Church of Antioch

by Archpriest Stephen Upson

The city of Antioch was founded three hundred years before the birth of Christ by Seleucus, one of the princely successors of Alexander the Great, and named after his father Antiochus. Located near the mouth of the Orontes River in northwestern Syria, at the juncture of three important trade routes, it was a large and sophisticated city when Christianity began. The population at the time has been estimated as perhaps a half million, and not less than three-fifths of that amount; although it was a Greek speaking Hellenistic city, there were large numbers of every kind of Near-Eastern nationality, and just as many different kinds of religions. There was also a large Jewish community, as might be expected in a metropolis which has been called "the Paris of the ancient world". In many ways, it was more like New York, but it was the third great city of the Mediterranean world, after Rome in Italy and Alexandria in Egypt.

The Christian message came early to Antioch; after the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem about 35 A.D., many Christians left the city to go to Cyprus, to Phoenicia (Lebanon), and Antioch. The apostle Barnabas was in Antioch in A.D. 38, and he brought the apostle Paul from Tarsus to help him. They stayed in Antioch a year, having made many converts. According to one of the oldest and strongest of traditions, St. Peter was the actual founder of the Christian church in Antioch, carrying out there his first mission among the Gentiles. He stayed three years, and returned twice more, the last time on his way to Rome and eventual martyrdom.Roman Empire Map

When Peter left Antioch, his chosen successor was Bishop Evodios, who is sometimes credited with giving his people the name of "Christians". No one knows for sure, but they were being called that in his day. Their numbers grew continuously, enough so that they became an object of suspicion and dislike on the part of some of the pagan citizens of Antioch. Because of its fine climate, its wealth and worldly attractions, the city was a favorite of the Roman emperors. It was governed by an imperial legate, instead of a proconsul, and while law and order was maintained, civilized life flourished. At Daphne, a beautiful suburban resort some five miles from the city, there was a famous oracle and grove sacred to Apollo and the memory of the nymph Daphne; the ancient religions remained strong in Antioch for three hundred years after the first apostolic visits.

St. Ignatius, the third bishop of Antioch, was sent to his martyrdom because of pagan dislike for the Christians. According to the tradition Ignatius was the disciple of St. John the Evangelist, and was the child whom Jesus called to Himself (Matthew 18:2) and used as an example in one of his sermons. At any rate, 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. In the year 115 a severe earthquake hit Antioch, and the pagans publicized as the cause the spread of the Christian religion, which had angered the gods. Ignatius was finally sent to Rome, to receive there a welcome martyrdom in 116; Christians in Antioch did not cease to increase, and earthquakes still disturb the area.

Under the Emperor Decius, there was a persecution of Christians in Antioch, and their bishop Babylas became a famous martyr; two years later in 253, the Persians captured the city, and there were more Christian martyrs made. Later in the century, the Romans got the city back, and the Emperor Diocletian maintained a palace there; he liked the climate, and the atmosphere of the city. Actually, the later Roman emperors mostly governed the Empire away from the city of Rome, because the East was becoming more and more important. In the year 303 there was a final persecution under Diocletian, and within twenty-five years the Emperor Constantine built there a famous church, which he dedicated in 327 to "Harmony, the Divine Power which unites the Universe, the Church, and the Empire."

This church was an important building; it stood adjacent to the imperial palace on an island in the Orontes river, part of an official complex which included palace, church, and hippodrome. The building was finished in 341 by his son the Emperor Constantius, and was the prototype of the famous church built later at Kalat Simaan, in honor of St. Simeon Stylites, the famous pillar saint. It was built in a large open area surrounded by a portico, with an open square in front. Within the enclosure there was a guest house for strangers, kitchens and dining rooms for feeding the poor, and the widows and orphans cared for by the Church. There were schools to instruct converts and to train singers, and residences for the attached clergy. The church was octagonal in shape, with a two-story narthex and galleries for women; it had a central domed roof, which was gilded and ornamented with gold and bronze. The church was called "The Golden Church," and this style and general setup was followed more or less for centuries afterwards where important churches were concerned. This church stood until destroyed by a colossal earthquake in 526, in which half the population of the city was killed, including Patriarch Euphrasios. The ruins of the church stood for two years, until a second quake in 528 destroyed it completely. The city never recovered from this disaster.

As a place of great importance, Antioch was always a center of controversy: it was where the action was. This in turn created problems for the Patriarch and his Church. When the Arian heresy spread abroad, Antioch was affected; when the General Council of Ephesus was held in 431, condemning the views of the former Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, many Christians of the Antiochian Patriarchate agreed with Nestorius and fell away from Orthodoxy; a century later the decisions of the Fourth General Council of Chalcedon in 451 alienated the Christians who later became called "Monophysites." In 553 the Fifth Council, held at Constantinople, tried to patch up the quarrels, and succeeded in creating another dissident group, the "Monothelites." It was at a slightly later time, about 641, that the Maronite Church left Orthodoxy, through faithfulness to the Imperial Edicts. The emperors were not always theologically Orthodox, and Orthodox bishops did not always occupy the throne of Antioch.

Not only did these theological troubles cause defections from the Christian body of Antiochian faithful; when in 451 the General Council of Chalcedon raised the sees of Constantinople and Jerusalem to Patriarchates, it was the Patriarchate of Antioch which suffered the loss of members and jurisdiction. Originally, it had under its authority all the provinces of the East: Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, and all the vast expanse eastward to the Caspian Sea, and Persia even to northwest India. The inhabitants of these regions were not Greek, and they did not feel as close a bond to the Byzantine Empire as those who lived closer to the center of things. The eastern frontier of the Empire was subject to attack at all times: at first by the Persians; then in the seventh century by the Arabs, and in the eleventh by the Turks. It is a wonder that the ancient Church was not completely overwhelmed by its troubles!

The Moslem conquest of the East was rapid. By 653 the city of Damascus was in their hands, followed by Jerusalem in 636, and soon after, Antioch. Arab attacks on Constantinople were made in 672, but were repulsed. The Byzantine government protected the capital and most of the provinces of Asia Minor, but Syria and Egypt were lost. The Arabs were in Antioch from 637 until about 968. The Patriarch Alexander II was martyred in 701, and after him there was no occupant of the see for forty years. In 742 the Caliph Moawiyeh allowed the Christians to elect a Patriarch, and there was a comparatively peaceful period until about 968, when the Arabs suspected the Patriarch Christopher of having secret dealings with the Byzantine Emperor Nicephoros Phocas, who was advancing with an army to take the city; Christopher was killed and his body thrown into the Orontes, from whence the Christians obtained it for burial.

In 1098 the Crusaders from the West arrived and set up a Latin Patriarchate of Antioch for fifty-five years. In 1154 the Emperor Manuel Comnenus came to Cilicia with an army, and proceeded to Antioch, where he got the Crusaders' representative to allow the presence of an Orthodox Patriarch in the see. The situation was difficult and precarious until the Egyptian Mamelukes conquered Syria in 1268; they permitted the Orthodox Patriarchs to be chosen and function more normally.

In 1516 Syria was added to the Turkish Empire by Selim the Bold, and a new chapter in the history of the Patriarchate began. Although the Near East had been opened up to the Latins by the Crusades, and Latin pressure on Eastern Christians never ceased, the change in political power also changed the shape of church life. The Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century was shaken by the Protestant revolt from Rome. Having enlisted the new and zealous Jesuit Order in the struggle against Protestantism, Rome decided to use these trained missionaries in the East also. They became active in Eastern Europe, and in Constantinople. Other religious orders were sent into the East, and were aided by the French, who considered Catholicism a good way to spread their influence. There was endless intriguing with the Turkish government, with the use of every kind of pressure, financial and political. The Turks extorted all they could from every Orthodox Patriarch, Bishop, and Christian, and encouraged any friction that might weaken Christianity in their realms.

All through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the struggle was carried on. At the beginning of the eighteenth century the Latins at last got a break, as a result of a domestic quarrel in the Patriarchate of Antioch. Before the death of Patriarch Athanasius IV in 1724, he recommended as his successor his former deacon Sylvester, who was currently a monk on Mt. Athos. Since Sylvester was regarded as the candidate of the Aleppo faction, the pro-Roman group in Damascus elected a candidate of their own, Serafim Tanas, who had been educated at the Propaganda College in Rome. The Patriarch of Constantinople consecrated Sylvester, who, although he was temperamentally the wrong man for the job, was recognized as Patriarch by part of the Orthodox and by the Turkish government. The pro-Catholics and the papacy recognized their candidate, who took the name Cyril VI. The present line of Melkite Patriarchs springs from him. Sylvester died in 1766, and from that time on the Patriarchate was reserved to Greeks, and continued in that wise until the election of Meletios Doumani in 1898.

In the course of their struggle against Rome, it occurred to some of the Protestant reformers that the Eastern Churches, which had broken with the papal Church centuries before, might be enlisted in their behalf. Accordingly, they began to look into the history and teachings of the Orthodox, and sent out feelers to learn if there were grounds for accord. For the British, this began in the seventeenth century, just as commercial contacts began to be made with the Turks and others in the eastern Mediterranean. It was not long before the Protestant inquirers found out that their form of Christianity was alien to that of the East, but they continued to be interested. Early in the nineteenth century, British and American Protestant missionaries began to appear in Syria. There was talk of converting Moslems, but when they discovered that this was a practically impossible feat, they turned their attention to the Christians, to bring them to Protestant "enlightenment."

More than a hundred and fifty years have passed since the first Protestant missionaries came to Syria and Lebanon. The value of their work has been differently assessed, but the extent of its impact is visible. An element of competition with Catholic agents was introduced from the beginning. Both Protestants and Catholics were well financed, and they had the protection of external powers, which native subjects of the Turks did not. They acquired a larger understanding of the various types of local Christianity, and professed not to be forming a new Church -- but that is what happened. They were completely convinced that their version of Christianity was superior to that of the people who were native Christians in the land where Christianity began. They were aware of the degradation which centuries of oppression under Turkish rule had brought about, but instead of helping indigenous Christianity, they simply brought back old heresies in new dress. Whatever the value of the social services they initiated, they simply created more problems for the historic Patriarchate. What the status of evangelical Protestantism would have been after four hundred years of Turkish Moslem oppression is hard to say, but it never had that problem. Orthodoxy did, and it survived.

The nineteenth century was one of great changes in Syria and Lebanon, and greater ones are now in process. The Arab lands have the wealth of oil, and will have it for a long time to come. There is a resurgence of Islam and a feeling of pride in that tradition, but this is combined with a new outlook. What all this will mean to Orthodox Christians is not yet clear. In 1939 the city of Antioch was turned over to Turkey; it is now an unremarkable place of 60,000 inhabitants, very few of whom are Christian. Religion is not encouraged in Turkey; Kemal Ataturk was a great reformer, but he did nor foresee a great future for religion in this country. New mosques continue to be built from time to time in the Turkish Republic, but not Christian churches.

The impact of Israel and the Palestinian refugees upon Lebanon has been severe. There has been a great change in the numerical balance between Moslems and Christians. The widespread destruction caused by the recent disastrous war poses another problem: reconstruction. The war forced the closing of the Theological School at Balamand, to which North Americans of the Patriarchate so generously contributed. Balamand can be repaired and can reopen, so that higher theological education in the Levant can be resumed. The eyes of Orthodox Christians in the East are turned upon the Patriarchate of Antioch, since the Theological School of the Patriarchate of Constantinople at Halki in Turkey is closed because of governmental pressure.

The outflow of Christian population from Syria and Lebanon in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries might be thought to have weakened the Patriarchate by reducing the numbers of the faithful, but the emigration has actually strengthened it. The emigres have prospered in North and South America and Australia, in Africa, and wherever they went. Their industry and native capabilities, when allowed to operate normally, have brought them prosperity and fame, and rewarded the lands which received them. They in turn have not forgotten their origins and traditions, so that in many ways their ancient Patriarchate is more vigorous than ever.

All of the ancient Patriarchates of the Orthodox Christian Church have suffered great vicissitudes, and in material ways are but a shadow of their former selves; but their spiritual influence continues over vast areas. They represent a most important part of Christian civilization, an idea which cannot be allowed to perish. Of all the Patriarchates, those of the East, as well as that of Rome in the West, Antioch is undoubtedly the eldest in point of time, as far as Christian organization is concerned. Rome on the Tiber claimed Saints Peter and Paul as martyrs, and claimed a special status for her Church as being in the capital of the Empire; but Antioch did not make martyrs of the Apostles -- she listened to their preaching and let them organize their church. For considerable periods of time, the Empire was governed from Antioch, inasmuch as the Emperors lived there by preference. Even Constantine, the founder of New Rome, built a great church in Antioch, and linked it with the imperial palace, such was its importance in the world both secular and ecclesiastical in his day.

This year of 1985 will see the second visit of a reigning Patriarch of Antioch to North America, (the first being in 1977), to visit his spiritual children in lands undreamt of when his See was founded. In his presence will be seen and heard and felt the presence of the Holy Apostles who were his predecessors, a living witness to the perpetuity of the Patriarchate of Antioch, where the disciple of Jesus were first called Christians.

from The Word Magazine, February 1985, Pages 4-6.