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Philippians and Ephesus (3)

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Fighting with Beasts in Ephesus?”

We turn then to 1 Corinthians 15:32, “If it was on purely human terms I fought with wild beasts at Ephesus [ei kata anthrôpon ethêriomachêsa en Ephesôi], what good does that do me [ti moi to ophelos]? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die’” [Barrett].22 Much in the text is obscure.  We should like to know: (a) what kata anthrôpon means here; (b) whether the conditional clause is contrary to fact or a real condition; (c) whether Paul is speaking literally or figuratively of fighting with wild beasts; (d) if figuratively, whether he is referring to religious controversy or physical danger; and (e) if physical danger, whether Paul was imprisoned, and if so whether the imprisonment lasted for the several months needed to accommodate the composition of Philippians. 

Leaving the discussion of technical details to a note,23 we may summarize our conclusions:
bulletPaul was not sentenced to the arena; that is, “fighting with beasts” is not to be understood literally as a real condition.
bulletPaul probably did face a life-threatening situation in the course of persecution. This conclusion may be based on reading the conditional clause literally as a condition contrary to fact, or figuratively as a real condition.
bulletIn connection with the danger to which he was exposed, he may have been placed under arrest, pending trial, but the evidence for an imprisonment of three months or more is non-existent.

How then does this “fighting with beasts” text fit with the Philippians template? We find this much agreement with Philippians: 

bulletHis life had been at risk; and 
bulletAt the time of the writing of 1 Corinthians, he was intending to visit Macedonia. 

On the other hand, telling against a match with Philippians are these points: 

bulletOur text is silent on imprisonment; and 
bulletThere is no evidence from the letters that Timothy had been sent to Corinth by way of Macedonia (even though this claim is made by some interpreters). 

I conclude that while it is possible, it is nevertheless far from proven that the “beasts at Ephesus” episode provides the occasion for the composition of Philippians.

  22Translation, C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (NY: Harper & Row, 1968) 361.
  23As to (a): the phrase kata anthrôpon may mean different things, depending on the context (see Barrett, 1 Cor 365), so a decision on its meaning here will depend upon the meaning of the text as a whole.
     As to (b): the conditional phrase here would normally be taken as a real condition. However, a condition contrary to fact in the protasis may be expressed without an in the apodosis, though this construction is “remarkably scarce in Paul” (BDF 182). The decision may depend once again on the meaning of the text as a whole.
     As to (c): if ethêriomachêsa is taken literally as a real condition, it is difficult to understand how Paul could have survived the arena. If ethêriomachêsa is taken literally as a condition contrary to fact, it could be read, “if I had fought with beasts (as I did not), what good would that do me?” (see Barrett, 1 Cor 366); such a reading would permit the notion that Paul had faced the threat of the arena, if not the arena itself. This interpretation would be more convincing if we had evidence that there was indeed an arena in Ephesus to which Paul might have been condemned (see Beare, Philippians 23), or that it was indeed the practice in the provinces to consign victims to the arena; see J. Moffatt, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, MNTC (NY: Harper, nd) 253-4; C. T. Craig, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, IB 10 (NY: Abingdon, 1953) 242. Although the implications of Paul’s supposed Roman citizenship are sometimes introduced into discussions of this episode, there are increasing doubts about whether he enjoyed Roman citizenship, not only because it is not supported by the letters, but because in Acts it appears to be redactional; see the article by W. Stegemann, “War der Apostel Paulus ein römischer Bürger?” ZNW 78 (1987) 200-29. If ethêriomachêsa is taken figuratively, and the clause is understood as a real condition, a range of meanings is possible, some of which would fit the context better than others.
     As to (d): the fighting with beasts might be interpreted figuratively as religious controversy (see A. J. Malherbe, “The Beasts at Ephesus,” JBL 87 [1968] 71-80), a view which fits in well enough with 1 Corinthians generally, but perhaps does not do justice to the immediate context. More convincingly, fighting with beasts could be understood figuratively as a reference to persecution, involving physical danger. This view would fit in well with the progression of thought in 1 Corinthians 15:29-32, especially the phrases, “And why are we putting ourselves in danger every hour?”, and “I die every day!”; see H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975) 278; cp. Barrett, 1 Cor 366.
     As to (e): if Paul was indeed exposed to physical danger, we do not know whether he was also imprisoned. It is possible that he was placed under arrest pending trial, but the evidence for a longer imprisonment is non-existent.

The “Crisis in Asia” Episode

Does 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 provide a better match with the Philippians template? “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced in Asia; for we were so utterly, unbearably crushed that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death so that we would rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead. He who rescued us from so deadly a peril will continue to rescue us; on him we have set our hope that he will rescue us again.” In some respects this text looks promising as a way of locating the composition of Philippians:
bulletPaul was indeed in a life-threatening situation, as seems to be implied by his confidence in the God who raises the dead.
bulletAlthough there is no reference to imprisonment, the virtual “sentence of death” suggests at least arrest, and the threat of some kind of legal action against him.
bulletSince he is disclosing some new episode to his readers,24 and has recently arrived in Macedonia, we may suppose that there is a good fit with the travel plan in Philippians to go quickly to Philippi.
bulletSince Timothy is a co-sender of 2 Corinthians (at least, of 2 Corinthians 1-9), it is possible that the presence of Timothy in Macedonia represents a good fit with Paul’s intention in Philippians to send Timothy to the Philippians.

Yet there are two problems in particular that raise questions about the fit with Philippians. On the one hand, 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 makes no reference to imprisonment.25 On the other hand, this “crisis in Asia” hypothesis imposes considerable time compression on the Philippians template, as the following considerations make clear.

bulletWe have already established that we need to allow three to four months for the events presupposed in Philippians to unfold, events which would not ex hypothesi have begun until after the departure of Titus from Ephesus to Corinth with Letter H/10-1326 (otherwise, Paul would not be disclosing the information in 2 Corinthians 1:8-10 as something still unknown to the Corinthians). We also have to allow travel time for Paul from Ephesus to Philippi, via Troas.27 Thus three and a half to five months would be required for the lapse of time on Paul’s side.28
bulletBut it would hardly have taken Titus up to five months to deliver the severe letter to Corinth, to interpret Paul’s interests to the Corinthians, to size up the situation there, and to travel to Macedonia to meet up with Paul. All told, Titus would have needed no more than six weeks to reach Philippi from Ephesus.29
bulletTo be sure, we could assume that Titus was somehow delayed in his travels, or that his mission in Corinth was extended, or that the scenario on Paul’s side did not take as much time as we have allowed; but such assumptions do not make for valid chronologies. 

Thus, I am inclined to say that though the “crisis in Asia” alternative is somewhat more convincing than the “beasts in Ephesus” one, it falls short of meeting the requirements of the Philippian letter. 

  24So V. P. Furnish, II Corinthians (AB 32A. Doubleday: Garden City, 1984) 112, 122; D. Georgi, Die Geschichte der Kollekte des Paulus für Jerusalem (Hamburg: H. Reich/ Evangelischer Verlag, 1965) 46; and others, against: A. Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (ICC. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1915) 15; and others.
  25Knox, Chapters 61.
  26The Harsh Letter, as designated in this web site. Click on Letter H and Harsh Letter.
  27Paul’s travel time from Ephesus to Macedonia would have to include: 4-5 days to Troas, assuming that he is going by sea, and that the weather is favorable; the (unspecified) waiting period in Troas for Titus, together with the (possible) early stages of promising work there (“.. . a door was opened for me in the Lord,” 2 Corinthians 2:12); and the trip of several days from Troas to Philippi by sea.
  28And when Paul reaches Macedonia, he has to wait an unspecified time for the arrival of Titus (2 Corinthians 7:6).
  29This assumes actual travel time of 17-27 days between Ephesus and Philippi, using J. Murphy-O’Connor’s figures (“On the Road and on the Sea with St. Paul,” Bible Review 1 [1985] 41); or 23-31 days, using R. Jewett’s (A Chronology of Paul’s Life [Philadelphia: Fortress, 1979] 60-61)—the variations depending upon whether travel between Corinth and Philippi is by land or sea, and depending upon weather conditions, especially wind and visibility.


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