of the Eastern churches

The Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Antioch

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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The eastern Mediterranean is littered with sleepy provincial towns and archaeological ruins that obscure a glorious past. One such town is Antioch, the center of the southern Turkish province of Hatay, which is now home to some 150,000 people. In antiquity, however, Antioch was the commercial, cultural and political center of the East, the capital of the Roman province of Syria and, at its height in the first century A.D., home to more than 500,000 people.

Inhabited by Greeks and Jews, Macedonians and Syrians, Phoenicians and Nabataeans, Roman Antioch was culturally and linguistically Greek, the predominant culture of the Greco–Roman era. Those who lived in Syria’s rural interior, however, spoke Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus.

A sophisticated city, Roman Antioch proved to be fertile ground for new ideas, philosophies and faiths, such as the mystery cults of Isis and Mithras and the teachings of Jesus. Eventually, many of these new ideas faded, but Christianity took root there and flourished.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, believers fleeing the persecution of the Jewish authorities brought the Gospel to Antioch. These disciples worked among Jews and Gentiles and built up a community of believers. The mother church in Jerusalem sent Barnabas and Paul to nurture it further and, around A.D. 44, Peter settled there, directing the life of the church for seven years before leaving for Rome. In time, this community achieved an identity. Again, according to Acts, “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”

Antioch’s nascent Christian community was largely composed of Gentiles, and the success of their evangelization soon triggered the first great controversy of the church. The Jewish Christians of Jerusalem — led by the apostle James — held the position that anyone who sought baptism had to follow the Jewish laws rigorously adhered to since the time of Moses, especially circumcision. But, the baptized of Antioch — led by Paul and Barnabas — disagreed.

Scripture states that Peter counseled James. The prince of the apostles then offered a compromise to the Council of Jerusalem (circa year 50) that instructed that followers of Jesus, Jewish or not, need not follow all aspects of Mosaic Law:

“We ought to stop troubling the Gentiles who turn to God, but tell them by letter to avoid pollution from idols, unlawful marriage, the meat of strangled animals and blood.”

That settled, the church of Antioch boomed. For the next 500 years, it fostered anchorites (Maron, Simeon Stylites), bishop martyrs (Babylas, Ignatius), poets (Ephrem the Syrian, Romanos the Melodist), scholars (Flavian, Theodoret of Cyr, Theophilus) and theologians (John Chrysostom, Nestorius, Theodore of Mopsuestia). And while all were passionate about their faith, few agreed with one another.

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Tags: Christianity Orthodox Church Church history Antiochene church Antioch