Love your enemies…no, really

When my wife and I were expecting our firstborn, a son, we considered various names.  “Christopher” was a possibility, but I was worried that “Christopher Lee” might prompt unwanted associations to old Dracula movies.  (Or later, as it turned out, to Saruman or Count Dooku.  Count Dracula; Count Dooku.  Hmm.)  We actually had no trouble agreeing on a name: Jonathan.  But here’s a name that never made the list: Sosthenes.

It didn’t seem to be that popular in ancient times either.  The name appears exactly twice in the Bible.  At the beginning of one of his letters to the church in Corinth, Paul lists “Sosthenes the brother” as sending the letter with him (1 Cor 1:1).  The only other mention is in the book of Acts, in an account of some trouble Paul faced in Corinth:

Now when Gallio was the governor of the province of Achaia, the Jews united in their opposition against Paul and brought him before the court. “This man is persuading others to worship God unlawfully,” they declared.  Just as Paul was about to speak, Gallio said to the Jews, “If there had been some sort of injury or criminal behavior, I would have reason to accept your complaint. However, since these are squabbles about a message, names, and your own Law, deal with them yourselves.  I have no desire to sit in judgment over such things.”  He expelled them from the court, but everyone seized Sosthenes, the synagogue leader, and gave him a beating in the presence of the governor.  None of this mattered to Gallio.  (Acts 18:12-17, CEB)

We’re not told who did the beating.  Was it Gentiles, in hatred or mockery of the Jews?  Was it the local Jews themselves, angry over the perceived incompetence that made them a laughingstock in front of the Romans?

Either way, it’s reasonable to suppose that the same person is being referred to in both texts.  Despite strong opposition to Paul from the Jews in Corinth, another synagogue leader, named Crispus, came to the Lord with his entire family through Paul’s preaching (Acts 18:8); that would be direct precedent for Sosthenes’ conversion.  And the man whom Paul mentions in 1 Corinthians would have been someone well known to the church; a synagogue leader who had been publicly humiliated and then became a convert would certainly fill the bill.

If so, the acknowledgment in 1 Corinthians could tell us volumes about Paul.  New Testament scholar Kenneth Bailey speculates:

[It] is natural to assume that the evening of the beating, Sosthenes and his family were trying to recover from the day by dressing Sosthenes’ physical and psychic wounds. … But is it not like Paul to have visited Sosthenes on that occasion to express sympathy for the abuse that Sosthenes has sustained?  The irony of such a visit could not have been missed by anyone. … Overcoming evil with good was a formative part of Paul’s theological and ethical DNA (Rom 12:19-21).

It was a lesson Paul learned from Jesus, who taught his disciples to love their enemies (Matt 5:43-48).  When Paul writes of being reconciled to God through Jesus, even when we were God’s enemies (Rom 5:9-11), I imagine Paul thinking back to the days when he fervently persecuted the church.  It’s the same grace Paul would have extended to Sosthenes.

And it’s the same grace in which Paul and Sosthenes would stand in symbolic union as brothers.  It’s a fitting way to begin a letter written to a deeply divided church.