Connotations and interpretation

As the theologians of the School of Antioch were especially preoccupied with the Old Testament, we may fittingly start our excursus on exegesis by considering three texts from the Old Testament, namely Genesis 19:8, Jonah 3:3, and Isaiah 7:14.

In their interpretation the Antiochenes used the grammatical/historical approach. First they analysed what the words and sentences of the text was saying, and then they used its historical background to find out what was meant.

Genesis 19:8

Now, let us have a look at what the patriarch Lot said when his house was surrounded by men who wanted to rape his guests:

“Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.”[i]

To us Westerners the suggestion of Lot is atrocious, and we find it hard to understand how a father can offer his two daughters to rapists. We may even get the impression that the text is anti-feministic. However, the cautious reader may realise that there is something hidden in the text that he does not quite understand.

Linguistically the text does not present any problem. It is easy to understand and there is nothing hidden in the original Hebrew text. So we have to we take to look at history, in this case at the culture of ancient Middle East.

First of all we have to remember that Lot offered his two daughters to the potential rapists to protect his guests. In ancient Middle East your guest was sacred. You had to protect him or her with all what you had, your own life and that of your family included.

For example, among the pre-Islamic Arabs, if a refugee from a neighbouring tribe came rushing in and touched the cords of your tent saying: “Dachīlak!” (freely translated: “I seek asylum”) you were obliged to protect him with what you had. Otherwise you would be regarded as a man without honour.

The story goes the Arabic prince Samaw’al [or Samuel] ibn ‘Ādiyā, who was living before the birth of Islam, once promised to keep the personal belongings of the poet Imru’ al-Qais, who was going abroad to seek support against his enemies.

As it happened, these enemies, led by a man called Hārith who had been sent by the Arabic prince al-Nu’man ibn al-Mundhir, appeared in front of the al-Ablaq castle that belonged to Samaw’al and was situated north of Medina. He demanded the belongings of Imru’ al-Qais, but Samaw’al refused to deliver the items. Then Hārith managed to catch the son of Samaw’al and threatened the father with killing the son in case the demand was not met. Samaw’al refused, and his son was killed.

Today Samaw’al is remembered in the Arabic saying “awfa min as-samaw’al” [more loyal than Samaw’al]. This illustrates very well how loyalty to guests, and to protégés in general, is appreciated in the Middle East. Lot’s offer to the would-be rapists may reflect a desperate attempt of a host to protect his guests.

However, the Middle East offers another possible interpretation. Some years ago carpet dealers, when their customers turned out to be too unfair in their bargain, used to say: “You take the carpet! It is a gift!”

Taken out of context this might be understood literally. But this was not the intention of the carpet dealer. The purpose of the expression was to tell the customer in no uncertain term that he had gone too far. [ii]

Was this what Lot meant to say? We do not know. But if it was, it would not be an unusual style in the Middle East.

Jonah 3:3

“So Jonah arose, and went unto Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceeding great city of three days’ journey.”[iii]

The problem with this text naturally is the claim that Nineveh i a “city o three days’ journey.”

Years ago, when I took Hebrew lessons at the University of Copenhagen, my teacher, who by the way was Bent Melchior, the chief rabbi of Denmark, told us that these words represented one of the exaggerations you find in the Old Testament.

There is no help in the text itself. It is even added that Jonah “began to enter into the city a day’s journey.” A city of three days’ journey would be a city with a diameter of about 100 kilometres.

Again we have to consider common usage in the Middle East.

When workers from Asia Minor about fifty years ago started to immigrate to Europe, some of them told us that they came from Konya [Iconium]. During our conversation, however, we learned that they were from a small city called Kulu about 150 kilometres from Konya (5 days’ journey by ancient standard). Subsequently we realised that the name of the principal city is used on the entire province.

This, in fact, has given way to some discussion about the name of Antakya [Antioch]. Antakya is the capital of the Turkish province of Hatay. Therefore many prefer to call it Hatay instead of Antakya.

And this is not just a Turkish phenomenon. Years ago while in Egypt, we visited the ruins of Memphis south of Cairo. We went by taxi, and the taxi driver lost his way. We were somehow surprised when he asked people in the street: “What way to Egypt [مصر : maṣr]?” It dawned on me that he used the name of the entire country on its capital.

Does the Book of Jonah apply the name of Nineveh to the whole province? We do not know, but it is likely.

Isaiah 7:14

“Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”[iv]

Here critics have rightly pointed out that the word “virgin” is not an exact translation of the Hebrew word עלמה [‘almah], which according to the dictionary carries the meaning of “lass, maiden”[v] and “marriageable girl, maiden, young woman.” [vi] The Hebrew word for virgin is בתולה [betūlah] as seen in Leviticus 21:12-14. Consequently, they say, the female in question needs not be a virgin.

However, when the Jews in Alexandria a couple of centuries before the birth of Christ had the Old Testament translated into Greek (the Septuagint Version) the translators chose the Greek word παρθενος [parthenos: virgin] when translating עלמה [‘almah].[vii] Why?

We got an answer years ago in Istanbul. While speaking with some of our friends the subject of the conversation turned to a young woman we knew. Due to her age, and due to my European background, I called her ‘a girl’ [kız]. One of my friends turned on me exclaiming: “She is not a girl. She is a woman [kadın]!” In the Middle East a girl is a girl until she has been to bed with a man. Then she is a woman.

Consequently the denotation the word עלמה [‘almah] is “young female” but its connotations of are those connected to virginity.

Interestingly the translation of the New Testament from Greek into Hebrew by Delitsch uses the word עלמה [‘almah] for παρθενος [parthenos], the Greek word for virgin.[viii]

The problem of understanding texts from different centuries and different cultures does not consist in the denotations of the words used but in their connotations. If we neglect exploring of these, we are in danger of aberrant decoding.


[i] The Bible: Authorized Version (London: The British and Foreign Bible Society, 1960), 14.

[ii] Compare De Lacy O’Leary, Colloquial Arabic (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul LTD, 1965), 175.

[iii] The Bible, 725.

[iv] Ibid., 550.

[v] Reuven Sivan and Edward A. Levenston, The New Bantam-Megiddo Hebrew & English Dictionary (New York: Bantam Books, 1975), 194.

[vi] Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1987) 473.

[vii] The Septuagint Version of the Old Testament (London: Samuel Bagster and Sons Limited, [no year]) 842.

[viii] haberîth haHadashah (The Bible Society in Israel [no year]), 48.

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Antioch and interpretation

 

    I have for some time been writing on two blogs, or rather, some of my articles on Antioch – The Queen of the East in BlogspotI have re-published on Antiochene in WordPress. However, my long stay in Antakya, formerly Antioch, and my research in connection with my book about the place (Antioch on the Orontes: A History and a Guide (Hamilton Books, 2012)) have introduced me to the School of Antioch, a special approach to the discipline of interpretation practiced by the theologians in Antioch between the third to the fifth century.[i]

What made the approach to biblical interpretation of the Antiochenes different from that of the theologians in Alexandria and from that of the Gnostics was their reliance on history and grammar and their avoidance of using the text as a basis for allegories.

Consequently, I have decided to use my blog Antiochene in WordPress on essays about interpretation. The texts I intend to consider may be religious or secular texts, and my approach will no doubt be influenced by my interest in semiotics. The texts will to a great extent be non-fiction, texts used in connection with communication. Consequently, I do not feel that I should beware of the so-called the “fallacy of intention.    In a chapter titled “The Intentional Fallacy” Peter Lamarque has provided us with the following explanation to this expression:

    “The expression ‘The Intentional Fallacy’ was coined by the literary critic William K. Wimsatt and the philosopher Monroe C. Beardsley in a jointly authored article with that title, published in 1946. A fallacy is an invalid mode of reasoning, and Wimsatt and Beardsley claimed that it is fallacious to base a critical judgement about the meaning or value of a literary work on ‘external evidence’ concerning the author’s intentions. In another paper, they described the fallacy as ‘a confusion between the poem and its origins, a special case of … the Genetic Fallacy’. Their own position, in contrast, held that ‘the design or intention of the author is neither available nor desirable as a standard for judging the success of a work of literary art’.”[ii]

 

    But criticism of a piece of literary art is one thing, analysing communicational text is something else. Thus my approach will be more in line with the method described by Umberto Eco in his book The Role of the Reader.[iii] In this book on page Eco gives us illustrates the mechanisms of communication with this model:

 

As seen on this figure, it is important that the addressee is familiar with the codes and subcodes used by the sender. Otherwise the result will be “aberrant decoding” – to use the term of Umberto Eco.

I am especially interested in the connotations of words and the misunderstandings that result when sender and addressee belong to different cultures and therefore applying different codes. This problem is all the more acute when the sender and the addressee are separated by centuries – or even millenniums.

To mention a single example of how denotation and connotations of a word may change within a few centuries is the rendering of chapter 4 verse 1 in Paul’s first letter to Timothy in the King James Version of the Bible: “I charge thee therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall judge the quick and the dead …”[iv] When the King James Version was published in 1611 the word “quick” meant “living.”Today its denotation and connotations are different.

Another example of how terms are misunderstood by people of contemporary cultures is a Danish translation of an expression used by the late Saddam Hussein on George Bush Junior. In Arabic the term used for “junior” isأصغر [aṣgar], which literally means“minor.” The Danish newspaper Politikenlet Saddam Hussein speak of the “small Bush.” Saddam Hussein may not have had a great amount of respect for George Bush, but he was quoted for saying something he did not mean. Similar misunderstandings in the communication between the cultures of the Middle East and the Western World are multiple. I have no ambition in finding a solution to these misunderstandings, but I do find it entertaining analysing them.

In case you find the subject interesting, I am looking forward to your comments.

 

 


[i] See Jørgen Christensen-Ernst, Antioch on the Orontes: A History and a Guide (Maryland: Hamilton Books, 2012) 171-73.

[ii] Patricia Waugh, ed. Literary Theory and Criticism (Oxford:Oxford University Press, 2006) 177.

[iii] Umberto Eco, The Role of the Reader: Explorations in the Semiotics of Texts (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984).

[iv] The Bible: Authorized Version (London: The british & Foreign Bible Society, 1960).

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Habib al- Najjar and St. George

 

 In Antakya Mount Silpius is called the Mountain of Habib al-Najjar (Turkish: Habib-i Neccar). According to a local legend a disciple of Jesus called Habib al-Najjar was martyred in Antioch in the first century. This assumption is usually based on Sura XXXVI in the Kur’an although no name is mentioned there.

As shown earlier, there was hardly any Christian martyr in Antioch during the first century, and the only martyr named Habib is from Şanlıurfa (Urfa or Edessa) and from the third century. (See “Habib-i Neccar and Sham’un,” Antioch – The Queen of the East, http://antioch-on-the-orontes.blogspot.com/2011/10/habib-i-neccar-and-shamun.html.)

Nevertheless, halfway up the slopes of the south-western hill of Silpius you find a grotto supposed to have belonged to Habib al-Najjar.

 

When Richard Pococke visited Antioch in connection with his journey to the Middle East (1737-42) he found a sanctuary up the slopes of Mount Silpius he called the Church of St. George. He writes:

“About halfway up the south-west hill, and almost opposite to the aqueduct: that is below the iron gate, is the church of saint George; the ascent is very difficult; the Greeks say this church belongs to them, but they permit the Armenians to make use of it; there are about three hundred of the former, and fifty of the latter communion in Antioch.” [1]

Is this church the same as the present cave of Habib al-Najjar? We do not know. Its location and the way it looks would indicate a similarity.

 

 


 

 [1]. John Pinkerton,A general collection of the best and most interesting voyages and travels in all parts of the world, Vol. X (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1811 ), 561.

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The Quartodecimans and the Easter Controversy

Speaking about Easter or Passover, we have to mention the controversy about the timing. This strife was finally settled at the Council at Nicaea in AD 325, where it was agreed to celebrate the resurrection of Christ on a Sunday whatever the date. In Wikipedia we read:

“The second stage in the Easter controversy centers around the First Council of Nicaea (A.D. 325). Granted that the great Easter festival was always to be held on a Sunday, and was not to coincide with a particular age of the moon, which might occur on any day of the week, a new dispute arose as to the determination of the Sunday itself, since Sundays can occur on any date of the month. Shortly before the Nicean Council, in 314, the Provincial Council of Arles in Gaul had maintained that the Lord’s Paschshould be observed on the same day throughout the world and that each year the Bishop of Rome should send out letters setting the date of Easter.” [1]

First time we hear of divergences in this question is around the AD 120. According to the church historian Eusebius of Caesarea (d. 339) Polycarp (d. 155), the bishop of Smyrna and a companion of Papias,[2]who had known the Apostle John, had travelled to Rome to convince the Pope that the right thing was to commemorate the death of Jesus on the 14th of the lunar month Nisan. In Rome, and in the West, Sunday had been chosen instead to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

Quoting Irenaeus, bishop of Lyon, (d. c. 202) Eusebius writes:

“And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of [Pope] Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.” [3]

Interestingly, Polycarp based the celebration of the 14thof Nisan on the practise of the apostles. This would be in harmony with the words of Jesus when he instituted the Lords Supper: “Then he took a loaf of bread, gave thanks, broke it in pieces, and handed it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Keep on doing this in memory of me.'” [4]

Polycarp and Anicetus parted in disagreement, but in peace. But this was not the end of the controversy. A footnote to Eusebius has this to tell us:

“About 170 a.d. the controversy broke out again in Laodicea, the chief disputants being Melito of Sardis and Apolinarius of Hierapolis. In this controversy Melito advocated the traditional Asiatic custom of observing the fourteenth day, while Apolinarius opposed it.” [5]

Many years after the death of Polycarp, the problem was up again. Eusebius writes:

“A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour.” [6]

Polycrates, the Bishop of Ephesus where the Apostle John had died a hundred years earlier, went to Rome to see Pope Victor (d. 199). Eusebius quotes Polycrates addressing Victor with these words:

“We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate.

“He fell asleep at Ephesus.

“And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumenia, who fell asleep in Smyrna.

“Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito, the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead?

“All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man.’” [7]

It seems, therefore, that Christians in the East, Antioch included, continued to observe the 14th of the lunar month of Nisan as the day of Jesus’ death.

Interestingly, there was never any disagreement between the eastern and western churches about the date of Jesus’ resurrection. All of them admitted that it fell on Sunday, Nisan 16. The issue was about which day to observe. In the words of Catholic Encyclopedia:

“The question thus debated was therefore primarily whether Easter was to be kept on a Sunday, or whether Christians should observe the Holy Day of the Jews, the fourteenth of Nisan, which might occur on any day of the week. Those who kept Easter with the Jews were called Quartodecimans or terountes(observants); but even in the time of Pope Victor this usage hardly extended beyond the churches of Asia Minor.” [8]

That the Sunday celebration of western churches was for the Lord’s resurrection is clear enough. But what did the Quartodecimans, or the eastern churches do on Nisan 14?

These words of Eusebius seem to clarify the matter:

“A question of no small importance arose at that time. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s Passover.” [9]

Keeping in mind that the 14th of Nisan started at sunset on Thursday and continued until Friday evening, it is reasonable to believe that the ancient custom consisted of celebrating the Lord’s Supper (also called Eucharist) in commemoration of the death of Christ. As a footnote to Eusebius states:

“The Asiatic churches, in observing the fourteenth of Nisan, were commemorating the last passover feast and the death of the paschal Lamb.” [10]

The question now is how this dissent came about. The standpoint of the eastern churches is clear: they just did what the scriptures apostles had told them to do. The West chose to celebrate the resurrection instead of the death of Christ, claiming that this was what the apostles Peter and Paul had told them to do.[11] However, both Peter and Paul are connected to the eastern city of Antioch as well, and Paul travelled extensively in Asia Minor, where the practice of the Quartodecimans was widespread.

One cannot help wondering if the western churches changed an ancient custom simply to disassociate themselves from the Jews, who celebrated their Passover on the same day Christ instituted the Lord’s Supper.

________

1. “Easter controversy,” Wikipedia, accessed April 4, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter_controversy.

2. Papias is reported to have said:

“I will not hesitate to add also for you to my interpretations what I formerly learned with care from the Presbyters and have carefully stored in memory, giving assurance of its truth. For I did not take pleasure as the many do in those who speak much, but in those who teach what is true, nor in those who relate foreign precepts, but in those who relate the precepts which were given by the Lord to the faith and came down from the Truth itself. And also if any follower of the Presbyters happened to come, I would inquire for the sayings of the Presbyters, what Andrew said, or what Peter said, or what Philip or what Thomas or James or what John or Matthew or any other of the Lord’s disciples, and for the things which other of the Lord’s disciples, and for the things which Aristion and the Presbyter John, the disciples of the Lord, were saying. For I considered that I should not get so much advantage from matter in books as from the voice which yet lives and remains.” – Michael William Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers in English (Baker Academic, 2006) 309, quoted at Wikipedia, “Papias,” accessed on April 6, 2013.

3. Eusebius Pamphilius, ed. Philip Shaff, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, (New York:Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890 493 (Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf201.html ).

4. Luke 22:19, International Standard Version (© 2012).

5. Eusebius Pamphilius, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine, 487n1687.

6. Ibid., 487-88.

7. Ibid., 489-90.

8. “Easter Controversy,” Catholic Encyclipedia (New Advent), accessed April 6, 2013, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05228a.htm.

9. Eusebius Pamphilius, Church History, Life of Constantine, Oration in Praise of Constantine,485.

10. Ibid., 409n1702.

11. Thus Early Church History to A. D. 451, Lesson 10, Page1, accessed April 6, 2013, http://www.parsonsapple.com/church%20history/Lecture10.pdf.

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Easter

 

The Orthodox church in Antakya

 

By now Christendom is well over its Easter celebration. Easter is regarded as the main church festival. However, in many aspects it looks more like a pagan festival.

The name itself seems to indicate this. At a time when the Church was closer to original Christianity, the festival was called Pascha or Passover, derived from the Hebrew פסח. But as time went on more and more pagan practices were introduced, and the name was changed to Easter. The origin of the name itself may have been pagan. Wikipedia has this to say about it:

“In his 725 AD work, De temporum ratione, the Venerable Bede, a Northumbrian monk and Christian scholar, suggested that the modern English term Easter, cognate with modern German Ostern, developed from the Old English word Ēastre or Ēostre. This is generally held to have originally referred to the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess, Ēostre, a form of the widely attested Indo-European dawn goddess. The evidence for the Anglo-Saxon goddess, however, has not been universally accepted, and some have proposed that Eostre may have meant “the month of opening” or that the name Easter may have arisen from the designation of Easter Week in Latin as in albis.” [1]

In his book The Two Babylons, Alexander Hislop observes: 

“Then look at Easter. What means the term Easter itself? It is not a Christian name. It bears its Chaldean origin on its very forehead. Easter is nothing else than Astarte, one of the titles of Beltis, the queen of heaven, whose name, as pronounced by the people of Nineveh, was evidently identical with that now in common use in this country. That name, as found by Layard on the Assyrian monuments, is Ishtar. The worship of Bel and Astarte was very early introduced into Britain, along with the Druids, “the priests of the groves.” Some have imagined that the Druidical worship was first introduced by the Phenicians, who, centuries before the Christian era, traded to the tin-mines of Cornwall. But the unequivocal traces of that worship are found in regions of the British islands where the Phenicians never penetrated, and it has everywhere left indelible marks of the strong hold which it must have had on the early British mind.” [2]

All this may be right or wrong. Whatever the case, Easter has been mixed up with elements that are foreign to any Christian celebration. An example are the Easter eggs. This custom naturally has a myth of origin. It says:

“The coloring of “Easter eggs” originated from the pious legend that Mary Magdala was bringing cooked eggs to share with the other women at the tomb of Christ – This remains the tradition among observant Jews even in our own time – When Mary Magdala saw the Lord, the eggs in her basket turned brilliant red. Thus, the true meaning of dyeing Easter eggs is to show forth the miraculous transformation and re-creation of the whole world by the victorious resurrection of Christ.” [3]

Alexander Hislop disagrees. Quoting Fabulae of Gaius Julius Hyginus (d. AD 17) he writes:

“The classic poets are full of the fable of the mystic egg of the Babylonians ; and thus its tale is told by Hyginus, the Egyptian, the learned keeper of the Palatine library at Rome, in the time of Augustus, who was skilled in all the wisdom of his native country: “An egg of wondrous size is said to have fallen from heaven into the river Euphrates. The fishes rolled it to the bank, where the doves having settled upon it, and hatched it, out came Venus, who afterwards was called the Syrian Goddess “— that is, Astarte. Hence the egg became one of the symbols of Astarte or Easter; and accordingly, in Cyprus, one of the chosen seats of the worship of Venus, or Astarte, the egg of wondrous size was represented on a grand scale.”[4]

Hislop may have a point. A footnote by John Garstang in the book The Syrian Goddess by Lucian of Samosata says: “Atargatis, [Astarte] according to the form of the legend given by the scholiast on Germanicus’ “Aratus” was born of an egg which the sacred fishes found in the Euphrates and pushed ashore.” [5]

Now, all this is very strange. In the Middle East, Antioch (or Antakya) included, there was a tradition of weeping for the god Tammuz. The story goes that the young Tammuz (who, among other things, represented vegetation) died and was bewailed by his consort Ishtar (or Astarte), the goddess of love and sex. Eventually he returned to life again. With the egg as a symbol of life or resurrection – and at the same time connected to Venus or Astarte – it is puzzling to read the story of Mary Magdala at Jesus’ tomb, where she takes upon herself the role of the wailing the death of Jesus with eggs turning red at his resurrection.

Besides all this, it should be remembered that the Nusairy Alewites (a group of Muslims regarded as renegade by the mainstream) in Antakya and western Syria celebrates a “Festival of Eggs” roughly at the same time as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches celebrate Easter. And evidently, this festival has nothing to do with the resurrection of Christ. The Nusairys are not afraid of admitting that they, besides Muslim holidays, also celebrate those of their Christian neighbours, such as “Epiphany, Pentecost, and Palm Sunday.” [6] However, they do not claim that their Festival of Eggs has any connection with anything Christian.

Nevertheless, a similarity exists between the Festival of Eggs and the Melkite story about Mary Magdala. The Nusayri Alewites, like the Hindus, believe in reincarnation in the literal sense of the word. According to a source of mine, a Protestant with an Alewite background, the eggs represent reincarnation. Obviously the Nusayri Alewites and the churches have the tradition of celebrating a festival by using eggs from the same source although the connotations of the eggs are different, but not at all dissimilar.

Is it not strange that Mary Magdala, who by some is believed to be a former prostituted, is waiting at Jesus’ tomb for his resurrection with eggs in her hands? It is as if the egg-born Astarte is waiting for the resurrection of her Tammuz, just in a new disguise.

People are naturally free to mix whatever they like into their popular beliefs. However, the uncontrollable connotations of their new discourse may take them to places they did not anticipate.

__________

1. “Easter,” Wikipedia, accessed April 2, 2013, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Easter.

2. Alexander Hislop, The Two Babylons (London: S. W. Patridge &Co., 1858) 103.

3. “Great Lent and the Holy Week,” Eparchy of Newton –Melkite Greek Catholic Church, accessed April 2, 2013, https://melkite.org/faith/faith-worship/holy-week-traditions.

4. Hislop, The Two Babylons, 109. See also Hyginus, trans. Mary Grant, Fabulae 150-199, accessed April 2, 2013, http://www.theoi.com/Text/HyginusFabulae4.html:

CXCVII. VENUS

Into the Euphrates River an egg of wonderful size is said to have fallen, which the fish rolled to the bank. Doves sat on it, and when it was heated, it hatched out Venus, who was later called the Syrian goddess. Since she excelled the rest in justice and uprightness, by a favour granted by Jove, the fish were put among the number of the stars, and because of this the Syrians do not eat fish or doves, considering them as gods.”

5. Lucian, The Syrian Goddess, (London: Constable and Company LTD, 1913) 81n56

6. Matti Moosa, Extremist Shiites – The Ghulat Sects, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1988) 393

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The state of old Antakya

In 1822 Antakya (Antioch) was hit by an earthquake that destroyed many buildings in the city. The English gentleman Neale, who visited the city 25 years later, has the following description from an English family of three who were living in Antakya at the time of the catastrophe:

“Suddenly a terrible sensation was experienced, and the whole house waved to and fro on the stormy billows of a tempest-driven ocean. The sensation was only momentary; the dizziness occasioned, such as ensures when you miss your footing and slip from a narrow plank or pathway down a steep bank side. A fearful report, and shaking as though the earth had been rent in twain, almost instantly succeeded; there was a great cloud of lime, dust, and mortar. a fearfully yell of alarm and pain from all quarters. One half of the city lay prostrate in the dust; the other half was little better than crumbling ruins.” 1

However, Antakya rose again, but only to be struck by another earthquake in 1872. In the meantime Ibrahim Pasha and his Egyptian soldiers had visited the city. Unfortunately he used stones from the walls off ancient Antioch and from ruins of important buildings to built his own palace and the barracks still standing. Neale writes:

“In addition to the destructive effects of this catastrophe, Ibrahim Pacha, in his attempt to beautify the modern city, blew up, by means of subterranean mines, almost every particle that remained of the original walls of the city. The superb barracks built by him to accommodate ten thousand men, as well as the beautiful country-residence on the banks of the Orontes, erected for the Pacha’s private use, were constructed from materials which had originally formed the oldest structures of the city.” 2

Today it is still possible to find old buildings which may have survived the earthquake in 1872 and therefore probably date back to the period after the great earthquake in 1822. Unfortunately, many of these buildings are in a state of extreme neglect. Subsidies have been given to have some of the old houses along the street called KurtuluşCaddesi (formerly the Colonnaded Street) renovated. It looks however as if just the facades have got a face-lift, and nothing more.

 

                       

People in modern Antakya, and especially the housewives, are less than interested in moving into an old house where bathroom and kitchen are across the yard. In other cases, an old building has been left to heirs who cannot agree about what to do with it. In some cases, no doubt, listed buildings are wilfully left to decay so that a modern monster in concrete can erected on the spot.

 

 

One solution may have been to allow foreign purchasers with special interest to buy the old buildings and have them renovated. Unfortunately, a decision made by the Cabinet in Ankara has put a stop to that. There it has been decided that foreigners cannot buy real estate in the province of Hatay, where Antakya is located. While it is understandable that a government may put certain restriction on the sale of real estate to foreigners, it is difficult to understand why people with a residence permit in Turkey should not be able to buy the house they live in – especially if they pay for the renovation of the place. This, at least, would be of benefit for the old part of Antakya, which, in turn, would attract more tourists.

 

It is hoped that somebody eventually will “see the light” and permit people to contribute to the embellishment of Antakya.

 

_________________________

1. F. A. Neale, Evenings at Antioch; with Sketches of a Syrian Life (London: Eyre and Williams, 1854) xxvi, xxvii.

2. F. A. Neale, Eight Years in Syria, Palestine, and Asia Minor from 1842 to 1850, Volume II (London: Colburn and Co., Publishers, 1852) 11, 12.

 

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An Old Antakya House

 

After more than four years in a modern house of concrete, we managed to move into one of the old houses in the central quarter of Antakya. The house is located between what used to be the Colonnaded Street and the Orontes inside the area that used to be within the first Seleucid wall. In fact, it may even be located at the spot of Bottia, the small town at the bank of the Orontes at the time of Alexander the Great.

It is uncertain how old the house is. One thing is sure: it can be found on a photo of Antioch taken from an airplane by the French in 1932. Consequently, it very likely dates back to the big earthquake on April 3, 1872 that counted VII-VIII in Antakya.[1]

But it may in fact be older. Part of the house is made of big stones while another part is evidently built later. If part of the house is older than 1872, it may have been built after the earthquake  on August 13, 1822 that destroyed most of the city (estimated as VIII).[2]

Originally it was one of the classical houses in this area with a big courtyard with trees and a well surrounded by buildings, all of them with their doors opening towards the courtyard. The house where we are living used to be part of such a complex but was later divided up in two plots.

In the part of the old courtyard that belongs to us whe had the concrete that covered the yard removed so that the original pavement was seen. However, in the middle of it a hollow was found. Modern Antiochenes told us that it in Arabic was called a jurn, a place where women used to grind wheat and make purée of tomatoes and pepper. We placed a big flower pot with a palm tree in it so that people would not fall into it. In fact, some of our workers did.

 

Later we found out that water collected in the jurn, so we had a hole drilled in its bottom and realised that there was a well underneath it.

The toilet and the kitchen were in a separate building with access from the yard. We kept it like that. Removing the plaster from the kitchen wall, the workers found a fireplace in the wall. Although we do not need a fireplace there, we kept it as it used to be.

 

There was no bathroom, but we found out why.

The floor of the living room is elevated about 40 cm over ground level; but when entering the room, there is an area of marble on about two square meters at ground level where you can leave your shoes before stepping up into the living room.

 

By the locals we were told this was where people used to take a bath with a bucket of hot water at their side.

The floor of the living room was covered with concrete as was the yard. We had it removed and had tiles of original pattern put on the floor. When the concrete was removed, the workes found a small hole made of stone in the floor.

 

It showed up the be a primitive way of heating. In old times the hole was filled with glowing charcoal and people sat around it, probably covering the their legs and the charcoal with a wool or goat hair blanket.

The walls of the living room are filled with build-in cupboards. We have kept them in their original colour.

 

The windows are tall with internal shudders.

 

To the right in the wall towards the part of the house that has been added later (perhaps after the earthquake in 1872), there is a clear evidence that the originally was a door towards the outside.

 

The newer part of the house is less interesting. It is shown on the French aireal photograph from 1931, so we may assume that it was added after the earthquake in 1872. We use it as a studio.

 

It has been an interesting experience to move into an old Antakya house. Although it in many respects is different from the houses in ancient Antioch, it has some of the same flavour. The centre of Antakya has many houses of the same sort, many of the a lot larger than ours. Unfortunately they are left to decay.

 

An Antakya house from about 1850 [3]

 

(See also my book Antioch on the Orontes – A History and a Guide (Hamilton 2012))

___________

1.  Mohamed Reda Sbeinati, Ryad Darawcheh & Mikhail Mouty, “The historical earthquakes of Syria: an analysis of large and moderate earthquakes from 1365 B.C to 1900 A.D.” Annals of Geophysics, Volume 48, N. June 2005, 414

2.  Ibid. 413, 414

3. F. A. Neale, Evenings at Antioch (London: Eyre and Williams, 1954)

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The Cherubim Gate and the carob trees

 

In second century Antioch there was a gate at the southwest extreme of the Colonnaded Street called the Cherubim Gate.[1] Outside this gate was the settlement of Kerateion and after this the settlement of Rhodion on the eastern side of the torrent Phyrminus.

       

                 

A map of old Antakya. The location of the Cherubim Gate is marked with an x. Ouard is the Arabic name for rose, So we maintain that this quarter is what was called Rhodion. Today it is called Güllü Bahçe (Rose Garden). Kerateion was very like identical with Mahsan.

The story goes that the Roman general Titus after destroying Jerusalem in 70 CE put up representation of cherubs (angelic beings) taken from the temple in Jerusalem at this gate to annoy the Jews living in this neighbourhood. The cherubs are thought to have been similar to those who had been placed on the Ark of the Covenant in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. However, at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, this room was empty. Consequently, it is uncertain what the cherubs at the gate were supposed to have been.

We have this story from the Byzantine chronicler Ioannes Malalas who died in 578, about five hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem. He writes:

“Titus, having celebrated a triumph for his victory, departed for Rome; and Vespasian from the Jewish spoils built in Antioch the Great the so-called Cherubim before the gate of the city. For there he fixed the bronze Cherubim which he found fixed in the Temple of Solomon; and when he destroyed the Temple he took them thence and carried them to Antioch with the Seraphim, celebrating the triumph for the victory over the Jews which had taken place in his reign, setting up above a bronze statue in honour of the Moon with four bulls facing Jerusalem, for he had taken it at night when the moon was shining.” [2]

The trouble with Malalas, though, is that he has a tendency to mix hearsay into his writings. Thus, Jerusalem was not taken by night as claimed in the quotation. This, of course, would not exclude that Titus set up statues of some sort at the gate.

The gate is also mentioned by a biographer of Symeon Stylites the Younger in connection with a plague that hit the city in the sixth century:

“The destroyer went toward the gate at the south, which issues towards Daphne, and there rose from the so-called Cherubim, and as far as Rhodion, in all the quarter called Kerateion, a great cry and mourning and much lamentation.” [4]

According to this, the quarter called Kerateion was situated outside the Cherubim Gate, between the gate and the quarter of Rhodion.

On the other hand, Procopius gives us the following information about the situation of Kerateion(or Cerataeum):

“So, then, after the city had been destroyed, the church was left solitary, thanks to the activity and foresight of the Persians to whom this work was assigned. And there were also left about the so-called Cerataeum many houses, not because of the foresight of any man, but, since they were situated at the extremity of the city, and not connected with any other building, the fire failed entirely to reach them.” [5]

According to these two quotations, Kerateion was situated outside the Cherubim gate with sufficient distance to be unharmed by the fire inside Antioch. It should be mentioned, though, that the wind in Antakya is mostly in the west. If this was the case when the Persians burnt the city, flames and sparks would blow in the opposite direction of Kerateion. The space between the city inside the Cherubim Gate and Kerateion may not have been extremely wide.

It also seems that there was a quarter called Cherubim in ancient Antioch.[6] Naturally, this could have been a quarter inside the gates, or it could have been between the Cherubim Gate and Kerateion.

However, the quotation from the biography of Symeon Stylites the Younger seems to indicate that the quarter of Cherubim was outside the gate. And Procopius’ story about the fire leaves us with in impression that there was no other quarter between Kerateion and the city. This seems reasonable as the distance between the old site of the Cherubim Gate and the quarter called Rhodion (today Ward [rose] in Arabic and Güllü Bahçe [rose garden] in Turkish) can be walked in less than five minutes.

 

 

The area south of the Cherubim Gate in modern Antakya. The gate does not exist anymore.

There is another explanation, although it admittedly is based on abduction.

Here in the Middle East mythopoeia is a common phenomenon. Over the Cave Church of St. Peter, for example, you find the rock-hewn bust of Charon, the character that, according to Greek mythology, took the souls of the diseased over the River Styx. Locals will tell you that originally it is the Virgin Mary. To them Charon looks like a woman and he is carved into the rock over the church, so why not?

 

But back to the Cherubim Gate.

As mentioned above the word cherub is a Hebrew word (כרוב: kerûb). The plural of this word is kerûbîm. The Greeks in Antioch would write is as χερουβιμ while the Arameans would either use the Hebrew form above or their own kerûbîn.

Now the word kerûbim pronounced nearly as the word for carob in Hebrew and Aramaic (חרוב, cherub or kherûb).[7]

In the Hebrew translation of Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke chapter 15, the Greek word for carobs in verse 16 has been translated by the word cherûbin plural (חרובים).[8]In the original Greek text the word is κεράτιον (keration). According to a Greek dictionary, κερατωνια (keratwnia) and κερατεα (keratea) are names of the carob tree. Please notice how close these words for carobs are to the name of the quarter of Kerateion between the Cherubim Gate and the quarter of Rhodion.

Consequently I suggest that we dismiss the story of Malalas about cherubs set up by Titus at the south-western gate of Antioch.

Indeed, there may have been statues or similar objects at the gate, and they may even have been placed there by Titus. But as people did not know what they represented – or they knew, but later generations forgot it- the Aramaic and Hebrew name of the quarter between the gate and the quarter of Rhodion, the Quarter of Carobs, was believed to mean the Quarter of Cherubs (Cherubim), and the gate was named accordingly. This process would be similar to the one that has happened to Charonion, by some believed to represent the Virgin Mary.

The Greek speaking populace, however, continued to call the quarter by its original name Kerateion ([the quarter of] carobs) while they started to use the Hebrew name on the gate.

In this connection it should be remembered that the Jewish quarter was situated at the gate, probably outside it, in the quarter of Kerateion (between the Jewish synagogue and the point where streets Oğuzlar Caddesi and Kurtuluş Caddesi today meet). It is therefore natural that it was the Hebrew version (cherûbîm) and not the Aramaic version (cherûbîn) that became common.

 

(For further information, please see my book Antioch on the Orontes – A History and a Guide (Hamilton 2012))

_______

POSTSCRIPTUM

The fruit of the carob tree is often associated with John the Baptist. In German it is called Johannisbrot, in Danish johannesbrød, in Swedish johannesbröd, in Dutch Johannesbrood, in Finnish johanneksenleipäpuu.

The story goes that the Medieval ascetics did not like the idea that John the Baptist used to grashoppers. He was not supposed to eat meat, they thought. Consequently they insisted that the grashoppers mention in the New Testament account were in fact carobs.[9]

Now, inside the Cherubim Gate there was a church dedicated to John the Baptist. Symeon Stylites the Younger, who was living in the quarter of Cherubim, was baptised in this church. Consequently the Church of John the Baptist and the quarter of Cherubim cannot have been far apart.

Today this church is the Habib-i Neccar Mosque, and inside the mosque, a few steps from the former quarter of Kerateia, there is a room with a sarcophagus claimed to contain the bones of John the Baptist (called Yahya in Turkish and Arabic).

_________

[1] Cherûbîmis the Hebrew word in plural.

[2] Ioannes Malalas, Chronographia (Bonn: Impensis Ed. Weberi, 1831), 260-61. The translation has been taken from Christopher Ecclestone, “The Cherubim Gate,” Antiochepedia, December 16, 2008, accessed August 28, 2012, http://libaniusredux.blogspot.com/2008/12/cherubim-gate.html.

[3] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) 206 fn 25.

[4] Quoted by Glanville Downey. Ibid., 614.

[5] Procopius, History of the Wars, Book I and II (London: William Heinemann; New York: The Macmillan Co. 1914), 345.

[6] Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria, 614.

[7] Please compare: “Carob,”Balashon – Hebrew Language Detective (accessed August 29, 2012, http://www.balashon.com/2006/07/carob.html), Genesis 3:24 in the Septuagint version, and the Gospel of Luke 15:16 in a Hebrew translation.

[8] Torah, Nebî’îm, Ketûbîm, Berîth Hadashah (Jerusalem: Hôtsi’ath Qeren Achawah Mashîchîth).

[9] Sebastian Brock, St John the Baptist’s diet – according to some early Christian sources (Greek and Syriac), accessed September 1, 2012, http://www.sjc.ox.ac.uk/3763/John-the-Baptists-Diet.pdf.download.

 

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The Church of St. Peter – Documentation

 

                     

A shown in an earlier post (http://antioch-on-the-orontes.blogspot.com/2012/04/grotto-of-st-peter.html) a cave in modern Antakya is by some regarded as the first church in history. Interestingly, this grotto is not mentioned in early sources.

The oldest church found is, apart from so-called house-churches, the Megiddo Church from the third century. In fact, even this may be regarded as a house-church. [1]Only after the Edict of Milan in 313 CE church building really started. [2]This edict issued by Licinius and the Constantine the Great permitted Christians to practice their religion without the interference of the State. Constantine himself, who by the way was a pagan, took steps to having churches built. Thus, he had the church of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople (now Istanbul) built on a spot where a pagan temple used to stand.

Constantine also took steps to have a church built in Antioch. It was located on what is now the eastern bank of the Orontes opposite the stream now called Kavaslı. The only reason this is interesting in this context is the words of the French traveller Jean de la Roque, who visited the city in 1688:

“The Christians of Antioch still see with pain what is left of the famous basilica now collapsed that had been dedicated to the Prince of the Apostles by the Emperor Constantine and described so beautifully by Eusebius. It was in this house of worship it is believed that they found the tip of the spear that pierced the side of the Saviour.” [3]

This would give us the impression that a basilica dedicated the Apostle Peter had been erected in Antioch on the order of Constantine. However, if we look at the description of Eusebius mentioned by Jean de la Roque, we find something else:

“He [Constantine] also decorated the principal cities of the other provinces with sacred edifices of great beauty; as, for example, in the case of that metropolis of the East which derived its name from Antiochus, in which, as the head of that portion of the empire, he consecrated to the service of God a church of unparalleled size and beauty. The entire building was encompassed by an enclosure of great extent, within which the church itself rose to a vast elevation, being of an octagonal form, and surrounded on all sides by many chambers, courts, and upper and lower apartments; the whole richly adorned with a profusion of gold, brass, and other materials of the most costly kind.”[4]

Evidently, what Jean de la Roque had seen may have been the ruins of the Octagonal Church, also called the Great Church, not the Church of St. Peter.

In fact, the fourth century is well documented, as far as Antioch is concerned; but nowhere in the homilies of the cleric John Chrysostom or in the writings his teacher, the pagan philosopher Libanius, any church of St. Peter is mentioned, nor is any grotto bearing his name.

This is odd indeed as the third century saw a virtual “explosion” in veneration of saints, and churches bearing their names were built.

The first church we have been able to find in Antioch with any reference to the Apostle Peter is the Church of Cassianus (Kusyan or Kusian). This was the place where the body of Symeon Stylites the Elder was placed after his death until it was moved to the Great Church mentioned above. [5]

It is unclear who Cassianus was. There was a certain John Cassianu, an ascetic whodied in Marseille, France, in 435. Symeon died in at his place between Antioch and Aleppo in 459, and it is unlikely that a church bearing Johns name had been built by then.

Where history is weak, myth comes to the rescue. After visiting Antioch 1051, the Christian physician Ibn Butlân gave this description:

“In the centre of the city is the church of Al Kusiyan. It was originally the palace of Kusiyan, the king, whose son, Futrus (St. Peter), chief of the disciples, raised to life. It consists of a chapel (Haikal), the length of which is 100 paces, and the breadth of it 80, and over it is a church (Kanisah), supported on columns, in which the judges take their seat to give judgment, also those sit here who teach Grammar and Logic. At one of the gates of this church is a Clepsydra (Finjân), showing the hours. It works day and night continuously, twelve hours at a round, and it is one of the wonders of the world.” [6]

The same church is mentioned by the Persian geographer al-Istakhri, who visited Antioch a hundred years before Ibn Butlân. He also mentions other churches, but not any Grotto of St. Peter.

The Arab historian al-Masûdi, who came to Antioch about the same time, tells us that the Church of al-Kusyân was one of the most important churches is the city. He does not mention any cave church of St. Peter. [7]

In 1098 the Crusaders captured Antioch and established the Principality of Antioch. And now a certain Cathedral of St. Peter is mentioned frequently in our sources. According to the description given, however, this church was not in a cave.

A chronicle of the First Crusade called Gesta Francorum has this to tell about finding the lance that supposedly had been used on Jesus Christ:

“Accordingly, upon hearing the statements of that man who reported to us the revelation of Christ through the words of the apostle, we went in haste immediately to the place in the church of St. Peter which he had pointed out. Thirteen men dug there from morning until vespers. And so that man found the Lance, just as he had indicated. They received it with great gladness and fear, and a joy beyond measure arose in the whole city.” [8]

It is unlikely that thirteen men can dig half a day in the floor of the cave church. The description simply does not match.

Furthermore, in 1149 Prince Raymond of Antioch was buried in the vestibule of St. Peter’s, in 1170 part of the church collapsed over the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, in 1189 King Frederic Barbarossa was buried there, and in 1194 the citizens met in the court-house of the church to discuss the future of the city. [9] Nothing of this would match the grotto.

There is all reasons to believe that what was former known as the Church of Kusyân (or Kusiyân) was now known as the Cathedral of St. Peter. [10]

In 1268 Antioch was destroyed by the Egyptian Sultan Baibars, and whatever churches he may have left standing were transformed into mosques. Nevertheless, in 1580 the Muslims donated the cave to the Christians in Antakya (Antioch),[11] and when travellers from the West eventually started to arrive, they found no churches, but the local Christians showed them this cave.

The anthropologist Richard Pococke has the following to tell us from his visit in 1738:

“Towards the iron gate, is the church of St. John, which is hewn out of the rock, being a sort of grotto open to the west; there is no alter in it; but the Greeks, who have their service there every Sunday and holiday, bring an alter to the church, and near it they bury their dead.” [12]

Not the Church of St. Peter, but the Church of St. John!

In 1816 the Englishman James Silk Buckingham passed by. He writes:

“The Christians have made several unsuccessful efforts to build a church for themselves here; but, though they are not wanting in wealth, and successive firmans have been obtained from Stamboul for that purpose, yet, the fanaticism of the Turks and some unfortunate fatality which they think attached to the town itself, has hitherto always obstructed its execution. They resort, therefore, to a cave on the east of the town for the performance of their religious duties.” [13]

Evidently the Christians met in the cave, not because of any association to any saint or apostle, but because they had no other choice.

In 1847 the English gentleman Frederic Arthur Neale stayed in Antioch for some months. He describes the Orthodox church and the Catholics in the city, but he does not mention any cave church.[14]

Shortly before 1860 Emily Beaufort visited Antioch. She writes:

“The wall descended from the Iron Gate into the plain, passing below the ancient Church of St. John, lately purchased by the French with a piece of ground for a cemetery. This church is in fact a very ancient excavation from the living rock – two pillars have been left standing in front as a portico. In the corner, besides the altar, is a small well, and the grotto seems to have been excavated some way further.” [15]

This is no doubt a description of what is now called the Church of St. Peter. Until the middle of the nineteenth century it was called the Church of St. John. No story about the Apostle Peter, his preaching in Antioch, or the use of the name Christian was associated to it.

In 1856 the cave was purchased by the French consul in Aleppo and donated to the Catholic Church. Only after this, the cave was associated with the Apostle Peter and the first century Christians.

 

 

___________

[1] Vassilios Tsaferis, “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ,'” BAR Magazine (no date), accessed August 20, 2012, http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/oldest-church-02.asp.

[2] “House church,” Wikipedia, accessed August 21, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_church#Early_Christian_house_churches.

[3] Jean de la Roque, Voyage de Syrie et du Mont-Liban (Paris: Andre Cailleau, 1722), 245, 246.

[4] Philipp Schaff ed. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine,

Oration in Praise of Constantine(New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890)1020.

[5] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) 481.

[6] Gui Le Strange, Palestine under the Muslims; a description of Syria and the Holy land from A.D. 650 to 1500. Translated from the works of mediaeval Arab geographers. London: Published for The Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund by Alexander P. Watt, 1890. 370, 371.

[7] Ibid. 368.

[8] “Gesta Francorum,” August C. Krey, ed., The first crusade; the accounts of eye-witnesses and participants(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921), 176.

[9] E. S. Bouchier, A Short History of Antioch — 300 B.C. –A.D. 1268 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1921) 257-64.

[10] Ibid. 207.

[11] M. Grazia Zambon, Domenico Bertogli and Oriano Granella, Antioch on the Orontes (Parma: Edizionei Eteria, [no year]), 55.

[12] John Pinkerton, ed., A general collection of the best and most interesting voyages and travels in all parts of the world, Vol. X. 561.

[13] James Silk Buckingham, Travels among the Arab tribes inhabiting the countries East of Syria and Palestine (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1825), 556–567.

[14] Frederic Arthur Neale, Eight years in Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor, from 1842 to 1850, Vol. II (London: Colburn and Co., 1852) and Evenings at Antioch; With Sketches of Syrian Life(London: Eyre and Williams,1854).

[15] Emily A. Beaufort, Egyptian Sepulchres and Syrian Shrines (London: Longman, green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862), 311

 

  

 

  

A shown in an earlier post (http://antioch-on-the-orontes.blogspot.com/2012/04/grotto-of-st-peter.html) a cave in modern Antakya is by some regarded as the first church in history. Interestingly, this grotto is not mentioned in early sources.

 

The oldest church found is, apart from so-called house-churches, the Megiddo Church from the third century. In fact, even this may be regarded as a house-church. [1]Only after the Edict of Milan in 313 CE church building really started. [2]This edict issued by Licinius and the Constantine the Great permitted Christians to practice their religion without the interference of the State. Constantine himself, who by the way was a pagan, took steps to having churches built. Thus, he had the church of Hagia Eirene in Constantinople (now Istanbul) built on a spot where a pagan temple used to stand.

 

Constantine also took steps to have a church built in Antioch. It was located on what is now the eastern bank of the Orontes opposite the stream now called Kavaslı. The only reason this is interesting in this context is the words of the French traveller Jean de la Roque, who visited the city in 1688:

 

The Christians of Antioch still see with pain what is left of the famous basilica now collapsed that had been dedicated to the Prince of the Apostles by the Emperor Constantine and described so beautifully by Eusebius. It was in this house of worship it is believed that they found the tip of the spear that pierced the side of the Saviour. [3]

 

This would give us the impression that a basilica dedicated the Apostle Peter had been erected in Antioch on the order of Constantine. However, if we look at the description of Eusebius mentioned by Jean de la Roque, we find something else:

 

He [Constantine] also decorated the principal cities of the other provinces with sacred edifices of great beauty; as, for example, in the case of that metropolis of the East which derived its name from Antiochus, in which, as the head of that portion of the empire, he consecrated to the service of God a church of unparalleled size and beauty. The entire building was encompassed by an enclosure of great extent, within which the church itself rose to a vast elevation, being of an octagonal form, and surrounded on all sides by many chambers, courts, and upper and lower apartments; the whole richly adorned with a profusion of gold, brass, and other materials of the most costly kind.[4]

 

Evidently, what Jean de la Roque had seen may have been the ruins of the Octagonal Church, also called the Great Church, not the Church of St. Peter.

  

In fact, the fourth century is well documented, as far as Antioch is concerned; but nowhere in the homilies of the cleric John Chrysostom or in the writings his teacher, the pagan philosopher Libanius, any church of St. Peter is mentioned, nor is any grotto bearing his name.

 

This is odd indeed as the third century saw a virtual “explosion” in veneration of saints, and churches bearing their names were built.

  

The first church we have been able to find in Antioch with any reference to the Apostle Peter is the Church of Cassianus (Kusyan or Kusian). This was the place where the body of Symeon Stylites the Elder was placed after his death until it was moved to the Great Church mentioned above. [5]

  

It is unclear who Cassianus was. There was a certain John Cassianu, an ascetic whodied in Marseille, France, in 435. Symeon died in at his place between Antioch and Aleppo in 459, and it is unlikely that a church bearing Johns name had been built by then.

  

Where history is weak, myth comes to the rescue. After visiting Antioch 1051, the Christian physician Ibn Butlân gave this description:

   

In the centre of the city is the church of Al Kusiyan. It was originally the palace of Kusiyan, the king, whose son, Futrus (St. Peter), chief of the disciples, raised to life. It consists of a chapel (Haikal), the length of which is 100 paces, and the breadth of it 80, and over it is a church (Kanisah), supported on columns, in which the judges take their seat to give judgment, also those sit here who teach Grammar and Logic. At one of the gates of this church is a Clepsydra (Finjân), showing the hours. It works day and night continuously, twelve hours at a round, and it is one of the wonders of the world. [6]

   

The same church is mentioned by the Persian geographer al-Istakhri, who visited Antioch a hundred years before Ibn Butlân. He also mentions other churches, but not any Grotto of St. Peter.

 

The Arab historian al-Masûdi, who came to Antioch about the same time, tells us that the Church of al-Kusyân was one of the most important churches is the city. He does not mention any cave church of St. Peter. [7]

 

In 1098 the Crusaders captured Antioch and established the Principality of Antioch. And now a certain Cathedral of St. Peter is mentioned frequently in our sources. According to the description given, however, this church was not in a cave.

 

A chronicle of the First Crusade called Gesta Francorum has this to tell about finding the lance that supposedly had been used on Jesus Christ:

 

Accordingly, upon hearing the statements of that man who reported to us the revelation of Christ through the words of the apostle, we went in haste immediately to the place in the church of St. Peter which he had pointed out. Thirteen men dug there from morning until vespers. And so that man found the Lance, just as he had indicated. They received it with great gladness and fear, and a joy beyond measure arose in the whole city. [8]

  

It is unlikely that thirteen men can dig half a day in the floor of the cave church. The description simply does not match.

 

Furthermore, in 1149 Prince Raymond of Antioch was buried in the vestibule of St. Peter’s, in 1170 part of the church collapsed over the Greek Orthodox Patriarch, in 1189 King Frederic Barbarossa was buried there, and in 1194 the citizens met in the court-house of the church to discuss the future of the city. [9] Nothing of this would match the grotto.

 

There is all reasons to believe that what was former known as the Church of Kusyân (or Kusiyân) was now known as the Cathedral of St. Peter. [10]

 

In 1268 Antioch was destroyed by the Egyptian Sultan Baibars, and whatever churches he may have left standing were transformed into mosques. Nevertheless, in 1580 the Muslims donated the cave to the Christians in Antakya (Antioch),[11] and when travellers from the West eventually started to arrive, they found no churches, but the local Christians showed them this cave.

 

The anthropologist Richard Pococke has the following to tell us from his visit in 1738:

  

Towards the iron gate, is the church of St. John, which is hewn out of the rock, being a sort of grotto open to the west; there is no alter in it; but the Greeks, who have their service there every Sunday and holiday, bring an alter to the church, and near it they bury their dead.[12]

 

Not the Church of St. Peter, but the Church of St. John!

 

In 1816 the Englishman James Silk Buckingham passed by. He writes:

 

The Christians have made several unsuccessful efforts to build a church for themselves here; but, though they are not wanting in wealth, and successive firmans have been obtained from Stamboul for that purpose, yet, the fanaticism of the Turks and some unfortunate fatality which they think attached to the town itself, has hitherto always obstructed its execution. They resort, therefore, to a cave on the east of the town for the performance of their religious duties.[13]

 

Evidently the Christians met in the cave, not because of any association to any saint or apostle, but because they had no other choice.

 

In 1847 the English gentleman Frederic Arthur Neale stayed in Antioch for some months. He describes the Orthodox church and the Catholics in the city, but he does not mention any cave church.[14]

 

Shortly before 1860 Emily Beaufort visited Antioch. She writes:

 

The wall descended from the Iron Gate into the plain, passing below the ancient Church of St. John, lately purchased by the French with a piece of ground for a cemetery. This church is in fact a very ancient excavation from the living rock – two pillars have been left standing in front as a portico. In the corner, besides the altar, is a small well, and the grotto seems to have been excavated some way further.[15]

 

This is no doubt a description of what is now called the Church of St. Peter. Until the middle of the nineteenth century it was called the Church of St. John. No story about the Apostle Peter, his preaching in Antioch, or the use of the name Christian was associated to it.

 

In 1856 the cave was purchased by the French consul in Aleppo and donated to the Catholic Church. Only after this, the cave was associated with the Apostle Peter and the first century Christians.

  

 

 
 

___________

 

[1] Vassilios Tsaferis, “Inscribed ‘To God Jesus Christ,'” BAR Magazine (no date), accessed August 20, 2012, http://www.bib-arch.org/online-exclusives/oldest-church-02.asp.

 

[2] “House church,” Wikipedia, accessed August 21, 2012, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/House_church#Early_Christian_house_churches.

 

[3] Jean de la Roque, Voyage de Syrie et du Mont-Liban (Paris: Andre Cailleau, 1722), 245, 246.

 

[4] Philipp Schaff ed. Eusebius Pamphilius: Church History, Life of Constantine,

 

Oration in Praise of Constantine(New York: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1890)1020.

 

[5] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961) 481.

 

[6] Gui Le Strange, Palestine under the Muslims; a description of Syria and the Holy land from A.D. 650 to 1500. Translated from the works of mediaeval Arab geographers. London: Published for The Committee of the Palestine Exploration Fund by Alexander P. Watt, 1890. 370, 371.

 

[7] Ibid. 368.

 

[8] “Gesta Francorum,” August C. Krey, ed., The first crusade; the accounts of eye-witnesses and participants(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1921), 176.

 

[9] E. S. Bouchier, A Short History of Antioch — 300 B.C. –A.D. 1268 (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1921) 257-64.

 

[10] Ibid. 207.

 

[11] M. Grazia Zambon, Domenico Bertogli and Oriano Granella, Antioch on the Orontes (Parma: Edizionei Eteria, [no year]), 55.

 

[12] John Pinkerton, ed., A general collection of the best and most interesting voyages and travels in all parts of the world, Vol. X. 561.

 

[13] James Silk Buckingham, Travels among the Arab tribes inhabiting the countries East of Syria and Palestine (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, 1825), 556–567.

 

[14] Frederic Arthur Neale, Eight years in Syria, Palestine and Asia Minor, from 1842 to 1850, Vol. II (London: Colburn and Co., 1852) and Evenings at Antioch; With Sketches of Syrian Life(London: Eyre and Williams,1854).

 

[15] Emily A. Beaufort, Egyptian Sepulchres and Syrian Shrines (London: Longman, green, Longman, and Roberts, 1862), 311

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The Grotto of St. Peter

In Mount Staurin across from the torrent of Parmenius you find the Grotto of St Peter facing the west.

 

                       

The grotto is located on the slopes of Mount Staurin in the centre of the picture. The populated area in front of it was the Forum of Valens in Byzantine times. On the left side of the highway, behind Mount Staurin at the crossroad, mosaics from prominent buildings have been found indicating that this area was an important place in town.

Each year this grotto, also called the Church of St Peter, is visited by thousands of tourists and pilgrims. According to a CD from the governor’s office in Hatay,[1] the grotto was proclaimed a “site of pilgrimage by Pope Paul VI” in 1983. Furthermore, it is claimed that this cave was used as a church by the first Christians and that it probably was here the word Christian was used for the first time.

One of the local stories goes that Peter when arriving coming to Antioch decided to found a church there and found the cave fitting for this purpose. It is held that the grotto was chosen because it was a suitable hiding place for the persecuted Christians.[2] Thus university lecturer Dr. Uysal Yenipınar writes:

“St. Peter held his frst meeting and performed his first baptism in Antakya in the grotto church at the skirts of Mount Staurin. Those who assembled in this grotto at the border of the Jewish quarter received for the first time the name Christian in this grotto, meaning that they adhered to the teachings of Hıristas, Jesus Christ. St. Paul and St. Barnabas gave their first sermons to the Christian congregation in this grotto.”[3]

The same story is found in the book XIX. Yüzyılda Bir Osmanlı Şehri Antakya[4] and the story is repeated to every tourist who cares listening to a guide.

The homepage of the Catholic Church in Antakya (Antioch), however, is more cautious:

“Clearly this was a site of pagan worship which the Christians, rather than destroying, later transformed into a site of their own religion, and assigned it the name of an Apostle.

Naturally, this religious transformation must date from the time when this became possible, namely when the Emperor Theodosius the Great [AD 379-395], in the Edict of Thessalonica, proclaimed Christianity the state religion. …

It would be fair to conclude that the mountain was a sacred place for the city, dedicated to some pagan god.

There were two aqueducts fed from the streams that ran down to the thermal pools which were below and to the right of the small incline which leads to the Cave.

It is also probable that it was in the time of Theodosius the Great that this pagan site was transformed into a place of Christian worship. History tells us in fact that from 388 AD onward any places of pagan worship which were not destroyed were turned into places of Christian worship as if they were ‘baptised’.”[5]

This is in line with what Glanville Downey observed in his scholarly book on Antioch: “A grotto on Mount Silpius has traditionally been called the grotto of St. Peter, where he is supposed to have preached and baptized, but there is no satisfactory proof of this association.”[6]

In fact, even in the well documented fourth century we hear nothing of some grotto dedicated to the apostle Peter. Although the quest for “holy relics” had become a fashion, nobody seems to have believed that the city possessed one of the most important sites in Christendom.

And why, anyway, should the local Christians at the time of the apostles assemble in a cave? “To hide from persecutors!” the story goes.

It should be remembered, though, that early Christians fled from Jerusalem to Antioch to avoid persecution when a Christian named Stephen had been lynched there. As the Bible book of Acts relates:

“Then those who had gone away at the time of the trouble about Stephen, went as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus, preaching to the Jews only. But some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, when they came to Antioch, gave the good news about the Lord Jesus to the Greeks. And the power of the Lord was with them, and a great number had faith and were turned to the Lord. And news of them came to the ears of the church at Jerusalem: and they sent Barnabas as far as Antioch.”[7]

In fact, there is no report of any persecution of Christians in Antioch until the end of the first century.[8]However, even if there had been persecution of Christians at the time of the visit of Peter, the grotto would have been a very bad place to hide. During the first century, and many centuries to come, the grotto was located in the centre of Antioch, not far from the theatre and the Colonnaded Street.

On this map drawn by the Italian scholar Giovanni Uggeri,[9] I have marked the Grotto of St. Peter with red, the East Gate with blue and the Cherubim Gate with green.

 

To try to have secret worship in a cave in the centre of Antioch would be like having clandestine meetings on Times Square in New York. Why use a place so conspicuous when you could use one of the thousands of houses in downtown Antioch where you could have you meetings without any interference!

First time we hear of a Church of St. Peter in Antioch is at the time of the Emperor Constantine who was also called the Great (306-337). This, however, was evidently not the grotto. At the time of the Crusader Principality (1199 – 1268) there was a Cathedral of St Peter. The grotto is not mentioned and later visitors say that the locals call the grotto the Church of St John.

Whatever the case, it is not at all unsafe to conclude that the apostle Peter had nothing to do with the grotto bearing his name, although he may have known about its existence.

___________

[1] Hatay, the Cradle of Civilizations, (Hatay: Hatay Provincial Administration General Secretariat, [no year]).

[2] Sic.

[3] Uysal Yenipınar, Antiocheia – Orientis Apicem Pulcrum – Mitolojik ôyküler – Hatay (Izmir: Etki Yayınları, 2010), 246.

[4] Adem Kara, XIX.Yüzyılda Bir Osmanlı şehri Antakya (Istanbul: IQ Kültür Sanat Yayıncılık, 2005), 59.

[5] Chiesa Cattolica Antiochia, “Grotto of St. Peter in Antioch,” accessed 20.03.2012, http://www.anadolukatolikkilisesi.org/antakya/en/grotta.asp

[6] Glanville Downey, A History of Antioch in Syria from Seleucus to the Arab Conquest, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 284, note 47.

[7] Acts chapter 11 verses 19-22. (The Bible in Basic English)

[8] E. S. Bouchier, A Short History of Antioch (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1921), 80, 81.

[9] Christopher Ecclestone, “The Uggeri Map,” Antiochepedia, accessed April 23, 2012, http://libaniusredux.blogspot.com/2009/03/uggeri-map.html

 

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