"AND THEY WERE FIRST CALLED CHRISTIANS IN ANTIOCH ..."

by Metropolitan Elias (Audi) of Beirut

 

ANTIOCH was the second most mentioned city in the Acts of the Apostles and the third city of importance in the Roman Empire. It was founded by Seleucus I in 300 B.C. on the Orontes, and was named after his father Antiochus. It was known for its splendor and beauty. After the Romans occupied it under the leadership of Pompey in 64 B.C. they competed among each other to make Antioch the “Queen of the East.” They built temples, theatres, public baths, bridges and aqueducts. Besides its adornment, it was “notorious for the profligacy of its pagan population.”

Its location, on the river Orontes and 21 miles from the sea, made it a center of trade “being easily approached by the caravans of the East and through its port Seleucia having maritime communication with the West.”

This landmark of Syria, because of its location, size and importance in the Roman Empire, moved to be the second center of Christianity. Nicolaus, one of the seven deacons chosen to serve tables, was a proselyte from Antioch and was probably the first Christian from that city. To Antioch, the first Christians fled the persecution which followed the death of St. Stephen, the martyr. Here the word of God was preached to Jews and Gentiles by Barnabas, a man full of the Holy Spirit and of faith, and Paul, the apostle of the Gentiles. In Antioch, the followers of Christ were called, probably out of mockery, Christians for the first time.

The Jews of Antioch who were converted to Christianity were divided into two groups. The first group adhered to all that was old: yet the second group found it necessary to mix with the Greeks and become Hellenized. An issue was raised between these two groups over whether the Gentile had to be circumcised or not. The dispute between St. Paul and St. Peter, which occurred in Antioch, was an aspect of this conflict. It is from this atmosphere of zeal and concern, of prophecy and teaching the first missionaries to the Gentiles which set forth the spreading of the Word of God.

Although the Book of Acts tells about the disciples fleeing to Antioch, about Barnabas who was sent by the Church in Jerusalem, in addition to other prophets and teachers (specifically, Symeon, who was called Niger; Lucius of Cyrene: Manaen, a member of the court of Herod the Tetrarch; and Saul) by the writings of ecclesiastical historians the tradition holds to St. Peter as the founder of the Church of Antioch around the year A.D. 34. However, being occupied with his missionary work, St. Peter appointed Evodius as his helper and successor. But, in fact, the history of the See of Antioch begins with the Ignatian Epistles, written shortly before the martyr’s death. Of the episcopate of Ignatius, which may be assumed to have lasted from about A.D. 70 to 112. we know absolutely nothing until the saint received the “sentence of death.”

The bishop of Antioch exercised a great influence on his colleagues in Syria. At the beginning of the fifth century, the jurisdiction of Antioch extended to Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Mesopotamia. These included eleven ecclesiastical provinces with more than one hundred and fifty suffragan bishoprics. Antioch also exercised suzerainty over the churches of Persia and Georgia which she herself had founded.

But Antioch soon lost this position of eminence when Arianism and internal schisms greatly weakened it during the fourth century. Constantinople took from it the second place of honor in the hierarchy of ancient patriarchates. In 431, the council of Ephesus bestowed on the Church of Cyprus its independence from Antioch.

In the first half of the fifth century a new heresy was spreading. Nestorius, a pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia’s at Antioch, originated the idea that there were two persons in Christ. This controversy was carried on when Nestorius was the Archbishop of Constantinople. This Christological issue put Alexandria and Antioch, who favored Nestorius’ views, on the verge of a schism. “A council at Antioch in 430 warned Nestorius to avoid excess. At the council of Ephesus in 431, Nestorius was deposed, the Antiochene party was defeated by Cyril of Alexandria and the territorial jurisdiction of the Antiochene See was reduced in favor of the See of Jerusalem ... Two synods were later held at Antioch at which peace with Alexandria was restored.”

The period of the second half of the fifth century and the sixth century was a period of struggle between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. Until the end of Emperor Anastasius’ reign (491-518). the Monophysites were at their peak.

From the time Justin I ruled Byzantium in 518 to the end of Justinian’s rule in 565, the story was reversed and the Monophysites were the target of persecutions. Withholding all that, the Monophysites managed to keep an organized Church.

During Justinian’s reign, many catastrophes befell Antioch: “a devastating fire (525) was followed by two severe earthquakes (526 and 528) all resulting in serious losses in population and economic activity. The culmination was the capture and sack of the city by the Persians (540). Antioch continued to exist until it was taken by the Persians (611) and the Arabs (638), but it never recovered its ancient greatness.” In addition to this, the Monothelite heresy turned some of the Orthodox to its side.

Life to the Orthodox was restored temporarily by Nicephoras Phocas, who conquered part of Syria in 969. But this did not last long. The Crusades, by the excuse of saving the Holy Lands from the Moslems, established colonies in the Middle East and drove away the Greek Patriarchs from their territories. Latin Patriarchs were installed in their place. When the Moslems returned to power in 1269, the Orthodox patriarch was re-instated as head of his Church but he could not return to Antioch. In the 16th century, Damascus became the Patriarchal See.

The transfer of the Patriarchate from Antioch to Damascus symbolized that this Patriarchate would henceforth accept the destiny of the Arabs. By this act the Church severed itself from the specifically Syriac heritage, jealously preserved by the Jacobites. In effect, from the 12th century onwards, Arabic became the liturgical language. The Orthodox Church of Armenian or Greek descent were the first to adopt Arabic in the Divine Office while Syriac culture became heretical. The Orthodox of Syria have abandoned the whole of the tradition of the Syriac East and have become purely and simply Byzantine in their Arabic worship.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the See of Antioch was occupied by Patriarchs of Arabic origin. In 1727, the seat was reserved to the Greeks. These were sent by the Phanar, the See of Constantinople. The Sultan gave the Patriarch of Constantinople the privilege of administering the affairs of all the Patriarchates of the East which fell under the yoke of the Ottoman Empire.

Beginning in 1850, Greek prelates were coming from Jerusalem. They were members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre. The Arabs of Syria tried to elect one of their nationality with the help of Russia in 1885 after the death of the Greek Patriarch Hierotheus. Their endeavors failed due to the heavy opposition of the Brotherhood.

At the end of September, 1891, Spyridon replaced Gerasimos who left to take the place of Nicodemus as the Patriarch of Jerusalem. Spyridon was a Cypriote, and a member of the Brotherhood. Since his arrival, he appointed Greek bishops on certain vacant sees and tried to subjugate the See of Antioch to Constantinople. Spyridon, by his action, added to the anger of the Arabs and they insisted on his deposition. Finally, he resigned on the 31st of January, 1898. Germanus, Metropolitan of Tarsus and Adana was elected to be the patriarchal vicar. This election was doomed to be short. On May 12, 1898, Meletius Doumani, Metropolitan of Lataquia, was elected to be the patriarchal vicar. His election was not accepted by the Ottoman Government until February 23, 1899.

At the beginning of 1899, Meletius was elected by seven Metropolitans to the Patriarchate of Antioch. This was rejected by the Government and by the three ancient Patriarchates of the East. When his name was proclaimed for the second time, the Phanar insisted on its previous stand, acclaiming the election as uncanonical since some bishops were not convoked. The Ottoman Government accepted the election ( as a result of pressure enforced by Russia) and declared it by a berat of investiture.

During the patriarchate of Meletius, no Greek bishops were on his synod. From that time on, the Arabic element was the only one in the clergy. He opened a school at Balamand Monastery to educate his clergy in Orthodox beliefs.

The Patriarch of Antioch today, Theodosius VI, is the fourth member of the indigenous Patriarchs. His predecessors, other than Meletius, were Gregory IV and Alexander III, both former metropolitans of Tripoli.

Two movements should be mentioned in the history of the Patriarchate of Antioch. The first is the Antiochene School, which was the rival of the School of Alexandria in the first centuries of Christianity. The former was known for its literal and scientific exegesis of the Holy Bible. One of its most prominent figures was St. John Chrysostom, who was an eloquent and fiery preacher called “The Golden-mouth,” and the Editor of the ancient liturgy now still used in the Church. The School of Alexandria was known for its allegorical or symbolical interpretation. Its most distinguished figure is Origen.

The other movement to be noted, which awakened Antioch from its slumber, is The Orthodox Youth Movement. This movement was born in 1942. “It was founded by two young men who had just begun to study at the faculty of Law in Beyrouth. Their most fervent desire was to call down upon the desiccated body of the Church of their country the breath of the life-giving Spirit. That which they had the most at heart was to be able to receive anew the Word of God, which had fallen silent. To this end they sought the education of their clergy, practically non-existent, and longed that they should become open to the idea of frequent communion. For the first time there dawned a vision of renewal of compelling luminosity. For these young people, the sources of this new life were the Bible and the Eucharist. Their intense thirst for the Word of God led them to base their lives upon the New Testament and to struggle for weekly communion. The Scriptures were there to communicate to them a living Christianity and to unite them to a forgotten past. They only had to read the Book of Acts and the Epistles to perceive the beauty of the Church willed by Christ and to understand that this church was indeed Orthodoxy. The starting point of their struggle was precisely this conviction that the spiritual and dogmatic tradition of Orthodoxy was the only possible response to the anguish they experienced in face of the historic Church of this country.”

This movement was officially recognized by the Holy Synod on August 23, 1945 under the Patriarchate of Alexander III. Today this movement has spread throughout the territory of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Its influence on the life of the Church is quite evident. Of its members, many entered the monastic life, others the sanctuary, and some became members of the Holy Synod.

If the Patriarchate of the East could become aware again of its great mission and would allow itself to launch out in freedom and in great docility to the Spirit, original forces of an extraordinary vitality would awaken in this land where the disciples were first called Christians, a land which gave birth to such a glorious cloud of witnesses as Ignatius, Chrysostom, Romanus the Singer, Andrew of Crete and John of Damascus.

From Word Magazined
Publication of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America
September 1970
pp. 18-19

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