This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology. You can visit my web pages here, but note that they are not kept up-to-date.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

The role, authority, and names of Stephanas

Paul was the main founder of the church of Corinth. This fact gave him authority over the congregation there (see 1 Cor 4:15-16 and 2 Cor 10:8,15). We should therefore expect that those who had helped Paul establish a church would also derive authority commensurate with the role that they had played in the formation of the church. I shall first argue that Paul's selection of co-senders shows that the churches did indeed owe respect to those who had helped Paul to found them.

It was rare in the ancient world for the author to include co-senders. Karen Fulton is doing a PhD on co-senders and finds only about 80 such cases. It is significant, therefore that Paul includes named co-senders: Timothy and Silvanus in 1 Thess; Timothy in 2 Cor, Phil, and Phlm; and Sosthenes in 1 Cor. What all these people have in common is that they all participated in the founding of the church in question (see 2 Cor 1:19 and Acts). Rom and Gal have no named co-senders and this is explicable because no-one who was with Paul at the time or writing had helped to found those churches. The role of Sosthenes in the establishment of church of Corinth is clear from Acts 18:8 and from the meaning of his name, if we accept that Sosthenes was Crispus renamed. So, Paul includes co-founders as co-senders. This suggests that the co-founders had authority in the churches that they helped to establish. Paul adds their authority to his own by including their names as co-senders.

This helps us to understand Paul's rhetoric in 1 Cor 16:15-16. Here Paul is urging the Corinthians to be submissive to the household of Stephanas. We also read that the household of Stephanas had been the "firstfruits (ἀπαρχὴ) of Achaia". It is widely agreed that the term "firstfruits" has the sense of "the first with the prospect of more to follow". Paul is not saying that Stephanas was merely the first convert of Achaia, because that would not have really helped him to convince the Corinthians to be submissive to this household, and because Athenians were actually the first converts (Acts 1:34). No, that Paul goes to the trouble of mentioning it at all suggests that the role of "firstfruits" was a more substantial role that commanded respect. It seems, then, that Stephanas had put his house and household at Paul's service and that this had allowed the formation of the church of Corinth.

Now, I have argued here and here that Stephanas was Gaius Titius Justus renamed. However, Doug Chaplain objects:

"Richard Fellows suggests with many that in the Corinthian Church Gaius and Titius Justus are to be identified as the same person. He goes a step further and suggests the man with this good proud Roman name is also to be known by a Greek nickname and identified with Stephanas. ....

I would say that 1 Corinthians 1:14-16 makes that inherently unlikely.

It seems to me that by far the most natural reading is to see Gaius and Stephanas as different people. It would be odd, I think, for Paul to use (what is a conjectural) praenomen for him as an individual and a nickname for him as the paterfamilias of a household.

I am grateful to Doug for the feedback and for getting me to think about this issue again. He is right that "Stephanas" cannot have been a "nickname" in the modern sense of the word, but that is not what is being proposed. Nicknames in modern times are usually informal names that are often humorous, but religious bi-names in the ancient world were very different. I am proposing that Paul gave Gaius Titius Justus the name/epithet "Stephanas" to honor him for making his house available for Paul to use for preaching.

Dale Allison believes that ancient authors could refer to someone by one name and then switch to another name for no apparent reason. However, I have not found this to be the case very often. I think it is valid to ask why the same person would be called "Gaius" in 1 Cor 1:14 and Rom 16:23, "Stephanas" in 1 Cor 1:16 and 1 Cor 16:15-18, and "Titius Justus" in Acts 18:7. In 1 Corinthians Paul is trying to unite the church under Stephanas's roof. To do this he bolsters the authority of Stephanas by reminding the Corinthians that Stephanas's household was the "firstfruits". It therefore makes perfect sense that Paul should call him "Stephanas" in 1 Corinthians, since this name/epithet honors him for his benefaction of providing a house. The Corinthians will have known the significance of the name and why it was given and Paul's use of it here is in keeping with his desire to remind the Corinthians that the household of Stephanas was the firstfruits and worthy of respect. It is true that in 1 Cor 1:14 Paul calls him "Gaius", but this refers to a time before he had earned the name "Stephanas". It is not surprising that Paul should call him "Gaius" in Rom 16:23. Someone's original name did not usually fall from use after they received a religious bi-name. Thus Peter continued to be known as "Simon/Simeon" (e.g. Acts 15:14). Similarly, Bar Kokhba continued to sign his letters "Bar Kosiba". Unlike the Corinthians, the church of Rome would probably not have known the significance of Gaius's bi-name, and Paul had no reason to use it. It is also not surprising that Acts should call him "Titius Justus" (Acts 18:7). By using his nomen and cognomen here Luke may be deliberately revealing that he was a Roman citizen. In any case, this verse refers to a time before Titius Justus would have received his bi-name.

So, there is nothing odd about the way that Paul sometimes calls him "Gaius" and sometimes "Stephanas". On the contrary, Paul's name selections seem to fit the contexts. I am therefore not convinced by Doug's objections to the hypothesis that Gaius was Stephanas. However, I find his comments on Stephanas here very insightful.


  1. Thanks, Richard. It is, however, still the oddity of swapping names in the same breath where the logic would be to use his nomen or more likely cognomen in referring to him as the head of household.

  2. I appreciate the interaction, Doug. The members of the house of Stephanas had, with Stephanas himself, devoted themselves to the service of the saints (1 Cor 16:15). This could have happened only with the encouragement or permission of Stephanas himself, since he was the head of the household. I am proposing that Stephanas had received that name for making his house and household available for the service of the church. On this hypothesis the household of Stephanas is therefore the benefaction that earned him the name. Therefore, when Paul mentions this household, it is appropriate that he should call him "Stephanas" rather than "Titius Justus", for example.

    I don't quite see why you think a nomen or cognomen would be more likely at 1 Cor 1:16. Are you supposing that a religious bi-name would not be dignified enough?

    Concerning the "oddity of swapping names in the same breath", Paul does precisely that with Cephas-Peter at Gal 1:18; 2:7-9, 11-14.

  3. I'm not entirely sure how fair the Peter-Cephas comparison is, since one could argue that these are variant language forms of the same name.

  4. I don't understand your point here, Doug. What is the relevance of the fact that the Peter is a translation of Cephas?

    The name "Cephas" was translated into Greek so that Greek speakers would understand its significance (which was that its bearer had been commissioned to be the rock on which the church was to be built, or something along those lines). So, our English translations should really read "Rock" instead of "Peter". Only in Gal 2:7-8 does Paul discuss Peter's commissioning, and only here does he call him "Rock", instead of "Cephas". This is no coincidence. Paul switches to the name "Rock" when the significance of this name/title is relevant to the context. This is exactly what I am proposing that Paul does also with "Crowned" (Stephanas).

    So the comparision is a good one, no?

  5. Perhaps another way to look at it is that Gaius and Crispus in 1 Cor 1:14 were their names at their baptism. Rom 16:23 is written to a place outside of Paul's circles and so it is not unreasonable to have him use the better known name.

    The Gaius in Acts 19 and 20, the Derbean, appears to be a different person.

  6. In my recent discussion of the use of praenomina in the NT I argue that Christians who were Roman citizens were often referred to by their praenomina. Gaius Titius Justus is but one example of this. Praenomina were generally used by family and intimate friends and were not as dignified as nomina and cognomina. That Gaius had become known by his praenomen therefore implies that he did not laud his citizenship over other believers, but asked them to use his first name (praenomen) and welcomed them into his home as members of his own family. Compare Publius (Acts 28:7-10), another man whose praenomen implies that he had been a gracious host.

    I think Stephen is right to suppose that "Gaius" was his better known name. His friends, including those who had moved to Rome, probably knew him primarily as "Gaius". The Corinthians, however, also knew him as "Stephanas". The name honors him for delivering his household for the service of the saints and is used in that context in 1 Cor 1:16; 16:15-18. In 1 Cor 1:14, however, the context is very different. Here Paul is saying that the Corinthians should not boast about being members of the "Paul" faction and it is important that Paul avoids conferring honor on those whom he baptized here. It therefore would have been counter-productive for Paul to call him "Stephanas" at 1 Cor 1:14.

    Readers can find an up-dated presentation of the Gaius Titius Justus Stephanas hypothesis here.