The next four cities Paul and his companions visit — Thessalonica, Berea, Athens and Corinth — are all in what is now Greece. As they push westward, Luke demonstrates the promise the risen Jesus made to Ananias about Saul/ Paul at the time of his conversion in Acts 9:15-16: Saul “is an instrument to bring my name before the Gentiles,” and “I myself will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.”
But notice how Paul first seeks out the synagogue in each of these cities, preaching to Jews the need for the Messiah to suffer, die and rise from the dead. However, it is the God-fearing, synagogue-attending Gentiles who are more attracted to this message. So the Jewish leaders become jealous of the attention the visitors are getting and stir up trouble.
Let’s thicken the description of this missionary activity by noticing smaller details. First, why such instant jealousy? This reaction arises quickly in what sociologists call “honor/shame” societies. Males compete to gain public honor, the highest value in these societies. Honor is a zero-sum game. If you acquire public honor, as did Paul in Thessalonica, that means someone else loses honor. So Jewish leaders join with others in the public market to start a riot against the visitors and eventually succeed in kicking them out.
Second, class issues are evident. The term in Greek that literally translates as “marketfolk” (17:5) refers to common laborers and small-business people who ply their trades and sell their wares in the public market. This class of people contrasts with wealthier, elite classes, such as “devout Greeks” and “leading women” who are attracted to Paul’s message.
But Luke’s account contrasts oddly with Paul’s letter of 1 Thessalonians, where the church appears quite poor, and where, in 2:9, Paul says the three companions worked at manual labor “night and day so that we might not burden any of you.” (This is one example of some discrepancies between Acts and Paul’s letters.)
Third, in each city some of Paul’s most devoted followers appear to be women (Acts 17:4, 12, 34). Women in the western part of the Roman Empire had gained the right to inherit property — which, for higher-class women, made a huge difference. As we see also in his letters, Paul had to confront his own sexism as women often became house- church leaders with whom he learned to work equally with men.
Paul’s visit to Athens deserves a separate lesson, since here he spends more time with Greek philosophers than with Jews at the synagogue (17:17-18). Though he engages Stoic principles and receives a mixed response, no house church is established.
Luke gives no reason why Paul left Athens, but in Acts 18 he arrives in Corinth, another leading city in the Greek province of Achaia. Again, he heads for the synagogue and meets the Jewish Aquila and his wife, Priscilla. Here Paul joins them in the lower-class manual labor of tentmaking to support himself. He only argues at the synagogue on Sabbath days. By the time Silas and Timothy arrive from Macedonia (probably Berea), Paul has already provoked the Corinthian Jews and declared he was going to the Gentiles.
Paul stays here for 18 months, longer than any other place on his journeys that we know of. Eventually, the Jews haul him before Gallio, the governor of Achaia, to accuse him of breaking Roman law. Gallio dismisses the case — and, inexplicably, the Jews beat up Sosthenes, one of their own.
For historians, the Gallio incident is fortunate, for it is the one secure date we have in Paul’s life. Gallio was governor of Achaia only one year, 50-51, coinciding with Paul’s time in Corinth. All other events in Paul’s life are calculated from this date.
Eventually the restless preacher heads off again, first taking Priscilla and Aquila along to Ephesus — where, for once, there is no synagogue blow-up. Then he sails back to Syria and Palestine, visits the Jerusalem church and then returns to eastern Turkey to encourage the disciples at the churches he had previously planted.
For careful readers who wonder when Paul wrote his two Corinthian letters, it must have been after he returned to Ephesus (see Acts 19).
For discussion: What are the main themes Luke wants to convey about Paul’s preaching and personality in Acts 17 and 18?
Reta Halteman Finger is retired from Messiah College, teaches Bible part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and has written Of Widows and Meals: Communal Meals in the Book of Acts.