Why Were Aquila and Priscilla Forced to Leave Rome?

When Paul arrives in Corinth he meets Aquila and Priscilla, Jews who had been expelled from Rome by Claudius. In A.D. 49, the emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome because of continued “rioting over Chrestus,” likely a Latinized christos, or messiah in Hebrew. The most likely explanation is that Jews who had been under that Apostolic teaching in Jerusalem had returned to Rome and brought the message of Jesus as Messiah to the synagogues of Rome (Suetonius Life of Claudius, 25.4; cited from Pervo, Acts, 446).

[Claudius] “expelled Jews from Rome because they were generating incessant unrest through the instigation of Chrestus

Iudaeos impulsore Chresto assidue tumultantis Roma expulit.

Almost every detail of this expulsion can be disputed. First, with respect to the date of the decree, Dio Cassius (60.6.6) says in A.D. 41 Claudius put restrictions on Jews meeting together. The same year a delegation (which included the well-known Jewish philosopher Philo) petitioned the emperor on behalf of the Jews of Alexandria.

Jews living in Rome had come into conflict with the government before. In 139 B.C. they were expelled for “corrupting Roman morals” (Valerius Maximus, Facta et dicta memorabilia, 1.3.3) and again in A.D. 19 because they were “flocking to Rome” and converting many (Dio Cassius 57.18.5). This makes the expulsion in A.D. 49 plausible, although what Suetonius meant by Chrestus is not at all clear.

The second problem is the name (or title) Chrestus. The common view is that Suetonius has misunderstood the Greek term Christos, thinking there was a person with this name who was stirring up these riots. Occasionally a writer will suggest that there was another messianic figure active in Rome with the name Chrestus, but this seems unlikely (Keener, Acts, 3:2709). As Keener shows, the use of Chrestian (rather than Christian) does appear “often” for the earliest followers of Jesus (3:2710).

Third, it is virtually impossible he would have expelled all Jews from Rome. Although many commentaries will point this out as an historical inaccuracy, it is quite typical of Luke’s literary style to use “all” where a modern writer might use “many” or “a great number.” For example, 13:44 “almost the whole city” turns out to hear Paul preach in the synagogue at Psidian Antioch.

Exile was normally a punishment for individuals (Keener, Acts, 3:2699). Keener also suggests the expulsion is plausible since Claudius revived some of the older forms of Roman religion. The Jews were always under suspicion because they practiced a superstitious eastern cult. Rome also banished astrologers from Italy in A.D. 52 (Tacitus, Annals, 12.52.3). At best, the ringleaders responsible for the unrest would be forced to leave the city of Rome.

What is important is Aquila and Priscilla were ordered to leave Rome as Jews, but they are Jewish Christians. From Rome’s perspective there is not much difference between Jews and Christians, they really the same thing.

Early followers of Jesus like Aquila and Priscilla may have heard the gospels as early as Pentecost. If they returned to Rome and argued in the synagogue that Jesus was the Christ, it is entirely possible the reaction was similar to the reaction against Paul several times in Acts. As with Stephen and Paul, the preaching of Jesus as the messiah in the synagogue met with some success, but often as not there was a zealous and violent response. While this is a speculation, it would seem reasonable that preaching Jesus as Messiah in a Roman synagogue would result in a similar reaction.

Acts 18 – What Went Wrong in Corinth?

The city of Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city in the middle part of the first century. (Was Corinth more sinful than other Roman cities? Click the link for my comments about that longstanding misunderstanding of history, as well as a followup comment from a read.) It was economically stable, attracting a wide range of businesses from all over the Empire. Paul established the church in this city for this very reason. Once Christianity takes hold in Corinth, the local churches themselves can continue the mission of spreading the gospel throughout the region.

In choosing as one of his main missionary centers a city in which only the tough were reputed to survive, Paul demonstrated a confidence oddly at variance with his protestations of weakness. Corinth, however, offered advantages that outweighed its dangers. In addition to excellent communications, the extraordinary number of visitors (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 37.8; Aelius Aristides, Or. 46.24) created the possibility of converts who would carry the gospel back to their homelands. In contrast to the closed complacency of Athens, Corinth was open and questioning, eager for new ideas but neither docile nor passive, as Paul’s relationship with the Christian community there amply documents (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1138).

Yet of all of Paul’s churches, this one seems to have had the most difficulties assimilating Christianity and their culture.

CorinthThe books of 1 and 2 Corinthians deal with a number of problems that arose after Paul left the city.  Why did Paul not deal with them as a part of his regular training of new believers and church leaders?  What happened in Corinth that brought these particular problems to the forefront only after Paul left the city?

The thesis of Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth is that after Paul left the city the church began to explore how Christianity interacted with their Greco-Roman culture and social relationships.  Their culture was a thoroughly Roman world-view, but it was also a world-view in flux.

There were several de-stabilizing factors in first century Corinth.

First, the institution of yearly festivals in the imperial cult.  Participation in these festivals was something a Roman citizen would have associated with loyalty to Rome, a loyalty that the citizens of Corinth took very seriously.

Second, the Isthmian Games were based in Corinth, and there is evidence that when the games were celebrated the President of the games hosted a festival for Corinthians who were Roman citizens.  In 8:9 there is a reference to having the “freedom” to eat; the Greek word is “authority,” or perhaps “right” to eat.  Paul may be referring to these sort of elite social connections that some in the church had the right/freedom to participate in.  Can a Christian really participate in this meal as a follower of Christ?

Third, Winter cites evidence that there were three severe grain famines in the first century that effected Corinth.  There are ten inscriptions from Paul’s time that honor the “superintendent of the grain.”  This office had the power to manage grain sales in an effort to keep prices down and supply flowing.  This could involve a taxation system that paid for grain for the poor, or even a flooding of the market with grain in order to drive prices down.  Even rumors of famine were enough to cause riots and generally de-stabilize an economy.

Last, the most difficult issues revolved around Roman cultural and social practices.  In 1 Cor 3:3 Paul says that the church is “still worldly,” literally that they are thinking like the people of Corinth, not the people of God. The Christians in Corinth failed to see how the Roman world impacted their life in Christ.

Does this cultural background help us understand “what happened” in Corinth? Why did the church mis-handle so many of the challenges to their new faith in Christ?  Is the Corinthian experience much different than Christianity in the modern West?

Bibliography: Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).

Acts 18:1-4 – Paul in Corinth

As usual, Paul attends the synagogue meetings in the city and argues that Jesus is the Messiah.  This ministry is more successful when Silas and Timothy catch up to Paul, allowing him to devote himself to preaching. It is as a result of this synagogue ministry that there is another “rejection” of the Jews, parallel to Acts 13 and 28.  Paul declares that from that time on he will go to the Gentiles, as he did in Acts 13 as well.

Two key converts are mentioned – Titius Justus, a god-fearing Gentile and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue (See the comments for Richard Fellow’s view on Crispus and Sosthenes).  A third convert is implied in Romans 16:23 – Erastus, the “director of public works” (NIV) or city treasurer. It is unusual for Paul to identify a person by title like this, but this is an important title (Theissen, 76) What makes this person of particular significance is that in 1929 an inscription was discovered honoring Erastus, identified as the aedilis of Corinth, a title normally translated by the Greek agoranomos. The title given in Romans is that of oikonomos of the city. While this is not exactly equivalent, it is close enough that many have made the connection between this convert in Romans 16:23 and the city manager of Corinth in the mid-50’s.

Erastus Inscription from Corinth

Erastus Inscription from Corinth (January 2019)

Paul may have been concerned that his success would breed a violent back-lash from the synagogue, as it had in Thessalonica. In fact, Paul has seen this happen before.  The normal pattern is for him to enter the synagogue and face serious persecution.  He is not afraid for his own life, in fact, he seems more than willing to suffer physically for the Gospel.

1 Cor 2:3-4 indicates that Paul was afraid his ministry was destined for failure.  He does not yet know of the fate of the Thessalonican believers, perhaps even Berea is unknown to him.  Athens likely did not result in a church.  Will Corinth go just as badly?  Yet in 1 Cor 2, Paul claims that any success in Corinth was based solely on the the power of the Holy Spirit, not his own rhetorical ability.

1 Corinthians 2:3-4 I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power.

In Acts 18:9-10 Luke tells us that Paul has a vision in which the Lord tells Paul that he will not be harmed in the city of Corinth and that there are many people in the city that are “the Lord’s.”  There are three short, related commands: Do not fear, continue to speak, and do not be silent.

If these commands reflect Paul’s mood prior to Silas and Timothy’s return, then it is possible that Paul considered, like Jeremiah before him, do remain silent and not open himself up to further persecution (Jer 20:7-12).  Like Jeremiah, Paul cannot keep the Gospel to himself, he must be what he is, the light to the Gentiles.  Even if this means he will be persecuted.  This vision encourages him to continue, since his Gospel message will be received in Corinth.

He will remain in the city 18 months, Paul’s longest place of ministry since his commission from Antioch in Acts 13.

Bibliography:

H. J. Cadbury, “Erastus of Corinth” JBL 50 (1931) 42–58; J. Murphy-O’Connor, “The Corinth That Saint Paul Saw” BA 47 (1984) 147–59; Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity. Essays on Corinth (Philadelphia:  Fortress, 1982); Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001)

Acts 18 – Corinth as “Sin City”

Sin City LogoI visited Corinth in January, and the leader of the tour made a big deal out of Corinth’s reputation as a “sin city” in the first century. He repeated the usual evidence along with the evidence from 1 Corinthians. I tried to object this was a “classic Pastor’s preaching point,” but he totally disagreed with me and went back to his lurid description of first century Corinth. Sometimes Corinth is described as a “San Francisco of the ancient world.”  I think Chuck Swindoll said this, so many pastors in the 1980s picked it up and tried to illustrate how bad Paul’s church was by comparing it to Haight-Ashbury circa 1967 or Las Vegas (“what happens in Corinth stays in Corinth”?)

This is one of those points that gets picked up in popular commentaries and repeated with little additional research. This salacious description makes for good preaching, but it is not exactly accurate.

Usually the evidence for this sexual freedom is that the city was built around two ports and attracted sailors. In addition, there is usually some reference to the temple of Aphrodite with 2000 prostitutes.  While the reputation is deserved, it has little to do with the city that Paul visited – all of these sorts of things were true of Greek Corinth, almost 400 years prior to the time of Paul!  I cite Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:

Such success inevitably provoked the envy of those less fortunate in their location and less industrious in their habits, and so in the 5th–4th centuries b.c., Athenian writers made Corinth the symbol of commercialized love. Aristophanes coined the verb korinthiazesthai, “to fornicate” (Fr. 354).  Philetaerus and Poliochus wrote plays entitled Korinthiastes, “The Whoremonger” (Athenaeus 313c, 559a). Plato used korinthia kore, “a Corinthian girl,” to mean a prostitute (Rest. 404d). These neologisms, however, left no permanent mark on the language, because in reality Corinth was neither better nor worse than its contemporaries. (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1135).

SinCity

In fact, the whole Roman empire at the time Paul visited the Corinth had sexual morals significantly different than those of the Jews and the early Christians. Corinth was no less moral that Ephesus or Thessalonica. This is not to say that the city of Corinth was virtuous, no one was singing “I Wish They Could All Be Corinthian Girls.” Perhaps it is better to think of the Greco-Roman world as having a radically different sexual ethic as Christianity.  The type of sexual morality Paul’s gospel demands simply cut across the grain of the culture of the Greco-Roman world, as it should in the modern world.

When we teach that the Corinthian believers struggled with a culture that was oppose to Christianity in this way, we someone imply that things were better in Ephesus or Rome.  That is absolutely not the case!  All Christians struggled to relate this new faith to the culture in which they live, in A.D. 55 Corinth or modern America.

In fact, I think the problem in Corinth was not that the city was ‘sinful,” but that the church had members who were wealthy and powerful.  The problems reflected in the letters to the Corinthians are not the result of living in a city full of sinners who tempting the pure-at-heart Christians. The real problem was Christians insisting on living as wealthy powerful members of the Greco-Roman world, not as humble servants of other believers in Christ.

If we are going to accurately preach Corinthians, we need to stop relating the city of Corinth to San Francisco or Las Vegas. Rather, we need to start comparing the church at Corinth to the (wealthy, politically powerful) American church.

Acts 18 – Corinth in the First Century

Paul’s ministry in Corinth is his biggest success up to this point in Paul’s missionary career.  The Romans founded a colony on the site of ancient Corinth in 44 B.C.  The new city of Corinth was populated by freed slaves ( Strabo (8.136) cf., Appian (Hist 8.136)).  Socially this means that the new population has been given freedom, a fresh start, and the opportunity to advance far beyond what they might have hoped for as slaves.

Temple of Apollo at Corinth (January 2019)

The town was laid out in the Roman style, completely ignoring the layout of the old city, although the forum follows the outline of the old agora.  The cardo (main street)  cut through the old city.  All of the architecture and design reflected the Roman style, not Greek.  Even the Greek temples were “modernized” after the fashion of the Romans, including an imperial cult temple overlooking the forum.   The foundations of the temple were higher than the other temples, even that of Apollo.  Clearly the settlers were making it clear that Corinth was to be a Roman city, loyal to the Empire rather than the memory of the Greek city of Corinth.

The buildings for the Isthmia Games were done in a Roman style and Roman games were added to the Greek contests. The first Isthmian Games of New Corinth were held sometime between 7 B.C. and A.D. 3. in honor of L. Castricius Regulus, who had re-built the athletic facilities of Corinth.  Regulus offered a banquet to all the inhabitants of city to honor the games.  These games are important to an understanding of the problems of the Corinthian letters since the games were not simply athletic events.  They were dedicated to the gods, the chief of which was the Roman Emperor Nero himself. It was in the A.D. 50’s that the city of Corinth was honored with an Imperial Cult center.  This is a major factor in Paul’s arrest and hearing before Gallio.

It is the combination of the games and imperial cult that put enormous pressure on the Corinthian church.  The whole city would have participated in the banquets honoring the Roman Emperor, the elite of the city would be invited to the most important banquet honoring the Emperor as a god.  There are both political and spiritual aspects to consider in refusing to attend this meal or social events like it.

The city of Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city in the middle part of the first century.  It was economically stable, attracting a wide range of businesses from all over the Empire. Paul established the church in this city for this very reason.  Once Christianity takes hold in Corinth, the local churches themselves can continue the mission of spreading the gospel throughout the region.  Yet of all of Paul’s churches, this one seems to have had the most difficulties assimilating Christianity and their culture.  For this reason Corinth is probably the church of the New Testament that is most like the modern church.

In choosing as one of his main missionary centers a city in which only the tough were reputed to survive, Paul demonstrated a confidence oddly at variance with his protestations of weakness. Corinth, however, offered advantages that outweighed its dangers. In addition to excellent communications, the extraordinary number of visitors (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 37.8; Aelius Aristides, Or. 46.24) created the possibility of converts who would carry the gospel back to their homelands. In contrast to the closed complacency of Athens, Corinth was open and questioning, eager for new ideas but neither docile nor passive, as Paul’s relationship with the Christian community there amply documents (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1138)

What are the potential implications for modern mission strategy?  Paul targeted one of the most modern of the urban centers in the world at the time.  Should this speak to where we plant churches?  How we plant churches?

Acts 18 – Success Breeds Jealousy

After several very difficult experiences in Philippi and Thessalonica and an unfruitful visit to Athens, Paul finally experiences some good success in Corinth. After preaching in the synagogue he establishes a church that includes several key converts. Luke lists Titius Justus, a god-fearing Gentile and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue.  Both of these were leaders in the synagogue and would have been valuable to Paul as leaders in a new church. A third convert is implied in Romans 16:23 – Erastus, the “director of public works” (NIV) or city treasurer. If Erastus was a convert at this time he would have brought some wealth and prestige to the church. In addition to these converts, Aquilla and Priscilla were in Corinth and eventually the teacher Apollos

art-thou-jealous-muchPaul may have been concerned his success would breed a violent back-lash from the synagogue, as it had in Thessalonica. In fact, Paul has seen this happen before.  The normal pattern is for him to enter the synagogue and face serious persecution.  He is not afraid for his own life, in fact, he seems more than willing to suffer physically for the Gospel.

1 Cor 2:3-4 indicates that Paul was afraid his ministry was destined for failure.  He does not yet know of the fate of the Thessalonican believers, perhaps even Berea is unknown to him.  Athens likely did not result in a church.  Will Corinth go just as badly?  Yet in 1 Cor 2, Paul claims that any success in Corinth was based solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, not his own rhetorical ability.

In Acts 18:9-10 Luke tells us that Paul has a vision in which the Lord tells Paul that he will not be harmed in the city of Corinth and that there are many people in the city that are “the Lord’s.”  There are three short, related commands: Do not fear, continue to speak, and do not be silent.

If these commands reflect Paul’s mood prior to Silas and Timothy’s return, then it is possible that Paul considered, like Jeremiah before him, to remain silent and not open himself up to further persecution (Jer 20:7-12).  But like Jeremiah, Paul cannot keep the Gospel to himself, he must be what he is, the light to the Gentiles.  Even if this means he will be persecuted.  This vision encourages him to continue, since his Gospel message will be received in Corinth. He will remain in the city 18 months, Paul’s longest place of ministry since his commission from Antioch in Acts 13.

An important observation here is Paul’s success was met with increased jealousy and persecution. Paul was obedient to his calling yet he was still suffering. Why is this? To what extent is Luke describing a successful ministry as a persecuted ministry? Compared to what some modern Christians seem to think, this is the opposite of what to expect. Yet for Paul, suffering confirmed he was doing exactly what God called him to do.

1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – Praying with Heads Covered

Nero as Priest

William M. Ramsay on cites Dio Chrysostom to the effect that the custom of women going veiled in Tarsus was an oriental and non-Greek custom, Paul is merely reflecting his own (Jewish) background by requiring women wear head coverings (The Cities of St. Paul, 201-5).  Because of the popularity of Ramsey’s works on Paul, this theory is often repeated in modern commentaries, but it seems odd that Paul would impose this one Jewish custom on congregations when he frees them from so many other Jewish customs.

The application of this rather obscure command is usually some vague platitude that women should be dressed modestly.  If the culture includes head coverings in this then the woman ought to not offend the culture.  No one ever points out that if this is the true application, then a woman visiting a culture which is comfortable with public nudity is free to “fit right in” when they visit the beach!

I seriously doubt that modesty is the issue Paul is trying to get at in 1 Corinthians 11.  There is clear evidence in the Greco-Roman world of prostitutes wearing head coverings.  There are several artistic representations of groups of women with or without head coverings.  There is simply no evidence that head coverings were universal in the Greco-Roman world!

Based on his study of Roman statues, D. W. J. Gill has argued that it was a Roman convention to cover the head while praying or offering a libation. There are two well-known statues from Corinth, one of Nero and one of Augustus with their heads veiled. It was the leader of a prayer or sacrifice that would cover their heads, the congregation (if any) would not necessarily do so. Gill argues that the social elite in Corinth also practiced head covering while praying or participating in a sacrifice. Since the passage in 1 Cor 11 seems to cover the whole congregation, perhaps it is only the prophets who are speaking in the congregation that are covering their heads while prophesying (in 14:29 only two or three ought prophesy).

The problem in Corinth is that the Christians are (continuing) to take their cues for worship from the pagan world.  They are worshiping in the same way that they would have in a pagan rite, Paul is rejecting this mixing of the world with the Church.

If the problem that is at the heart of the veiling of men / unveiling of women is taking worship cues from the pagan world, then there is a most serious application possible.  How far we want to take this application is quite controversial, from the mega-church movement to modern praise and worship services, it is possible that the American church has taken its cues from the pagan world rather than from the Bible.  The modern American church seems to be following MTV rather than the NIV.

There is always a tension between cultural relevancy for the sake of evangelism and participating in the world because we enjoy it.  It is possible that is what was happening in Corinth.  The members of the church of Corinth were routinely acting like the world without taking into consideration how their new Christian world view speaks to a practice (sexual mores, lawsuits, feasts and banquets at temples, etc.)

The veiling of women / men may seem like a minor problem to use (“it’s just cultural”) but that misses the whole point.  If these people were indistinguishable from the world in their worship, how were they going to effectively evangelize their culture?

Bibliography:

D. W. J. Gill, “The Importance of Roman Portraiture for Head-coverings in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16,” Tyndale Bulletin 41 (1990): 246-60.
C. T. Thompson, “Hairstyles, Headcoverings, and St. Paul: Portraits from Roman Corinth” BA (1988): 99-115.