“where the disciples were first called Christians”Acts 11:26
The Patriarchate of Antioch has been one of the great centres of Christianity since the times of the New Testament.
The origin of the Christian community within the city itself dates from the time of the Apostles, and the importance of the city as a centre of the Christian community of the East dates from shortly thereafter.
The civilized world of the Roman Empire was centred in cities, and it was quite natural that the Church, arising within the context of the Roman political structure, should assume that same external pattern. The fact that Antioch was the “Queen City” and capital of the Roman Diocese of the East went far in extending her ecclesiastical jurisdiction and influence throughout the Middle and Far East.
In the development of Church order, five great urban centres stood out after the fifth century: Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem. Each of these five Ancient Patriarchates was centred in a particular city, but the Church designated and/or controlled by their names extended far beyond urban boundaries. This pentarchy of sees comprised the universal Church before the sad schism which separated Rome from her sisters in the eleventh century.
The Apostolic Era
Throughout the Apostolic Era, Antioch remained the most prominent in wealth and leadership among the five Sees. Her history is part and parcel of larger ecclesiastical history and a good part of the events and beliefs which constitute this history originated either within the See of Antioch or with Antiochian personalities. The theological turmoil which stirred Antioch during these early centuries is indicative of the dynamic nature of that Christian community.
The most famous scriptural reference concerning Antioch relates that it was in this city that the followers of Christ were first mockingly referred to as “Christ-ians” (Acts 11:26). In the Book of Acts, which offers an account of the first years of the Church, we discover that Antioch is the second most frequently mentioned city. Nicholas, one of the original seven deacons was a convert from Antioch and perhaps the first Christian from that city (Acts 6:5). During the persecution which occasioned the death of Saint Stephen the First Martyr, members of the fledgling Christian community in Jerusalem fled to Antioch for refuge.
Church tradition maintains that the See of Antioch was founded by Saint Peter the Apostle in A.D. 34 (Acts 2:26). Peter was either followed or joined by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas who preached there to both Gentiles and to Jews, who seem to have been numerous in the city. It was in Antioch that one of the first conflicts within the Church developed between Peter and Paul. This conflict regarded the necessity of circumcision for male Gentile converts to Christianity. It was the resolution of this conflict at the Council of Jerusalem under Saint James the Apostle that determined the direction of the Antiochian mission to the Gentiles, and the dynamic nature of that Christian community in its missionary outreach. It was from Antioch that Paul and Barnabas departed for their great missionary journeys to the Gentile lands (Acts 13:1).
The Apostles directed a truly universal ministry. After spending some seven years in Antioch, Peter left for Rome. To succeed him as bishop of Antioch he appointed Euodius, who is thus counted in early episcopal lists as the first successor to the Antiochian Throne of Peter. The multiple Apostolic foundation of the See of Antioch, the early missions centred there, and the active nature of the community as recorded in the New Testament, has been a unique source of pride to all who trace their spiritual and ecclesiastical roots to the Antiochian Patriarchate.
The See of Antioch continued its glorious contributions to the universal Church by the numerous outstanding personalities it nurtured. Saint Ignatius of Antioch, for example, is revered as both a victorious martyr during the reign of Emperor Trajan (early second century) and as a reliable historical source for the structure of Church life. Ignatius was the second successor to Peter and may actually have been consecrated by that Apostle or Saint Paul. Ignatius’ chief gift to the Church historian is his several epistles, the earliest Christian documents after the New Testament, which were written en route to his martyrdom in Rome. These letters bear abundant testimony to the nature of the early hierarchical structure of the Church and to general Church order. The contemporary Orthodox Church takes pride in the fact that these epistles bear witness to the unbroken continuity of Orthodox belief in Apostolic Succession, the Eucharist, and other essential facets of the Christian Faith.
In addition to Ignatius, mention must be made of the works of Saint Theophilus, the sixth successor to Peter, who defended Christian doctrine in his writings against heretics and pagans.
The Patristic Age
No less a sophisticated thinker than either Ignatius or Theophilus and other Antiochian theologians, but certainly more well known, is the universally recognized Father of the Church, Saint John Chrysostom, the brilliant preacher and pastor of Antioch during the late fourth century. For John, called the “Golden-mouthed” for his power in oratory, Christianity was a practical affair. His deeply religious mind, his sensitive knowledge of the human soul and psychology, his scriptural learning, and his passionate devotion to the ethical and moral implications of the Faith, have made him universally known and loved. Eschewing speculative theology, John preached a truly pastoral theology. After serving as a priest in Antioch, he was elected and consecrated to the Patriarchal Throne of the See of Constantinople, where he continued to preach moral purity, social mutuality, and self-denial amidst the wealth and pleasure of the capital of the Empire and richest city in the world. He ended his life as a martyr to his social and moral concerns. It is Saint John Chrysostom who is credited with having edited the Divine Liturgy as it is most commonly celebrated throughout the Orthodox world today. To this list of outstanding personalities must be added the famous eighth century Antiochian scholastic theologian, Saint John of Damascus.
The See of Antioch also revealed its Christian vitality in another respect, that is in the harvest of martyrs who through Roman, Persian, Ottoman and other violent persecutions bore witness to the life that was theirs only in Jesus Christ.
Antioch and the Ecumenical Councils
At the beginning of the fifth century the Patriarchate of Antioch held ecclesiastical hegemony over a large area including Cyprus, Syria, Palestine, Arabia and Mesopotamia. Though still under some Antiochian influence, the Churches of Georgia and Persia were granted ecclesiastical independence by their Mother Church of Antioch. Antioch could not, however, long hold on to this prestigious position and would lose much to the doctrinal conflicts which either originated there or had as their authors men from the Patriarchate of Antioch.
In the fifth century the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, who was from Antioch, was condemned at the Council of Ephesus (431) for his heretical teachings. Although the Throne of Antioch concurred in this conciliar condemnation, many of the faithful in Persia and the East refused to accept it and broke from Orthodoxy by establishing the Nestorian or Assyrian Church.
Later in that same century the Monophysite heresy, whose leading opponent was Saint Cyril of Alexandria, gained a foothold in Syria from where many of its leading and most respected proponents came. The monophysite heresy was con-demned at the Council of Chalcedon in 451. However, as in the case of Nestorianism, many Christians including a number of the Antiochian faithful refused to accept this condemnation. The subsequent establishment of a permanent Monophysite hierarchy (Jacobite) in the sixth century again weakened the See of Antioch.
At this same time the geographical extent of the Patriarchate was reduced by decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. In 431 the Church of Cyprus was granted independence from Antioch, and in 451 the Patriarchate of Jerusalem was established and given jurisdiction of Palestine and Arabia.
In the early seventh century the Byzantine Empire was threatened with attack by the Persians in the East. In an attempt to reconcile the Orthodox and the Jacobite Monophysites to provide a united front against the invaders, Byzantine Emperor Heraclius proposed the compromise doctrine of Monothelitism. However the Orthodox would accept no political compromise when it came to matters of the Faith and at the Council of Constantinople in 680 Monothelitism was rejected as heresy. Very quickly thereafter Monothelitism died out, except at the Antiochian monastery of Beit-Maroon on the Orontes River- The supporters of this heresy rallied around the monastery and became known as Maronites.
These three schisms – Nestorian, Jacobite, and Maronite – combined with the geographical reduction of the Patriarchate of Antioch by decision of the Ecumenical Councils, greatly reduced the See from its former prestige.
In spite of the negative affect that the heresies had on the life of the Church, their tendencies attest to the vitality of the Patriarchate of Antioch and its ability to produce theological thinkers and to remain loyal to the Apostolic Faith despite all odds. In this context it should be noted that the Christian Faith, as we possess it today, was largely shaped, either directly or indirectly, by the theological “School of Antioch”. In discussing this school of thought it is common to contrast it with the School of Alexandria, with which it often entered into doctrinal dispute. The Antiochian School represented an historical and concrete exegesis of the Scripture and understanding of Christ. The Alexandrian School, on the other hand, represented a more symbolical and allegorical interpretation. Ultimately it was the balance that was struck between these two tendencies in early Christian thought which produced the refined expression which we today designate as Christian doctrine, the fundamental tenets of the Faith, i.e., the nature of Christ, the nature of the Holy Trinity, the nature of Man. It was the famous School of Antioch which provided the necessary practical, concrete, and human balance to the more mystical approach of the Alexandrians.