Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenistsalso, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord. The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians.
A great city of the Seleucids as well as the Romans, the city of Antioch in Syria traces its history back to a late 4th century founding when Seleucus Nicator established the city and named it for his father Antiochus. The city was known as Antioch in Syria or Antioch on the Orontes to distinguish it from the many other cities that Seleucus dedicated to his father (he even named his son Antiochus).
Seleucus established Antioch in a strategic location where it could control trade running north-south along the Mediterranean coast as well as trade between the Mediterranean and Persian regions, both of which the Seleucids controlled early on. Set at such a key junction the city of Antioch became the capital of the vast Seleucid Empire, an empire that stretched from India to the Aegean. As the capital of such a vast and varied region the city became a grand metropolitan city, home to people of all races and cultures.
The Romans captured Antioch from the Seleucids in 63 BC and, seeing its regional importance, showed it special favor from the beginning. The Romans, adding to the prestige of the old Seleucid capital, built aqueducts, monumental temples, a stadium, an amphitheater, and other grand works. In the first century Antioch was one of the greatest cities in the Roman world, the third largest in the empire after Rome and Alexandria. While no longer the center of an empire it was now the gateway to the frontier with the Persians, the chief rival of the Romans in the east as so hosted armies, leading politicians, and emperors.
While Antioch had the favor of the Romans, it suffered at the hands of nature, being shaken by violent earthquakes and having its port (the nearby city of Seleucia) silted up by the Orontes River. While the Romans and later Byzantines attempted to maintain the city, rebuilding after destructive earthquakes, the Persians sacked the city and deported its inhabitants in the early 7th century. Only two decades later the city would be taken by the newly emerging Islamic Arab forces. The city would be fought over frequently over the following centuries, with regular wars and earthquakes leaving little trace of the once proud city.
Antioch in Christian History
While Jerusalem is the undisputed epicenter of Christianity, the place where it began and where the Gospel went out from, frequent mentions throughout the New Testament show that Antioch was also an incredibly important center for the growth and spread of the faith.
In the first century Antioch was at the height of its wealth and significance, a bustling metropolis at a crossroads of trade and culture. Among the many inhabitants of Antioch there was a significant Jewish population among which the Gospel spread early. After the martyrdom of Stephen and the scattering of the Jerusalem church, many early Christians ended up in Antioch.
The Christians that ended up in Antioch shared their faith with the Jewish community of Antioch and many came to faith. What also made the situation in Antioch interesting is that some of those who arrived in Antioch “began speaking to the Greeks also, preaching The Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them.” While Acts 10 is all about the Gospel going out among the gentiles, this record of the conversion of Gentiles in Antioch is the first example of them coming to faith in such numbers. This large Gentile faction may be why we see the Jerusalem council send a letter to the church at Antioch regarding Jewish customs (Acts 15:22) and why it was in Antioch that Paul confronted Peter for his caving to the circumcision party (Galatians 2).
After seeing the growth of the church in Antioch, Acts 11 tells of how Barnabas brings Paul to join him and they spend a year in the city teaching and building up the church there. It was in Antioch that the believers were first called Christians, and it was the church of Antioch that raised money for the support of the believers in Judea about whom it was prophesied that they would suffer from famine (Acts 11).
In Acts 11 we see the church of Antioch had grown to have teachers and prophets as well as such influential people as the personal friends of Herodian rulers. It was the church of Antioch that sent out Paul and Barnabas on their first missionary journey, and it was the church of Antioch that would send Paul out on two more evangelistic journeys.
In the years after the New Testament was written, Antioch continued to be preeminent and was one of the five major centers of Christianity, sitting alongside Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria, which together made up the Pentarchy: the ruling patriarchs of the Roman world. While Rome, Constantinople, and Jerusalem have retained much of their religious significance, little remains of Antioch’s ancient sites though every new construction project and archaeological dig seems to uncover new traces of the city’s glorious past.
Destination photos and content courtesy of Josh Ryvers and artofwayfaring.com.