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The Jewish community at Antioch

The Jewish Community at Antioch

Jesus Christ
Oral and written tradition
The Gospel of Matthew
The Gospel of Mark
The Gospel of Luke
The Gospel of John
The meaning for today

From ‘Notes on the Formation of the Gospels’, by John Wijngaards;
published in Background to the Gospels (Bangalore & Ann Arbor 1981)
and Together in My Name (London 1991).

The first Christian converts in Antioch were Jews (Acts 11,19). Among the local leaders in the Christian community that are mentioned by name, at least one, Manaen, was probably Jewish (= Manahem; Acts 13,1). Paul tells us that the visit to Antioch of Peter and some other Jewish Christians from Jerusalem caused a temporary split in the community. The Jewish Christians at first refused to share meals with the Gentile converts, because they felt obliged to adhere to Jewish laws of diet and purity (Galatians 2,11-13).

All this proves that a sizable part of the Christian community was of Jewish stock; and we may surmise that some of the new Gentile converts came from groups of proselytes and God-fearers.

  1. Proselytes joined the Jewish religion fully by having themselves circumcised.
  2. Gentiles who felt attracted to Judaism and who embraced monotheism (belief in one God), but who could not or would not submit to observing Jewish religious law (circumcision, the Sabbath, abstaining from pork, etc.) were known as God-fearers. Examples are: Cornelius (Acts 10,2.22.35), Gentiles in the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia (Acts 13,16) and Titius Justus in Corinth (Acts 18,6).

Antioch counted many Jews among its citizens. This was due to its proximity to Palestine and to the close political links that had existed between Antioch and the Holy Land for many centuries. Flavius Josephus (37-97 AD), a Jewish contemporary historian, has left us an account of the Jewish settlement at Antioch (The Jewish Wars VII, 43-45).

`The Jewish race, densely interspersed among the native populations of every portion of the world, is particularly numerous in Syria, where intermingling is due to the proximity of the two countries. But it was at Antioch that they especially congregated, partly owing to the greatness of that city, but mainly because the successors of King Antiochus (Antiochus I - 280-261 BC?) had enabled them to live there in security. For although Antiochus surnamed Epiphanes (Antiochus IV - 175-164 BC) sacked Jerusalem and plundered its temple, his successors on the throne restored to the Jews all such votive offerings as were made of brass, to be laid up in their synagogue and, moreover, granted them citizen rights on an equality with the Greeks.

Continuing to receive similar treatment from later monarchs, the Jewish colony grew in numbers, and their richly designed and costly offerings formed a splendid ornament to the Temple.

Moreover, they were constantly attracting to their religious ceremonies multitudes of Greeks, and these they had in some measure incorporated with themselves.'

During the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes the Jews had been put under severe pressure to adopt a Greek style of life. When the persecution stopped, the pressure continued in subtle ways. Some Jews in Antioch had given in. They renounced their Jewish beliefs. They stopped circumcising their children. They worked on the sabbath. They ate pork. They offered sacrifices to Greek gods and goddesses and joined in pagan celebrations (2 Maccabees 4,7-20; 6,1-11; and so on).

Most of the Jews were aghast at this betrayal of their ancestral religion. They wanted to remain orthodox at all costs and tried to live Mosaic law according to the letter. Of course, this entailed a good deal of segregation from the other citizens of Antioch. Jews could never join public religious events or even share a meal with non-Jews. They tended to live in their own quarters and to form cliques in business and commerce. It made them an easy target for mistrust and suspicion. In 70 AD many of them were killed in a popular uprising when, on the instigation of some lapsed Jews, the orthodox were held responsible for a ferocious fire that destroyed public buildings in the centre of Antioch (JOSEPHUS, The Jewish Wars VII 41-42.62).

John Wijngaards

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