Friday, March 1, 2013

Bible Study - Paul, Corinth, and the Greek East in Roman Times

Following up on my last post, I hope you'll bear with me because I think this background to 1 Corinthians is important and hopefully should be interesting.

Paul the Apostle
  • Most of Paul’s story is told in the Book of Acts – Paul also tells much of his own story in his letter to the Galatians. He as a Jew born in the Greek city of Tarsus in what’s now Turkey and like many Jews he had two names, one Hebrew (Saul) and one Greek/Roman (Paulos). As a young man was extremely zealous for Judaism and persecuted the early disciples of Jesus as dangerous heretics.
  • Paul accepted Jesus as God’s Promised Messiah after a vision on the road to Damascus in Syria after which he was baptized. He began his calling as a missionary as the junior partner of another apostle named Barnabas before setting out on his own. Paul always remained a Jew (though a very different kind of Jew), Paul did not convert to another religion so much as come to a radically new understanding of the God of Israel through Jesus the Messiah.
  • From 45 or 46 AD until his martyrdom in Rome around 62-64 AD Paul founded Christian communities in the Greek and Roman cities throughout what’s now Turkey and Greece
  • Paul’s letters are the oldest part of the New Testament (written before the Gospels). But while Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit as he wrote, he was writing to deal with practical challenges specific to his churches and probably had no understanding that he was writing sacred Scripture. It was only later generations of Christians who recognized that Paul's letters were inspired Scripture applicable for people in all times. Therefore it’s important to understand the practical situations that led Paul to write his letters.
The World of the Greek East
  • Starting around 1000 BC the Greeks founded colonies all around the Mediterranean. Then in the 330s BC Alexander the Great conquered all of the Middle East from Egypt to India, spreading the Greek language and culture throughout the whole region.
  • The Roman Empire conquered Greece and the rest of Eastern Mediterranean by the 1st Century BC, yet the language and culture remained predominantly Greek (Latin was only spoken by Roman soldiers, officials and businessmen). The New Testament is written entirely in the Common Greek that was the main international language of the time.
  • One of the things Roman rule brought to the Mediterranean was safe shipping (they largely eliminated piracy) and an efficient postal service. We have a huge quantity of letters from the time of the Roman Empire, and Paul’s letters follow the common style and format of the time. Most critically in an age before telephones, visual media and the internet, letters were a substitute for personal presence (something we see quite clearly in Paul’s writings)
Paul’s Churches
  • Paul’s Christian assemblies seem to have been made up of a number of small house based communities spread throughout the cities. Each city seems to have had a central meeting place in the largest home owned by a church member where each of the smaller house communities got together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper and have large group meetings and worship.
  • Corinth had been one of the major city-states of Classical Greece before being totally destroyed by the Romans when they conquered Greece in 146 BC (as an example to the rest of Greece they killed every adult male and enslaved every woman and child – this was the other side of ‘Roman Peace’).
  • It was re-established in 44 BC by Julius Caesar as a Roman colony and once again became a major city and the main port of Roman Greece. The new settlers were mainly common people from the suburbs of Rome and freed slaves (who could come from any part of the Roman Empire – though a large number of those freed tended to be educated Greeks). As a result Corinth became known as a city on the make and a notorious as a place where you could make your fortune or just as easily lose your shirt – a city of people obsessed with status, wealth, and with a strong sense of individualism.
  • Corinth was a major centre for the Imperial Cult of the Roman Emperors, full of temples and monuments to the state religion that turned the Emperors into gods. It was also a place of countless other religions – traditional Roman religion, Greek religion, and Eastern religions, such as the Egyptian goddess Isis and countless others. These people knew nothing about the God of Israel, pagans in a pluralistic world where you could believe anything you pleased – so long as it didn’t threaten Rome’s power.
The Writing of 1 Corinthians
  • Seems to have been written around 54 AD from the city of Ephesus in what is now Turkey and is actually Paul’s second letter to the church (he refers to an earlier letter at one point). Paul wrote several others to this church (including 2 Corinthians) as he had a number of challenges in his relationship with them. It was still a tumultuous congregation 50 years later when Clement an early Bishop of Rome wrote a letter to sort out yet another internal dispute.

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