The land of Syria bordered Israel to the north and stretched up into the mountains beyond the headwaters of the Euphrates River. The Old Testament mentions Syria chiefly in relation to its wars with Israel during the time of the divided kingdom. The New Testament mentions it chiefly in relation to the expansion of the early church.

Old Testament records

Originally Syria was known as Aram, and some versions of the Bible consistently use ‘Aram’ rather than ‘Syria’ in the Old Testament narratives (see ARAM). The land included parts of Mesopotamia, along with various smaller kingdoms such as Zobah, Geshur and Hamath (Deut 23:4; Judg 3:8; 1 Sam 14:47; 2 Sam 3:3; 8:3,9). The capital of Syria during the time of its conflict with Israel was Damascus (1 Kings 11:24; Isa 7:8; see DAMASCUS). The ‘Israel’ with whom Syria fought was the northern part of the divided Israelite nation, as distinct from Judah, the southern part. Syria’s oppression of Israel began, it seems, during the reign of the Syrian king Ben-hadad I (1 Kings 15:16-22).

During the reign of the next king, Ben-hadad II, a combined army of Syria and neighbouring states attacked the Israelite capital, Samaria, but was defeated twice (1 Kings 20:1-31). The prophet Elisha on one occasion healed the commander-in-chief of the Syrian army, and on another was consulted when the Syrian king was ill (2 Kings 5:1-14; 8:7-8). Ben-hadad II was assassinated by Hazael, who then seized the throne for himself. Hazael was a brutal enemy who repeatedly attacked Israel and butchered its people (2 Kings 8:12-15,28; 10:32; 12:17; 13:3,22; Amos 1:3-4). During the reign of the next king, Ben-hadad III, Israel regained much of the territory that it had lost to Hazael (2 Kings 13:25). Syria continued to decline in power, and Israel at one stage took control of Damascus for a brief period (2 Kings 14:28). With the rise of Assyria to power, both Syria and Israel were in danger of being conquered. The Syrian king Rezin and the Israelite king Pekah combined to attack Judah, with the aim of forcing Judah into a three-nation alliance that might be able to withstand Assyria. But Judah appealed to Assyria for help, and Assyria responded by conquering Syria and much of Israel (2 Kings 15:37; 16:5-9; Isa 7:1-9; 17:1-3). This marked the end of Syria as a separate and independent nation (732 BC).

Into the New Testament era

During the latter part of the fourth century BC, Alexander the Great established the Greek Empire throughout eastern Europe and western Asia. After Alexander’s death in 323 BC, the empire split into sectors under the control of Alexander’s Greek generals. One of these sectors was centred on Syria, and in 300 BC the city of Antioch was built as the administrative capital of the Syrian sector (see ANTIOCH IN SYRIA). A dynasty of thirteen kings, most of them bearing the name Antiochus, reigned over Syria for about two and a half centuries. At first they commanded a large area stretching as far as Asia Minor in the west and Persia in the east. But over the years they consistently lost territory, till in the end they controlled only Syria itself. (For details of this era see GREECE.) Then, in 64 BC, they were conquered by Rome, and Syria became a province of the emerging Roman Empire (Luke 2:2). Christianity first came to Syria through the efforts of Greek-speaking Jewish Christians who had been forced out of Jerusalem after the execution of Stephen (Acts 8:1; 9:1-2,10,19; 11:19-20). Paul was converted in Syria and carried out his first recorded evangelistic ministry there (Acts 9:1-22; Gal 1:21). He played an important part in the early growth of the church in Antioch (Acts 11:19-26), and when opportunities arose he visited churches throughout the province (Acts 15:41; 18:18-22).

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