Persecution Sparks Growth in Antioch
WHEN persecution flared after Stephen’s martyrdom, many of Jesus’ disciples fled Jerusalem. One of the places where they sought refuge was Antioch, Syria, some 350 miles [550 kilometers] to the north. (Acts 11:19) Ensuing events there were to affect the whole course of Christian history. To understand what happened, it will be useful to know a little about Antioch.
As far as cities of the Roman Empire were concerned, in size, prosperity, and importance Antioch was surpassed only by Rome and Alexandria. This metropolis of Syria dominated the northeast corner of the Mediterranean basin. Antioch (modern-day Antakya, Turkey) stood on the navigable Orontes River, which connected it to its seaport, Seleucia Pieria, 20 miles [32 kilometers] away. It commanded one of the most important trade routes between Rome and the Tigris-Euphrates Valley. As a center of commerce, it did business with the whole empire and saw the comings and goings of all sorts of people, who brought news of religious movements everywhere in the Roman world.
Hellenic religion and philosophy had flourished in Antioch. But “in the time of Christ,” says historian Glanville Downey, “the old religious cults and the philosophies were tending to become matters of individual belief, as people independently sought religious satisfaction for their own problems and aspirations.” (A History of Antioch in Syria) Many found satisfaction in the monotheism, ceremonies, and ethics of Judaism.
A strong Jewish contingent had resided in Antioch since the city’s foundation in 300 B.C.E. It is estimated to have numbered from 20,000 to 60,000, constituting more than 10 percent of the population. The historian Josephus says that the Seleucid dynasty of kings encouraged Jews to settle in the city, giving them full citizenship rights. By that time, the Hebrew Scriptures were available in Greek. This stimulated the interest of sympathizers in Jewish Messianic aspirations. Hence, many proselytes had been made among the Greeks. All these factors made Antioch a fertile field for Christian disciple making.
Witnessing to Gentiles
Most of Jesus’ persecuted followers who scattered from Jerusalem shared their faith with Jews only. In Antioch, however, some disciples from Cyprus and Cyrene spoke to “Greek-speaking people.” (Acts 11:20) While preaching to Greek-speaking Jews and proselytes had been going on since Pentecost of 33 C.E., the preaching in Antioch seems to have been something new. It was not directed to Jews only. True, the Gentile Cornelius and his family had already become disciples. But it took a vision from Jehovah to convince the apostle Peter of the propriety of preaching to Gentiles, or people of the nations.—Acts 10:1-48.
In a city hosting a large and ancient Jewish community and with no great hostility between Jews and Gentiles, non-Jews were receiving a witness and were responding favorably to the good news. Antioch evidently offered the right atmosphere for such a development, and ‘a great number became believers.’ (Acts 11:21) And when proselytes, who formerly worshiped pagan gods, became Christians, they were uniquely equipped to witness to other Gentiles who still did so.
On hearing of developments in Antioch, the congregation in Jerusalem sent Barnabas there to investigate. That choice was wise and loving. He was a Cypriot, like some of those who had begun preaching to non-Jews. Barnabas would have been comfortable among the Gentiles of Antioch. In turn, they would have looked upon him as a member of a community familiar to them.a He could sympathize with the work being done. So “when he arrived and saw the undeserved kindness of God, he rejoiced and began to encourage them all to continue in the Lord with hearty purpose,” and “a considerable crowd was added to the Lord.”—Acts 11:22-24.
“Practical reasons for the success of the early mission at Antioch,” suggests historian Downey, “may have been that in this city the missionaries had not to fear Jewish fanatics such as they encountered in Jerusalem; also that the city, as the capital of Syria, was governed by a legate, and so enjoyed a greater degree of public order, with less opportunity for mob violence such as had occurred in Jerusalem, where the procurators of Judaea seem (at this period at least) not to have been able to restrain the Jewish fanatics.”
In such favorable circumstances and with much to do, Barnabas probably realized that he needed help, and he thought of his friend Saul. Why Saul, or Paul? Apparently because Paul, though not one of the 12 apostles, had received an apostleship to the nations. (Acts 9:15, 27; Romans 1:5; Revelation 21:14) Hence, Paul was well suited as an associate in proclaiming the good news in the Gentile city of Antioch. (Galatians 1:16) So Barnabas went to Tarsus, found Saul, and brought him to Antioch.—Acts 11:25, 26; see box on pages 26-7.
Called Christians by Divine Providence
For a whole year, Barnabas and Saul “taught quite a crowd, and it was first in Antioch that the disciples were by divine providence called Christians.” It is unlikely that the Jews were the first to call Jesus’ followers Christians (Greek) or Messianists (Hebrew), for they rejected Jesus as the Messiah, or Christ, and therefore would not tacitly recognize him as such by calling his followers Christians. Some think that the heathen population may have nicknamed them Christians in jest or out of scorn. The Bible, however, shows that the name Christians was God-given.—Acts 11:26.
In the Christian Greek Scriptures, the verb used in connection with the new name, generally translated “were called,” is always associated with something supernatural, oracular, or divine. Scholars thus render it “to utter an oracle,” “divinely intimate,” or “to give a divine command or admonition, to teach from heaven.” Since Jesus’ followers were called Christians “by divine providence,” it is possible that Jehovah directed Saul and Barnabas to give the name.
The new name stuck. Jesus’ disciples could no longer be mistaken for a sect of Judaism, from which they were quite distinct. By about 58 C.E., Roman officials knew very well who the Christians were. (Acts 26:28) According to the historian Tacitus, by 64 C.E., the name was current among the masses in Rome too.
Jehovah Uses His Faithful Ones
The good news made great progress in Antioch. With Jehovah’s blessing and the resolve of Jesus’ followers to keep on preaching, Antioch became a center of first-century Christianity. God used the congregation there as a springboard to spread the good news to distant lands. For instance, Antioch was the departure point for each of the apostle Paul’s ground-breaking missionary journeys.
In modern times zeal and determination in the face of opposition have likewise favored the spread of true Christianity, enabling many to hear the good news and show appreciation for it.b So if you face opposition because you support pure worship, bear in mind that Jehovah has his reasons for permitting it. As in the first century, people today must be given the opportunity to hear about God’s Kingdom and to take their stand on its side. Your determination to continue serving Jehovah faithfully may be just what is required to help someone come to an accurate knowledge of truth.
a On a clear day, the island of Cyprus is visible from Mount Casius, southwest of Antioch.
[Box/Pictures on page 26, 27]
Saul’s “Silent Years”
THE last mention of Saul in the book of Acts prior to his move to Antioch in about 45 C.E. is when a plot to kill him in Jerusalem was foiled and fellow believers sent him to Tarsus. (Acts 9:28-30; 11:25) But that was nine years earlier, in about 36 C.E. What did he do in the meantime—a period dubbed Saul’s silent years?
From Jerusalem, Saul went into the regions of Syria and of Cilicia, and the congregations of Judea heard: “The man that formerly persecuted us is now declaring the good news about the faith which he formerly devastated.” (Galatians 1:21-23) That report may have referred to activity in Antioch with Barnabas, but even before that Saul undoubtedly was not idle. By 49 C.E., a number of congregations existed in Syria and Cilicia. One was in Antioch, but some think that others may have been the result of Saul’s activity during his so-called silent years.—Acts 11:26; 15:23, 41.
Some scholars believe that dramatic events in Saul’s life should be dated to the same period. Many hardships suffered as a ‘minister of Christ’ are otherwise hard to place in his missionary career. (2 Corinthians 11:23-27) When did Saul five times receive 39 strokes from the Jews? Where was he three times beaten with rods? Where did he undergo ‘plentiful’ imprisonments? His detention in Rome came later. We have an account about one time that he was beaten and jailed—in Philippi. But what of the others? (Acts 16:22, 23) One writer suggests that Saul during this period was “witnessing about Christ within the synagogues of the Diaspora in such a manner as to bring about persecution from both the religious and the civil authorities.”
Saul suffered four shipwrecks, but the Scriptures provide details about only one, which took place after he listed his hardships when writing to the Corinthians. (Acts 27:27-44) So the other three likely befell him during voyages we know nothing about. Any or all of these events may belong to the “silent years.”
Another event that seems to date to this period is described at 2 Corinthians 12:2-5. Saul said: ‘I know a man in union with Christ who, fourteen years ago was caught away to the third heaven, into paradise, and heard unutterable words which it is not lawful for a man to speak.’ Apparently, Saul was talking about himself. Since he wrote this in about 55 C.E., 14 years earlier would take us back to 41 C.E., in the middle of the “silent years.”
That vision doubtless gave Saul unique insight. Was it to equip him as “an apostle to the nations”? (Romans 11:13) Did it affect the way he later thought, wrote, and spoke? Did the years between Saul’s conversion and his call to Antioch serve to train and mature him for future responsibilities? Whatever are the answers to such questions, we can be sure that when Barnabas invited him to help spearhead the preaching work in Antioch, zealous Saul was fully qualified to fulfill the assignment.—Acts 11:19-26.
[Map on page 25]
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[Pictures on page 24]
Top: Modern-day Antioch
Middle: Southern view of Seleucia
Bottom: Harbor wall of Seleucia