Antioch in the Book of Acts by Richard Pervo

Ancient Christians lacked our modern technological abundance, but we would have nothing to teach them about the technique of rhetorical “spin.” A good example is the picture of Antioch painted by the book of Acts, in which the author (who also wrote the Gospel of Luke) argues that despite the important role of Antioch in earliest Christianity, Jerusalem—and the people and traditions associated with it—was the center of the church. This “rivalry” between Antioch and Jerusalem was likely mirrored by a contest between Paul and Peter regarding their authority and the status of Gentiles in the community.

In Acts 11:19 the narrative picks up a thread left dangling at Acts 8:4—about refugees of the persecution sparked by Stephen (Acts 6:7-8:3), who traveled north along the Palestinian coast and to Cyprus and engaged in an itinerant mission to Jews. At Antioch they began to approach Gentiles. (The alternate translation “Hellenists” could not mean Jews). This momentous shift to include Gentiles is reported in Acts with all of the excitement normally reserved for indicating a yawn. Even the new audience’s Gentile identity must be inferred from the context. No reason is given for this change.

Readers do not, however, throw up their arms in despair at this point, as Acts has just devoted 66 verses (Acts 10:1-11:18) to the conversion of a Gentile, no anonymous urban dweller but a Roman officer who is inducted not by some nameless refugee but by divinely guided Peter. A meeting of the believers at Jerusalem readily concurred with Peter’s actions. Word of success at Antioch prompted Jerusalem to send Barnabas, who, in turn, fetched Paul from Tarsus.

Acts 13-14 portrays a mission sponsored by Antioch led (initially) by Barnabas. Paul spent about twelve years on this task (Gal 1:21-2:1, Gal 2:11-13). This expedition, known as Paul’s first missionary journey, brought in Gentile converts. Their presence provoked objections, however, which led to the so-called apostolic council in Jerusalem.

Barnabas, Paul, and the Gentile convert Titus went to Jerusalem to defend acceptance of Gentiles who did not observe Torah (Acts 15:1-35). Galatians and Acts portray this episode in slightly different ways, and those differences reveal each author’s underlying agenda. On the one hand, Paul claimed complete success in Jerusalem, where he went in response to “a revelation” (Gal 2:1-10); in Galatians, Paul’s “victory” serves to underscore his authority as apostle to the Gentiles. On the other hand, in Acts it is Peter, centered in Jerusalem, who was ordained by God to evangelize to the Gentiles, and instead of a total victory for Paul there was a compromise agreement (Acts 15:19-29). This agreement allowed believers of Jewish and Gentile backgrounds to share meals and the eucharist, but with certain restrictions stemming from Jewish dietary practice.

Ultimately the agreement between the Jerusalem and Antioch factions collapsed. (The result of that failed agreement was Christianity as we know it, but that’s a different story.) In any case, according to Acts the agreement was closer to the views of Peter and Barnabas than of Paul, and by extension Jerusalem remained central to the Christian story.

Behind Acts 11-15 was a story portraying a Gentile mission based in Antioch. Luke uses that source to fashion his picture that makes all missions subordinate to Jerusalem, records Peter as the first person to convert a Gentile, and portrays Paul in theological agreement with other leaders. In Acts, and in Luke’s account generally, Antioch is a colony of Jerusalem.

Richard Pervo, "Antioch in the Book of Acts", n.p. [cited 21 Mar 2018]. Online:


Richard Pervo

Richard Pervo
Independent Scholar

Richard Pervo taught at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and the University of Minnesota. Ancient popular narrative has been his focus. He has written a number of books on the Pauline legacy, including Acts: A Commentary (Fortress, 2009).

The meeting described in Acts 15, in which the apostles and elders decided that Gentile Christians would only be subject to a few limited rules from Jewish law.

A territory controlled by a different nation, generally in separate geographic regions.

Changing one's beliefs and self-identity from one religion to another.

(verb) To change one's beliefs, practices, and self-identity to those of a religion. (noun) One who has changed his or her beliefs, practices, and self-identity to those of a religion.

A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

Moving from place to place; lacking a permanent location.

A program of good works—or the calling to such a program—performed by a person or organization.

One who embarks on a mission of good (usually religiously motivated) works, often to a distant locale.

A written, spoken, or recorded story.

Belonging to the ancient region of Israel and Judah, derived from the Latin name for the Roman province of Palaestina.

Relating to persuasive speech or writing.

Relating to thought about the nature and behavior of God.

Acts 11:19

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Acts 8:4

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Acts 6:7-8:3

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Acts 13-14

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Gal 1:21-2:1

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Gal 2:11-13

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Acts 15:1-35

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Gal 2:1-10

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Acts 15:19-29

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Acts 11-15

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