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Antioch: Crossroads of Faith

The city of Antioch, a significant seat of Christian history, is also a fundamental part of the history of many faiths.

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.

Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch with a letter confirming the decision of the Council. During his two years there, Paul’s initial fervor and zeal for the spread of the Church became a consuming fire. Antioch would be the home base for his apostolic mission to the gentiles. During the next thirteen years, Paul walked over 9,000 miles in addition to his travels by ship. In the year 57, Paul’s third missionary journey was never completed. Christians in Antioch waited for him, only to hear that he had been arrested and taken to Rome to be martyred. There too Peter ended his journeys with a martyr’s death.

Antioch had its own martyrs as the emperors of Rome attempted to stamp out the new religion. At the end of the first century, refusal of Christians to worship pagan gods incensed Emperor Trajan. Ignatius, third bishop of Antioch, was arrested and taken to Rome to be devoured in the arena. En route, the chain-bound Ignatius wrote to the faithful scattered from the Near East to Rome.

The keynote of all his letters was unity in belief among all Christians. His letter to the congregation in Smyrna contains the first reference in Christian literature to the “Catholic Church.” Ignatius constantly insisted on unity with the bishop by faith in and obedience to his authority. He also upheld the Virgin birth and called the Eucharist “the flesh of Christ” and the “medicine of immortality.” Issues he raised would be argued for centuries by theologians in Antioch and those who followed, leading to the discord he warned against.

With Jerusalem destroyed in 70 A.D., the Christian community in Antioch took on new importance. Just as Rome in the West and Alexandria in the South developed in prominence, Antioch was the hub of Christian influence in the East. The Ecumenical Council of Nicea I (325) placed the city as the third of the ancient apostolic patriarchates. Vigorous theological debate made Antioch an intellectual hothouse. Students tapped brilliant teachers of philosophy, rhetoric, and theology – whether Greek, Roman, Christian, or Jew.

The school of Antioch played a significant role in theological thinking which enriched but challenged the young Church’s development. Although other writers and synods preceded him, Lucian of Antioch founded the school around 270, when his teachings gave a clear direction to the school’s characteristic exegesis and Christology. Against the allegorical approach favored by Alexandrians such as Origen, the Antioch school offered a more literal interpretation of Scripture. While Alexandrians emphasized Christ’s divinity, Antiocheans also debated the nature of His humanity. Diodore of Tarsus pursued their dualistic Christology and stimulated his influencial disciples, including John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia. Another student of Lucian, Arius of Alexandria, argued a Trinitarian heresy, Arianism, that only the Father was fully God.

Disputes on the relation of Christ’s humanity to His divinity led to a fracturing of the Christian community. The dualistic Christology of Antioch led to the Nestorian heresy, which claimed that Christ Incarnate had a dual personality, both human and divine, with two natures. Cyril of Alexandria challenged Nestorius. The resulting Monophysite heresy claimed that Jesus only had one divine nature in one divine person. In 431 the Council of Ephesus condemned Nestorius, whose followers then formed the East Syrian Nestorian Church. In 451 the Council of Chalcedon condemned Monophysitism, further splintering the Church. The dissident Monophysites evolved into the Jacobite Syrian rite in Antioch, while those faithful to the Council became Melchites. Two centuries later the monks of St. Maro’s monastery broke from them to form the Maronite patriarchate. The tangle of distinctions has endured. Today the patriarchate heritage of Antioch is claimed by Catholic Maronites, Jacobite Syrians, and Syrian Catholics, as well as by two Byzantine rite patriarchs, the Orthodox and the Catholic Melchite.

Wracked by the Christological disputes, the rise of Constantinople, a devastating fire and earthquakes in the fifth century, and violent conquest by the Moslems in the seventh century, Antioch slowly slipped from its place of prominence. Today what was once the glory of the young Church is in modern Antakya in southern Turkey. Modern apartments dot the hillside where spacious villas once stood. But the legacy of Antioch cannot be defined by ruined walls. Like the mustard tree, its deep roots and far-reaching branches belong to one Church wherever it has spread. Its heirs are those Christians who, century after century, continue to live out the truth contained in that tiny mustard seed planted there by Christ’s apostles.

Sister Jean David does freelance writing for various magazines.

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