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At A Glance

The Church of Antioch

The ancient Romans considered the city of Antioch the center of the East. Today a provincial city of 150,000 people in the southern Turkish province of Hatay, Roman Antioch was the capital of the province of Syria and, at its height in the first century A.D., home to more than 500,000 people.

Inhabited by a panoply of peoples, Roman Antioch was culturally and linguistically Greek, the predominant culture of the Greco-Roman era. Those who lived in the province’s rural interior, however, spoke Syriac, a dialect of the Aramaic spoken by Jesus. Sophisticated, Roman Antioch proved to be fertile ground for new ideas, philosophies and faiths, such as the teachings of Jesus. Many of these new ideas faded, but Christianity took root and flourished.

According to the Acts of the Apostles, believers fleeing the persecution of the Jewish authorities brought the Gospel to Antioch. These disciples worked among Jews and Gentiles and built up a community of believers. Sts. Paul and Barnabas nurtured it before St. Peter settled there, around the year A.D. 44, directing the life of the church for seven years until he left for Rome. Over time, this community achieved an identity. Again, according to Acts, “It was at Antioch that the disciples were first called Christians.”

And the Church of Antioch boomed. For the next 500 years, the Antiochene Church fostered bishop martyrs, anchorites, poets, scholars and theologians, all of whom contributed to a lively and diverse church. And while all were passionate about their faith, few agreed with one another.

As the Church of Antioch prospered, its bishops assumed leadership among the bishops of all the East, who increasingly referred to the Antiochene prelates as “patriarchs,” a title of honor once reserved in the Old Testament for Abraham, the 12 sons of Jacob and King David. Increasingly, Antioch’s patriarchs governed a church that stretched from Syria, beyond the eastern frontiers of the Roman Empire into Iraq, Persia and India.

But the unity of the Church of Antioch crumbled as cultural, linguistic and theological nuances increasingly took on political associations.

Presently, more than 14 million people, belonging to 10 distinct churches, form the Church of Antioch. These include the Church of the East, whose missionaries once founded monasteries in China and Japan; the Orthodox Patriarchal Church of Antioch; the Indian and Syriac Orthodox churches; and the Chaldean, Maronite, Melkite, Syriac and the Syro-Malabar and Syro-Malankara Catholic churches. And while these churches claim unique histories, rites and traditions, all proudly stem from Antioch and share in that church’s legacy.

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