Sunday, 22 December 2013

Identity theft

I have decided to delete this text, which was an attempt to analyze a certain situation, as it has occurred to me that it could be misunderstood, and even misused.

Yaşadığım bir olayı analiz etmek amacıyla yazılan bu metnin yanlış anlaşılabileceği, hatta kötüye kullanılabileceğinin farkına varınca onu silemeye karar verdim.

Saturday, 9 November 2013


I have decided to delete this text, which was an attempt to analyze a certain situation, as it has occurred to me that it could be misunderstood, and even misused.

Yaşadığım bir olayı analiz etmek amacıyla yazılan bu metnin yanlış anlaşılabileceği, hatta kötüye kullanılabileceğinin farkına varınca onu silemeye karar verdim.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

A visit to Beirut

Seen on the Beirut Art Fair.
Unfortunately we did not write the name of the artist.

We are back in Antioch after several weeks of absence. Our last stop before returning to Antakya was Beirut, a place as close to the Syrian conflict as is Antakya, but a totally different experience.

We met several Syrians who had fled to Lebanon because of the war. Not surprisingly they were sad and upset. One had fled Aleppo in the middle of the night as the fighting spread to his street. He told us that some of his friends are living in a quarter of town that is surrounded by forces fighting the Syrian army. They cannot get out and it is difficult to get in. He himself is trying to find work in Lebanon, but he told us that in spite of his qualifications he finds it difficult to find work because the Lebanese can hear on his language that he is a Syrian.

The atmosphere in Beirut was relaxed. In the Shiite quarter close to the airport, though, the control was tight, both by the Lebanese army and by Hizbullah, as a bomb had killed a number of people a some of weeks earlier. The extremist Islamists who are fighting in Syria have been blamed for the bombing.

Nevertheless, we were in for a surprise. A Syrian friend of ours gave a banquet to our honour. The people he invited were Syrians and Lebanese alike. Some of the Syrian guests started to arrive about 8 PM. We were amazed to learn that they came directly from Damascus. We were even more astonished when we realised that they were going back to Damascus after the party the same night. They told us that the situation there was relatively quiet, but people had been frightened by the threat of American bombing.
  Our host had called a famous cook from the city of Tripoli up north
No, it is not a cake,but stuffed vine leaves
This information made us happy as we had been worried about the safety of our friends in Damascus. However, the situation of our friends in Aleppo still gives us ample reason for concern.
Another picture from the Beirut Art Fair

. . . . .

Living in the Middle East and at the same time following the stories in the press is an interesting experience. You somehow feel sorry for people who only have the television news and newspaper stories to rely on. This, in fact, is one of the problems of democracy. How are people going to make the right decisions when the journalists only tell them what they think people want to hear! Of course, this is nothing new. The same bias is seen in most countries when the press deals with unpopular religious minorities.

This does not mean that all journalists just tell stories. If you want to read fairly reliable news about the Middle East, go to Also the articles of Robert Fisk are recommendable (

A new post about interpretation has been on my blog





Tuesday, 20 August 2013

    I have for some time been writing on two blogs, or rather, some of my articles on Antioch - The Queen of the East in Blogspot I 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 Politiken let 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 look forward to your comments on

[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).

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Excavation in Epiphanea, Antioch

The Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (d. 164 BCE), who is known for his persecution of the Jews, extended the original city of Antioch up the slopes of mount Silpius and called this new quarter Epiphanea after his own epithet.
In modern Antakya it has been decided to make an aerial cableway or telpherage from the city centre to the top of Mount Silpius. This naturally necessitates excavation for anchoring the towers. And excavation in Antakya is a hazardous business as old Antioch is buried just under the surface.
When the digging in Epiphanea started some months ago, it became clear that there was something underneath. According to what I was told the thing they found is an old Roman bath.
Here are some pictures from the site.
A view towards the south.
Notice the towers of the cableway.

Towards the east.
The ruins of the citadel are on the top of the mountain in the centre.
Notice the pipes in the walls.

Saturday, 13 July 2013

Fish and goddesses

The fish pond in Urfa

In the eastern part of Turkey, not far from the Syrian border, you find the city of Şanlıurfa. It is a very old city. Before getting the prefix şanlı [illustrious], it was called Urfa. In classical times it was called Edessa and before that, Urhoy and Ruhâ. Because of the similarity in name, it was believed to be the city of Ur in Chaldea where Abraham used to live before his migration to Palestine. And not altogether without reason: at least two cities in the neighbourhood are named after relatives of Abraham, namely Harran and Suruç [Serug].
No wonder that myths and legends about Abraham have started to flourish in Urfa. When you visit the city, people will tell you how King Nimrod caught Abraham and intended to burn him on a pyre in the middle of the city. But look and behold: God turned the fire into water and the firewood into fish. And both fish and pool are still there to prove the tale.

The real history of the pool may be a lot different, though.
Not far from Urfa to the southwest, but on the Syrian side of the border, you find the city of Manbij and its the neighbourhood the ruins of the ancient Hierapolis Bambyce, a centre of worship for the goddess Atargatis, known to the Greeks as Aphrodite Derceto.

In his book De Dea Syria [The Syrian Goddess], the rhetorician Lucian of Samosata (d. ca. 180) describes the worship of Atargatis in Hierapolis.[1]He writes:

There is too a lake in the same place, not far from the temple in which many sacred fishes of different kinds are reared. Some of these grow to a great size; they are called by names, and approach when called. I saw one of these ornamented with gold, and on its back fin a golden design was dedicated to the temple. I have often seen this fish, and he certainly carried this design.[2]

A footnote to this text has the following explanation:

81:56 See also § 14, n. 28. No local tradition of this seems to survive, but Xenophon (Anabasis, I. iv. 9) records a parallel case of "tame fish looked upon as gods" in the Chalus, near Aleppo. Modern instances near Doliche, just north of Aintab, and elsewhere in Syria, are described by Cumont (Oriental Relig., p. 245, note 36) and Hogarth (op. cit., p. 188). So also near the mosque of Edessa (Sachau, Reise, p. 196); and in Asia Minor, at Tavshanli, on the Rhyndacus, sacred fish are still preserved in a large cistern (Cumont, loc. cit., ap. Munro). Atargatis, 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.

Notice, please, that the pool of Edessa, or Şanlıurfa, is mentioned, not in connection with Abraham but with a pagan cult. The goddess Atargatis is said to have been born from an egg pushed ashore by "sacred fishes." The Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus (d. AD 17) has the following tale in story number CXCVII of his Fabulae:

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.[3]

Notice, please, that Hyginus identifies the Syrian goddess Atargatis with the Roman sex-goddess Venus. We face a case of syncretism, a process very popular in classical times. When the Greeks and Romans came to a country, they tried to identify the local gods with those of their own who resembled them the most. The Syrian Goddess Atargatis had many traits in common with her Roman counterpart. According to Per Bilde, she had names and titles such as "Atargatis and Theatos Suria, and further Sotera (Saviour, thus only in Beroia [Aleppo]), Parthenos(Virgin) and Meter ton theon. Finally there are examples of the identification of Atargatis with Aphrodite [Venus], Cybele, Hera and Isis."[4] Consequently we should not be surprised when Lucian compares her to Hera.

This way of viewing the Divine is in fact not unlike that of those in Christendom who believe in one God who sometimes manifests himself as the Father, sometimes as the Son. Those who invented the trinity-doctrine were children of their time. On the internet site The Vesica Piscis, we find an interesting observation:

A medieval hymn calls Jesus "the little fish in the Virgin's fountain." The Christ child is often shown inside a mandorla, superimposed over Mary's womb. Mary herself can be equated with the goddess Aphrodite Marina, who brought forth all the fish in the oceans; Marina's blue robe and pearl necklace, like the Christian Mary's, are classic symbols of the sea. On Cyprus, Mary to this day is worshipped as "Panaghia Aphroditessa." The connections are many: the Vesica Piscis illumines the common heritage of Christianity and the Goddess traditions it absorbed, traditions it would later vilify and all but destroy.[5]

It seems that mankind once into the rut of syncretism finds it very difficult to get up again.

[1]. About the cult in Hierapolis, see also Jørgen Christensen-Ernst, "Simeon Stylites the Older." Antioch – The Queen of the East, accessed May 21, 2013,
[2]. Lucian, The Syrian Goddess (London: Constable & Company LTD, 1913 ), 80,81.
[3]. Gaius Julius Hyginus, "[197] CXCVII," VENUS Fabulae, accessed May 22, 2013,
[4]. Per Bilde, Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom (in series "Studies in Hellenistic Civilization") (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990), 162. Please notice that Parthenos and Meter ton theon closely resembles titles given to Jesus' mother.
[5]. The Vesica Piscis, accessed May 22. 2013,

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Animal life in Antakya


Our yard

Seven months have passed since we moved into our old Antakya house, and during that time we have had some interesting experiences.
We have chosen to order our daily life according to the ways people years ago used to do in this part of town. This means that when you enter the courtyard from the front door, you see all the rooms, bathroom and kitchen included, have their door towards the courtyard without being mutually connected. The only exception is our bedroom on the first floor over the studio.
We like animals, so we bought some wheat to feed the birds. However, only doves (not pigeons) arrived. We always thought that the dove is a very docile animal. We were mistaken. They are having great fight over the wheat although there is enough for everyone of them. They run after one another, chasing the weakest or most timid ones of the away from the food. When possible the mount the back of each other, plucking feathers and down our of the neck of the loser.
One day a certain one of them seemed more tame than the others. When you walked up to it, it did not move but just looked up at you. However, it made some funny movements with its head as if it had a fly around it, and it went scratching its head now and then.
After we came home one noon it was lying dead in the courtyard with its legs in the air.
As mentioned, we are sleeping on the first floor with a window open towards the courtyard. One night we saw a shadow passing by. It happened to be a cat that had reached our window over the roofs and use our staircase to get down to our walled courtyard.
It may sound quite cosy, but the cats of modern Antioch are not at all like the cats of Istanbul who look like princes and princesses, so dainty and clean that they hardly touch the ground. Here in Antakya cats look like rats, and they spend the main part of their life roving around in the garbage you find on the street corners. Not a creature you want in your bedroom!
We put wire gauze in front of the window and had the traffic stopped.
Then one evening we hear a sound of something falling down from our roof. It happed to be a furry red kitten, and soon after we had the mother and father standing wailing on our wall. Fortunately they did not have the intention to get down into the courtyard to protect their child. This, on the other hand, tried to climb the wall to get up to its parents, but without success.
We let it out of the front door, and we do not know what happened to it.
One dark evening when we came back from travelling, we realised that we had an unusual guest. A hen was walking around in the darkness in our yard. It had evidently spent some time there, for it had eaten of our tulips. When we opened the door to the living room (remember that it faces the yard), the hen jumped in and we had to catch it there.
Some people in the neighbourhood keep chicken on their roof. We did not bother to find out where it came from, but put it outside the front door. The next morning it had disappeared.
When we came home from Istanbul last week, it was evident that something had happened in the studio and in our bedroom. We couldn't find out what. But the next morning we found droppings of a rat in the two rooms. We learned the one of the old forsaken houses in close to ours was being restored to its original state, and the snakes and rats living there had decided to move elsewhere. One of them was our guest. One evening while we were watching televisinon in our living room with the door toward the yard open, we realised that the rat was sitting just inside the door and watching television as well - or perhaps it was us it was watching. It was a nice looking rat, not like the ugly cats at the street corners. It was clean and friendly.
Nevertheless, rats have annoying habits. They want lebensraum and they are not housebroken. We found it advisable to get rid of it before it got a chance to bring in its clan. We found out that it was nesting in a shed outside our front door, so we poisoned it there. A pity, in fact. It was a nice animal.

These experiences have taught us a couple of things about life in ancient Antioch. People back then not doubt were living with the same experiences. All this may be commonplace for people on a farm; but this is in the centre of Antakya, even on a spot inside the original Seleucid town wall.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

The road to the Citadel of Antioch

I have been asked about how to get to citadel of Antioch. Here are two suggestions:
If you have a car, follow the road towards Reyhanlı until you are out of Antakya. There you have to turn right when you get to the road to Altınözü. Follow the road to the village of Kuruyer. There this is a road with the sign Antakya Kalesi [The citadel of Antioch]. Follow this road to the restaurant on top of Mount Silpius where you have a view over the city. Park your car, and return to the ruins of the walls of Antioch. Follow the walls walking north through the forest. When you are out of the wooded area, you see the citadel on the hilltop in front of you.

If you do not have a car, go to the minibus terminal [Köy Garajları] at get on a minibus to Altınözü. Ask the driver to take you to the road to the citadel at the sign Antakya Kalesi at Kuruyer. Walk up the hill until you get to the walls. It is a steep road. Be sure to take a small bottle of water along, and do not take the tour at noon. Early morning or late afternoon are better. Follow the walls walking north through the forest. When you are out of the wooded area, you see the citadel on the hilltop in front of you.
At your return to the vantage point, you can have a cold beer in the small restaurant.

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

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Rhosus or Arsuz

The river at Arsuz.
Northwest of Antakya, behind the Amanus Mountains on the Mediterranean coast stands the small town of Arsuz, the Rhosus or Rhossus of classical times. Strabo (d. ca. 24 AD), for instance, mentions it in his Geography: "Near the sea in this region lies Seleuceia, and Pieria, a mountain continuous with Mt. Amanus, and Rhosus, which is situated between Issus and Seleuceia."[1]
Nearly 200 years after Strabo wrote his Geography, there was a congregation of Christians in the small town. At that time, though, the ideas of the Christians differed from the teaching of the early congregations. Thus, in Rhosus the congregation used a "gospel" that was regarded as spurious by the Christians in Antioch. It was called The Gospel of Peter.
In Syria, and many other places in the ancient world Christianity had been influenced by Gnostic doctrines. One of the teachings popular among the Gnostics was that everything material is by nature bad. Consequently, according to them, the body of Jesus cannot have been material at all.
The apostle John is arguing strongly against this belief in his first letter.[2] It was difficult to challenge his authority, so instead people with contradictory ideas started to write counterfeit letters and gospels carrying the names of some of the apostles of Christ. One of these gospels was the Gospel of Peter.
When the bishop of Antioch realised that the small congregation used the Gospel of Peter believing it genuine, he felt the need to warn his co-religionists.
The Orthodox church at Arsuz.
In the second century there was no church building.
The congregations met in private homes.
The church historian Eusebius, who wrote his Church History about 150 years later, has this to tell:
Chapter XII.—Serapion and his Extant Works.
It is probable that others have preserved other memorials of Serapion’s literary industry, but there have reached us only those addressed to a certain Domninus, who, in the time of persecution, fell away from faith in Christ to the Jewish will-worship; and those addressed to Pontius and Caricus, ecclesiastical men, and other letters to different persons, and still another work composed by him on the so-called Gospel of Peter.
He wrote this last to refute the falsehoods which that Gospel contained, on account of some in the parish of Rhossus who had been led astray by it into heterodox notions. It may be well to give some brief extracts from his work, showing his opinion of the book. He writes as follows:
“For we, brethren, receive both Peter and the other apostles as Christ; but we reject intelligently the writings falsely ascribed to them, knowing that such were not handed down to us.
When I visited you I supposed that all of you held the true faith, and as I had not read the Gospel which they put forward under the name of Peter, I said, If this is the only thing which occasions dispute among you, let it be read. But now having learned, from what has been told me, that their mind was involved in some heresy, I will hasten to come to you again. Therefore, brethren, expect me shortly.
But you will learn, brethren, from what has been written to you, that we perceived the nature of the heresy of Marcianus, and that, not understanding what he was saying, he contradicted himself.
For having obtained this Gospel from others who had studied it diligently, namely, from the successors of those who first used it, whom we call Docetæ[3] (for most of their opinions are connected with the teaching of that school) we have been able to read it through, and we find many things in accordance with the true doctrine of the Saviour, but some things added to that doctrine, which we have pointed out for you farther on.” So much in regard to Serapion.[4]

And indeed, there were very strange assertions in the Gospel of Peter. Among other things it has the following account about the resurrection of Jesus:
And in the night in which the Lord's day was drawing on, as the soldiers kept guard two by two in a watch, there was a great voice in the heaven; and they saw the heavens opened, and two men descend from thence with great light and approach the tomb. And that stone which was put at the door rolled of itself and made way in part; and the tomb was opened, and both the young men entered in.

When therefore those soldiers saw it, they awakened the centurion and the elders; for they too were hard by keeping guard. And, as they declared what things they had seen, again they see three men come forth from the tomb, and two of them supporting one, and a cross following them: and of the two the head reached unto the heaven, but the head of him that was led by them overpassed the heavens. And they heard a voice from the heavens, saying, Thou hast preached to them that sleep. And a response was heard from the cross, Yea.[5]
A speaking cross and men as tall of skyscrapers! No wonder that the bishop from Antioch got concerned.
Today Rhosus is called Arsuz. It is the only town in Turkey with a non-Muslim mayor. He is an Orthodox, and besides his job at the municipality, he is running a small fish restaurant besides the river.

People in Arsuz are very kind indeed. There are Sunni Muslims, Nusayri Alewites and "Greek" Orthodox. But they are living together in peace and tolerance: A beautiful example for the rest of Turkey and for Europe as well.


[1]. Strabo, Geography, Book XVI, chapter 2, accessed May 28, 2013,*.html.
[2]. The three letters of the apostle John are found towards the end of the New Testament.
[3]. Docetists. "Docetism is broadly defined as any teaching that claims that Jesus' body was either absent or illusory." – "Docetism," Wikipedia, accessed May 28, 2013,
[4]. Eusebius Pamphylius, ed. Philip Schaff, Church History, Book VI, Chapter 12 (New York: Christian Literature Publishing 1890) 528-30.
[5]. "The Gospel of Peter," Early Christian Writings, accessed May 28, 2013,

Monday, 20 May 2013

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,

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.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

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 Pasch should 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 14th of 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,
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, ).
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,
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,


Wednesday, 3 April 2013



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 prostitute, 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.
For further information about the Nusayri Alewites in Antakya, please see my book Antioch on the Orontes - A History and a Guide
1. "Easter," Wikipedia, accessed April 2, 2013,
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,
4. Hislop, The Two Babylons, 109. See also Hyginus, trans. Mary Grant, Fabulae 150-199, accessed April 2, 2013,
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.