Gluttons and Drunks in the Church – 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Drunken SatyrWhen he writes to the Corinthians, Paul must correct the church because of of their behavior at private banquets (6:12-20). The issue here is going to banquets given by the rich and elite of the city. There is a great deal of evidence concerning the types of things that went on at a Roman banquet of the first century from contemporary writers.

Bruce Winter gathers a number of references from Plutarch describing the combination of gluttony, drunkenness and sexual immorality that were a part of the “after-dinners” as he calls them. There was an association between gluttony and sexual excess, as is seen from the well known saying reported by Plutarch, “in well-gorged-bodies love (passions) reside.” The writer Athenaeus said that the goddess Cypris (Aphrodite) does not visit the poor, “in an empty body no love of the beautiful can reside.” Plutarch also said that in “intemperate intercourse follows a lawless meal, inharmonious music follows a shameless debauch” (Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 84).

These banquets would only have been attended by the rich elite of the city of Corinth. The poor were not invited, only those of some social standing. In Corinth there was a major city-wide banquet for all citizens celebrating the games. Not only would there have been pressure to attend these banquets on a social level, there was the added pressure of begin a good citizen of Corinth and of Rome.

These sorts of banquets are in the background of 1 Corinthians. Members of the church are not visiting brothels as we might think of it today. They are attending meals with the elite of Corinth, either hosted in the home of a wealthy patron of the city or in a temple. The practice was considered not only acceptable, but in some cases required for social mobility. If one wanted to gain the favor of a wealthy patron in order to advance a business plan, then attendance at a banquet hosted by the patron was a necessity.

Why would the Corinthian Christians think that they had a right to participate in these banquets? Paul seems to have taught them that Christians are to be separate from such activities, and the strong Jewish ethic of many of the founders would have argued against going to a temple, eating food sacrificed to idols, and participating in the “after-dinners.”

It appears at the very least that some Gentile converts to Christianity did not see this kind of activity as “sin.” As with most of the problems Paul treats in 1 Corinthians, the congregation was slow to de-paganize and think about these behaviors through the lens of their new faith. The practice of going to temples to share meals with the elite of Corinth was socially desirable for the wealthy (and “wanna-be” elite). Perhaps individuals in the church thought they had to do their civic duty by doing to the banquets (a virtue) and did not yet see the additional practices as a vice yet.

This is a very challenging point for contemporary church life. While I do not think that many evangelical Christians are participating in civic orgies, we do seem to tolerate immoral actions among those who are elite citizens (or think that they are elite). A very obvious application is attitudes towards people in public office. The ones who agree with our politics are held to a far less rigorous moral standard than those we disagree with. It does not take too long to think of many examples if this sort of thing.

What are the sorts of behaviors that are accepted (or forbidden) by local congregations in order to better fit into contemporary culture?

Lawsuits in the Church – 1 Corinthians 6:1-8

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.

Frivolous LawsuitAs 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.”

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.

Turning from Idols to Serve the True God (1 Thessalonians 1:9)

What was the social setting of the church at Thessalonica?  John Pollhill has a good summary of the usual arguments for the church being primarily Gentile (Paul and His Letters. 185). But this is problematic because Acts tells us the congregation was formed after a period of time teaching in the Synagogue. In addition, Jews stirred up trouble for Paul out of jealousy, presumably because of his success in their synagogue.

The argument the recipients of the letters are Gentiles rests on three observations. First, they are said to have turned “to God from idols.” Paul would not describe a Jewish convert as “turning from an idol.” Second, 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 describes some sexual ethics problems in the church. This would be more typical of a Gentile congregation than Jewish. Third, Paul does not quote from the Old Testament in 1 Thessalonians implying a primarily Gentile church which would not be expected to resonate with biblical quotations or subtle allusions to the Hebrew Bible.

If the church is primarily Gentile, where did they come from? If the Gentile converts were God-fearers from the synagogue, then it is also unlikely they could be described as having turned from idols. In addition, a Gentile God-fearer might be expected to know as much of the Hebrew Bible as a Jewish person. The fact the second letter is laced with allusions to the Hebrew Bible makes me think there are other reasons for the lack in 1 Thessalonians. Paul was only in the city for a short time and there is no reference to evangelism in the marketplace, but he may have made contacts there which Luke chose not to report in the book of Acts.

Roman Coin, the goddess Roma

I think the answer goes back to the persecution faced by the church. If they are persecuted for “rejecting Rome,” perhaps some of the “prominent people” Luke mentions in Acts 17:4 left the Christian church and returned to the synagogue, or to secular life. Those who remained “turned from idols,” specifically, imperial Roman cult. See this post on the charges against Paul, he was “turning the world upside down.”

Peter Oakes makes a similar point.  He says “Christian failure to honour the gods would have included central Roman deities such as Jupiter, but also the deified Caesars” (p. 309).  Someone like Jason was able to use wealth and power to deal with the court system in the city, so there is at least an implication that he was wealthy and connected politically.  Perhaps Jason or other wealthy persons had left the church by the time Paul writes (suggested by Adolf Deissmann, c.f., Malherbe, 65).

Was there an Imperial Cult center at Thessalonica? Oakes observes that no remains of an imperial cult site have been found at Thessalonica because very little of ancient Thessalonica has been excavated. But the city was a provincial capital and the presence of an imperial cult can be seen in early coinage that called Caesar God (p. 308). Even if there was no cult temple, the city of Thessalonica was thoroughly Roman.

In Acts 17, Luke reported the charges against Paul as “preaching another king besides Caesar.” If the church continued preaching Paul’s gospel, then the Gentile converts would have certainly found themselves in a difficult political and social position.

Bibliography: Peter Oakes, “Remapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians,” JSNT 27 (2005): 301-22.

Book Review: Ben Witherington, Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian

Witherington III, Ben. Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 194 pgs., Pb.; $20.00 Link to IVP

This new novel by Ben Witherington III is similar to both Paula Gooder’s Phoebe (IVP Academic, 2019) and the Week in the Life series also published by IVP Academic. Witherington is well known from his many commentaries and other scholarly work, but he has written several novels (A Week in the Life of Corinth (IVP Academic 2012) and the five volumes of the Art West series (The Lazarus Effect, Wipf & Stock, 2008) written with his wife Ann Witherington.

Priscilla is similar in format to the Week in the Life series in that there are numerous illustrations throughout the text. Almost all of these photographs are from wikicommons. There are no sidebars like the Week in the Life series, making the text easier to read. Most chapters begin with a quote from Scripture or some contemporary Roman writer.

The novel introduces Prisca at the end of her life reflecting on her experiences in Rome and Corinth. At the insistence of her daughter Julia she dictates her memories beginning from Pentecost. Since there are no details in the New Testament of Prisca’s life, Witherington must create a likely story to draw the reading into the world of early Christianity and first-century Rome. Both Priscilla and Aquila were present at Pentecost, but their marriage was not arranged until they had returned to Rome. Witherington follows the common suggestion that Priscilla was from a higher social class than Aquila, in fact she was a citizen in this novel. They are active in Roman synagogues, resulting in public disputes over who Jesus was. Claudius banished them from Rome because of “riots over Chrestus” (Acts 18:1-2). After a time of ministry in Ephesus Prisca returns to Rome. She survives the Great Fire and Neronian persecution but the sub-plot of the book concerns a summons to appear before Domitian.

After writing several Socio-rhetorical commentaries on New Testament books, Witherington has enough background knowledge of the Roman world to fill out the details of Priscilla’s life. H acknowledges Alberto Angela, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries, and Curiosities (Europa, 2009). I read this entertaining primer on the Roman world several years ago. Angela covers many of the elements of daily life larger histories overlook. Witherington works many of these cultural elements into the novel to give the reader a glimpse into everyday life of a Roman woman.

There are a number of small side comments in the book which reflect some decision by a New Testament scholar. For example, in the novel, Paul recommended Priscilla set her slaves free (reflecting the hope of many New Testament scholars that Paul would have privately condemned slavery). He refers to Thecla as an itinerant prophetess (giving Witherington a chance to talk about prophets in the early church). Thecla is known from a second century apocryphal book, The Acts of Paul and Thecla and an intriguing fresco at Ephesus. At one point in the book Prisca and Julia discuss Nero as possibly the anti-chrestus, “the one called 666” (p. 123). opportunity for Witherington to explain gematria (even reflecting the textual variant of 616 for the mark of the beast).  After Paul arrives in Rome, he writes several letters (the prison epistles), and is released, following the traditional conservative view of the history of Paul after Acts.

Conclusion: As with novels of this kind, there is a tension between a desire to create a compelling plot and the need to slip in details from the New Testament and Roman history. The story is less “the life of Priscilla” than a series of vignettes illustrating the usual sub-plot of early Christianity in Ephesus and Rome. Priscilla is like Forrest Gump, witnessing cultural and historical events. There is no detail in the book I would seriously dispute and the book illustrates life in the Roman world. Readers who enjoy the Week in the Life series will also enjoy Priscilla: The Life of an Early Christian even if the focus is not Priscilla’s life.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Paula Gooder, Phoebe

Gooder, Paula. Phoebe. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 308 pgs., Pb.; $22.00 Link to IVP

Like IVP’s Week in the Life series, Paula Gooder’s Phoebe illuminates the world of first century Christianity by a story written by a serious academic scholar. Gooder is the Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral and has taught Ripon College Cuddesdon and The Queen’s Foundation. Her Ph.D. dissertation was published as Only the Third Heaven?: 2 Corinthians 12:1-10 and Heavenly Ascent (T & T Clark, 2006).

In the brief introduction to the notes on the novel, Gooder explains her book is an experiment in historical imagination and not a novel (p. 225). A novel, she says is a carefully crafted a story which goes wherever the imagination leads. Since her book is restrained by historical reality and aims to both inform and entertain, it is not really a novel. She wants to prod the reader’s imagination and invite them into the word of the first century.

Gooder selects the tantalizing reference in Romans 16:1 to “Phoebe the Deaconess of the church at Cenchreae” (or servant, depending on your translation) and develops a story around her. This is therefore an opportunity for her to address the often difficult problem of Paul’s attitude towards women found in 2 Timothy 2:9-15 or 1 Corinthians 14:33-36. Gooder encourages the readers to read the “tricky” passages in the light of the roles women played in Pauline churches (p. 228). Phoebe is one of several women who played key roles in early Christian communities. Although this book does not make an argument for the role of women in church leadership in a modern context, it “reflects the view I hold. If you disagree you are unlikely to enjoy what follows” (p. 229).

In the book, Gooder follows the common view that Phoebe was the courier for the Letter to the Romans, Prisca and Aquila led house churches and Junia was a woman prominent among the apostles. Phoebe was a deacon at Cenchrea and a “benefactor of many” (προστάτις, a patron rather than helper). Both are titles which ought to evoke respect from the Roman community as they received the letter from Paul delivered by Phoebe.

The story itself is just over 200 pages, the final 81 pages are notes on the story. I will not spoil the story, but like most of these sorts of scholarly novels, we meet many of the expected characters, Prisca and Aquila, Junia, Andronicus, and the apostles Peter and Paul make appearances as well. There are sections where it seems obvious wants to work in some Roman cultural issue where perhaps a novelist would not, but the story is well written and entertaining.

The notes are much more extensive than the Week in the Life series. In those books additional material is inserted into the flow of the novel through side-bars and illustrations. Phoebe saves all the notes to the final section of the book. There are no footnotes or references to distract from the novel itself, making the book easier to read as a novel. My strategy was to read all the notes before the novel since I was interested in Gooder’s views on Phoebe. One could read a chapter in the novel then read corresponding notes for the chapter.

The book will be a good introduction for readers interested in the background of the Roman world and early Christianity. Many will be attracted to the book for what it contributes to the role of women in the early church, either enjoying it or disliking it depending on one’s presuppositions. This is unfortunate, but Gooder’s book will certainly stimulate discussions of the role of woman in the ancient and modern church.

Other books in the Week in the Life series:

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Acts 28 – Nothing Will Hinder the Gospel

The last words of the book of Acts in the Greek are “boldly and without hindrance.” This is a good theme to leave the book of Acts, that Paul preached the gospel boldly and without hindrance.

To speak “boldly” (παρρησία) is to have freedom to speak, perhaps even fearless speech. “Boldness” is a characteristic of apostolic preaching in the first part of Acts. The Sanhedrin saw that Peter and John spoke boldly (4:13), and the Jerusalem church prayed that God would continue to give them boldness (4:29); when they were filled with the Holy Spirit they did in fact speak with boldness (4:31).

apostle_paulBut the word also has the nuance of confidence, knowing that you are speaking the truth; that you know the right answer, etc. In Acts 2:29 Peter makes an argument based on Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah, he says this “with confidence.” This is the confidence which I began with – knowing that something is certainly true gives you a confidence and boldness which a “guess” does not. Paul can speak from his house arrest with confidence because he knows the gospel he proclaims is the truth.

“Without hindrance” (ἀκωλύτως) indicates that there were no groups that stood in his way, as Paul had to deal with earlier in the book. Sometimes this rare word is used in legal contexts (P.Oxy 502, Ant. 12.104, 16.41, for example). The word might be used to describe some legal constraint, you cannot do want you want to because of a legal ruling (think of a restraining order in contemporary culture).

If we read the whole book of Acts, we might see quite a bit of “restraining” going on, things hinder the progress of the Gospel from the very beginning of Paul’s ministry. Jews in Asia Minor actively work against him on the first missionary journey, attack him publicly and stone him at Lystra, and continue to harass him when he returns to Jerusalem in the late 50s.

While Rome does not actively hinder Paul’s mission, he was in Roman custody several times in the book: at Philippi, nearly so at Thessalonica, he was arrested in Corinth, and was likely under arrest at some point in Ephesus, he cause a riot there as well. When he finally returned to Jerusalem he was taken into protective custody by Rome, but held for two years in Caesarea before being shipped to Rome, where he is under house arrest (at his own expense) for two years.

We might also add a kind of spiritual hindrance to this list as well. For example, Paul was forced to leave Thessalonica and was unable to return to the city, although he wanted to. In 1 Thess 3:18 he says that “Satan blocked our way,” literally “Satan tore up the road” so that Paul could not return and finish his work in the city. What happens in Corinth and Ephesus can also be taken as spiritual warfare, Satan was actively hindering Paul’s mission.

The book ends by telling us nothing is restraining the gospel. Paul is not hindered in the least by his imprisonment and there is nothing Rome can do to stop the gospel from going “to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 28:11-16 – Paul in Rome

Front of the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls - Roma - Italy

Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome

Christianity came to Rome before Paul, but we have very little idea of how it got there or how closely it was aligned with Jerusalem.  As Luke tells the story, Christianity did more out from Jerusalem, to Samaria and Judea, then to major Diaspora Jewish communities – Antioch, then Asia Minor, Greece (Corinth) and finally Ephesus.  Paul’s mission to the gentile world began at Antioch in the Synagogue and his normal strategy was to find the synagogue in a community in order to reach the Jews and God-fearing Gentiles first, then he moved into the marketplace in order to reach Gentiles.

It is possible that the Roman church was not Pauline in theology, having been founded by Jews after Pentecost.  We know that the letter to the Romans was sent five years before this time to a mixed congregation of Jews and Gentiles, but we have no idea how that letter was received by the community in Rome.

Ben Witherington suggests Paul was the first to bring the gospel of grace through faith and gentile salvation apart from the Law to Rome (Witherington, Acts, 785).  This is entirely possible, since the only reference we have to pre-Pauline Roman Christianity is Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18) and the reference in Tacitus to Jewish rioting over Chrestus.  It there appears as though pre-Acts 28 Christianity in Rome was quite Jewish.

The similar questions arise when thinking about the Jewish community.  To what extent were the Jews in Rome in contact with Jerusalem?  What authority did the Sanhedrin have over synagogues in Rome?  (Or anywhere, for that matter.  In Acts 9 the High Priest requests that Christians be turned over to Paul, he does not order the synagogue to do anything!)   There is therefore a tension in Paul’s arrival – how will he be received?  Have Jews from Jerusalem managed to arrive before him?  If they had left about the same time as he did from Jerusalem they could hardly have traveled faster given the time of the year.  Paul has no idea if he will meet Jewish Christians who are predisposed to attack him, or whether they will be like the Bereans, more open to his teaching.

This uncertainty does not seem to bother Paul.  Once he finds lodgings in Rome he begins to meet with individuals in order to explain his presence in Rome and, likely as not, to explain his “side of the story.”  He is still the apostle to the Gentiles and his imprisonment will permit him to reach the household of Caesar.