Antioch had been founded by Seleucus I in 300 B.C. on the Orontes River, twenty-one miles from the sea, and was named after his father Antiochus. It soon became a city known for its splendour and beauty with its theatres, temples, public baths, bridges and aqueducts.
From the Acts of the Apostles we know that Antioch became one of the first Christian communities, and our first impression of the Antiochene Church is idealistic. So it is not surprising that Luke related how the followers of Christ were first called Christians in Antioch (11.20-26). Nicolaus, one of the seven deacon servers,chosen to serve tables, was a proselyte from Antioch and perhaps was the first Christian in that city (6.5) It was to Antioch that some of the Christians fled after the persecution that followed the death of St. Stephen, the martyr (11.19) and it was to Antioch that Barnabas came to preach the Gospel (11.22). As a "good man and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (11.24) he sought out Saul in the desert and brought him to Antioch where they both preached the Gospel for one year (11.25-6). During the famine in the reign of Claudius Barnabas and Paul brought relief offerings to Jerusalem from the Antioch Christians (11.27-8).
Yet unity in this city did not last long as evident by Paul's confrontation with Peter (Galatians 2.11-14). It appears that the Jews, converted to Christianity in this important trading city on the Orontes River were divided into two schools: one believed that Gentile Christians should adhere to all Jewish observances such as circumcision; the other being more Hellenised did not insist on such matters, or the separation of circumcised and non-circumcised.
It was from Antioch that Paul set out on his three missionary journeys, firstly with Barnabas when they toured the regions of parts of modern day Turkey; secondly with Silas when Paul retraced his steps before enlarging the scope of this journey to include Macedonia and Greece as well as Ephesus on the western coast of modern Turkey; and the third when Paul concentrated on the churches in Corinth, Ephesus and the Macedonian churches. During those journeys Paul witnessed and testified to the ever-increasing divisions between Jews and Gentiles over Christ as the Messiah who had died for salvation of all.
Tradition has always had it that Peter was the first bishop of Antioch followed by his appointee, Evodius (contrary to New Testmanent evidence). However the first concrete evidence there is of a see in Antioch is with Ignatius after he is condemned to death during the reign of Trajan in very early 2nd century. From the letters that Ignatius wrote to the various Christian communities en route to Rome we learn so much of the ecclesial nature of the church at the beginning of the second century in various parts of the Roman Empire.
After the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 Antioch became the prime centre of Christianity. Churches were erected and by the early fourth century there was still a basilica standing, referred to as "the ancient" and "apostolic". Sanctuaries had been built to commemorate the memory of Paul, Peter and John. When Constantine became Emperor he built a richly ornamented church in the city too. There was also a martyrium or memorial shrine of Babylas, a third-century martyr and bishop of Antioch, who suffered death in the reign of Decius. He was just one of many martyrs from the Antiochene Church during the waves of persecution. The most famous was of course St. Ignatius, but other bishops, Asclepiades and Lucian were also martyred for their faith, the former under Septimus Severus, and the latter under Diocletian.
By the time councils were held towards the middle of the fourth century in Antioch it was obvious that it was centre of a large province as bishops were summoned from Syria, Palestine, Arabia, as well as the provinces of Eastern Asia Minor. Dionysius of Alexandria spoke of these bishops as forming the episcopate of the Orient, among whose members Demetrian of Antioch was mentioned as the principal bishop. At the Council of Ancyra (314) presided over by Bishop Vitalis of Antioch, practically all these countries were again represented through the bishops of the principal cities, and nine years later at the Council of Nicaea the see of Antioch was upheld as the primacy of Oriens Christanus. However by the time of the Council of Chalcedon, a little over a century later, three provinces of Palestine were detached from Antioch and placed under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Jerusalem. Previously at the Council of Ephesus, Cyprus had been declared independent of Antioch. Still the bishop of Antioch was styled "Patriarch". However during the fifth century much of the power and prestige of the Patriarch was lost to the bishops of Constantinople, primarily because Constantinople was the official residence of the Emperor.
Antioch like its rival Alexandria soon had its own Catechetical School, but developed a different approach to both Scriptural studies and theology in those early centuries. With regard to Scripture the Antiochene School developed a literal approach rather than the allegorical by Alexandrian School, whilst theologically they emphasised the human nature of Christ rather than the divine.
Like the Didscalia in Alexandria, the Antiochene School began as a catechetical school to prepare catechumens for baptism under the control of its bishops. Like the Didscalia it soon outgrew its essential catechumen nature, and became an important centre for learning, As such it soon rivalled Alexandria.
From Ignatius' letters written on his way to Rome we learn that the early Church was confronted with heresies, which he addressed. As a result he is the first known theologian to stress the virgin birth and to use the term 'catholic church' as a collective term for the faithful. Accordingly he wrote to the Smyrnaeans:
I give glory to Jesus Christ, the God who has given you wisdom. For I have perceived that you are firmly settled in unwavering faith, being nailed, as it were, to the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, fully convinced as touching our Lord that he is truly of the race of David according to the flesh, and Son of God by the Divine will and power, truly born of a virgin, baptized by John that all righteousness might be fulfilled in Him, under Pontius Pilate and Herod the Tetrarch truly nailed up for us in the flesh (of whose fruit are we, even of His most blessed Passion); that He might raise up an ensign to the ages through His resurrection, for his saints and believers, whether Jews or Gentiles, in one body of His church.
In this letter Ignatius also emphasised the human nature of Christ, as intimated, became the characteristic teaching of the Antiochene School. This bishop was also much concerned about unity, and saw the Eucharist as focus for this. He urged Christians to gather with their bishop regularly for the celebration of the Eucharist as illustrated in his conclusion to his letter to the Ephesians. "Obey your bishop and clergy with undivided minds and to share in the one common breaking of bread the medicine of immortality, and the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ for evermore" (v.21).
Not long after Ignatius, a successor to the see of Antioch, Theophilus, when writing in the second half of the second century in his defence of the Christian Faith to Autolycus, became the first known apologist to use the term "trinity" in regards to the Godhead. God of course for Theophilus was Yawheh who had been revealed by Christ as a triad or trinity. Towards the end of the third century, we know that Bishop Serapion was giving instructions on the Apocryphal gospel of Peter to the Christians at Rhossus.
In the second half of the third century Malchion, a presbyter and famous rhetorician well versed in Greek letters was head of Rhetoric at the School of Antioch. He played a prominent part in the deposition of the bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata. He engaged the bishop in public debate and forced him to reveal his heretical opinions. The main heresy was Monarchianism (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit was one person, the Son was merely the Wisdom of God and thus was not incarnate of the Virgin). A council was called c.266 that condemned Paul as a heretic and appointed Malchion to inform the bishops of Rome (Dionysius) and Alexandria (Maximus) and indeed the whole Christian world of its decision. Both Eusebius and Jerome refer to his letter. The latter included Malchion in his list of illustrious church writers. A translation of the existing fragments of Malchion are in the Ante-Nic. Library Collection. However to have Paul from his lodgings the Antiochene Church also needed the support of the State, and Aurelian, the emperor, who was sympathetic to orthodox Christians, was called in.
Shortly after Paul's fall from power a schoolmaster, Lucianus, came to prominence in Antioch. He was educated at Edessa under Macarius, a learned expounder of Scripture. When he came to Antioch he was probably instructed by Malchion. After the demise of Paul, Lucianus fell under suspicion too as it would seem he held beliefs akin to those of Paul. However his beliefs were probably more Arian as the creed presented at the Council of Antioch in 341, drawn up by him featured this belief. Some of his pupils were Arius, Eusebius, Maris and Leontius. For awhile he fell into disfavour but under the episcopate of Cyril he was restored and with Dorotheus became the head of the School. Together they produced a revised version of the Septuagint, which was used as Jerome tells us in the churches of Constantinople, Asia Minor, and Antioch, and met with such universal acceptance that it received the name of the Vulgate (Vulgata, Koinh), while copies of it in general passed under the title of Lucianea. He also wrote some doctrinal treatises, and a commentary on Job. Lucianus became more conservative as time went by, and even suffered martyrdom during the persecution under Diocletian. His body was buried at Drepana in Bithynia, where his relics were visited by Constantine II, who freed the city from taxes and changed its name to Helenopolis.
The next distinguished head was Diodorus who was probably born into a noble family perhaps at Antioch in the early fourth century. Basil revealed that Bishop Silvanus nursed him in the faith, and studied in Athens and became a monk. He became head of a monastery near Antioch and of the School where John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia were amongst his disciples. It was thus in Antioch where Chrysostom grew to maturity with his extraordinary ability as a preacher. Diodorus was ordained by Meletius before he was exiled by the Arian emperor Constantius II. As Antioch groaned under Arian domination Diodorus and Flavian rallied the Orthodox to profess their faith by worshipping outside the city on the bank of the Orontes. They taught them to sing the psalms in alternate choirs (a custom which soon spread). John Chrysostom praised Diodorus for his tireless efforts, constant preaching, praying and fasting during this harsh time for Orthodox priests and Christians. Of course he and Flavian were banished many times. One such time Diodorus met Basil whilst he was visting Meletius in exile. On the return of the latter he consecrated Diodorus bishop for the see of Tarsus, and as such was present at both the Councils of Antioch in 379 and Constantinople in 381.
The Arian bishop Leonitus stated that Diodorus wrote commentaries on all the books of the Bible and against various heresies. Photius who admired his style gave a detailed summary of his eight books de Fato. In his opposition to the younger Apollinarius of Laodicea (the rational soul in Christ was supplied by the Logos) Dioidorus seemed to go too far in emphasising the humanity of Christ, and asserted that there were two hypostases, not necessarily heretical, but perhaps laid the foundation for Theodore and Nestorius' teaching. There are only fragments of his writings which have survived.
Meletius was appointed to the see of Antioch in 360 and was representative of the Antiochene tradition in theology. Although a moderate in the controversy over Arianism, he immediately offended the Arian emperor Constantius II and was exiled. In his absence the supporters of Eustathius, a former bishop of Antioch, consecrated Paulinus as bishop in (362), thus creating a schism. Meletius returned in 363 but was exiled twice again (365 - 66 and 371 - 78) under Emperor Valens. In the meantime the schism and controversy continued. The bishops of Rome and Alexandria sided with Paulinus, whom they regarded as more orthodox than Meletius who, however had the support of Bishop Saint Basil. Finally restored to his diocese in 378, Meletius was presiding over the First Council of Constantinople when he died.
One of the most outstanding teachers at the School was Theodore born at Antioch in 350. He studied rhetoric and philosophy under the famous Libanius, and biblical exegesis with his friend John Chrysostom under Diodorus. John of course made an outstanding contribution to the School with his exegesis on scripture in which he concentrated on the literal meaning. Theodore wanted to follow the judicial life but John Chrysostom persuaded him to devote his life to Christian philosophy and asceticism. Ordained a priest about 383, he was consecrated bishop of Mopsuestia in 392. In 394 he was present at a synod in Constantinople, where the emperor, Theodosius I., is said to have been very much impressed by his preaching.
Theodore soon acquired a great reputation for his learning. Amongst his pupils were Theodoret and Nestorius. He was a prolific writer. Included in his works were commentaries on many books of the bible, but unfortunately only his commentaries on the Minor Prophets have survived. In his interpretation of Scripture, Theodore employed a critical, scientific and historical approach, rather than allegorical approach.
The exegetical principle of Theodore, as well as the position he took in the Pelagian controversy, gives us an indication of his view on human nature, sin and Christ. When the Pelagian controversy reached Antioch Theodore attacked Augustinian doctrine of hereditary sin; and he wrote his book against those who say that man falls by nature, and not by sentence. Theodore rejected propositions such as man, originally created good and immortal, became bad and mortal by Adam's sin; that sin now has its origin in human nature, and not in the will of man; that newly born infants are tainted by sin, and must obtain forgiveness by baptism and receiving the Sacrament; that marriage and generation are the evil results of an evil nature, etc. According to Marius Mercator and Photius, he even went so far as to assert that man was created mortal by God, and that the doctrine of death as a punishment of sin is a mere fiction invented for the purpose of sharpening man's hatred of sin. In his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans he expressed himself very cautiously on this point; and, though he does not directly deviate from the Pauline doctrine of the relation between sin and death, he evidently considered the history of the human race so closely connected with the general development of the world, that death became to his eyes a necessary and indispensable transition in human existence.
While presbyter of Antioch, Theodore wrote fifteen books on the incarnation, and a special work against Eunomius. Thirty years later on, as bishop of Mopsuestia, he wrote a work against Apollinaris. These books have perished, with the exception of a few fragments; but we know that he followed the Antiochene tradition by stressing the completeness of the human nature of Christ, and its indelible difference from his divine nature. It was, however, not he, but Nestorius, who was destined to carry this view to its final consequences, and fight for it in the early Church. At the council of Ephesus in 431 no one dared to attack Theodore directly; but open attacks were made upon him shortly afterwards by Marius Mercator and Rabulas of Edessa. He and his teaching survived for another century before his name and teaching were blackened by "The Three Chapters".
Theodoret 393-458, a monk of Apamea, and later bishop of Cyrus (423) continued the Antiochene School's emphasis on the human nature of Christ. He became embroiled in the controversy of the natures of Christ with the Alexandrian bishop, Cyril who emphasised the divine nature. The Robber Synod of Ephesus (449), defending Cyril's theology, deposed Theodoret and forced him into exile for a year. At the Council of Chalcedon (451), Theodoret was identified with the Nestorian opposition, but he was persuaded to renounce Nestorius and was at last recognized as an orthodox theologian.
Nestorius had been condemned by the Council of Ephesus (431), which was convened specifically to settle the dispute. There the term Theotokos was officially affirmed as the orthodox doctrine on the nature of Jesus Christ who was pronounced both true God and true man, and having two distinct natures in one person. Nestorius continued to oppose the term theotokos. He preferred the term Christotokos meaning "man-bearer" as he felt the former would lead to thinking that God had a new beginning. Although Nestrorius denied the charge of teaching a double personality the Council of Chalcedon in 451 upheld the term theotokos.
The Alexandrian Church plodded away at having the Antiochene teaching on Christ, especially that of Theodore and Theoderet condemned as heretical. It took more than a century before they succeeded in weaning the Eastern Church from these great teachers as expressed in Justinian's Edict of the Three Chapters in 543 and at the Council of Constantinople of 553, called the Fifth Ecumenical, that condemned writings of the Antiochene school.
The Antiochene School had had its day of contributing to the great theological debates and teaching of the early Church. The separation from the imperial church of the bishops who led the Nestorian schism and the capture of Antioch in 637 by the rising power of Islam checked any further distinctive development of the School of Antioch. Nevertheless for almost five centuries it had balanced the teaching of the school of Alexandria with its emphasis on the divinity of Christ compared to the humanity of the Antiochene School. In defending their respective theologies it is easy to understand how at times both schools crossed the heretical line. Yet in debating these theological issues, it made the Church defined what are the essential doctrines about Christ, the Logos, the second person of the Trinity.