Bible croppedThe three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.

Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.

My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy have omitted — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.

Today’s reading is from the English Standard Version with commentary by Matthew Henry and John MacArthur.

Acts 18:1-4

Paul in Corinth

18 After this Paul[a] left Athens and went to Corinth. And he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because Claudius had commanded all the Jews to leave Rome. And he went to see them, and because he was of the same trade he stayed with them and worked, for they were tentmakers by trade. And he reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, and tried to persuade Jews and Greeks.

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Last week’s entry concluded Paul’s brief ministry in Athens. The good news was that he was not persecuted there. The bad news was that he did not make many converts in a city devoted to paganism. However, ‘some men’, including Dionysius the Areopagite and Damaris (a lady) converted and Paul taught them away from the Areopagus. My post also discussed who these two at length, because Luke — the author of Acts — thought fit to mention them by name.

To close on Acts 17, when Paul left Berea because the Thessalonians persecuted him there, he went to Athens:

15 Those who conducted Paul brought him as far as Athens, and after receiving a command for Silas and Timothy to come to him as soon as possible, they departed.

Acts does not state whether Silas and Timothy found Paul in Athens, however, John MacArthur explains that Paul’s letters indicate that the three met up and were returned to the new churches (emphases mine below):

Here’s what happened, “Timothy and Silas came to Athens and met Paul.” You know what they did as soon as they got there? They said, “Paul, we’re here.” Probably, “We’re here.” He said, “Good, now I want you to go back.” And he sent Timothy to Thessalonica to check on the saints.

Remember our earlier studies of Acts, how we saw that Paul was so concerned with the saints and their growth? So they just arrived. He’d been waiting for them in Athens. They get there, and he says, “Now I want you to go back to Thessalonica.” So old Timothy turns around and off he goes to Thessalonica. And he says to Silas, “Silas, you go to Philippi and check on Luke and what’s going on in the church up there.”

So off they go againNow, the reason we know they come again is in 3:1 and 2 of 1 Thessalonians. “Wherefore when we could no longer forbear, we thought it good to be left at Athens alone.” You see, for a while he was not alone at Athens. But finally, he realized we can’t wait any longer. I’ve got to send you guys back to check on those churches.

Verse 2: “We sent Timothy, our brother and minister of God, and our fellow worker in the Gospel of Christ, to establish you and to comfort you concerning your faith.” And who is this “you” to whom he’s writing? The Thessalonians. So he sent Timothy from Athens back to the Thessalonians. And you say, “Well, where did he send Silas?” Well, he sent him to Philippi. You say, “Where does he say that?” It doesn’t say that. But I’ll tell you what it does say. Something pretty exciting.

Look at Philippians chapter 4. Now he’s writing to the Philippians. Now, you Philippians know, also, that in the beginning … “When I departed from Macedonia, no church shared with me as concerning giving and receiving but you only.” Now, wait a minute. Stop right there. The Philippian church sent him money, didn’t they? No church supported me but you Philippians. How did that money get to them? Go to 2 Corinthians 11:9.

This is exciting. Watch this. He said, “When I was present with you, and lacked, I was chargeable to no man. For that which was lacking to me, the brethren who came from Macedonia supplied. And in all things, I have kept myself from being burdensome.” The brethren who came from Macedonia brought him this. Now, apparently, Silas and Timothy, verse 5 of Acts 18: When Timothy and Silas were come from Macedonia, they’re a friend. I have some brethren from Macedonia.

Once Paul left Athens, he went to Corinth (verse 1), which is approximately 70 miles away from Athens. If Athens was Greece’s intellectual capital, Corinth was the capital of trade and politics.

Here’s a modern day map of Corinth courtesy of Wikipedia:

MacArthur explains the importance of its location with regard to trade:

Now, you’ll notice that the two parts are connected by a simple little strait there, and that’s only five miles wide, and it was precisely the center of that the city of Corinth existed some 50 miles from Athens. Now, Paul, all alone, finds himself in Corinth. Now notice anybody at all from northern Greece to southern Greece, or vice versa, any north-south traffic, had to go through Corinth.

So the trade was constantly trafficking through city of Corinth. Another interesting thing is that it was called The Bridge of Greece, not only because of its north-south traffic, but because of its east-west traffic. Ships wanting to go, say, from the western shore of Greece to the eastern shore would not sail clear around. They would shortcut it through here.

In fact, this was known as the Cape of Malea, and it was sort of like sailing around the Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope. It was a very treacherous journey. The Greeks used to say, “Any man who sails around the Cape might well write his will before he leaves.” Very treacherous …

It was also a 200-mile shortcut to go this way. You say, “Well, what did they do when they got to land?” Well, very often, they would unload their entire cargo. They would carry it across on the backs of slaves, or pull it in some kind of apparatus, and they would lower it onto a different ship here. So the ships would just run half circuits going both ways.

In fact, it was such an advantage to go across there that many ships were placed on rollers, and the whole ship was rolled five miles across the land, and dumped back in the water to continue the journey east, or vice versa, to the west.

Now, this area here, was a very important gulf, the Saronic Gulf, and this is the Corinthian Gulf. And there were two very important cities; Cenchreae and Lechaeum on the shore. And from those cities, everything went to Corinth. So Corinth held a very strategic location. You might say to yourself, “Why didn’t somebody build a canal?” Well, Julius Caesar had the idea, and Nero started it, and it was finished in 1893. So it took a while, but there’s one there now.

Now, the result of this particular location was the fact that there was a tremendous amount of traffic there. And as I said, it became a place where all kinds of activities went on, mostly to entertain the traffic, and so it lent itself greatly to the kind of immorality that became common and synonymous with its name.

Before I get to the immorality, here is MacArthur’s description of the city’s political importance:

Corinth was really the county seat, although you might call it the provincial capital. It was to Greece what Washington D.C. is to America in a sense. It was a provincial capital, which meant that the proconsul of Rome stayed there, and the headquarters were there.

It has been said by some writers that Corinth was the vanity fair of the Roman Empire …

Now for the immorality:

And if Athens is the city of learning, Corinth is sin city. At best, we could probably name it that. It was the most debauched and debased city in that world of that day. In fact, the actual name Corinth became a common term. And “Corinthian” meant immoral.

If you said, “Joe over there is a Corinthian kind of guy, you meant he was immoral.” The name became synonymous with vice. To say that that woman is a Corinthian woman meant she was a prostitute, because that’s what the women did in Corinth. And the verb, to Corinthianize, meant to go a-whoring. That’s exactly what the common use of Corinthianize was.

Now, Corinth was vile to the very core. It wasn’t just the slaves or the middle class; it was the upper crust. The whole city was debased, and there were some reasons for that. It was the center of trade and travel, and sailors were going through it all the time, and caravans. And it was a fitting place for entertainment of lust

Now, Corinth was also a familiar city to many because of the fact that it had what was called the Isthmian Games, which were second only to the Olympics. So it was a center of sports. The people in Corinth were characterized all around the world as vile people.

You know, the Greeks used to love stage plays. They used to put on all kinds of plays, morality plays, and all kinds of things, Greek tragedies, the whole thing. And whenever a Corinthian was in a play, he was always depicted drunk just because of the character of Corinth. If you were from Corinth, you were drunk and immoral.

Now, in the city of Corinth, there was a giant hill that dominated like a bog fortress, and it was a pretty impregnable hill. It is called the Acropolis, and some of you may have heard of it. But the Acropolis was more than just a fortress, it was more than just a hill. It was a temple. And on the top of the Acropolis was built a massive temple to the goddess Aphrodite, who was sort of the goddess of sexual activity.

Now ministering, and I use the word loosely, in Aphrodite’s temple, were a thousand priestesses, and their particular ministry was the ministry of prostitution. And so every evening, these thousand priestesses descended from the Acropolis, and infiltrated the city of Corinth and plied their trade. And so it was a wide-open carnival atmosphere. The whole city was nothing but a great big hustling territory for professional prostitutes.

Now, if you think Paul had a rough time in a city of intellectuals, you can imagine the change when he got into this place. If Athens glorified the mind, Corinth glorified the body.

This is why Paul told the Corinthian women to cover their hair. Their hairdos were overly elaborate and did not belong in a place of worship.

In Corinth, Paul met a Jew from Rome, Aquila, who was born in Pontus in Asia Minor, and Aquila’s wife Priscilla (verse 2). They were in exile in Corinth because of Claudius’s edict that the Jews should leave the city.

The story of the church in Rome, the Jews there and their expulsion is every bit as much a rabbit hole as Dionysius the Areopagite‘s identity. I will address those three topics in a separate post, but for now, here is Matthew Henry’s concise summary:

Suetonius, in the life of Claudius, speaks of this decree in the ninth year of his reign, and says, The reason was because the Jews were a turbulent people–assiduo tumultuantes; and that it was impulsore Christo–upon the account of Christ; some zealous for him, others bitter against him, which occasioned great heats, such as gave umbrage to the government, and provoked the emperor, who was a timorous jealous man, to order them all to be gone.

Both Henry and MacArthur believe that the couple became converts in Rome. The church there was already established.

The couple are saints in the Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church. They were martyrs for the faith.

Of Aquila, tradition says:

Aquila did not long dwell in Rome: the Apostle Paul is said to have made him a bishop in Asia Minor. The Apostolic Constitutions identify Aquila, along with Nicetas, as the first bishops of Asia Minor (7.46).

Priscilla had a higher profile. MacArthur points out:

It’s interesting, I think, to know here that Aquila is mentioned first. But from now on, the remaining verses, most of them mention Priscilla first. I think it’s two out of three.

You say, “Well, why would that be?” Well, really it’s three reasons. If you want to count hen-pecked, but we’ll eliminate that one. The other two reasons that Aquila would be mentioned after Priscilla: One, Priscilla may have been a very noble Roman woman. And Aquila may have married into really highbrow society-type stuff. And so Priscilla kind of ranks as Priscilla first.

The other possibility is that Priscilla became the strength spiritually; that Priscilla really grew spiritually, and consequently she’s named first; whichever one, we really don’t know. But it is interesting that she is named first, either because of her Roman heritage, if that is the case, or because of her spiritual dimension.

In fact, some Bible scholars hold that Priscilla is the author of the Book of Hebrews:

Priscilla was a woman of Jewish heritage and one of the earliest known Christian converts who lived in Rome. Her name is a Roman diminutive for Prisca which was her formal name. She is often thought to have been the first example of a female preacher or teacher in early church history. Coupled with her husband, she was a celebrated missionary, and a friend and co-worker of Paul.[8]

While the view is not widely held among scholars, some scholars have suggested that Priscilla was the author of the Book of Hebrews. Although acclaimed for its artistry, originality, and literary excellence, it is the only book in the New Testament with author anonymity.[2] Hoppin and others suggest that Priscilla was the author, but that her name was omitted either to suppress its female authorship, or to protect the letter itself from suppression.[2][9]

She is the only Priscilla named in the New Testament. The fact that she is always mentioned with her husband, Aquila, disambiguates her from different women revered as saints in Catholicism, such as (1) Priscilla of the Roman Glabrio family, the wife of Quintus Cornelius Pudens, who according to some traditions hosted St. Peter circa AD 42, and (2) a third-century virgin martyr named Priscilla and also called Prisca.[10]

We will read that the couple accompanied Paul in part of his ministry.

As for the rest of their life story, Bible Wiki tells us:

It is believed that Aquila and Priscilla returned to Rome, because Paul sent them greetings in his letter to the Romans.[4]

However, Got Questions says:

Paul’s last reference to them is in his last letter. Paul was imprisoned in Rome and writing to Timothy one last time. Timothy was pastoring the church at Ephesus, and Aquila and Priscilla are there with him, still faithfully ministering (2 Timothy 4:19). To the end, Aquila and Priscilla were offering hospitality to other Christians, spreading the gospel they had learned from Paul, and rendering faithful service to the Master.

Regardless of where they ended up, they were a devout couple, devoted to proper doctrine as they nourished newcomers to the faith.

All three were tentmakers by trade (verse 3). So, Priscilla wasn’t at home all day, she was earning a living. This further demonstrates the equality present in Greece and Macedonia at that time. Last week’s post described Damaris as likely to be an educated woman if she was at the Areopagus (MacArthur seems to be the only one who posits she was common). We also know that Lydia had her own career as a dealer in purple goods. She was also the first European convert and inspired her whole household to embrace the faith when she did.

Returning to the notion of earning one’s own living, Paul was careful not to ask for a stipend from any of the churches. It is difficult for us to reconcile such a well educated, privileged man making tents. Henry explains that this is partly because of his upbringing and partly because of his conversion:

1. Though he was bred a scholar, yet he was master of a handicraft trade. He was a tent-maker, an upholsterer; he made tents for the use of soldiers and shepherds, of cloth or stuff, or (as some say tents were then generally made) of leather or skins, as the outer covering of the tabernacle. Hence to live in tents was to live sub pellibus–under skins. Dr. Lightfoot shows that it was the custom of the Jews to bring up their children to some trade, yea, though they gave them learning or estates. Rabbi Judah says, “He that teaches not his son a trade is as if he taught him to be a thief.” And another says, “He that has a trade in his hand is as a vineyard that is fenced.” An honest trade, by which a man may get his bread, is not to be looked upon by any with contempt. Paul, though a Pharisee, and bred up at the feet of Gamaliel, yet, having in his youth learned to make tents, did not by disuse lose the art. 2. Though he was entitled to a maintenance from the churches he had planted, and from the people to whom he preached, yet he worked at his calling to get bread, which is more to his praise who did not ask for supplies than to theirs who did not supply him unasked, knowing what straits he was reduced to. See how humble Paul was, and wonder that so great a man could stoop so low; but he had learned condescension of his Master, who came not to be ministered to, but to minister. See how industrious he was, and how willing to take pains. He that had so much excellent work to do with his mind, yet, when there was occasion, did not think it below him to work with his hands. Even those that are redeemed from the curse of the law are not exempt from that sentence, In the sweat of thy face thou shalt eat bread. See how careful Paul was to recommend his ministry, and to prevent prejudices against it, even the most unjust and unreasonable; he therefore maintained himself with his own labour that he might not make the gospel of Christ burdensome, &c.; 2 Thess. iii. 8, 9. 3. Though we may suppose he was master of his trade, yet he did not disdain to work at journey-work: He wrought with Aquila and Priscilla, who were of that calling, so that he got no more than day-wages, a bare subsistence.

MacArthur says that although the expression used is ‘tent maker’, all tent makers were leather workers. They obtained the hair for the tent material from goatskin and tanned the hides:

… they were scanopoioi” … Literally, it means leather workers.

And Paul apparently would tan the leather, and then having made the hair, he would keep the leather, do something with the leather. He was a leather worker. So were they.

MacArthur also thinks there is reason to believe that Paul met the couple at synagogue:

Everybody would be sitting according to their trades. Like we’d have all the carpenters over here. We’d have all the bricklayers over there. We’d have all the artists over here. In other words, some historians indicate that in synagogues, it was common to divide people in sections according to their trade.

On the Sabbath, Paul was in the synagogue reasoning with the Jews and the Greek Gentiles (verse 4). ‘Reason’ is the key word here. Henry’s commentary says:

1. He reasoned with them in the synagogue publicly every sabbath. See in what way the apostles propagated the gospel, not by force and violence, by fire and sword, not by demanding an implicit consent, but by fair arguing; they drew with the cords of a man, gave a reason for what they said, and gave a liberty to object against it, having satisfactory answers ready. God invites us to come and reason with him (Isaiah 1:18), and challenges sinners to produce their cause, and bring forth their strong reasons, Isaiah 41:21. Paul was a rational as well as a scriptural preacher.

2. He persuaded them–epeithe. It denotes, (1.) The urgency of his preaching. He did not only dispute argumentatively with them, but he followed his arguments with affectionate persuasions, begging of them for God’s sake, for their own soul’s sake, for their children’s sake, not to refuse the offer of salvation made to them. Or, (2.) The good effect of his preaching. He persuaded them, that is, he prevailed with them; so some understand it. In sententiam suam adducebat–He brought them over to his own opinion. Some of them were convinced by his reasonings, and yielded to Christ.

Those are good things for us to remember as we share the Gospel with others. Let us reason with others when we present the Good News.

Next time — Acts 18:5-11

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