Antioch: Crossroads of Faith

by Sister Jean David Finley, O.P.

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In the first century, cities such as Jerusalem, Antioch, and Ephesus held faith-filled communities bound together in one rapidly growing Church. Unknown to them, they were only the first steps on the road which would take Christianity around the world. Antioch was a vital crossroad in the journey. Directions chosen there have guided the spread of faith down to our day.

Its location destined Antioch to be a mixture of diverse cultures. Caravans from Asia Minor, Persia, India, and even China traveled through this natural meeting place for East and West. Merchandise from afar was sent to large warehouses before being transferred to barges and hauled down the Orontes River to waiting ships.

Great powers struggled to control the city because of its strategic location and, more importantly, because of its growing wealth and influence. The Greeks hellenized Antioch, marking it with their culture and philosophy. Inevitably, as Rome extended its borders, the city became a Roman stronghold. Even before Rome made it the capital of its Syrian province in 64 A.D., Antioch was a favorite haunt of Roman soldiers. Roman culture added to the city’s luxury with a forum, an amphitheater, a Roman bath, a hippodrome, a theater, and an aqueduct carrying water to fountains, public buildings, and villas in the city. Wealthy and dazzling to behold, Antioch deserved its title, “Golden.”

From a religious standpoint, the city reflected its cosmopolitan character. The Greeks worshipped the gods of Olympus. Roman soldiers in the area remained loyal to Mithras, god of the Persians. Alongside their pagan neighbors, a large Greek-speaking Jewish colony prayed to the God of Abraham. Primarily traders, they kept their Jewish faith in synagogue near the foot of Mount Silpius. This southern section of the city was also where the Jewish community lived.

Peter was the first apostle to reach Antioch. In a cave on the slopes overlooking the Jewish colony he preached in what tradition calls Christianity’s oldest church, the Grotto of Saint Peter. Near here the famous Chalice of Antioch, originally thought to be the cup used by Christ at the Last Supper, was discovered in 1910. Later studies date it between the third and sixth centuries. Still, the intricacy of the design housing the chalice suggests how the faith of the Christian community grabbed hold among artisans such as this skillful silversmith.

Jewish and Greek converts to Antioch’s Christian community looked to the Mother Church in Jerusalem. Church leaders such as Barnabas followed Peter to strengthen the unity of their faith. As Saint Luke, a city native, recorded, “Antioch was the first place in which the disciples were called Christians” (Acts 11:26). By the time Saint Paul, born in Tarsus only a day’s ride away, visited Antioch, the Christian community was flourishing.

With their different religious backgrounds, Antioch’s Christians debated difficult questions about observance of Jewish law. They sent Barnabas and Paul to the apostles and elders in Jerusalem for help. The Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:1-35) decided to free the gentile converts of any restrictions imposed by Jewish law. Now the Christians were an entity in themselves, with no ties to the Jewish faith. In effect, the Council opened the way to a Church universal in character.

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