All great stories have back-stories and subplots, and they often involve minor characters. The Bible is no different. From Genesis to Revelation, a parade of people are mentioned of whom we know little other than the single mention of their name. Others are known to extra-biblical history, so we have a bit more info.
In Acts 18 we meet a man named Gallio who was the Roman senator of Achaea based in Corinth. He was the brother of the famous Seneca who among other things was Nero’s tutor. Seneca wrote of Gallio’s charm and his good disposition was also alluded to by the poet Statius. Nero, as you know was famous for his ego and Gallio must have been both humble and eloquent because the Cassius Dio records that he introduced Nero’s stage performances.
He is important for one big reason as well. His health wasn’t great and he only served in his role at Corinth from 51-52 AD. An inscription found at Delphi, dating to the early summer of 52 mentions Gallio. Much of what can be established about Paul’s chronology hinges upon the dating of Gallio’s tenure.
Well, on to the story.
The first century Jews were always upset by what they considered the blasphemy of Christianity. When Paul was establishing the church in Corinth, the Jews arrested him and dragged him before Gallio to accuse him of being a troublemaker. The head of the synagogue was a man named Sosthenes and he would have been the lead prosecutor.
In Acts 18 we see the court scene. It didn’t go well for the Jews. After the accusations were made, even as Paul was about to make his defense, Gallio stopped the whole proceeding saying
“If it were a matter of wrongdoing or wicked crimes, O Jews, there would be reason why I should bear with you. But if it is a question of words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves; for I do not want to be a judge of such matters.”
Well, this did not bode favorably for poor Sosthenes who failed to make the case and the Bible says the Greeks took him and beat him right there on the spot. Gallio was indifferent.
Flash forward to years later when we find Paul in Ephesus writing the letter that would become 1 Corinthians. He didn’t write it by himself. At the beginning of the letter he writes
“Paul, called to be an apostle of Jesus Christ through the will of God, and Sosthenes our brother, to the church of God which is at Corinth…”
There are only two biblical occurrences of that name and Paul’s casual mention indicates he was well known to the Corinthians. It’s easy for me to believe he was one and the same.
We don’t know how Sosthenes came to be a Christian after his massive failure as the synagogue leader, but I like to think the old Pharisee Paul dusted him off after the beating and explained it to him one on one.
When Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews with one accord rose up against Paul and brought him to the judgment seat, saying, “This fellow persuades men to worship God contrary to the law.” And when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or wicked crimes, O Jews, there would be reason why I should bear with you. But if it is a question of words and names and your own law, look to it yourselves; for I do not want to be a judge of such matters.” And he drove them from the judgment seat. Then all the Greeks took Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him before the judgment seat. But Gallio took no notice of these things.
D I G D E E P E R
Paul mentions a person named “Sosthenes” (Sōsthenēs) in the opening salutation of 1 Corinthians. He introduces him using the common early Christian term “brother,” but does so using the definite article: ho adelphos (“the brother”). As Verbrugge 2008, 260 observes, this implies that the Corinthians probably knew Sosthenes in some capacity. Beyond this limited information, however, we know very little about Sosthenes—whether Paul mentions him in 1 Cor 1:1 as a coauthor of the letter (see 1 Cor 16:21), a partner in ministry, or both.
Here is a survey of the scholarly conversation:
• Barrett (1968, 30–31) notes that the absence of a reference to “the Greeks” may imply that Jews were involved in the beating of Sosthenes because either he became a Christian or, alternatively, he failed to secure a conviction against Paul. He suggests that although we cannot know for certain that the same Sosthenes “had earlier been a leading Corinthian Jew,” we know that he was a genuine partner of Paul’s ministry.
“1 Corinthians 1:1” BNTC: The First Epistle to the Corinthians
• Barton et al. (1999, 18) suggest that Sosthenes may have served as Paul’s secretary (or amanuensis) and wrote down the letter as Paul dictated it (compare 1 Cor 16:21). In their view this figure is probably to be identified with the Sosthenes of Acts 18:17. They think that Paul mentions Sosthenes in the letter’s opening since he was well known among the Corinthian congregation.
“1 Corinthians 1:1” Life Application Bible Commentary, 1 & 2 Corinthians
• Conzelmann (1975, 20) thinks that though Paul refers to Sosthenes as a “brother,” there is also an implicit distance between the two figures since Paul describes only himself as an apostle (compare Phil 1:1). He suggests it is futile to speculate on the identity of the Sosthenes of 1 Cor 1:1 and the Sosthenes mentioned in Acts 18:17, especially since “Sosthenes” was a common name.
“1 Corinthians 1:1” Hermeneia: 1 Corinthians
• According to Fee (1987, 30–31), Paul’s practice of mentioning others as coauthors of his letters is uncommon in comparison to ancient letter-writing convention. In his view both 1 Thessalonians and 2 Corinthians contain evidence that Paul’s fellow workers were involved in their composition, whereas 1 Corinthians gives virtually no indication that Sosthenes played such a role.
“1 Corinthians 1:1” NICNT: The First Epistle to the Corinthians
• Like Fee, Gill (2002, 108) also thinks Paul’s self-designation as an “apostle” is meant to convey his authoritative position above Sosthenes. At the same time, he thinks that Paul and Sosthenes “jointly” wrote 1 Corinthians. In addition to the possible identification of the Sosthenes of 1 Cor 1:1 with the figure mentioned in Acts 18:17, Gill notes a Sosthenes who served as a magistrate during the reign of the Emperor Trajan.
“1 Corinthians 1:1” ZIBBCNT: Romans to Philemon
• In Naylor’s view (2004, 24), the reason Paul mentions Sosthenes at the beginning of the letter is because he was a Christian the Corinthians would have respected. He suggests that their trust in Sosthenes as a mutual friend would have helped Paul win their approval.
“1 Corinthians 1:1” A Study Commentary on 1 Corinthians
• According to Polhill (1983, 325–27), it is not certain whether 1 Cor 1:1 and Acts 18:7 refer to the same person. He suggests that 1 Cor 1:1 implies that Sosthenes helped write the letter, but adds that he probably did not serve as Paul’s amanuensis since in Rom 16:22 Paul mentions Tertius only at the end of the letter.
“Epistolary Introduction (1 Cor 1:1–7)” Review and Expositor Volume 80
• Soards’ commentary (1999, 17–18) includes a lengthy paragraph summarizing the debated issues surrounding Sosthenes. In his view most of these matters are uncertain due to ambiguous evidence. Paul uses “brother” to designate his fellow workers throughout his letters, and the use of the term in 1 Cor 1:1 therefore offers no help in uncovering the identity of Sosthenes. He also notes that the identification of the Sosthenes in 1 Cor 1:1 with the figure of the same name in Acts would help explain the reason for the letter. However, he doubts whether there is sufficient evidence to establish this viewpoint.
“1 Corinthians 1:1” UBCS: 1 Corinthians
• Verbrugge (2008, 260) draws attention to the theory of E. Randolph Richards, which proposes that Sosthenes was a respected member of the Corinthian congregation whom Paul enlisted for assistance in dealing with difficult issues in particular portions of the letter.
“1 Corinthians 1:1” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 11: Romans—Galatians (Revised Edition)