Pioneer magazine

Where We Were First Called Christians

PAUL HURLEY SVD, writes about the town, second only in importance to Jerusalem in the post-Resurrectional history of Christianity. In the region that was to become modern Turkey, Antioch features prominently in the Acts of the Apostles and the Letters of Saint Paul.

Antioch was a major centre of the young and developing Church. It was there we were first called Christians and that Christianity was first embraced by non-Jewish people in large numbers. St Paul set out on his missionary journeys from this major theological centre which pioneered the attitude to Sacred Scripture that we have today in that they focussed on the literal meaning of the texts. Yet it is now almost completely forgotten and is just a Turkish town called Antakya with few remains to remind one of its glorious Christian past. The once famous Orontes River on which it is build is now little more than a stream, although it used to be navigable from its mouth on the Mediterranean to the city, then a major centre of commerce. At one stage it had villas and public baths made possible by many underground springs. This availability of water allowed farmers to grow food crops that would otherwise wither under the hot summer sun. Known for its beauty and comfort, one historian called it "the fair crown of the Orient".

Passing through the area during one of his military campaigns, Alexander the Great expressed a wish to build a great city on the site. He started by building a temple to the Greek god Zeus. On A|exander's death in 323 B.C., his huge empire was divided by his generals. Control of Syria was won by Seleucus (358-280 B.C,) who actually built Antioch and made it the capital of Syria. The best-known descendant of Seleucus was the infamous Antiochus IV Epiphanes, whose persecution of Jews is described in 1 and 2 Maccabees. When Antiochus began to unify his subjects, most Jews resisted. So he revoked their traditional exemption from worshipping the ruler as a god and many were martyred.

From his death in I63 B.C. until the coming of the Romans in 64 B.C., Antioch experienced a period of decline. But the Romans, who made it the capital of their new province of Syria, revived the city. Under the emperor Augustus, it became the third largest city in the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. Contrary to what we tend to think the world of ancient Judaism and Christianity was more an urban rather than a rural phenomenon.

Antioch became fertile ground for the Gospel. As a great Roman commercial centre, it welcomed people from many nations. Nicolaus, one of the first seven deacons mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles, came  from there. After the martyrdom of Stephen, another deacon, when a persecution broke out in Jerusalem, many disciples fled the city, some going to Antioch. All these people introduced the Gospel to the Jews of the places they visited. Some disciples who fled to Antioch were Greek-speaking Jewish Christians. Thus they preached not only to Jews but to Greek-speaking pagans as well. In cosmopolitan Antioch, where distinctions of race and nationality were less sharply drawn, the mission to the Gentiles flourished.

The Church authorities in Jerusalem quickly saw the potential for growth in Antioch and sent Barnabas to assess the situation. He was so impressed by the potential of Antioch that he sent for Paul, who was then living in his native Tarsus. Paul arrived in Antioch two years after Barnabas. They continued to preach together and made many more converts.

Then the question about the relationship of Jewish and Gentile Christians arose. As the former were still observing the Law of Moses, should the latter be expected to do so also? Areas of particular concern were circumcision and table fellowship. For a Gentile Christian male to be circumcised meant the rejection of his Graeco-Roman heritage. The prescriptions for kosher eating also posed problems.

After a few years Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to look for a solution to this problem. While there, they secured from James, Peter and John, leaders of the Jerusalem Church, an agreement that exempted Gentile converts from the Law of Moses. This meeting is known as the Council of Jerusalem, the first of the ecumenical councils of the Church. Soon afterwards, Peter went to Antioch himself to signal the unity of the Church. His practice of table fellowship with the Gentile Christians of Antioch was in compliance with the agreement worked out in Jerusalem. Other disciples sent by James arrived in Antioch. But these took a different line and maintained that the new agreement applied only to Gentiles in the Church. The disciples who had been born Jews, they maintained, must still follow Jewish practices. Peter and Barnabas seem to have been swayed by this argument. As a result, Peter broke off table fellowship with the Gentile disciples. In this, he was clearly wrong, according to Paul. This issue so strained the relationship between Paul and Barnabas that they ended up by going separate ways.

It seems likely that Matthew’s Gospel was written in and for the Church at Antioch. Though steeped in Jewish heritage, it shows an approval of the Gentile mission. At its end it presents the risen Jesus commissioning the Church to reach out to all people. Deep Jewish roots combined with an orientation towards Gentile converts - this is the flavour of both Matthew’s Gospel and the Church at Antioch in the first century.

Antioch also seems to have chosen a pattern of Church organization different from Jerusalem. At Antioch it seems to have been structured around prophets and teachers, in a more charismatic pattern than in Jerusalem where it was structured on the model of the synagogue. It is all the more notable then that in the second century the Church of Antioch moved away from its original charismatic system and developed a form of hierarchy (one bishop, presbyters and deacons).

Ignatius, the martyred Bishop of Antioch in the second century was clearly the lone leader of the Church there. He was not the first of many presbyters, as James apparently was in Jerusalem; rather his office as bishop was one of superior authority. And this form of hierarchical leadership is one of Antioch’s enduring gifts to the Church. In later years the great St John Chrysostom (Golden-mouthed) preached there, acting as bishop of the city before becoming Patriarch of Constantinople.
When Constantine became Emperor in the fourth century, he issued an Edict of Toleration allowing the practice of Christianity, thus ending the persecutions. This however did not end the internal struggles within the Church. Various heretical groups competed with true Christians. Converts were won by both sides. Sometimes the Christian Emperors favoured true believers, who accepted the definition of the Council of Chalcedon about the divinity and humanity of Jesus; at other times the Emperors one of the heretical groups.

There were three great patriarchates in the early Church — Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. The Bishops of these cities exercised authority and influence over large territories. When the Emperors at Constantinople secured the installation of a heretical Bishop as Patriarch of Antioch, it caused great distress among true believers. Antioch‘s influence, important in the early centuries of the Church, declined rapidly after Constantinople was granted higher patriarchal status.

Antioch itself declined. Fires and earthquakes plagued the city during the sixth century One earthquake claimed 250,000 lives, including that of the Patriarch himself. Another destroyed nearly every building. Although much of the city was rebuilt, Antioch was repeatedly attacked and one occasion was burned by the Persians.
By the time it fell to Arab forces in 638, most of the Christians had become heretics. These seem to have welcomed the Arabs as liberators from the Emperor who supported the teachings of the Council of Chalcedon.

The Orontes still flows through the region that once was Antioch, but today it is more a muddy creek than a river. The breezes from the Mediterranean still cool the streets of the now Muslim town of some 10,000. Claimed by Syria, but now under Turkish control, it gives visitors few hints of its glorious past as the once "fair crown of the Orient" and a great centre of early Christianity.