You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘Roman Empire’ tag.

E. P. Sanders contended Judaism in the Second Temple period was not a religion of individual salvation (278). God made a covenant with the people of Israel and it is the people who will be preserved. The eschatology of Israel is a national eschatology rather than personal. What “future hopes” are found in the first century, they are hopes which concern the people of Israel as a whole rather than individuals.

Image result for romans monty python gifIt is likely most Jews longed for freedom from Rome. Even the line of Herod, which owed its power to Rome, would have preferred to have independence and self-rule. Rome was and ever-present reality in the politics of first century Palestine and freedom from Roman manipulation would have been the dream of Jews of every class and party. The problem is in defining that freedom: does that mean Rome is destroyed completely? Does that mean Rome rules Palestine but grants near-independence for Israel? Does Israel go back to Hasmonean rule? Would Rome be preferred to the Herodians? Hope for the future therefore ran from storing up arms for a time of revolt to praying quietly God will do something to change things. Some groups did not have much of a future hope (the Sadducees, for example), while others had a rather complex view of the near future, one in which they played a key role (the Essenes, for example).

Sanders observes these hopes were often expressed negatively, in the form of complaints, protests, and insurrections (280). There were people in the first century who were ready to fight Rome given the right circumstances. Josephus describes a “fourth philosophy” which he claims was founded by Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Sadducee in A.D. 6 (Antiq. 18.3-10, War 2.117f). When Archelaus was deposed, Rome sent a prefect to govern Judea. In order to organize and tax more efficiently, a census was ordered. Judas rallied some followers and fought against taxation because it represented foreign rule. His slogan was “no master but God,” a rather spiritual sounding phrase to be sure, but it is not exactly clear how “no master but God” gets worked out in the real world.  This “fourth philosophy” has been a bit of a mystery to historians, sometimes identified with the Zealots who started the war in 66 and were the last survivors of the war at Masada.

At least some of these Zealots were assassins, known as the Sicarii. There are problems with this identification, not the least of which is the 60 years between Judas and the War in which there is nothing said about the fourth philosophy or Zealots. Judas is not identified as a Zealot, and although there is a brief insurgency in 44, the idea of rebellion against Rome is unmentioned until the war actual breaks in 66. These revolutionary movements had one thing in common – they came at a time when the Roman Empire was not able to pay close attention to the back-water province of Judea. In A.D. 6 Archelaus was deposed and there was some question who would succeed him, another Herod or Roman rule. In 66 Nero was in his last days and was becoming more unstable. In 69 there were four emperors and the Roman Empire was distracted. It looked like a revolution might have a chance to succeed.

A more common method of protest for the Jews in this period was passive resistance. There were a number of points in century or so before the war when Jews demonstrated their willingness to die rather than allow something which transgressed their laws. For example, the protest against Pilate when he proposed to put Roman standards up in the Temple (War 2.169-174) and the protests made to Petronius when Caligula demanded his image be placed in the Temple (Antiq. 18.261-278). Nationalistic protests associated with the Temple sometimes erupted during Festivals in Jerusalem.

Between these two extremes (aggressive action against Rome and passive resistance even to death) is the belief that God or his representative will, at some point, intervene in history on behalf of his people. This view is represented in Qumran in the War Rule and in the Psalms of Solomon 17. Psalms of Solomon 17 looks forward to a Davidic messiah who will march on Jerusalem, banish the gentiles from the city, reassemble the tribes of Israel and establish the ideal kingdom (Sanders 285). The War Rule has similar hopes, but the only true Israel which is left is the sectarian community at Qumran. The messiah will lead them into Jerusalem and destroy the sinful Israelites (i.e. non-Qumran Essenes?) as well as the Gentiles.

It is God himself who will strike the blow against Rome, not individual revolutionaries. There were a number of other “messianic pretenders” in the first century who rallied a small number of followers with the hope of overthrowing Rome. The Romans dealt swiftly and violently with each of these leaders, but the hope of an imminent intervention by the Lord never died. Even while the Temple portico is burning a prophet told a crowd to go into the Temple to await help from God (J.W. 6.283, cf. 1.347).

The middle position, “ready to fight but hoping for a miraculous intervention” seems to represent a wide variety of groups including “hardcore calculating revolutionaries” and the more pacifist wing (Sanders 288). Perhaps when the times were not right for revolution and there was nothing to protest, everyone more or less harbored the hopes of this category.

I have posted on this topic before,  usually in the context of the book of Revelation. For example in this post I argued Revelation is a form of resistance literature offering an alternative way of looking at the power of Rome. On my recent tour of Roman cities in Asia Minor, I was struck by the prevalence of the imperial cult in the locations mentioned in Revelation. I knew there were imperial cult centers in most of these cities, but seeing the temple of Trajan at Pergamum made it clear the new Christian movement was in conflict with imperial propaganda from the beginning.

Image result for Caesar Nero divineRuler cults began and as expression of gratitude toward the monarch, rather than a way to get something out of him. At some point it was no longer possible to humanly honor a man without declaring him to be a god. Rome was not the only ancient culture to deify their king; Egypt considered the Pharaoh to be a god, an idea which may have been passed to the Ptolemies. Assyria and Babylon both considered their kings as gods by virtue of their office.

The most deeply held beliefs and practices in the Greco-Roman world were associated with civic cults. The reason for this is that a civic cult united the people around a particular god. For example, it was one’s civic duty to worship Artemis if one was a proper Ephesian. Since Alexander thought of the world as a community, only a single god could serve to unite all the peoples of the world. Augustus too recognized this, accepting divine honors in the east as a way to draw all the various peoples of the Roman Empire into a single imperial cult.

The Roman imperial cult is very much in the background of the New Testament, especially the book of Revelation. Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4. If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon. Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.

Imperial cult, Augustus

Augustus as Jove, holding scepter and orb (via Wikipedia)

Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome. Augustus is known in some inscriptions as CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar. Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue. Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor. As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.

In the 90s A.D., Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13) Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god. While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.Dio Cassius, Roman History 67.14 refers to Domitian exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.” Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitian liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.” Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble (Oratorio 45:1; First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15). It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor. The provincial cult was “an unprecedented attempt to build a network, rather than a center of provincial worship” (Beale, The Book of Revelation, 15).

How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor? Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira). At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C. The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “synagogue of Satan.” To reject the imperial cult was to reject the empire and appear to be as a traitor.

What happens when a resident of a Romanized city in Asia Minor accepts the good news that Jesus is Lord? How would impact participation in Greco-Roman culture? Could a Christian resident of Pergamum, for example, participate in civic festivals honoring Rome or an emperor as lord? Could they accommodate their new Christian belief with the imperial propaganda? More convicting, is there an application to modern political propaganda and the Christian faith?

 

 

Bibliography: Ethelbert Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1955).

Roman religious thought is characterized by the syncretic thinking of the Roman people. They had little imagination and largely assumed the Greek gods with new names. Zeus, for example, is Jupiter in Rome. The three key gods of Rome, Jupiter, Minerva and Juno, were honored as early as 500 B.C. with a temple in Rome.

  • Jupiter was a city / state-god, Iuppiter Capitolinus. Consuls were required to sacrifice upon entering office. When a young man first wore his toga virilis (toga of manhood) he sacrificed to Jupiter. The ludi Romani were devoted to him and the triumphal parade of a victorious general led to Iuppiter Capitolinus.
  • Minerva developed from a Sabine goddess, although she is roughly equivalent to Athena. She was a virgin goddess who became the patroness of crafts, warriors, poetry, medicine, wisdom, commerce, and the inventor of music.
  • Juno is Hera of Greek mythology, the wife and sister of Zeus. In early March she was honor with the festival of Matronalia, something of a mother’s day in which woman received gifts from husbands and daughters, and were to prepare the household meal.

Religion was administer by a collegia consisting of priests, although the priesthood was not a professional class. They were, however, the chief experts in matters of the gods. Religion in Rome was a matter of state, particularly in religious observance.

Zeus from Ephesus, A.D. 69-96

Zeus from Ephesus, A.D. 69-96

There are a number of important differences between Greco-Roman religions and modern religious practice. First, Religions in the Roman world were not usually exclusive. A person could devote himself to a particular god while recognizing other gods existed, or even worship various gods as needs arose.

Second, by the time of the Roman Empire, the identification of gods tended to reduce their numbers. Babylon and Egypt, for example, worship a wider variety of gods. The Greco-Roman trend was to reduce gods, blending multiple gods into a single deity. So, for example, all the “father gods” became Zeus. Although this seems like a trend toward monotheism, rarely would a Greek or Roman think in terms of a single god to the exclusion of all others.

Third, the Roman period tended to deify virtues, benefits, or abstract ideas, such as salvation (Salus) or liberty (Libertas), Luck (Tyche) and Fate (Moira). Even in Judaism, where monotheism was assumed, the angelic world was developed similar to the minor deity of the Greco-Roman world.

Fourth, the power of fate was very important in the early Empire. The idea of fate is critical to Stocism and was worshiped as a deity (Moira). Some religions developed, however, that claimed to have power over fate (Asclepius, Isis, Sarapis, for example). Since events were understood as somewhat “fixed” by fate, a belief in astrology became prominent. Astrology was rather technical, employing astronomy and mathematics.

Finally, morality was not closely tied to religion. Philosophy dealt with ethical matters, religion with the cultic ceremony. For example, there were few Greco-Roman writers who dealt with the religious problem of sin.

Once again, Christianity looks considerably different than most other religions in the Greco-Roman world. Although there were similarities to some mystery religions, the early Christians developed out of their Jewish foundations a distinctly different kind of religion in the Roman world.

Bibliography: Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds to the New Testament, 173-176.

Greco-Roman Religions might be considered “the competition” of early Christianity, but this is not a fair description of how religions functioned in the first century.

A Guardian lares

First, in the first century, religion was rarely a choice. A person owed worship to a god because of a civic or family obligation or because the god is associated with a trade. A person living in the Roman world would not even think in terms of “converting” from one god to another, since gods had various functions; motivations were purely practical.  If one was going to sea, one appeased sea gods. In fact, the idea of choosing to worship a particular god was the attraction of the mystery cult. One might become a worshiper of Mithras by choice, although obligated to also worship other gods.

“The family cult was also the natural point of departure for the veneration of the dead and of graves…At the end of the year, during the Parentalia (13-21 February) the dead of the household were collectively honored as divi parentu…. Food, salt, and wine were carried to the graves, which were decorated with flowers and wreaths. It is noteworthy that the Romans never transformed the cult of the di parentes into a cult of divine ancestors of the clan.” (Gladigow, 811)

Despite this, religious practice in the Roman could be personal. For example, the custom of honoring a sacred image by touching one’s hand to one’s lips (adorandi gratia manum labris admovere) not only in a temple but even when passing by a temple (ANRW 2/16/1: 579-80). But even this devotion was not required, there was no “proper liturgical practice.” This practice developed as an expression of gratitude alongside the generally obligatory sacra privata and sacra publica.

Prayers were a part of Roman religious practice. Some may sit at the feet of an image in prayer, telling their troubles to the god or goddess:

Propertius 2.28.46 I bind myself with a sacred verse against this wish: I write: ‘By Jupiter, the Mighty, the girl is saved’: having taken such pains, she herself can sit at your feet, and, sitting there, tell you all her troubles. (Translated by A. S. Kline).

Family prayers were more likely made to household gods rather than powerful gods like Zeus. For example, families would offering prayers of thanks to Penates, the god of the storeroom, for providing daily meals. The spirits of family ancestors (lares) could be honored at meals as well.

  • Janus: God of doorways
  • Forculus: protector of doors
  • Limentinus: guardian of the threshold
  • Cardea: goddess of the hinges
  • Vesta: goddess of the hearth
  • Potina: goddess of children’s drinks
  • Sentia: goddess of children’s mental development
  • Orbona: the goddess who granted new children to parents who had become childless

Christianity entered a world already full of gods and goddesses and announces the one and only God who created all things has acted on behalf of all humans through Jesus his son. Although based on its Jewish roots, Christianity was a radical view and therefore generated suspicion and anger.

 

Bibliography: Burkhard Gladigow, “Roman Religion,” ABD 5:809.

 

The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government. This is based on common idea from the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.

Paul therefore means the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority. By extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.

What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel against the government then?

impeach-obamaI think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question. No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Roman Senate. Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome really did provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the “Occupy Appian Way” movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.

Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  It was impossible for members of Paul’s churches to protest their emperor or hold up “Impeach Nero” signs in public.

Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century. They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government.  This is based on common idea in the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.  Paul therefore means that the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority.  Perhaps by extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

PowerBut most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.  I can hear many former students asking about life under an oppressive government that does not allow personal freedom or abuses citizens.  What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel and against the government then?

I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question.  No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Senate.  Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome did really provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.  Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  The young lady with the sign in this picture needs to realize that protesters did not burn Rome, Nero did!

Big-BrotherConsider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century.  They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing here in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

Paul describes himself in 3:1 as “Paul the Prisoner of Christ Jesus.”  Traditionally wrote Ephesians while he was under house arrest in Rome.  While house arrest was not exactly the same as being cast in the deepest dungeon in Rome, he was restricted from doing the kind of ministry he would have liked.  In addition, Paul’s appeal to Caesar may in fact go very badly and he could be executed.

The reader of Ephesians may have had some questions about Paul’s argument to this point.  If Jesus has in fact destroyed the authority of the principalities and powers, why is Paul in prison?  How could a “triumphant gospel” be reconciled with Paul’s current shame of house arrest?  If the power of Satan has indeed been broken, how could Paul, as God’s apostle to the Gentiles, find himself treated in this shameful way?

Paul’s answer is to simply point out that despite the fact that he is Rome’s prisoner, the gospel itself is not in prison.  He is in exactly the place where God wants him to be.  In fact, as Timothy Gombis points out in his Drama of Ephesians, God often uses the weak to accomplish his plan so as to highlight the fact that it is God’s victory, not ours (111-2).  Paul himself says in 1 Corinthians that God chooses the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.  If the gospel spreads throughout the Roman Empire, it will be by the power of God, not the power of Paul the Prisoner.

There are a number of words in this section which describe Paul’s Gospel in apocalyptic terms.  The fact that his gospel is a “mystery” which must be revealed may very well be allusions to apocalyptic literature like Daniel. There are several examples in that book of visions which need to be “unveiled” for the reader.  It is as if God is fulling a curtain back to in order to reveal what is going on behind the scenes.  In apocalyptic literature, the one who is reading the book cannot make sense of the vision until an interpreter makes the meaning of the vision clear.

Paul is describing himself as the one who is revealing the plan of God for the present age.  Specifically, God is creating a new person, a “body of Christ” which is made up of both Jew and Gentile without distinction.  There is no racial, class, or gender distinctions in this new body, nor does anyone have an advantage if they are Jewish, male, or free.  Even if a person is a Roman citizen with wealth and prestige, there is no advantage in the body of Christ.

Like the great apocalyptic texts of the Hebrew Bible, Ephesians 3:1-13 declares that God has a plan to redeem the world.  That plan was made in eternity past and God will most certainly bring that plan to completion.  Something as minor as the Roman Empire cannot possibly hope to hinder the Gospel!  I think that this is the sort of message which American Christians need to hear, since no modern “empire” can hope to hinder the gospel.

The transformed life ought to effect one’s relationship with government.  This is based on common idea in the Hebrew Bible that God ordains the rulers and the nations.  Since Paul is speaking about the Roman empire, it must mean that the Christian ought to obey even an evil government. Paul uses the same verb here in Romans 13 as he did in 8:7, with reference to submitting to the will of God.  Paul therefore means that the transformed believer must obey the government because it is God’s appointed authority.  Perhaps by extension, when you obey the government, you obey God.

But most people immediately ask: if that government abuses its power and rules unjustly, is it then appropriate for a Christian to rebel to change that government?  Usually Christians will say they will obey the government insofar as the government commands that are not contrary to God’s commands.  I can hear many former students asking about life under an oppressive government that does not allow personal freedom or abuses citizens.  What if the government restricts my personal freedom?  What if the government wants to take my guns away?  What if the government permits same-sex marriage, abortion, or the use of marijuana?  What if the government were to be controlled by Islam and Sharia law is imposed on us?  Should we rebel and against the government then?

I think it is critically important to realize that in the first century, no member of Paul’s congregation would have ever asked this question.  No one would have plotted the fall of the Roman empire, nor would a Roman Guy Fawkes attempt to blow up the Senate.  Rome really did bring peace to the world and Rome did really provide services which raised the social and economic fortunes of everyone.  No one would have considered joining the Occupy Wall Street movement to protest the outrageous economic practices of the Roman Empire, nor (in the interest of being fair and balanced), would anyone dream of complaining about their taxes and joined the Tea Party.  Those categories simply do not exist in the first century, and if they did, Rome would have silenced them with extreme prejudice!  The young lady with the sign in this picture needs to realize that protestors did not burn Rome, Nero did!

Consider what the Roman empire was like in the mid-first century.  They did oppress people, the enslaved millions, they promoted the worship of every god imaginable, and they imposed their religious laws on everyone.  Infanticide was practiced and homosexual relationships were permitted (although nothing like gay marriage really existed).  Paul does not add any sort of condition to the command to obey the established government, despite the fact that the Roman government was one of the most oppressive regimes in history!

I do not read anything in Romans 13 or in Paul’s relationship with Rome that sounds anything like a protest against the government.   Paul’s method for dealing with social ills was far more subtle than mass protests – and much more effective.  He told the church to fix the problems themselves by caring for the poor, the widow, the orphan.  There is nothing here in Romans 13 which would support the overthrow of Rome, either in the first century or the twenty-first.

The issue in Second Corinthians was not a doctrinal problem or a theological dispute, it appears rather than an individual in the church has attacked Paul personally. The double reference in 7:12  an injustice shows that the issue was a disaffection between fellow Christians.  Paul appears to have been so angry over this dispute that he could not even travel to Corinth to discuss it face to face.

The problems stem from a single individual as the primary reason for the disagreement (2:5, 6, 7, 8, 10; 7:12 all speak of a specific person, most clearly in the last 7:12). The problem was serious enough that Paul changed his travel plans and instead wrote the “tearful letter” (1:23; 2:1, 3, 4; 7:8).   In fact, the attitude of  one individual was so serious that it poisoned the life of the entire church (2:5). It is remarkable how even a single individual can destroy what should be a unified body of believers!

Who is this person that opposed Paul so strongly and was put out of the church? The key term here is ἀδικέω in 2 Cor 7:12.  Someone has harmed Paul in a very real way, but the damages may very well be to reputation and honor rather than physical harm.  The verb is used in Philemon 18 to refer to the damages which Onesimus might have caused when he left Philemon’s service.

Most commonly, the man is identified as the incestuous man from 1 Corinthians 5.  In 2:9 and 7:12 Paul refers to the fact that he has already written to the church about the man, and we know from 1 Cor that Paul did in fact recommend that the man be expelled from the congregation.  There is a connection between 1 Cor 5 (hand him over to Satan) and this passage, and it is very appealing to read this as saying that the incestuous man repented and returned to the church a changed man.

A second set of suggestions focus on the situation in 1 Corinthians 6.  People were suing one another in the courts over internal “family” matters which ought to have been handled by the church.  It may be that an individual in the church disagreed with Paul so strongly that he entered the courts and tried to overturn Paul’s “rulings” that we find in 1 Corinthians.  It is shocking that a church dispute could have spilled over into the courts, but in the Roman world a perceived insult often did result in a lawsuit.

Perhaps there is a public attack on Paul’s ministry and authority in the background here, so severe that Paul must break off travel plans to the church.  There is some speculation that the attack took place in front of Timothy or Titus, or even that Titus was the object of the attack. Whatever the attack was, it is interpreted by Paul as “an act of flagrant disobedience and revolt” (Suggested by C. K. Barrett, cited in Martin, 2 Corinthians, 34). This could include the party within the church that supported the incestuous man, or simply an attack on Paul’s authority as an apostle.  Because the church has dealt with the problem, Paul feels that at least one hindrance to reconciliation is out of the way, he can return to Corinth now that the insult to him has been removed from the congregation.

It is quite remarkable to me that the church of the first century was so fragmented that someone might bring a lawsuit over a doctrinal issue or a leader’s decision, even if that leader is the Apostle Paul!  This is yet another example of the culture of Corinth warping the church which God established.  The members of the church are still thinking like Romans not Christians.

There appear to have been problems with Christians within the church suing each other in a court of law rather than dealing with the matter “within the family” (6:1-8).  We are not told what the content of the lawsuits might be, but it is possible that these are lawsuits the results of perceived insults by members of the “parties” within the church.  Perhaps a member of the Paul group insulted a member of the Peter group, who responded as any good Roman would by making a lawsuit against the offender.  Imagine a typical argument in a classroom which spills over into Facebook insults which then results in a lawsuit, a counter lawsuit, and a major clash in a court of law.  really, imagine that.

As strange as it sounds, this is the sort of thing which happened in the Roman world.  Dio Chrysostom reports that the Roman word of the late first century was filled with “lawyers innumerable, twisting judgments.” (Cited by Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 62). These lawsuits were politically motivated, between members of the rich and elite class (or want-to-be elite.)  These lawsuits were opportunity for young orators to show off their rhetorical talents before the elite citizens (the judge, magistrate, jurors, etc.)

Paul’s solution to the problem is to “shame” them for suing their brothers.  Shame is an important factor in first century personal politics.  Paul says twice in this letter that he desires to put the church to shame over some behaviors (here and drunkenness in chapter 11.)  If the lawsuits were motivated by a perceived loss of honor in the first place, Paul turns a popular expectation upside down by saying that it is a loss of honor for a Christian to take his brother to court.

This therefore is the “shame”:  they are suing family members.  Paul frequently refers to his readers as “brothers” to emphasize that the Church is a new family rather than a social club.  A person is not suing some stranger who has insulted them, they are suing brothers.  The Romans did not approve of intra-family lawsuits, therefore Paul is emphasizing brotherhood of the believers.

Paul does not recommend going through a private arbitrator to solve disputes, as was the right of citizens.  He says that they church ought to be able to deal with such disputes within the family. There are people within the congregation, presumably, that are styling themselves as orators, and all of the citizens would be familiar with the process of arbitration.  Paul is saying that the church ought to function like a family, brothers dealing with one another with “strife and discord.”

In fact, of one were really living out the teaching of Jesus there would be no need to sue over a perceived insult.  The brother forgives his brother.  Given the cultural background above, this is counter-cultural and radical!

How do we “bridge the gap” and apply this sort of teaching in a modern, local church context?  At the very least, the church needs to return to the truth than all members of the Body of Christ are brothers and that it is a loss of honor to treat a family member like a stranger.  This alone would have a positive effect on the local church.

Follow Reading Acts on WordPress.com

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 3,706 other followers

My book Jesus the Bridegroom is now available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle

Christian Theology

%d bloggers like this: