Friday, July 11
Acts 16:25-40: When God hears in heaven the prayers of His faithful, dramatic things begin to happen on earth. Paul and Silas are singing their hymn, and immediately God answers their prayers with an earthquake (16:25-26; Revelation 8:4-5). The jailer, who evidently lives nearby, is roused from his slumber (exs-hypnos) and comes running at the disturbance, only to find that the door of the jail is ajar. Presuming that his prisoners have escaped, and knowing that his own life is forfeit if this is the case, he draws his sword to kill himself. Paul, his eyes better accommodated to the darkness, sees all this, as the view from the “inner cell” of the double-cell prison (16:24) takes in the front door and the area immediately outside.
(This jail was excavated beneath the ancient church of Saints Paul and Silas. I was able to enter it on July 17, 1973, but in recent years it has not been open for the public to enter. Still, it is possible to examine it visually through the grating that now guards the outer entrance.)
When a light is brought (verse 29), the jailer discovers that his prisoners are still there. Now, no longer concerned that they will escape, he suddenly becomes concerned for his own salvation (verse 30). His question, “What must I do to be saved?” is met with a call for faith, and the man, with his family, is catechized during the few remaining hours of the night (verse 32).
Three things should be noted by the remark that the man’s “whole household” was baptized. First, it is extremely unlikely that they were fully immersed in water. There would have been no facility for such a thing in the humble dwelling of a jailer, and the distance to the Gangites River would have been prohibitive, especially in the middle of the night. This seems, therefore, to have been one of those occasions where the baptism was done by the pouring of water over the head, such as we see prescribed as an alternate rite even prior to the year 100 (cf. Didache 7).
Second, no distinction is made (in this text of Acts) between adults and children, or even infants. It is the household itself that is baptized, the entire family, and precisely as a family. A “believing household” does not mean that every person in it has come to the full realization of adult faith; children and infants in such a household share in the faith of their parents, according to the individual capacities that are proper to their age and condition. There is nothing in the text to suggest, even faintly, that they were excluded from baptism.
Third, the expression “whole household” seems to have, in this context, a more technical meaning, indicating that the home in question is now a possible “safe house,” where Christians can gather without fear of denunciation or betrayal to oppressive political authorities. (cf. also 5:42; 11:14; 16:15; 18:8; John 4:53). Such a home can in principle be, if large enough, the place where missionaries are lodged, the Gospel discussed, and the Eucharist celebrated by the whole congregation (cf. Acts 2:4; 20:7-8; Romans 16:4-5; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2).
Saturday, July 12
1 Kings 2: In today’s reading of Bathsheba we gain a sense of the power of the Queen Mother in the Bible. Indeed, the office of “Queen Mother” is one of the institutions by which Holy Scripture distinguishes the kings of Judah from the kings of Israel. In fact, with the conspicuous exception of Jezebel, Holy Scripture hardly mentions the mothers of the kings of Israel, whereas the mothers of the kings of Judah are specifically named in nineteen of twenty-one cases.
In the dynastic rule of the Davidic kings, their mothers were clearly persons of power and considerable influence. This institution reflected a complex political reality. While kings rather often had more than one wife, they each had only one mother, and often enough that mother’s efforts played some significant role in her son’s accession to the throne.
Indeed, the Hebrew word used to designate the Queen Mother,
gebirah, is derived from the root gabar, signifying “strength.” In Judah the mother of the king was “the power lady,” possessed of a prestige and authority beyond her merely biological relationship to the king. Often spoken of as an essential person in the royal court (Jeremiah 22:26; 29:2), wearing her crown (13:18), and enthroned at the king’s right hand (1 Kings 2:19), the gebirah was not a person to be taken lightly.
Consequently it was a great advantage at court to stand well in her favor. We cannot imagine anyone saying of the mother of a Davidic king, “Ah, but you see, she is, after all, only his mother.”
The true grandeur of the Queen Mother’s status is perhaps most obvious in the case of Maachah, the wife of Solomon’s immediate successor, Rehoboam. When her son Abijah died after a reign of only three years (1 Kings 15:2), Maachah’s personal authority within the realm was so formidable that there was evidently no one sufficiently powerful to remove her from office. Thus, she continued in the position of gebirah, even though she was the grandmother, not the mother, of the king.
Later, when her young grandson Asa grew sufficiently powerful to remove her as Queen Mother because of her idolatry (15:13), Maachah was so completely associated with that office that the name of Asa’s own mother was lost from the biblical record. Indeed, even to speak of
Maachah’s “removal” from the office of Queen Mother indicates that the term signified much more than a merely biological relationship to the king.
In maintaining this institution of Queen Mother, the Kingdom of
Judah resembled the political structures of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and, most significantly, the kingdom of the Hittites. After all, the first and most famous of Judah’s gebiroth was Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, who was herself likely a Hittite. She had originally been married to a Hittite (2 Samuel 11:3), anyway, and it is reasonable to suppose her familiar with the office of Queen Mother in Hittite polity. What seems obvious from the biblical text is that Bathsheba’s actions and example (1 Kings 1:15–34) established the power and importance of the Queen Mother in Judah.
Sunday, July 13
Acts 17:10-21: Leaving Thessaloniki, Paul and his companions go some fifty miles southwest to Beroea, the modern Verria, which Cicero called an out-of-the-way town. Here they once again commence by preaching in the synagogue, where their efforts meet considerable success (17:11-12). One of the new converts in Beroea is a man named Sopater (20:4).
Meanwhile, news of the apostolic success in Beroea reaches back to Thessaloniki, where that group of particularly malevolent Jews, who had already driven Paul from their own town, decide to come and make more trouble for him in Beroea. Since most of the opposition is aimed at Paul specifically, he alone leaves town this time, while Silas and Timothy remain in Beroea for the nonce (17:14-15). Paul goes on to Athens.
After Timothy joins him in Athens, Paul will send him back to strengthen the Macedonian congregations (1 Thessalonians 3:1-3). Both Timothy and Silas will later join him at Corinth (Acts 18:5; 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10). In response to their report, Paul will then send the First Epistle to the Thessalonians from Corinth, either in late 49 or early 50.
Paul is now ready to deliver his famous speech on the Areopagus (the Hill of Mars), which we will read tomorrow. Standing not very many yards from the spot where Socrates defended his philosophy to the citizens of Athens, the apostle Paul will deliver his own defense of the Gospel to the philosophers. It is perhaps our earliest example of a dialogue between philosophy and the Gospel.
Monday, July 14
1 Kings 4: A singular prosperity and peace characterized the long reign of Solomon, 961–922 BC. His father David, taking advantage of the decline of Babylon at the eastern end of the Fertile Crescent and the geopolitical vacuum created by the lackluster Twenty-first Dynasty of Egypt at its western end, had carved out a small empire for himself, subduing the Philistines, Edomites, Moabites, Ammonites, and Syrians, and making mercantile arrangements with the seagoing Phoenicians to the north.
To all of this fortune Solomon fell heir when David died in 961.
It is possible that in all of history Solomon had no equal in his ability to read both maps and ledgers. His father having incorporated the Edomites to the south, Solomon controlled the port and Gulf of Aqaba (Elath) and the Red Sea. This extensive waterway afforded access to ports along the west coast of the Arabian Peninsula, the east of Africa, and, through the Indian Ocean, a thousand other places. To the north, Israel was bordered by the Phoenicians, whose shipping merchants were delivering and picking up cargo at ports all around the Mediterranean basin.
Looking at this picture, Solomon decided to go into business, serving as the middleman between the Phoenician markets in the Mediterranean and the sundry mercantile opportunities around the Red Sea. It would prove to be a time of booming material affluence.
Tuesday, July 15
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 epistles, 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 better (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 wife’s 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.
Wednesday, July 16
Acts 18:12-23: We know, from an inscription found at Delphi, that Lucius 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 Claudius’s 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 Paul’s appearance in the presence of 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 governor’s 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 Paul’s 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 — cf. Romans 16:1).
We may surmise that Silas (Silvanus) was left at Corinth, because at this point he disappears entirely from Luke’s 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-days’ 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 that 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.
Thursday, July 17
1 Kings 7: Besides the geopolitical situation favorable to Solomon’s mercantile interests, several other recent developments aided the prosperity attendant on his reign.
First, it was the beginning of the Iron Age in that part of the world, with its greatly improved axes, hoes, scythes, plowshares, and other tools and farming implements, leading to less labor and increased productivity.
Second, the greater use of calcium oxide to seal cisterns and wells allowed for improved water conservation and, in turn, greatly increased agricultural yields.
Third, the adoption of a common alphabet in the eastern Mediterranean world permitted more efficient bookkeeping, uniform bills of lading, invoices, and other forms of written communication essential to commerce.
Fourth, use of the camel greatly increased. This animal, already important in the economy of the Fertile Crescent, served as Solomon’s chief vehicle of commerce along the overland trade routes extending north-south between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Phoenician ports of Tyre and Sidon. Solomon’s reign was, therefore, a period of enormous prosperity, in describing which the Bible speaks repeatedly of gold.
In addition to economic prosperity, Solomon’s reign was also a period of several attendant social changes that would prove significant, though not invariably beneficent, as time went on. First, the prosperity itself, especially the agricultural productivity, enhanced the people’s diet, lengthening the average life expectancy, lowering the age of puberty and menarche, and thus increasing the population.
Second, the need for labor in the commercial sector drew many farmers from the land to enjoy the less onerous life of merchants, caravan drivers, and so forth.
Third, this meant fewer and larger farms, now rendered more productive by better tools and a greater water supply. At the same time, with fewer farms, fewer people were now able to control the food market—and prices. These higher prices, along with the lower wages inevitably prompted by the swelling of the urban labor force, became subjects on
which the prophets of the coming centuries ventured a remark or two, consistently negative.
Fourth, the centralization of commerce under Solomon’s political control led to higher taxes and a breakdown of local tribal loyalties that had served, up to that point, to provide traditional stability to the people.
Fifth, and related to the higher taxes, among the northern tribes there was a growing discontent with the south, especially the royal and priestly establishment at Jerusalem. The better farmland and the bulk of the nation’s wealth were found in the north; yet the king and his capital were in the south, at Jerusalem.
Finally, Solomon’s economic and political ties with Phoenicia eventually led to the deep religious and moral infidelities symbolically associated with the most famous of these Phoenicians, a lady named Jezebel.
Indeed, the Bible indicates that a political and social crisis was already on the horizon near the end of Solomon’s reign. In Egypt Pharaoh Sheshonq I inaugurated the Twenty-second Dynasty. It was he who gave asylum to Solomon’s enemy Jeroboam, the very man who would come back and instigate the civil war and the secession of the northern tribes after Solomon’s death in 922. Shortly afterwards Sheshonq himself would invade the Holy Land and bring it under his overall political influence.
For all his gold and glory, then, Solomon set the stage for many of the chosen people’s future troubles. Indeed, Israel never fully recovered from all that prosperity.
Friday, July 18
Mark 8:1-10: Like Matthew (15:32-39), Mark has a second account of the multiplication of the loaves. This account is often called “the multiplication for the Gentiles,” because of several elements in the story suggesting its transmission in a largely Gentile setting. For example, the Lord’s reluctance to send the people away suggests that that have come “from afar” (verse 3), a common way in which the early Christians spoke of the calling of the Gentiles. Thus, Jesus is here portrayed as multiplying for the Gentiles the “crumbs” for which the Gentile woman has just begged in Mark 7:28.
This bread is food for a journey—“on the way,” en te hodo–verse 3). The Lord feeds His people “in the wilderness” (en eremia–verse 4), as He did after their deliverance from Egypt. This bread, then, is the equivalent of the Manna that fell from heaven.
We also observe that this food—which He “takes” and “breaks” with “thanksgiving” (evcharistesas)—Jesus “gives” to His disciples, that they may feed the multitude (verse 6). This format of activity is a paradigm of the Eucharistic rite of the Church, in which we perceive the importance of the apostolic ministry and mediation.