This post is the result of my being asked to teach a special combined Sunday School session for University Baptist Church’s 60th anniversary, 5 May 2019. I decided to cover the Acts 13 passage in which the Apostle Paul established the first Christian church in Antiochia Pisidia, “Antioch of Pisidia.” And, I’ll take any opportunity to put pictures of a place to a story. Hence this “Pic of the (special) Day” entry.
Antiochia Pisidia is one of several cities named “Antioch” in the Greco-Roman world, and distinct from the Antioch for which so many rural protestant churches are named in the American Bible Belt region. That earlier Antioch is often called “Antioch on the Orontes” or “Antioch of Syria,” and it is where the early Christian church made its breakout in the Hellenistic world (Acts 11:19-26). It is also the “home church” for the so-called “Missionary Journeys of Paul—the first of which brings the Apostle to the Antioch of Pisidia.
Paul had assumed leadership of the First Journey, originally led by Barnabas, it seems (Acts 13:1-4), as the group left Cyprus and arrived in at Perga Asia Minor (Acts 13:13). No work is described at Perga and, for reasons unexplained by the biblical text, Paul continued inland an appreciable distance to Antioch of Pisidia. Antioch was made a Roman colony by the Emperor Augustus, to whom an impressive temple was built. Augustus also established the Via Sebaste, a major road that connected Antioch with Perga to the southwest and Iconium and Lystra to the east, all cities visited by Paul on that First Journey.
Antioch of Pisidia was a typical Roman-Hellenistic city, with the usual institutions and structures: the Temple of Augustus, public fountains and baths powered by an aqueduct, and a minority community of Jews with a synagogue. As in many Roman cities, some number of non-Jews (Gentiles) attended the synagogue because of their interest and belief in the one God of Judaism. Such Gentiles were called “God Fearers” and were part of the synagogue community, but not considered Proselytes (converts)—no doubt because of the difficult requirement of circumcision for full conversion.
Paul and his company went to the synagogue of Antioch of Pisidia on the sabbath day (Acts 13:14). This is the first city to which the missionary group arrived with Paul in the full leadership position, and the author (traditionally Luke) gives a rather complete outline of what occurred. The account provides an outline of Paul’s procedure/experience in each succeeding city with only minor variations. Because of his rabbinical training under Gamaliel, the most respected Rabbi of the period, Paul would automatically be asked to deliver a homily after the Torah and other biblical readings in the synagogue service. This is what is described (Acts 13:15-16), and Paul delivered a sermon (vss 16-41) that was well-received by some Jews and God Fearers alike (42-43). The next sabbath many more people appeared at the synagogue (44). These were no doubt other Gentiles who came because of reports from the God Fearers who had heard Paul the previous week. The unbelieving Jews were “filled with jealousy” when they saw the crowds—people different from them, from which the synagogue was something of a refuge. They contradicted Paul, which is to be expected as theological debate and argumentation over the Law is a well-established Jewish tradition. But more alarmingly they “reviled him” (45), leading me to the conclusion that this was not just about theology: they used theology as an excuse and a tool for exclusion of those who were different—in this case the Gentiles; especially those not in conformance with the Jewish Law.
Paul’s reaction at Antioch of Pisidia, as in every other city save one, was to leave the synagogue and form a new faith community—a church—with the believing Jews and God Fearers (46). It was successful and grew (48-49). Its eventual persecution by the synagogue Jews underlines the latter’s attitude and my conclusion that, here and in many similar situations (ancient and modern), theology divides while inclusion builds community.
Paul went on to repeat the same basic sequence at other cities of the First Journey, all of them (with Antioch of Pisidia) in the Roman province called Galatia. There is considerable debate but, for purely logical reasons, I maintain that Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written to those churches founded on the First Journey about the time of the “Judaizing Controversy” (Acts 15), in which the “Judaizers” attempted to force Gentile Christians to keep the Jewish Law as a condition of salvation. The letter to the Galatians is clearly in the context of this controversy and lays out the case that Gentiles are not required to keep the Jewish Law (of which circumcision is the most painful prescription). In that letter occurs the “focal verse” of University Baptist Church, Galatians 2:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” It is worth noting that “Greeks” (Gentiles/God Fearers) were separated from full Jewish males in the synagogue, as were women of any persuasion. The verse focuses on the elimination of distinctions—distinctions which continue to arise through Christian history. It is refreshing to belong to a congregation that understands this foundational tenet of building truly Christian communion.
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