The regional context
Although a far older history exists for Syria and Mesopotamia, the region in early Christian times was strongly shaped in Graeco-Roman terms. Its major cities from Antioch or Laodicea to Edessa, Nisibis or Palmyra were almost invariably Hellenistic foundations. Damascus was an exception, but by Roman times the traces of its older past were barely visible. Hellenic civic structures and cultural expressions characterised urban life, and inscriptions were often bilingual in Greek and whatever Semitic dialect was dominant in the area. In the first century, Roman expansion made its presence felt primarily through military presence and significant construction of roads. Duringthe second century, however, Roman rule became a stronger, more integrated aspect of the region. Antioch increasingly functioned as the eastern base for the emperors; with the tetrarchy at the turn of the fourth century, it became the imperial capital of the eastern provinces. Latin words were transmitted through Greek into Semitic languages, and bilingual inscriptions consistently appear in the public and domestic monuments of cities, as well as in documentary archives. In Dura Europos, a trilingual inscription of the third century survives in Latin, Greek and Palmyrene. In cities like Edessa or Palmyra, epigraphic evidence regularly shows Greek and Semitic deities mutually identified with one another - a situation literarily captured in Lucian of Samosata's treatise on the cult of the Syrian goddess at Hierapolis (Mabbug). Ironically, this type of evidence is almost all we know about the indigenous religions during this period: the names of deities, and some material evidence surviving in cult centres or temples. Apart from Lucian's Hellenised account, we know essentially nothing about rituals, myths or devotional practices. At the same time, we have both material and literary evidence to demonstrate, albeit piecemeal, the strength of contemporary Jewish communities throughout the region. Jose-phus implies (BJ 7.44) that the Jewish revolt of 66-73 ce in Palestine provoked anti-Jewish sentiment in Antioch, a situation recurring in the fourth century under Christian leadership.
In the course of the late first and second centuries, the Semitic dialect of Aramaic known as Syriac, prominent in the territory of Edessa ('Urhay' in Syriac), took hold as a primary Christian language of the Syrian region. Virtually every Christian Syriac text prior to the fourth century survives in both Syriac and Greek, and scholars sometimes disagree as to which was the original language. This situation underscores the larger cultural context in which Christianity developed in Syria and Mesopotamia: it was a multilingual region, thriving on international trade and the strategic importance of the
Was this article helpful?