January 26, 2010 // Uncategorized

People of Antioch were first ‘Christians’

How did a Christian community form at Antioch?
The early Christians fled from Jerusalem to Antioch in Syria because of the martyrdom of St. Stephen the deacon, the first Christian martyr. 

In A.D. 34 or 35, St. Stephen was preaching about Jesus and showing that He was above the law of Moses and the temple at Jerusalem. Jews from Libya, Egypt and Turkey heard Stephen’s discourse at Jerusalem and reported him to the Jewish council called the Sanhedrin.

As Stephen was speaking, the crowd rushed at him, dragged him out of the city of Jerusalem and stoned him to death. As Stephen was dying, he asked Jesus to forgive his killers.

Jesus did the same thing on the cross, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

St. Stephen’s feast day is Dec. 26 right after the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25, since he was the first person to give up his life for Christ.

Baedeker says in Jerusalem you can see St. Stephen’s Gate where Christian tradition says St. Stephen suffered his martyrdom. It is also called the Lions’ Gate, because of the reliefs of lions on the exterior. It is also called the Gate of the Virgin Mary, because it is near the Church of St. Anne where the Blessed Virgin Mary is said to have been born. 

Also in Jerusalem is St. Stephen’s Church. Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor says a church was built here by the patriarch Juvenal. St. Cyril of Alexandria brought the relics of St. Stephen to this church in A.D. 439. In A.D. 516, 10,000 monks lived here in a large complex. This monastery was destroyed by the Persian (Iranian) rampage of 614. After that the patriarch Sophronius built a small chapel around 638.

Now there is a new basilica dedicated in 1900. This church is part of the complex of the famous French biblical and archaeological school.

Saul of Tarsus, who was still a Jew and later became St. Paul the Christian, agreed with the killing of St. Stephen. He even took Christian men and women from their houses and threw them in jail.  Christians in Jerusalem were now being persecuted, so it was not that safe to stay there. Many fled to the countryside outside of Jerusalem and to Samaria in the middle of Israel. Other Christians fled to Phoenicia (Lebanon), the island of Cyprus, and to Antioch in Syria. 

The New American Bible says that, because of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, the major impetus behind the Christian movement passed from Jerusalem, where temple and law prevailed, to Antioch in Syria, where these influences were less pressing.

E. Blake says the Jews in Antioch were using the Greek language in their church services. They even used the Greek Bible. This suggests that the people in Antioch were not as conservative as those in Jerusalem. This is one reason why Christianity spread to the world from Antioch rather than from Jerusalem.

At Antioch the Christians were not only converting Jews, but Gentiles as well. The Church at Jerusalem sent St. Barnabas to Antioch to investigate this conversion of the Gentiles.  St. Barnabas was so impressed by the Gentile conversions that he went to Tarsus in southeast Turkey to get St. Paul, who was now a Christian, and brought him to Antioch. Within a year, about A.D. 40, the members of the community at Antioch were first called “Christians.” 

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