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Why Antioch?

by Tim O'Hearn

I have often wondered why Paul chose Antioch as his home base. Surely the great city of Jerusalem had more to offer. After all, that was where the apostles were. Why, in my mind I would ask, a little town like Antioch? And therein I find the answer.

I always thought of Syrian Antioch as a small town, perhaps along the scale of Antioch, Illinois. How mistaken can one man be!

Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey) is situated a few miles from the mouth of the Orontes River. It was founded in 301 BC by Seleucus I Nicator, one of the four generals to whom Alexander the Great bequeathed his empire. Naturally, Seleucus made it the capital of the Seleucid Empire. As such, it became the principal city of what is now western Turkey and Syria. Four of Seleucus' successors took the name Antiochus, perhaps from the city.

Antiochus III (the Great) expanded the Seleucid Empire by capturing land formerly under the rule of the Ptolemies, who were centered in Egypt. Among the lands he captured was Palestine. Thus Jerusalem came under Seleucid rule. It was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Antiochus III's uncle, whose attempt to hellenize the Jews led to the Maccabean revolt and the celebration of Hanukkah.

With the addition of territory, the importance (and size) of Antioch increased. By the time Cleopatra VII Ptolemy went there to capture the heart of Marc Antony the city had become the third largest in the Roman Empire. Rome and Ephesus were larger, Alexandria smaller, and Jerusalem a mere backwater.

When Paul and Barnabas worked out of Antioch is was much like evangelizing America from Chicago or Los Angeles. The church in Antioch was probably larger than that in Jerusalem. It could afford to send out missionaries more readily. And to say one was from Antioch probably held more weight than saying he came from Jerusalem. Add to that Paul's unpopularity in Jerusalem and one can understand why it became his home base.

When one realizes how large Antioch actually was, one can readily understand why Paul later chose Ephesus as the center of his Greek/Asian ministry. He just continued using the largest cities as his natural bases.

Like Ephesus and Alexandria, Antioch did not last as a center of commerce and government. The Roman government was centered in the mother city. Earthquakes devastated the city. The trade routes changed. Even to archaeologists Antioch has become a forgotten city. Forgotten, that is, except as the most mission-oriented city of Christian history. After all, it was in that city that followers of Jesus were first called Christians (Acts 11:26).