The Church That Was at Antioch
by Rudyard Kipling

Review by
William H. Stoddard
London Magazine, August 1929

collected in —

Limits and Renewals (1932)

May 2011


Rudyard Kipling is best known as a writer for children, the author of the Jungle Books and the Just So Stories; and after that as a writer about British India. But his short fiction has an astonishing diversity of settings, from the ancient Roman Empire to the "airship utopia" of 2065 A.D. in "As Easy as A.B.C." to the outright mythic fantasy of "The Children of the Zodiac". One of his best historical stories is "The Church That Was at Antioch", set in the Roman province of Syria in the first century.

The starting point for the story is a dispute in early Christianity over whether Christians were obliged to follow Jewish dietary laws. In the "incident at Antioch" Paul confronted Peter over this. Of course, in the long run, Paul's viewpoint won out, and Christians now pay no heed to Jewish rules. The New Testament accounts of the confrontation are brief and omit many details; Kipling's story fills in the gaps with fiction — as with nearly all of his stories, fiction rich in circumstantial details.

Many of these details define the larger political and legal conflict: the role of the Roman Empire and its laws, and the local politics of Syria, from hill bandits seeking vengeance to Jewish butchers wanting to keep the business of Christians. The viewpoint of the story in fact is Roman rather than Christian. The storyline has striking parallels to that of "As Easy as A.B.C.," with Roman officials / officials of the de facto world government sent to remote and backward Antioch / Chicago and getting entangled in mob passions against Christians / democrats. In both cases, the subtext is the menace of crowds and the political necessity of defusing it.

Kipling's choice of viewpoint also brings out the religious diversity of the setting, much like that of India, which was almost more his native land than England. The viewpoints of traditional pagans, Mithraists, Jews, Jewish Christians, and Gentile Christians all play a part in his story; indeed the conflicting claims of different faiths are a recurring theme. Obviously this applies to the dispute between Peter and Paul, but the same note is sounded when the Prefect of Police, Serga, discusses Christian laws and customs with his nephew Valens, and Valens protests that all of them were stolen from his own Mithraic beliefs. A vital part of the action takes place in discussions between Valens and the two Christian leaders, whom his uncle is entertaining as guests in the hope of settling things peacefully. And when things go disastrously wrong, and Serga tells Peter and Paul, "Tomorrow you will look for where your Church stood", it's Valens who persuades him to relent.

But there's a further strand to this parallelism: Valens's relationship with his concubine, whom he purchased in the market of Constantinople, and who now regards him with almost literal adoration, saying to him, "My God bought me from the dealers like a horse. Too much, too, he paid." The buying and selling is an image of the ransom theory of the Crucifixion; erotic love of the Passion of Christ.

One of the story's deepest ironies may be that Peter and Paul, who witness this, are seemingly blind to it; and yet at the same time they are drawn to Valens's spirit — Peter, especially, who recognizes it as akin to that of his master, and who rebukes Paul for failing to do so. In the end, the point of the story is that stated by Valens: "Gods do not make laws. They change men's hearts. The rest is the Spirit." What Kipling shows is different men in whom the spirit moves in different ways, revealing each one's hidden potencies. He not only achieves compelling portrayals of both Peter and Paul, but makes it plausible that both recognize a young Roman soldier, "a heathen and an idolater", as an equal.


© 2011 William H. Stoddard

Antiquity at Troynovant
ancient times;
Classical world & worldview:
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W. H. Stoddard's essay
Every Crowd Is Crazy
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