This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Acts and the origin of the Corinthians' problems

Here I will argue that the problems in the Corinthian church arose because the influential Christian Jews had been driven from town.

Acts 18:15-17 gives the ruling of Gallio after the Jews had brought Paul before the tribunal:
15 since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I do not wish to be a judge in these matters." 16  And he dismissed them from the tribunal. 17 Then all of them seized Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal.
Gallio refused to get involved in the dispute and, with the words "see to it yourselves", he gave the Jews of Corinth jurisdiction in this matter. I doubt that this ruling gave the Jews authority to impose their will on God-fearers and pagans, but it is clear that Gallio expected the non-Christian Jews and Christian Jews to sort out the dispute between themselves. The Christian Jews, being in the minority, lost the resulting power struggle. We read in verse 17 that the non-Christian Jews beat Sosthenes, who was a Christian Jew (see 1 Cor 1:1 and the strong evidence that he was in fact Crispus renamed). Sosthenes (1 Cor 1:1), Prisca, and Aquila all went to Ephesus (Acts 18:18 and 1 Cor 16:19), presumably having been forced out of Corinth by the Jews. Ephesus was the logical destination for those influential Christian Jews fleeing persecution. It was outside of Gallio's territory and, unlike Thessalonica, there was no immediate threat of persecution there. Ephesus was the closest large city where Sosthenes, Prisca and Aquila could escape persecution. The suitability of Ephesus in this regard explains why Paul made it his base for more then two years.

Now, the departure from Corinth of all the influential Christian Jews is also evinced by the characteristically pagan problems that arose in the Corinthian church.

Jews were stricter than Gentiles on sexual ethics (1 Cor 5:1; 1 Thess 4:3-5; Rom 1:22-24). The departure from Corinth of the leading Christian Jews explains why Jewish sexual norms were not enforced in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5; 6:9; 6:12-20; 7:2).

Similarly, the absence of Jewish overseers can explain why the Corinthian believers had no regard for the sensibilities of Jews towards food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-1; 9:19-10:33).

The power vacuum left by the departure of the Christian Jews also goes a long way toward explaining the divisions that occurred in the Corinthian church. I will discuss this further in my next post.

If Crispus was not Sosthenes, his leadership would probably have prevented all these problems from arising in the Corinthian church. It seems to me, therefore, that the Corinthian problems that we find in 1 Corinthians support the Crispus-Sosthenes hypothesis and the historical accuracy of Acts.

Incidentally, the proposed expulsion of Christian Jews from Corinth fits nicely with the following hypotheses:
1. The Jews Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater (Rom 16:21) were the non-Corinthians Luke, Jason of Thessalonica, and Sopater of Beroea (Acts 20:4) respectively.
2. Gaius (Rom 16:22) and Stephanas were the non-Jew Gaius Titius Justus Stephanas.

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