Why Was Antioch So Important in the Bible?


At the northeast corner of the Mediterranean Sea, one will find the city of Antioch a few miles inland on the Orontes River. It is in a very important location because it links the eastern and western worlds. There was no important city located there until the Greeks conquered the area in the fourth century BC.[1] When the Greeks conquered a new area,* they brought their culture, art, architecture, philosophy, and religion to the region. The process of making a new area Greek is called Hellenization. The Greeks Hellenized the new cities in their empire. The Greeks built buildings in classical Greek style in Antioch, and it soon became an important city to trade, politics, and religion that connected the eastern and western worlds.

In 64 BC, General Pompey of the Roman army captured the city of Antioch from the Greeks,** and it remained an important city in the Roman Empire for many centuries. One can imagine the variety of religious conversations overheard in the city streets from the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, and Phoenicians who established their places of worship throughout the city. Add to the mix a few eastern cults and no small number of Hellenistic Jews who were brought to the city or migrated there when it was still controlled by the Greeks. It was a truly cosmopolitan city, which reflected the cultural and religious diversity of its population, but all under Roman rule.[2]

Following the martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem in the mid-30s AD, many followers of Jesus migrated northward to Antioch to take refuge there (Acts 8:1, 11:19). This is where followers of Jesus were first called Christians(Acts 11:26). The earliest and most well-known Christian missionary work of the first century had its genesis in Antioch.[3] Paul and Barnabas were sent out by the Church of Antioch to the northern Mediterranean world. Paul’s three missionary journeys and his trip to Rome were responsible for the spread of Christianity to the Jews and Gentiles around the Roman Empire. By the end of the first century, Antioch had a population of 300,000, making it the third largest city in the Roman Empire, many of whom were Christians.[4] It was not only an important city to the empire but to Christianity in its earliest and most vulnerable stage. Christians in Antioch were among the most persecuted Christians in the Roman Empire.[5] Some well known monastic communities also spread east from Antioch.[6]

Before and after Christianity became the legal—and eventually official—religion of the Roman Empire in the fourth century; Antioch was recognized as one of the major centers of Christianity. It boasted a robust theological school to train people for ministry that rivaled the theological schools in Alexandria and Carthage.*** Since the city’s population was so big, its location so crucial to the exchange of ideas, and its school so influential; the Bishops of Antioch would wield significant influence over matters of church doctrine for centuries to come in the early church era. Along with Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem; the city of Antioch was crucial to the growth and direction of Christian life and thought. 

[1] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume II—The Life of Greece (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1966), 572.

[2] William Tabbernee, editor, Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 38.

[3] Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 36.

[4] Glanville Downey, “The Size of the Population of Antioch,” in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association89 (1958): 84-91.

[5] William Tabbernee, editor, Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 39-40.

[6] William Tabbernee, editor, Early Christianity in Contexts: An Exploration across Cultures and Continents (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2014), 41-43.