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The Church in Antioch - History and Personalities

Julian Spriggs M.A.

The church in Antioch was started by believers who were scattered by the persecution that followed the stoning of Stephen (Acts 11:19). Initially, they only preached to Jews, but others came from Cyprus and Cyrene and preached to the Greeks, many of whom became believers. When the Jerusalem church heard about so many Gentiles becoming believers, they sent Barnabas to see what was happening. Barnabas rejoiced as he saw the grace of God at work in the church, fetched Saul from Tarsus, and together they taught the church for a whole year. It was at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Following the prophecy of a famine by Agabus, the church sent Barnabas and Saul with relief to the church in Jerusalem (Acts 11:27-30). It was the church in Antioch that sent Paul and Barnabas out on their First Missionary Journey (Acts 13:1-3), and became Paul’s ‘home-base’, to which he returned after each missionary journey.

The city of Antioch had been the capital of the Seleucid Empire, when it had become a centre of Hellenistic culture, especially under Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had forcibly attempted to Hellenise all peoples in his empire, including the Jews. Under the Romans, Antioch had become the greatest Greek city in the empire. Over the first few centuries, the church in Antioch also became one of the most significant churches in the Roman Empire, after Rome and Alexandria. By the early second century, it had become a well-established church, with Ignatius as its bishop. Like its rival, Alexandria, it also had its own catechetical school, where the distinctive Antiochene Theology was developed and taught. This made great emphasis on the humanity of Jesus, and rejected the allegorical method of the interpretation of Scripture. However, as the centuries passed, the importance of the church in Antioch declined as the church in Constantinople increased its influence.

One of the most famous bishops of Antioch was Theophilus, who was bishop around 180, when Marcus Aurelius was emperor. He wrote an apology addressed to Autolycus attacking idol worship, defending the prophets, and demonstrating the superiority of the Scriptures over pagan literature. He is important in the history of theology as he was the first to describe the Godhead as a ‘Trias’ or ‘Trinity’.

During the reign of Septimus Severus (193-211), Serapion became bishop of Antioch. Following the tradition in Antioch of stressing the flesh and blood reality of Jesus, like Ignatius, he strongly resisted the influence of Docetism in the church. Docetism described Jesus as being a bit like a ghost, who only appeared to be human. Because of this, he banned the use of the Gospel of Peter in public worship.

One of the most infamous bishops of Antioch was Paul of Samosata (c.260-270). He was condemned and deposed by a synod held in Antioch because he taught a form of dynamic monarchianism, saying that the Son did not exist before he was born on earth, and that Jesus was merely a man indwelt by the divine Logos. One of his supporters was Lucian of Antioch, whose teaching was similar to Paul’s, and who had great influence on Arius. In the fifth century, Nestorian teaching developed in Antioch, leading to great controversy and church division.