In this cosmopolitan city where the culture of Aphrodite was flourishing, Paul met Priscilla and Aquila, a married Jewish couple who had fled from Rome in 49 AD when the Emperor Claudius ordered all the Jews to leave the city ‘because the Jews were continually rising up under the instigation of a certain Chrestus’ (Suetonius, Claudius 25:11) They appear again in Rome after Claudius’ death in 54 AD to look after the jailed Apostle. At this point however, they accompanied Paul to Ephesus evangelising and taking care of the Church.
Paul, who hoped to be able to ‘work’ like the rabbis so that his apostolic service could be free to all, joined up with the couple and with them, pursued his tent making activities. On the Sabbath in the synagogue, he tried continuously to prove to the doctors of the Law that Jesus was the Messiah and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, was baptised along with his family. The Church in Corinth, which also welcomed pagans, grew up very quickly and became Paul’s base after Claudius’ expulsion decree meant he could no longer return to Rome. He remained there in Corinth for eighteen months.
Increasingly though, there were problems with the authorities in the synagogue who enjoyed many privileges and did not want the Christians to be confused with a dissident Jewish sect, even if they no longer depended on them. They ended up by accusing Paul of illegal religious propaganda in front of the Roman Proconsul Gallio (brother of the philosopher Seneca). After hearing the accusation, he refused to listen to Paul’s defence, declaring that he had no competence since Paul was a Jew and, to his mind, this was an internal dispute of the synagogue. (Acts 18:12-16) Paul then left with Priscilla and Aquila for Antioch and Ephesus, where the couple would become the cornerstone of the future community.
(It is at the end of this second journey, in 52 AD, that many historians place the incident at Antioch and the Council of Jerusalem.)
13.EPHESUS: PRISCILLA AND AQUILA LEAD THE CHURCH
This is the third city, according to Acts, where the Word spread rapidly. Paul stayed for more than two years, founding a Church in this flourishing cultural, religious and commercial centre, a crossroads between East and West. The confrontation with Judaism gave way to the encounter with other religious trends: Artemis was the god most venerated in Ephesus but Priscilla and Aquila led their community and taught with great zeal. In this way they explained ‘more correctly the Way of God’ to Apollos who became a very successful catechist in Ephesus and in Corinth.
14.MILETUS: THE STRUCTURES OF THE CHURCH
As he prepared to return to Jerusalem, Paul was ‘gripped by the Spirit’ and asked to meet with the Elders of the Church in Ephesus. Warning them that his own end was near, he spelt out his task to ‘Go, for it is far away to the Gentiles that I will send you.’ (Acts 22:21) He urged them to be vigilant and hardworking, to take care of the poor and weak: ‘There is more happiness in giving than in receiving.’ Finally he left them with the instruction ‘to build up the Church’ or rather to entrust it to the power of the Word ‘which is able to build you up.’ Preaching the Word is paramount: it is the Word which can build up the Church.
The scene ended in an emotional way as the assembly knelt and prayed together. Paul was embraced by all as they dedicated themselves to God and to his Word. This episode is important for the institutional history of the Church: these Elders (presbyteroi) summoned by Paul, who describes them as pastors and bishops, are instructed to nourish, spiritually guide and watch over (this is the original meaning of the Greek word ‘episcopos’ or bishop) the People of God. They do not receive their powers from the assembly of the faithful but rather from the Spirit.
Throughout the course of his ‘independent’ ministry, as he faced unprecedented situations, Paul had to introduce doctrinal innovations in order to justify his call to believers to form closely knit communities. In fact, wherever he went, Paul was able to create very united Churches that could survive and develop outside the formal structures of the synagogue.