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Antioch in Syria

See also Antioch

Antioch in Syria, where the first church outside Jerusalem was founded. This is the cave church of St. Peter.

ANTIOCH IN SYRIA ăn’ tĭ ŏk ĭn sĭ’ re ə (̓Αντιόχεια τη̂ς Συρίας, the city of Antiochus in Syria, regularly referred to simply as Antioch). Capital of Syria in Seleucid and Roman times, now Antakya in SE Turkey.

Site and origin.

Antioch’s particular location, about fifteen m. from the Mediterranean on the Orontes River, was hardly advantageous. It was earthquake prone, subject to sudden flooding and exposed to attack across the crest of Mt. Silpius, below which it was built. The good water supply brought by aqueduct from the hillside resort of Daphne, five m. away, presumably determined the site. Antioch’s ninehundred-year history as one of the greatest cities of the Graeco-Roman era was however shaped by its larger setting. Alexander’s conquest of the Pers. empire put Syria at the center of the Hel. world, strategically placed between the three great centers of power, Macedonia, Egypt and Babylonia. With the revival of Pers. strength under the Parthian and Sassanid rulers of Rom. times, Antioch retained its pre-eminence as the main base for the whole Euphrates frontier.

The city’s foundation (in 300 b.c.) marks the emergence of the three-sided concert of Hel. powers after the generation of upheavals that followed Alexander’s death. Seleucus, one of the victors at Ipsus (301 b.c.), extended his eastern kingdom into the territory Antigonus had held along the Mediterranean in Syria. He founded a new capital, Seleucia, on the coast, and Antioch (named presumably after his father rather than his son) as its counterpart, a day’s journey inland from it. This second city was to prove more secure against attack from the sea, and better related to the network of land communications. During the reign of Antiochus I (281/0-261 b.c.), the son of Seleucus, it displaced Seleucia as the Seleucid capital. Antioch was laid out on the standard Hel. gridiron pattern which can still be detected in the street plan of the modern city, while the existing bazaar apparently preserves the site of the original agora.

The inhabitants of the new city were mainly Greeks and Macedonians, discharged soldiers of Seleucus’ army or settlers from Antigoneia, the nearby capital of the former ruler, which was broken up. In later times Antioch prided itself on the Athenian element in its makeup. Some Jews were no doubt present from the beginning, though it is doubtful whether Josephus can be right in thinking they enjoyed full citizen privileges. The difficulty of Jews participating in the Gr. cults must have led them into forming their own community life, as at Alexandria. Syrians were also settled in the city, but not with rights of citizenship. The purpose of the strong Graeco-Macedonian settlement would have been to establish the usual Hel. style of life and provide a bastion of loyal support for the Seleucids. The original number of adult men with citizen rights seems to have been 5,300.

Seleucid Antioch.

On the death of Antiochus II in 247/6 b.c., the attempt of his second wife Berenice, a Ptolemaic princess, to claim the succession for her son led to the occupation of Antioch by an Egyp. force. Although Seleucus II, the heir of the first marriage, recovered the city in 244, the port of Seleucia remained in Ptolemaic hands until 219 b.c. In the reign of Antiochus III (the Greek) the last known influx of Gr. settlers took place, no doubt veterans of the war in the Aegean against the Romans. After his defeat at Magnesia in 190 b.c., the Seleucid empire was cut off from the old homelands. Antioch was thrown into greater prominence as a metropolis, and under Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) (175-163 b.c.) was of unprecedented magnificence. His efforts to consolidate the empire included accentuation of the Hellenic religion and ruler cult, setting the stage for the Maccabean revolt. Antioch was dazzlingly adorned with the proceeds of provincial temple treasuries such as that of Jerusalem.

This “third captivity” of the Jews must have added considerably to the numbers and problems of the Jewish community in Antioch. The refugee high priest Onias III resided at Daphne, and there was a synagogue (later a church) at Antioch dedicated to the Maccabean martyrs, apparently in the belief that they had died in the city that bore the name of their persecutor. During the civil war in the time of Demetrius II the Jewish leader Jonathan sent 3,000 troops to help him. They boasted of killing 100,000 Antiochenes (1 Macc 11:45-47), and surely did much to confirm anti-Jewish feeling in the city.

The last cent. of Seleucid rule is a time of great obscurity during which Antioch must have suffered considerably in the continued dynastic struggles. A severe earthquake is also recorded. The city’s coins give occasional evidence of independence, and a period of Armenian rule occurred before Pompey assumed control of Syria on behalf of the Romans in 64 b.c.

Roman Antioch.

The Parthians now became a source of fear or hope to the peoples of the Levant, according to their political alignments. In 53 b.c. the Rom. general Crassus was defeated and killed at Carrhae, leaving Antioch exposed to attack, and in 40 b.c. the Parthians occupied all Syria including Antioch for a brief period. But Rom. rule, though at first insecure, brought with it an influx of Italian businessmen, and a new era of prosperity for Antioch which was treated as a free city. Pompey, Caesar and Antony all contributed to its enhancement and Romanization, while the era of Augustan peace brought enlargement and much new building to the city.

A notable contributor to this expansion was Herod the Great, an enthusiastic client and collaborator of the Caesarian regime. Herod supplied the famous two-m. marble boulevards, to which under Tiberius Caesar there were added colonnades, monumental gates and statuary, the whole complex being some 90 ft. in breadth. By this stage Rom. Antioch had eclipsed the brilliance of the earlier Seleucid city. It was not only the capital of a flourishing province, but the hub of the whole eastern Rom. empire. A network of diplomatic connections held together the multitude of minor states and kingdoms embraced within the provincial system, and reached out across the Parthian frontier as far afield as India. The contemporary geographer Strabo reckons it not much smaller in size than Alexandria and Seleucia (the Parthian metropolis on the Tigris); it may well have had over half a million people.

In a.d. 40 an outbreak of rioting between the circus factions developed into a pogrom against the Jews. The high priest at Jerusalem, Phineas, is said (by Malalas) to have led a punitive expedition of thirty thousand men against Antioch, resulting in the recall and punishment of the representatives of the Rom. government. Although such an expedition must be apocryphal, the general situation fits the known history of serious trouble between Jews and Greeks at this time. From Claudius’ letter to Alexandria we know that the Jews there brought in agitators from Syria. a.d. 40 was also the year of the conflict in Jerusalem over the statue of Caligula which he himself ordered set up in the Temple. It was at this stage that Antioch witnessed an even more momentous shift in relations between Jews and Greeks.

The Christians at Antioch.

Among the seven “Hellenists” had been Nicolaus, distinguished as being both a convert to Judaism and coming from Antioch (Acts 6:5). He marks that interest of the Antiochenes in Judaism which led some of the refugee preachers there for the first time to open the Gospel to Greeks, as well as to Jews (11:20). Although the principle had already been established in the conversion of Cornelius, the mass movement of Gentiles at Antioch clearly took the church in Jerusalem by surprise. Perhaps sensing that much was at stake in such an influx they sent an emissary (Barnabas) who encouraged and taught the new church. Although the point was not yet spelled out, the iron curtain of the law had now been decisively dropped, with vast consequences for the whole Gentile world. At Antioch the Gospel threw open the door to the ends of the earth. Barnabas matched the man to the hour by seeking out the help of Saul, the converted archenemy, in following the new way forward (11:25). At Antioch, too, the phenomenon of Gentile believers first caught the attention of the general public, and called for a distinctive name (11:26). The term “Christian” is a Lat. form and is paralleled by other partisan labels coined by Romans. Jewish critics would hardly have devised a term that conceded the very point (the Messiahship of Jesus) that was at issue, while believers themselves in NT times clearly found no need for such a group name for themselves. Although the disciples at Antioch are said to have met as a church (11:26; 13:1; 14:27), the structure of the church at Jerusalem does not appear to have been repeated. Paul and Barnabas are not referred to as elders (nor were they subsequently claimed as bishops). The ministries in the church were teaching and prophecy, shared between a number of people. How this situation gave way to the fixed ministry of bishops, priests and deacons which appears in the epistles of Ignatius two generations later is unknown.

Antioch between Jerusalem and the West.





G. Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest (1961), passim.

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