When they were set apart for a special mission by the Holy Spirit, Saul and Barnabas were functioning as leaders in the church at Antioch. Before examining the first missionary journey I want to reflect a moment on this important but overlooked church. It is likely Hellenistic Jews who fled Jerusalem the stoning of Stephen simply returned to their homes in Antioch and Damascus (Acts 11:19). Some Hellenistic Jews may have shifted their ministry away from Jerusalem to Antioch since the city had a large Jewish population. Antioch, Damascus, and Alexandria were the best location for Hellenistic Jews to spread the gospel in Greek-Speaking Jewish synagogues.

Roman Road at Tall Aqibrin

Roman Road at Tall Aqibrin

While there is no tradition of a similar movement in Alexandria, Egypt, it may be important that at least two of the Christians mentioned in Acts 13 are from North Africa. Perhaps this is a hint most of the Hellenists moved to Antioch rather than Egypt. Schnabel suggests the prosperity of Antioch was the motivating factor. Christian Hellenistic Jews found a place where they could support themselves while participating in ministry in the synagogues of Antioch. Nicolas of Antioch was selected as a deacon in Acts 6:5. He was a proselyte to Judaism who then accepted Jesus as the Messiah and began to live with the Apostles in Jerusalem.

Although a few scholars have suggested Nicolas was the reason for outreach in Antioch (Blaiklock, for example), Antioch is just the best place possible for evangelism. Syrian Antioch was perhaps the third largest city in the Roman world, with population estimates running as high as 600,000. Keener indicates the Jewish population was as high as 45,000 at the time of Augustus, perhaps 7%-10% of the total population of the city (Keener, 2:1836). There was a synagogue in Antioch in the Selucid period (Jos. War 7.44, cf. Meeks and Wilken, Jews and Christians in Antioch, 8-9).

The church at Antioch seems to have done ministry among the Gentiles, but it is unclear they moved beyond the synagogue and God-Fearing Gentiles. Acts 11:19 indicates that initially they only spoke to Jews, but a few did speak to Hellenists (11:20). As in Acts 6, the word Hellenist refers only to Jews who spoke Greek, in contrast to the Jews who spoke Aramaic. While I cannot prove this, I suspect there were synagogues which used Aramaic, and others which used Greek. If this guess is close to the mark, then the same cultural divide found in Acts 6 was present in Antioch as well.

The Jerusalem church sent Barnabas to Antioch to encourage the church to remain true to the word do the Lord (11:22-26). Schnabel points out that Barnabas was not simply an “inspector” from Jerusalem, but a “coordinator, missionary leader, and theological teacher (Early Christian Mission, 1:787).”  Perhaps, but there may very well have been suspicion of the Antioch movement since non-Apostles are establishing local congregations. It is unlikely the congregations in Antioch made any attempt to reach Gentiles beyond the God-Fearing Gentiles.  For Luke, Paul’s mission on Cyprus is the dramatic turning to the Gentiles.

Nevertheless, Barnabas recognizes this as an opportunity for Saul and draws him into the ministry at Antioch. Saul was doing ministry among the gentiles prior to this, although Luke does not describe this ministry.  Why bring Saul to Antioch? It may be as simple as Barnabas knowing that Saul would fit the situation in Antioch well. While these are Hellenistic Jews, they are not necessarily “liberal” on the Law. As I observed earlier in this series, the Hellenists may have been more conservative on the boundary markers than some of Hebrew-speaking Jews in Jerusalem.

As a former persecutor turned evangelist, Saul would have been a powerful testimony to the more conservative Jews.