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Entries in italics are ascertained dates; the Jerusalem Council has been included with these since there is very general agreement about it. The remaining dates will be right within a very small margin of error.
(Some scholars regard Ephesians and I Peter as later pseudonymous writings; but even so their historical references relate to the period to which they ostensibly belong. It is assumed that the Pastoral Epistles contain authentic correspondence of Paul.)
We have already pointed out that in Roman times the word Asia was applied to the Roman province which was situated on the western coast of Asia Minor. Its principal city, Ephesus, had been a centre of trade and of Greek philosophy before Athens was much heard of. In fact the Greek scientific tradition may be said to have begun with the Ionian philosophers of the sixth and fifth centuries before Christ, of whom Thales was the first, and Heraclitus the best known. It was Heraclitus who introduced into this school of philosophy the doctrine of the 'Logos' or immanent reason, which the Stoics accepted as a basis for their 'theology'. The city was larger and more important than Corinth, and had communication overland with the Galatian cities. It was dedicated to the most ancient and august of all east Mediterranean |127 deities, the Great Mother, known here as Artemis. Her image, which had fallen from heaven, doubtless a large meteorite, was treasured in one of the largest temples which had ever been built. She was 'great Artemis who is reverenced by the whole world'.
It was in the spring of 52 that Aquila and Prisca moved from Corinth to Ephesus, quite possibly to open a new branch of their business, combining business expansion with evangelization. Certainly the tent-making went on at Ephesus as it had at Corinth. Paul went with them and spent three months there, during which he preached acceptably in the synagogue, and was actually asked to stay; but he had made up his mind to visit Jerusalem again. According to an early reviser of the text of Acts, whose work will be discussed in chapter 15, he wanted to keep the feast of Pentecost there.
He arrived in Caesarea, from which city he ' went up and saluted the church', presumably the church in Jerusalem. No particulars are given of this visit, and we are left wondering who accompanied him, and why it was recorded. An answer may be suggested. We seem to see a systolic, as well as a diastolic motion in the apostolic mission; the evangelists go forth, but they also come back. The rhythm is observable even in the Gospels. The apostles are sent out two by two, but they are gathered together again unto the Lord; they report what they have done and taught; and the occasion seems to be connected with a festal convocation.
Paul makes four such journeys to Jerusalem in the forties and fifties.
(1) In 45 or 46 he went with Barnabas and Titus, taking offerings from Antioch; there was a conference or council in which Peter and John and James the Just took part.
(2) In 49 he went up again from Antioch with Barnabas; there was a conference of apostles and elders, in which Peter and James the Just took part.
(3) In 52 he went again; this is the present instance.
(4) In 55 or 56 he went a fourth time with a number of Gentile Christians taking offerings; there was a conference with James the Just and the elders. |128 In the case of (i), (2), and (4), Paul made a report on his work. In the case of (4) the visit occurred at Pentecost; in the case of (2) many modern scholars think it may have been Pentecost; in the case of (3) the reviser of Acts makes it Pentecost. This reviser, to whom we shall refer again, did his work shortly after Acts was written, frequently showing that he possessed some special knowledge or understanding of the material he was working on.
The evidence suggests that such gatherings were held at Jerusalem, at Pentecost every three years for report and conference; the request made in 46 that Paul and Barnabas would remember the poor in Jerusalem implies that they expected him to visit Jerusalem officially again; the council in 49 falls into place as one of a series; the visit in 52 becomes understandable without further explanation. Luke has prepared the way for this idea at the very beginning of Acts by describing the feast of Pentecost so fully, and emphasizing the great number of pilgrims who came up to it from all parts of the diaspora. Doubtless travelling conditions were better then, in May or June, than at Passover in the spring, or Tabernacles in the autumn.
When reports of this kind were made, and we have indubitable instances of this occurring, the question may be asked, to whom did the apostles report? Was it to Peter or James as superior? Or to the body of apostles and elder brethren? The latter would be the only answer that could possibly be justified by the evidence; for Peter himself was called upon to make such a report on one occasion. When the reports had been heard, the opportunity was there to come to an agreement on difficult controversial questions.
We have suggested that the composer of Acts made use of such reports, including some which he had penned himself. The stories in Acts about the Christian beginnings at Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth, may have been taken from the reports which were compiled for the conference of 52. When Paul had completed his business in Jerusalem, he paid a visit to Antioch, and returned to Ephesus by way of Galatia and Phrygia. The reviser did not take the view that Paul had actually reached Jerusalem, for he says at this point, 'And when Paul wanted, according to his own idea, to go to Jerusalem, the Spirit said to him to return to Asia'; thus making his work in Asia the result of a new revelation.
During the absence of Paul in the East, a new preacher of the gospel had arrived in Ephesus, the mysterious Apollos; mysterious to us, but not to the readers of Acts, who must have known more about him. It is as in the case of Mark; Luke gives a sufficient account for those who knew something of the man already, but not enough for us.
The reviser makes his name Apollonius, but Apollos is simply a short form of this name. The reviser is more ceremonious. Apollos was a learned or eloquent man. He was an Alexandrian by race, and was 'powerful in the scriptures', meaning of course the Hebrew scriptures. Possibly he had learned to allegorize them in the Alexandrian manner. The true text, or what we take to be the true text, says that he was instructed in the way of the Lord and was fervent in the spirit; he taught accurately the things about Jesus, but he only knew the baptism of John. The reviser says that he had been instructed in the word of the Lord in his native land. If this alteration in the text is correct, we have our only example of Alexandrian Christianity in the New Testament. It would appear to have been defective on some point; but it is not possible for us to say just how. Priscilla and Aquila took him and instructed him more accurately; but it is not said that they baptized him again, so that his case does not seem to be the same as that of the twelve adherents of the Baptist who are introduced shortly after.
The reviser says 'Aquila and Priscilla', putting the name of the husband first. This was more correct, no doubt, but it was not the usual order; for some reason the name of Priscilla came first. It is thought that she must have been a lady of some social standing in Rome. These points of divergence are very small, but they have their interest. The reviser had his own views about the impression that should be given. He is practically a second witness to the events. It is worth giving the next paragraph side by side.
|ORIGINAL TEXT||REVISER'S TEXT|
|And when he wanted to cross over to Achaia, the brethren sent him on his way, and wrote to the brethren to receive him; and when he arrived, he spent some time with |130 those who had believed through faith; for he refuted the Jews excellently, proving publicly through the scriptures that the Messiah was Jesus.
(From the Vatican MS. B.)
|And certain Corinthians who were dwelling in Ephesus, heard him, and urged him to cross over with them to their native land; and when he consented, the Ephesians |130 wrote to the disciples in Corinth, that they should receive the man; and he dwelt in Achaia, and spent some time in the churches; for he refuted the Jews excellently, arguing
publicly and proving through the
scriptures that Jesus was the Messiah.
(From the Cambridge MS. D.)
The fuller text which we have described as the Reviser's Text, may appear to many superior; and who can say that some points in it may not give the correct reading? But scholars generally are convinced, by studying all the evidence, that B represents what Luke wrote, and that D represents a rewriting.
Apollos made a profound impression on the Corinthian church, so much so that many were convinced that he was far superior intellectually to Paul.
When Paul had finished his work in Galatia, he proceeded westward along the Asian highway until he reached Ephesus, passing once more by the cities of western Phrygia. It was not customary for apostles to travel alone, so he may have had Timothy with him. But there were changes in the missionary personnel at this time. The name of Silas disappears from the epistles of Paul, and the name of Titus is found there. Paul may have brought back Titus with him from Antioch. He may have left Silas there, perhaps with Peter; for he is associated with Peter when his name reappears some ten years later. It is a good conjecture that Peter and Silas visited the northern parts of Asia Minor from Antioch, including Cappadocia, Bithynia, and Pontus; for Peter's Epistle, which was written' through Silvanus', was addressed to the Gentile Christians of these provinces, along with those of Asia and Galatia.
When Paul arrived in Ephesus he found a group of twelve men who were interested in the gospel, but the only baptism they had received was that of John, and they had heard nothing about the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul persuaded them to accept Christian baptism and the laying on of hands. We cannot quite read the significance of the story, but it |131 illustrates the mixed material out of which the Ephesian church was made. We must be careful, however, not to assume that the status of these men was the same as that of Apollos. He was said to be fervent in the Spirit, whereas they had never heard of such a thing; and they were given Christian baptism, which is not said in his case. They then received the Holy Spirit, like the Samaritan converts who were confirmed by Peter and John.
The preaching of Paul was not, of course, the first introduction of the gospel to Ephesus. It was the point at which an independent church was organized. He soon parted company with the synagogue, and organized his disciples in the school of a certain Tyrannus, where he gave lectures, according to the reviser of Acts, ' from the fifth hour to the tenth', that is to say, from n.o a.m. to 4.0 p.m. or thereabouts. It would be rather rash to infer that his association with Tyrannus imparted a share of Ionian philosophy to the Ephesian church. On the other hand, it may have supplied facilities for writing and book-production, and we shall see that Ephesus did become a centre of literary activity.
Another ingredient in the mixed background of the Ephesian church was magic. It was commonly believed at the time, though it was not necessarily thought to be respectable, that the course of life could be influenced by age-old ceremonies and charms and incantations in which an expert invoked the names of gods or daemons, the latter word simply meaning a disembodied spirit, who might be either good or evil. A degraded and contaminated form of Judaism produced its quota of these impostors, who knew the names of aeons and angels and dominions and powers. Some 'Jewish' exorcists with priestly pretensions, who called themselves the Sons of Scaeva (the left-handed), impressed by the healings and casting out of evil spirits which were a standing feature of the Christian mission, added the names of Jesus and Paul to their own repertoire; the response from the patient was not favourable. This incident led to confessions by many of Paul's converts that they were still using these curious arts, and there was a great burning of magical papyri.
We have passed rather lightly over Luke's rogues' gallery, that is to say his portraits of pseudo-religionists who opposed the progress of the gospel, often by assimilating themselves to it; but these portraits, even if they seem rather slight, make a valuable series for study. They
|132 are Ananias of Jerusalem, Simon of Samaria, Elymas of Cyprus, the soothsayers of Philippi, and the Sons of Scaeva. Brands plucked from the burning are Apollos of Alexandria and the 'Baptist' circle at Ephesus.
Paul spent three years at Ephesus, which we may allot to 52-55 A.D. We can shift them a year or two later if we wish to, by allowing a longer time for the journey to Syria in 52; but the journey does not seem to require it. During this time he built up a considerable staff of assistants, whose names are scattered over the Acts and the Epistles. Among these Timothy acquired a position second only to Paul himself. By means of epistles and visits from these assistants, he continued to administer the affairs of the churches which he had founded, and those which had sprung up in their vicinity. It is in this period that he compares himself to the 'wise master-builder', and indeed a structure was going up all round the Aegean Sea which would provide a foundation for the church as a whole when the ' day' came with its storms and afflictions. At present, however, there was comparative peace. The Roman power was neutral and therefore, in a real sense, protective. Gallic had refused to take action against Paul in Corinth; the' Asiarchs' who were men of influence in Ephesus were his friends.
Early in 54, according to our computation, he was meditating a new move. It was a pilgrimage to Jerusalem by representatives of all his churches, taking up a substantial offering for the 'poor saints'. It is interesting to note that in spite of the antagonism of the more narrow-minded Jewish Christians in Jerusalem there existed in the Pauline churches a genuine sentiment of loyalty and affection for the mother church, which was maintaining its own witness under great difficulties. The modern theological interest in the ecclesiastical controversies of the period tends to obscure the broader facts of the situation, and one of these was the solidarity of all Christians in the Messiah; one spirit and one body, as Paul expressed it.
These Gentile Christians had become members of a religious movement which was grounded in the Jewish tradition; and just as born Jews went up to Jerusalem from time to time to appear before the Lord and to offer their gifts, so the believers from among the Gentiles, who had the same status in Israel as the ' God-fearers' of the synagogue, |133 could go up and offer theirs. Paul had taken part in a mission of this sort from Antioch in 45 or 46, and had pledged himself to bring further gifts from his distant churches, but it would be an error of judgement to suppose that the purpose of his visit was primarily financial. It must have been a spiritual enterprise. His Gentile converts would make personal contact with the old Jerusalem church; they would view the sacred sites; they would meet the original eye-witnesses and ministers of the word; they would hear the story of the early days for themselves.
Conversely, their presence might commend the Gentile mission to the hard hearts of the all-too-Jewish Jewish-Christian, a hope which Paul expresses in his Epistle to the Romans. It was a generous impulse, because he was no longer beholden to Jerusalem for recognition or encouragement. In these few years the Gentile mission had made great strides. The gospel was definitely passing to the Gentiles. Perhaps they were more numerous? Paul claims that he had laboured ' more abundantly than they all'.
These preparations were interrupted by serious troubles in the Corinthian ecclesia. Doubtless such troubles were part of the growing pains of all churches; but those in Corinth were especially severe, and we happen to have a good deal of the correspondence to which they gave rise. But not all. There was a letter which was written to the Corinthians previous to any which we now possess, in which Paul told them not to be 'unequally yoked with unbelievers', and to have no association with fornicators; a counsel which some in Corinth regarded as unpractical, human society being what it is. Paul had to explain that what he meant was that such persons should not be admitted to the fellowship meals and eucharists:' with such a one not to eat in common'. Early in 54, some persons representing a lady named Chloe gave him information about certain divisions and dissensions, which had become a danger to the peace of the church.
Every one says, I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, I am of Kephas; I am of the Messiah. Is the Messiah divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized into Paul's name? I am thankful that I baptized none of you, except |134 Crispus and Gaius, lest anyone should say that I baptized into my own name. I also baptized the household of Stephanas. I forget whether I baptized any other.
(1 Cor. i. 12-16.)
This typical piece of Pauline prose illuminates the situation, but does not enable us to analyse it. No success has attended the efforts to form a clear view of a Paul-party, an Apollos-party, or a Peter-party; let alone a Messiah-party. Yet parties there were, or at least violent opposition of different points of view, and debates in which the names of the leaders were recklessly used.
No doubt the controversies which had divided the church in 49 were not extinct; Jew and Gentile may still have found it hard to sit down at table together. But we can distinguish divisions of another kind now. We can detect a broad-minded or over-emancipated ultra-Gentile propaganda or trend, which, for all we know, may have appealed to a certain type of Jewish convert too; it would appear to have been favourable to Paul and favoured by him to some extent. There was also a narrow-minded, rather Judaistic propaganda which was critical of Paul, and may have been promoted by some Jewish 'apostles' of unknown origin, who had made their nests in the Corinthian ecclesia. There was much talk about wisdom and knowledge on the part of superior persons who thought that Paul was deficient in these respects. In the first part of his first Epistle he reads one side, or perhaps both sides, a lesson in which he commends the simple gospel of the cross, and attempts to put wisdom in a subordinate place; but in the very act of doing this he cannot help spinning a theory of esoteric knowledge or spiritual wisdom which was soon to prove too fascinating for weaker minds. There is a general air of intellectual ferment. It may be that both parties, or all parties, were rather inclined to what later would be called heresy.
This spiritual wisdom is thought by many to owe something to the language of what are called the 'mystery religions'. No doubt it is more in line with this kind of Hellenistic religious life than with the apocalypses and catechisms of the Thessalonian epistles, which it appears to desire to transcend; but we may not have to look farther than the Hellenistic synagogue for the origin of the idiom, allowing fully for the possibility of border-line tendencies in Judaism of a liberal, mystical, or ascetic character, and for the influence of a Syrian mysticism or gnosis in Palestine itself. Of course the converts from
|135 'idolatry' brought in with them their own way of thinking and speaking on religious subjects, and we may allow for the possibility that Paul picked up a phrase or two from them, becoming 'all things to all men', as he says, 'that he might gain some at least'. He could certainly put on the manner of the Stoic or Cynic philosopher when he pleased, and why not of the master of the mysteries?
Paul had Timothy by him when he began to frame his great Epistle to the Corinthians, and the name of Sosthenes appears as a co-author. He was probably the Sosthenes who is mentioned in the Acts as a Corinthian synagogue-ruler. Stephanas had also arrived from Corinth, with two members of the ecclesia, Achaicus and Fortunatus. They carried a letter from the ecclesia which asked for guidance on a number of subjects; and they were able to supply him with further information on the condition of affairs. It was a staff-conference. Apollos was there.
Paul deals in succession with the various questions which were referred to him, beginning with a case of outrageous sexual immorality, which unfortunately had failed to disturb the serenity of the intellectuals. Stephanas and his colleagues had been unable to get the ecclesia to take action. The vigorous directive of Paul shows exactly what was meant by his picture of the church as a sanctuary of light in a dark world, and also the nature of his own authority as the Apostle who had founded the church. The offender must be cut off; he must be thrown back into the outer darkness; he must be 'delivered over to Satan for the destruction of his carnal nature' in the hope that his soul would be saved in the Day of the Lord. It is the Christian form of the anathema or solemn excommunication which was customary in Israel. We should bear it in mind in considering the cases of Ananias of Jerusalem and Elymas of Cyprus, Simon of Samaria even.
The apostle had made his decision so far as he was concerned; but his spiritual authority in such matters was normally exercised in the bosom of the ecclesia concerned. On this occasion he boldly anticipates the concurrence of the ecclesia; he acts as if he were present in the spirit, and calls upon the ecclesia to concur and to make the sentence effective. He was prepared to risk everything on this exercise of authority and this expectation of obedience. His appeal was supported by certain |136 refrains of a liturgical character based on the Passover ritual of the searching for the leaven; it was the Passover season when he wrote
Cleanse out the old leaven that you may have a new lump;
For our Passover is slain, even the Messiah;
Therefore let us keep the Festival.
There was a profusion of questions on the subject of marriage, divorce, and virginity; and also on social relations with pagan society. There was a group (or groups) which prided itself on its strength of purpose in Christ, and held to a course of virginity as the highest ideal. Apparently there were cases of men and women living together with nothing more than a spiritual bond. Even though Paul favoured virginity, he thought some were flying too high.
It was the same 'strong' group no doubt that frequented the pagan banquets, and ate the food which had been offered to idols; even it would seem in the temple-precincts, on the grounds that an idol was 'nothing in the world'. These were the views with which Paul most nearly sympathized, and it would seem that he had been known to partake of such food, though he strongly condemns any participation in the pagan rites themselves, or with the 'table of daemons' as he calls the banquets of the gods. It would appear that he had been attacked on this point, and we find him defending himself in a vigorous way, asserting his freedom on such matters, but also declaring that he would eat no flesh at all 'while the world endureth', if it offended the conscience of a weaker brother, that is to say a member of the party that attributed importance to such matters.
We are here, for one short moment, on the grounds of the decision which had been made for Gentile Christians in Syria by the Jerusalem council, five years before. Paul agrees to act in accordance with it, but only as a concession to the weaker brethren. It would be interesting to know how it had fared during five years of history. Paul does not refer to it at all.
On the other hand, he quotes more than once from 'commandments' of the Lord. He has a commandment of the Lord on the subject of the |137 marriage bond, another on the support of apostles when preaching the gospel, and a third on the sacrament of the breaking of the bread; indeed, he tells the story of the Last Supper with the command to 'Do this in remembrance of me'. It is interesting to note that it is only in this Epistle, in connexion with these pastoral problems, that he introduces direct quotations from the teaching of Jesus, and direct references to the sacrament of the eucharist. But for the Corinthian scandals, they would never have been mentioned, and it would have been possible to argue that he knew nothing of them; which is a lesson on the limitations of documentary sources, and the fallibility of the argument from silence.
The Last Supper naturally suggests the Passover, and a Paschal background is provided by a mystical treatment of the Exodus story, based on Exodus and Numbers, or a 'Midrash' on Exodus and Numbers. Paul draws out the liturgical and sacramental implications of the sacred text, very much as we find it was done in the Jewish tradition; but he claims that its true significance is only revealed in the Christian mysteries. 'These things occurred as types', he says, meaning patterns which would be examples for us; 'and were written down for our admonition on whom the ends of the world have come.' The Hebrew scriptures only exist now to provide lessons for the Christian ecclesia.
After dealing with a number of liturgical and pastoral questions, such as the veiling of women during prayer and the scandals which marred the solemnity of the eucharist, he passes to the ministry of the 'spirituals', the men and women, moved by the Holy Spirit, who rose up and spoke with tongues or prophesied. It was no doubt in this very activity that the dissensions and debates arose. He presents his parable of the church as the body of the Messiah, and every member of it the recipient of a 'charisma' or special gift of grace, given to him for the service of the whole. He reviews some of these gifts of the Spirit, and insists that Christian love is a gift which outshines all the teaching and all the prophecy and all the wisdom. He does something to regulate the exercise of the ecstatic gifts, revealing as he does so how song and praise and thanksgiving were mingled together promiscuously and unintelligibly, to the perplexity of the average Christian, who knew not when to say Amen. He supplies rules of order. He insists that God is not a god of chaos.
From this subject he passes to the question of the resurrection; for there were persons in Corinth who denied the resurrection of the dead. They probably believed that the soul passed away to some more heavenly sphere or was born again in another body; and, if this was the case, it may have been a piece of pagan mysticism such as could have been derived from the mystery religions or from the higher paganism of the East. No doubt men who had drifted in from these cults could make nothing of the apocalyptic vision in Thessalonians. Paul himself has advanced beyond the Thessalonian stage, and bases what he has to say about the resurrection of believers on the Resurrection of Jesus Christ himself, in which they all believed. He reminds them of the credal formula which he had taught them four or five years before and had received himself at an early stage in his Christian life.
He pointed out that the gospel of the resurrection rested on the concurrent testimony of Peter and James and all the apostles, including himself; and his insistence on this point suggests that the question about the resurrection of the dead was the very one which had divided the ecclesia into parties. The same question had occasioned doubts at Thessalonica.
He preaches them an Easter sermon on the resurrection of the body, in which his doctrine is neither all-too-bodily nor all-too-spiritual. He speaks of the transformation of bodily life by spiritual energy. The creative power of God, which raised the Lord Jesus from the dead, will also transform our earthly body from its present mortal condition, and make it a glorious incorruptible garment of the spirit. This new idea is boldly infused into the Thessalonian apocalypse. In a sudden access of inspiration, he re-fashions it to include the doctrine of transformation. The trumpet will sound, he asserts; but we will be changed. It is a 'mystery'; a kind of speech, that is, in which the heavenly truth is presented in a veiled form; but the veils have grown thinner and more transparent; the heavenly infuses the earthly and shines through it. And this new language of spirit-infused myth, or spirit-infused apocalypse, becomes Paul's natural mode of speech with regard to the eternal realities; it is not in words taught by man's wisdom, he explains, but in words taught by the Spirit, matching spiritual realities with spiritual realities. It is trans-apocalyptic, to coin a phrase.
|139 The final chapter descends to earth again and deals with the method of organizing the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, which is to be effected by asking everybody to lay by such money as he can afford on the first day of each week, which is the earliest reference to the Christian Sunday after the event of Easter morning itself. He intends to stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost, but is sending Timothy to them, probably in connexion with the offering. Apollos prefers to remain in Ephesus.
In the chapter of 1 Corinthians which deals with the resurrection, there is a strange line which begins with these words: 'If, after the manner of men, I had fought with beasts at Ephesus'; and there are not wanting one or two scholars who suggest that it should be taken literally; but such an encounter could not have been passed over by Luke or omitted by Paul from his list of sufferings on behalf of Christ. It is, of course, one of his strong figures of speech, which is what he usually means by the phrase 'after the manner of men'. He has already pictured his life as an apostle as being like an appearance in the amphitheatre. The whole universe was a great arena for him, with all the hosts of heaven looking on.
A crisis occurred in Ephesus, however, which is the subject of one of Luke's most skilful pieces of writing. The trouble was due this time to the Christian (and Jewish) polemic against the 'idolatry' of the pagan world, about which very little is said in our sources. There was a guild of craftsmen who made and sold silver shrines of the great goddess Artemis, whom, they asserted, all the world adored. One of their number, named Demetrius, raised a great outcry against Paul, on the grounds that he was injuring their trade by preaching that gods which were 'made with hands' were not gods at all; which nobody knew better than he. There was a rowdy and disorderly gathering of the citizens in the enormous theatre, at which a Jew named Alexander was put up to speak, and howled down by the mob. Who he was, or what he was going to say, we have no idea; doubtless the readers of the Acts knew something about him, or the author would have given more information. Gaius and Aristarchus, two Christian leaders from Macedonia, were seized upon, but escaped with their lives. Paul was put under 'police protection'. Now though Paul received the personal |140 protection of the Asiarchs, and though the city secretary succeeded in calming down the assembly, the hints in the Pauline correspondence rather suggest that the situation was uglier than it is allowed to appear in Acts.
The light and amusing style of Luke must not prevent us from recognizing the gravity of the crisis. The theatre at Ephesus held over twenty thousand people, and if it was filled by a riotous assembly of non-Jews it is a proof that there was an ugly anti-Christian feeling in the city; a growing hatred and fear of this new oriental movement which spread throughout the Roman world until it was sated in the martyrdoms in Rome ten years later. The first stages of this reaction appear quite clearly in Philippi and Thessalonica, and were perhaps set off by the disturbances in Rome of the year 49; it was being held in check now by the authorities, as was mysteriously adumbrated in the Thessalonian Epistles, but we can see what it was like when Nero turned it loose and hounded it on in 64.
There is a theory that Paul suffered an imprisonment in Ephesus, and that the Epistles written by him in prison should be assigned to this period; but it is not easy to fit an imprisonment of any length into the known course of events; and the silence of Acts is fatal to the theory. It is not possible to explain why Luke should omit a fact of such importance, and so give a false view of the course of events, which were in any case public property; the story as given in Acts impresses most readers as a particularly good piece of reporting. Nevertheless, the theory has the value of drawing attention to the gravity of the occasion, which is apt to be overlooked. Paul looks back to it in II Corinthians as a period of deadly peril, unless perhaps he is referring to some serious illness which he went through at the time.
Meanwhile affairs at Corinth went from bad to worse. There was a good deal of coming and going at this time, and it is not easy to co-ordinate all the information we possess. It is certain, however, that Paul visited Corinth, as he had said in his first Epistle that he might do. This visit was not a success. He did not make a good showing, or that is what his enemies said. His bodily presence was weak, they remarked, and his speech beneath contempt. There was opposition and even defiance, in |141 connexion with which one person was prominent, though we cannot give the one person a name, or form a very clear idea of him. He appears to have been the leader of a Jewish-Christian faction, and ranked as an apostle of some sort.
On his return to Ephesus Paul decided to take a strong line, and to send a severe epistle, even though it might give pain. He composed it, he says, in tears and great distress of mind. He sent it by Titus.
Titus was occupied in organizing the collection of the offering for the church in Jerusalem. It will be remembered that he had accompanied Paul to Jerusalem on a similar mission about eight years before. It would appear that he was a practical man with a talent for such work. He had gone through a conflict with difficult Jewish Christians on their home ground. He was the man for the occasion.
Part of this 'severe letter', or possibly the whole of it, has been appended to the second Epistle to the Corinthians, forming its last four chapters. It contains an onslaught on certain 'pseudo-apostles' who had egged on the opposition party; for Paul does not hesitate to call them by harsh names; 'false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ'. He also refers to them as the ' super-apostles' or the' extra-super-apostles', if we may be allowed in this way to paraphrase his double superlatives. They were 'Israelites', and 'seed of Abraham' and 'servants of the Messiah'. Perhaps they had listened to Jesus. But they relied on letters of commendation, and collected them from the churches as they went round. They depended for their living on the bounty of the faithful, which Paul had not done. In return they performed miracles and supplied visions and revelations. They accused Paul of pride and arrogance and boasting and making money out of his churches; he was inconsistent, and his word was not to be trusted.
They were apostles of a sort, it seems; envoys or agents of some church, possibly the Jerusalem church. Paul makes mention of such envoys, men who had been chosen by his own churches to travel with him in the ministry of the gospel. He calls them 'apostles of the churches'. He designates one of them now, 'the brother whose praise is in the gospel', to accompany Titus when he makes the final appeal to the Corinthian church. They take the severe letter and present it. It used hard language in places, and Paul had felt compelled to give some |142 account of what he had suffered on behalf of the gospel, and to remind them of all he had done for them. He descends to this level of 'boasting' with half-pitiful, half-comic apologies.
The mission was brilliantly successful. The opposition to Paul had probably discredited itself by now. The ecclesia as a whole had come to its senses. Titus and his unnamed colleague were received with 'fear and trembling'. An offender of importance, perhaps some doughty patron of the opposition, was censured by a majority vote. Titus returned in triumph.
It all took a little longer than Paul had expected. He arrived at Troas to preach the gospel of Christ, and a door was opened in the Lord; but his spirit found no rest. He went on into Macedonia with Timothy, where the churches had suffered some sort of persecution too. Everywhere there was trouble. Somewhere in Macedonia, in Philippi perhaps, he met Titus; and Titus brought him good news. His joy overflows in the opening chapters of his 'Second Epistle' to the Corinthians.
The liturgical background of this Epistle was the feast of Pentecost which was now past. It commemorated the giving of the Law by Almighty God in clouds of light upon Mount Sinai; how much more glorious, he says, is the ministry of love and grace with which the apostles are entrusted in the church; shining forth upon the world in the face of Jesus the Messiah, and written by the Spirit in the hearts of men through the proclamation of the gospel; not graven in rock to be a sentence of death. It is the Lord himself with the gift of liberty.It is the promise and assurance of endless inexpressible life and glory, when these worn-out bodies in which we tabernacle now, are exchanged for those in which we hope to be ' clothed upon', when sorrow and conflict and persecution have been passed through.
In this passionate and realistic mysticism, we have travelled far from the thorough-going apocalyptic of the Thessalonian epistles. The Christian still stands between the Resurrection and the Advent, the two creative moments in which divine glory breaks through into this dark cosmos; but they are almost eclipsed by the glory of the |143 present moment, when the unlimited Grace of God flows in upon the apostle and his people in their hour of need. It is most powerful of all in the pain and suffering and mortification by which he fills up in his own mortal body the sufferings and sorrows of the Messiah himself.
This is the Pauline doctrine of the 'perisseuma' or excess of grace which is translated in the famous phrase of 'grace abounding'. It is the main theme of the Epistle to the Romans, in which he develops the paradox that where sin increases, the grace of God is more abundant still. The sin of man provokes the wrath of God, and in surpassingly greater degree it provokes his grace.
Infusion of grace is the heart of the Pauline religion. Paul's Epistles and especially the Epistle to the Romans have provided raw material for a hundred schemes of salvation, doctrines of atonement, and theories of predestination; but the real Paul moved freely from one mode of thought to another, using all but selling himself to none. He penetrates into profound mysteries with uncanny analytic genius; he captures a mood of frustration or exaltation with a few magic words; he writes inspired passages which are like solemn music; but he has no consistent theology. When he argues he can be very fatiguing; when he theorizes he can be very obscure; but time after time he produces exactly the right phrase. He is a gold-mine for the preacher.
There is one consistent thought, however, which holds together everything he says and does. It is the inundation of the soul by power from heaven. It is a dynamic advent of deity here and now in this evil world; God in Christ; God in the man's soul and body, contending with sin and death and winning the victory; whether he calls it grace or justification or comfort or new creation or redemption or charisma or apocalypse, it is all one thing; God in action; Holy Spirit; grace abounding.
The greatness of Paul is his pure religious genius; the sense that he, so worthless and evil, was yet the chosen instrument which God filled with his supernatural power to do his will; too much power indeed for the weak body to sustain. His theology fails to embody or express it; it often obscures it and complicates it even as he labours to clarify it. It is in himself, not in his theology. He works it out in his flesh and blood. He is himself the theological factum; the sinner that God saved through Jesus Christ; the apostle that he equipped with so much |144 power for building up but not for tearing down. God's power never fails. All around him the infinite glory and grace of it is poured out richly, and operates in all his churches, beyond all measure or hope or expectation; the excess, the overflowing, the generous superfluity, the completeness and fullness of the divine love that fills all in all.
It will be observed that we have here an advent or parousia taking place spiritually by grace in the church.
Paul finished his letter and sent it to Corinth. It is typical of his generous heart that he urged the Corinthians to restore to communion the offender who had been excommunicated. He sends him full forgiveness if the ecclesia will concur.
It was getting late in the year, but he pushed westward along the Egnatian Road, across the Balkan mountains, until he had crossed the boundary of the Adriatic province which was known as Illyricum. How much farther he went we do not know. He was on the main road to Rome; ships sailed from Nicopolis to Brundisium in Italy, but his hour had not yet come to see Rome. He retraced his steps and spent three months in Corinth.
A great change was taking place which would once more turn the current of the gospel. On October 12 the Emperor Claudius died, and his young stepson Nero came to the throne. The ban against the Jews was lifted and the Jewish exiles could go back to Rome. Aquila and Priscilla had already gone, and doubtless many others went with them. There was Phoebe, for instance, a lady from Cenchreae who is described as a patroness of the church there; it was seven miles out of Corinth. Paul could not go with them; there was his 'ministry' or ' act of grace' to be fulfilled in Jerusalem first; he decided to send a letter which Phoebe could take with her.
During this winter of 54-55 (or 55-56) Paul wrote his Epistle to the Romans, which gives us his mature thought on the deepest problems of religion, as they were illuminated by the gospel which he preached. He paused for a while and surveyed the scene. He was the apostle of the Gentiles. He saw himself as a priest ministering before the Messiah Jesus, as it were at an altar, that their offering might be acceptable to God, being consecrated by the Holy Spirit. Looking westward he felt |145 his responsibility for Rome, and beyond that for Spain. Others had laid the foundations in Rome; and it was his principle not to build on foundations which were not his own; he had suffered sufficiently from other men building on his. But he could address an epistle to the Christians in Rome, and he could pay them a visit later on, and impart some spiritual gift, and then be sent forward by them on his way to Spain.
Looking eastward, he felt a responsibility for Jerusalem, where he had launched that first violent persecution. By now the Jews had been left behind. They had rejected the gospel, and it had passed to the Gentiles; perhaps its rejection by the Jews had stimulated the Gentiles to take it up. The purposes of God were strange; past tracing out. Perhaps the coming in of the Gentiles would stimulate the Jews? At any rate the appeal must be made. He must go up to Jerusalem once more, this time in all the spiritual strength that could be supplied by the prayers and gifts of his Gentile churches, which were themselves a thank-offering to God. It would be a costly and dangerous enterprise, but it must be taken in hand. If their rejection had been the occasion of the reconciliation of the Gentile world to God, what would their acceptance be but something very like life from the dead?
Such is the picture which is brought before us as we read the Epistle to the Romans; a steady picture of the whole Christian world, with Rome at one pole of it in the West, and Jerusalem at the other in the East; and the gospel encircling both.
The task of producing this long Epistle was no light one, and we know that Paul had help. Indeed, it is unlikely that he ever produced any epistle entirely by himself, except possibly Galatians; for he wrote the last sentences at least in his own hand; perhaps the whole. It looks rather as if one copy was taken round and read in each church, the apostle's handwriting being the guarantee of its genuineness; and if so, this is another indication of the haste in which it was written. Copies must have been made in Galatia itself for the churches affected.
The Thessalonian Epistles were written at Corinth. It took three people to write them in the intervals of manual labour and evangelizing. They were certified by Paul's signature on each copy.
|146 The Corinthian Epistles were written from Ephesus, and there, we have suggested, there may have been better facilities for book-production. The First Epistle was carefully composed and arranged, and two people worked on it, Paul and Sosthenes. The earlier Epistles had now proved their value, and had been retained in the churches which had received them, but 1 Corinthians was designed to be a permanent work of reference. It was certainly not intended to be read through at one session from start to finish, and then put away. On the contrary it was a well-organized manual for church rulers on the subject of church management. It was written for such use at the request of the household of Stephanas, who had assumed the ministerial authority in the church. Nor was it intended to be limited in use to one particular church, a point which is made clear in the address.
called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Sosthenes the brother,
To the church of God that is in Corinth
... with all who call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ in every place.
Some scholars have suggested that an editor added this clause at a later date when the Pauline Epistles were prepared for 'publication'. It seems more probable that it was intended for wider circulation from the beginning. It is the epistle which left the clearest impression on the writers of the next generation, and in the old lists and manuscripts it often comes first.
2 Corinthians is another matter. Its interest is largely local and personal, and it was connected with a crisis which the Corinthian church might well wish to forget. It may have been at a later date, when Pauline Epistles were in demand, that it was given to the church at large, the' severe letter' being added as an appendix.
In Romans we recognize another letter which seems to have been intended for wider circulation. It has been thought that there was more than one version of it put out, since a shortened version, in fact, two shortened versions, were in use in the second century. It is not at all likely, however, that either of these existed in the first century. This difficult learned argumentative epistle went out now as the supreme expression of the mind of Paul on the gospel of free forgiveness and grace abounding for all sinners, whether Jew or Gentile. The succeeding generation did not understand it. It was too Jewish.
|147 It may be that the winter of 54-55 saw 1 Corinthians and Romans sent out for wider distribution. It would seem that there was some sort of literary workshop or scriptorium in connexion with the Corinthian church where copies of such literature could be made. At any rate there was a scribe named Tertius, one of the many who had friends in Rome; he adds his salutations, and affirms that he 'wrote the Epistle in the Lord'. He seems to take some credit.
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