Friday, November 27, 2009

Friday Paul: 5a. Disunity at Corinth

I have two writing goals for December: 1) finish my first Paul book, 2) nearly finish the philosophy book. I will probably alternate primarily between these two projects over the course of the next month, with the usual smattering of Explanatory Notes and perhaps some book review material as I come back from SBL determined to try to read at least 30 minutes a day. As usual, my goals usually outstrip my capacity.

Previous drafts of chapter material on the Paul book include:

1a. Born at a Time and Place 1; 1b. Born at a Time and Place 2
2a. A Change in Life Direction; 2b A Change in Life Direction 2; 2c A Change in Life Direction 3
3a. The Unknown Years 1; 3b. The Unknown Years 2; 3c. The Unknown Years 3
4a. Life Beyond Death; 4b. Life Beyond Death; 4c. Life Beyond Death; 4d Life Beyond Death

Today we begin Chapter 5: "Disunity at Corinth."
Paul spent almost two years ministering at Corinth. In 1 Corinthians 16:15 Paul mentions that the household of Stephanus was the first fruits of Achaia (southern Greece), meaning that his family was probably the first of those in Corinth to believe Jesus was the Christ. The names mentioned in 1 Corinthians are Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor. 16:17). We hear smatterings of other names associated with Corinth. [1] For example, 1 Corinthians 1:1 mentions a co-author, Sosthenes, whose name is conspicuously the same as a synagogue leader in Corinth who gets beaten in Acts 18:17.

The conflict mentioned in Acts 18 may very well have played itself out in many parts of the Mediterranean world. Christianity was not yet a distinct religion but only one of many branches of Judaism at the time: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, Christ-followers. [2] The first two were largely confined to Jerusalem, although the Essenes may have spread out some. We have good reason to think that Christ followers sometimes came into conflict with more mainstream Jews in various synagogues around the Mediterranean. For example, this kind of conflict in a Greek-speaking synagogue in Jerusalem seems to have resulted in Stephen getting stoned (Acts 6:9).

Two of Paul's most prominent co-workers, Priscilla and Aquila, were expelled from Rome along with all the Christian Jews of the city because of conflicts between Christ-followers and mainstream Jews in the synagogues of the city. [3] Most would date this conflict to around AD49, which places Paul's work in Corinth around the years AD50-52. This fits with the mention of the Roman proconsul Gallio in Acts 18. We know from an inscription that he was proconsul from AD51-52, giving us the most certain date we have in dating Paul's life and missionary work. Priscilla and Aquila had recently come to the city when Paul first arrived there.

Perhaps this same conflict unfolded at Corinth with this Sosthenes as synagogue leader at the time. Not everyone in the synagogue would have believed that Jesus was the Christ. We hear of others who had. Acts mentions that the person who was synagogue leader when Paul arrived in the city had also believed, Crispus (Acts 18:8). Paul mentions him in 1 Corinthians 1:14 as someone he baptized there, along with someone else named Gaius. Some wonder if the Gentile Titius Justus who is mentioned in Acts 18:7 might have been the same person that Paul calls Gaius. [4]

We hear of two further names in Romans 16:23, which Paul likely wrote from Corinth on a later visit. Erastus is called the city's "administrator," possibly the city treasurer or perhaps director of public works. We actually have among the ruins of Corinth a sidewalk with an inscription in it that says it was paid for by one Erastus, the city's "aedile," a position that generally fits how Paul describes him. Along with Gaius and Erastus, Romans 16:23 also sends the greetings of someone named Quartus. If we add the household of Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11), which may of course include some of the people we have already mentioned, we have no less than nine names of local Corinthians who were associated with the church at Corinth.

[insert photo of Erastus inscription]

These nine names belong to no less than three households, and quite possibly more. We know of the household of Stephanus, of Chloe, and presumably of Gaius. Paul refers to the church at Corinth in the singular in the greeting of 1 Corinthians 1:1. From this fact we should probably infer that the church at Corinth could meet in a single house, regardless of whether they sometimes broke up into even smaller house churches. Since Paul in Romans 16:23 says that the whole church enjoyed the hospitality of Gaius, it seems quite possible that he was somewhat wealthy and could fit the entire church of 40-50 people in his house for worship.

In 1 Corinthians 1:26, Paul says that "not many" of the Corinthians were influential or of noble birth. But individuals like Gaius and Erastus were likely the few Paul implies were. Erastus would need to be a Roman citizen of some means to serve in public office and fund service projects. If Gaius was Titius Justus, he would presumably be a Roman citizen also. This sort of social status created in itself temptations and pressures that most of the believers, who did not have such status, would not have to face. We will return to the social divisions at Corinth in a moment.

At some point after Paul's run-in with the Roman proconsul Gallio, he departed from Corinth. Acts tells us he briefly visited Ephesus before sailing to Jerusalem, traveling back to Antioch in the north of Palestine, and then revisiting the churches he had founded throughout Asia Minor (Acts 18:23). Paul has left little trace of this verse in any of his letters. [5] But eventually, perhaps in AD53 or 54, he finds himself back in Ephesus, which he sets up as his "base camp" for ministry over the next three years or so.

By the time he arrives, Priscilla and Aquila have been ministering there for perhaps a year. They have already had one very significant convert to faith in Christ, an eloquent Jew from Alexandria named Apollos. This incident may provide us with not a little insight into some of the details of the early church. For one, Acts does not say that Aquila and Priscilla invited him to their home and explained Christ to them but that Priscilla and Aquila did. In other words, it implies that the wife took the lead in Apollos' conversion. Priscilla is mentioned in Acts and Paul first more often than not, quite possibly implying that she tended to take the lead between the two (e.g., Acts 18:18, 26; Rom. 16:3). [6]

Another item of interest is that Acts says Apollos was instructed in the Way of the Lord but did not know about Jesus, only John the Baptist. What makes this comment very interesting is that the Essenes at Qumran on the Dead Sea saw themselves as "preparing the way of the Lord," using the same passage from Isaiah 40 to describe themselves as the gospels use to describe John the Baptist. [7] There are enough similarities between some of the early Christians and these Essenes that we wonder if there was some overlap at first between the two groups. [8]

Acts tells us that Paul also has an encounter with such followers of John the Baptist's teaching when he comes to Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7). The book of Acts makes it very clear that John's baptism was not yet Christian baptism. Paul baptizes them in the name of Jesus and lays hands on them so that they receive the Holy Spirit as an element of the equation that John's baptism did not provide. Here we probably find hints of an important need in the early church to distinguish Christ followers from mere followers of John the Baptist.

John baptized with water, but Jesus with the Holy Spirit (cf. Mark 1:8). The Holy Spirit in Acts thus indicates that a person is truly "in," truly going to be saved from the coming judgment. We can build a case for a tension at Ephesus between the followers of Jesus and the followers of John the Baptist by adding to these hints from Acts the hints of the Gospel of John. According to tradition, the Gospel of John originated at Ephesus. Its portrayal of John the Baptist is fascinating in that it consistently downplays his significance. For example, the Gospel of John never actually mentions that Jesus submitted to baptism by John. Unlike Matthew 11:14, John the Baptist himself denies that he is Elijah in John 1:21. Only in John do we hear of John the Baptist's followers leaving him to follow Jesus while John is still alive and baptizing (John 1:37). All these hints probably add up to a group of followers of John the Baptist's teaching at Ephesus who had not, however, come to believe that Jesus was the Messiah.

[1] When it comes to this sort of analysis of the names and social status of individuals at Corinth, we should mention the pioneering work of Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2003), which rightly takes its place in the fifty books or so that one might read to master Paul's writings. It has recently been reassessed by After the First Urban Christians: The Social-Scientific Study of Pauline Christianity Twenty-Five Years Later (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2009). Another updated classic book in this area is Gerd Theissen's, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2004), edited by John Schuetz.

[2] We always struggle to know what to call these early believers. I will sometimes call them Christians, but this term often allows us to smuggle in our sense of a Christian as a religion separate from Judaism. Acts sometimes calls them "followers of the Way," but this term may very well have applied to Essenes as well, such as Apollos and the non-Christian followers of John the Baptist that Paul finds at Ephesus in Acts 18-19. We have opted for the non-biblical phrase "Christ-followers," by which we mean individuals who believed that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah, who were baptized in his name, and who were presumed to have received the Holy Spirit.

[3] We hear about this conflict in the Roman historian Suetonius (*). He says the arguments were over Chrestus, a misspelling of Christus, but most scholars conclude it probably is referring to Jesus Christ. It is not clear whether all the Jews of the city were expelled or only Christian Jews like Priscilla and Aquila.

[4] Roman citizens had three names: a praenomen, a nomen, and a cognomen. For example, if Paul's grandfather received citizenship from Julius Caesar, he would have received his praenomen and nomen from him. Paul's full name would thus be Gaius Julius Saulus or Gaius Julius Paulus. In this case, Erastus' full name might be Gaius Titius Justus.

[5] Perhaps in Galatians 4:13 he uses a word for "first time" that may imply he had visited Galatia more than once by the time he wrote this letter.

[6] A fact all the more significant in the overwhelmingly male oriented ancient world.

[7] In the document called the Community Rule.

[8] Just to mention a few, there is this common sense of following the Way of the Lord, the fact that the Essenes tended to share their possessions with one another as in Acts 2:44, a number of messianic Scriptures the Dead Sea Scrolls hold in common with the New Testament, the fact that writings like 1 and 2 Peter and Jude seem to reference 1 Enoch, which seems to have been Scripture to the Essenes, the fact that John the Baptist seems to have been celibate, common indictment of the temple and spiritualization of their own communities as temple communities, a common apocalyptic outlook in terms of angels, demons, and a coming conflict depicted in terms of Rome. There were also significant differences, not least Jesus' inclusion of sinners and apparent disregard for sabbath and purity matters. In these regards, Paul seems more in continuity with Jesus than Jesus' own brother, James, who later became leader of the Jerusalem church.


Richard Fellows said...


you point to an apparent contradiction in the data: Paul tells us that not many were of high social status, but we know of Gaius, Titius Justus, Stephanas, Crispus, Chloe, and Erastus. How do you explain this contradiction?

I argue that Stephanas (crowned) was Gaius Titius Justus renamed, and that Sosthenes was Crispus renamed. Also Chloe was surely an Ephesian who's people had visited Corinth. Chloe's people had given Paul an uncomplimentary report about the Corinthians. If chloe's people were part of the Corinthian church it would have been very untactful of Paul to reveal that they had given an unfavorable report about the church. Paul would want to protect his sources, not jeopardize their relationship with their own church.

So, on my reconstruction, Erastus was the only wealthy believer who was in Corinth at the time that 1 Corinthians was written (Crispus-Sosthenes, Gaius-Titius-Justus-Stephanas, and Chloe were in Ephesus at the time).

Anonymous said...


Good afternoon. That Paul says 'not many' were of high standing but evidence does point to some being of such status; this does not present a contradiction. With all due respect: it does not even present an apparent contradiction. Logically, if 'not many' were not, that necessarily implies that 'some' were. It would only be problematic if Paul had said that 'none' in Corinth were of high standing and yet some were.

When considered on a spectrum, with 'all' representing the spectrum itself, and a low-figure of 50 people comprising all of the Corinthian church, and if the 5 names you (initially) mentioned are distinct high standing individuals, then they only reflect 10% of the total population; thus, Paul's 'not many' is a realistic description and not contradictory.

While I am not Ken by any stretch (he is light years ahead of me), I do hope this helps you in some way.