Antioch on the Orontes, now Antakya in SE Turkey, some 500 km N of Jerusalem, was founded c. 300 bc by Seleucus I Nicator after his victory over Antigonus at Issus (310 bc). It was the most famous of sixteen Antiochs established by Seleucus in honour of his father. Built at the foot of Mt Silpius, it overlooked the navigable river Orontes and boasted a fine seaport, Seleucia Pieria. While the populace of Antioch was always mixed, Josephus records that the Seleucids encouraged Jews to emigrate there in large numbers, and gave them full citizenship rights (Ant. 12. 119).
Antioch fell to Pompey in 64 bc, and he made it a free city. It became the capital of the Roman province of Syria, and was the third largest city of the empire. The Seleucids and Romans erected magnificent temples and other buildings.
Even under the Seleucids the inhabitants had gained a reputation for energy, insolence and instability, which manifested itself in a series of revolts against Roman rule. Nevertheless, Antioch was renowned for its culture, being commended in this respect by no less a person than Cicero (Pro Archia 4). Close by the city were the renowned groves of Daphne, and a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo, where orgiastic rites were celebrated in the name of religion. Despite the bad moral tone, life in Antioch at the beginning of the Christian era was rich and varied.
Apart from Jerusalem itself, no other city was so intimately connected with the beginnings of Christianity. Nicolas, one of the seven 'deacons' of Acts 6:5, was of Antioch, and had been a Gentile convert to Judaism. During the persecution which followed the death of Stephen, some of the disciples went as far north as Antioch (Acts 11:19), and preached to the Jews. Later arrivals also took Christianity to the Greek populace, and when numerous conversions occurred the Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he had assessed the situation he went to Tarsus and brought Saul back with him, and both of them taught in Antioch for a whole year. The disciples were first called 'Christians' there (Acts 11:26).
The energetic nature of the Christians in Antioch was displayed in the way in which alms were sent to the mother church in Jerusalem when famine struck (Acts 11:27-30). It was fitting that the city in which the first Gentile church was founded, and where the Christians were given, perhaps sarcastically, their characteristic name, should be the birthplace of Christian foreign missions (Acts 13:1-3). Paul and Barnabas set out from the seaport of Antioch and sailed for Cyprus. This first journey into Asia Minor concluded when Paul and Barnabas returned to Antioch and reported to the assembled church.
Some of the refugees from the persecution over Stephen had taken the lead in preaching at Antioch to Gentiles equally with Jews (Acts 11:20). The Gentile problem came to a head when some Jews visited Antioch and proclaimed the necessity of circumcision for Gentiles as a prerequisite to becoming Christians. Resisting this principle, the church at Antioch sent a deputation headed by Paul and Barnabas to Jerusalem to debate the matter (Acts 15:1-2).
With James presiding, the question of whether or not circumcision was to be obligatory for Gentile Christians was thoroughly discussed. Peter had already encountered the difficulties involved in the relationships between Jews and Gentiles at other than commercial levels (Acts 10:28). Although appearing favourable to such contacts, he had been censured by the Jerusalem church for eating in uncircumcised company (Acts 11:3; cf. Gal. 2:12). He now acknowledged that God had not differentiated between Jew and Gentile after Pentecost.
After Paul had related the blessings which the Gentiles had received, James gave his opinion that abstinence from blood, things strangled, idolatry and immorality should alone be required of Gentile converts. These provisions were written into the apostolic letter to the churches of Antioch and its province. Paul returned to Antioch as the recognized apostle to the uncircumcision (Acts 15:22-26).
There is good reason for the view that *Galatians was written on the eve of this Jerusalem Council, possibly from Antioch. It appears that the Council settled in principle the contentions for which Paul had to battle in Galatians.
Paul began and ended his second missionary journey at Antioch. This notable city saw also the start of his third missionary visitation. Its evangelistic zeal afforded Antioch great status in the subsequent history of the church. Archaeological excavations at the site have unearthed over twenty ruined churches dating from the 4th century ad.
See G. Downey, Ancient Antioch, 1963.
R.K.H. C.J.H. [the Logos Bible Atlas]