The Church that was at Antioch

(Notes edited and amplified by George Engle. We have been grateful for critical comments and suggestions from Peter Havholm)


First published in the August 1929 issue of the London Magazine, with illustrations by F Matania. Collected in 1932 in Limits and Renewals, accompanied by the poem “The Disciple”. Reprinted in the Penguin Classics edition of Limits and Renewals (1987) with introduction and notes by Phillip Mallett. Included in the Sussex and Burwash editions of Kipling’s works.

Limits and Renewals is available in various paperback editions, and on Kindle, from Amazon.

The story

The story is set in the city of Antioch-in-Syria, in about 49 AD, Syria being then an imperial Roman province ruled by a Governor appointed by the Emperor.

The principal characters are:

  • Lucius Sergius, the Prefect of Police (popularly known as “Serga”).
  • Valens [“strong” or “healthy”], his nephew (son of his sister-in-law and deceased brother), a young officer in the Roman army, seconded for civil duty in Antioch.
  • Paulus, Paul the Apostle, formerly Saul — the St Paul of Christianity — a (formerly an orthodox) Jew and a Roman citizen by birth.
  • Barnabas, the leader of the Christians in Antioch.
  • Petrus, Peter the Apostle — the St Peter of Christianity — one of the original disciples of Jesus.

Valens’s uncle puts him in charge of the Little Circus ward of the city, where the Christians have their place of meeting, and where the “Synagogue Jews” (i.e. the strictly orthodox) are constantly stirring up trouble against them. One day Paul is pushed towards Valens out of a crowd and denounced as the ringleader of a conspiracy; but Valens realises that this is a put-up job and arrests the loudest of the accusers.

Paul goes off to Jerusalem, leaving Barnabas in charge; and when the Christians gather for their communal meal, a riot breaks out among them over the vexed question whether, being Jews as well as converts to Christianity, they can eat food that isn’t kosher, i.e. that has not been prepared according to the rules laid down for orthodox Jews. Valens recognizes another put-up job, and a man tries unsuccessfully to stab him, alleging that, on his journey to Antioch, Valens had killed his brother. “Your brother tried to kill me” replies Valens; but having been ordered earlier by the Prefect not to upset the Christians while Paul is away, he lets the man go.

Paul returns from Jerusalem with Peter, and they discuss their dietary problems over drinks with the Prefect and Valens. Fearing another disturbance, the Prefect lends Valens a dozen mounted police, and Valens successfully prevents any breach of the peace when the Christians’ meeting disperses. But as he is walking back to the Prefect’s house with Paul and Peter, an attacker suddenly stabs him under the ribs, and he is carried home. “Tomorrow you will look for where your Church stood,” says the Prefect to Paul and Peter, but relents when Valens reveals that his assailant was the man he had previously let go in obedience to the Prefect’s order not to upset the Christians while Paul was away. The dying Valens says to the Prefect: “Don’t be hard on [the man and his friends]…They don’t know what they are doing”. For Peter this is a repetition by a “heathen and idolater” of Christ’s words on the Cross, and when Paul suggests that they should baptize him, Peter replies: “Think you that one who has spoken Those Words needs such as we are to certify him to any God?”

Some thoughts about the tale

This story has been of great interest to members of the Kipling Society over the years. There was a discussion meeting in November 1965, led by Lancelyn Green, who made a number of very thoughtful and penetrating points. In particular, he endorses the view that Kipling meant to make the religious riot between Greek and Hebrew Christians in Antioch all the more real and vital by analogy with a typical Hindu-Moslem riot in India, as described, for example, in “On the City Wall” (Soldiers Three). In both stories the police control the riot by keeping the crowds on the move, using no more force than necessary. We have included an edited version of his presentation in this Guide.

Some critical comments

Angus Wilson (pp. 337-341) calls this “a first-rate story” and discusses it as an indicator of Kipling’s religious beliefs:

There is little comfort here for those who would claim Kipling in his later years for orthodox Christianity. . . . Again and again Kipling uses the Christian texts and doctrines familiar to his readers, deeply imbued with his own family background, but they are seldom employed for purposes that cannot be explained either by humanist ethics or by spiritual search.

Philip Mallett (pp. 23-24) suggests that:

the recollection . . . of the Christian language of redemption [in the Slave Girl’s call on her God that he should not die but live] is to make the power of human love appear as the deepest element in religious life. He adds, Perhaps a reader coming new to Kipling, or anxious to dislodge the familiar image of him as a crudely jingoistic writer, should begin here, with the figure of Peter, the greatest character in the story: a man who has been taken beyond his limit, so that he denied Christ, but also one who has been renewed, and can now find for others the path to renewal through forgiveness and compassion.

Harry Ricketts (pp. 381-382) comments:

‘Never decide upon the evidence, when you’re dealing with Hebrews!’ declared the city’s Roman Chief of Police, whose nephew Valens was eventually murdered by a vengeful Jew whom, with Roman fair-mindedness, he had previously allowed to go free. Valens’s dying words explicitly echoed Christ’s on the cross, turning him into a sacrificial victim of the Jewish mob. The underlying theme of the story, as Kipling more bluntly put it in another context, was that ‘Israel is a race to leave alone. It abets disorder’.

See also Susan Treggiari’s article on “Kipling and the Classical World”.

Some background reading

  • Acts 9,1-22 (the conversion of Saul).
  • Acts 10, and 11,1-18 (Peter is persuaded that Gentiles can become Christians without adopting Judaism).
  • Acts 11,19-26 (many Greek-speaking Jews converted to Christianity in Antioch).

Readers may find the following references useful:

  • KJ 91 (Oct 1949) pp. 11-13. Allen: lictors, Mithraism.
  • KJ 92 (Dec 1949) pp. 4-7. Allen: the date of the action of the story, and a table of Biblical references.
  • KJ 93 (Apr 1950) pp. 5–7. Phillips: Paul’s conviction that Christians need not adhere to Jewish law.
  • KJ 142 (Jun 1962) pp.10 – 18. Tingey: a good description of the Mithraic Cult.
  • KJ 157 (Mar 1966) pp. 14 – 18. Lancelyn Green: an extremely interesting talk on the story, given by the then Kipling Journal Editor at a discussion meeting. Well worth reading.
  • KJ 202 (Jun 1977) pp. 8 – 13. Harrison: this article, “The Word made Subaltern”, compares Valens with other ‘Christ-like’ young men in Kipling’s works.