HomeHistoryThree Greek Lessons About God — Part Three: Corinth
December 23, 2019
Three Greek Lessons About God — Part Three: Corinth
After being inspired by the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey video game, guest writer Chris Flux visited Greece in October to check out some of the ancient sites in Athens, Corinth and Delphi. At each location Chris learnt more about history and the Christian faith. This three-part mini-series is about how the three locations deepened Chris’ understanding of God.
Part Three – CORINTH
Faith in Vice City
“On the final day of my time in Greece I went on a coach trip to the archeological site of ancient Corinth. Corinth is a city (that still exists) on a strip of land separating the Ionian and Aegean Sea. In ancient times it was a prosperous trading city due to its close locations to two important ports, one on either coast. St Paul famously visited Corinth and decided to live there for well over a year.”
On the final day of my time in Greece I went on a coach trip to the archeological site of ancient Corinth. Corinth is a city (that still exists) on a strip of land separating the Ionian and Aegean Sea. In ancient times it was a prosperous trading city due to its close locations to two important ports, one on either coast. As detailed in Acts 18, St Paul famously visited Corinth (shortly after his famous Sermon on Mars Hill in Athens) and decided to live there for well over a year. Whilst in Corinth, Paul lived with and worked alongside fellow Christians Priscilla and Aquila, who like the Apostle were tentmakers by trade. Historians aren’t sure whether Paul went to Corinth by sailing to the western port of Lechaeum or travelled from Athens by road. However the Bible is clear that when it was time for him to leave Corinth, he sailed from the eastern port of Cenchreae and onto Syria, after getting a haircut in the coastal town. It appears that Paul made shorter future visits to Corinth and wrote four letters to the church established there, of which the two that survive are known today as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians in the Bible.
We know from both the Bible and secular history, that Corinth was famed for corruption, sexual immorality and general debauchery. Temple priestesses from the Temple of Aphrodite on the Akrokorinth (a huge hill near Corinth) used to come down into the city and offer their bodies to sex-hungry men. It really was Vice City, although it couldn’t at all be said to be without religion. It should be noted that Greco-Roman religion had no moral component whatsoever.
As well as a central temple to Apollo, Corinth had a significant Jewish population. On several occasions Acts 18 refers to the existence of a Synagogue in the city and explains that Paul would regularly go there to try to “persuade Jews and Greeks” (Acts 18:4). No one knows exactly where this Synagogue stood, however there is strong archeological evidence that it existed, given that a Synagogue Inscription and a Menorah Relief have been found in the local area. It must be noted both these artefacts, which can be seen at the Ancient Corinth Museum, are dated to the 5th century A.D. — centuries after Paul. Nevertheless they still imply a significant and longstanding Jewish community in the area.
In the city of Corinth it is first with the Jews that Paul sought to share the Gospel. First he reasons with them at the Synagogue every Sabbath. Then after Timothy and Silas join him from Macedonia, Paul (who had been working as a tentmaker) becomes a full time preacher with a focus on reaching his fellow Jews. His experience in other cities is repeated here, with a largely hostile and even abusive response from the very people Paul would have expected to be a shining light to their pagan neighbours. Therefore he leaves the Synagogue and moves his ministry focus to the Gentiles. Paul left with the parting shot: “Your blood be on your own heads. I am innocent of it!” (Acts 18:6)
“In the city of Corinth it was first with the Jews that Paul sought to share the Gospel.”
It must be noted that when the Bible uses the phrase, “Your blood be on your own heads” (Matthew 27:25; 2 Samuel 1:14-16; Ezekiel 33:4; 1 Kings 2:33), it’s not intended as an anti-Semitic phrase. Not only is everyone who says or writes it a Hebrew, but reading Matthew 27:25 as a condemnation of all Jewish people is bad theology that completely misunderstands the passage and its context. From my research into this phrase, it appears to either mean that 1) people will face accountability for their own sin; or that 2) someone has committed a sin so grave that it cannot be forgiven. According to scripture the only ‘unforgivable sin’ is ‘blasphemy against the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 12:31), which is generally understood as referring to a person’s ultimate final rejection of God. It is certainly not the condemnation of an entire ethnic or even religious group. This wouldn’t make sense given that Paul and most of the very early church were Jewish.
An Unexpected Harvest
“Paul had just left the Jews because of his lack of success with them, yet at that very moment the Synagogue leader becomes a Christian. This reminds me of the account of a missionary family who spent decades preaching the gospel in a foreign country and didn’t see a single person come to faith. Yet shortly after moving back to their home country to retire, revival broke out in the country they had left.”
The first thing Paul does after leaving the Synagogue is visit Titius Justus, a Gentile believer in God, at his house next door. Then at that moment something unexpected and rather ironic happens. Crispus, the Jewish leader of the Synagogue Paul has just left, becomes a Christian. Not only that, but the household of Crispus and many other Corinthians (it doesn’t state whether they are Jews or Gentiles) believe and are baptised (Acts 18:8). Paul had just left the Jews because of his lack of success with them, yet at that very moment the Synagogue leader becomes a Christian. This reminds me of the account of a missionary family who spent decades preaching the gospel in a foreign country and didn’t see a single person come to faith. Yet shortly after moving back to their home country to retire, revival broke out in the country they had left.
This really shows how salvation belongs to God alone. This is a fact stated in the Bible many times (Revelation 7:10 & 19:1; Jonah 2:9; Hosea 13:4; Isaiah 45:21; Acts 4:12). Like Crispus, there are some political and religious leaders who we assume are too hardened ever to believe. Yet with God “all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26) and even the heart of a king is “in the Lord’s hand” (Proverbs 21:1). St Paul himself was a hostile persecutor of Christians before his dramatic conversion (Acts 9:1-30) and godless Nineveh experienced revival after the prophet Jonah preached to them (Jonah 3). This is encouraging to me as a Christian, because over the years I have been so discouraged by the lack of evangelistic success that I have even got to the point of not caring anymore. It’s not easy, but once I realise that it’s not about me then I can trust that God will do what He wants to do in His own way and own time.
Now we might expect the next part of the narrative to be about a great persecution and suffering. But surprisingly it isn’t. God follows success with a promise, which He gives through a dream, and then goes on to deliver. God says to Paul:
“Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city.” Acts 18:9-10
The Lord is my Shepherd
This promise isn’t one of more ‘success’, but of protection. It might seem counterintuitive to continue preaching a message to which many are hostile. But you could say the same about the instruction God gave to Ananias (through a vision recorded in Acts 9:10-16) to help Paul, who was a persecutor of Christians before becoming one himself (Acts 9:1,13-14). In both situations the natural response would be to avoid trouble by disobeying the command. Yet both men choose obedience and are kept completely safe (Acts 9:17-19; 18:9-10).
“This promise isn’t one of more ‘success’, but of protection. It might seem counterintuitive to continue preaching a message to which many are hostile. Yet both Ananias and Paul choose obedience and are kept completely safe.”
Interestingly, after this promise is given there isn’t any mention of a single person coming to faith during the remainder of Paul’s time in Corinth. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen (indeed I’d be very surprised if it didn’t), but the Bible doesn’t record it. Instead the rest of this passage is a powerful testimony of God’s protection of Paul.
Protection is a quality so integral to God that He is compared to a ‘shepherd’ in both Old and New Testaments. Psalm 23 famously starts with the words, “The Lord is my shepherd,” and many times in the Gospels Jesus is compared to a shepherd (John 10:11-18; Matthew 2:6; Mark 6:34). In the original Hebrew, ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ is written as ‘Yahweh Roi’, which is understood as one of God’s divine names and commonly used to highlight the protective qualities of his character. In our urbanised modern culture we might not think of shepherds as being particularly tough, but these were people who had to go out in all weather conditions to protect the flock from both wild animals and potential robbers. For King David, his days as a shepherd were part of his training for beating Goliath, becoming a military leader and eventually ascending to the throne. The same man who spent his youth protecting sheep (1 Samuel 17:34-35) was then himself protected many times by God (1 Samuel 19; 1 Samuel 23:26-29).
God is also described by David as a ‘rock’, a ‘fortress’, a ‘shield’ and a ‘stronghold’ (Psalm 18:2). St Paul, himself an expert on the Old Testament, described David as a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). Even before he became a Christian, St Paul would already have had at least a theoretical knowledge of God as protector. Given Paul’s narrow misses in subsequent years as a Christian (Acts 9:23-30; Acts 14:1-7), he would now also have an intimate understanding of God’s faithful protection. His time in Corinth would deepen that understanding even further!
“Paul’s prophetic vision declared that the Lord Jesus has ‘many people in this city,’ which basically implies that he used people, probably in unexpected ways, to keep Paul safe. I’m not sure whether the ‘many people’ referred to in the vision are necessarily all Christians.”
So how does God protect Paul during this stay in Corinth? We don’t have all the specific details. In fact all we know is what happened in one situation, which we will explore shortly. Paul’s prophetic vision declared that the Lord Jesus has “many people in this city” (Acts 18:10), which basically implies that he used people, probably in unexpected ways, to keep Paul safe. I’m not sure whether the “many people” referred to in the vision are necessarily all Christians. It could simply mean the Lord has got His hand on the lives of many people, so He is able to use even Paul’s enemies to bless him. Regardless of exactly to whom this vision refers, the Lord is asserting His sovereignty by reminding Paul that He has his back!
Now we get to the one specific example of that protection that we are given in this passage (Acts 18:12-16), which took place in one of the locations that I visited. At that time, the cities of Greece were under the rule of the Roman Empire. Whilst they had some autonomy and were ruled with a lighter touch than more troublesome nations, Rome was still in control. Corinth had been almost completely destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C., but was then rebuilt by Julius Caesar in the Roman style in 44 B.C.
At the time of Paul, the province of Achaia (of which Corinth belonged) was administered by the Roman proconsul Junius Gallio. Gallio was the Spanish born son of Roman nobleman Seneca the Elder and the brother of the famous philosopher Seneca the Younger. Gallio was obviously a man of wealth and privilege, yet he was still answerable to Rome. At the time of Paul’s visit, Claudius was emperor, but just 15 years later Gallio would end up killing himself after the Emperor Nero had forced his brother Seneca to complete suicide. Gallio was demonstrably a historical character.
The Jews in Corinth who opposed Paul would have had limited power to stop his ministry, especially given his status as a Roman citizen. We don’t know whether they were aware of Paul’s citizenship and the legal protections it brought, but regardless, their only chance of successfully bringing Paul down was to appeal to the authority of Rome.
Scripture says that “the Jews of Corinth made a united attack on Paul and brought him to the place of judgement,” and complained that Paul was “persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law” (Acts 18:12-14). The word(s) used to describe where they brought Paul vary depending on the translation of the Bible. It’s variously translated as ‘place of judgement’ (NIV), ‘judgment seat’ (KJV), ‘tribunal’ (ESV), or, more loosely in the NLT, “brought before the governor for judgment.” However they are all very likely referring to part of the archeological site that still remains called the Bema. This is a well preserved platform at the edge of the market area, from where officials have public addresses and legal cases were heard.
“Paul was about to speak to defend himself, when Gallio announced that he would set him free without a trial. Gallio stated that since Paul hadn’t broken Roman law, there was no need for Rome to get involved in this dispute. This was certainly an act of God’s favour, but it doesn’t seem Gallio acted out of kindness or sympathy for the Christian faith.”
What happened next was probably a surprise for both Paul and those who sought to have him punished. Paul was about to speak to defend himself, when Gallio announced that he would set him free without a trial. Gallio stated that since Paul hadn’t broken Roman law, there was no need for Rome to get involved in this dispute. This was certainly an act of God’s favour, but it doesn’t seem Gallio acted out of kindness or sympathy for the Christian faith.
Gallio, it appears, was more of a pragmatist than a man of principle. He simply wasn’t interested in the debates between Jews and Christians. Like Pontius Pilate, he just wanted to keep the peace and more importantly keep his position, perhaps eventually getting a promotion. Career politicians don’t tend to worry about ideology, just their own advancement. The main difference between Pilate and Gallio is that the former agreed to punish Jesus despite personally thinking he hadn’t done anything wrong, whereas the latter decided not to punish Paul. Whilst it’s true that Paul would eventually be martyred for the faith, in this situation he was shown greater favour by Gallio than Jesus Christ had been at the hands of Pilate. God works through people regardless of their motivations. He can work through enthusiastic followers like John the Baptist, hostile opponents like Pharaoh or apathetic ‘neutrals’ like Gallio (even though, according to Revelation 3:16, ‘apathy’ is itself a form of opposition). I wonder whether Gallio was one of those ‘many people’ referred to in Paul’s vision?
What happens next is a bit confusing and open for discussion. Scripture says that “the crowd… turned on Sosthenes the synagogue leader and beat him in front of the proconsul; and Gallio showed no concern whatsoever” (Acts 18:17).
A Gamble Backfires
There is debate around who Sosthenes really was, of which type of people “the crowd” was comprised, and why they decided to assault him. Was this crowd made up of Gentiles, Jews or a mixture of both? The fact Sosthenes was a Jewish leader can give the initial impression that it was an anti-Semitic attack by Greeks angry that the Jews had tried to stir up trouble. But I reject that idea and think the crowd were mainly Jews, because both the flow and the wording of the passage suggests that the crowd were the same people who brought the charges in the first place. Also, if even the Proconsul wasn’t interested in this case, then why would a large crowd of Gentiles be bothered to attend and express anger like this?
“Luke (the author of Acts) does sometimes use different names for the same person (e.g., Saul and Paul), but he usually includes either an explanation or an acknowledgment when he does so. As a writer Luke places great importance on accuracy, so I doubt that he would risk confusion by using different names for someone within the space of a few sentences.”
So why did this group of Jews beat up their own leader? One theory is that Sosthenes is simply a different name for Crispus, the Synagogue leader who became a Christian. Therefore they would be assaulting this Christian because they couldn’t punish Paul instead. However I very much doubt this, because whilst Luke (the author of Acts) does sometimes use different names for the same person (e.g., Saul and Paul) he usually includes either an explanation or an acknowledgment when he does so (Acts 13:9; Luke 5:8). As a writer Luke places great importance on accuracy (Luke 1:3), so I doubt that he would risk confusion by using different names for someone within the space of a few sentences. It’s not even the case that it could be versions of the same name in different languages. Sosthenes is Greek and means ‘safe in strength.’ Crispus is Latin and means ‘curly-haired.’ The meaning of the name Sosthenes seems rather ironic considering the circumstances.
So my thinking is that this Sosthenes is the man appointed to replace Crispus as Synagogue leader following the latter man’s conversation to Christianity. Crispus’ position would surely have been untenable and he would have had to resign. So this brings us back to the question why those Jews opposed to Paul attack their own leader?
To explain this I’ll use a football analogy. If a manager arrives at a new football club and promises great success, but instead fails badly (for example the club gets relegated or fails to qualify for the Champions League), they will often get booed by the club’s own fans and get nasty comments made about them online. Sosthenes had probably got the job of Synagogue leader by promising to avoid a repeat of Paul’s ‘accidental’ revival that had ‘claimed the souls’ of the previous leader and his family. Sosthenes may have confidently declared to his congregation that he would use the authority of Rome to silence Paul for once and for all. He promised big things to his supporters and all their hopes were pinned on his promise to #GetPaulGone! Yet his whole strategy massively backfired. It wasn’t even that Paul was acquitted after a trial. It was that Gallio’s decision was that there wasn’t to even be a trial. Instead of Champions League qualification and a cup run, it all ended with relegation and a points deduction! The violence against Sosthenes was a more brutal equivalent of Arsenal fans a few years ago who chanted ‘Wenger Out’ after the then manager Arsène Wenger continued to disappoint. A example from recent British politics might be how some Labour Party supporters turned on their leader Jeremy Corbyn following their disastrous defeat in the 2019 General Election. Sosthenes’ followers turned on him because they too were disappointed, angry and possibly even scared of what was to come.
It must be noted at the start of Paul’s first letter to the Church at Corinth (which was obviously written later) refers to a man described by Paul as “our brother Sosthenes” (1 Corinthians 1:1). It’s probably a completely different person with the same name, but it could also be the same Jewish leader so brutally shamed by his own people that he found love and acceptance from the very church that he tried to persecute. If it is the same man, he is now called ‘brother’ by the very man he tried to condemn, who himself was a persecutor of the church before he believed. If this is the case, then both Paul and Sosthenes are examples of the incredible redeeming transformative power of God. Even if this isn’t true, Acts 18 is still inspirational to people of Christian faith!
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Graham is an evangelical Christian believer living in Sussex, UK. He is passionate about helping people to understand what the Bible really says, and about explaining what the Christians of the early centuries believed and taught.