While it remains true that there are many of us who have visited the Holy Land (the fortunate few), still fewer have actually visited the other memorable places from the account of the early church given to us by S. Luke in the Acts of the Apostles. One of those places is Antioch, one of several Antiochs of the ancient Greek East, but this particular one is the Antioch in northern Syria, sitting on the river Orontes. The excellent tool which is Google Earth has permitted a map of this region to be embedded in this post. As can be seen, the ancient name of the city has been retained with a Turkish modification. By scrolling around this excellent satellite map, it is possible (if you know where to find it) the ancient sea-port of Seleukia, from which S. Paul and S. Barnabas set sail for Cyprus, on S. Paul's first missionary journey. To the north-west, further afield, is S. Paul's own country of Cilicia, with the location of his home town of Tarsus, now long built over. And so on, and so forth. It is an extraordinary thing to follow S. Paul around the ancient world, zoom into a digital map and find the ruins of the towns in which he once preached and taught.
Some readers may know that, according to Acts, chapter 11, it was in Antioch that we were first called Christians, and probably not in a favourable way, for Antioch was a pagan city and nascent Christianity was one of several religious philosophies that passed through the city, and the preachers of each of these philosophies would have lent their name to it. Thus the followers of the Christ - us - were the Christians. The name could have been used by the Roman authorities in derogation. But let's get back to Acts, chapter 11. Here is a summary:
- S. Peter has just baptised a Roman centurion called Cornelius in chapter 10, first of the pagan converts to Christianity, and the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem are astounded that the Promise has been extended beyond the realms of Judaism. Chapter 11 opens with some of these Jewish Christians (who are less than impressed) challenging S. Peter about this daring of his to baptise pagans. Verses 5 through to 17 contain S. Peter's defence: who is he to challenge what the Spirit of God wishes to be done. The word of S. Peter is accepted.
- Verse 19 tells of the dispersion of the Christians from Jerusalem following the great Profession of faith of the first Christian martyr, S. Stephen, in chapter 7. This has caused little churches to be formed in other cities and one of these cities is Antioch-on-the-Orontes. The others places mentioned are the islands of Crete and Cyprus. The starting point of the Christian preaching was the synagogues of the Jews in these various places. It seems that the Faith arrived first in other places, for verse 20 states that it was Cyrenian and Cypriot Christians who preached to the Jews in Antioch.
- The Apostolic corps in Jerusalem heard with joy of the growth of the Church in Antioch, and the Apostles sent to them the trusted S. Barnabas, a great consolation to them in their work. S. Barnabas himself continued to build the Church in Antioch, but he knew of one person who would be a good companion to him in his work. Verse 25 tells us that he sought S. Paul in Tarsus, where Paul had fled when his preaching led to his life being endangered (Acts 9: 29-30).
- The rest tells us that S. Paul and S. Barnabas lived in Antioch a whole year, welcoming Christian prophets from Jerusalem, and altogether made the Church so obvious that the locals coined the name 'Christians.' The Church had already become, at least here, more than simply a sect of Judaism.
- And of course, there is finally the Second Collection taken by S. Paul and S. Barnabas for the Church in Judaea, after they heard predictions of the famine threatening that region. They carried these alms down with their own hands.