Antioch: Trailblazer of Christianity

by Elizabeth McNamer

“It was at Antioch that they were called Christian for the first time,” writes Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. It was at Antioch that we first know of Gentiles being initiated into the church. It was from Antioch that Paul set out on his first missionary journey. It was at Antioch that Matthew’s Gospel was written. It was at Antioch that the word “catholic” was coined by Ignatius who was on route to his martyrdom in Rome. It was at Antioch that the hierarchy — deacons and presbyters under an episcopos — took shape. It was at Antioch that the new religion was given form, which would change the world irrevocably.

Which Antioch?

There were several cities called Antioch. This was because the Greek overlords liked to name cities after themselves. The Antioch Luke refers to was in Syria. It was built by the Greek Selucid King Nicotar in 300 B.C.E. and called after his father Antiochus. Upon the death of Alexander the Great, his Empire was divided among his generals. General Seluceus was given the area, which extended from Babylon to the borders of Egypt. Seluceus immediately proceeded to build cities to solidify the Greek position. For the next few centuries the world would be dominated by Greek (Hellenistic) culture, philosophy and language.

Antioch was beautifully positioned on the Orontes River, surrounded by mountains and close to the sparkling Mediterranean. A highway connected it to ancient cities of the orient. It had all of the amenities of Greek cities at that time: the theater (the Greeks thought this essential to one’s mental health); the gymnasium (the school); the forum (the business of the town was conducted here); public baths (where the town fathers gathered to exchange pleasantries) and temples to the various gods (run by the priests who offered sacrifice that they believed kept the social order going).

To the south was the opulent suburb of Daphne where many Jews lived. A great temple to Apollo was built at Daphne and the Olympic games were held here. This brought competitors and spectators from faraway places, all bringing with them varieties of ideas. The sophisticated metropolis acquired a reputation for its interest in religious discussion. Antioch grew rapidly and soon had a population of half a million.

The Romans were the great power that took over from the Greeks. Under Pompey, this part of the world passed into Roman hands in 63 B.C.E. Antioch was made the capital and military headquarters of the newly created Syrian province. Quirinius was governor here according to Luke at the time of the birth of Jesus.

The Romans had a genius for road building. Great roads were built connecting major cities throughout the Empire. The harbor, “Selleucia Pieria,” was developed and Antioch became very important commercially. (It was from this harbor that Barnabas and Paul set sail on their first missionary journey). The Syrian climate was conducive to crop growing and the country produced an abundance of wine and grain – wheat, barley, sesame, millet and lentils. Animal skins provided leather (used for clothing and tents) and fruits; figs, raisins and grapes were dried in the sun for export through Antioch to all parts of the Roman Empire. It was a favorite city of Julius Caesar and of Emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Tiberius enlarged and beautified it.

Roman officials who were posted to the provinces were often compensated by high pay, as are expatriates today. It is indeed evident that this was the case with the governor of Antioch.

The population was wealthy. Archaeologists have unearthed hundreds of intricate mosaic floors and splendid statues that suggest a sybaritic lifestyle. The greatest craftsmen in the world gathered at Antioch to create these masterpieces. Most of the mosaics have designs from Greek mythology. As rich Romans reclined on their couches to dine, they could gaze down on scenes of the exploits of the drunken Dionysius or up at the statues of naked Aphrodite.

Christians Arrive

By the time Christians arrived in Antioch in the mid thirties of the first century, Antioch was the third most important city in the Empire, behind Rome and Alexandria, and was regarded as the center of science, religion and commerce in the Near East.

Jews had lived in Antioch from the beginning. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the founder of the city, Nicotar, had given them privileges, for fighting in his army, and that they enjoyed citizenship on a par with Greeks. Josephus also tells us that many Greeks were attracted to Jewish religious ceremonies. Later, under the Romans, when morals were lax, many were attracted by the stricter code of the Jews.

It has been estimated that as many as 45,000 Jews lived in Antioch in the middle of the first century. They were presided over by one chief officer whom Josephus refers to as a “ruler” who was elected by the elders from the various synagogues. The Council of Elders would have been the governing body for all Antiochean Jews. These Jews retained close ties to those in Jerusalem, and would doubtless have gone there for the three pilgrimage feasts each year. There were probably several in Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost who heard Peter’s speech and we know the name of at least one (Nicolaus) who was made a deacon.

Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles that many Christians fled to Antioch following the death of Stephen and that they preached to the Jewish community living there. Some went as far as to spread the good news to the gentiles, many of whom were converted and allowed to join the sect without undergoing circumcision. This caused eyebrows to rise. All Jews had to undergo circumcision and Christians still regarded themselves as Jews. The authorities in Jerusalem got wind of what was happening, were alarmed and sent Barnabas to investigate.

Barnabas went to Antioch and was delighted with the enthusiasm he found there and reported favorably back to Jerusalem. He made a side trip to Tarsus (about seventy miles to the west) to win back Paul, who had retreated home to his father’s leather business after his Damascus road experience. It would be interesting to know what Barnabas and he discussed, but Barnabas succeeded in persuading Paul to go back with him to Antioch.

Luke tells us that the two remained in that city for a year, instructing and teaching. This was perhaps the most fortuitous happening in the whole Christian story. From here, Paul and Barnabas would eventually set out to convert other Jews in the Diaspora. And Paul would go on to bring the message to Gentiles all over the Empire.

The church in Antioch was not poverty-ridden or composed of “peasants” as some have tried to show. Luke gives us the names of five who were present there: Barnabas (he had sold his farm in Cyprus); Symeon known as Niger (probably from Africa); Lucius of Cyrene (again from North Africa); Manaen (he had been a childhood companion of Herod Antipas), and Saul (his parents were wealthy enough to send him to Jerusalem for an education). These seem to have been well-traveled and educated people. When a famine occurred in Jerusalem in 46 C.E. the disciples in Antioch sent Barnabas and Paul with relief packages to the Christian community there.

Peter visited Antioch. He is the only one of the Twelve known to have done so. And his visit was a cause of some friction. What to have for lunch was the cause of the stress. Food was a sticky issue. According to Jewish law, meals had to be prepared in a certain way and some foods were forbidden (pork and seafood, for example). James, leader of the church in Jerusalem, had gone along with the noncircumcision of Gentile converts, but had drawn the line at the menu. For some sects within Judaism, any contact with a Gentile rendered one unclean. Peter had had a revelation, of course, when he learned that all foods were permissible and he had converted the Gentile family of Cornelius in Caesarea. At Antioch, Peter apparently freely associated with the Gentiles, but when some Jews arrived from Jerusalem, Peter stopped taking meals with the Gentiles. Paul thought this most impolite and went as far as to call Peter a hypocrite. Then Barnabas became upset with Paul and we see the beginnings of a tension between these two friends, which will eventually develop into a full-blown row.

The remains of a cave-church dedicated to Peter at Antioch can be seen today. One will be told that Luke donated the land on which the church was built. This of course has to be taken with a grain of salt. Luke may have come from Antioch but there is no evidence to support this. But certainly we know that Antioch boasted a thriving, joyous, spirited community of Christians.

Zealot Revolt

In the year 67 of the common era, there was a general uprising against the Romans by the Zealots of Palestine. Rome sent in the full force of her army under the general Vespasian (later to be a Roman emperor). Josephus recounts for us that when Vespasian arrived in Antioch he was met there by King Aprippa Herod with his army and together they marched on Palestine. Later when his son Titus (also later an Emperor) arrived in Antioch it was suggested that he expel the Jews or at least revoke their rights and privileges. Titus did neither but after Palestine was conquered (70) and he was on his way home, he put up on the gates leading to Daphne (a Jewish suburb) some of the spoils from Jerusalem in order to humiliate them. Today, near the harbor, one can see the inscriptions relating to both Emperors on the walls of the Titus-Vespasian tunnel that was built in 79 C.E. to commemorate their victories.

Antioch too had its problems. We learn that a plague, fires and earthquakes frequently visited the city. In 71 C.E. a fire destroyed the library, religious buildings and a great many houses. In 115, an earthquake killed a third of the population.

Most scholars believe that Matthew wrote his gospel here in about 85. By this time, Jerusalem and the temple had been destroyed and many more Jews had fled to Antioch. Others had fled to Jamnia where a new form of Judaism was being hammered out by the Pharisees, centered around synagogue worship. Christians were forbidden to worship in the synagogue. Matthew was himself Jewish. One can trace the tensions in the community between Jewish and Gentile Christians as one reads through Matthew’s Gospel. Was there resentment by the Jews at the number of Gentiles who were being allowed into the church? Matthew presents a Jesus who frequently defends Gentiles (“Behold I have not found such faith in Israel”). He also tells us that the first people to recognize Jesus were not Jews but Magi from a far country (gentiles).

Ignatius was Bishop of Antioch in the late first century. He wrote seven letters while he was on his way to Rome for his execution in 107. They suggest a very well organized church at Antioch: a single Bishop presided; a council of priests helped him; deacons performed the services to the people. Ignatius is credited with coining the world “catholic” (universal).

Antioch was only one of the five major Christian centers. The others were Rome, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Ephesus. Each contributed to the strengthening of the early Christian religion. But this beautiful city by the Orontes was the trailblazer, gave it form and carried the message to the world.

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of Scripture From Scratch, has a Ph.D. in adult education from Montana State University and an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University. She teaches at Rocky Mountain College in Billings, Montana.

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