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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Damascus, Damascenes

Damascus (Δαμασκός) cannot now be regarded as the oldest city in the world, but it has a surer title to fame in its possession of the secret of eternal youth. While Tadmor and Palmyra, Baalbek and Jerash, have only a ‘glory hovering round decay,’ Damascus is still ‘the head of Syria,’ the queen of Oriental cities. The creations of architectural genius have their day and cease to be, but Damascus is the perennial gift of Nature. The green oasis between Mount Hermon and the desert must always be a theatre of human activity. Wheresoever the river comes, there is life. Damascus has no means of self-defence, has never done anything memorable in warfare, has been captured and plundered many times, and more than once almost annihilated, but it has always quickly recovered itself, and to-day the white smokeless city, embowered in its gardens and orchards and surrounded by its hundred villages, is to every Arab what it was to young Muhammad gazing down upon it from the brow of Salahiyeh-the symbol of Paradise.

During the centuries of Greek and of Roman sway in Syria, Damascus had to yield precedence to Antioch. The Hellenic city in the Levant became the first metropolis of Gentile Christianity, and organized the earliest missions to the Western nations. Yet in a sense the religion of Europe came by the way of Damascus, which was the scene of the conversion of the greatest of all missionaries. It is in connexion with this event alone that the city is ever mentioned in the NT. The story is told three times in Acts (Acts 9:1-23; Acts 22:3-16; Acts 26:1-20).

In the 1st cent. of our era the Jewish colony in Damascus was large and influential. During a tumult in the reign of Nero 10,000 Jews were massacred. Josephus indicates the extent of Jewish proselytism in the city when he states that the Damascenes ‘distrusted their own wives, who were almost all addicted to the Jewish religion’ (Bellum Judaicum (Josephus) II. xx. 2). It is not known when or how Christianity first came to Damascus. There were doubtless Syrian Jews in Jerusalem at every feast of Pentecost, though none are mentioned in Acts 2. Damascus was the first of the ‘foreign cities’ (Acts 26:11) from which the Jewish authorities resolved to root out the Nazarene heresy. St. Paul came to it as a voluntary inquisitor, to call the Christian Jews to account for their apostasy. He was armed with ‘the authority and commission of the chief priests’ (Acts 26:12).

‘In a certain sense the Sanhedrin exercised jurisdiction over every Jewish community in the world.… Its orders were regarded as binding throughout the entire domain of orthodox Judaism. It had power, for example, to issue warrants to the congregations (synagogues) in Damascus for the apprehension of the Christians that quarter’ (Schürer, History of the Jewish People (Eng. tr. of GJV).] II. i. [1885] 185).

St. Paul had instructions to deal summarily ‘with any that were of the way’ (Acts 9:2), but the letters which he carried ‘for the synagogues’ (Acts 9:2) were never delivered, and his ‘commission’ (Acts 26:12) was never executed. One of the Christians whom he intended to ‘bring bound to Jerusalem’ (Acts 9:2) baptized him (Acts 9:18), and ‘with the disciples who were at Damascus’ (Acts 9:19) he enjoyed his first Christian fellowship. None of them were among the confessors who afterwards haunted him ‘with their remembered faces, dear men and women whom’ he ‘sought and slew.’ In Damascus he ‘preached Jesus’ (Acts 9:20), the substance of his gospel being ‘that he is the Son of God,’ ‘that this is the Christ’ (Acts 9:20; Acts 9:22). The incident of St. Paul’s escape from conspirators by his being let down over the city wall in a basket (q.v. [Note: quod vide, which see.] ) is recorded by the writer of Acts (Acts 9:23-25), and confirmed in one of St. Paul’s own letters (2 Corinthians 11:32). While St. Luke ascribes the plot against him to the Jews. St. Paul relates that it was the ethnarch under Aretas the king who guarded the city of the Damascenes to take him. The two versions of the story can be reconciled by supposing that the governor turned out the garrison and set a watch at the instigation of influential Jews, who represented St. Paul as a disturber of the peace of the city. The alleged ascendancy of the Nabataean king in Damascus at that time raises a difficult historical problem, which has an important bearing upon the chronology of the primitive Church. This point is discussed under Arabia, Aretas, Ethnarch.

Literature.-G. A. Smith, Historical Geography of the Holy Land (G. A. Smith) , 1897, p. 641ff.; Baedeker, Handbook to Syria and Palestine, 1912, p. 298ff.; W. Smith, Dict. of Gr. and Rom. Geog. i. [1856] 748; R. W. Pounder, St. Paul and his Cities, 1913, p. 58; H. Macmillan, Gleaning in Holy Fields, 1899, pp. 101, 114; E. B. Redlich, St. Paul and his Companions, 1913.

James Strahan.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Damascus, Damascenes'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. 1906-1918.

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