April 24, 2011

The Death and Resurrection of Corinth (3 of 3)

Among the most emotional words of 2nd Timothy, for all of us, should be these:  "Erastus remained at Corinth".  The power of these words all depends on who Erastus was.  As I shared here the other day, there's an institutional mindset that wants to see this man as having "remained" there for many years previous to Paul's letters.  But for Paul's word "remained" to be noteworthy at all, it must be somewhat unexpected.

This suggests three things.  First, it says Timothy knew Erastus as an itinerant church worker, an apostle/evangelist of some sort, a characterization which gives us sound reason to identify this Erastus with the man named in Acts 19.  Second, it says Corinth may not have been a place Timothy would have expected such traveling ministers to stay in for long.  This reading, of course, also depends on whether we suppose the church there to have died or survived past the time they received 2nd Corinthians, but as I noted in part one of this series, Paul's pointed silence in Romans, about Corinth, suggests they probably didn't make it.

But thirdly, this reference in 2nd Timothy suggests that there yet remained hope.

One advantage:  it had been a good while since the death.  Corinth met Paul in the year 51 AD.  Paul left them in 53.  Apollos and Peter visited in 53/54, and Paul wrote his first letter(s?) to them before Emperor Claudius died, in late 54.  That death changed Paul's plans dramatically, so instead of visiting Corinth in 55 as he'd hoped to do, Paul stayed busy preparing to plant churches in Dyrrachium, Illyricum (in person) and in Rome, Italy (long-distance, by proxy).

When Corinth was dying for attention from Paul, in 54 and 55, they received visits from Timothy and Titus.  After Paul left Ephesus in early 55 it took him until late 56 to write 2nd Corinthians.  After three years of crisis, with no recent data, Paul wrote a desperate letter, confessing much of his own angst, hoping that something in Corinth would hold fast, corporately speaking.  By early 57, in his letter to Rome, Paul may as well have revealed Corinth's fate.  It should have been the church's six year anniversary.  Instead, she was no more.

But 2nd Timothy speaks of Erastus setting foot there in Corinth at some point during the year or so in between Paul's last imprisonments, around 62/63/64.  At that moment, to our knowledge, no itinerant worker associated with Paul's churches had made contact with saints there in over six years.  Granted, of course, our knowledge is likewise dim about other cities in Paul's circuit around this time, but the thin beam of light we do have in this case centers on (1) the most likely conclusion I put forth in part 1, that Corinth had in fact ceased gathering as a body, and (2) those hopeful words, which I now cite again:  "Erastus remained at Corinth."

Within all bounds of consideration, there are generally only two reasons why an apostle-type such as Paul or Erastus might stay behind in one city instead of moving onward.  Possibility number one is that Paul & Erastus were hoping the spirit would blow upon embers still burning from years past, and rekindle the fire of a remnant at least.  In other words, one scenario is that Erastus had arrived to begin finding out if a remnant was indeed there, and open to being built with once more (by a worker and by God); or perhaps - failing that - to begin building from scratch with new converts.

Possibility number two is more interesting to say the least, but may also, actually, be slightly more likely.

Given that a decision had already been made for Erastus to stay there in Corinth, it seems likely that some hope had already been sparked.  In other words, Paul is writing to Timothy *after* he and Erastus apparently had gone through the city.  How briefly they lingered is unknown.  That Paul even went there himself is unclear, but the immediate context of 2 Tim 4:20 does sound as if he's recounting his own recent travels.  In any case, if Paul the-even-more-aged-than-ever had been willing to let Erastus remain, their mutual hope for the mission was very likely more than an empty hope.  There had probably already been signs of a church resurrecting in Corinth.

Thus, scenario number two seems more likely:  Erastus stayed because a new/renewed work in Corinth had already/just begun.

It's an odd thing, when a church "dies".  Usually all the saints remain living, physically.  Often most of the saints remain living, spiritually.  But anything traumatic enough to cause a group of Christ-ones to quit assembling as Christ's Body, often causes a tragic amount of individual quitting as well.  And though Paul could not cite anything positive about Corinth in AD 57, and though many of those most hardy souls may have by that point moved a few miles away to the city of Cenchrea, there must have been some saints in Corinth who'd remained faithful, throughout all those dark years.  They may or may not have gathered at times, but they had nevertheless stopped meeting with the rest of Christ's Body in Corinth.  And they evidently went on like that for five or six years, at least.

If Erastus had already met with those saints, and been impressed with their desire to resurrect God's Testimony, corporately, in that place, it would certainly help explain why "Erastus remained in Corinth".

Like all historical reconstructions, naturally, this one's a hypothesis. But - as I said the other day in my post on Erastus, I happen to think this view of what most likely happened in Corinth is "more reasonable, more plausible, more supported by the text, less wistful, more accurately representative of how divine life in a people-group actually operates here on Earth most of the time, [and] more encouraging to the kind of corporate experiences and struggles we're all likely to face..."

It's also far more compelling than the institutional whitewash that says Corinth obviously bounced back when the man in charge wrote to them personally, and that Erastus had obviously "remained" there in Corinth because he was their city-manager.

If it's true that the church in Corinth indeed died, but returned to life years down the road...

What a powerful and encouraging message that could stand as for all of us!

There's a big difference between dying and staying dead.

But we, saints and struggling saints, we embrace death that Christ might be raised anew, within all of us. And, preferably that ought to mean not merely in each of us, but rather in all of us, as an "us".

And that, in about so many words, is the Gospel.

A church can embrace death.  A church can die.  A church can experience resurrection.

Say Amen, saints.  Happy Easter.


April 22, 2011

The Death and Resurrection of Corinth (2 of 3)

Why don't we expect churches to die? It must be the furthest thing from our minds. We spend all that money on architectural drawings, construction, furnishings, a marquee, carpets & air-conditioning. We sign a mortgage for 20 to 30 years. We collect pledge cards from members who promise to pay and keep paying indefinitely. We do this because it's become custom, because our forebearers did this. We expect churches to last. Like Solomon did with his Temple. As if God deigns to stay put for our vanity.

It's the single worst facet of having an institutional mindset. Your goal is that nothing should change.  Nothing should move from its place. Nothing should stop. And, also, nothing should die.

But death, as I've opined here at least once before, might be something a church needs to embrace. Death, in more ways than one, can be part of the cycle of life. Nature composts itself into fertile new ground. Why don't we? Most human enterprises fail at some point. Why don't we expect churches to?

Culturally, here in the west, the increasingly common move to embrace one's own failures is a recent phenomenon. Historically, administrative heads made themselves nothing but vulnerable if they admitted a fault, let alone huge mistakes. It used to be that the best way to succeed was to take over someone else's failure. Today, at the upper end of the world's economic scale, there's more success to be had elsewhere. Therefore, failure is safer. Thus, our new philosophical trend was protected, and now it's starting to spread.

But God was way ahead of us, natch.  So was Paul, even while trying to stave off Corinth's threatening demise:
We have this treasure in earthen vessels... struck down but not destroyed.. carrying around the dying of Jesus.. constantly delivered over to death.. death works in us.. but we do not lose heart. Though our [plural] outer man [singular, corporate?] is decaying, yet the inward is renewed day by day...         (emphasis mine)
If only Corinth could have fixated on the inward, and thus also embraced a bit more that constant deliverance to death. Clearly, Paul was hopeful, and aggressively encouraging. But Paul was also completely sober about the late hour of the Corinthians' situation, as well.
If the earthly tent [singular] which is our house [plural, corporate?] is torn down, we have a building from God.. in the heavens.
Yes. If the church here does die, we will still in some sense cling to the fact that God is still working to make us a part of his permanent House. Yes. If God's tabernacle in one place is torn down - if its many-pieced structure, built together from that which every tribe joint carries with them supplieth, is tragically disassembled - if our local Tent ceases to stand, we may take comfort that there yet does remain - both for God and for us - one eternal Temple which always stands in God's realm.

Churches die. We all know that they do. We just don't like to think about it.

This is one reason, I believe, why the historical interpretation I shared in part one of this series hasn't been offered before, as far as I've yet been able to detect.  The institutional mindset prefers to avoid this consideration. Frankly, even the so-called radical ones who think they're starting churches based on the New Testament, they don't want to consider this either. There's a lot more institutionalizing going on in the human heart of a founder of something, than there is in the walls of a long dead organization.

If your church doesn't think it can die, I'd question whether it's truly alive.  But the church which embraces its death may yet attain resurrection from the dead!

In fact, that may also be part of what Corinth experienced.

There's a big difference between temporarily dead and permanently dead.

To be continued...

April 21, 2011

The Death and Resurrection of Corinth (1 of 3)

The most significant words NOT in Romans, which really should have been in there, as you'll see in a moment, and the words which I believe would have been there, if only Paul could have honestly written them...  (*Ahem*) Those words would have gone something like this:
"The church in Corinth sends greetings."
That these words are not there, I believe, is a really big deal.  Please allow me to explain.

Acts 20:2 puts Paul in southern Greece for three months, the time when Paul wrote his letter to Rome. Paul had not yet, of course, actually set foot in Rome. The farthest west Paul had recently been, as it so happened, was to the ancient kingdom of Illyricum, a region Luke accurately refers to as being within the limits of Provincia Macedonia. This matters, because Illyricum, for Paul, was a stepping stone to Italia. For the struggling church in Corinth, however, Illyricum was more of a tragic delay.

To briefly sketch the events which fit in between Acts 20:1 and Acts 20:3, we know Paul did the following: leaving Ephesus, Paul made his way up to Philippi, traversed the full length of the Via Egnatia, and planted a church in Dyrrachium. Dyrrachium was the ferry point just across the Adriatic Sea from the 'boot heel' of Italy. It connected the Vias Egnatia & Appia, and yes, Paul planted a church there.

 Evidence known to historical specialists on the city of Durres, Albania (for starters, see Edwin Jacques, The Albanians, p.139) suggests strongly that a Pauline church was established in Dyrrachium. The proper geographical identification of Acts 20:2 with Romans 15:19 (Cf. Strabo 7.7.4.) also suggests this.  So does basic logistical and human need... and that last point may be most convincing.

At the end of his letter to Rome, Paul greets dozens of people he claims to know very well. Some of these names we know lived in other churches from Paul's past. Rufus (16:13) must be Simon's son, Simon of Cyrene (Mark 15:21) and of Antioch, for Paul to call Rufus' mother affectionately his own. Priscilla & Aquila (16:3) are of course instantly recognized. But the predominance of familiarity overall, in this chapter, tells us that these saints must have known Paul from different times in his christian experience.

But how did they get there?

The timing of Claudius' death, in October of AD 54, while Paul was still in Ephesus, tells us that Paul's friends all rushed to Rome over the next two years, undoubtedly assuming the new 16 year old Emperor, Nero, would ignore his murdered stepfather's banishment of the Jews (Acts 18:2). This was very likely a plan at least semi-concocted by Paul himself, as a way to ensure Gentile Christianity would be well represented in Rome, because odds were certain that many Jewish believers (most likely converted at Pentecost) also would soon flock back to the capitol.

In other words, most of these people in Romans 16 must have known Paul from the gentile churches. A larger number than two of them probably came from Ephesus and/or Corinth, specifically. (That's statistically likely for two reasons - larger cities suppose larger churches, and larger churches were more prepared to lose members.)

So, at last, all this background leads me back to the point of this post.

Here it is. The people named in Paul's letter to Rome were people with intimate knowledge about Corinth's struggles. The Macedonian churches who'd received apostolic visitors recently were very likely to have been told some details, if not others, and the whole church at Ephesus seems to have had multiple opportunities to meet with a handful of Corinthian saints who seem to have sailed back and forth bringing news and questions for Paul. (Check all the names in I & II Cor., to see who these saints might have been.)

Overall, therefore, saints in Rome knew that Corinth was struggling to remain intact. Two, at least, must have been personally grieved. Paul had no burden greater, at all times, than the care of the churches (2Cor.11:28). And - believe it or not, here's the first thing in this whole post I admit qualifies a bit as speculation - Paul would have dearly loved to give those saints some encouraging word about their beloved Corinthians.

"The church in Corinth sends greetings."

It's not there, I know. And yes, yes, "absence of evidence". But in this case, under these circumstances, as I've just laid them out, something like those words really should have been there. It would have been so encouraging to the new Roman christians, facing all of the challenges they had. I mean, especially those gentile saints, newly acclimating to Rome's Christian community, for whom Corinth's particular Jew/Gentile struggles must have seemed particularly relevant. For dozens of Pauline-style gentile believers, mingling in the same neighborhood (The Aventine Hill district*) with Jewish believers who had newly returned to the city? Think about this for a moment.

EVERYTHING in the first fifteen chapters of Romans presupposes that ongoing daily potential for religious, cultural and theological conflict.  EVERYTHING in those chapters plays back and forth to the Jews, then the Gentiles, flaying ALL of them equally, yet uniquely, depriving both groups of the right to claim righteousness over the other.  In THAT context, I humbly but strongly suggest, very little could possibly have encouraged the gentile believers in Rome any more than to hear, Corinth made it.  The only church that we know which has been nearly destroyed by this particular conflict, internally... they pulled it out.  They're okay!

"The church in Corinth sends greetings."  Those words would have been like a thunderclap of encouragement.  Great rejoicing and probably some weeping, cheers, applause, and perhaps shaking sobs should have poured out from that first group of Paul's friendlies who gathered to hear Phoebe read to them.

But Paul did NOT add those words.  Doubtless, in my historical judgment and opinion, this means that Paul did not have the ability to write such words.  Instead - and with pointed evasiveness, please note - all we get is that "Achaia" has contributed to Jerusalem, and that Phoebe belongs to Cenchrea, a city 7 or 8 miles away from the gates of the city of Corinth.  "Achaia" is the same generalizing term used by Luke in Acts 20:2, probably as a dodge, because we'd expect him to say "Corinth".  But neither man uses that word at (or of) this particular time.

The inevitable conclusion?  The former church in Corinth was no longer intact.  My strongest hunch is that some of them moved to Cenchrea.  Perhaps there were sister saints in that city beforehand, or perhaps someone had family, or a business, and took in others.  But the fact that Paul pointedly says Cenchrea, and avoids saying Corinth, cannot be a meaningless coincidence.

The corporately spiritual body that had formerly assembled in Corinth, was dismembered.

In all practical sense, it appears, the church in Corinth was dead.

But now:  why haven't you heard (and why haven't I found) this historical interpretation anywhere else, before now?  There are at least two reasons, and I'll cover each of those in parts two and three... when we'll also see that the Christ-Body in Corinth may not have stayed dead.

There's a big difference between temporarily dead, and permanently dead.

To be continued...

(*)The Christian 'neighborhood' in Rome was the Aventine Hill district, on of few which did NOT suffer in the great fire of AD 64, a fact which enabled Nero to blame the great fire on the Christians.  Interestingly, the traditionally Jewish district, Trastavere, was just over the river from A.H.

April 20, 2011

Which city did Erastus manage? Probably NOT Corinth.

Sadly, the common view is a classic case of misdirected assumptions.  But now, here are the facts.

The NT cites the name "Erastus" three times:  Acts 19:22, Rom 16:23, 2 Tim 4:20.  The man in Acts is being sent by Paul into Macedonia, alongside Timothy.  The man in 2 Tim is being left behind by Paul at Corinth.  The man in Romans is sitting with Paul in Achaia, sending greetings.  In order to equate any two of these three named persons, we've got to have good reasons for doing so.  And for two of the three, we very much do have those reasons.

It makes sense to identify the Erastus of Acts with the Erastus of 2nd Timothy; as a traveling companion of Paul, seemingly even a junior apostle-in-training.  He's being sent somewhere, he's remaining behind somewhere, he's traveling alongside Timothy and being utilized by Paul much as Timothy often was utilized.  That all fits, quite reasonably, and the historical interpretation of both references in tandem can even provide a fuller picture of who this Erastus might have been than could any sum of the two separate readings.  Please note, this is both positive, helpful and normal, for historical method.  

The problem only comes in with the reference in Romans.

The traditional identification of this man with the Erastus of Romans rests on three fallacious bits of reasoning:  (1) that the name is enough, (2) that Paul wrote Romans from Corinth, (3) that Erastus must therefore have been the city-manager of Corinth, and that this parallels the 2 Tim reference.  To each, now, in turn:

On the first point, I'm speaking more about pulpiteers than scholars, although it's shocking how often, how quickly and how uncritically some credentialed commentators still equate all three names.  Certainly, without the same name we wouldn't even be having this conversation, so evidently they must give that some weight.  

On the second point, Acts 20: 2-3 only offers that Paul wrote Romans from southern Grece (Achaia).  It does not say Corinth.  We cannot even assume that Paul walked into Corinth on that trip, because we don't know if the church in Corinth was still welcoming to him at that point (2nd Cor 12:20ff), let alone that the church there was still gathering.  Paul may not have stayed in that city long enough to shake the dust from his shoes, let alone write a masterpiece such as Romans.  But even with all those necessary doubts to one side, one thing we do know is that Phoebe, the letter-carrier, was from Cenchrea.  Phoebe was not from Corinth.  This (at least) suggests that Paul more likely wrote from Cenchrea, a town roughly 7 miles east of Corinthian gates.

On the third point, the Erastus with Paul in Achaia doesn't have to have been a city manager currently.  It could easily have been a job the man held at some point, but a title by which his friends continued to call him.  Thus, if this Erastus were to be identified with the Erastus of Acts & 2 Tim, then - precisely because of his lifestyle as a pauline traveling companion - he could surely have managed any other city in which Paul might have met him, and simply held on to the nickname.  

Thus, the traditional view, that Erastus the traveling companion was also (somehow?) a city-manager of Corinth - this should be firmly and completely rejected.  At the very least, no man could have simultaneously remained BOTH one who traveled to Ephesus and Macedonia, doing apostolic/evangelistic business alongside Paul and Timothy AND one who displayed enough civic devotion within Corinth (or any other town, for that matter) for the local authorities and/or aristocracy to support his appointment as city-manager.  Nor could any man have come back from such travels [adopting a foreign religion and leaving town for a long while simply for that devotion] to then gain the appointment as city manager.  That simply would not have happened, and especially not in economically mighty Corinth.

In sum, the full identification of all three Erastus citations is a classic example wistful harmonization that's devoid of real historical thinking.  It's also somewhat convenient for institutional preferences.  

Putting the Acts & 2 Tim Erastus into Romans provides two things that appeal to established religious authorities.  First, Erastus being the city manager of Corinth suggests the Corinthian church must have survived their struggles after both of Paul's letters, even up to the days of 2Tim.  That's comforting (and possibly essential) if your job is to maintain status quo.  Second, stringing Erastus from Romans to 2 Tim leaves a formerly traveling man now sitting in one spot for a very long time.  Much like the anachronistic references to Timothy becoming "pastor" of Ephesus, this helps support a cessationist view of apostles and other itinerant workers.  

Traveling ministers ought to stop and remain in one place for the rest of their lives.  Also, Churches always stay together, being ruled by their local authorities.  Yes, I do think that's a bit too much to put onto poor old Erastus, but it appears that this is what's been put onto him.

None of that, however, is the main problem I have with the mis-identification of Erastus.

The real reason I can't stand this awful slight is because it obscures what I happen to think is a clearer view of what most likely happened in Corinth.  And this clearer view is more reasonable, more plausible, more supported by the text, less wistful, more accurately representative of how divine life in a people-group actually operates here on Earth most of the time, and - this view really ought to be - therefore more encouraging to the kind of corporate experiences and struggles we're all likely to face in something approaching genuinely organic* church life.  

(See also:  "The Death and Resurrection of Corinth, Parts 1, 2 & 3", which provides my own historical interpretation from the evidence, and will be posting this weekend.)

In conclusion, therefore, please take note.  We have logical reasons for concluding that Erastus in Acts and Erastus in 2nd Timothy sound like the same kind of a man.  We have no good reason for concluding that Erastus-the-city-manager was the same man as the travelling companion of Paul and Timothy.  But if he was, then the name must belong to some post he'd held long years before.  That is, if the traveling Erastus did just happen to be in Cenchrea with Paul when his Romans was written, then he most likely arrived there and kept moving along from there, just as Paul did.  

In other words, the man named in Romans was probably merely a former city-manager, and there's no reason to think Corinth was necessarily the city he'd managed.  But of the man named in 2 Tim, for it to have been noteworthy that he'd been "left behind", such a man must have been typically mobile.  Thus, the Erastus of 2 Tim 4 implicitly seems like the same man as in Acts 19, but the Romans 16 reference adds nothing analogous to this same picture.  They were probably two different men.


*Please forgive the trendiness of the term "organic".  It's still the most precise one to use there, above.

April 17, 2011

Life these days...

has been very eclectic.  By which I mean insanely busy.  I've been working at three different schools, two of which I teach at.  On Mondays and Wednesdays, I've been teaching individualized Latin (elementary level) to 7th thru 12th graders at the Flint Academy.  On Tuesdays and Thursdays, to the same group at Flint, it's been 20th century History.  Both have been really fun, actually, but I sometimes miss teaching Math.

Since this delightfully unique private school only goes four days a week, I substitute Fridays at various public High Schools, especially Seguin, where I've also been tutoring Geometry and TAKS-prep for the last dozen Saturdays.  It's a blessing to enjoy both schools so much, though for different reasons.  As long as the Texas budget crisis keeps up, I'll probably keep on splitting my time.  But if/when Seguin offers a contract, I may have a difficult choice to make.  Time will tell.

Outside school hours, in recent weeks, I've also become interim manager for a friend's Dance Company, where my daughter also takes nearly twelve hours of classes a week.  The business side is in my blood, the operations are familiar because it's organized educationally, and there's tremendous potential for positive growth (in more ways than one).  I see my wife as much there now as I do here because, suddenly, the violin-playing long-distance running boy has decided to take up ballet also.  Didn't see that coming, but hey, football players do it all the time.  He may try out at receiver for Jr High ball, too.

Busy and busier, but it's all good for now.  Nothing to report on the renewed church meetings around here.  I've missed several for busyness, and made one that my FB friends heard about.  Believe me, when/if there's any news worth calling news, I'll report it.  Until then, assume it's just a dozen saints sitting around singing a few songs and gabbing about stuff.  I'm not saying that's all it is on a given night, necessarily, but you can go ahead and assume that, if you want to, I guess.  ;-)

Someday, something more, somewhere... somehow.  Sigh.

Meanwhile, this weekend my loving wife's wonderful parents just had their 50th wedding anniversary, and I don't think I've ever danced more hours in one night, or had more fun.  So we had that go well for us all, which was nice.  :-)

In all this, I found about one hour yesterday to work on some posts (on the most arresting words NOT in Romans, and also on the church in Corinth) that may actually go up by this weekend.  Stay tuned for those, hopefully.

The quest here continues as always.  It just may go in spurts for a while.

. . . . .

In other words, now's still a good time to subscribe:  Get a Reader OR Email updates.


April 3, 2011

I'll Be Back...

and with plenty more to say, surely. But I'm currently working three jobs. That's all.

Unfortunate lapses like these are a good time to subscribe, if you haven't already, so you'll be notified of my next post in your E-mail or "Reader". You'll find both options linked by the orange button above my picture, at right.

See y'all back here by late May, at the latest...
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