There were large Jewish communities in Phoenicia, Cyprus (cf. Acts 4:36), and Antioch. Antioch on the Orontes was called Syria’s “mother-city,” was its most influential city, and was probably the third or fourth largest city in the Roman Empire (though its precise population is debated). Rome granted it the privilege of being a “free city,” mostly governing itself.
Perhaps 10% of Antioch was Jewish (though, like some other ancient population figures, this is merely an educated guess). Antioch, in contrast to most predominantly Gentile cities in the region, spared its Jewish inhabitants in the war of 66-70, though they did not fully trust them. Various cults flourished there; the most famous religious connection was the nearby cult center of Apollo at Daphne. Some Diaspora Jews were more concerned with making monotheism reasonable to outsiders than circumcising converts. Antioch’s cosmopolitan nature allowed for more interchange of different cultural ideas than possible, say, in Jerusalem. Many proselytes and God-fearers attended Antioch’s synagogues, helping facilitate the Jewish-Christian outreach to Gentiles (here, perhaps “Hellenizing” Syrians) there.
Similarly, later rabbis extolled the earlier sage Hillel for his gentleness, including his mercy toward potential Gentile converts.
Tarsus was about 100 miles from Antioch; by contrast, Jerusalem was over 300. This is no short journey, but Barnabas knows of Paul’s calling.
In the NT, “Christians” appears only as a nickname from outsiders (here; 26:28) and perhaps as echoing a legal charge (1 Pet 4:16). The nickname emulates the forms of names used for adherents of political parties, such as “Caesarians,” “Flavians,” “Herodians,” etc. Had it been interpreted politically (“partisans of the executed Jewish king”) it could have stirred persecution, but here it apparently functions merely as derision.
Although Greeks and Syrians had local oracles, the idea of a movement with numerous prophets is unparalleled and points to the early Christian belief that God had poured out the Holy Spirit. Josephus reports that many Essenes could prophesy, but he avoids calling them “prophets” in the present.
A person would rise to speak in an assembly. A number of famines afflicted the Empire during Claudius’ reign (Claudius himself barely escaped being mobbed in Rome due to the effects there, A.D. 51). Papyri reveal high grain prices in about A.D. 46; Queen Helena of Adiabene, a proselyte to Judaism, bought Egyptian grain at highly inflated prices to provide for Judeans (around A.D. 45-46).
Due to the nature of the Empire (and Roman suspicion of translocal activity), most Jewish ministry to the poor was local. Exceptions existed for severe cases, however, like Queen Helena’s aid to Judea (see comment on 11:28). Wealthy patrons often alleviated food crises in cities, but here all the believers participate. They act in advance based on a prophecy (cf. Gen 41:33-36), even though the hardship is likely to strike Antioch as well.
“Elders” reflects the traditional Israelite leadership structure for towns and villages, continuing in this period. Ancient historians had to compromise between following the action of their story and events occurring elsewhere at the same time; Luke postpones taking up the completion of the project until 12:25.