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.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The renaming of benefactors

Here I argue that the early church had a tradition of giving new names to its benefactors. I briefly discuss each individual example, and link to more detailed discussions so that the reader can assess the cumulative case for the hypothesis.

Below is a list of the benefactors (and probable benefactors) of the early church whom we know by name. It will be shown that the majority of them show evidence of having received new names in recognition of their benefactions. This may be a testimony to the importance that the early church placed on generosity.

Those who show evidence of having receiving a new name

Crispus-Sosthenes
Crispus (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor 1:14) was a synagogue ruler and was therefore a benefactor. He became a believer and was instrumental in the conversion of many in Corinth. The name "Sosthenes" means something like, "saving strength", which is a fitting name for Crispus. Sosthenes, like Crispus, was a/the synagogue ruler (Acts 18:17) and, like Crispus, he became a believer, and his name carried authority in Corinth (1 Cor 1:1). The beating of Sosthenes by the Jews at this time of food shortages (CE 51) is explicable if he was Crispus, the benefactor who had defected to Paul's camp. For more on Crispus-Sosthenes see my Tyndale Bulletin article and my web page.

Joseph-Barnabas
Luke reports:
There was a Levite, a native of Cyprus, Joseph, to whom the apostles gave the name Barnabas (which means "son of encouragement"). He sold a field that belonged to him, then brought the money, and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 4:36-37)
Barnabas was therefore a benefactor and had been given a new name. It is not clear whether his name had been given in response to any benefactions that the had made. For a little more on Barnabas, see here.

Mariam the Magdalene
The epithet "Magdalene" means "tower" and is a metaphor for protective strength. It is therefore very suitable for this Mary, who was a benefactor of the Jesus movement (Luke 8:2-3). There are close parallels to this style of naming: Crispus-Sosthenes (saving strength), Simeon-Cephas (rock), James-Oblias (bulwark of the people). The similarity in sound between Mariam and Magdalene increases the probability that "Magdalene" was a new name, rather than merely a reference to a place of birth. For more on this Mary, click here.

Gaius Titius Justus-Stephanas
"Stephanas" means something like "crowned" and is therefore a very suitable name for a benefactor of the church (synagogue benefactors, like pagan benefactors were frequently given physical or metaphorical crowns). Stephanas had put his household at the church's service (1 Cor 1:16; 16:15-18). He was therefore a benefactor with a name to match. Paul tries to persuade the Corinthians to show respect for Stephanas, and to this end he reminds them that Stephanas's household was the "firstfruits of Achaia" (1 Cor 16:15-18), meaning that the conversion of Stephanas and his household was the breakthrough that led to the formation of the Corinthian church. In Acts 18:7 this same role is played by Titius Justus, who makes his house available to Paul. Earlier Titius Justus (or his family) had probably given a wing of his house for use as the synagogue.  In 1 Cor 16:15-18 Paul tries to unite the Corinthian church under the roof of Stephanas, but in Rom 16:23 it is Gaius who hosts the whole church, and Gaius, like Stephanas, was one of the first converts in Corinth because he was baptized by Paul himself (1 Cor 1:14). All his suggest that we a looking at one person whose praenomen, nomen, cognomen, and Agnomen were Gaius, Titius, Justus, and Stephanas respectively. I have discussed Stephanas on this block, here, here, and here.

Jason-Aristarchus
Jason hosted Paul and other believers (Acts 17:6-9). He appears later in Corinth and is mentioned in Rom 16:21, where we would expect Paul to mention Aristarchus (Acts 20:4). Both Jason and Aristarchus were from Thessalonica and bother were Jews, which is significant since the church of Thessalonica comprised mostly Gentiles. The name "Aristarchus" means "best archon/ruler", which is an appropriate name for Paul to give to Jason. This hypothesis explains why Aristarchus is included among the greeters in Philemon 23 and is the only name that is not abbreviated or informal: Paul uses his full name to allude to his benefactions in the hope that Philemon will follow his example and make a benefaction of Onesimus. See my blog post here.

Theophilus
Theophilus (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1) is often considered the benefactor who sponsored the publication of Luke and Acts. The name, meaning "lover of God", is appropriate, and there are precedents for almost identical names being used a epithets, including by a Christian benefactor. See my web page here

Tabitha/Dorcas
Tabitha (Acts 36-41) was a generous believer. Luke translates her name into Greek, which suggests that "Tabitha" was a new name, rather than her birth name. The name Tabitha/Dorcas means "gazelle" and, like "Aquila", symbolizes good eyes, which was a metaphor for generosity. Therefore Tabitha had probably received her name in recognition of her generosity. See my blog post here.

Aquila
If Tabitha was a new name, Aquila (Acts 18:2-3, 18, 26; 1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3) probably was too. He was a benefactor of the church and his name means "eagle", which, like the Gazelle, was known for its good eyes.

Epaenetus
Epaenetus (Rom 16:5) was the "firstfruits of Asia." This suggests that he may have been a benefactor who had kick-started the church in Asia (compare Stephanas above). If so, he probably received his name, "Epaenetus" in recognition of his generosity, because the name means "praised" and is in the semantic field of ancient benefaction. See my blog post here.

Phoebe
Phoebe was a benefactor of the church (Rom 16:1-2). Her name is Greek and means "shining". It could have been given to her to reflect her role in the church, with a metaphor such as that of Matt 6:22-23 in mind. However, the meaning of the name is very general and not exclusively connected to benefaction, so Phoebe provides little evidence for the phenomenon of benefaction names in the early church.

Footnotes
The benefactor names theory makes good sense of Paul's choice of greeters in Rom 16:21-23. No longer are Crispus, Stephanas, and Aristarchus strangely absent. Instead, Rom 16:21-23 represents a complete list of all the well known believers who were in Corinth at that time. See my blog post here.

It is possible that Titus-Timothy received his new name in recognition either of an act of personal benefaction or the part that he played in organizing the collection from Galatia. "Timothy" means "honoring God" and for Paul, at least, benefactions brought honor to God (2 Cor 8:19; 9:11-13). It is, however, possible that Titus was named "Timothy" for an unrelated reason.

Those who show no evidence of receiving a new name
It is, of course, not surprising that Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) were not honored with new names.

Lydia  (Acts 6:4-15, 40) was probably a benefactor of the church. If she received a new name, we have no evidence of it.

Luke 8:2-3 suggests that Mary Magdalene,  Joanna, and Susanna were benefactors of the work of Jesus. Mary Magdalene was the most prominent, because she is mentioned first here, as elsewhere. I know of no evidence that Joanna or Susanna received new names.

Conclusion
The majority of NT benefactors of the church were given new names in recognition of their generosity.

Comments are welcome.

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