‘Paul lived in Rome two whole years’. The Mysterious Ending of Luke-Acts

‘Paul lived in Rome two whole years’.
The Mysterious Ending of Luke-Acts

Non-specialist readers, as well as academics, are baffled by Luke’s final glimpse of his hero, Paul, in Rome.  We know from Paul’s Pastoral Letters that both Paul, and his companion Luke were alive and active for some time after those those ‘two whole years’.  The key question is: why doesn’t Luke tell us about those extra years, but just leaves Paul in prison?

Indeed, as I will propose, Paul’s three last letters explain Luke’s ‘mysterious ending’ of his epic two-volume narrative.

Luke’s reference to Paul’s two year ‘house arrest’ in Rome awaiting Caesar’s trial implies at least two things.  The first is that Luke was close at hand for him to know of the timespan of this imprisonment, and the second is that Paul was then released.  Had Paul been executed at the end of those ‘two whole years’ Luke would surely have told us. In any case, since the Roman authorities in Judea did not find against him it is likely that Nero Caesar would not have found against him.  Which law of Rome had he broken?  Clearly Luke intends us to know about Paul’s circumstances, namely that he had been released.

This is also confirmed in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, written from the Praetorian Barracks in Rome.  Paul wrote to the Philippians during the ‘two whole years’ and he clearly expected to be released and to come to them in Macedonia (Phil. 1:25-26).  Thus evidence from Luke and Paul independently confirms that Paul was released after the initial two year imprisonment in Rome.

For his part during those two years Luke would have been actively gathering texts and researching for his planned, major two-volume ‘orderly account’, as he had most likely been doing in Palestine during the previous three years, when Paul had been in prison in Caesarea.  Those five years in total would have provided Luke with opportunity to speak to key people in Palestine and Italy, as well as to collect texts he would employ in a chronicle that would span the seventy years between the birth of John the Baptist and the ‘two whole years’ of Paul’s incarceration in Rome.

If, as I believe, Mark wrote his Gospel in Rome shortly after the martyrdom of Peter in 64, it would at last provide Luke with a precious, Peter-authorised account of the ministry of Jesus from his baptism to the resurrection.  This would provide the narrative ‘spine’ for the first ‘book’ of ‘the works and words’ of the historical Jesus.

This would connect well with Paul’s comment to Timothy: ‘Luke alone is with me’ and his pointed instruction, ‘Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry…..When you come, bring…the books (biblia, ‘written scrolls’) and above all the parchments (membranas, ‘blank sheets )’. Paul knew his own end was near, so that Mark’s ‘usefulness’ to him would not be for some kind of ongoing ministry partnership.  More probably it somehow related to Mark’s relationship to the ‘books and the parchments’ that Luke would use in writing Luke-Acts (see Luke 1:1-3).

To return to our mystery, we ask again: Why didn’t Luke tell us about what happened to Paul after those ‘two whole years’?  I think the answer is staring us in the face.  It is that Luke doesn’t need to tell us.  The information has always been there for us to discover.  Where might that be?  It is there in Paul’s three Pastoral Letters, especially the third and final letter, Second Timothy.  From those letters we can piece together Paul’s movements between his release (in c. 62) and his death (in c. 64).

Luke was aware of the contents of that third Letter, as noted above, and indeed may have contributed in some way to its contents, as C.F.D. Moule suggested many years ago (The Birth of the New Testament; London, A & C Black, 1973, pages 220-221 )

In any case, Luke had his own reasons to end his epic in the way he did.  During those ‘two whole years’ Luke shows us Paul ‘proclaiming the Kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus’.  Clearly that is the vision Luke is leaving with his readers, to pick up the gospel baton from Paul and to run with it into the next generation.  For Luke to merely have narrated Paul’s brief spell of freedom back in the east and ended with his execution might have seemed to him something of an anticlimax.  In any case, for those interested to know about Paul after the ‘two whole years’ it is all there in those three letters, in particular the third.

Paul Barnett?9 January, 2015

Epiphany – Five Reflections from a Life Time


(Mere Anglicanism Conference, Charleston SC, January 2013)

 I count it a great privilege to share these thoughts with my fellow-Anglican Christians. Like the apostle Paul I do so with ‘fear and trembling’, though for a different reason.  Paul was amongst dangerous enemies; I am amongst friends.

My fear is threefold.  First, much of what I will say is in the realm of history, and history is a turn off for many.  Secondly, I want to speak personally, and that could easily sound egocentric and self-indulgent, another turn off.  Thirdly, and most worryingly, is my Aussie accent that I know is foreign to many ears.  So, please pray for me!

I am mindful of the critical times in which we live.  Yes we have the passionate campaigns of the New Atheists outside the church, but we also have the sceptics inside the church, amongst church leaders and scholars.  It would not be unfair to use the word ‘apostasy’ of some branches of the Anglican family.  The same sadly holds true in other traditions, Presbyterian and Lutheran, for example.

But I do not intend to dwell on the negatives but the positives and to do so in terms of my personal discoveries over the 55 years of my Christian journey.  ‘Discovery’ is not the right word because it puts the emphasis on me.  ‘Epiphany’, or ‘epiphanies’ would be better because these discoveries are really ‘revelations’ from God, God-given insights.  ‘Flesh and blood’ does not discover truth about God; God must reveal it.

As it happens it is, or recently was, the season of Epiphany – if you will cut me a little slack.

Nor will I speak mainly about theological issues, but historical ones.  Theology to be true depends on what happened historically.  If the Word did not actually become flesh in Bethlehem in the latter years of Herod, then the theology stated in John 1:14 is just empty words, akin to myth.  F.F. Bruce saw no incompatibility between theology and history and observed that ‘a man cannot be a good theologian unless he is a good historian’.[1]

The first epiphany happened in a class in Ancient History 101.  I was a mature age student, 29 years old.  I had not studied classical history at school, but I was now a junior professor at a seminary and my President sent me off the University to study Classical Greek and Ancient History.  My background had been in the Building industry.

Six years earlier I had been converted out of a totally unchurched background.  It was pretty dramatic, but I was wary of emotionalism and kept asking my new church friends, ‘How do we know it’s true?’ to which they replied, ‘It just is.  Just believe it’.  But the question remained, even when I spent 4 years in seminary and did well enough to become an instructor.

The epiphany happened when I suddenly realized how good were the historical sources for Jesus and the birth of Christianity.  We had been studying Alexander the Great and the Roman Caesars.  For Tiberius, the Caesar in whose time Jesus ministered, we mainly depend on Suetonius for information.  But Suetonius wrote about eighty years after Tiberius’ death, when no one was alive who could question what had been written.  Mark wrote his Gospel only 30 or so years after Jesus, when many Jesus’ contemporaries were still alive.

My first epiphany quickly connected with things I had come to know.  I knew that the 27 books of the New Testament were written by ten mostly independent authors, and were in circulation and use by the mid-90s – less than 60 years after Jesus; most of them much closer to Jesus, especially the epistles.  As well, I knew by then that these early texts had been accurately transmitted and copied from the time they were written.  I knew there are 5600 Greek manuscripts of the New Testament from the early centuries and 19,000 translations in Latin, Coptic, Arabic, and Armenian – more than 24, 000 in all.  Cross checking by Textual Critics means that the texts in our Bibles are 99% certain, and nothing doctrinally hangs on the 1%.

I cannot tell you how excited I was in that lecture room.  It was a ‘eureka’ moment.  The witness of the New Testament to Jesus more than holds its own relative to the documentation of the Caesars of those times, whose life stories are not in doubt.

Also connected with my first epiphany was a little book by A.M. Hunter, Paul and His Predecessors, which pointed out that Paul did not write the words we find in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7.  That’s where he quotes that Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised the third day, and appeared on 5 separate occasions to more than 500 people.  Paul was quoting what he had been taught at or soon after his conversion, that is, only about one or at most four years after Jesus.  In other words, the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, who died for sins and who was resurrected on the third day, did not evolve decades later than Jesus but was part of Christian understanding from the beginning, in the immediate aftermath of his lifespan.  Why would the earliest Christians in Jerusalem have formulated this teaching, if it wasn’t true?

By now I was hooked on history and found myself researching a post-graduate thesis on first century Jewish history.  My topic was ‘Civil Disturbances in Judea in the First Century’.  Did you know that three civil wars broke out when Herod died in 4 BC, led by Judas in Galilee, Simon in Perea and Athronges in Judea?  Each of these claimed to be a king and it took the might of the Roman army from Syria to put down these revolts.  Then there were violent Pharisees like Saddok in AD 6, a prophet like Theudas who was killed in 46 in and patriots like Menahem who marched into Jerusalem in 66.  These were formidable figures with big followings, who spanned the era of the New Testament.

So why are these men who fill the pages of Josephus forgotten today and Jesus is a household word?  It’s because history is full of people who blaze briefly like comets and are then forgotten.  But Jesus claimed to be the Son of Man who forgave sins, who healed the sick and raised the dead, who entered Jerusalem as its Messiah-king, whose teaching on love and forgiveness was profound and unheard of, and who himself was resurrected from the dead.  Without the resurrection Jesus would have been just another mistaken prophet whose death guaranteed his relegation to obscurity, like the shadowy figure of the Teacher of Righteousness, the founder of the Dead Sea Sect, whose name we do not even know.

Now in my 30s, whilst pastoring a second congregation I had the opportunity to do research for a PhD.  This was not in theology but again in Jewish history in roughly the same era as the New Testament.  Following that I became head of a University College and a professor in New Testament history within an Ancient History university department.

It was then I began my visits to Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey and Greece, which I still continue on an annual basis and have done for twenty-five years.  I am privileged to have visited every place mentioned in the New Testament, with one important exception – Tarsus, birthplace of Paul.  That was to have been in 2011, but for the civil war in Syria.

A second epiphany – in my forties – was based on my first visit to Israel and Jordan – and confirmed many times since.  That lake – the Sea of Tiberias – its storms, its fishing, its surrounding hills is the lake of the Gospels.  The towns of the Holy Land – Bethlehem, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, Chorazim, Bethsaida, Gennesaret, Magdala, Sychar, Caesarea Philippi, the Decapolis, the borders of Tyre and Sidon, Jericho, Bethany beyond Jordan, Bethany near Jerusalem are the towns and places of the Gospels.  They have been mostly continuously settled in the years since, with place names unchanged.  The geography of Galilee and the topography and streetscape of Jerusalem cohere amazingly with the biblical text.  The entire ministry of Jesus is embedded in places we can still visit.

The context of John’s ministry and Jesus’ ministry is stated by Luke (3:1-2) – the fifteenth year of Tiberius (AD 28 or 29) when Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod Antipas tetrarch of Galilee, Annas and Caiaphas high priests – link in exactly to the complex jurisdictions of the holy land after the death of Herod and Augustus’ division of Herod’s kingdom.

In Luke-Acts there are no less than sixteen texts that connect Luke’s narrative with famous named people in world history, like Sergius Paulus Proconsul of Cyprus, to take one example.  Then there are dozens of lesser figures like the centurion Cornelius in Caesarea Maritima who are no less authentic.  In other words, the geography, topography and history of the New Testament coheres with the geography and history of the era in which it is located.  This is the more impressive because such references are made in passing, matters of incidental detail, easily missed because of the weightiness of the narrative.

Luke-Acts is an amazing text covering 70 years from the birth of John the Baptist to Paul’s imprisonment in Rome and represents 25% of the volume of the New Testament.  It is widely commended by great secular historians like Mommsen, Meyer and Sherwin-White, but surprisingly spurned by many specialist Christian scholars.  Crossan’s index to his Birth of Christianity, for example, does not have a single reference to the book of Acts and declared the first thirty years of Christian history to be ‘dark decades…cloaked in silence’.  That is a convenient viewpoint if you want to write your own history of Christianity and present your own revisionist, designer theology!  Luke-Acts is critical to recovering Christian origins, the beginnings of Christianity.  Only this continuous text connects the rise of early Christianity to the impulse of Jesus, his identity, his saving death and his glorious resurrection.

As Luke tells us in his opening words, it was the original disciples of Jesus who handed over textual sources to Luke for him to write his great global history.  Who was better placed than them to do so?  The ‘we’ and ‘us’ passages in Acts 21-28 tell us that Luke was with Paul for the last five years of the narrative of Luke-Acts.  Luke was Paul’s companion and therefore well placed to write about Paul.  Who else but Paul could have given Luke the material he uses about Paul, his early life, his persecutions, his conversion, and his remarkable missions in Syria-Cilicia, Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia?  Luke-Acts shows us the immediate continuity between Jesus, crucified and risen, and the first three decades of Christianity.  The apostles preached Jesus as the risen Christ and Lord, because he was!

The archaeologists’ spade as well as accidental discoveries have confirmed much of the data we encounter in the biblical texts.

•A fishing boat from this period, discovered in 1985;

•an inscription bearing the name Pontius Pilate, discovered in 1961;

•a burial chest inscribed Joseph Caiaphas, discovered in 1990;

•the Pool of Siloam, identified in 2004;

•Jacob’s well near Joseph’s tomb under the shadow of Mount Gerizim;

•a Pool near the Sheep Gate, known as Bethesda;

•the tragic remains of the crucified man, Yehohanan, discovered in 1968;

•the discovery of rolling stones to seal tombs.

All these subtly but cumulatively reinforce the sense that we are in the realm of historical and geographical reality when we read the Gospels.

So far I have shared some ‘eureka’ moments, epiphanies.

•The quality, quantity of the sources for Jesus, and their closeness to him.

•The early, oral formulation of words embedded in 1 Cor. 15:3-7 about Christ’s death for sin, his burial, his resurrection on the 3rd day, and his multiple appearances.

•The linkages from Luke-Acts into world history, pointing to Luke’s integrity.

•Based on numerous visits to Israel the amazing coherence of geography, topography, and history, supported by archaeological finds and discoveries.

Each of these has confirmed my strong confidence in the integrity of the New Testament texts in their witness to Jesus, a the Son of God, who performed inexplicable miracles, who proclaimed the kingdom of God, who was the friend of sinners, who trained his disciples for world-mission, who died on the cross as our sin-bearer, and whom God raised from the dead to give us the hope that God has triumphed over evil and will triumph over evil – and who established the church.  I have absolutely no doubts about the authenticity and historicity of the New Testament.

One thing is certain.  No mere prophet or holy rabbi could have been the impetus for the amazing movement that arose in his immediate aftermath, as reflected in the New Testament in general and Luke-Acts in particular.  As I have mentioned, there were many warlords, prophets, and charismatic rabbis in Palestine in the first century, but they are lost in the dust of time.  It is only the deity of Jesus, his gracious miracles, his profound love ethic and his resurrection form the dead that explain not merely the survival of faith in him, but the immediate explosion of that faith and its rapid dissemination around the Mediterranean world.  Jesus gave hope to a hopeless world, and – thank God – he still does.

Let me share three other epiphanies.

The third was when I was lecturing at university.  I decided to make a detailed comparison of the accounts of a miracle that each of the four Gospels narrate.  I chose the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  As I spread out the four Greek texts in parallel, I was quickly reminded that Matthew and Luke make use of Mark’s account, often word for word.  Matthew and Luke are derivative texts, based mainly on Mark.  Most scholars accept that Mark’s is the earliest of the three, and that Matthew and Luke also incorporate other sources in their idiosyncratic Gospels making them both longer than Mark’s.  John, however, does not replicate any words from the other three, except for the statistics – 5000 men, five loaves, two fishes, twelve baskets, etc.

But there are other differences.  In John they are barley loaves and pickled fish that belong to the boy, details found only in John.  And his story line is a little different:  In John Jesus welcomes the crowd but in Mark he arrives after them.  Clearly Mark did not depend on John or John on Mark.  At a secular university with mostly secular students with no church background I set an essay question about this incident as in the four gospels.  The universal opinion was that Mark and John were primary, independent sources.  That means there are two independent witnesses to this miracle.

I was reminded of ‘Momigliano’s Rule’: ‘historical research is based on the distinction between original and derivative authorities’.  Professor Momigliano of Cambridge is one of the doyens of ancient history studies.

So what we have are two core texts – Mark’s and John’s – that are independent of each other.  Each is the final, written up version of a tradition – written or oral – that went back to the event, and that separately testifies to the truth of the event, the great miracle.  This criterion is called ‘Multiple Attestation’, and it is fundamental to all historical enquiry but no less to the jury process.  One witness may inspire confidence, but two or more – if credible – make for a weighty case.  But a second witness who merely repeats a primary witness is no use at all, according to Momiglinano’s wise counsel.

There are thirty-seven separate miracles of Jesus in the four Gospels. These fall into four categories – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead.  These are found in the independent Mark and John and in the three independent sources underlying Matthew and Luke, known as Q (common to Matthew and Luke), L (unique to Luke), and M (unique to Matthew).  The thing is that each of these miracle types in found in at least two independent sources, of which the Miracle of the Loaves and the Fishes is a case in point.  Based on the principle of Multiple Attestation a historian would rightly conclude that these four miracle types – exorcisms, nature miracles, healings and raisings up from the dead – actually happened at the hands of Jesus, testifying to Jesus’ unique deity.

This is a matter of history, based on the historical method.  It is not mere unsubstantiated dogma.

My next epiphany – the fourth – occurred while I was giving a talk on a university campus about the reliability of the New Testament when a questioner asked me about the Qur’an.  I had to admit that I didn’t know enough to respond.  So I set about reading the Qur’an and thinking about the question.

Let me say, I do not doubt that Muhammad was a real person, with a huge impact, and that the Qur’an reflects the oracles he believed that God spoke to him.  But when I read the text, I was struck by an absence of linkages into world history and local geography that we find in the Gospels, Acts and Letters.  There are no people like Jairus, no places like Capernaum, no references like, ‘the next day’ that tie down the narratives about Jesus to other people, real places and actual times.  What we find in the Qu’ran is mainly ‘teaching’ that is not anchored – so far as I can see – into times, places or people within the Prophet’s life span 570-632.  The earliest extant biography of the Prophet, written by Ibn Hisham 213 years after Muhammad’s death has some of these details, but not the Holy Qur’an.  In this regard the New Testament is another world.  The letters of the New Testament – even the Revelation – are full of personal, historical and geographical information.

I discovered another fascinating difference.  To my knowledge there are no external contemporary texts that shed light on the Prophet or the early years of Islam.  Early Christianity is different.  Josephus, writing mid-90s from Rome, reports that Jesus was a ‘wise man’ whose tribe still continued sixty years later.  Tacitus writing ca. 110 observes that the ‘Christians’ took their name from Christus whom Pilate executed in Judea, but whose movement did not die with its founder but spread to Rome where it became an ‘immense multitude’, and a convenient scapegoat for Nero after the great fire in 64.

Also writing about 110 was Pliny, governor of Bithynia a Black Sea province, who said that the Christians’ practice was to meet weekly to sing hymns to Christ, ‘as to a god’.  This is a striking detail that confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met, worshipped and prayed to the exalted Jesus, ‘as to a god’, as Pliny would say.  Pliny confirms the witness of the New Testament that the early Christians met to worship Jesus as Lord.

It is striking that Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny strongly dislike Christianity and the Christians.  Tacitus and Pliny describe Christianity as a spreading disease.  Tacitus said the Christians pursued ‘vile practices’ and Pliny implies that they were fanatics.

Although these writers are opposed to the Christians their accounts of the raw facts about Christian origins and practice exactly correspond with the raw facts in the New Testament.  The interpretations of Jesus and the Christians are diametrically opposed, but the facts corroborate one another. These are unbiased, even hostile witnesses, yet they confirm the accounts written from inside the movement.  This is not merely Multiple Attestation, but Multiple Hostile Attestation that neatly dovetails with the narrative of the New Testament.

So to my final epiphany, the fifth.  It occurred in the mid-90s when I was a scholar in residence in a seminary in London preparing to give a public lecture series back in Sydney.  I stumbled across a book called The Practice of History by Geoffrey Elton, a distinguished scholar of Tudor history.  There wasn’t a thing in it directly related to the New Testament.  However, Elton made a distinction between ‘evidence…intended for publication’ and incidental information produced for ‘another purpose’.

I immediately thought the Gospels and Acts belonged to the first category of ‘evidence…intended for publication’ whereas the Letters were produced ‘for another purpose’, that is, informal even trivial documents relating to the passing, sometimes mundane needs of the recipient churches.   Elton shrewdly observed that those who wrote histories – documents intentionally written for publication – were open to suspicion regarding their motives to whitewash their subjects whereas surviving trivia like invoices and laundry lists were not, and were often full of useful information about the economy of the times, for example.

I thought to myself, ‘How important therefore are the New Testament epistles.  They have not been written as chronicles or histories to convince somebody, yet they contain lots of historical and chronological information.  This is especially true of Galatians, First and Second Corinthians, Romans and Philippians.  At so many points these texts ‘written for another purpose’ – the often trivial problems in the churches, and not originally intended for wider publication – confirm the details in the intentionally written Gospels and Acts.  For me this was an important discovery and it became a chapter in a book, Jesus and the Logic of History published in 1997.

So these have been some ‘Eureka’ moments, some God-given ‘epiphanies’ I have received over the years along with connecting ideas.

Epiphany 1:  The historical source material for Jesus is very close to Jesus.  In the case of Galatians it is a mere 15 years after the crucifixion and resurrection.  Information about Tiberius, the Caesar under whom Jesus was executed is approaching a century after his death in AD 37.

Connected with this:

•The text of the New Testament is recoverable because of the many manuscripts from the early centuries – 5600 in Greek, 19000 in translations in Latin, Armenian, Coptic, etc.

•Paul did not originally write the little catechism in 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 that teaches Christ died for our sins, was buried, was raised on the 3rd day and appeared to many hundreds, several of whom are named.  The Jerusalem Christians had devised that catechism in a narrow time corridor of less than three years after Jesus.  Why would they have devised that catechism unless Jesus had been raised from the dead?

Epiphany 2:  My many journeys to Israel have convinced me that the Gospels reflect the time, and place and people – the history, topography and geography of Galilee and Judea in the late 20s and early 30s of the first century.

Connected with this:

•The numerous artefacts – the boat, the Pilate inscription, the Caiaphas ossuary, the Pool of Siloam – all combine subtly to reinforce the integrity of the Gospels.

Epiphany 3: Careful study of the Gospel accounts of the Feeding of the Multitude led me to conclude that there were two independent traditions to that miracle that arose in parallel because of that miracle.  The principle of Multiple Attestation -– so vital in the work of history and of jury trials – convinced me of the historicity of the thirty seven miracles classified as four types of miracles of Jesus, pointing to his unique deity.

Epiphany 4: Study of the Qur’an made me appreciate the contrasting historical and geographical character of the New Testament.

Connected with this:

•Study of the non-Christian witnesses – Josephus, Tacitus and Pliny – point to the principle of Multiple Hostile Attestation that confirms the raw facts of the New Testament about the crucifixion, the spread of Christianity throughout the Empire, and that the early Christians worshiped Jesus ‘as a god’.

Epiphany 5: The recognition that the New Testament letters are not intentionally written history but are confirmatory of intentionally written history, especially since they predate the writing of the Gospels and Acts.  The early dating of the letters of Paul indicate that the three or so decades between Jesus and the writing of Mark were alive with missionary work and the creation of Christian congregations far and wide.

There is more, but I mustn’t indulge your patience further.  History is not for everyone!  But I am encouraged in my confidence in the witness of the New Testament to Jesus, Son of God, Lord, and Saviour.  The creeds we confess in church arise out of the New Testament and the multiplicity of its sources and the integrity of its transmission undergirds its trustworthiness.

I could not reject the historical reliability of the New Testament, even if I wanted to.

Let me conclude by referring to your mission statement:


Mere Anglicanism’s vision is for a reformed, renewed orthodox Anglicanism  within North America. We recognize that to achieve a restored and faithful   Anglicanism, many battles must be fought, many lessons learned. Seminaries must be re-made with faithful, godly deans and teachers.


Today, however, there are teachers of biblical subjects in universities and seminaries who deconstruct the texts and reconstruct them in line with their own worldviews. The duly reconstructed then reconstructed Christ is a tame individual, with views similar to the collective ‘groupthink’.  This is not evidence of the Spirit of God, but the spirit of the age.  It promotes scepticism and doubt, including among church people.

By way of example, a recent article argued that the narrative about Paul in Acts 13-28 was imaginatively reconstructed from Paul’s letters by an unknown author in the Second Century.  Those chapters did not correspond with what actually happened in Acts 13-28, but were the novelistic creation of this unknown second century author.

According to the article this author wrote Acts 13 to identify Antioch in Pisidia as ‘little Rome’, anticipating Paul’s arrival in ‘big Rome’.  This was the point of a contrived narrative that was said to have had no basis in historical truth.

I can think of several historical reasons why this article in wrong, but let me mention two.  The first is the problem of an author fifty or more years later inventing the detail in Acts 13-28, detail that based on modern archaeology is quite credible to us.  It is far more likely that Paul himself was the source of the information that Luke used, that Luke had written up while Paul was still alive, or at least had begun to.  The subtleties of Paul’s seaboard and overland travels in Acts 13-14 are consistent with what we know of the sea lanes and road system of the region, but which may not have been imaginable to an author remote in time and place from the places and events in the narratives.

The second is that Luke in no way exploits a ‘little Rome’ / ‘big Rome’ typology because the words ‘Rome’ and ‘Roman’ do not appear in Acts 13.  It is true, as we now know, that this Antioch was a Roman colony, built on the model of Rome.  Luke may or may not have known this, but either way it is not the point he was making.  Luke’s point was that at Antioch God had ordained that the gospel the Jews were rejecting should be taken to the Gentiles.  That is the point that Luke is making, and that is the point we the readers should be understanding.

Do we understand what is going on here?  First, this scholar explicitly says that Acts 13-28 is not historically true, but is a fictitious narrative.  This robs the text of the truthfulness that Luke claimed for it in his Prologue to Luke-Acts.  Secondly, by finding a Rome-to-Rome motif would make the text of merely antiquarian interest, a talking point for the scholars’ guild.  But the text is not merely an ancient relic for scholars to discuss.  It is a canonical text of sacred scripture that has a continuing missionary mandate for us today and tomorrow and until the Day of the Lord.  That mandate if for us to spread the good news about Jesus to Gentiles everywhere, but also to God’s historic people, the Jews.

How can I say this?  We do not want our ministers in training shaped by that kind of scholarship.  The vision statement calling for ‘faithful, godly deans and teachers’ is exactly right, and the key to future revival of the faith. We want Christian scholars to apply their skills to teaching and applying the Bible, not deconstructing it.

So we need to hold the line and ‘contend for the faith once and for all delivered to the saints’.

Paul Barnett

Epiphany 2013.



[1]Bulletin of the Johns Rylands Library 51 (1969), 294.

Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World

Paul and Mission in a Pluralistic World


The Pluralistic Environments of the Old and New Testament.

During the 1950s the Student Christian Movement series Studies in Biblical Theology published texts that highlighted the pluralistic environments of the Old and New Testaments respectively, the one written by G.E. Wright, the other by F.V. Filson.  Each pointed to the distinctiveness of the faith of each testament against the religious culture to which it came.  More recently, and based on up-to-date data, a collection of essays, One God One Lord in a World of Religious Pluralism (ed. B.W. Winter and A. Clarke, Cambridge: Tyndale Press, 1991), has contributed further to this subject.

Religious pluralism, which has become new to us in western culture in recent times, was not new in the broader historical background of the New Testament era.  It was, in fact and in particular, a distinguishing mark of the Graeco-Roman culture of the world in which the heralds of Jesus went forth to proclaim him as the unique Lord and Christ.

 Paul’s History: from Pharisee to Apostle

I suspect that for his first thirty or so years Paul had limited exposure to the religious pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world.  True, he spent his first years in Tarsus in Cilicia but seems to have been shielded from Hellenistic influence in a conservatively Jewish family, perhaps through home schooling by a tutor.  His practical world was probably the home and the synagogue with little exposure in Tarsian culture.  By his mid-teens Paul was living in the holy city, enrolled in the academy of Gamaliel the foremost rabbi of his generation, where he would have been immersed in the judgments of the scribes.  Jerusalem was indeed the ‘holy’ city, free from the evils of the Hellenistic world.  Paul’s letters, written considerably later, whilst displaying a preacher’s gift for a rhetorical turn of phrase, inhabit the intellectual universe of the Greek Bible.  There is no trace of the literature of the Greek classics in the letters of Paul but echoes from the Septuagint abound.

His radical redirection from attempted destroyer of the faith to its passionate preacher began to bring him into contact with Gentiles.  During his so-called ‘unknown years’, the fourteen years between the Damascus ‘call’ and the Jerusalem ‘agreement’ that he should go to the Gentiles, there is evidence of his foundation of gentile churches – in Syria and Cilicia (Acts 15:23, 41).  Titus, the uncircumcised ‘Greek’ who accompanied Barnabas and Paul to Jerusalem, is a prominent example of a Gentile who had become a Christian during the decade or so that Paul spent in the ‘regions of Syria and of Cilicia’ where his proclamation of the faith he had formerly attempted to destroy had come repeatedly to the attention of the churches in Judea (Gal. 1:21-23).

The big question, though, is: Were Titus and the members of the Syrian and Cilician gentile churches  God-fearers or idolaters?  Francis Watson argued that Paul did not begin to evangelize outright Gentiles until the journey to Cyprus, Pisidia and Lycaonia recorded in Acts 13-14, having concentrated to that point in his ministry to Jews, a conclusion readily based on evidence from the book of Acts.  The early chapters of Galatians, however, strongly imply that throughout the ‘fourteen years’ Paul had been preaching the Son of God to the uncircumcised.  For their part, Martin Hengel and Anna Maria Schwemer incline to the view that these Gentiles were synagogue-connected God-fearers.  This would help explain why Paul was repeatedly beaten in the synagogues (2 Cor. 11:24).  He asserted that the crucified Messiah, not the Law, was the true and only route to ‘life’ with God.

The evidence from Acts 15:23, 41 points conclusively to Paul’s ministry to Gentiles through his decade in Cilicia (based in Tarsus) and Syria (based in Antioch).  If Hengel and Schwemer are correct – that these Gentiles were mainly God-fearers – it would mean that the Gentiles Paul met were those who had already separated from pagan pluralism in their attendance at the synagogues, adopting instead the ways of Judaism.

In this case it would mean that Paul’s first missionary foray – which was in Cyprus and Southern Galatia – was the first occasion when Paul encountered outright pagans in any number, front on.

Paul and Idolaters

Paul’s mission letters, written during the decade of the westward missions (AD 47-57) in Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia and Asia, give abundant evidence of former idolaters who were now members of his mission churches.

In Pisidia and Lycaonia (ca. 47/48)

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods (theoi); but now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits (stoicheia), whose slaves you want to be once more?  You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years!  I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain (Gal. 4:8-11; cf. 5:20 – ‘idolatry’/eidolatria)

In Macedonia (ca. 49)

For not only has the word of the Lord sounded forth from you in Macedonia and Achaia, but your faith in God has gone forth everywhere, so that we need not say anything.  For they themselves report concerning us what a welcome we had among you, and how you turned to God from idols (eido|la), to serve a living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come  (1 Thess. 1:8-10)

In Corinth (ca. 50-56)

Therefore, my beloved brothers, flee from the worship of idols (eidolatreia) (1 Cor. 10:14; cf. 1 Cor. 8-10 passim).  What agreement has                   the temple of God with idols (eido|la)?…Therefore. Come out from them, and be separate….(2 Cor. 6:16,17)

In short, the documents of Paul from the missionary decade (AD 47-57) reveal that he gathered into his churches significant numbers of idol-worshippers as well as those ‘God-fearers’ who had already left the temples to join the synagogues.

Mixed Churches

In Paul’s letters we are able to pick up references to Jews and Gentiles within the congregations of the Pauline mission.


From Galatians the many references to ‘you’ are directed to those Gentiles who have been negatively influenced by the Jewish-Christian ‘agitators’, for example, ‘I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you’ (1:6); ‘O foolish Galatians who has bewitched you?’ (3:1);  ‘Formerly when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are no gods’ (4:8); (5:7); ‘I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves’ (5:12).  In Galatians the ‘you’ are Gentile Galatians.

Nonetheless, buried within the text of Galatians we also find oblique references to Jews.  Paul’s review of Old Testament history and promises in chapter 3 is directed to Jewish readers, as summed up in chapter 4: ‘In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons’ (4:3-4).  ‘We’ in Galatians are Jews like Paul and Cephas (‘we ourselves are Jews by birth and not gentile sinners’ – 2:15) but also the Galatian Christian Jews.

First and Second Corinthians

We know that the foundation members of the church in Corinth were God-fearers and Jews.  We would expect that First Corinthians would address issues that affected them, but apart from the reminder that he originally preached ‘Christ crucified’ in the synagogue – as in ‘the “Christ” [Messiah] who ‘died for our sins’ (1 Cor. 1:23; 15:3) – it is difficult to find passages that reflect Jewish issues.  Wisdom from speech, porneia, idolatry, denial of end-time resurrection were issues for Gentiles.  It is otherwise in Second Corinthians where part of the excursus on New Covenant ministry (3:1-18) appears to be directed to Jews who were being influenced (by the ‘peddlers’) to think that the former covenant remained in place, unabrogated.  On the other hand, however, the appeal to ‘come out’ applies to those Corinthian Gentiles who continued to frequent the temples of Corinth (2 Cor. 6:14-7:1).


In Romans Paul specifically addresses Gentiles (‘I am speaking to you Gentiles’ – 11:13) and they probably were amongst ‘the strong’ in 14:1-15:7.  On the other hand, he addresses those who ‘know the law’ – that is Jews (7:1) – whom also he addresses in symbolic terms as the ‘weak’ (Rom. 14:1-15:7).  The greater part of Romans is Paul’s response to criticisms that emanate from from a Jewish source or sources (e.g., 3:8; 6:1; 9:1-3).


Passages in Galatians, 2 Corinthians and Romans indicate the presence of Gentiles and Jews as members of the churches of the Pauline Mission.  These remind us of the pluralism of the Graeco-Roman world where Paul preached his message of Christ crucified and risen, whose members have been included within the churches (cf. Gal. 3:27-28 – ‘For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…’).  Paul does not necessarily signal that his readers for the moment are Gentiles or Jews but they would understand who he was addressing in various parts of his letters.  Today we easily miss the nuanced references to Jews and Gentiles but the original hearers of Paul’s letters would not have been in doubt.[1]

Pluralism in Corinth

As already mentioned most references in First Corinthians relate to Gentiles.  From these we have a series of social snapshots of the kind of pluralism that marked gentile behaviour in the Achaian capital.   Chapters 1-4 focus on the wisdom that comes from rhetoric; from chapters 5-6 emerge of picture of Corinthian toleration of porneia and litigiousness; from chapters 8-10 the language of temples and sacrifices takes us into the world of Graeco-Roman temple worship; the prophesying and tongues-speaking in chapters 11-14 connect us with the oracular language of Delphi and the Pythian priestess; and the denial of resurrection in chapter 15 brings us into contact with Greek soul-based eschatology; chapters 1, 4 and 11 point to the deep social stratification between the ‘not many’ who were ‘haves’ and the great majority of poor free people and slaves who were the ‘have nots’ (with whom Paul identified himself).   First Corinthians reveals a pluralism of beliefs and attitudes amongst the Corinthian Christians, a pluralism that mirrors the pluralism of the city.

Tourists who visit the remains of classical civilizations like Corinth or Ephesus easily have the impression of ancient societies marked by order and beauty.  However, in the course of his travels in Galatia, Asia, Macedonia and Achaia Paul would have addressed people who worshipped rocks, believed trees could be gods, owned sacred animals, accepted ritual castration and participated in temple prostitution, both heterosexual and homosexual.[2]   Moreover, these were societies that crucified ‘difficult’ slaves, sanctioned bloody combats in the arenas, exposed their unwanted children to the elements and bought and sold men, women and children like cattle.  The world to which the apostle Paul came preaching the gospel of Christ was a pluralistic world, both in religion and ethics.  In reality it was by no means in all matters morally elevated or spiritually enlightened.

Corinth, like other cities in the Graeco-Roman world, was pluralist in religion, with ‘many “gods” and many “lords’” (1 Cor. 8:5).  Pausanias, the travel writer who visited Corinth some time after Paul, describes numerous temples and shrines to a bewildering array of deities in Corinth’s public square (agora) – for Artemis, Dionysius, Fortune, Apollo, Poseidon, Aphrodite, Hermes, Zeus, Athena, Octavia the sister of Augustus.[3]

Paul adapts the Shema’

Paul’s proposition of the uniqueness of God and of Christ that he makes in 1 Cor. 8:6 is based on the great confession in the Shema’:

Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one.

And you shall love the Lord your God

with all your heart, and

with all your soul, and

with all your strength

(Deut. 6:4).

Yahweh had revealed himself to the people he chose in word and saving act and he was jealous for his name, forbidding the worship of other or alternative deities.

In First Corinthians Paul adapts the Shema’ to encompass Yahweh’s revelation of himself as the Father of Jesus his Son who is Lord.

there is one God, the Father,

from whom are all things

and for    whom we exist


one Lord, Jesus Christ,

through whom are all things

and through whom we exist (1 Cor. 8:6).

Paul applies his adapted Shema’ to the pluralism of Corinth.   In First Corinthians chapter 8 he reminds them of his catechesis when he established the church in Corinth.

We know that             ‘an idol has no real existence’ and

‘there is no God but one’.

Paul and the Corinthians ‘know’ that no reality exists behind man-made gods; they ‘know’ that there is ‘no God but one’.  Clearly, ‘There is no God but one’, is adapted from the Shema’, and is also found in various other statements in the New Testament, for example, ‘There is one God and Father of us all’, and ‘There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 4:5; 1 Tim. 2:5).

‘There is no God but one’ also echoes Yahweh’s own self-revelation of his uniqueness in, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’ (Isa. 45:5).  There it is affirmation clinched by denial, ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other’.  In the Pauline catechesis it is reversed, ‘there is no God but one’.  In pluralist Corinth, with ‘gods many and lords many’, Paul’s denial of the gods and his affirmation ‘there is no God but one’ ruled out the worship of any other deity.

That these gods are said to be ‘in heaven and on earth’ identifies them as current objects of worship.  Later he will say, ‘Flee from the worship of idols (pheugete apo te|s eido|lolatrias) and ‘what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons’ (1 Cor. 10:14,19). In the face of their stubborn continuing involvement in their temples (by some Corinthians) Paul urges in the Second Letter, ‘Come out from them and be separate from them…and touch nothing unclean’ (2 Cor. 6:17).  Paul regarded the worship of idols as defiling

The temple worship in question frequently involved the sacrifice of animals, which occurred on altars outside the cultic shrine.  Large drains carried away the blood from these sacrifices.  Moreover, cultic prostitution often occurred within the precincts of the temple.  Paul urges the Corinthians to ‘flee’ from the twin and connected evils of eido|lolatria and porneia (1 Cor. 6:18; 10:14).

The gods do not exist despite the Corinthians belief that they do.  They are ‘so-called gods’ or ‘said-to-be gods’.  Yet though the gods do not exist the Corinthians who worship them are connected with evil spiritual forces as they pray to the effigies of Zeus, Artemis and Poseidon.  They are offering sacrifices to demons (1 Cor. 10:20).

The assertion ‘there is one God, the Father…and one Lord, Jesus Christ’ declares that only the Father and the one Lord, who is his Son, are the ways men and women are to think of God, to serve God and to worship God.  As Paul commented to the Thessalonians, ‘you turned to God from idols, to serve a living and true God and to wait for his Son from heaven’ (1 Thess. 1:9-10)

Against the plethora of deities in Corinth and elsewhere Paul is insisting that ‘all things’, that is, in creation and redemption, are ‘from’ the one God, the Father, but that they are ‘through’ the one Lord, Jesus the Christ.  The creation is an entity because its Creator, God is a unity.

By contrast the plurality of ‘gods many, lords many’ implied not the unity of the creation, but its fundamental dissonance, its fragmented-ness.

But according to the gospel everything is ‘from’ the Father and ‘through’ the Lord.  They, who together are ‘one’, are the source and means of the unity of the creation.  They, who together are ‘one’, are also the source of the objectivity, the other-ness of the Creation.  ‘Gods many, lords many’ was implicitly pantheistic and implied that ‘things’ were gods, to be worshipped.  Polytheism and pantheism go together.  But Christian monotheism de-deified the ‘things’ and put the creation at ‘arms length’ to humankind, objectifying it, making it subject to man’s enquiry, but not his worship.  Here the seeds of modern science were sown in the apostolic preaching, which would begin to bear fruit in late antiquity. (See Rodney Stark, For the Glory of God, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

The Unity of the God and the ethical life

First Thessalonians: Sexuality

Two passages should be connected.


you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God,

            and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who            

              delivers us from the wrath to come (1:9-10).


Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you  received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more. For you know what instructions we gave  you through the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification:  that you abstain from sexual immorality; that each one of you knows how to control his own body in holiness and honour (4:1-4).

The ‘turning’ to God from the ‘many gods’ demands at the same time a radical moral ‘turning’.  In the culture of ‘many gods’ there was the acceptance of many sexual partners.  The temples of the many gods were the temples of multiple sexual encounters.  But the ‘turning’ to the God who is one required the commitment to one heterosexual spouse and to the care of the children of that union.  Closely connected to this new commitment was the ‘work ethic’ by which parents took responsibility to provide for their families.

Marital fidelity for the whole of life as an ethical response to the unity of God in creation and redemption occurs repeatedly in the Pauline corpus, no doubt reflecting Paul’s preaching and catechesis.  This in turn arose from the teaching of the Messiah, Jesus.

First Corinthians: others-centred living (agape)

All behaviour now is to be others-centred, inspired by love, for the good of others and for their moral and spiritual ‘up-building’.  But this is not merely to live virtuously, as a matter of cold duty.  All behaviour, whether truth telling, marital fidelity, purity of speech, sobriety, respect for the powers that be, working to support one’s family, contentment (the rejection of the idolatry of covetousness), gentleness and forgiveness all flow from the new relationship with the one, true and living God as revealed in the life, ethical teaching, death and resurrection of the Son of God.

The plurality of ‘many gods’ and ‘many lords’ allowed a plurality in behaviour, a lack of consistency, except that all behaviour was self-centred, not others-centred.  In Corinth each one said, ‘I am of Paul, I am of Apollos, or I am of Cephas’ (1 Cor. 1:12) and ‘All things are lawful to me…” (1 Cor. 6:12).

The word agape| was then of uncertain meaning and rare use and its practice was foreign to the pluralistic world.  But in the world that was the kingdom of God this new word agape reigned supreme, based on the revelation of the One God and the One Lord.  This is the antithesis of the ‘I’/‘me’ individualism in pluralistic Corinth.

The word agape and its related words fill many pages in a concordance of the Greek New Testament.  Just as advent of the computer has generated new language and acronyms, so the incarnation of Christ has generated a new agape|-based language.  ‘God so loved the world…’; ‘a new commandment…love one another, as I have loved you’.

It is striking that the passage where Paul affirms that there is ‘one’ Father, ‘one’ Lord in rejection of the ‘gods many, lords many’ is a passage where he affirms the indispensability of love (agape|) for the other person (1 Cor. 8:1-13).

            Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.  This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up. If                        anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if  anyone loves God, he is known by God (1                Cor. 8:1-3). 

‘Knowledge puffs up but love builds up’, that is, ‘builds up’ the other.  The man of ‘knowledge’ in Corinth who ‘knows’ that ‘there is no God but one’ and that there are ‘no gods’ and ‘no lords’, but yet who eats food in an idol’s temple is outwardly still an idolater, still in effect an idolater, despite his theoretically true but privatively held ‘knowledge’ about God and ‘no gods’.

‘Puffed up’ by his ‘knowledge’, true as it is, it nonetheless means that he does not ‘know as he ought to know’.  For to truly to ‘know’ the One God is to express that knowledge in truly loving the other person.  A self-centred knowing of God – even if the knowledge is accurate – that does not love the neighbour is not ‘a knowing’ of God at all, despite the truth and accuracy of that theoretical knowledge.  These are scary words for theologians and their students.  The overwhelming number of German pastors contemporary with Bonhoeffer were rock solid about justification by faith but went along with the Nazis in their hatred of the Jews, in acquiescing in the ‘final solution’.

When we read First Corinthians we find there is a single Corinthian ethic underlying the many issues Paul deals with.  Underlying factionalism, fornication, litigiousness, temple attendance, the eucharistic meal, tongues-speaking and resurrection denial, there is one Corinthian foible.  ‘Each one of you says, I’; ‘all things are lawful for me’.  Life in pluralistic Corinth was all about ‘I…me’.

The theological worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-centredness’ went together. Societies that have a worldview of ‘many gods’ and the ethic of ‘me-first’ are societies with limited future, despite their wealth and technological achievement.  Dissonant plurality in theology is inevitably expressed in the dissonant ethic of selfishness and points to inevitable social fragmentation.

It is for this reason that Paul repeatedly calls his congregations to exercise ‘truth-in-love’.  The Graeco-Roman context was one of endless squabbles and discord, a dissonance that was all too easy to express in the social life of the churches of Paul’s mission, but also today.  Not only is this discord debilitating for a congregation’s mission to bring Christ to the world, equally it gives expression to the ego-centred ethic that is the accompaniment of the pluralistic worldview.  The body of people who together confess the great catholic creeds must also be a people united in others-centred love.  Not to do so is to deny the ultimate truth of those creeds.

It is striking that in Paul’s list of 15 ‘works of the flesh’ in Galatians 5:19-21, which he says are ‘evident’, no less than 8 are social sins – enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy.  (Philo’s vice list has 141 items!)  Paul warns the Galatians against ‘biting and devouring one another’ and he pleads with them not to become ‘conceited, provoking one another, envying one another’.  Whether Paul is addressing a congregation in Galatia, Corinth, Colossae, Philippi or Rome, again and again the message is the same, his plea for unity based on love and humility.  It is not just because of a shared sinful nature that he must make these pleas.  It is because a pluralistic worldview implies a me-first ethical pluralism, a worldview that they claim to have abandoned.

The apostolic message directed the hearers to the One God (unity) in place of many gods (plurality); and to a single ethic, the ethic of love (agape), a way of living that is others-centred (a source of unity) in place of me-centredness (plurality, an inevitable source of division).  The agape ethic is a corollary of the of the Christo-centric theology.

Agape underlies every ethical challenge Paul makes throughout First Corinthians.  But it is an agape that is informed by the ultimate expression of others-centredness, the others-centredness of the Lord who was crucified for others.  Agape is no mere virtue, amongst other virtues, as proposed by the ethicists of Paul’s day.  This agape| was incarnated in the crucified man, the Kyrios.

The apostolic standard agape was and is a hard standard to attain and it is never fulfilled completely.  Yet our best efforts, as strengthened by the Spirit of God, make a radical difference to the way Christians live against the backdrop of the way societies are.  That is the power of apostolic teaching and the power of the Spirit of God.

Paul Barnett


[1]For example, 2 Cor. 3, which teaches the ‘end’ of the Old Covenant, was surely directed to Jewish Christians.  The Old Covenant was a covenant with ‘the house of Israel and the house of Judah’ (Jer. 31:31); it was not a covenant with Gentiles/the nations.  The ‘new perspectives’ on Judaism and Paul imply that the covenant with Israel still stands, despite Paul’s words in 2 Cor. 3.  But the covenant with Israel/Judah ‘ended’ in Christ and the coming of the Spirit.  Christian Jews in Corinth should understand that culturally they may remain Jews, but theologically they may not.  A true Jew is no longer identified by a circumcised foreskin but by ‘circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter [= law]’ (Rom 2:28).

[2]D.W.J. Gill, “Behind the Classical Facade: Local Religions of the Roman Empire,” in One God One Lord, pp. 72-87.

[3]Pausanias, Description of Greece 2.6-7.

Christmas – Myth or History?

Christmas – Myth or History?


You cannot but be impressed with the zeal of the modern sceptic and reciprocally unimpressed with the lethargy of the contemporary Christian.  Right on track the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend (3rd December, 2011) has a lengthy and well-researched article, Divine Intervention’ (Fenella Souter) in which she debunks the historical basis for the first Christmas.

Her two main arguments are that there are only two gospel accounts and that they are contradictory, with the addition of many fictional details.

It’s true that there are two accounts (Matthew and Luke) but it is no less true that John’s whole Gospel is focused on the Eternal and Divine Word who ‘became flesh’.  John’s description of a believer’s rebirth ‘without blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (1:13) seems to be based on the virgin conception of Christ (born ‘without blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’).  Paul likewise taught the ‘incarnation’ of the Son of God from his pre-existent deity to his human life culminating in his degradation as a crucified felon  (Phil. 2:5-8).  Paul teaches that ‘when the time had fully come’ Christ was ‘born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem…’ (Gal. 4:4-6).  So while it’s true that there are only two sustained narratives of that first Christmas the writings of John and Paul are consistent with historical narratives like Matthew and Luke.

Matthew and Luke wrote independently of each other, arising out of source material peculiar to them.  Matthew was a Jew writing for Jewish Christians and Luke a Gentile (God-fearer?) writing for Gentile readers.  Matthew focuses on Joseph with little mention of Mary and Luke focuses on Mary with little mention of Joseph.  Luke writes in terms of OT birth narratives; Matthew is more ‘matter of fact’.  Their respective genealogies are so different as to be irreconcilable.

By way of example, both the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian reported on the ALP Conference.  The journalists brought out different things from their respective viewpoint for their varying readership.  Yet it was the same conference  –  (where) in Sydney; (when) 1st week of December, 2011.

Is it a problem that Gospel writers should put things differently?

Islam believes that the Qur’an was written as by God through a Dictaphone; there was no human involvement.  Christianity, however, holds that the books of the Bible were each written by a human person each with distinctive vocabulary, grammar, personality, etc.  Equally it believes that God inspired the writers so that what they wrote is trustworthy and authoritative, the Word of God.  So it is no problem that Matthew and Luke see things from their viewpoints for their respective readers.  If Matthew and Luke said exactly the same thing in exactly the same way it would indeed be a problem and make us suspicious.

Despite fundamental differences in style (and genealogies) there is agreement:

Matthew               Luke.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem                                    2:1                         2:2

In time of Herod (d. 4 BC)                                            2:1                         1:5

Mother: Mary                                                                    1:18                     1:26

Father: Joseph (named the child)                              1:18                      1:26

But not the biological father                                         1:16, 20, 22        1:34; 3:23

Brought up in Nazareth in Galilee                               2:22-23                 2:39

From the line of David                                                    1:1                      1:32

The biggest problem in the accounts is that Matthew already has Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem whereas Luke describes their journey there from Nazareth.  Is this insurmountable?  Perhaps Matthew did not know about the journey.  Alternatively, his preoccupation with Jesus’ descent from David may have inclined him to focus on Bethlehem, the city of David.  Either way the difference is not fatal to the integrity of the accounts.

Another issue is that the census in Luke 2:2 appears to relate to a later census in AD 6 conducted by Quirinius.  But it is possible that Luke is referring to a lesser known census that was held some years before the Quirinius census.

What about ‘post card’ items in the narratives?  ‘Magi’ were students of astrology and astronomy that arose in Mesopotamia who might have been expected to be interested in spectacular ‘signs’ in the heavens, especially when such signs were held to be portends of great events. What about the ‘star’?  There was a conjunction of planets in 6 BC and a comet in 5 BC. Time Magazine 27/12/1976 wrote: ‘There are those who dismiss the star as nothing more than a metaphor…others take the Christmas star more literally, and not without reason. Astronomical records show that there were several significant celestial events around the time of Jesus’ birth’. What about the ‘shepherds’?  Bethlehem was ‘sheep’ country; the whole middle-east is sheep country.  Sheep were also needed for sacrifice in the temple in nearby Jerusalem.  And the ‘manger’, is that feasible?  Stone food troughs are still to be seen in Israel, e.g., at Caesarea Maritima near the theatre.  It is a problem that 25th December should be the date since this is mid-winter and shepherds would not have been outside at night and the sheep secure in sheep pens.  The Gospels do not give the date of the first Christmas.

When we read Matthew 1:18-23 we learn the following:

1.            Jesus was ‘born king of the Jews’ (Matt. 2:1).   He was the long-awaited Messiah, of line of David.

2.            Joseph was ‘the husband of Mary’, not the father of Jesus (Matt. 1:16).

The child was ‘conceived…from the Holy Spirit’; he was the Son of God.

• truly human, yet uniquely the Son of God (Emmanuel) ; no mere prophet.

• uniquely able to teach us and show us the will of God.

3.            It was to fulfil ancient prophecy, God’s word of promise:   Emmanuel, God with us.

4.            David saved his people their enemies;  the Son of David saves us from our sins.

5.            We cannot separate Christmas from Good Friday.

Christmas is one huge step down, followed by other steps down into the deepest pit.

In Phil. 2:5-8 Christ, in obedience to God, did not hold on to equality with God but emptied himself to become a man, in fact a slave, who submitted to crucifixion.  The journey the Son of God took at Bethlehem he finished in Jerusalem, nailed to a cross.

All for us.

Who could invent such a story?

So don’t let the sceptics and atheists take away you hope.  The narratives of the first Christmas are grounded in historical reality and tell the story of God’s unbelievable love for lost folk, such as we all are due to our selfishness and sins.


Paul Barnett







His Story is History and History is His Story

History is His Story

 Tacitus the great historian of First Century Rome leaves us in no doubt about the main historical outlines of the New Testament.  Tacitus, a leading politician and a provincial governor, reports that the ‘Christians’ took their name from a person called ‘Christ’ who was executed by Pontius Pilate in Judea in the era of Tiberius Caesar.

Tacitus expected the movement to die with its founder but instead it spread to Rome where, by the time of the great fire in AD 64, it had become ‘immense’. Tacitus’s history tell us (a) Jesus was known as ‘Christ’, (b) that he was therefore a genuine figure of history, (c) when and where he was executed, and (d) that in spite of his death as a disgraced felon within thirty years his movement spread from Palestine on the edge of the empire to its heart, Rome.

Tacitus’s confirmation of the ‘raw’ facts about earliest Christianity is impressive.  Not only was he a careful historian he was also bitterly critical of this new movement, which he calls a ‘superstition’ whose members were guilty of evil ‘vices’ and who, he said, ‘hated the human race’.  Tacitus, a proud Roman, despised these Christians who loved their Christ more than the empire.  Tacitus’s comments about Christian origins are all the more important since he is an independent witness, in fact, a hostile witness.

The word ‘Christian’ (Christianos) literally means ‘a follower of Christ’ and it was a word coined by outsiders, most likely public officials in Antioch in Syria.  Only later did the Christians use the word for themselves.  Also significant is the fact that the word ‘Christ’ originated as a title, ‘the Christ’ which is Greek for ‘the Messiah’ or ‘Anointed King’.  So the Christians were seen to be followers of the Christ.  And it was this that brought them into headlong conflict with the Roman authorities.  The Romans crucified Jesus as ‘king of the Jews’ and they persecuted his followers for saying there was ‘another king’, that Jesus, not the Roman Caesar, was the true king over the world.

Historical analysis demands that Jesus knew he was the Christ, the long awaited One anointed by God, the ‘son of David’ prophesied centuries before.  Even during his three year ministry his disciples had become convinced that Jesus was ‘the Christ’.  The writers of the New Testament are certain that Jesus was the Christ.  Where did that conviction come from except by the impact of Jesus upon them, as dramatically confirmed by his resurrection for the dead?

At the head of his letter to Christians in Rome Paul sets out this summary of God’s gospel as:


concerning his Son,

who descended from David according to the flesh

who was designated Son of God in power

according to the Spirit of holiness

by his resurrection from the dead

Jesus Christ our Lord

(Romans 1.3-4 RSV).


From this pre-formed summary statement were learn three things.

First, the words ‘his Son’ points to an intimate relationship between God and his own Son.  This is consistent with Jesus’ prayer to God as Abba, Father and to Jesus’ reference to himself as ‘the Son’ and to God as ‘the Father’.

Secondly, he was truly human having descended from the line of David.  The RSV translation ‘descended’ does not bring out that Jesus ‘has come’ – comma – ‘out of the seed of David’.  This implies that Jesus ‘came’ from somewhere else, that is, from his eternal pre-existence in the presence of God and – historically speaking – came through the ‘seed of David’.

Without mentioning it this is in line with the virginal conception of Jesus which Matthew and Luke independently attest in their genealogies, and which Paul confirms in his letter to the Galatians where he writes that Jesus was ‘born of a woman’ (i.e., independently of a man).

Thirdly, the historical person of Jesus was ‘designated’ as Son of God in power (that is, as ‘Lord’) by his resurrection from the dead and by his outpoured gift of the Holy Spirit at and subsequent to Pentecost.

Paul’s brief statement is as historical as Tacitus’s.  Tacitus wrote historically about Christ from the viewpoint of an uninformed and hostile outsider.  The ‘external’ facts that he gives agree exactly with those of Luke-Acts.  But as an outsider he does not know the ‘inside’ story that Paul gives us at the beginning of Romans.  Jesus ‘came’ from a pre-existent eternity; as a historical figure he was a descendant of the messianic line of David; God raised him from the dead as his ‘powerful Son’ (i.e., as ‘Lord of all’); whereupon he poured out ‘the Spirit of Holiness’, which he continues to do.

Paul’s summary statement, though accurate, is incomplete.  Paul will expand upon it later in the letter to teach that God ‘did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all’ (Romans 8:32).  In other words, the Christ who existed before the creation of the universe, who came into our world in fulfilment of prophecy, who died on the Roman cross for our forgiveness, who was raised alive from the dead, who pours out his Spirit to those who commit to him in the One who rules history until his historic return.  This Christ, whom Christians follow is the Lord of history.

By a happy quirk of language his ‘story’ is the true and eternal ‘history’.  Modern day enemies of Christ like Richard Dawkins attack this history, but it will still be true when his days are passed.  Christians must continue to struggle for the BC and AD division of history since it represents His Story.



Paul, Chronology and the Unity of 2 Corinthians

Chronology for Paul and the Corinthians

(a paper given at Macquarie University Society for the Study of Early Christianity 9 August 2011)

It is generally agreed that Paul’s engagement with the church in Corinth was extensive and intensive, more so than with any Pauline congregation.  This short paper addresses the question of the chronology of Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth and the related issue of the unity of Second Corinthians.[1]

Paul’s Letters and World History

There is only one direct linkage between Paul’s letters and world history:

At Damascus, the governor [ethnarch] under king Aretas, was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me (2 Cor. 11:32).

Aretas IV, king of the Nabateans died AD 41[2] so that we must date Paul’s presence in Damascus before AD 41.

This reminds us how dependent we are on the book of Acts in establishing any sense of sequence or dating for Paul.[3] It is only the Acts of the Apostles that gives us a sense sequence of Paul’s activities, including the order in which he established the churches identified in his letters – in Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica.  Without the Acts of the Apostles we have little idea about Paul’s life or his relationships with the churches to whom he writes.

The Author of Luke-Acts and Paul

Many, however, place no confidence in the Acts of the Apostles.  Crossan, for example, in his Birth of Christianity, has not one reference to the Acts in his index.[4] He observes that the first thirty years are ‘dark decades…cloaked in silence’.  These years are indeed very dark without the light cast on them by the book of Acts.

Let me say one or two things regarding Luke-Acts for its use to the historian.

First, there is the Prologue that is so similar to the prologues of other history-based works (e.g., Josephus’s Contra Apion) that we must regard the genre of this 2-volume work by classification as ‘history-based’.  It is, of course, an apologetic work, perhaps also a pastoral work but its matrix is sequential, beginning with the birth of the Baptist and concluding with Paul’s two-year imprisonment in Rome.  It connects with world history in the course of its narrative with references to Herod the king, Augustus, Tiberius, Herod the Tetrarch, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas and Annas, Claudius, the great famine, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Felix, Festus.  Furthermore, it anchors its unfolding story in geography – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Damascus, Caesarea, Antioch, etc.  Hengel is right in calling the author a ‘theological historian’.[5]

Second, as Sherwin-White pointed out, the diverse references to officials like the Politarchs in Thessalonica, the Asiarchs in Ephesus and the ‘First Man’ in Malta fit within the era before Roman policy had unified and homogenized the administrative bureaucracies within the provinces.[6] In case after case he finds that the ‘narrative agrees with the evidence of the earlier period’.[7] In summary, Sherwin-White states with regard to Acts that, ‘any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd.  Roman historians have long since taken it for granted’.[8] In short, according to this noted Roman historian, the Acts descriptions fit the era they narrate (i.e., 30s-60s) and not those of half a century later when some argue the Acts was written.

Third, the ‘we’ passages (which dominate from chapter 20 onwards) indicate that the author was himself part of the narrative.  The density of gratuitous detail especially in the journey from Philippi to Jerusalem (Acts 21) and from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 27-28) is difficult to dismiss as merely ‘stylistic’.  What possible motive could there be for the easy to miss change from the third to the first person pronouns, except to signal that the one who wrote the prologue himself had became part of the unfolding story?  Hengel and Fitzmyer are amongst the weighty authorities who argue that the ‘we’ passages indicate the presence of the author in those chapters.[9]

This means the author had long periods of personal contact with Paul, in fact for those five or so years before the close of the Acts of the Apostles (in Rome in AD 62).  From this we reasonably conclude that Paul himself was the main source of the information about Paul that appears in the book of Acts.

In this regard we note also that the anonymous author was not far from Paul during the apostle’s Aegean ministry in Corinth and Ephesus.  During those years – approximately seven as we shall suggest – the author was in Macedonia (between Acts 16:10 and 20:6).  The first ‘we’-passage ends in Philippi in 50 and the next one begins in Philippi in 57 suggesting that the author was in Philippi throughout those years.  In short, he was within the orbit of Paul’s Aegean ministry with several opportunities to meet him, especially in Macedonia during AD 56.

Many scholars distinguish between Paul’s letters as ‘primary’ and Luke-Acts as ‘secondary’, observing that the latter is therefore an inferior if not questionable source.  This would be true if the author had little or no contact with Paul, but this is not the case.  Given the close and extensive relations between the two men it is better to regard Acts references to Paul on a higher plane, as a reliable source for Paul’s movements.

According to Hengel the author’s ‘account always remains within the limits of what was considered reliable by the standards of antiquity’.[10] If we ignore Acts (as Crossan does), or radically revise his narrative (as many do) we really are left without very little basis for reconstructing a chronology for Paul.

Chronology according to Luke-Acts

The author of Luke-Acts provides two invaluable pointers to the chronology of early Christianity:

(i)            The commencement of the ministry of John the Baptist in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, that is, in AD 28/9 (Luke 3:1).[11] The three-four year ministry of Jesus overlapped with John’s suggesting AD 33 as the date of the first Easter.  The alternative date is AD 30.

(ii)            According to the Gallio inscription in Delphi the Proconsul arrived in Corinth in AD 51 or 52 (Acts 18:12).[12] This dovetails with Acts 18:2 noting the presence in Corinth of Aquila and Priscilla ‘because Claudius had expelled all the Jews to leave Rome’.

According to Dio in AD 41 Claudius ‘did not drive them out’ but forbade the Jews ‘to hold meetings’ (History 60.6.6), whereas according to Suetonius he ‘expelled the Jews from Rome’ (Claudius 25.4).  The two actions are to be distinguished.

We depend on Orosius for dating the expulsion to AD 49, a date that is doubted by some, e.g., Murphy-O’Connor.[13] However, the conjunction of Aquila’s and Priscilla’s uncertain arrival date and Gallio’s known arrival date makes it likely that the two arrivals occurred with in a year or two of each other and that Paul’s arrival in Corinth occurred in between, that is, in AD 50.[14]

Chronology for Paul

Granted these critical markers – AD 33 for the ‘birth’ date of Christianity and AD 50 for Paul’s arrival in Corinth – we are able to plot Paul’s movements based on data within his letters.  Galatians 2:1 mentions that ‘fourteen years’ after the Damascus event[15] Paul visited Jerusalem whereupon the ‘pillar’ apostles agreed that Paul should ‘go to the Gentiles’.  Seventeen or so years lie between 33 and 50.  If we subtract the ‘fourteen years’ (Gal. 2:1) from the seventeen we have a period in which to locate the date of Paul’s conversion, his mission to Southern Galatia and his journey from Antioch to Corinth.

33                                         1st Easter

33 + 1    > 34                        Damascus Event

34 +14    > 47                        Jerusalem meeting

47 + 1.5 >  48                        1st Missionary Journey

49 + 1.5 >  50                        Arrival in Corinth

The dating of Paul’s conversion (a year after the first Easter), the time involved in the Galatian mission (one and a half years), and the journey from Antioch to Corinth (one and a half years[16]) are estimates.  If the first Easter is to be dated to AD 30 it would not materially affect the likelihood of Paul arriving in Corinth in AD 50 a year or so before Gallio’s arrival.

Paul’s Corinthian Years

What was the time span of Paul’s ‘Corinthian’ years?

According to the surviving letters there were three visits, although the Acts mentions only two.  Interspersed between the three visits were four letters (assuming Second Corinthians was a single letter – about which I will say more shortly).

Visit 1 Acts 18:1-18

Letter 1 (‘previous’) 1 Cor. 5:9

Letter 2 (First Corinthians)

Visit 2 (‘painful’) 2 Cor. 2:1

Letter 3 (‘tearful’) 2 Cor. 2:3-4; 7:8, 12; 10:8-11

Letter 4 (Second Corinthians)

Visit 3 Acts 20:2-3

The following information from Acts helps us work out the sequence and chronology:

Acts                                                                                    AD

18:11                  1.5 plus years in Corinth                  50-52

19:10; 20:31    2-3    years in Ephesus                      53-55

20:2-3               3   months in Corinth (‘Greece’)      56/57


Paul’s Decision to go to Jerusalem en route to Rome

Acts 19:21 Paul resolved to travel from Ephesus to Macedonia, Achaia, Jerusalem, then Rome (which he began to do according to Acts 20:1).

1 Cor. 16:3-9 Paul outlines this plan, without mentioning Rome.

2 Cor. 8:6 Paul had earlier despatched Titus to ‘start’ the Collection in Corinth.

Note: Claudius died in October 54 suggesting that Paul made his decision to go to Rome after that date.[17]

This suggests that Paul wrote First Corinthians in early 55.

2 Cor. 8:10 Titus commenced Collection a year earlier than writing 2 Corinthians.

This points to (say):

Late 54 Titus in Corinth to ‘start’ the Collection ahead of Paul’s arrival.

Early 55 Paul wrote 1 Cor. 16:1-9 answering questions about the Collection.

Note: The failed ‘painful’ visit and Paul’s decision to revert to his initial plan (Ephesus >Macedonia >Corinth) delayed his initial plan to arrive in Corinth (1 Cor. 16:5-8; Acts 19:21) by many months.

Late 55 Paul traveled Ephesus>Troas>Macedonia (2 Cor. 2:12-13; Acts 20:1).

Paul wrote Second Corinthians.[18]

Winter 56 Paul in Corinth.

Spring 57 Paul leaves for Jerusalem.

Expressed globally:

50-52              Paul established church in Corinth

52-55                 Paul in Ephesus

‘Previous’ letter

Titus’ visit to Corinth for the collection

First Corinthians

Timothy’s visit to Corinth

Paul’s ‘painful’ visit to Corinth

Paul’s ‘tearful’ letter

First Corinthians

Timothy’s visit to Corinth

Paul’s ‘painful’ visit to Corinth

Late 55                Paul’s journey via Troas to Macedonia

Paul traveling in Macedonia Paul wrote Second Corinthians

Winter 56             Paul in Corinth; wrote Romans.

The limitations to sea travel in winter (December-February) need to be factored into any consideration of Paul’s itinerary.[19] Paul’s decision to remain in Ephesus until Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8) – a spring festival – was probably dictated by the restrictions on sea travel in the preceding (winter) months.  The non-arrival of Titus in Alexandria Troas and Paul’s departure from there to Macedonia (2 Cor. 2:12-13) may also have influenced by the approaching end of the sailing season – i.e., October-November.  I assume that the ‘three months’ Paul spent in ‘Greece’ occupied the winter, when the seas were closed to shipboard travel, after which the delegates could travel  (cf. Acts 28:11 – ‘After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in [Malta]…’).

During the ‘painful’ visit to Corinth Paul intimated a return to Corinth in the shorter term.  When back in Ephesus, however, he decided to revert to the original plan to come via Macedonia and to spend a rather longer time there, perhaps nine months.  During this period the gospel seems to have extended throughout Macedonia up to the borders of Illyricum (Rom. 15:19).

It is not clear the degree to which Paul himself was directly involved in such a Macedonia mission.  We know of others who were active in Macedonia apart from Paul, for example, Timothy and Erastus (Acts 19:22), the two unnamed ‘brothers’ who, with Titus, brought Second Corinthians to Corinth (2 Cor. 8:16-24; 9:3, 5), the Macedonians who accompanied Paul to Corinth (2 Cor. 9:4; Acts 20:4 – Sopater of Berea and the Thessalonians Aristarchus and Secundus).  And to these we must add the author of Acts who seems to have been based in Philippi, unless he is the unnamed brother who is ‘famous amongst the churches for his preaching of the gospel’ (2 Cor. 8:18).

Admittedly from this distance we are unable to be absolutely certain of the dates for Paul’s relationships with the Corinthians, but this reconstruction seems to be reasonable:  Paul began his Corinthian ministry in AD 50 and visited the Corinthians for the last time late 56/early in 57.  Between 50-52 and 56/57 he visited them once (55?) and wrote four letters (two of them lost).

This is not an eccentric opinion as it is rather similar to the chronology in major but diverse commentaries like by V.P. Furnish (Anchor Bible Commentary, 54-55); M.E. Thrall (ICC Commentary, 74-77); M. J. Harris (NIGTC Commentary, 64-66).[20]

The Question of the Unity of Second Corinthians

The chronology of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians after the writing of First Corinthians is inextricably connected with the question of the unity of Second Corinthians.  If the partition theories asserting that Second Corinthians was reassembled from as many as seven shorter letters is correct it would complicate the chronology between Paul’s second and third visits.

Was our Second Corinthians always as we have it now or was it originally a number of letters that were later redacted as Second Corinthians?  Both views have their champions.

Second Corinthians is the most disjointed and jerky of Paul’s letters so that it is not difficult to understand that various partition theories that have arisen.[21] In 1776 J. S. Semler argued (in broad terms) that chapters 10-13 represented a separate letter[22], a view followed by many including C.K. Barrett.[23]

The most striking problem related to its literary integrity is the contrast in tone between chapters 7 and chapters 10-13.  In the former passage Paul rejoices that the conflict between the Corinthians and him over the ‘tearful’ letter has been resolved whereas in the latter passage the bitterly ironic words indicates that, if anything, things are even worse.

Many have followed Semler’s basic argument in one form or another, including those who have regarded chapters 10-13 as the ‘tearful’ letter, representing an earlier stage in the conflict.  Some who argue for the unity of the letter attribute the change of tone in chapters 10-13 to news recently to hand prompting that change,[24] or that Paul wrote different parts of the letter in different places as he travelled from Neapolis to Berea.[25]

Other scholars noting changes in content suggest that various sections were originally discrete fragments, including 2:14-7:4 (Paul’s new covenant ministry); 6:14-7:1 (his appeal, ‘Do not be unequally yoked…’); and chapters 8 and 9 which appear repetitious (his exhortation to complete the Collection).  Whereas the Semler hypothesis was relatively straightforward many subsequent theories that address the issues of content are more complex.  For example, Bornkamm proposed five original letters and Schmithals argued for no less than seven.[26]

A Recent Partition Theory

A recent advocate of partition theory is L.L. Welborn, An End to Enmity.  Paul and the Wrongdoer in Second Corinthians (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011).  Welborn regards Second Corinthians as a later compilation of five genuine Pauline letters plus a non-Pauline interpolation (6:14-7:1).  In consequence he rearranges the sequence of the letters, beginning with 2 Corinthians 8 (encouraging the resumption of the Collection).  Inevitably Welborn establishes a different Sitz im Leben for each fragment and a new overall sequence and chronology.

Amongst Welborn’s arguments (set out in his Preface) are the following:

(a)            Chapters 10-13 represent the ‘tearful’ letter, written earlier than other ‘letters’.  He draws attention, for example, to 13:2b (‘If I come again I will not spare you’) as making better sense if written before 1:23 (‘It was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth’).  Comment: This fails to recognise (i) that 1:23 is Paul’s explanation why he wrote the ‘tearful’ letter instead of returning immediately as he had promised during the ‘painful’ visit, and (ii) that 13:2b is written to caution those who behaved so badly during the second visit when he would come for his delayed third visit (12:20-13:2a).  A minority remained in support of the wrongdoer and hostile to Paul despite the ‘majority’ who excluded him from the fellowship (2:6).

(b)            He argues that 7:15 (‘Titus…remembers the obedience of you all’) is at odds with 10:6 (‘[We]…being ready to punish every disobedience when your obedience is complete’).  In his view 10:6 belongs to the original ‘tearful’ letter, which Paul wrote earlier than the letter in which 7:15 occurs.  Comment: 10:6 expresses concern that some will remain disobedient when ‘your obedience is complete’, that is, the obedience that most likely he expects from the ‘majority’ (2:6).  In other words, Paul understood from Titus that a minority remain in support of the wrongdoer (implied by 2:6).  Paul is pleading not to be forced to drive out those who continue as disobedient to him (10:8; 13:10).  Paul may have overstated Titus’ reported confidence (7:15) as a positive platform from which to mount his appeal for the completion of the Collection.  Having encouraged the completion of the Collection (8-9) Paul then, ahead of his impending final visit, needs to deal with (i) the minority group that remains sarcastically hostile (10:9-10), (ii) the other group (Jewish members?) that has welcomed the ‘super apostles’ (10:12-11:6), and (iii) those who rebelled against Paul during the ‘painful’ visit (12:20-13:2a).

(c)            Following Johannes Weiss Welborn finds the argument that 2:14-7:4 is a digression between the ‘Macedonia’ references (2:12-13 and 7:5) as ‘unconvincing’.  Comment: This overlooks the fact that 2:14-7:1 is Paul’s sustained contrast between Paul’s ‘new covenant’ ministry and the peddlers’ ‘back-to-Moses’ ministry, something Paul will re-state later as the contrast between himself as ‘weak’ and a ‘fool’ and the Jewish intruders (‘super apostles…false-apostles)’ who are ‘strong’ and ‘wise’ (10:12-12:13).  Furthermore, it fails to recognise that 2:12-13 and 7:1 creates an inclusio within which Paul is contrasting the peddlers with himself.

Furthermore, 7:2-4 merely picks up elements in 6:11-14 to resume the line of thought following the exhortations in 6:14-7:1.  It is not denied that Paul’s organization of his material is clumsy but clumsiness is not necessarily an argument for partition theories.

(d)            Welborn thinks that because of repetitions chapters 8 and 9 were originally separate letters.  Comment: The opening words of chapter 9 can be translated (‘Now concerning ministry for the saints it is unnecessary for me to write to you for I know your readiness…’).  These words pick up his argument from 8:8-15 that had been interrupted by his commendation of the three bearers of the letter (8:16-24).  Many authorities argue for the unity of chapters 8 and 9.[27]

In response to Welborn my argument is that the resolution of the ‘wrong’ done to Paul (7:12) – about which Paul had written the ‘tearful’ letter – was only resolved by a ‘majority’ (2:6 – by vote?) leaving a ‘minority’ unhappy and hostile to Paul.  Thus although Titus made a fulsome report of the Corinthian ‘repentance’ a distinct group remained very critical of Paul (10:9-10 – irresolute in person, a bully by letter).  As well, there were others (or maybe the same group) who misbehaved during the ‘painful’ visit whom Paul cautions ahead of his upcoming and final visit (12:20-13:2).

In short, Welborn understands 7:10-16 as implying a ‘neat, clean and final’ resolution to the situation in Corinth whereas I regard the situation after the ‘tearful’ letter as only partially resolved, in a word ‘messy’.  In the real world of ecclesiastical politics resolutions are seldom ‘neat, clean and final’!

A Rhetorical Solution?

Some have defended the unity of the letter on rhetorical grounds.  That is to say, they have compared Second Corinthians with apologetic letters and political speeches from the era and concluded that Second Corinthians can be located in one or another class of literature from the period.[28] Thus, for example, we would be able to explain the problematic final chapters as a more or less typical peroration bringing a speech to a dramatic conclusion.  However, these final chapters are not so much a peroration to an existing speech as a cluster of new and separate topics that bring the letter to its conclusion.

The Problem an Edited Second Corinthians

There is, however, a significant problem with the partition theories.  Paul commenced and concluded his letters in more or less uniform ways, broadly following current epistolary conventions.  The partition theories require that the final redactor had removed various beginnings and endings of the constituent letters prior to reassembling them as Second Corinthians.  Apart from a large task for the copyist there would have been the theological issue involved in cutting away the words the apostle from that final redaction.  Editing, cutting and pasting are now instantaneous and we think nothing of removing or relocating words at the press of a button.  In NT times, however, editing and redacting was a laborious and expensive task and one that may have presented a moral difficulty in view of the respect for the apostolic text.

Dunn’s question is even more basic.[29]

My only problem is with envisaging the situation and motivation which caused some anonymous collector or editor to chop off the introductions and conclusions to each letter and simply to stick the torsos together in such an awkward way as to raise the questions which the various amalgamation  hypotheses are designed to resolve.  Why not retain them as complete letters?

Why indeed?


From the middle of the second century there are references to Paul’s ‘Second Letter to the Corinthians’,[30] though earlier (AD 110-140) Polycarp quotes extensively from the letter in Philippians without identifying it as ‘Second Corinthians’.[31] In P46 2 Corinthians 1:1-9:6 is missing but 9:7-13:14 is intact, suggesting that by ca 200 the letter was in the form that we have.

The second century quotes from and references to Second Corinthians do not resolve the unity versus partition theories.  Nonetheless, if the alleged separate letters were edited and reassembled it seems more likely this would have been done in Corinth within a generation or so of Paul’s final visit rather than elsewhere and later.  Against this hypothesis, however, is the question why it would have been thought necessary to do this.  As Dunn asks, why not retain them as complete letters?

Paul’s Circumstances

It is worth reflecting on Paul’s circumstances when he and Timothy came to write the letter.  Soon after Paul dispatched First Corinthians to Corinth Timothy brought news back from Corinth that caused the apostle himself to visit the city for what proved to be a ‘painful’ visit.  A Corinthian man ‘wronged’ Paul but the church failed to support the apostle.  On his return he wrote them his ‘tearful’ letter which he immediately regretted writing.  He was then faced with the city riot in Ephesus (2 Cor. 8-11; Acts 19:21-20:1) that forced him to travel to Troas where he had planned to meet Titus who, however, was not there (2:12-13).  He crossed over to Neapolis where, again, he was anxious at the non-appearance of Titus (7:5).  Eventually Titus did come, but with mostly bad news from Corinth.

Paul and Titus (and Timothy?) travelled ‘through…regions’ of Macedonia, including Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea giving [the churches] ‘much encouragement’ (Acts 20:2, 4a).  Most likely it was at the end of the journey in Macedonia that Paul and Timothy wrote Second Corinthians (Thessalonica or Berea), which they sent with Titus and the two noted ‘brothers’ (8:16-24).

News from Corinth

The news Titus brought from Corinth was mostly negative.  On one hand, a majority had at last disciplined the man who had ‘wronged’ Paul during the ‘painful’ visit (7:12).  Titus’ report implied that a minority remained in support of the offender and thus unmoved in their hostility towards Paul (2:6).

Titus reported a raft of criticisms of Paul’s ‘painful’ second visit and the ‘tearful’ letter: (a) he was insincere in promising to return immediately (1:15-2:1); (b) his personal presence in disciplinary matters is inconsequential, only in absentia by letter is he powerful (1:13; 2:1-4; 10:1-11); (c) in declining payment for ministry he is crafty and self-seeking (4:2a; 11:7-12; 12:14-18).

Furthermore, a group whom Paul confronted during the second visit over sexual misdemeanours remain unrepentant (12:20-13:3).

Worst of all, however, is Titus’s news of the coming to Corinth of rival Jewish preachers whose powerful presence threatened Paul’s relationships with the church (2:17).  He refers to them as ‘peddlers’ (to indicate the shoddiness of their message), as ‘super-apostles’ (to indicate their pretentious triumphalism – 11:5; 12:11) and as ‘false-apostles’ (to indicate the falsity of their teaching on Christology and ‘righteousness’ – 11:13; cf. 11:4, 15).

The Collection and the Unity of the Letter

Paul was locked into plans to depart from Corinth to bring money from churches in the four provinces to Jerusalem and to travel from there to Rome and beyond to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 2-28).  It was critical that Paul finalise the Collection that had recently been suspended in Corinth due to the ‘painful’ visit and the ‘tearful’ letter.

A measure of the priority Paul gave to the Collection can be discerned in the dispatch of the letter with Titus and two local high profile ‘brothers’ and the three Macedonians with Timothy who later accompanied Paul to Corinth (2 Cor. 8:16-9:5; Acts 20:2, 4).  This large contingent is evidence of Paul’s determination.

Once we have noted the importance to Paul of the Collection the remainder of the letter, which admittedly appears rather disjointed, begins to fall into place.  In order to finalise the Collection Paul must do two things.  Somehow Paul must (a) re-connect with the Corinthians for them to be reconciled to him (6:11-13), whilst at the same time (b) deflecting the Corinthians away from the spurious influence of the rival ministers (5:11-13; 10:12-12:13).

The letter is complex because the situation was complex.

1:12-2:13            Paul explains to his critics why he wrote the                                                                         ‘tearful’ letter instead of returning directly to Corinth.

It was to ‘spare’ them.

2:14-7:4            Paul defends his new covenant ministry against the                                                             claims of the triumphalist ‘peddlers’ who are urging a ‘back-to-Moses’ theology.

7:5-16                        Paul rejoices that the Corinthians (i.e., the ‘majority’ – 2:6)                                                                       have now supported him against the ‘wrongdoer’.

8:1-9:15            Paul encourages them to complete the Collection.

10:1-11            Paul responds to sarcastic criticism about the ‘painful’ visit and the ‘tearful’ letter, pleading not to have to employ  ‘destructive’ discipline when he comes.

10:12-12:13            Paul shows that he is a christo-formed apostle who                                                      preaches the true Jesus and that the [Jewish] ‘super apostles’  are dangerous ‘false-apostles’ who preach a ‘different gospel’.

12:14-19            Paul defends himself about money matters.

12:20-13:4            Paul warns the unrepentant about his determination to                                                 discipline the wayward from the second visit.

13:5-14            Paul calls on them, ‘Test yourselves…that Jesus Christ is in                                                 you’; and makes his farewell greetings.

The essential unity of the letter begins to emerge once we understand it as Paul’s strategy in fulfilling his objective to finalise the Collection.  Paul defends himself to the Corinthians in seeking their reconciliation with him whilst at the same time directing them away from the destructive influence of the newcomers.

Paul’s Pastoral Method

As noted, the strongest reason to think that Second Corinthians originally existed as fragments is the apparently contradictory difference in tone between chapters 7 and chapters 10-13.

Against this, however, we should recognise the pastoral approach Paul took in this difficult situation.  In 7:5-16 Paul seized upon the good news that Titus brought him about the repentance of the wrongdoer (7:12; 2:5-11) and warmly praised the Corinthians for that repentance for their further encouragement.  His expression of joy at their response appears calculated to reinforce their further positive response.  By analogy modern signage ‘thanks’ us for our ‘co-operation’ in (for example) not putting our feet on the train seats.  The words, ‘Your cooperation is appreciated’ serve as thanks in advance of an action they are seeking to reinforce.

The reconciliation of the Corinthians with Paul their father, for which he pleaded (6:11-13), is now a reality.  At least that is the surface meaning of the words in chapter 7.  Beneath that surface, however, by a rhetorical convention his words of praise were also an implied admonition to his children.[32] In reality, not all the Corinthians are reconciled to Paul, as later passages show (10:1-11; 12:20-13:4).

The location of Paul’s praise of the Corinthians within the letter is important.  It comes immediately before the crux of the letter, Paul’s appeal for the completion of the Collection. It was important for Paul to launch into this appeal from a positive base.  Paul was probably confident that the combined force of his written admonitions, the arrival of Titus and the two eminent brothers (9:3, 5) and his own arrival accompanied by three Macedonians and Timothy would be effective in achieving his objective in Corinth.

Bolstered by this confidence Paul could then address outstanding long-term issues in Corinth in chapters 10-13: (i) the sarcastic criticism about the failed ‘painful’ visit and the ‘tearful’ letter (10:1-11), and (ii) his policies about money (12:14-18).  Then he could proceed to portray himself as ‘weak’ and a ‘fool’ as a true ‘minister of righteousness’ to expose the newcomers as impressive (hyperlian – ‘extra-super’) in manner and ‘false’ in theology (11:1-15).  Paul understood that their presence and their doctrines were destructive to the Corinthians’ apprehension of the grace of God.

Understanding these pastoral considerations helps answer the Partition Argument.

Verbal Issues

Scattered throughout the various sections of the letters that were said to have originally been separate we find vocabulary that is either not found elsewhere in Paul’s letters or only rarely so.[33]

(a)            The verb ‘commend’ (3:1-2; 4:2; 6:4 and 10:18; 12:11).

(b)            Paul ‘speaking in Christ in the sight of God” (2:17 and 12:19).

(c)            Paul in a ‘ministry of righteousness’ and the rivals as spurious ‘ministers            of             righteousness’ (3:9; cf. 5:21 and 11:15).

(d)            The vocabulary of deception, craftiness and trickery (4:2 and 12:16).

(e)            The combination ‘I appeal…I beg’ (5:20 and 10:1-2).

(f)            The vocabulary of confidence (1:15; 3:4; 8:22 and 10:2).

(g)            Repetition of suffering language throughout the peristasis (suffering) passages (1:7-11; 4:8-10; 6:4-10 and 11:23-12:10).

In brief, we note that the above language which is not used by Paul in other letters, or rarely so, appears throughout this letter in chapters 1-9 and chapter 10-13, passages that many argue arose independently.  Of course, it could be pointed out that the supposedly separate letters may have been written at the same time (more or less) so that the verbal similarity argument is not decisive.  Yet the cumulative effect of the overlapping but unusual language throughout the letter remains a consideration, especially when combined with the pastoral observation noted above.


The apparent contradictions of tone and content within Second Corinthians have inspired many scholars over more than two centuries to find explanation in various partition theories.  In response, however, we should reflect on the practicalities of the redaction of the fragments into a consolidated epistle.  Not least we ask why the redactor didn’t smooth out the difficulties we continue to encounter within the text or simply leave the original letters as they were (so, Dunn).

In any discussion of the tone and content of the letter we should note (a) the trying circumstances that Paul had faced prior to his eventual meeting with Titus, (b) the (mostly) grim news Titus brought about the Corinthian response to the ‘tearful’ letter and their welcome to the new ministers, (c) the minority in Corinth still opposed to Paul after the restoration of the wrongdoer, and (d) the unexpected readiness of the Macedonian congregations in contributing to the Collection that Paul encountered as he travelled from Neapolis to Berea.

The major argument for the unity of the letter is to be found in the pastoral method Paul used to reinforce the Corinthians in the progress they had made in being reconciled to Paul (7:5-16).  Paul can spring from this to urge the completion of the Collection (8-9) whilst also being free to confront the Corinthians with remaining issues in chapters 10-13.  The distribution of rare words throughout the supposedly discrete sections of the letter contributes to the argument for the unity of Second Corinthians.


Based on Acts references to the expulsion of Jews from Italy and the arrival of Gallio we reasonably argue that Paul began his eighteen (plus) months visit to Corinth in AD 50.  Combining chronological references in Acts and Second Corinthians (considered as a single letter) we conclude that Paul wrote First Corinthians in early 55, travelled to Macedonia later in that year and arrived in Corinth for the winter of 56 prior to travelling to Jerusalem.

Paul Barnett

August, 2011.








[1]See P.W. Barnett, The Corinthian Question.  Why did the Church Oppose Paul? (Leicester: IVP/UK, 2011).  For a survey of opinion regarding overall Pauline chronology see R. Riesner, Paul’s Early Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998 ET), 3-28.

[2]D.F. Graf, ‘Aretas’, ABD 1, 373-375.

[3]An indirect linkage is Paul’s reference to ‘Christ crucified’ (Gal. 3:1), which we know from Tacitus occurred at the hands of Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea AD 26-36 (Annals, xv.44).

[4]J.D. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity.  Discovering What Happened Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 1998).

[5]M. Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (London: SCM, 1979 ET), 59.

[6]A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: OUP, 1963).

[7]Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 70 (my italics); cf. 76, 85, 101, 173, 174.

[8]Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 189.   Mommsen commented in similar vein: ‘The numerous small features – features not really necessary for the actual course of the action, and which fit so well there – are internal witnesses for his reliability’ (quoted in Riesner, Early Period, 326).

[9]Hengel, Acts, 66; J. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of his Teaching (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1989), 22.  For extended discussion on the ‘we’ passages see C.J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in its Hellenistic Setting WUNT 49 (Tübingen: Mohr, 1989), 312-334.

[10]Hengel, Acts, 61.

[11]H.E. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 29-37.

[12]C. J. Hemer, ‘Observations on Pauline Chronology’ in D.A. Hagner and M.J. Harris, Pauline Studies (Exeter, Devon: Paternoster, 1980), 3-18.

[13]J. Murphy-O’Connor, St Paul’s Corinth (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983), 130-132 who points  out that Orosius depends on information for this dating on Josephus who, however, is silent on this.

[14]For detailed discussion see Hemer, Acts, 167-168; Riesner, Early Period, 157-201.

[15]This reasonably assumes that ‘after three years’ (Gal. 1:18) and ‘after fourteen years’ (Gal. 2:1) are each counted from the pivotal Damascus event and that part years are counted as full years, according to custom.

[16]For discussion of the length of this journey see Riesner, Early Period, 312-313.

[17]According to F.F. Bruce, New Testament History (Bristol: Oliphants, 1971), 283 Claudius’s expulsion of Jews from Rome became a ‘dead letter’ after the acclamation of Nero Caesar.

[18]Titus ‘started’ the Collection ‘a year ago’, that is, before the writing of Second Corinthians (2 Cor. 8:10).  Those words (apo perusi), however, can mean ‘in the previous calendar year’, that is, as much as almost two years earlier or as little as a few weeks earlier.

[19]Riesner, Early Period, 308-309.

[20]For a detailed argument for Paul’s movements AD 52-57 see Hemer, The Book of Acts, 256-270.

[21]For extended surveys of the literary integrity of Second Corinthians see Harris, Second Corinthians 8-51; I. Vegge, 2 Corinthians – a Letter about Reconciliation WUNT 239 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 12-34.

[22]To be more precise, Semler thought there were originally three letters: (a) chapters 1-8 + 13:11-13; (b) chapter 9; (c) chapter 10:1-13:10.

[23]A. Hausrath and J.H. Kennedy independently argued that chs 10-13 were the ‘tearful’ letter written prior to chs 1-9 (Vegge, 2 Corinthians 13-15).  C.K. Barrett regarded chapters 1-9 and chapters 10-13 as separate letters based respectively on Paul’s conflicts with the Corinthians (chapters 1-9) and the visitors (chapters10-13).

[24]D.A. Carson, D.J. Moo and L.L. Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Leicester: Apollos, 1999), 271-272.

[25]Harris, Second Corinthians, 50.

[26]Reviewed by Harris, Second Corinthians, 8-10.

[27]Including S.K. Stowers, ‘Peri men gar’ and the Integrity of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9’, NTS 32 (1980), 340-348.

[28]For a review of the hypotheses of F. Young and D.F. Ford, F.W. Danker, P. Marshall and S.N. Olson see Vegge, 2 Corinthians, 28-31.

[29]J.D.G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 835.

[30]Anti-Marcionite Prologues (in F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, Glasgow: Chapter House, 1988, 141); Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.28.3; 5.3.1; Muratorian Canon ca 190 (in J. Stevenson, New Eusebius, London: S.P.C.K, 1960, 145-6.

[31]Polycarp, Philippians 11:3 (2 Cor. 4:14); 2:2 (2 Cor. 5:10); 6:2 (2 Cor. 5:10); 4:1 (2 Cor. 6:7?); 6:1 (2 Cor. 8:21).

[32]This is the argument in a brief but influential article by S.N. Olson, ‘Pauline Expressions of Confidence in his Addressees’, CBQ 47 (1985), 282-295, and is amplified throughout his monograph by I. Vegge, 2 Corinthians, passim.

[33]See P.W. Barnett, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 19- 23.

Scandal in the Church in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians

December 1999

Browsers interested in careful historical exegesis of the New Testament are referred to an important research article by Dr Jim Harrison, a local scholar. Its title is ‘Paul’s House Churches and the Cultic Associations’ and may be found in Reformed Theological Review 58 (1999), pages 31-47.

Harrison has identified five pagan religious associations in Graeco-Roman society more or less contemporary with the formation of Paul’s churches. The striking thing is that these religious groups had clear expectations as to the behaviour of their members. It is obvious that such groups were concerned to have a good reputation with the wider society so as to avoid notoriety and scandal.

When we read First Corinthians against this background we can see that many things Paul wrote were to avoid the church having a reputation for scandal in the city of Corinth.

Let me briefly mention three areas of concerns of the pagan groups, as noted by Dr Harrison. His list is more extensive.

First, these cults insisted that their members should orderly in their behaviour and show reverence during their religious services. One group demanded that their proceedings be carried out ‘reverently and in a fully lawful manner.’ Another did not tolerate disruptive behaviour or abusive and insolent language. One society ruled that, ‘No one shall deliver a speech without recognition by the priest of the vice-priest.’ It is worth quoting more fully the Guild of Zeus Most High:

‘It shall not be permissible for any one of them to[...] or make factions or leave the brotherhood of the president for another, or for men to enter into one another’s pedigrees at the banquet or to abuse one another or to chatter or indict or accuse one another…’

We note that Paul accuses the Corinthians of creating ‘schisms’ (1:10; 11:18; 12:25), chattering during meetings (14:26-40) and ‘indicting and accusing’ (6:1-8)! Clearly the Corinthians were not observing even the standards of the pagan guilds!

Second, the women members should not violate conventional cultural decorum. ‘None of the women is to wear gold or rouge or white makeup or hair bands or braided hair or shoes made of anything but felt or leather…’

Paul (1 Tim. 2) and Peter (1 Pet. 3) echo these concerns. The call for wifely submission fits in with this, too.

Third, the funds of the association were to be scrupulously supervised by men of integrity.

Paul sought to avoid disrepute regarding the manner of supervising the Collection for believers in Judaea (1 Cor. 16:3; 2 Cor. 8:20-21).

These and the other matters identified by Dr Harrison cast light on Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians. The church in Corinth was new social grouping and Paul was concerned lest it provoke a bad impression in the city. There were a number of aspects of the life of the Corinthians that would have aroused negative comment locally.

1. The adultery of a man with his stepmother, a sin not found even among pagans (5:1) is one example.

2. A second is the practice of church members taking one another to the public courts. This told the wider community that these Christians are a disorderly lot (6:1-8)!

3. A third example is the women prophets who are casting off their ‘sign’ of their submission in marriage (11:13-14). Likewise those women who created disorder in the gathering by calling out questions to their husbands (14:33b-35). Both are examples of women kicking off the submission expected of them at that time.

4. A fourth was the factions apparent at the Lord’s supper (11:17-22), especially at a time of food shortage due to protracted famine in the eastern Mediterranean. The rich flaunting their prosperity before the poor may have been a matter of notoriety The factionalism in Corinth associated with leaders (‘Each one of you says I belong to x, y. z’ – 1:12)would not have been appreciated in the city.

5. A fifth was the chaos in the meetings with the babble of tongues-speakers, of prophets talking over the top of one another and of wives calling out questions across the meeting (14:26-40).

Such behaviour would have attracted serious criticism in a city like Corinth, where good order in household cult groups was important. Surviving rules governing mystery cults noted above reveal that disorder was unacceptable.

Paul was sensitive to a church developing a bad reputation. Many of Paul’s concerns found in First Corinthians arise from his awareness that the behaviour of the Corinthians may have fallen below the standards that applied for other groups at that time.

This is relevant. Modern societies are now deeply conscious of ethical issues. Professional associations adopt strong moral codes and discipline their members where necessary. It is a scandal where standards of behaviour in the church fall below those of the community. Believers must not allow their standards to fall below the expectations of various groups within the community.

Christians through Roman Eyes

Delivered at Macquarie University 11 April, 1992
What did the pagans think of the early Christians ?
The three Romans I have chosen through whose eyes we see Christians are two early second century Roman governors Pliny and Tacitus and the fourth century historian Ammianus Marcellinus.  Each is thoroughly Roman in his outlook.

Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus took his post as Legate of Bithynia- Pontus (south of the Black Sea) in September 111 AD.  He died at his post less than two years later.

At 50 when appointed he was a youngish governor.

The nephew and adopted son of Pliny the famous naturalist and confidant of Vespasian and Titus, the younger Pliny received the best education available for an aristocratic Roman.  He complted his studies under Quintillian the noted rhetorician.  Pliny enjoyed reading the works of others as well as writing his numerous letters.  The tenth book of letters (60 letters, including Trajan’s replies) were written to the emperor while Pliny was governor of Bithynia-Pontus.

His education completed, Pliny became an advocate in a lower court devoted to property and inheritance matters.  But to fulfil the accepted career path he did a stint in the army – in Syria – but avoided active service, gravitating to a preferred posture, auditing the accounts of an auxiliary legion.  On return to Rome – where he remained until his posting to Bithynia-Pontus, Pliny rose in prominence as public figure – quastor of Domitian, tribune of the people, consul – the most honoured office, all before he was forty.  Thereafter he acted as prefect for military finances (managing a pension fund for disabled soldiers) then prefect of the state treasury.

After the death of Domitian, Pliny returned to private legal practice, awaiting the favour of the new emperor Trajan.  More prestigious appointments came – the coveted augurate, the same priesthood enjoyed by Cicero, on whose career Pliny consciously modelled himself.  Thereafter Pliny was elected president of the curators of the Tiber, the body responsible the riverbanks and the city sewer and sanitation.  In 109 or 110 he was appointed governor of the province of Bithynia-Pontus, thus reaching the pinnacle of his career.  Pliny’s expertise in administration and finance was appropriate given the numerous problems of the cities of the province to which he was sent.

A meaure of Pliny’s love of Roman values may be seen in his letter to a friend who was governor of Achaia:

never forget…how much it means to establish order in the constitution of free cities, for nothing can serve a city like ordered rule and nothing is so precious as freedom

Pliny, Epistle  8.24

On his arrival Pliny began extensive travels, especially to the coastal cities, encountering municipal fraud, maladministration and – not least – worrying evidence of private clubs and associations (hetairia).  Trajan directed that these should disband, including fire-fighting associations.  Who knows what political consequences there might be if meetings outside the official body politic were permitted.

During these travels – but to a city not identified by Pliny – the governor came across the sect of the Christians, about whom he sought the emperor’s advice.

They … repeated after me a formula of invocation to the gods and…made offerings of wine and incense to your statue (which I had brought into court for this purpose along with
images of the gods) and moreover had reviled the name of Christ: none of which things … any genuine Christian can be induced to do.

Pliny, Epistle 10


Tacitus (b. 56-d.117) was a friend and contemporary of Pliny, though not so well known. (Naturally, Pliny’s letters tell us more about Pliny than Tacitus’ historical works reveal about Tacitus).  Tacitus studied rhetoric and became famous as a speaker, as well as a historian, even within his lifetime.  A committed republican, he preferred the Roman republic at its worst to the Imperial system at its best.

A native of Narbonese, Gaul, Tacitus pursued a senatorial career under Vespasian. Under Domitian the tyrant Tacitus was appointed praetor 88, consul 88.  Trajan appointed him Proconsul to the very important province of Asia 112-113 – a measure of his competence ? – thus he held his appointment at the same time as his friend Pliny in Bithynia-Pontus, the adjoining province.

It is significant that these two contemporaries in adjoining provinces – where there were concentrations of Christians – should be the first Romans to refer to the new religion, and at about the same time. The Annals, written c.116, is separated from Christus and his execution by more than 80 years.  Tacitus’ sources of information about Christus are not known. Tacitus would have had access to Pilate’s official report of the crucifixion of Christ in Judaea, but such a report may not have been lodged in Rome. Possibly such a trial may not have been deemed worth the effort or it may have been one of many irregular trials which, according to Philo, occurred in Judaea under Pilate. More probably, however,  Tacitus’ information arose from unofficial sources.

Tacitus has no interest in the origins of Christianity for their own sake.  He is narrating the era of Nero and the great fire of Rome in 64.  Christians and Christus the founder are part of that story and only for that reason are they mentioned.

[The Christians'] originator Christ had been executed in Tiberius’ reign by the governor of Judaea, Pontius Pilate.
But in spite of this temporary set back the deadly superstition had broken out afresh, not only in Judaea , but even in Rome…

Annals of Imperial Rome  xv.44

Critical to Tacitus’ account is the application of the word superstition (superstitio) to the Christians, which disease-like not been eradicated with the execution of Christus in Judaea but broke out afresh in Judaea from which it had spread to Rome, whither in time all such plagues eventually arrive.

Thus Tacitus speaks of Christians in same terms as Pliny, and another from that same aristocratic class, Suetonius (“a new and wicked superstitio“).  The movement of the Christians was a superstitio, which was spreading like a disease throughout the empire.  We detect a sense of fear in these writers.

So what was a superstitio ?

It will not do to simply equate superstitio with our word “superstition.”  By our definition, the Romans were quite “superstitious”; one thinks of their deference to the omens, entrails and the like, which in so accomplished and rational a people strike us as odd.

By superstitio they meant something different, namely, beliefs and practices that were strange to the Romans; cults from nations conquered by the Romans which impinged on Roman government both in the provinces and in Rome itself.

Judaism is an example.  Although for political reasons Augustus and Tiberius afforded some protection for the numerous Jews within the empire, to Tacitus they were “a people prone to superstition and the enemy of true religion” [1]. This resembles his reference in the Annals to the Christians’ “hatred of the human race.”

Roman religion was public and civic in character.  It had priests, rites and ceremonies. It had a private expression, a domestic expression as well as an expression in associations and groups. But these were always a function of a piety that was associated with the Roman state.  The Roman gods were seen as binding society together.  Cicero wrote that “disappearance of piety towards the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all virtues” [2].  Piety including to the minutiae of ceremonial observation (eg the feeding of chickens in a precise way) contributed to the well-being of society, through the providentia of the gods. Piety brought providence.

The Romans distinguished religion from superstition. “Religion has always been distinguished from superstition,” wrote Cicero.  For superstition implies groundless fear of the gods” whereas religion consisted in “pious worship of the gods” [3].  Other writers (e.g., Plutarch) declared that superstition sets people off from the rest of society because it is marked by terror of the deities and also by fanaticism.  Plutarch wrote that the superstitious man “enjoys no world in common with the rest of mankind”.  To him the gods are “rash, faithless, fickle, vengeful, cruel and easily offended” [4].

This, then, would have approximated to Tacitus¹ abhorrence of Christians. He would have seen them as at odds with his view of Roman order and the relationship between religion and that order.  They were a superstitio.

And yet for Christians, as for Jews, the state occasions when the community gathered were a difficulty precisely because of their religious character.  As one contemporary said: “What is a stage show without a god, a game without a sacrifice ” [5].  Thus the Romans chided the Christians, according to the Christian Minucius Felix, [6]:

You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror  from our sacred games.

Hollywood’s portrayal of the Romans as lurid and debauched – influenced perhaps by the rhetorical excesses of Suetonius and Juvenal – is not true of the Roman writers Pliny and Tacitus.  According to their lights they were moral and upright.  Their attitudes towards Christians did not spring from profligate behaviour so much as from their concern for the order of the state and the danger to the state of non-Roman cults, which were private in nature and fanatical, in a word from the effects of superstitio, the spreading disease of Christian superstitio.

Ammianus Marcellinus

A Greek born in Antioch (330-d.395), Ammianus Marcellinus wrote a massive history – Res Gestae -covering AD 98-378 (Trajan to the battle of Adrianople) in Latin in self-conscious continuation with Tacitus (31 books – 1-13 lost; 13-31 cover 353-378 in fine detail, much on eye-witness basis).

As a young man Ammianus served in army under Julian the Apostate, from whom he may have heard criticisms of Christianity.  (Julian was to launch a literary attack Christian beliefs). Nonetheless, Ammianus writes without the animosity of Pliny and Tacitus, though in a somewhat deprecating tone (“synods as they call them” – suggesting Christianity was not by then well established, which it was).  His branding of laws forbidding Christian rhetoricians and grammarians as “harsh” is a direct criticism of Julian the author of those laws.  Even though he generally admires Julian he is prepared to criticise him. [7]

XXI.16 refers to Constantius II, an Arian emperor, at the height of the synodical disputes over Arianism, with many synods and much travelling by bishops at state expense.

Ammianus is not so much anti-Christian per se, as prepared to much criticisms where they were applicable. In XXI.16 it is a silly emperor and incessant seemingly pointless theological disputes which he criticizes.

In another place he notes the dissensions among Christians and their antipathy towards those with whom they differed.  Because of these dissensions Julian the Apostate had nothing to fear from the [Christian] common people, “having found from experience that no wild beasts are as hostile to men as are most Christians to one another” [8]

Again, he criticizes the disputes between Damasus (Bishop of Rome) and his rival Ursinus which led to the slaughter of 137 in the Christian basilica of Sicinius.  He comments sardonically that he understands why there should be such disputes among Christian leaders since, he writes,

“after they have succeeded, they will be free from care for the future, being enriched by offerings from matrons, riding in carriages, dressing splendidly and feasting luxuriously so that their entertainments surpass even royal banquets. And they might be really happy if, despising the vastness of the city, behind which they hide their faults, they were to live in imitation of some of the bishops of the provinces, whom the most rigid abstinence of eating and drinking, and plainness of apparel, and eyes always cast on the ground, recommend to the everlasting deity and his pure worshippers as pure and reverent men”

Res Gestae XXVII.3.12-15

Ammianus is an unbeliever, an admirer of the Apostate Julian.  Nonetheless, he can criticize Julian for foolishness or unfairness. Equally, he can see good in Christians where they are true to their profession of faith and behaviour. But he is not slow in noticing behaviour which is at odds with Christian values. As such he knows more about Christians than Pliny and Tacitus and is more moderate in his assessments.


1. Tacitus The History 5:13

2. Cicero, Nat. D. 1.4

3. Cicero, Nat. D. 117; 2.72

4. Plutarch, On Superstition 166C, 170C

5. Pseudo-Cyprian, De spectaculis 4

6. Minucius Felix Octavius 12

7. eg when Julian made an fool of himself in Antioch – Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII.14.3

8. Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae XXII 5.4

Revelation in its Roman setting

The Imperial Cult in Asia 

After the Macedonian conquest of the region in the fourth century BC western Anatolia became one of the so called “Hellenistic Kingdoms”, specifically the Kingdom of the Attalids based on the city of Pergamum.  As from129 BC, however, this kingdom was absorbed within the Roman provincial system, becoming the Roman province of Asia.  Scholars debate whether the capital was Pergamum or Ephesus.  To secure the goodwill of Rome the Greek cities of this region established temples and rituals to “the goddess Roma ”  The first such temple was erected in Smyrna in 195 BC, before the creation of the province of Asia (Tacitus, Annals, iv.56).

To celebrate Augustus’ gift of peace to the world after decades of civil war the cities of Asia decided in 9 BC to change the Macedonian calendar so that in Asia New Year’s day henceforth would be observed on 23 September, the birthday of the “saviour and god” Augustus (OGIS 458).  Myra hailed him as “the god Augustus Caesar, son of a god, ruler of land and sea, benefactor and saviour of the whole world” (IGRR,III,719).  At Halicarnassus Augustus was described in an inscription as “the benefactor of the race of men, who has not only fulfilled our greatest hopes, but has even surpassed them, for the land and sea are safe, and cities flourish in peace and concord, and in prosperity (IBM iv, I, 894).

This veneration of Rome and her emperor occurred even though no Roman emperor visited Asia Minor before the second century.  Nevertheless extensive provision had been made for his veneration  as from the time of Roman annexation of the region in the second century BC.  Rituals were performed on an institutionalized and regular basis.

It is well known that Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius and Nero strongly discouraged the cultic worship of  living emperors, including themselves. (Suetonius, Augustus, 53; Suetonius, Tiberius 26; P.Lond.; Tacitus, Annals xv.74). The peoples of the east, however, were glad to accord divine honours to the emperor.  The first temple for the deity of Augustus was erected at Pergamum in 29 BC (Tacitus, Annals, iv.37).  According to the Revelation Pergamum is “where Satan dwells” (2:13). The imperial cult spread from Pergamum throughout the province and beyond.

For this purpose temples were built, various ceremonies  - hymns, prayers, sacrifices –  were conducted, which in turn involved priests and other celebrants. There were at least eighty temples for the imperial cult in sixty cities in the region of Anatolia.  These were grand and monumental in character, on a par with and in many cases surpassing the temples for the gods.  The architecture did not allow the citizens to forget to honour the emperor.  Ephesus, for example, had four imperial temples, a shrine for Antoninus, an imperial portico and four gymnasia connected with the imperial cult.

Cultic celebrations for Rome and the emperor were held on many occasions within public life – at gladiatorial games and animal fights which had become popular through Roman influence, at athletic contests in the stadia and the gymnasia, and at the various joyous city-wide festivals for the gods .  At such celebrations in towns and villages all the citizens would enjoy a day free from work and wear garlands during the processions.  The sacrifices to the gods and to the emperor would be followed by a feast. The veneration of Rome was easily amalgamated with existing ceremonies for the local deities ( such as for both Artemis and Dionysius at Ephesus).

Moreover,  ritual for Rome and her Sebastos also occurred at gatherings of private associations, as for example at the choir of Rome and Augustus at Pergamum. This group met in a special building and sang hymns beside the altar during sacrifices of ritual cakes and incense which were offered to Augustus.  Burning lamps illuminated the statues and paintings of the emperor.

Worship of the imperial cult also commonly occurred in private homes.  One of the villas excavated at Ephesus contains the words written on the walls, “Rome, the ruler of all, your power will never die.”  Busts and images of the emperor were on sale in the shops.  There is extensive evidence that houses typically contained such focii for the worship of the emperor.  It was the practice that a householder offered sacrifice to the emperor as religious processions passed by his door.

The greatest focus of the cult, however, was the image of the emperor. These existed in portable form, as busts and paintings, and also in non-portable form as statues.  The statues of the emperors,  all romantically heroic in presentation, appear in three modes – the emperor in civilian clothes (usually the toga), in military dress and naked (see fig 2).  The latter mode was presenting the emperor as a god.( The gods were represented without clothing).  A naked statue of Hadrian in the sanctuary of Asclepius at Pergamum has inscribed on its base: “god Hadrian”.

These cult statues were of of colossal size.  Statues of Trajan and Hadrian at Pergamum would have been 5m high (judging from the size of remaining limbs) whereas Domitian at Ephesus would have been 8m high (if standing, 5m high if seated).  The great size of the statues of the emperors appears to have been intended to create an awesome impact on the populace, to have them understand the parity of the emperor with the gods.

Particular use was made of these statues of the emperors.

Sacrifice was offered in the presence of such statues. The offering of incense and wine was common. The sacrifice of a bull was appropriate on more prestigious occasions.  Coins from Pergamum and Ephesus represent the sacrifice of a bull. It is not clear whether these sacrifices were offered to the emperor or were thought to be offered by the emperor to the gods, by his statue, representatively.

Smaller images and paintings of the emperor were carried in procession by bearers known as Sebastophoroi.  One of their functions was to reveal (phainein) the god-emperor, for example by holding the bust or painting in such a way that the people would look with reverence at the imperial image.

Imperial statues also served as places of refuge or asylum. This may have carried over from the asylum afforded by the statue of Artemis in the precincts of her famous temple in Ephesus.  Slaves frequently sought refuge from cruel owners by fleeing to an imperial statue.

Not unnaturally the statue of the emperor was believed to give special power or protection to the city or town in which it was located.

Already the mere appearance of the image (eikon) of the king has  created victory and granted calm and security to the inhabitants.  (Corpus Hermeticum  xviii 16).

The Historical Context of the Revelation

As from 129 BC the imperial cult had grown dramatically within the province of Asia. Each of the seven cities/towns addressed in the Revelation was located at a site of the imperial cult .  The Christian communities in those cities/towns were troubled by syncretism and by harassment from the Jews.  But the Apocalypse, taken as a whole, especially chapters 12-21, makes it quite clear that the overwhelming problem faced by these churches was connected with the worship of the imperial image.

The writer, John, was in all probability a short term political prisoner (relegatio ad insulum ?) on the Island of Patmos.  It is clear from his great knowledge both of the  seven cities/towns  and of the circumstances of their Christian congregations that John was a formidable leader not just of one Christian community but of at least seven communities  which were spread over a considerable area within proconsular Asia. It is quite likely that he had voiced objections to the imperial cult (in the streets of Ephesus ?) and was sent to Patmos to get him out of the way.

The imperial cult, however, was no new thing.  Indeed it had been part of the scene in Roman Asia for well over a century at the time John wrote the Apocalypse. It is quite conceivable, therefore, that something had occurred in the recent past which had brought things to a head.

The commonly held belief is that the catalyst which precipitated John’s book was the policy towards his own divinity adopted by Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors.  This is well attested in the ancient sources. Dio Cassius wrote that, “Domitian even insisted on being considered a god and was exceedingly proud to be called ‘master’ and ‘god’ (dominus et deus -Roman History LXVII.v.7; cf Suetonius, Domitian,13).” The court poet, Statius, unctuously refers to his master as, ” offspring and sire of mighty deities …whose godhead I heard from afar ” (Silvae I.i.66).

Domitian is known to have persecuted Jews as well as the followers of the Stoic philosophy. He was assassinated in his bed chamber by his own household servant,  whereupon the  Roman Senate declared him to be “of damned memory”. The younger Pliny wrote of him as “a fearful monster [who] built his defences with untold terrors, where lurking in his den he licked up the blood of murdered relatives or emerged to plot the massacre and destruction of his most distinguished subjects. Menaces and horrors were the sentinels at his doors (Panegyricus 48).  Pliny’s rhetorical excesses aside, we are left with a very negative impression of Domitian.

The regime of Domitian may have particularly impacted on the people of Asia in a specific way, namely the recent building of a temple for Domitian at Ephesus. This was the first  temple in Ephesus to be dedicated to a Roman emperor.  Cities of Asia competed for the privilege of erecting a temple for the emperor. The city of Ephesus was granted this honour, and with it the much sought after title neokoros, “temple sweeper”. The temple of Domitian was erected at great expense by the Ephesians on the best and most central site in the city, opposite the state agora.  Outside the temple was a colossal statue of the emperor, 5m or 8m high depending whether Domitian was seated or standing.  The well preserved head of the emperor was placed in the museum at Selcuk [near Ephesus] in 1989.

It may well be that the creation of the temple of Domitian and the erection of his statue provoked not merely the writing of Revelation 13, but  of the whole of the Apocalypse.

There is reason to believe that, evil as Domitian was seen to be by the Christians, he was viewed as a kind of incarnation of the real monster, Nero. John refers to “seven kings” (17:10-11):

the five [who ] have fallen are Augustus, Tiberius, Gaius, Claudius, Nero.

the one [who] is is Vespasian [69-79]

the other [who] is not yet
come and who must remain
for a little while is Titus [79-81]

the beast who once was
and now is not is an eighth king…   Domitian [81-96]

belongs to the seven
and is going to destruction         Nero reincarnate.

Nero was the first persecutor of Christians.  It is quite probable that “Babylon the Great…drunk with the blood of the saints” (17:5-6) refers back to Nero’s pogrom against the Christians in Rome, which is so vividly described by Tacitus (Annals xv.44).  John may be here portraying Nero/Domitian as a parody of God’s true king, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (5:5). Just as Jesus was (incarnate life) and is not (ascension) but will come again (parousia) so too,  Nero once was, now is not and yet will come, but as Domitian the beast, destined not for triumph but for destruction (17:8,11).

Revelation 13  refers to “one of the heads of the beast which seemed to have a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed” (v.3). Although there was great rejoicing at the death of Nero (Suetonius, Nero, 57), it had been believed that he would  come back from the dead and ascend to a throne in the east – Jerusalem or Parthia (Suetonius, Nero, 40) and return to rule the empire.  The year after his death a pretender emerged claiming to be Nero (Tacitus, Histories, ii,8,9). Other pretenders arose in 80 and 88, keeping the hopes alive that he would somehow return.  It is likely that the “fatal wound …healed” refers to the fear that Nero would return  and that he had in fact returned in the persona of Domitian.

Thus Revelation portrays a kind of climax of evil.  It originates not with any human, but with the great red dragon who wages war successively against God, against the man child Christ  and then with Christ’s people  - first in Judaea and then in Asia.

This we take to be some elements of the setting of the Apocalypse, and in particular chapters 12-13.

Further reading:

P. Barnett,  ”Polemical Parallelism: Some Further Reflections on the Apocalypse”, JSNT 35 (1989) 111-120.

R. Bauckham, “The Worship of Jesus in Apocalyptic Christianity”, NTS 27/3 (1981) 322-341.

D. Georgi,  ”Who is the True Prophet ?” HTR 79/1-3 (1986) 100-126.

B.F.Harris,  ”Domitian, the Emperor, Cult and Revelation”, Prudentia  xi/l (1979) 15-25.

S.R.F. Price,  Rituals of Power, (Cambridge, CUP, 1984).

S.J.Scherrer,  ”Signs and Wonders in the Imperial Cult”, JBL 103/4 (1984) 599-610.

Other works:

D.E. Aune “The Apocalypse of John and Graeco-Roman Revelatory Magic”, NTS 33 (1987) 481-501.

E.M. Boring,”The Theology of Revelation”, Interpretation XL/3 (1986) 257-269.

A.Y. Collins, “The Political Perspective of the Revelation of John”, JBL 96/2 (1977) 241-256.  ”Vilification and Self-Definition in the Book of Revelation”,   HTR 79/1-3 (1986) 308-320

T.R.Edgar, “Babylon: Ecclesiastical, Political, or What?” Journal of the   Evangelical Theological Society 25/3 (1982) 333-341.

E.S. Fiorenza,”The Eschatology and Composition of the Apocalypse”,  CBQ  XXX/4 (1968) 537-569.

“The Quest for the Johannine School: the Apocalypse and   the Fourth Gospel”, NTS 23 (19  ) 402-427

S.J. Scherrer,  ”Signs andWonders in the Imperial Cult: A New Look at  a Roman Religious Institution in the Light of Rev 13:13-15″,   JBL 103/4 (1984) 599-610 .

L. Thompson, “A Sociological Analysis of Tribulation in the Apocalypse of John”, Semeia (1986)147-174.

The Resurrection of Jesus A Fact of History

Some notes on the resurrection and reference to an important new book.  

1. The Faith of the People of God

The resurrection of Jesus is central to Christianity. Without the resurrection there is no Christianity. This centrality is expressed within the great Creeds, but also in our classical and well loved hymns. For two thousand years the resurrection of Jesus from the dead has been fundamental to hope for life beyond the grave for both oneself and for our loved ones who have died as believers in Christ. Take the resurrection away and there is nothing left, neither the forgiveness of sins nor any possibility that Jesus was the Son of God .

But where does our belief in Jesus’ resurrection come from? Is it merely a nice and helpful idea but nothing more? Is it a just an intellectual projection into the air, as flimsy as a cloud, with no substance to it to support our faith and hope?

Our faith and hope in Jesus’ resurrection rests on the testimony of the New Testament. The four Gospels report that the tomb was empty and that Jesus was raised alive bodily from death. This, too, is the emphatic teaching of the Epistles, the book of Acts and the Revelation. Our faith and hope are directed to the word of God, the Gospel which springs from the Bible.

But is that Biblical testimony true ? In other words, did the resurrection of Jesus actually happen? Is the resurrection of Jesus a fact of history? Based on the available evidence can an honest and sensible person conclude that Jesus was raised alive?

So what is the evidence?

2. Historical Evidence

Five facts, at least, emerge from historical reflection.

Fact 1
After death by crucifixion in mid afternoon Friday Jesus was laid in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb before sundown (the beginning of the Sabbath).

a. Each of the four Gospels teach this, including Mark and John, which are written independently of each other.
b. The Joseph detail is unlikely to be false because it is so easily checked. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, of high profile.
c. Jesus’ en-tombment (in a rock tomb not a grave) is also implied in 1 Cor 15:4, an early source independent of the Gospels.

Fact 2
On the Sunday morning following the crucifixion Joseph’s tomb was empty:

a. Each of the four Gospels, including John and Mark, say this.
b. Because women’s testimony was then worthless, this is an unhelpful detail therefore not likely to have been invented.
c. The pre-Pauline ‘received’ tradition of 1 Cor 15:4 is consistent.
d. Jews’ allegation of disciples’ theft shows the body was missing and the tomb was empty. The empty tomb a secure fact of history.

Fact 3
Belief in Jesus’ resurrection was against Jewish religious culture:

a. Jews had no belief in a dying much less a resurrected Messiah.
b. As crucified Jesus was deemed ‘accursed of God’ (Deut 21:23).
c. No individual would ‘rise’ ahead of ‘the universal resurrection of the dead.’

Fact 4
References to Jesus’ resurrection rests on a twofold independent tradition:

‘First day of the week’ [early] – recorded in each of the four gospels:

Women (who witnessed the entombment Friday) now found the tomb empty.

‘Raised on the third day’ –

‘[Christ] was raised on the third day’
(as ‘handed over’ to Paul – 1 Cor 15:3)

‘God raised him on the third day’
(Peter’s witness to Cornelius – Acts 10:40).

The ‘third day’ tradition becomes part of the early church’s faith as found in church creeds in the second century then the Apostles and Nicene Creeds.

The ‘first day’ and ‘third day’ traditions, though independent, converge on the same point, that by Sunday morning the tomb was empty and that Jesus had been ‘raised’ alive.

Fact 5
The immediate rise of a discrete Christian community in Jerusalem, which along its ‘the faith,’ Saul soon tried to destroy (Gal 1:13,23) is inexplicable apart from Jesus’ resurrection. Saul’s persecution of the church in Jerusalem is historically secure.

Fact 6
The otherwise inexplicable changes in life direction of key people:

Peter ready to go back fishing in Galilee, becomes a world leader.
James previously not a follower of his brother; becomes leader in Jerusalem. Saul/Paul eminent scholar/persecutor becomes apostle of Christ

This information incidentally gleaned not intentionally / apologetically given.

Careers of each traceable next 30 or so years.

Far from ‘easy’ relationships between them (collusion unimaginable).

Each died as martyrs.

From these six facts we draw the following reasonable conclusions from the NT:

The risen Jesus appeared
within discrete period of forty days (Acts 1:3)
on at least twelve separate occasions
to between 500-600 people (1 Cor 15:6)
in Jerusalem and Galilee.

a. Paul’s ‘received’ list (1 Cor 15:5-7) has checkable names of living people (Peter, James, the twelve).
b. Gospels’ names of living people also checkable (e.g., Mary, Cleopas).
c. While Mark has no recorded appearances, they are presupposed (Mark 8:31; 9:9, 31; 10:34; 14:28; 16:7).

3. Implications: God’s act of raising Jesus vindicates Jesus’ deity claims

Jesus claimed the ‘authority’

to forgive sins (and to heal as visible evidence)
to be the judge of all in the Last Day
to be ‘Lord of the Sabbath’
to say ‘Amen, I say unto you.’
whom to ‘sell all and to follow’ as a disciple is to ‘keep’ the Law.

Jesus died at the hands of men as a blasphemer, and the accursed of God. God raised him from the dead in vindication of Jesus’ implied deity claims.

The gospel of God
hich he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures
the gospel concerning his Son,
ho was descended from David
according to the flesh,
and designated the Son of God in power
according to the Spirit of holiness
by his resurrection from the dead.
(Rom 1:2-4)

4. Alternative explanations don’t stack up

Hoax by apostles
(But the early leaders were often at odds).

Mistaken identity (Qu’ran – the prophet would not be crucified)
(But the High Priest would not have allowed the Romans to crucify the wrong man)

‘Swoon’ theory (Venturini, Thiering, Lüdemann).
(Crucified people don’t walk anywhere again, including to Emmaus two days later!)

Stolen body (ancient Jewish)
(Variation of a hoax theory, conceived at the outset and sustained ???)

Women went to the wrong tomb (Kirsopp Lake)
(Women were nearby at entombment).

Osiris myth: Jesus in the underworld of the dead (Frazer)
(Jesus is not Lord of the dead, but of the living).

Hallucinations or visions of the disciples (Spong but not original to him)
(But this would scarcely overcome their sense of shame at the ‘accursed’ and hundreds of people don’t have the same vision).

The lack of consensus about the alternatives itself testifies to the strength of the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection.

5. An Important New Book

An important new book has appeared recently on the resurrection. Don’t be put off by the title, which doesn’t match the contents. It is not so much about Jesus as his resurrection.

P. Copan (Ed.), Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up ? (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998).

This book is the written up version of a debate between a noted scholar in resurrection studies (William Lane Craig) and a prominent liberal scholar (John Dominic Crossan). Crossan is supplemented by fellow liberals Robert Miller and Marcus Borg and Craig by fellow conservatives Craig Blomberg and Ben Witherington. The book that emerges is lively, relevant and up to date.

Other reading on the resurrection:

P.W. Barnett, The Truth About Jesus (Sydney: Aquila, 1994).
P.W. Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Leicester: IVP, 1997).
W.L. Craig, The Historical Argument for the for the Resurrection of Jesus (Lewison: Edwin Mellen, 1985).

6. The Resurrection and Preaching Today.

Ours is an age of despair and a loss of hope. This is evident from the rampant drug culture and from escalating youth suicides. The moral failure of a world leader like Clinton has brought widespread disillusionment. The previous boundless hopes in science have been replaced by postmodern doubts about human capacities to bring Utopia.

Although Christ’s death is historically and theologically inseparable from his resurrection the apostles certainly placed great emphasis on Jesus’ victory over death as the basis of personal hope and a radical new world view and as a basis from which to call people to repentance.

Contemporary Christian preaching and witness needs to recapture that emphasis, based on the sure conviction that the resurrection of the Lord really happened as a fact of history and not merely as a box to tick in a theological system. Jesus’ resurrection split history and has given to us who believe in him a true hope in the kingdom of God yet to be unveiled. Death and the Devil have not had the last word. God has had that last word, in raising his Son from the dead.