Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Church History Lesson 2 (Time is Ripe: Part 1)

Note: I taught a Sunday School on Church History in 2004 in New Hampshire. Starting in February I'll be teaching the same course here in Virginia. So any posts, including the one below, and especially for the first half of the series, are more or less repeats.

A Great Rabbi Arrives in Corinth

(Note: generously adopting and lifting from F. F. Bruce's fantastic book: The Spreading Flame.)

A Roman couple, Priscilla and Aquila, arrived from the west. The great rabbi arrived from the east, from the province of Cilicia. He practiced the same trade as the Roman couple, and soon made their acquaintance. (Aside: their trade was more general than “tent maker”, more like a leather worker—perhaps not even making tents at all.)

This teacher was known to the Jews by the name Saul, but the Gentiles referred to him as Paul, anglicized from his Roman family name, Paullus. He was a Jew from Tarsus, and his father was Roman citizen, so he inherited that distinction.

As a young rabbinical student, Paul trained under the most revered rabbi of the day, Gamaliel the Elder. It had only been about 15-20 years since Jesus was seen ascending into heaven, and disciples from all nations were converted at Pentecost and began spreading the news of Jesus. From the beginning Paul, as a devout Jew, set about persecuting and condoning the murder of Jesus’ followers.

Then, astonishingly, Paul was himself was converted while traveling to Damascus, transformed from the greatest persecutor of Jesus to the greatest teacher and evangelist.

Paul was not seeking God. He was not wooed by God. His was perhaps the most blatantly Calvinistic conversion of all time. All believers are figuratively smacked offside the head, knocked to the ground, and converted in an act of divine sovereignty. For Paul it was also literal.

As he enters Corinth, around A.D. 50, neither Paul nor any other leader has been to Rome, nor has Paul, as of yet, written to the faithful in Rome. So imagine his amazement when he encountered two strangers from Rome who shared not only his occupation, but also his beliefs.

A few weeks after his arrival, two friends the Rabbi had left behind in Macedonia, men named Silas and Timothy, arrived in Corinth with supplies.

Because of his reputation, it was inevitable that soon after arriving, Paul was teaching at the Corinthian synagogue. As he read the holy writings, he would add to them, explaining how the prophecies had been fulfilled by Jesus. Some thought that his teachings were blasphemy, while others, especially among the Gentile God-fearers, believed what the rabbi taught concerning Jesus.

What exactly did the rabbi teach?

He taught that the long awaited "deliverer" had come. By this time, the Jews called the deliver Messiah, which means "anointed". The Greeks used the word christos for "anointed", which is Anglicized as Christ.

The greatest scandal arose when Paul taught that not only was this Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, but that he had died the most violent and ignominious death, that of crucifixion.

To many Greeks, preaching of a Messiah who could not save himself was sheer folly, and rather amusing. But to some of the Jews, it was worse, it was blasphemy. For crucifixion, far from signifying God’s supreme favor and blessing upon His people’s deliverer, indicated that this Jesus must have been cursed by God:
22 If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, 23 you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance. (Deut. 21:22-23)
But there is more.

Not only was the Christ hung from a tree, but on the third day he arose from the dead and was seen alive, after His death and burial, by His closest companions and more than 500 other disciples. And finally, the Rabbi taught, "He appeared to me as well." (1 Cor 15:1ff.)

Eventually the leader of the synagogue had enough of Paul's strange beliefs. He was told he could no longer teach to the Jewish faithful. This would prove to be a pattern.

Paul didn’t have to go far to find another place to meet. One of the God-fearers who believed Paul’s teaching was a Roman citizen named Gaius Titius Justus. Justus lived next door to the synagogue, and his house became the meeting place for the new Christian community of Corinth.

This new community made no distinction between Greeks and Jews. It required neither circumcision nor sacrifice. It had only one initiation rite: baptism by water. There was an additional, oft-repeated rite among the believers: a fellowship over a simple meal of bread and wine to which special importance was attached.

Amazingly, the leader of the synagogue that had expelled Paul, a man named Crispus, joined the Christians. Crispus would have been in charge of the physical arrangements for the synagogue and synagogue services. And now he, and his family, and many Gentile Corinthians believed and were baptized.

After Crispus had joined the Christians, the Jewish authorities had had enough.

They took their case against Paul to Gallio the Roman proconsul of Achaia. (An inscription has been uncovered that identifies Gallio as holding this position in A.D. 52, probably beginning in July A.D. 51. After a year in office he left for health reasons. A proconsul was a title for governors who ruled in provinces where no standing army was required. Proconsuls were under the nominal control of the senate, while governors whose province required an army were under the direct control of the emperor.)

The Jews accused Paul of creating a new, unlicensed (as required by Roman law) and hence illegal, religion.

In would seem, providentially, that Gallio could not be bothered. Before Paul even defended himself, Gallio dismissed the case, ruling that Paul was not teaching a new religion but a variant of Judaism, so this matter was an internal dispute and of no concern to Rome.

Apollos the Alexandrian

After about a year and a half, Paul and the Roman couple left Corinth for Ephesus. Paul continued, bound for Palestine and Jerusalem, leaving Priscilla and Aquila behind.

A few months after Paul left Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila, who had stayed in Ephesus, met another Jew on his way to Corinth, another highly educated man like Paul. His name was Apollos; he was a native of Alexandria in Egypt. A renowned orator, he had been teaching what he knew of Jesus, but he had substantive gaps in his knowledge. For example, he was teaching not of baptism in the name of Jesus, but an older form of baptism associated with a wilderness preacher named John who came just before Jesus and whose preaching, announcing that that the time was ripe, presaged the coming of the Messiah. John’s baptism was a token of repentance rather than an initiation into the community of Christ.

In Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos, filling in the gaps in his understanding of Jesus. After they finished teaching him, they provided him with a letter of introduction to the Corinthian community, an Apollos set off across the Aegean sea. There he taught the Corinthian Christians, and is evident that his academic style, being especially suitable for Greek culture, was well received.

More Visitors to Corinth

Not long after Apollos, some of the twelve Palestinians who had been closest to Jesus and who witnessed his resurrection arrived in Corinth. It is likely that Peter, the leader of the twelve, visited. We know this because Paul had occasion to write to the Corinthian church and chastise them for breaking in factions, one faction following Paul because of his heritage as a great rabbi, one following Apollos because of his skillful oratory, and one following Peter because of his first-hand association with Jesus.

Paul told the Corinthians that all three "leaders" of the rival schools were legitimate messengers, but they were messengers only. If the Corinthians wanted to call themselves followers of someone, it should be followers of He in whose name they were baptized. They should be called Christians.


So in about A.D. 50-55, travelers from four different locations, already connected by this new form of Judaism that acknowledged Jesus as the Christ, arrived in Corinth. The fact that some were from Rome and Egypt, and yet they were followers of this new sect, less that two decades after his death should not be overlooked.

We need to learn more about this new movement and how it was shaking synagogues and Jewish communities throughout the Roman empire to their core.

The time was ripe. An interesting question: Was the Roman empire a stumbling block or a necessity?

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