In my last blog post on Acts, Paul is shaken to the core at the troubling situations in Athens. We read that Paul encountered certain Epicurean and Stoic philosophers and he preached the resurrection on Mars Hill, but it was not well received so Paul departed from among them. Let’s continue with the story.
Read Acts 18
From Athens, Paul went to Corinth. Corinth, of course, is the subject audience of Paul’s epistles to the Corinthians. I would like you to pay close attention to what goes on in Corinth here in chapter 18 because this provides the background context to understand both the tone and the issues that Paul addresses with the Corinthians in the New Testament books of 1st and 2nd Corinthians.
The good news is that for the first time in a while, Paul didn’t leave Athens in a state of riot after he had visited there. And he wasn’t being chased and hounded, nor had he been roughed up or jailed.
The bad news is there is no clue as to why Paul decided to go to Corinth; so we’ll not speculate. However, we can determine that it is nearly certain that Paul arrived in Corinth in 50 A.D. This means that it has been between 15 and 20 years since Yeshua died on the cross in Jerusalem.
Now Corinth was an important place and located on the Isthmus of Corinth and thus was ideally suited as a center of commerce and shipping. It was a huge city for that day; there were 6 miles of walls surrounding the metropolis. Also estimated that the total population at that time was around 750,000 people; it was larger than Athens.
Like most ancient cities this one had been destroyed and rebuilt more than once. In one such destruction in 146 B.C., it was leveled into a smoldering heap. It was rebuilt by Julius Caesar 100 years later. So by Paul’s day, it had grown to this tremendous size and population and is only about 90 years.
Naturally, Corinth maintained a sizeable Jewish population and boasted several synagogues. Paul would have had no trouble in finding Jews for hospitality. Thus we read in verse 2 that Paul found a Jew named Aquila. Aquila was from Pontus in Italy, and he was married to Priscilla. Priscilla’s formal name was Prisca, and we will find Paul referring to her as Prisca in some of his epistles.
Paul must have formed quite a bond with this couple because he mentions them (in a positive way) on numerous occasions. We are given the unexpected bit of information that Aquila and his wife came to Corinth because the Jews had been expelled from Rome by order of Emperor Claudius. So here we need to pause and realize that Rome was religiously tolerant as a national policy, but that doesn’t mean that all were treated with equality.
F.F. Bruce notes something tantalizing; we have the record of Claudius’ order to expel the Jews, but it is usually connected with a statement made by Suetonius that the Jews were sent away because “they were indulging in constant riots at the instigation of Chrestus.” It could well be that Chrestus is some rebellious troublemaker, but history seems to know nothing of him if he existed at all. And this person would have focused his efforts among the Jewish community, apparently.
However far, more likely is that this is referring to Christ because Suetonius’ statement made in conjunction with explaining that the primary source of trouble in the Rome Jewish community was the introduction of The Way into the local synagogue there. And this caused all kinds of dissension and led to more trouble than the Emperor wished to put up with.
As we’ve discussed before, Rome had little interest in the fighting that occurred within the various religions present in the Empire, provided it did not spill over into street violence, upset the rest of the population or threaten the Roman government. And this applied to Judaism as well.
So for Rome, their concern was political; and when dissension arose for whatever reason, the government dealt with it as a civil/political issue; not a religious issue. Thus the expulsion of the Jews from Rome had nothing to do with Judaism. But it did have to do with a perceived disturbing tendency of Jewish people to cause discord in towns and cities where they lived. And this would have a great deal to do with how Nero would use the Jews as a scapegoat for his failed policies.
Some commentators say that because Aquila and Priscilla were Believers that it was only “Christians” expelled from Rome. There is no evidence for that at all; as I said there was no such thing as an identifiable people group called “Christians” in this era until well after the New Testament was closed.
In fact, the Roman authorities consistently expressed total ignorance, and lack of interest, in involving themselves in the internal disputes of Judaism. The crucial bit of information for us is that Aquila and Priscilla were Jewish; not that they belonged to a particular sect of Judaism called The Way. The idea that Claudius, the Roman Emperor, would involve himself and sign a royal decree to expel only certain Jews (and no doubt a very few at that) is not plausible.
We can immediately see why Paul hit it off with Aquila and Priscilla: they were tentmakers just as he was. It is clear that Paul was supporting himself with his trade when he was in one place long enough. And this was a shared understanding for Rabbis and teachers.
A rather standard saying that explains this viewpoint is found in the Mishnah and it says: “Do not make of the Torah….a spade with which to dig”. In other words, don’t teach the Torah as a means to enrich yourself. Don’t make money from it. And this by no means implies that a teacher or Rabbi couldn’t receive money for their efforts except in unusual circumstances. That it should not be the primary source of their income. Rather Rabbis and teachers in that era were expected to hold jobs.
Now, this is a good principle for both Christianity and Judaism. However, not too close of a parallel should be drawn. Being a Rabbi was usually not an occupation; it was an office that a Jew held. Being a Rabbi wasn’t usually a career or profession. So Paul worked as a tentmaker as did Aquila and Priscilla.
Societies at all times in history tend to sub-divide ourselves into cliques according to some standard or another. In Paul’s day, the most common cause for the subdivision had to do with one’s occupation. So trade guilds were the conventional means of society dividing themselves up into social units; it also represents the first attempt at organized labor to both police themselves and to assure that they were paid at some level that as a group they found acceptable.
In fact, it was common that a synagogue was created and populated by members of a particular trade guild. However, in the Roman world, blue-collar laborers were looked down upon. Roman citizens did not usually indulge in manual labor as they saw it as beneath them. Thus we see that Jews (and other ethnicities) were the primary source of employment for the Roman Empire; not because they were forced, but because tradecraft has been observed in Jewish society as honorable.
Therefore, it would be natural that in the Diaspora, Jews would practice their craft in a community that welcomed and needed it. Not surprisingly we find the biggest Jewish colonies within the largest cities in the Roman Empire.
As vs. four states, Paul went to the local synagogue in Corinth every Shabbat in hopes of making new Believers. And we’re told that these synagogues contained both Jews and Greeks (Gentiles). So almost everywhere we have followed Paul we find that some number of gentiles was worshipping the God of Israel alongside their Jewish friends.
But by labeling them as God-fearers, it is clear that most of them did not convert to Judaism by having a circumcision. How, exactly, the Jews dealt with the ritual purity issues that God-fearers caused we don’t know. Very likely, living so far from the Temple and the Priesthood, and residing in a gentile dominated world for so long, the majority of ordinary everyday Jews just didn’t pay much attention to the Torah purity laws, but it is evident that the most pious among them did.
After some months without them, Timothy and Silas finally arrive from Macedonia and rejoin Paul. Their presence seems to have allowed Paul to do less of his tradecraft to provide for himself and instead do more preaching of the Gospel. But note to whom he directed his renewed efforts: to the Jews. So while in a common way of speaking we can say that Paul was the disciple to the Gentiles, we regularly find Paul’s efforts directed towards Jews.
In fact, he taught “in depth” to the Jews about Yeshua being the Messiah. And this means Paul was teaching them the Scripture passages (mostly the Prophets) that predicted the Messiah and then telling these Jews how Yeshua fulfilled those prophecies. So we see him taking the opposite approach with the Corinthian Jews than he took with the Athenians.
But, as usual, some of the Jews of the synagogues accepted Paul’s teachings and others became disturbed by them. So verse 6 explains that after trying long enough, Paul gave up on certain ones who turned hostile and so Paul turned their fate over to the Lord. When he had had enough, Paul is said to have said: “Your blood be upon your heads. For my part I am clean….”
This expression derives from the Torah concept of substitution, which is the central idea of the Levitical sacrificial system, and therefore of redemption in Messiah Yeshua. That is, instead of there being a means of atonement (and an innocent animal bearing the brunt of your offense) a person’s actions will now bring upon that person what the Law prescribes for their offense. In this case, the offense is to refuse the offer of salvation in Christ, and thus this amounts to blasphemy.
It should be noted that this is the first time we read of Paul refusing to address certain of the synagogue community anymore. But let’s also be careful with those final words of verse 6, which are “from now on I will go to the goyim!”
Paul is by no means saying that he has just ended association with Jews or bringing the Good News to Jews. He is only saying that his primary attention is going to be to the Gentiles. We know this is the truth because as we continue in Acts, we find him going directly to the synagogue in other cities he’ll visit, and of his preaching to Jews.
We will continue with Acts chapter 18 next time.