Sunday, August 17
Acts 17:16-34: Standing not very many yards from the spot where Socrates defended his philosophy to the citizens of Athens, the apostle Paul now delivers his own defense of the Gospel to the philosophers. Luke notes two philosophical schools in particular, the Stoics and the Epicureans (verse 18). These two philosophical schools interpret the world in radically different ways. The Epicureans believe themselves to be living in an entirely meaningless, completely subject to chance, a world (to use SpenglerÕs helpful distinction) of "incident" but not "destiny." While the Epicurean world is devoid of either purpose or direction, it does give man a great deal of room for freedom, not only in the sense of his being able, by his choices, to escape the constraints of external forces, but also in the sense of not being answerable to an eternal moral law backed up by divine sanctions. The EpicureanÕs happiness depends on how his uses this vast freedom, and he chooses to do so by living for pleasure. Not the base pleasures of the flesh, but the higher enjoyments of the mind and the refined senses. Epicureanism, then, is the philosophy of cultivated, refines pleasure. The ethics of the Epicurean is thus an ethics of self-discipline and restraint. The Stoic world, on the other hand, is far from meaningless. Indeed, it is utterly suffused with meaning (logos). Existence, for the Stoic, has so much intrinsic meaning, that man is really quite unable to add to it. So what dimensions of existence are left to manÕs freedom? If human existence is already determined by a profound meaning that man does not put there, and to which man is unable to make a personal contribution, how is man to live? The Stoics answer, by inwardly accepting the way things are, by purging his heart and mind from those passions and desires that would cause him to depart of the meaning at the heart of existence. The world is already under control; man must learn to control himself. The ethics of the Stoic, then, is also an ethics of self-discipline and restraint. To these two groups Paul preaches a theology of history, in which the deeds of men will be judged, not by themselves in accord with their varying moral theories, but by God who "has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained" (verse 31). In this earliest encounter of the Gospel with pagan philosophy, we observe especially the difficulty experience by the latter in dealing with the material world (the Resurrection!) and the moral structure of history. Paul can barely begin this discussion, so great is the opposition (verses 32-33). His converts in Athens appear to be few, but they include a woman philosopher named Damaris (verse 34).
Monday, August 18
Acts 18:1-11: When he arrives in Corinth, coming from Athens, Paul is supremely depressed (1 Corinthians 2:3), perhaps from his relative failure at Athens, and probably also because he has not yet heard back from the delegation from Macedonia. It is now near or at the beginning of the year 50, and Paul will remain in Corinth until the summer of 51. The congregation that he founds at Corinth will be among the most contentious Christian churches of antiquity. There will be so many problems within that congregation that Paul himself will be obliged to write them at least four epistle, of which two are preserved in the New Testament (or three, if 2 Corinthians is a composite of two epistles). In addition, before the end of the century the church at Corinth will receive yet another letter from Clement, the third Bishop of Rome, reprimanding them yet again for the same sorts of dissension, rebellion, and contentiousness that had so grieved Paul at the earlier period. A modern scholar, K. Stendhal, remarked about the church at Corinth that it "had almost all the problems that churches have had through the ages, except the chief problem of our churches today: it was never boring." Under the guidance of divine providence, of course, those Corinthian troubles have worked unto our own spiritual profit, for without them we would not have some of the most important pages of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 13, for instance). The city of Corinth joins two major seaways separated only by a half-mile of isthmus, which bears the same name as the city. Thus, the latter has major ports on both sides and was a very bustling commercial center. (In modern times a canal across the isthmus joins those two waterways more directly.) Although Cicero called it "the light of all Greece," the philosopher Diogenes, who certainly knew the place batter (and would eventually die in it), said that he went there only because a wise man should go where the most fools are to be found. The first people to meet Paul in Corinth, however, were not fools. They were a couple, Aquila and his wife, newly arrived from Rome. The wifeÕs name is Prisca (1 Corinthians 16:19; Romans 16:3; 2 Timothy 4:19), though Luke always calls her by the affectionate diminutive name, Priscilla ("little Prisca") (verse 2). It is also curious that Luke twice names the wife before the husband (18:18,26), which may hint which of the two impresses him as the stronger and more striking personality. Like Paul they are leather-workers (skenopoioi), a profession involved in making tents, saddles, and such things. Meanwhile, Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia (verse 5), bringing reports from the congregations at Philippi, Thessaloniki, and Beroea. In response to one of these reports, Paul writes the First Epistle to the Thessalonians early in the year 50, including the names of Silas and Timothy as joint-authors (1 Thessalonians 1:1). Here in Corinth Paul also has his usual troubles with the Jews (verse 6), so he simply takes his teaching next door to the synagogue (verse 7), and he takes the leader of the synagogue with him. This was Crispus ("curly"), who will appear later in 1 Corinthians 1:14-16.
Tuesday, August 19
Acts 18:12-22: We know, from an inscription found at Delphi, that L. Junius Gallio Annaeus, older brother to the philosopher Seneca, was the proconsul of Greece (Achaia) from the early summer of A.D. 51 to the early summer of the year 52. Along with ClaudiusÕs expulsion of the Jews from Rome in 49, this inscription is one of our most important controls on the dating of the events narrated in the Acts of the Apostles. It enables us to "fix" the time of PaulÕs appearance before Gallio, the story told in these verses, in May or, more probably, June of the year 51. The judgment place (bema) of Gallio, where Paul appeared, may be visited even now in the excavations at Corinth. Concerned solely with the preservation of the civic order, Gallio is not impressed by the vague accusations brought against Paul by his Jewish detractors (verses 13-15). They, frustrated by the governorÕs insouciance, begin to beat one of their own leaders, who had recently become a Christian (verse 17). This is Sosthenes, who will later serve at PaulÕs secretary in the composition of 1 Corinthians (1:1). Some time after this incident, Paul goes to the nearby coastal city of Cenchrea (home town of the deaconess Phoebe, who several years later will carry the Epistle to the Romans to its intended destination Ñ cf. Romans 16:1). We may surmise that Silas (Silvanus) was left at Corinth, because at this point he disappears entirely from LukeÕs narrative. He certainly left Corinth within the next five years, because he does not appear in the Corinthian epistles, a thing unthinkable if he were still in the city. We do not hear of Silas again until the early 60s, when we find him at Rome (cf. 1 Peter 5:12). At Cenchrea Paul has his head shaved, part of the ritual in a thirty-daysÕ period of special fasting and devotion (cf. also 21:26; Numbers 6:1-21; Flavius Josephus, The Jewish War 2.15.1). Paul then boards a ship, along with Aquila and Priscilla, to journey to Ephesus, where after some days he leaves these two companions. He boards another ship that takes him south to the coastal city of Caesarea. There he pays his respects to the local church, the original nucleus of which consists in the family and friends of Cornelius. From there Paul goes overland to Antioch, the church which had commissioned his second missionary journey, which is thus brought to an end. Paul will remain at Antioch for the winter, until the spring of 52. Meanwhile, as we shall see, Aquila and Priscilla will be very busy with the ministry at Ephesus.
Wednesday, August 20
Acts 18:23Ñ19:7: We now come to PaulÕs third missionary journey. Though he once again begins from Antioch, this point of departure is more implied than stated (verse 23), and in fact the focal center of PaulÕs activity will now shift to the Asian city of Ephesus. To prepare us for this shift, Luke shares some of the background of this new church at Ephesus. During the winter that Aquila and Priscilla spent there without Paul, they became acquainted with an Alexandrian Jew, a follower of John the Baptist with an imperfect knowledge of Jesus and the Gospel. This man, Apollos, they further instructed and brought into the fullness of the Christian faith (verse 26). Prior to PaulÕs arrival at Ephesus, Apollos goes on to Corinth, carrying a letter of recommendation to that church (verse 27; cf Romans 16:1; 2 Corinthians 3:1-6; Colossians 4:10). At Corinth his eloquence and learning (verses 24 & 28) bring to the faith a whole new wave of converts easily distinguished from those whom Paul had converted in the same city. Indeed, within a few years the two groups at Corinth would begin squabbling in a very disedifying way (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10-12; 3:4-11,22; 16:12). After Apollos leaves Ephesus for Corinth, Paul arrives at Ephesus in the summer of 52 (19:1). He finds more disciples of John the Baptist, whom he in turn brings into the fullness of the Gospel (19:2-6). There is reason to believe that some disciples of John the Baptist were to be found at Ephesus even for decades to come. When the apostle John wrote his gospel in that city near the end of the first century, he took special care to relate the ministry of John the Baptist entirely to Jesus, even informing us (nor would we otherwise know it) that some followers of John the Baptist were to be found even among the first apostles of Jesus (cf. John 1:29-37). Although the explicit evidence is sparse, it appears that many of John the BaptistÕs disciples, and perhaps most, joined the Christian Church within the next generation or so. Their presence in the Church would go far to explain the great reverence and devotion in which that greatest of the prophets has always been regarded in Christian piety from the earliest times. Without exception, an icon of John the Baptist is found in all the Eastern Orthodox places of worship.
Thursday, August 21
Acts 19:8-22: Paul will spend the next three years (summer of 52 to summer of 55) in Ephesus, which becomes a center for the evangelization of neighboring cities in Asia Minor, such as Colossae, Laodicea (cf. Colossians 4:16; Revelation 3:14-22), Smyrna, Philadelphia, and elsewhere (cf. "churches of Asia" in 1 Corinthians 16:19). From Ephesus, during these three years, Paul will be directing the missionary activity of his associates, both in Asia Minor (such as Tychicus and Trophimus [Acts 20:4])and elsewhere (such as Erastus [Acts 19:22; cf. also 2 Timothy 4:20], Epaphroditus [Philippians 2:25-30; 4:18] and Timothy [Acts 19:22; Philippians 2:19; 1 Corinthians 16:10]). He will write the Epistles to the Galatians in the earlier part of these three years and1 Corinthians toward the end. These notes will also argue that he wrote the Epistle to the Philippians during this time. Of these three years in Ephesus, Paul spent three months regularly attending the synagogue (Acts 19:8) and two years lecturing daily in a rented hall (19:9-19). This activity, which accounts for twenty-seven months, leaves nine more months for which Luke gives no account. It is likely that Paul spent the remainder of that time in prison at Ephesus, the experience to which he seems to be referring in 1 Corinthians 15:32 and 2 Corinthians 1:8. Jailed at Ephesus, which was the capital of Asia, Paul would have been under the jurisdiction of a unit of "pretorian" guard, which was usual in capitals under a royal governor. His references to such a guard (Philippians 1:13; also cf. 4:22) seem to indicate that he wrote the Epistle to the Philippians while imprisoned in Ephesus sometime during these three years. PaulÕs extended missionary activity is undoubtedly helped by the working of miracles verses (11-12), and the subsequent and amusing story of the sons of Sceva illustrates the dangers of attempting such spiritual exploits without the faith to sustain them (verses 13-16). The conversions prompted by this incident lead to a burning of books dealing with matters of the occult (verse 19). The study of Satanic theories was sometime prominent in Asia Minor (cf. Revelation 2:24). Since such books come from hell, fire seems the appropriate way of getting rid of them. While in Ephesus Paul conceives the idea of going to Rome, an idea that Luke ascribes to divine inspiration (verse 21). How Paul finally makes that journey to Rome will be, of course, one of the great ironies of the book! Meanwhile, he begins to make more immediate plans to visit Greece, in order to set things right in the Corinthian church (1 Corinthians 16:5-7; 2 Corinthians 1:15Ñ3:3), and to Jerusalem, in order to convey much needed funds for the relief of the poor (1 Corinthians 16:1-3; 2 Corinthians 8Ñ9; Romans 15:25-29; Acts 24:17). Luke makes a point of dating these plans before the Ephesian riot that he will now go on to describe.
Friday, August 22
Acts 19:23-41: The excavations at Ephesus, which is the worldÕs largest excavation site, show it to have been a tightly populated city, the sort of place where a riot could be easily incited and quickly spread. In addition, as we know from informal inscriptions carved into the flagstones of the streets, the silversmiths of the city had their shops concentrated in a area very near the amphitheater of Ephesus. This latter, which easily seats up to 25,000 people, is still in an excellent state of preservation. The "Artemis" worshipped at Ephesus, in spite of her name, was not the virgin huntress of the Greeks but a fertility goddess, roughly the equivalent of the Phoenician Astarte and the Phrygian Cybele, portrayed with twenty-eight breasts, one for each day of the lunar menstrual cycle. She was often represented in figurines of silver and terra cotta, and, according to the present text, so was her famous shrine at Ephesus, recognized in antiquity as one of the seven wonders of the world (cf. Strabo, Geography 14.1.20). Because Paul and his team have been so successful in their preaching (supported, as we have seen, by miraculous healings), the silversmiths understandably feel that their idol-making business is under threat. Moreover, because the shrine at Ephesus has for a long time drawn pilgrims from far and wide, a loss of interest in that cityÕs famous shrine would have an even more devastating effect on the municipal economy (verse 27). Such a fear, of course, is identical to that expressed at Philippi in Acts 16:19, and the impact of the Christian Gospel on pagan religion is readily obvious to thoughtful pagans (cf. Pliny the Younger, Letters 10.96.10). So, two of PaulÕs companions, who happen to be nearby, are abducted and dragged into the amphitheater, where the riot becomes concentrated. The situation grows tense and dangerous. Both of the apprehended Christians come from out of town, Aristarchus being a Thessalonian (Acts 20:4; 27:2; Philemon 24) and Gaius a Lycaonian from Derbe (Acts 20:4). PaulÕs various friends and the other Christians prudently restrain him from entering the amphitheater, which has meanwhile become a scene of utter confusion, many of the rioters unsure why are rioting. Fearing that this situation might pose some special threat for the Jews, who in any case were never popular at Ephesus (cf. Josephus, Antiquities 16.6.1), a Jew named Alexander endeavors to disassociate the Jews from the Christians (verse 33), but mobs do not readily recognize distinctions so subtle. Besides, one of the abducted Christians is a Jew (cf. Colossians 4:10-11)! The riot could have ended very badly, but the Roman insistence on common sense and good order saves the day (verses 35-41). (If, as I have earlier suggested, Paul spent some time in jail at Ephesus, this was surely the occasion.) A single manÕs ability to restore order amidst such confusion should be credited, in no small measure, to the extraordinary acoustics of that amphitheater. Some decades ago I began to read this entire account in the Ephesian amphitheater in a slightly elevated stage voice and saw, all throughout the place, several scores of tourists, only a handful of them known to me, suddenly grow quiet, sit down, and listen to the story.
Saturday, August 23
Psalm 137 (Greek and Latin 136): This is a psalm of two cities, Babylon and Jerusalem.
The first city is the city of exile, Babylon, which was a land of great rivers, tributaries and canals. Indeed, the Greeks referred to that territory as Mesopotamia, "the midst of the rivers," a name reminiscent of the opening Greek words of our psalm, epi ton potamon. The major rivers of that region are the Tigris and Euphrates, but mention is made of other waterways. For example, the prophet Ezechiel wrote of his inaugural vision "by the River Chebar" (1:1-3), a reference to the Kabari Canal that flowed out of the Euphrates, through the city of Babylon, and then back to its mother river.
Such canals were essential to the mercantile economy of the Babylonian Empire. Another of these was known to the Greeks as the Eulaeus Canal, near the city of Susa. It was the site of an ecstatic vision given to another of IsraelÕs prophets, Daniel, who refers to it as the River Ulai (8:2). Daniel also had a vision beside the great Tigris (10:4).
In sum, the reference to the "rivers of Babylon" in the first line of our psalm is very important as an historical fact. It is in also important as a literary and theological image.
The exiles in Babylon have hung up their musical instruments on the weeping willow trees, sad, homesick and dejected. Apparently, moreover, they were being taunted by their captors: "For those who took us captive sought from us some lyrics, and they who enslaved us asked to hear a song. ÔSing for us,Õ they said, Ôfrom the canticles of Zion.Õ"
And just how can this be done? That is, "How shall we sing a song of the Lord in a land far away?" Impossible? Well, not entirely. It is a striking irony of Psalm 137 that, having asserted the impossibility of singing a song of Jerusalem in the foreign land of Babylon, we nonetheless go on to do so! "Should I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand be enfeebled! May I choke on my tongue, if I fail to think of you! If I do not hold Jerusalem as the wellspring of my joy."
Ezechiel and Daniel were not the last biblical visionaries to write of the two cities. The beloved John likewise beheld both of these cities in mystic vision. The first, Babylon, he describes as the "great harlot who sits on many waters" (Revelation 17:1), the source of her great wealth and power. "The waters which you saw," he was told, "where the harlot sits, are peoples, multitudes, nations and tongues" (17:15). Such are the rivers where we sit and weep, when we remember Zion.
Babylon represents both exile and oppression, for John was told: "And the woman whom you saw is that great city which reigns over the kings of the earth" (17:18). Our psalm looks forward to the final downfall of that city, which St. John goes on to describe as the throwing of a millstone into the sea (18:21). On the willows of Babylon we did hang our harps, as though in prophecy of that day when the sound of the harp would be heard there no more (18:22). Should anyone feel daunted by the violent feelings that Psalm 137 entertains with respect to Babylon, let him consult the rejoicing of the saints over the fall of Babylon in JohnÕs mighty vision: "Rejoice over her, O heavens, and you holy apostles and prophets, for God has avenged you on her" (18:20).
And Jerusalem, the wellspring of our joy? Her too John beholds, likewise as a woman, the Bride of the Lamb, the Holy City, descending out of heaven. It is the city where singing and harps are heard for ever, our exile over at last (21:9).