Getting around the Roman Empire

1 Corinthians Series, Bible study lesson 2

by Reta Halteman Finger

When was the last time the mail carrier brought you a personal letter that wasn’t a birthday card? If you’re reading this online (which you are), you most likely connect with family and friends instantly through cyberspace—Skype, email, Facebook, texting.

Though Jesus’ body left this earth through teleportation we do not yet understand (Acts 1:6-11), he told his disciples to carry his gospel “to the ends of the earth” using only the technology of their day. That meant walking, sailing, or writing letters. Though only the military had horses and a “pony express” postal system, travel by Roman ship was more advanced than it would be until the 19th century steamboats. To send a letter, you paid a scribe to write down your message and then paid a courier to carry it to the recipient, or found a friend traveling the same direction. If the ship sank or the courier lost the letter, tough luck.

Nevertheless, letters were figuratively flying around the Mediterranean. Forget those clunky clay tablets—papyrus had been invented! Reeds along the Nile River in Egypt were pressed and glued together into long strips that could be conveniently rolled into scrolls and carried inside one’s tunic.

Thus, unlike the Hebrew Bible, much of our Christian canon is composed of letters. Of the 27 documents, 21 are letters. In addition, Acts 15 describes a circular letter to be sent to all the churches, and Paul’s correspondence refers to other letters he wrote that are now lost. Revelation contains seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor.

Paul—Church-Planter and Letter-Writer

Rembrandt’s painting, “Paul of Tarsus.”

Paul of Tarsus dominates so much of the New Testament not only because he was a brilliant and passionate church-planter, but because he wrote letters to those assemblies after he moved on—letters deemed important enough to be copied and shared with believers in other cities like Philippi, Rome, or Corinth. “If you give us a copy of your letter, we’ll give you a copy of ours.” Maybe you don’t like Paul, but you have to hand it to him—the guy had vision! He took this ends-of-the-earth command so seriously that he persuaded Phoebe, his co-worker and patron, to take a letter 800 miles from Corinth to Rome (where he had never been), so she could get the Roman Christians to help him organize a mission to Spain (Romans 15:22-29; 16:1-2).

From a Mediterranean point of view, Spain was then the end of the inhabited earth. No monotheistic Jews lived there. Latin-speaking Roman outposts penetrated only the eastern shores of Spain. The scriptures (Greek Old Testament called the Septuagint) and all liturgies, prayers, and sermons of the Jesus Movement would have to be translated first into Latin, then into various Spanish dialects. But there is no evidence Paul ever got to Spain.

Of the 13 letters attributed to Paul in the New Testament, scholars agree that seven are authentic: Romans, 1 & 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Six are in dispute, with Colossians as more likely Pauline, and the Pastorals (1 & 2 Timothy, Titus) less likely.

This is the main road leading into Corinth from a town to the northwest called Lechaion. It’s a good representative of the Roman roads of the time.

Thus far, the structure of the Roman Empire appears to benefit the Jesus Movement and Paul’s mission in particular. Roman roads and ships enabled travel unthinkable in previous eras. Roman soldiers and police had destroyed pirates and increased safety. Roman law and government provided order throughout the empire. Religious toleration prevailed, so long as one submitted to Roman civic religion and did not advocate beliefs that threaten Rome’s hegemony.

There, of course, is the rub. The early Jesus Movement was saturated in politics. Their leader had been shamed and crucified as an anti-Roman terrorist. The same Greek word, basileia, was used for both God’s “kingdom” and Rome’s “Empire.” The “gospel” (euangelion) concerned an emperor’s victory in war or the birth of an heir to the throne. Even “church” (ekklesia) originally meant a political assembly of citizens.

Later I will highlight more specific ways in which Jesus’ gospel challenged Roman structures and power relations. But for now, watch how Paul frames 1 Corinthians with religio-political language. In 1:18-31, he insists that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (v 23). This is pure, brazen irony. Condemned criminals do not challenge the might of Rome. Yet this wild, upside down thinking is the core of Jesus’ good news, “that God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the strong” (v 27).

The last major section of Paul’s letter discusses how God’s wisdom works beyond death to bodily resurrection (1 Cor 15:1-58). In the end, the victorious Messiah will hand over his empire to God “after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power” (1 Cor 15:24). That sounds like a threat against Rome—like those video clips Osama bin Laden created to announce Al Qaeda’s destruction of godless America.

Next time we begin looking at Paul’s instructions to his squabbling churches in Corinth about how to live in a pagan culture between this frame of crucifixion and resurrection. The advice is highly countercultural, and they need lots of help!

Questions for further reflection:

1. What is your present attitude toward Paul, and what did your church background teach you?

2. If Paul did not write all the letters attributed to him, does that affect your view of biblical inspiration?

3. How important to you is the cultural context of biblical texts?

Reta Halteman Finger
Reta Halteman Finger is a long-time member of EEWC-CFT and is a past Southeast representative on the EEWC-CFT Council. She holds a Ph.D. in theology and religion from Northwestern University, masters of theological studies from Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary and Northern Baptist University, and a master of education from Boston University. Reta retired in 2009 from teaching Bible (mostly New Testament) at Messiah College in Grantham, PA. She lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, and since her retirement from Messiah College has been devoting her time to writing and speaking projects, as well as some part-time teaching at Eastern Mennonite Seminary. For fifteen years, Reta edited the Christian feminist magazine, Daughters of Sarah (no longer published), and is a frequent writer and reviewer for Christian Feminism Today. Using the search box on the homepage of our EEWC-Christian Feminism Today website, you’ll be led to many of her online articles.