Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Paul, Barnabas and the Church at Antioch

Reading N°12 in the History of the Catholic Church

Fr. Fernand Mourret, S.S.

The city of Antioch was the residence of the imperial legate of Syria. About the middle of the first century, it may have counted half a million inhabitants. It had been built by Seleucus in a superb location on the banks of the river Orontes. At first, it was the capital of the Seleucid kings, who embellished it with that taste for theatrical decoration which they showed in the construction of their large cities. Its magnificence increased under Roman rule. The extensive ruins, which the traveler may still see,[1] lead us to imagine what may have been, for example, the great Corso paved with marble and white stone, lined with sumptuous residences, public monuments, and royal palaces, which traversed the full length of the city. The wealth of its inhabitants, grown rich through commerce, the luxury of its buildings, the soft beauty of the encircling countryside, all favored the growth of a sensual paganism. The worship of Apollo and of the nymphs was displayed in long processions which used to pass through woods of laurel and myrtle along roads bordered with roses and jasmine, to venerate the colossal statue of Apollo of Daphne which was celebrated throughout the world.[2] At this spot it was that Julian the Apostate later tried in vain to revive a paganism already fatally stricken.

Map of Ancient Antioch
(click to enlarge)

In a retired section of the city, a group of Jews, drawn thither long before by the Seleucidae, who hoped thus to foil the Ptolemies, were worshipping the true God. Many historians think Antioch was the scene of the martyrdom of the saintly old man Eleazar, of the seven Maccabee brothers, and of their heroic mother.[3]

In course of time, between these true adorers of Yahweh and the multitude of idolaters, there gradually emerged a mixed and undefined mass: Hellenist Jews, more or less imbued with pagan customs, and "God-fearing" pagans attracted by the grandeur of Jewish monotheism and the hope of a Messias-Redeemer. It was through these intermediate groups that religious propaganda finally reached the out-and-out pagans, those whom St. Luke calls "the Greeks."[4]

The preaching of the Christian missioners was very successful; "the hand of the Lord was with them; and a great number believing, were converted to the Lord."[5] News of this soon reached the Church at Jerusalem, which, by St. Peter's vision at Joppa and the circumstances accompanying the baptism of Cornelius, was prepared to understand and accept this extension of the apostolate. The "brethren" of Jerusalem sent one of their number, Barnabas, to Antioch to learn the facts.

Saint Barnabas
detail from a 15th century painting
in the church of the Holy Cross by Philip Goul
The Levite Joseph, surnamed Barnabas (Bar Nebuah, "the preacher," or "the consoler") because of his zeal in preaching the word of God or because of his kindly and unselfish character which made him liked by all, was already a person of note in the assembly of the faithful. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that, at the very first, he sold a field and gave the money to the Apostles for the aid of the young community.[6] When the converted Saul, as yet not fully trusted by the Christians, came to Jerusalem, it was Barnabas who introduced him to the assembly.[7] Barnabas was a native of Cyprus, not far from Tarsus. It may be that he had already known Saul and, better than anyone else, could guarantee the sincerity of that whole-hearted and loyal man, incapable of deception. Barnabas "was a good man and full of the Holy Ghost and of faith."[8] He was tall and had a noble bearing, which at Lystra made the people take him for Jupiter. His repute and personal appearance carried weight with the people.[9] The choice of Barnabas for the mission to Antioch was a happy one, for no one was in a better position to understand the new Apostolic campaign, in which some of his fellow-Cyprians had labored so effectively.

Barnabas came to Antioch, and not only approved the catholic movement that was developing there, but likewise decided to further it by increasing the number of the missioners. His mind turned to his friend Saul, for he knew that ardent soul, open to great undertakings and full of zeal for the conversion of the Gentiles. He therefore went to Tarsus and soon afterwards brought Saul back with him.

The new missioner of Antioch was destined henceforth to occupy the first rank, if not in the hierarchy, of which Peter remained the unquestioned head, at least in the work of preaching the gospel. We might almost say that his history becomes the story of the spread of Christianity.

Saint Paul
detail from a 15th century painting
in the church of the Holy Cross by Philip Goul
Saul of Tarsus was then in the full vigor of maturity, being a little more than forty years old. His person was not at first glance imposing. Being puny in appearance and fully aware of his outward defects,[10] he trembled, as indeed he did throughout his life, at the very thought of facing a new audience. But throughout his life the commanding voice of his conscience and of his irresistible vocation impelled him to preach to all, in spite of everything, "in season and out of season," the faith in Christ who was his life. "Woe is unto me," he said, "if I preach not the gospel."

After his baptism and the curing of his blindness, he felt the need of visiting all the synagogues of Damascus to declare openly that he had seen with his own eyes, living and risen, that Jesus who had been ignominiously put to death and buried, who called Himself the Son of God. Then, leaving his coreligionists dazed at his declarations, but not doubting his word, he hastily fled from the tumult to spend some time in intimate converse with God. He set out for Arabia, that is, in all likelihood, for the Sinai peninsula. There, for a year or perhaps two years, he explored the meaning of the revelation he had received from God on the Damascus road and of the traditional teachings he received from the lips of Ananias. In the light of his new faith, he reread the Scriptures, which he had so long scrutinized under the direction of Gamaliel. Now he was equipped for controversy and exhortation; but not yet able to set forth his doctrine freely. At Damascus, when he came back there to preach, assassins were hired to murder him. He escaped only through the clever stratagem of friends, who let him down from the city wall in a basket.

Saint Paul Escapes from Damascus
painting based on a 14th century mosaic in Monreale Cathedral, Sicily

At Jerusalem, where he went to see Peter, he encountered new snares. He remained there only a fortnight. Then he returned to his native Tarsus, where for five or six years he again nourished his soul in silent prayer and study, no doubt holding ill restraint, in heroic resignation to God's designs, his burning desire to preach Christ everywhere.[11] Thither Barnabas went to make Paul his companion in the apostolate, or rather his teacher and leader.

For a whole year, Paul and Barnabas evangelized Antioch. There is no evidence that any act of authority or any popular disturbance impeded their zeal. We can easily imagine the two Apostles, one with his burning word, the other with his contagious piety, taking part in the conversations of this commercial population which was stirred, but not satisfied by feverish occupation in business and love for pleasure. We see them, now disputing with the orators in the market-place, now gathering the people about them at street corners, to show them the charming ideal of the beatitudes.[12] Conversions were rapid and many. Soon, the Church at Antioch acquired a fame that raised it above all the Christian congregations of the time. On the other hand, the pagans understood that here was a society distinct from Judaism. From the name of Him who was acclaimed by all His followers as their only Master, the pagans called them Christians (χριστιανοί).[13]

These Christians were not niggardly in testifying their charity toward the mother Church at Jerusalem. In the year 44, when the prophet Agabus foretold the famine that would afflict the holy city, the Christians of Antioch began at once to gather alms. Paul and Barnabas, accompanied by Titus, brought these alms to Jerusalem when the famine came, eighteen months later, shortly after the martyrdom of James the Greater. The terror of the persecution still weighed upon the city. Peter had returned from Rome and was there, as were also John and James the Less. James was appointed head of the local Church. The envoys from Antioch placed their offerings in the hands of the council of the ancients and profited by the occasion to explain the situation which Providence had brought about at Antioch. Peter, James, and John saw that a special grace had been given Paul for the conversion of the pagans,[14] that he was the Apostle of the uncircumcised, as Peter was of the circumcised,[15] and they simply asked the two missioners to be mindful of the poor of Jerusalem.[16] Probably even at that time it was possible to foresee that the state of wretchedness would continue in the Holy City, in the midst of almost ceaseless revolts and repressions, until the day of its final destruction. Paul promised the Apostles of Jerusalem never to forget their poor and kept his promise with unfailing fidelity.

Fortified with the approbation of those who were rightly regarded as "pillars" of the Church,[17] Paul and Barnabas resumed their apostolate with new zeal. They went first to the island of Cyprus, the birthplace of Barnabas, where the proconsul Sergius Paulus embraced the faith, and Saul - his name suddenly changed to Paul - took charge of the preaching. Returning to the continent, they evangelized Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe, in short, the whole region that was known as Roman Galatia.[18] Everywhere their method was the same. They would first appear in the synagogues, where they would preach as long as the Jews listened to them. But as soon as the door was closed to them, or a disturbance led to their expulsion, they boldly addressed the pagans. To their fellow-Jews they said: "Because you reject it [the word of God] ... behold we turn to the Gentiles."[19] Between the years 47 and 52 they founded no less than seven Christian centers.

The Apostles Paul and Barnabas at Lystra
Jacob Jordaens (1593-1678)


[1] Cf. Müller, Antiquitates antiochenae.
[2] Cf. 2 Macc. 4:33.
[3] St. Jerome, Liber de situ et nominibus locorum; St. Augustine, Sermones, I de Macch.
[4] Acts 11:20.
[5] Acts 11:21.
[6] Acts 4: 37. This piece of land must have been at Jerusalem. In that city there lived a sister of Barnabas, or at least a near relative, named Mary, the mother of John Mark. (Coloss. 4:10; cf. Acts 12:12.)
[7] Acts 9:27 f.
[8] Acts 11:24.
[9] St. Luke seems to say that Barnabas was one of the first converts of the Apostles, Acts 4:36; Eusebius (I, xii) and Clement of Alexandria (Stromata, II, xx) say that he was one of the seventy-two disciples. The Church gives him the title of Apostle, as it does St. Paul.
[10] With touching frankness, he refers to them in his Epistles (I Cor. 2:3; 2 Cor. 10:1-10; cf. Acts 14:11). The somber features of this portrait were freely exaggerated in the Acts of Paul and Thecla in the fourth century, and in the Chronicle of John Malalas of Antioch, written in the sixth. They represent St. Paul as "short, bald, stout, with short legs, eyebrows meeting, prominent nose." These details, reported by enemies, are maliciously exaggerated. That St. Paul suffered greatly from periodic inflammation of the eyes, the best exegetes infer from several passages in his Epistles (Gal. 4:15; 6:11; 1 Thess. 3:1; 2 Tim. 4:16, etc.). This painful ailment, which the Apostle considered to be an "infirmity of the flesh" (Gal. 4:13), and other trials, possibly of a moral nature, he regarded as a providential offset to the visions and ecstasies with which he was favored (2 Cor. 12:1-9).
[11] Cf. Prat, La Théologie de saint Paul, I, 65-67.
[12] In a street at Antioch, near the temple of all the gods, is pointed out the place where St. Paul is said to have preached to the multitude.
[13] Acts 11:26.
[14] Gal. 2:9.
[15] Gal. 2:8.
[16] Gal. 2:10.
[17] Gal. 2:9.
[18] The scholarly works of Perrot (De Galatia provincia romana, Paris, 1867) and Ramsay (Saint Paul the Traveler and the Roman Citizen, London, 1900) have removed every doubt as to the location of Roman Galatia. It was Roman Galatia that St. Paul evangelized on his first missionary journey, and it was to the inhabitants of that district that he addressed his first Epistle. On this point and on certain important consequences with regard to the chronology of St. Paul's life, see Le Camus, L'Œuvre des apôtres, I, 84-89, 104 f. Cf. Belser, Einleitung in das Neue Testament; Dufourcq, L'Avenir du christianisme, III, 27-29.
[19] Acts 13:46.


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