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Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Trailblazer of Christianity
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
episcopas—took shape. It was at Antioch that the new religion
was given form, which would change the world irrevocably.
There were several cities called Antioch. This was
because the Greek overlords liked to call 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 Selucid was given the area,
which extended from Babylon to the borders of Egypt. Selucid 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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Next: The Mosaic Law (by Irene Nowell, O.S.B.)