Early Christianity emerged in a thoroughly Hellenistic context
Much of my historical work in recent years has been concerned with the often forgotten realms of Christianity outside Europe, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. Christianity began in Palestine, but while it was spreading west into Europe, it also moved east and south, and remnants of that movement still exist today – very substantial traces, in the case of Egypt’s Coptic Church, or the mighty church of Ethiopia. The critical eastward expansion followed well-trodden routes, which we can understand if we observe three personal names and the places named after them. If we track the names Alexander, Seleucus, and Antiochus across the world map, we are effectively writing the early history of Christianity, not to mention Judaism and Islam.
Many educated people have a great interest in the ancient Greece of the sixth and fifth centuries BC, and they trace that story up to the campaigns of Alexander the Great, who ruled from 336 to 323 BC. Thereafter, ancient history tends to glide over the intervening years until the Romans appear on the scene a couple of centuries later. Actually, a great deal happened in that missing period.
On his deathbed, Alexander refused to name an heir, leaving his Macedonian generals to fight for power, and fight they did. These were the Diadochi, the Successors. One of the clique was Seleucus the Victor, Nicator, a great general in his own right who campaigned as far east as India.
Seleucus inherited much of the vast eastern territory conquered by Alexander. He himself married a Persian princess, and their son, Antiochus, succeeded him as Emperor. A later Antiochus, the fourth, earned the deep hatred of Jewish writers in the 160s BC, when he was portrayed in diabolical guise in the Book of Daniel. (Daniel 8 is a good summary of Seleucid history between 330 and 168 BC). The Seleucid Empire survived in ever-diminished form through the second century, constantly losing ground before the Parthians and other Eastern rivals. Rome finally wound up its last Syrian remnants in 63 BC.
The complex history of the Seleucid Empire is not my concern here, except to remark that it is incredible that such a powerful realm that once extended from Syria to India has dropped out of popular historical memory. But its rulers left their names on the map. All the great Macedonian kings founded cities to establish their power, and they named those places after themselves, or after close relatives. The famous city of Philippi, recipient of a Pauline letter, was founded by Alexander’s father, Philip. The Greek city of Thessalonica was named after Alexander’s half-sister, Thessalonike.
Alexander himself was an enthusiastic founder of cities, Egypt’s Alexandria being the most famous. But so were the various rulers called Seleucus and Antiochus, and Seleucias and Antiochs appear across the Greek or Hellenistic world. Sometimes these cities were new foundations, but in other cases the kings granted their names to existing sites, to which they granted special favors. These cities could be found far beyond the East Mediterranean, and their distribution points to the vast influence of Hellenistic culture and the Greek language. Some of those Alexandrias, Antiochs and Seleucias vanished or were annihilated, but others lasted for many centuries, into the Middle Ages or beyond. Jews spread widely across this world, which also defined the limits of urban civilization for the early Christians.
Some of those cities achieved towering fame. Much of early Christian history concerns the great cities of Egyptian Alexandria and Antioch on the Orontes. It was in this Antioch where Jesus’s followers were first called Christians. The Persian Empire had its capital at Seleucia-Ctesiphon, on the Tigris, the predecessor of Baghdad.