Monthly Archives: January 2011

Friends and Romans, lend me your ears

Mosaic of St.Paul in Veria.

Image via Wikipedia

Paul wrote his Letter to the Romans to a predominantly Gentile Christian church between 56 and 58 A.D. He did not found the church and had never visited. But how is it that there was a vibrant church there at all? Weren’t Christians expelled from Rome by the emperor Claudius? Paul met two of those expelled, Priscilla and Aquila, in Corinth.

Oh, this is confusing. In my ignorance before beginning serious Bible study, I assumed the church in Rome was large  simply by virtue of its presence in the capital of the Roman empire. Not so.

Here’s the timeline as I now understand it. My sources are The Catholic Study Bible, page 1493; The Collegeville Bible Commentary, 1080; and Erdmaan’s Dictionary of the Bible (entries on “Prisca/Priscilla,” page 1084; and “Romans, Letter to The,” page 1136).

Rome had a large Jewish community. Belief in Jesus likely arrived through merchants’ contacts with Jerusalem. According to Roman historian Suetonius, disturbances “instigated by Chrestus” (Christ) prompted the expulsion edict in 49 A.D.

Priscilla and Aquila were among those forced to leave. She was likely freeborn; her husband was a Jewish tentmaker from Pontus. They met Paul in Corinth and worked alongside him, making tents, for about 18 months. They moved to Ephesus and founded a house church there.

Claudius died in 54 and some of the Jewish Christians returned to Rome. They were surprised to find a large number of Gentile Christians—followers of Jesus had multiplied. Priscilla and Aquila moved back and founded another house church.

So Paul had several friends among the individual Christian churches of Rome. In the last chapter of his letter, he greets them, making special mention of Priscilla and her husband: Greet Prisca and Aquila, my co-workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life, to whom not only I am grateful but also all the churches of the Gentiles; greet also the church at their house.

As I see it, Paul wasn’t writing to total strangers. He knew his lengthy letter would have a receptive audience in at least some homes.


Running and wrestling with St. Paul


Image by Gordon T Lawson via Flickr

Have you noticed how often St. Paul uses sports analogies, particularly running? I was first made aware of this last year when I read James Michener’s The Source. The character Eliav addresses the different concepts of sportsmanship in the Old Testament and New Testament. It was the Hellenizing influence on Paul, Eliav explains. Paul would have attended the great games at Antioch. “It was from him that Christians gained their idea of the moral life as a struggle against competitors.”

Once you become aware of this, you find sporting terms throughout the Pauline letters.

  • I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:14)
  • I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. … You were running a good race. … Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? (Galatians 2:2 and 5:7)
  • He is always wrestling in prayer for you … (Colossians 4:12)

They are especially appropriate in Macedonia and Achaia (Greece). Notes Collegeville Commentary on First Corinthians: “His readers’ familiarity with sports makes Paul’s athletic illustrations appropriate for suggesting the proper motivation to inspire a healthy Christian self-discipline, sacrifice, and renunciation. The Corinthians had a special need for balance …”

Prime example: Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.  Therefore I do not run like someone running aimlessly; I do not fight like a boxer beating the air. No, I strike a blow to my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27)

And of course, perhaps the most famous, from Second Timothy:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;  in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing. (2 Timothy 4:7)

A simple greeting rich with meaning

Beginning Sunday (January 16), and running through February 20, the second reading each week is from First Corinthians. I shall hear the readings with a far more attentive ear this year, after studying Paul’s letters to his beloved but willful church in Corinth!

This week’s begins with the first few verses, Paul’s greeting, ending with a phrase familiar to us: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” Similar words are found at the beginning of Second Corinthians, and almost all of Paul’s letters.  And the phrase is used in one of our greetings at Mass: “The grace and peace of God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”

According to Collegeville Commentary, “grace” was a common greeting among Greeks and “peace” among the Jews, so joining the two of them was Paul’s way of recognizing the mixed character of the church–both Jewish and Gentile Christians.

My lectors’ workbook has some further insight, keeping in mind the discord among the churches in Corinth.”When you speak this greeting, think of the power of the peace of Christ, and offer it with warmth, sincerity and reverence for the people before you. Paul’s greeting reminds the Corinthians (and us), that despite divisions on some issues, they have been called to be holy and set apart by God, to live as Christ’s disciples in unity with him.” Amen!

Short, bald … and full of grace

Statue of Saint Paul, on Saint Peter Square Ro...

Image via Flickr

St. Paul – can’t you just imagine him? Intense, purposeful. A deep thinker. Single-minded. Matter-of-fact rather than jocular.At times touching and tearful, at times testy and defensive.

The apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him as short, bald, bow-legged, with a large nose. Sounds rather prosaic to us, but some scholars argue the description was a compliment, indicating someone of character, someone of commanding presence.

I found two different translations of Thecla 1:7, which describes Paul, and it does seem to be an admiring portrait.

  • At length they saw a man coming (namely Paul), of a low stature, bald (or shaved) on the head, crooked thighs, handsome legs, hollow-eyed; had a crooked nose; full of grace; for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.
  • At length they saw a man coming (namely Paul), of a small stature with meeting eyebrows, bald [or shaved] head, bow-legged, strongly built, hollow-eyed, with a large crooked nose; he was full of grace, for sometimes he appeared as a man, sometimes he had the countenance of an angel.

Here’s a link to an interesting research paper that addresses the subject. Start at page 161.

The author suggests Thecla’s description is almost heroic. Bowed legs can be a sign of strength, particularly in the general or warrior.”To have curved legs shows that one is firmly planted on a strong foundation, demonstrating the desirable quality of one who is fearless and willing to stand his ground. Paul is certainly that.” (Page 169)

I wonder how he’d be described today. Type A personality? An Alpha male?

‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Pieter Lastman 004
Image via Wikipedia

Speaking of humor … I do find amusing the image of Philip trotting along beside the chariot of the Ethiopian eunuch, who was reading aloud from Isaiah. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. (Acts 8:30-31)

But there’s an important point here: Luke insists Scriptures need explanation. Private interpretation often is not sufficient. There are other examples from Luke’s gospel, at Emmaus and at Jerusalem after the resurrection. Jesus unpacked the meaning of the Scriptures first for Cleopas and his companion and later for the apostles.

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself. (Luke 24:25-27)

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.” Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” (Luke 24:44-47)

So Luke provides a gospel basis for the Catholic tradition that guidance is needed in the study of Scriptures. Vatican II did not change that basic premise, but did encourage the average Catholic in the pew to engage with the Word of God. Here’s the official explanation of Church authority:

“… the task of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or handed on, (8) has been entrusted exclusively to the living teaching office of the Church, (9) whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. This teaching office is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit …” (Dei Verbum, the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation, 1965. You can find the entire document here:

What we’re doing through Catholic Biblical School–engaging in the Scriptures under the guidance of the Church–follows the lead of Dei Verbum, but also of St. Jerome, who said, “Ignorance of Scripture is ignorance of Christ!”

Despite what many of us believed growing up, the Church encourages us and all Christian faithful to engage with the Bible, through guided study, liturgy, devotional reading, and other aids.

And let them remember that prayer should accompany the reading of Sacred Scripture, so that God and man may talk together; for “we speak to Him when we pray; we hear Him when we read the divine saying.” (Dei Verbum)

The lighter side of Acts

Yes, God does have a sense of humor, and so does at least one of the evangelists, according to the Collegeville Commentary of the New Testament. It cites several images or events in Acts as evidence of Luke’s humor. Among them:

  • Paul and Silas in prison at Philippi, stripped and beaten as criminals, listening to prayer and singing at midnight (16:25).
  • The evil spirit mocking Jewish exorcists in Ephesus—“Jesus I recognize, Paul I know, but who are you?”—and overpowering them so they fled naked and wounded (19:13-16). The scene reads like slapstick comedy, says William S. Kurz S.J.
  • Also in Ephesus: Senseless rioting by silversmiths (frustrated idolmakers) and a comic two-hour chant “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians” (19:32-33).
  • The natives of Lystra in Lycaonia (Turkey) and Malta treating Paul and Barnabas as gods. In Lystra they call Barnabus Zeus and Paul Hermes, “because he was the chief speaker.” (14:12) In Malta they waited for Paul to swell up and die from a snake bite, then decided he was a god (28:6).
  • My favorite occurs in Troas. Paul talks all night long, because he has to leave the next day, and young Eutychus, sitting on a window sill, falls asleep. He topples from the third story and dies. Paul rushes down, restores him to life, eats, then keeps talking until morning (20:7-12)!

Alternate views, where Paul preached

Here are views of a restored stoa in Athens. This gives us a good idea of exterior and outer hall of a colonnade at the time of St. Paul.