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.

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