The church of Antioch is the most ancient church after that of Jerusalem. The city of Antioch is situated on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean near the mouth of the Orontes River in northwestern Syria. Let’s learn about:
- the history of the Antiochian Orthodox Church,
- how the Antiochian Church was established and became a major centre for Christians,
- the persecution and decline of the Antiochian Church, and
- what can be found in Antioch today.
Antioch was founded in 301 BC by Seleucus I, a general in the army of Alexander the Great and one of his successors. Seleucus named the city after his father Antiochus. Strategically located at the crossroads of important caravan routes, it soon became a centre of commerce and one of the leading cities of the world, famous for a magnificence of architecture rivalled only by Rome and Alexandria.
When Syria was conquered by Rome in 64 BC, Antioch became the eastern capital of the Empire. The Romans added to the architectural splendours of the city, building temples, palaces and theatres, extending aqueducts and paving main streets with marble. At the beginning of Christianity Antioch was a large, sophisticated city and was the third most important city of the Roman Empire.
Christians in Antioch
After the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem in about 35 AD many Christians left the city and some fled to Antioch for refuge. An account of the reception of Christianity in Antioch can be read in Acts 11:19-26. We read that the apostle Barnabas was sent to fetch the apostle Paul from Tarsus to help him with the teaching. They stayed in Antioch for a whole year. We also read in verse twenty six (Acts 11:26) that the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.
According to church Tradition Saint Peter was the actual founder and first bishop of the church of Antioch, carrying out his first mission among the gentiles there. He stayed three years and returned twice more before he went to Rome and martyrdom.
In Acts 13:1-3 we read how in the church at Antioch the Holy Spirit instructed that Barnabas and Paul be set apart for a special work. From Antioch the trips to Asia Minor and the western world were begun. Antioch was the centre of Christendom outside Palestine from which the Christian faith was propagated all over the world.
The Persecution of the Christians
When Peter left Antioch his chosen successor was Bishop Evodius. At this point in the church’s history numbers grew to such an extent that the pagan citizens of Antioch became uneasy about the presence of the Christians.
By the beginning of the second century the Church had a well-established organisation, with its third bishop, Saint Ignatius, as its leader. According to Tradition, Ignatius was a disciple of Saint John the evangelist. He was also the child whom Jesus called to Himself and used as an example in one of His sermons (Matt 18:2). Ignatius was an outstanding bishop and is credited with teaching his people to make the sign of the cross with three fingers to illustrate the Holy Trinity — a tradition still maintained to this day. Saint Ignatius was sent to martyrdom in 116 AD because of continuing pagan dislike for the Christians. (In 115 AD an earthquake struck Antioch and the pagans blamed the Christian religion for it. They said Christianity had angered the gods).
There continued to be persecution of Christians in Antioch until the time of Emperor Constantine, who was himself a converted Christian. He built an important church on an island in the Orontes River off the coast of Antioch; it was called the “Golden Church” and had schools, clergy accommodation and facilities for caring for the poor. The style and set-up of this church was followed for centuries. The Church had a domed roof which was gilded and ornamented.
Patriarch of Antioch
By the end of the fourth century the Bishop of Antioch was given the title of Patriarch and the see ranked after Rome and Alexandria as the third patriarchal see of Christendom. (The word Patriarch comes from the Greek, meaning “Chief Father.”) During the early years of Christianity five large cities became administrative centres of the church. The Bishop in each of these cities had administrative authority and spiritual jurisdiction over other Bishops. Those Bishops were distinguished with the title of Patriarch. The five cities were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
Gradually the rise in power of the see of Constantinople — and to a lesser extent the elevation of Jerusalem into a Patriarchate — reduced the importance of Antioch.
The decline of the Antiochian Patriarchate
Over the last 1500 years Antioch has been affected by earthquakes, Arab invasions, the crusades, and the Turkish conquest. The devastations of war and persistent earthquakes, including one in 526 that reportedly killed 250,000 people, reduced the once great city to relative unimportance.
At the Schism between the Western and Eastern churches, commonly dated 1054 because of certain events that took place that year, the Patriarch of Antioch supported Constantinople. Then in 1100 the Patriarch of Antioch withdrew to Constantinople, and the Crusaders appointed a Latin Patriarch. (From the 14th century the Latin Patriarchate has been only titular).
Antioch was captured by the Turks in 1516, and it remained a part of the Ottoman Empire until shortly after World War I, when it was conveyed to Syria under a French mandate. Today the ancient city of Antioch is called Antakya and is a part of the modern Turkish province of Hatay of which it is the capital. It became autonomous in 1938 and was then ceded to Turkey the following year. From a mighty bastion of the Christian faith, Antioch has now become a multi-faith city with little more than 2000 Christian residents.
Although little of the ancient city remains, portions of the high walls that girded the city and of catacombs and aqueducts still stand. An archaeological museum houses a superbly preserved collection of mosaics dating from the second and third centuries. Nearby is Saint Peter’s Grotto, in which the apostle preached; a church was built in the cave by the Crusaders in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.
The Antiochian Church can trace its roots back all the way to the apostles themselves, who founded the church in the early days after Christ’s resurrection and ascension into heaven. This fact is an excellent heritage for all Orthodox Christians whose faith is founded in the Antiochian Orthodox church.
The Antiochian Orthodox Patriarch now resides in Damascus, the most important city in Syria, and have been there since 1269. His headquarters are in Straight street, which is mentioned in Acts 9:10-12. The current Patriarch is His Beatitude John X. He is the 166th successor of Saints Peter and Paul.
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