the city of Antioch / Historical Setting ….Apostolic Visitations and Early History ….Nicaea to Chalcedon

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Historical Setting

The setting of the city of Antioch undoubtedly gave it a special place in the early annals of the rise of the Christian faith. Accordingly, the Church of Antioch, long in exile, proved to be one of the central and dynamic forces in the formative centuries of primitive Christianity; indeed a worthy peer to the great ancient sees of Alexandria and Rome. Favored by a fine geographical position in the valley of the Orontes, at the crossroads of the Euphrates and the Mediterranean as well as Asia Minor and Palestine, the prosperity of Antioch was assured by the continuous flow of commerce from the countries of the north, south, east and west. Greek, Egyptian, Syrian and Asiatic merchants met in its marts, and its population is said to have numbered about half a million souls towards the fourth century AD1. Its prosperity under the Seleucids was confirmed by the Romans, who granted it the status of a civitas libera, a privilege the Antiochenes managed to retain until the close of the fourth century. It was then that the Emperor Theodosius I (379-95) decided to chastise them for rebellion against his excessive measures of taxation by the removal of that privilege. Nevertheless, it was that same monarch who embellished the Daphne Gate of the city with a layer of glittering gold that could be seen from a considerable distance2. The development of the city and its opulence made it one of the greatest artistic centers of the ancient world, with its magnificent temples, forums, theaters, baths, palaces, and its historic aqueduct together with all the pompous features of a Roman settlement. At one time, it ranked as the third city in the whole empire. Such was the Antioch, which received from the very beginning Apostolic visitations and became one of the earliest strongholds of Christianity. Although it suffered greatly in the period of Roman persecution of Christians, it remained the object of imperial attention, and even Diocletian built a tremendous palace in it. Christian Byzantine emperors continued to patronize Antioch, until it became torn by schism and revolt, especially against the Chalcedonian profession in the fifth century. Constantine the Great was the first Christian emperor to build an official church in the city, and his example was followed by his successors and by the rich citizens and prelates who made it a real metropolis of eastern Christendom. Then sectarian quarrels ushered in disaffection and disunity among its inhabitants, leading to a steady decline of the flourishing city. In fact, the decline of Antioch, thus begun by religious strife. This was strongly accelerated by three momentous factors in its history: first, a series of earthquakes, the last on record in antiquity occurred during the year 526 and ruined many of its notable buildings; secondly, the Persian invasion of 538, in which the Sassanid Emperor Chosroes almost completed the destruction of the city; thirdly, the Arab conquest in 638, whereby Antioch was engulfed in an alien Islamic empire and separated for ever from the Christian world with the exception of the ephemeral and rather unwelcome occupation by the Crusaders. With the extermination of the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem from the Asiatic mainland, Antioch reverted to the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt towards the end of the thirteenth century and became a satellite city of secondary importance to the amirate of Aleppo. Handed from Muslim to Muslim, the august city was next captured by a new Turkish Empire builder, Selim I, who seized the whole of Syria and Egypt in the years 1516-17. In modern history, the Egyptian forces managed to capture Antioch twice: first under the Khedive Muhammad ‘Ali during his famous march to Istanbul in 1840, and secondly under General Allenby in 1918 at the end of the First World War I. Afterwards the city and the whole of the Syrian province wrested from the Turks by the Allies were put under the mandatory power of France by the League of Nations in 1920. In 1939, when the mandate was lifted from Syria, the French authorities arbitrarily returned the city together with the whole Sanjaq of Alexandretta to the new Turkish Republic. The 1950 census showed its population to have been 30,385, a sorry picture compared with its glorious past.
From this brief survey, it is evident that the days of true greatness in the history of Antioch were more or less limited to the ancient period extending roughly to the sixth century of our era. The patriarchs of Antioch, whose see flourished in those few centuries within the city itself, were doomed to exile from their hereditary metropolis, as will be seen in the following pages. The importance of early Antiochene history becomes increasingly dim and its sources grow more meager with its steady decline in later ages. With the passing of time, the original patriarchate of Antioch, that is, the Monophysite and subsequently the Jacobite patriarchate, gave rise to others appropriating the same title. These included a Greek Orthodox patriarchate, the Monothelite Maronite patriarchate now in communion with Rome, the Catholic Uniate, or Melkite patriarchate, the Nestorian, or East Syrian, catholicate, and both the Armenian and Georgian patriarchates within the confines of the Soviet Union. Yet none of the patriarchs of all these offshoots from Antioch now resides in the city of Antioch3. Their historic terrain has spread in successive ages over Syria, Asia Minor, Arabia, Persia, Turkey, Russia, Central Asia, India and even China – in a word, the whole of the vast Asiatic continent.

Apostolic Visitations and Early History

The patriarchate of Antioch rightfully claims greater antiquity and fuller apostolicity than all the other ancient Christian churches. In fact, there can be no doubt as to the venerable age of that church, mentioned so many times in the New Testament, notably in the Acts of the Apostles4. The new religion was first preached to the gentile Greeks in Antioch, and it was there that the Apostles were first called Christians5. Moreover, Eusebius6 asserts that the church of Antioch was founded by St. Peter, who became its first bishop even before his translation to the see of Rome. According to tradition, he presided for seven years over the newly established Antiochene church, from 33 to 40 AD, when he nominated St. Euodius as his vicar before departure to the West. While the circle of preaching the Gospel was widened towards the East in Edessa, Nisibis and distant Malabar by the Apostle Thomas and Mar Addai (St. Thaddeus), the fall of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD could only have increased the number of Christian Jewish emigrants to Antioch7. For those days of remote antiquity, the historical data present only a general outline without any certainty as to minute details. We may assume that Antioch became the object of apostolic visitations from the very beginning and suffered from Roman persecutions equally with Alexandria and Rome. St. Euodius is said to have earned the crown of martyrdom in the reign of Emperor Nero (54-68 AD), and he was succeeded by another glorious martyr, St. Ignatius, who may have been consecrated by the hands of St. Peter, St. Paul, or at any rate by an Apostolic prelate8. The story of St. Ignatius, who suffered martyrdom in the reign of Trajan (98-117), is interesting as it is representative of the spirit of the times. The saint was first subjected to a personal inquest by the emperor himself. On finding him so defiantly firm in the faith, the emperor ordered him after removal from Antioch to be thrown to the wild beasts in the arena at Rome, perhaps in the early part of the second century. He was escorted to Rome by the imperial guards, and the saint was apparently permitted to address the faithful everywhere and to visit fellow Christians in spite of his complaint of cruelties committed against his person by his armed companions. In his train was a deacon by the name of Philo who followed him through Syria, and at Smyrna he was received by Polycarp as well as Onesimus, bishop of Ephesus. Afterwards, he sent epistles to the faithful of Ephesus, Philadelphia and Smyrna which are regarded as a monument of the literature of the sub-apostolic age. Pious priests followed him during his march from place to place. In Rome, he consoled those among the brethren who were moved with grief for his imminent death. His Roman journey must have appeared like the triumphant march of a spiritual athlete9. Finally, he was devoured by the wild beasts before eighty-seven thousand spectators, whose savage exaltation compared only with the compassion of his fellow Christians. The legend runs that his scanty remains were taken to his native city, and enshrined there until in the fifth century the Empress Eudocia ordered them to be transferred to the old temple of Fortune, then a church10. So revered was the saint in Syrian history that the later Jacobite patriarchs invariably adopted the name Ignatius on the occasion of their consecration.
The early Bishops of Antioch were Jewish Christians, certainly until the reign of Judas in 135 AD. He is described as the last of the Bishops of the Circumcision.11 The next landmark in Antiochene church history was the bishopric of Theopilus, a highly lettered prelate and a prolific author, who undertook the task of combating pagan ideas and the heretical teachings of the early Syrian Gnostics. His best-known work is the Treatise to Autolycus, an eloquent defense of Christianity and a vehement refutation of Marcion’s views. The author’s knowledge of the ancient religions as well as the Old Testament and the Gospels is formidable. His mystical interpretation of theological themes renders his discussions more appealing to the contemporary mind. This is one of the earliest works of Christian theology on record. Of great interest is the fact that the term ‘Trinity’ may be traced as far back as this treatise. Thus indicating that Theophilus was the first to employ it.12 Apparently the book was published at the beginning of the reign of Emperor Commodus (180-92), while Christianity was still a persecuted religion.
It seems that Antioch was steadily becoming a real stronghold of orthodoxy. In the following decade, another Antiochene theologian emerged in the person of Serapion, who became bishop in 199 and died in 211. He also wrote a series of epistles and works addressed to the Greeks and certain persons, namely Caricus, Pontius and Domninus. He is said to have combated chiefly the heresy of Montanus of Phrygia, but since most of his literary work was lost, little could be deduced from fragmentary remains13.
A succession of bishops filled the rest of the third century, and we must confine this survey to the less obscure amongst them. St. Babylas ruled the see of Antioch for nearly a decade, between 240 and 250. St. John Chrysostom, who stated that he fearlessly denied entrance to the church to a Roman emperor with anti-Christian leanings, probably Philip the Arabian (244-9) until he atoned for his crimes, immortalized him. He lost his life in the persecutions of Decius (249-51), and a special cult was developed around his name in Antioch which found its way to the West in an eighth-century Latin translation by Aldhelm, the poet bishop of Sherborne14.
In contrast to the life of Babylas was that of Paul of Samosata15, the well-known heresiarch who became bishop of Antioch from 260 to 270. Of humble birth, he amassed great wealth, which he used to raise himself to that key position in the Church. He was a protégé of Zenobia, queen of Palmyra, to whom he had been tutor in her youth. As the forerunner of Nestorius, he was the first to lay the foundations of the Christology of the dual personality of Jesus, and it was he who used the celebrated term Homoousios in the course of his dispute with other bishops who condemned his teachings. It took two Councils of Antioch to dislocate the notorious Paul from the see of Antioch. The first was convoked by Dionysius of Alexandria in 264, and after heated discussions in which Paul saw no way of escape, he pretended conviction and seemingly rejected his doctrine of consubstantiality. Later he reverted to his heterodoxy and combined with it immorality, thus calling for the irrevocable decision of deposition by the Second Council of Antioch in 269.
The career of Paul of Samosata stands outside the Antiochene traditions of the first three centuries, which may rightly be described as the age of persecution and martyrdom for the faith. In fact, the roll of martyrs of the church of Antioch was one of the most glorious. Few of its patriarchs died peacefully in their beds, the majority earned the martyr’s crown. We read of thousands of martyrs of the church of Antioch, from the reign of Nero onwards. Perhaps the most conspicuous example was that of the eleven thousand martyrs, soldiers who espoused Christianity wholesale in the reign of Trajan (98-117), and were banished by the emperor to the wilds of Armenia, to be massacred in the reign of his successor, Hadrian (117-38). The steadfastness of Antioch, though broken in the infamous reign of Bishop Paul was again resumed by other saintly followers, of whom one presbyter must be cited as the founder of the great theological school of Antioch. This is Lucian, the theologian and martyr who perished in 312 at Nicomedia on the eve of the issue of the ‘Edict of Milan’ which enfranchised all Christians. He was a great biblical scholar, and revised both the Septuagint and the Gospels. The contention that he had been a pupil of Paul of Samosata has been undermined, though it is said that some of the seeds of Arianism can be traced to his school, since Arius had once been one of its active members16. Lucian’s school played its role in the movement for the settlement of Christian dogma and Christian doctrine. It also produced a number of the historic personalities associated with Antioch. Diodorus, Lucian’s successor, in turn taught John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia, while the latter instructed the famous Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople, and Theodret, bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, theologian and historian of note.

Nicaea to Chalcedon
Under this heading, our chief task is to show the place held by Antioch rather than reiterate the whole general history of the councils treated in some detail elsewhere. At the first oecumenical council of Nicaea in 325, Antioch was strongly represented with a formidable delegation of bishops17. Eustathius its chief bishop and representative, ranked in the same category as Hosius, bishop of Cordova, who was special consultant to Emperor Constantine on matters of religion, as well as Alexander, the patriarch of Alexandria, who presided over the Council. In fact, those three are said to have participated in a kind of co-presidency at Nicaea, and hence the world looked for leadership to Mexandria, Antioch and Constantinople. It would, however, be wrong to contend that Antioch had been unwavering in its loyalty to orthodoxy. On the contrary, one may easily sense the signs of imminent schism in the course of the Nicaean deliberations. Arius had attended the School of Antioch with Bishop Eusebius of Nicomedia, his fellow disciple who submitted to the Council an initial creed with Arian leanings, which the majority of bishops rejected outright. After Nicaea, three parties began to emerge in Antioch. The first, or Eusebian, party followed the order of Nicomedia and Caesarea; in other words, without demonstration of open hostility to the Council decisions, which the Emperor Constantine would not allow, they continued quietly to work at undermining the Nicaean doctrines. This policy gained more ground with the ascendancy of Eusebius, who baptized that emperor (d. 337) in his last illness, and then again caught the ear of his successor Constantius (d. 361) leading to the exile of Athanasius from Alexandria. The next party was identified with Eustathius (d. 330) who adamantly stood for the Nicaean Creed and Canons, thus representing the official and orthodox position until Arianism became more popular at the imperial court and the bishop was subsequently deposed and sent to Thrace, where he died in exile. Then a third party consisted of pious and law-abiding people who espoused the Nicaean rule but obeyed the bishop in office, caring little for difference on minutiae and objecting to schism in principle. Strictly speaking, it would be difficult to find any outspoken theologian of the time in whose words the germs of some kind of heretical thought could not be held in suspicion. Even Eustathius was charged with Sabellianism18 and his Christology was regarded as foreshadowing that of Nestorius.
What is clear is that Arianism was not stamped out during the post-Nicene age, and both the emperors and the hierarchy in Constantinople and in Antioch, the great sees of the Orient, continued to sway between Arius and Athanasius. The accession of Bishop Meletius19 at Antioch in 360 was heralded by both Nicaeans and Arians who looked to him for support. He was temporarily deposed by the Emperor Constantius for his orthodoxy, while unable to obtain the support of Athanasius for his heterodoxy. Twice deposed by Emperor Valens, to again be reinstated in 378, he presided over the Council of Constantinople of 381, the year of his death. A saintly man, he left behind a schism within the orthodox party itself, since the followers of Eustathius suspected his theology and consecrated as anti-bishop a certain Paulinus in 362.
This was the age of St. John Chrysostom (ca. 347-407), who was educated in the Antiochene School under Diodorus and elevated unwillingly to the see of Constantinople, where his virtues and tactless criticisms antagonized the imperial court and ultimately led to his deposition. Even the ‘Golden Mouth’ could not escape the iron hand of the time. The age abounded in great names of bishops and theologians. St. Gregory of Nazianzen (329-89), St. Gregory of Nyssa (330-95) and St. Basil the Great (330-79) were known as the ‘three Cappadocian Fathers.’ In Jerusalem, St. Cyril (ca. 315-86) reigned as bishop, and in Nisibis and Edessa the great St. Ephraem (ca. 306-73), the Syrian Biblical exegete, enriched the literary heritage of Eastern Christianity. The Fathers of the Egyptian Church, so numerous and so great, form a special chapter of their own. In spite of the swelling tide of heresy and schism, Antioch retained its ecclesiastical authority over all the province of the Orient. Nicaea had confirmed its rights over Syria, Palestine, Cyprus, Arabia and Mesopotamia including Persia and India. The churches of Caesarea, Edessa, Nisibis, Seleucia-Ctesiphon and Malabar looked to Antioch for spiritual leadership, at any rate, in the early centuries. That authority was again ratified by the Council of Constantinople in 381. Antiochene jurisdiction in the period from the fourth to the seventh century has been calculated to embrace eleven metropolitan provinces and one hundred and twenty-seven Episcopal dioceses20.
The accession of John of Antioch to the bishopric in 429 seemed to reunite the factions within the church for a brief period. The new, real upheaval within the church was forthcoming from another center by an old Antiochian on the subject of Christology. This was Nestorius, a famous pupil of Theodore of Mopsuestia in the School of Antioch and later patriarch of Constantinople, whose expostulations about the two natures of Jesus Christ gave rise to the summoning of the third cecumenical council of Ephesus21 in 431 by order of the Emperor Theodosius II. His great antagonist was the formidable patriarch of Alexandria, Cyril, who had wrested a decision condemning Nestorius for heresy and deposing him just as the belated Antiochian delegation was entering the city of Ephesus under Bishop John. Though the latter held a separate synod vindicating Nestorius, his efforts remained without avail and he was reconciled with Cyril two years afterwards. That reconciliation had far-reaching results in both East and West. Since Antioch conformed with Alexandria on the Monophysite Christology, the East Syrians chose to take the side of the deposed Nestorius, and their church ultimately became identified with him. In Rome, the predominance of Alexandrine theology was viewed with alarm, and steady maneuvers were taken for its reversal. The quarrel of the churches thus assumed gigantic dimensions.
The appearance of another heresiarch, Eutyches (ca. 378-454), an archimandrite of one of the monasteries of Constantinople, inflamed even more the discussion over Nestorian Christology, which he opposed with great vehemence. Eutyches was led to complete confusion of the two natures of Jesus, and in vain did Patriarch Flavian of Constantinople try to deter him from his error. Meanwhile, the great actors in the drama of the First Ephesus had died: John of Antioch and Sixtus of Rome in 440 and Cyril of Alexandria in 444. These were succeeded by Domnus II of Antioch, who seemed to be at one with Leo I of Rome against the fiery Monophysite Dioscorus of Alex- andria, who supported Eutyches, then deposed and condemned by Flavian of Constantinople. The Second Council of Ephesus was summoned in 449 by Theodosius II (408-50), who was under the influence of the Eutychian party through the sympathies of his chamberlain the eunuch Chrysaphius. The Council acquitted Eutyches, and both Flavian and Domnus were reviled in that stormy meeting, since known as the Latrociniam, or ‘Robber Council’. But that was an ephemeral success destined to change with the accession of another emperor, Marcian (450-7), who lent his ear to the ‘Great Tome’, an epistle whereby Leo I, bishop of Rome (440-61), renounced the findings of that council.
In 451, the emperor summoned the fourth cecumenical council of Chalcedon22 , which in turn denounced and anathematized Dioscorus and Eutyches deposed and exiled them both, and adopted Leo’s pronouncements as the standard form of orthodox Christology, with immeasurable consequences for the relations between East and West. It is true that the emperor gained full recognition for the patriarchal status of the see of Constantinople, the ‘New Rome’, by the twenty-eighth canon of Chalcedon. But the rupture with the East was complete without hope of repair. The attempt of the imperialist, or ‘Melkite’, clerics to impose the Council decisions on Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch resulted in bloodshed and the identification of nationalist awakening with Monophysite tendencies. The paradox of Chalcedon is that it praised Cyril though it denounced his theology, whereas it condemned Nestorius while supporting Diophysitism.
The next serious step in the development of events came in the reign of Emperor Zeno (474-91) 23, whose eagerness to bring unity to the Church made him accept a formula devised by Acacius, patriarch of Constantinople, and Peter Mongus, patriarch of Alexandria. This is the famous Henotiton, or ‘Act of Union,’ which he ratified in 48z and which, though anathematizing both Nestorius and Eutyches, avoided the mention of ‘one nature’ and ‘two natures’ as well as any coercive phraseology towards either orthodoxy or Monophysitism. There was no doubt a certain measure of rehabilitation of the Monophysites by this act, but it was far from satisfactory to either party as a whole. Further, the infuriated Romans hastened to excommunicate Acacius, who retaliated by the omission of the name of the Roman pontiff from the Byzantine liturgy. This was probably the only immediate outcome of the new situation.
Where does Antioch stand in this universal tumult? At first, its leading hierarchy aimed at conforming with the official position. On the other hand, the Antiochian clergy together with the majority of the laity did not conceal their increasing traditional leanings towards Monophysitism, and they ultimately succeeded in forcing the elevation of Monophysite candidates to the patriarchal throne. The identification of these religious tendencies with the rising feeling of nationalism rendered the movement more and more popular in the East. The life of Peter the Fuller, who became patriarch of Antioch in 465, represents this restless mood of the times. Twice deposed for his Monophysitism, he was finally able to regain his throne by a show of acceptance of Emperor Zeno’s Henoficon. Nevertheless, Peter is remembered mainly by the introduction of the Monophysite clause ‘who was crucified for us’ into the Trisagion, or ‘thrice holy’, of the ancient eastern liturgy where the chant runs: ‘Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and immortal, have mercy upon us.’ He is also responsible for the commemoration of the Theotokos in every service.
The greatest exponent of Monophysite doctrine at Antioch was the Patriarch Severus (ca. 465-538) 24. He was closely connected with Alexandria, where he had studied in his youth, and later took refuge whenever he fled from his persecutors or when he was deposed. His patriarchate coincided with the reigns of Emperors Anastasius, Justin and Justinlan. At first he was in favor with Anastasius (491-518), who gave protection to the Monophysites. In 518, Justin I reversed his predecessor’s policy, and Severus accordingly fled from Antioch to Alexandria, where the Patriarch Timothy IV offered him shelter. Under Justinian, he was excommunicated by a Synod of Constantinople in 536. Until his death in 538, however, Severus remained strongly anti-Chalcedonian. He was a great theologian and left behind him a number of works of the highest interest, mostly available in the Syriac versions. His death turned a new leaf in the annals of the see of Antioch. From then onwards up to the present day the double succession to that see has been maintained. Severus’ rival successors represented the Synodite, or Melkite, Greek Orthodox line on the one hand, and on the other, the Syrian Monophysite line, soon to be identified as Jacobite, from Jacob Baradaeus, one of the greatest saints of that church. While the one line looked westward to Byzantium, the other looked eastward in search of independence from the Greeks.
The two legacies of that age were probably the double hierarchy and the doctrine of tritheism25. While the one became a permanent feature of Antiochian history, the other proved to be ephemeral, though not devoid of interest. The invention of this curious heresy which appears to be distinctly polytheistic in character could, according to the Syriac chronicle of the Jacobite Patriarch Michael the Syrian26, to be traced to the imagination of a little-known monk of Constantinople by the name of John ‘Asqucnages’ in the reign of the Emperor Justinian. By rejecting the factor of unity in the three constituent elements of the Trinity, he was led to the supposition that there were three separate divine Persons. Though silenced for the rest of his life, his heretical teachings somehow found several strong supporters at a later date among philosophers and theologians. John Philoponus, the Aristotelian commentator, was one of them. Others were Photinus (a priest of Antioch), Athanasius (a relative of Empress Theodora), and Sergius (a priest of Tella who became patriarch of Antioch). The tritheistic school was shortlived, but it was symptomatic of the state of an imminent breakdown of Syrian Monophysitism27. None but a new apostle could save it from destruction, and that apostle was near at hand.