Crispus-Sosthenes

 

Perhaps the tribunal where Sosthenes was beaten

Readers who are interested in the hypothesis that Sosthenes was Crispus renamed

should consult my Tyndale Bulletin paper here and the article by Myrou.(1) The following observations supplement my paper.


Acts 18:4 He addressed both Jews and Greeks in the synagogue every Sabbath, attempting to

persuade them. 18:5 Now when Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul became wholly

absorbed with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ. 18:6 When

they opposed him and reviled him, he protested by shaking out his clothes and said to them,

“Your blood be on your own heads! I am guiltless! From now on I will go to the Gentiles!” 18:7

Then Paul left the synagogue and went to the house of a person named Titius Justus, a Gentile

who worshiped God, whose house was next door to the synagogue. 18:8 Crispus, the president of

the synagogue, believed in the Lord together with his entire household, and many of the

Corinthians who heard about it believed and were baptized.


Crispus was the synagogue ruler (archisynagogos). We can assume that he was a

benefactor of the synagogue because inscriptions indicate that synagogue rulers were

usually benefactors of the synagogues, and because "Crispus" is a very high status

name.(2) We are told that many Corinthians converted after hearing of Crispus's

conversion, and we are to assume that they were Gentiles (see Acts 18:6-8). This wave of

conversions is explicable if Crispus used his wealth and influence to secure the viability of

the church, thus encouraging others to join. Paul had publicly split from the synagogue

Jews (Acts 18:6-7) so it is unlikely that Crispus, after his conversion, continued his

benefactions towards the synagogue Jews. Even if Crispus remained on good terms with

the Jews, which is doubtful, the large number of Gentile Corinthian converts (Acts 18:8),

few of whom were wealthy (1 Cor 1:26), would probably have had first call on Crispus's

resources. Therefore, with the conversion of Crispus, the synagogue lost an important

benefactor.


This seems to have happened during a time of food shortage in Corinth, so the defection of

their benefactor, Crispus, was probably a very serious blow for the Jews. The synagogue

Jews would not have recognized the legitimacy of the 'conversion' of the Gentiles who had

joined Paul's camp, so they would have resented any diversion of funds to them. The Jews

believed that Paul had been teaching (Gentiles) to worship God in ways contrary to the

Law (Acts 18:13), but their real grievance may have been the diversion of benefaction

towards the Gentiles that Paul's teaching attracted. A violent backlash from the Jews is

fully to be expected because food shortages often led to civil unrest and mob violence in

the Graeco-Roman world. See here for details.


18:9 The Lord said to Paul by a vision in the night, “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be

silent, 18:10 because I am with you, and no one will assault you to harm you, because I have many

people in this city.” 18:11 So he stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God

among them.


Immediately after telling of the conversion of Crispus, Luke writes that the Lord reassured

Paul that "no one will assault you to harm you". Paul's fear of violence here makes sense

in the context of a food shortage and the defection of the synagogue's benefactor. John

Chrysostom (who also equated Crispus with Sosthenes) also suggests that the conversion

of Crispus gave Paul reason to fear: "Yet He says also, "Fear not:" for the danger was

become greater now, both because more believed, and also the ruler of the synagogue."

John Chrysostom Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles 39.


18:12 Now while Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews attacked Paul together and brought him

before the judgment seat, 18:13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God in a way

contrary to the law!” 18:14 But just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a

matter of some crime or serious piece of villainy, I would have been justified in accepting the

complaint of you Jews, 18:15 but since it concerns points of disagreement about words and names

and your own law, settle it yourselves. I will not be a judge of these things!”.


Crispus's conversion would have weakened the whole (non-Christian) Jewish community,

so it is not surprising that they made a united attack on Paul (Acts 18:12). Now, there was

no law that prevented Crispus from stopping his benefaction towards the Jews, but the

Jews were able to bring Paul before Gallio on another charge. They argued that he was

teaching people to worship God in ways that were contrary to the law. The motivation for

this charge may have been the Jewish resentment towards Paul's (Gentile) converts and

the diversion of funds towards them.


18:15 but since it concerns points of disagreement about words and names and your own law,

settle it yourselves. I will not be a judge of these things!” 18:16 Then he had them forced away

from the judgment seat. 18:17 So they all seized Sosthenes, the president of the synagogue, and

began to beat him in front of the judgment seat. Yet none of these things were of any concern to

Gallio.


Gallio ruled that the case was outside his jurisdiction and sent the Jews away with the

words, "see to it yourselves" (Acts 18:15). Without further invitation the Jews then seized

Sosthenes, the synagogue ruler, and beat him (Acts 18:17). This beating of Sosthenes

makes perfect sense if he was Crispus, the synagogue ruler who had defected to Paul's

camp. Sosthenes cannot have been a non-Christian Jew because it is inconceivable that

the Jews would have beaten up their own benefactor, especially during a time of food

shortage. The Jews would have resented Cripsus-Sosthenes's breaking of a

benefactor-beneficiary relationship with them. It seems, then, that the Jews beat

Sosthenes because they were hungry. This is fully to be expected because "a hungry mob

is an angry mob" (3) and hunger was a common cause of violence in the ancient world. It

is significant that the beating occurred in front of the tribunal rather than in a secluded

spot. By choosing this location the Jews made an example of Sosthenes and made it

clear to all that Gallio had given them jurisdiction in the matter. This makes perfect sense

if Sosthenes was beaten for being a Christian benefactor: the Jews wanted to show that

they would not allow fellow Jews to fund the Christians.


18:18 Paul, after staying many more days in Corinth, said farewell to the brothers and sailed away

to Syria accompanied by Priscilla and Aquila.


Prisca and Aquila, who were also benefactors of the church, and Sosthenes himself (1 Cor

1:1), moved from Corinth to Ephesus, and this supports the view that there was indeed a

ban on Christian benefaction in Achaia.(4) It may be no coincidence that the departure

from Corinth of Prisca and Aquila took place shortly after the beating of Sosthenes.


There was a plot against Paul when he was about to sail (Acts 20:3). Paul had to radically

change his travel plans to evade this plot and this suggests that he was not able to simply

appeal to the civil authorities for protection. This confirms that the Gallio ruling was not

favourable to Paul. The plot may well be an attempt by the Jews of Achaia to enforce their

ban on Christian benefaction, for Paul was delivering aid for the Jerusalem church at that

time.


The meaning of the name "Sosthenes" (saving strength) fits his roll as benefactor of the

Christian community during this time of food shortage. It was common for leading

Christians to be given new names that described their role in protecting the faith

community. Examples include ‘Oblias’ (Bulwark of the people), Peter (Rock), and

Stephanas, who was another benefactor in Corinth and was named accordingly. Another

probable parallel is "Magdalene" (Tower/fortress/stronghold), also a benefactor. Barnabas

was a further benefactor who was renamed. Augustus was also named for his benefaction.


Why does Acts not explicitly identify Sosthenes as the aforementioned Crispus? We have

seen that Gallio was indifferent to the mobbing of Sosthenes, a Christian benefactor, and

actually prompted the beating with the words "see to it yourselves". Therefore the Christian

readers of Acts who knew that Sosthenes was Crispus would have been given a rather

unfavorable view of Gallio. However, those on the outside, including enemies of the

church, would not have identified Sosthenes as a Christian and would have just found the

episode baffling (as modern commentators do). If Roman opponents of the church got hold

of a copy of Acts, or heard it read, they would have detected no criticism of Gallio in it.

Also, if Jewish opponents of the church read Acts, they would not have realized that the

Gallio incident provided them with a legal precedent that would allow them to beat up

Christian benefactors with impunity. I think this may explain why Luke does not openly

state that Sosthenes was Crispus: he wanted to explain the Gallio incident to his intended

readers while withholding sensitive information from opponents. This could be one of

several examples of protective silences in Acts.


(1)  A. Myrou, "Sosthenes: The Former Crispus (?)" Greek Orthodox Theological Review

44 (1-4, 1999), 207-12.

(2) E.A. Judge, ‘The Roman Base of Paul’s Mission’ Tyndale Bulletin 56.1 (2005) 103-117.

Judge lists the 20 Latin Cognomina held by persons associated with Paul.(2) He places

them ‘in order of their social impressiveness in the streets of Rome, as judged by their

relative frequency in senatorial families, as soldiers’ names, and (inversely) as servile

ones.’ The name ‘Crispus’ is third on his list. This confirms the generally accepted view

that Crispus was of high status.

(3) Bob Marley, "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)".

(4) The exile of Sosthenes following his beating is paralleled by the case of Silus:

"Gaius Albucius Silus of Novara, while he was holding the office of aedile in his native town

and chanced to be sitting in judgment, was dragged by the feet from the tribunal by those

against whom he was rendering a decision. Indignant at this, he at once made for the gate

and went off to Rome." Suetonius Rhetoribus 6


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