before it fell to Islam was Persia, and Persia was definitely considered to be an Oriental people and culture (i.e. persian oriental rugs). And you'd have a difficult time explaining how and why the dividing line between Oriental (another term for Asian) and whatever Turkey is taken to be begins at the Turkey/Iran border. By the way, Istanbul is in western Turkey, mere hours from Bulgaria and Greece, and much to the west of Tarsus. Istanbul is historically considered to be Oriental also. 

Again, "Asia as it is used today" is simply inaccurate, one of the many errors in the popular mindset and culture. And it is the accurate meaning of Asia - not the popular, vulgar and common one - that confirms the New Testament text. 

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