Antioch on the Orontes, to give its full name, was an ancient Greek city on the east banks of the Orontes River, near where the Turkish city Antakya is situated today. The city was founded during the 4th century BC by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, Seleucus I Nicator. Much later, Antioch became known as “the cradle of Christianity” and it is believed that the term “Christian” was first used in the city.
It is said that Alexander the Great once camped on the site that would become Antioch and erected an altar to the god Zeus. Little else is known about this period, however, after Alexander’s death, the territories he had conquered were divided up between his generals. Seleucus I Nicator won the rights to the area after the Battle of Ipsus in 301 BC against some of the other generals. He founded four cities on the land, one of which was Antioch, named after his son Antiochus. The site of the city had been chosen through a ritual, which involved giving a piece of sacrificial meat to an eagle. It was agreed that wherever the eagle took the meat would become the centre of the city. After its construction, Antioch began to attract Athenians, Macedonians and Jews, who combined to create a population of approximately 17,000 people. By the early Roman period, the population had swelled to 500,000.
Under King Antiochus I, the city was chosen as the capital city of the Seleucid Empire from which the Seleucids ruled until 64 BC when it became the possession of the Roman Republic. Julius Caesar visited Antioch in 47 BC and declared the inhabitants free people. He then began to update the city with Roman architecture, which Octavian (Emperor Augustus) continued with the construction of a temple to Jupiter Capitolinus. Emperor Tiberius also held the city in high regard and laid out a forum and enlarged a theatre. It continued to be a popular place for the Roman emperors that followed.
Antioch has a vast history, however, what is its connection to the Bible? Antioch is first mentioned in the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples were growing in number and people were complaining that some families were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. As a result, seven men were selected to be responsible for ensuring everyone was looked after. One of these men was “Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.” (Acts 6:5)
Acts 11 tells us about the first church erected in Antioch. A disciple named Stephen had recently been stoned to death for performing wonders in the name of Jesus. As a result, many other people were persecuted and those who survived had been scattered about in different areas. Rather than hide away, they travelled to different towns and cities spreading the word amongst the Jews. One of the cities they visited was Antioch where they also told the Greeks about Jesus Christ. A great number of people converted as a result and Barnabas was sent from Jerusalem to Antioch where, along with Saul, he established a church. Many prophets and teachers became involved with the new church, including “ Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul.” (Acts 13:1)
Antioch was the city that sparked debates about circumcision. “Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: ‘Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.’” (Acts 15:1) Both Paul and Barnabas went to Jerusalem to discuss with the elders what should be done. The Pharisees believed the new converts needed to be circumcised, however, the apostle Peter declared it was unnecessary because God had granted these people with the Holy Spirit without discriminating between them and the Jews. As a result, the following letter was delivered to the people of Antioch:
In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul writes about a man called Cephas who came to Antioch but separated himself from the Gentiles. Many Jews followed his lead and even Barnabas was led astray. Paul berated them for not acting in line with the truth of the gospel. He told them off for pushing old Jewish laws on the new believers stating, “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:21)
By the reign of Emperor Theodosius I (379-395), it is estimated that there were 100,000 Christians in Antioch. The city became one of the five “patriarchates” or the office of a high-ranking bishop along with Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Rome. The Patriarch of Antioch still exists today, however, it has moved its headquarters to Damascus in Syria.
Antioch lost its metropolitan status during the reign of Theodosius I as a punishment for the rebellion over new taxes. As a result, Antioch became under Constantinople’s rule. It was, however, still considered a city and was renamed Theopolis (“City of God”) by Justinian I. This name change came about after an earthquake damaged most of the city in 526. Although some parts were restored or rebuilt, the city never returned to its former glory, particularly after the Persians invaded it in 602 and the Arabs in 637.
The city suffered further during the Crusader’s Siege of Antioch in 1098, after which it briefly became under the rule of a regency. Antioch had suffered from another earthquake, which had damaged the city’s foundations and further damages were caused during the Second Crusade in 1147. The kings of Antioch continued to rule the city in between the crusades, however, after the fifth in 1213, Antioch began to rapidly decline.
The Fall of Antioch finally occurred in the 13thcentury when it was invaded by Muslim forces. Every Christian in Antioch was either killed or enslaved, which reduced the population considerably. By 1432, there were only 300 occupied buildings in the once-great city. There are only a few traces of the original Roman city today, which includes the Church of St Peter that had been carved into the mountainside. Although many mosaics have been unearthed, there has been little else found of significance. The main reason for this is the majority of the ancient city now lies underneath the Orontes River.
There are a handful of notable people associated with the city of Antioch; however, to talk about them in any detail would result in a theses-worth of information. So, just for fun, I will list a few of the names and if any take your interest, you can look them up at your leisure.
We are happy for you to use any material found here, however, please acknowledge the source: www.gantshillurc.co.uk
Rev'd Martin Wheadon