Decisions, decisions. We’re confronted with them every day. They can be as simple as deciding what to wear (all right, for some people that’s not a simple decision), or as complex as arbitrating a dispute between warring parties. In the best case scenario, we marshal our facts and make the “right” decision. Everything goes swimmingly as a result, and we congratulate ourselves on our wisdom and foresight.
The reality, of course, is often more complicated than that. Sometimes, we make the right decision for the wrong reasons. And who deserves the credit for that?
As we’ve seen in previous posts, Paul’s arrival in Corinth came on the heels of a string of experiences in which he had been persecuted and relentlessly hounded from one city to the next. He needed the encouragement of friends, both new and old (Priscilla and Aquila, Silas and Timothy), and a vision from God telling him not to fear.
But Paul’s fears were not unfounded. His sharp rejection by the Jews in Corinth must have left him with the nagging suspicion that trouble was still afoot. And eventually, his fears were realized:
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
Biblical scholars are grateful to have the governor’s name: Gallio, the kid brother of the well-known Stoic philosopher and playwright Seneca. It is notoriously difficult to weave together the book of Acts and Paul’s letters with precision, or in a way that everyone would agree on; too much speculation is required. But there is solid evidence that Emperor Claudius appointed Gallio as proconsul of Achaia in 51 AD, a position in which he lasted for only a year or less, due to his health. For those trying to establish dates for the events of Acts, the trial before Gallio is the one historical stake that can be driven into the ground with confidence.
“Trial,” though, may be an overstatement. It was over before it began.
The Romans were no friends of the Jews. But they did have a modicum of respect for ancient religions, and allowed the Jews some freedom and independence in practicing theirs. The charge against Paul was a vague one; he stood accused of unlawful worship. The legal question Gallio had to decide was whether what Paul taught was simply a variant of Judaism, or something entirely new. If it was the former, it was none of his business. If the latter, Paul would be in serious trouble.
The apostle took a deep breath and opened his mouth to make his defense.
He never got the chance. Gallio decided on the spot to throw the case out. Essentially, his message was, Listen, you Jews! If there was a real crime here, I’d deal with it. But this is clearly an internal matter among yourselves. So stop bothering me with your nonsense and get out of here!
After he had kicked them out, the crowd grabbed the new synagogue leader, Sosthenes (the previous leader, Crispus, had become a Christian), and beat him up. It’s not clear who did the beating. Was it the Romans, who needed little excuse to act out their hatred of the Jews? Or was it the Jews themselves, needing to take out their frustration on someone “safe”?
Either way, Gallio apparently didn’t consider the beating of an innocent man a crime either.
At least not when the man was a Jew.
Like I said, a person can make the right decision for the wrong reasons. Luke’s account doesn’t portray Gallio as weighing evidence or pondering the facts. He doesn’t give Paul a chance to speak, and he doesn’t stop the impromptu lynching of Sosthenes. He is not the “hero” of the story in any sense of the word. As I’ve said throughout our study of Acts, God is the hero of the story.
And God can use even the dismissive judgments of a Roman proconsul for his purposes. On one level, Gallio’s judgment fulfilled God’s promise to protect Paul from harm. On another level, however, the judgment set an important precedent; treating Christianity as an offshoot of Judaism afforded it some protection.
At least for a while. But the story reminds us of the sovereignty of a God who is greater by far than any fallible human decision-maker.
And oh, by the way, what happened to poor Sosthenes? No one knows for sure. But one of Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth begins thus: “From Paul, called by God’s will to be an apostle of Jesus Christ, and from Sosthenes our brother” (1 Cor 1:1).
Is it the same man? There’s no way to know for sure. But given the circumstances, it’s hard for me to imagine otherwise. If he had been on the fence about the gospel before, the lynching may have settled the matter.
That’s the right decision, made for good reasons.