'Jewish Corinth' - Yosef Koelner, Chris H. & Peter van 't Riet - 2021

Discussion with Yosef Koelner (Florida) and Chris H. about Chapter 1 of “Sha’ul, God’s Shaliach (Apostle) To Corinth – Studies in Jewish Perspectives” by Rabbi Yosef Koelner.

Peter van 't Riet - February the 6th 2021

Hello Yosef,

I’ve read your article and as far as I can see it’s an adequate description of the Jewish community of Corinth on the bases of the available historical data. Why should there be (large) Jewish communities in many big cities in the Roman Empire and not in Corinth? But the link with the Corinthian letters of Paul is very weak in your argument. These letters aren’t written to Jews but clearly to Gentiles (e.g. 1 Corinthians 5:9-11; 6:11; 8:7, 10; 10:14; especially 12:2). With respect to the New Testament your article is strongly based on the Acts, not on Paul’s seven authentic letters. My biggest problem with your approach is the blending of the data from the letters of Paul with the data from the Acts.

From my research (see below) it could be learned that Luke didn’t write a history of Paul. Luke’s Paul is strongly different from that of the letters. Of course the Paul of the letters is the historical one, but Luke wrote a midrash transformation of him. Not to present what the real Paul really did and taught was the purpose of Luke’s story, but what he should have done and taught in Luke’s eyes. Luke made Paul more Aramaic Jewish and less Hellenistic Jewish than the historical Paul really had been. Among other things Luke gave him the name Saulos or Saul, which nowhere occurs in Paul’s letters, and he provided him with a Pharisaic teacher (Gamaliel) who never would have agreed with the contents of Paul’s letters.

It’s also important that Luke changed the Hebrew name Saulos into the Roman name Paulus in the midst of the prototypical story about Paul’s encounter with Sergius Paulus. He was the first Roman official Paul met in the Acts and he was sympathetic to Paul’s message. As you know from the Tanakh a change of name always redefines or extends someone’s task within the Biblical tradition. So Paul had to do something with the representatives of the Roman government! Therefore I don’t understand why we should call Paul consequently Shaul in the stories of Acts where Luke himself called him explicitly Paul. Better we should respect Luke’s choice of the name ‘Paul’ because of its special meaning in the argument of the Acts.

Furthermore, when Paul visits a city in the Acts Luke lets him visit the synagogue first. In this way he made Paul more Jewish than Paul really was, for in his letters there is no trace of such an approach. The word ‘synagogue’ nowhere occurs in them. The addressed congregations were home-churches which consisted mainly of Gentiles and which met at the house of one of their most fortunate members. In Corinth there were probably several home-churches with mutual differences of meaning. More than the Acts, the letters of Paul are strongly influenced not only by the Hellenistic Judaism of his days but also by the Greek-Roman culture in general. That’s the background which makes his letters more understandable in my eyes than a constructed Rabbinic background (Davies) could do.

For the Acts as a midrashic follow-up of the Gospel of Luke you can read my book ‘Luke the Jew’ (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B016GVIHYC).

With respect to the letters of Paul I published the results of my research on their Hellenistic-Jewish character in my book ‘Paul, a Hellenistic Jew?’ (https://www.amazon.com/dp/9076783543). The results of my research on the Greek-Roman influence on the letters of Paul I’ve published in Dutch (https://www.petervantriet.nl/article.php?articleID=526). A translation into English is under construction.

I hope this contribution gives some food for thought.

Yosef Koelner – February the 6th 2021

Thanks for the input. As you know each person's research may draw a different conclusion about the same subject. Obviously I do not share your viewpoint regarding the Book of Acts. I understand Acts to accurately describe Shaul's time in Corinth.Regarding Shaul's two names: It is a Jewish tradition to have a Hebrew name as well as a name that corresponds to to the culture that you live in the Galut - diaspora. My Hebrew name is Yosef - named after my mother's brother who passed away before I was born - Chaim Yosef. His English name was Hyman thus my English name Harvey. My analysis (see Thiesen) of the names associated with the Corinthian community (Romans 16) will demonstrate that the composition of the members was about 50% Jewish 50% Greek with most of the Greeks being God Fearers. I do not see anyplace in First Corinthians that factually points to or explicitly says that FC was written exclusively to Greeks or that the majority of the Corinthian believers were non - Jews.

Yosef Koelner – February the 6th 2021

Just as your book which claims that Luke was a Jew goes against the grain. ( A point that I agree with), my commentary also goes against the grain arguing for a Corinthian community composed of almost equal numbers of Jews and God fearers who were educated in the ways of the Torah and Chazal. As a Rabbi, I see the questions posed in First Corinthians as congregants asking their rabbi to make halachic decisions regarding various subjects. We see some of these same questions addressed in Rabbinic literature.

Chris H. - February the 7th 2021

I agree with this:

"My analysis (see Thiesen) of the names associated with the Corinthian community (Romans 16) will demonstrate that the composition of the members was about 50% Jewish 50% Greek with most of the Greeks being God Fearers. I do not see anyplace in First Corinthians that factually points to or explicitly says that FC was written exclusively to Greeks or that the majority of the Corinthian believers were non - Jews."

That proposition squares up with the research I've done on the past. My research is mostly readings of both primary and secondary source literature (in cases when I can't read the foreign language). I also did readings about who the 'God fearers' were and what they adhered to. It's irrational to think that Paul could talk halakic law and OT pictorial realities (like the sacrificial and priestly rituals) to Gentiles with who possess zero knowledge of the ways of 1st and 2nd Temple Israel. ONLY diaspora Israeli's would understand that, along with God fearers. It's no different today, in my experience

And I also agree with this:

"I see the questions posed in First Corinthians as congregants asking their rabbi to make halachic decisions regarding various subjects."

The argument that Luke wrote a work of fiction (which is essentially what you're saying, Peter) has no basis in fact. It's a mental construct, largely based on other mental constructs. Let's assume for a moment that you're right. What does that mean about the historical accuracy of Luke's 'Acts'? It means it's mere opinion or myth. It means there's no reliable historical factual data we can use to draw reliable conclusions upon, or at least they would all be suspect. It means Luke was a dreamer or propaganda artist. That's what not taking the NT seriously does to these discussions. What else does it lead to? It leads to ambivalence in belief about who's who and what's what in the Christian 'religion'. It's a 'faith-breaker' for people who thoughtfully consider their 'religion' and allegiance to The Deity (haShem).

Moreover, I've not yet seen any papers addressing the critical realities throughout human history: COMMERCE. Who controlled COMMERCE during these days? What influence did COMMERCE have on these communities? What of the 'idle rich', as we call them today? When you combine that reality with the reality that most of Paul's contacts were upper level society, you are forced to arrive at completely different conclusions and historical construct than has been 'peddled' in the name of 'scholarship' for the past 300 years or so.

Thanx for both your comments...

Peter van 't Riet - February the 9th 2021

Hello Yosef and Chris,

Discussions like this one tend to drift in all directions. So let me limit my present contribution to four points.

1. The use of double names.
I know this custom from my Jewish friends. And there is some evidence from the 1st century CE and earlier, but it’s small as far as I can see. The question is whether this custom had already the same form and extent as today. Most Jews of that time are only known with one name, often a Greek one. Many who had to function in an Aramaic speaking as well as in a Greek speaking environment transcribed or translated their Hebrew-Aramaic name into Greek (Joseef-Josephus; Kefas-Petrus). For many Hellenistic Jews there was no reason to have a second Hebrew name because their synagogue services were in Greek and they read the Septuagint as authoritative Scripture. But let us assume that in the days of Paul the double name was already a generally fixed practice. Even than the historical basis for Shaul as Paul’s Hebrew name is small. The name is mentioned only by Luke in the first half of the Acts in the context of his King-Shaul-midrash on Paul. Even if Paul’s Hebrew name would have been David or something else, Luke would have chosen Shaul as his Hebrew name because of his midrashic story-telling in the Acts: Shaul as the persecutor of the adherents of Jesus, the son of David (read the first chapter of my above mentioned book on Paul). And this is not the only story in the Acts with midrashic traits.

2. The midrash character of the Acts.
Chris’ opinion that Luke-Acts would be mere fiction in my approach and in that case deceit according to him, does justice neither to the midrash character of many Jewish books from that time generally, nor to Luke’s literature especially. Midrash is neither fiction nor history. It’s narrative theology and comparable with many midrashic stories about the great rabbis of those days (e.g. Hillel, Jochanan ben Zakkai and R. Akiva living 120 years just like Moses). To understand what I mean with the midrash character of Luke-Acts, read my above mentioned book ‘Luke the Jew’. Then it will appear that midrash isn’t fantasy at all but Jewish theology. Generally, Jewish literature of Antiquity isn’t written to describe the past exactly (not even Josephus did in all respect), but to give the contemporary generation a perspective on the future. This is also true of the other gospels which were written in different circumstances and with different purposes than Luke-Acts. As far as historical material is used in the gospel stories it is adapted to the theological argument of the evangelists. In ‘Luke the Jew’ you’ll find much empirical based material which substantiates this view.

3. Luke’s reflection on the historical Paul.
That Luke wrote in the Acts a critical story about the historical Paul, better to say a midrash transformation of him, is evident from a lot of data. One I’ll touch here. Where do find the letters of Paul in the Acts? Where do we find a quote from Paul’s letters? Would Luke – who knew so much about Paul and who wrote the Acts about 30 years after Paul’s death when Paul’s letters were already broadly in circulation – not have known those letters? That’s unbelievable. But why does a Jewish author remain silent about the letters of his main character he would have certainly known? And why there is so few overlap between the theology of the historical Paul and the theology of Luke? Rather Luke’s stories correct and sometimes contradict Paul’s opinions in many cases. So better we could consider them as being in discussion like so many rabbis and other Jewish authors were and are until today. They belonged to two different wings of Judaism. Luke is much more related to the Aramaic Judaism of Jesus which was akin to the Pharisaic-Rabbinic Judaism. Contrary, Paul was a Hellenistic Jew who transformed - under the influence of the Hellenistic religious culture - the earthly message of Jesus into a doctrine about a heavenly Christ. Just as the Christian churches found mainly Christianity in the New Testament, we shouldn’t run the risk to find only Rabbinic Judaism in it. Judaism was of a different complexity in the first century than it’s now. Paul belonged to a wing of Judaism which has been rejected by the rabbis of the centuries after him.

4. The assembly of the Corinthian congregation.
One last note on the main point of Yosef’s study, the first letter to the Corinthians. I only know the work of Thiessen superficially, but I wonder how he could derive a 50-50% Jewish-Gentile assembly of the Corinthian home churches from Romans 16. The majority of persons (34) mentioned in it lived in Rome and they have almost all Latin and Greek names. The amount of persons on which such a conclusion could be drawn is small, I expect. But nevertheless I’m open to the argumentation. Additionally, even if a (Corinthian) home church would have had few or no Jewish members most of the members could have been Godfearers and acquainted with the Septuagint. A home church met in the house of one of its most prosperous members who functioned as a patron or patroness and who was certainly a lettered person. Thus the study of the LXX or parts of it could have been possible also without Jewish members. Paul’s letters strongly suggest that the LXX was the religious literature of his addressees, whether they were Jewish or Gentile. But I’m very curious to Yosef’s next chapter.

Yosef Koelner – February the 9th 2021

As always - Thanks.

Chris H. - February the 10th 2021


Thanx for your thoughtful reply!

I agree with this, "Judaism was of a different complexity in the first century than it’s now."

The way I understand the history of it, Paul's 'Judaism' was Pharaisaic, strictly according to the law (halakha):

"...circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee..." (Philippians 3:5)

I agree that there's an element of 'rabbinic midrash' in the NT. But I found the NT a bit more 'literal' than 'midrashic'. Even David Flusser points that out in his book 'Jesus'. That was a best seller over in Europe a few decades ago. It's a bit too 'liberal' for me, but it has a ton of excellent research in it. In any case, I can't find any direct evidence of Luke using midrash in general in his literature, especially when he says this outright:

"Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things [accomplished among us, 2 just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; 4 so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught." (Luke 1)

...and following in order...

"The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach..." (Acts 1)

I guess you can say that the Internal Evidence found in the NT disagrees with your proposition. However, I wish I had the same 'taste' for midrash as you do. It's been 35 years since my mind was so keen in literature like that!

I can't buy into your concept of a Gentile Paul. He was a Jew thru-and-thru. He even persecuted Jews who rebelled against the 2nd Temple authority by believing in Jesus and his revolutionary teachings. Effectively, Paul was a government operative. And he traveled internationally! Remember? He 'received letters', meaning he was connected to the 2nd Temple government (Acts 9:2). There's a load of evidence in the NT that Paul was definitely NOT a Gentile-like Jew who brought a different kind of 'Christianity' into the world. One God (One Spirit), One Messiah, One Law, One Message, One Kingdom...end of story. They all held to that.

Peter, I think you are reading into the NT your own cultural religious ideas. It seems so evident to me when reading your narratives. Hope you don't mind my honesty.


Peter van 't Riet - February the 14th 2021

Hello Chris,

To start with your last sentence: As long as we have a kindly discussion I only appreciate honesty very much because there is no need to agree in the end.

With respect to your comments on the midrashic character of the gospels and the Acts, I’ll firstly explain my view on this a bit more. A summary of my research in this field is as follows. All mentioned midrashic interpretations are empirically based on data in the texts of the gospels and the Acts.

Matthew wrote his stories about John the Baptist as an Eliah-midrash, many of his stories about Jesus as a Moses-midrash and his stories about Jesus’ last days in Jerusalem as a king-David-midrash (including his story about the death of Judas).

Contrary, Luke avoided all the clues Matthew used and wrote his own stories about John the Baptist as a Samuel-midrash, his stories of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry as a Joshua-midrash, several following stories about Jesus as an Eliah-midrash (including his story about the death of Judas), his stories about Jesus’ travel to Jerusalem as a Deuteronomy-midrash. In the Acts he wrote his stories about the young Paul until his conversion as a king-Shaul-midrash and some following stories about Paul as a Jonah-midrash. This is what Luke meant with his “Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account etc.” and his “having investigated everything carefully from the beginning” (Luke 1:3). That “from the beginning” means “from bereshit”, i.e. from the first word of the Torah. By the way, Luke 1:1-4 is formulated in maybe the best classical Greek of the whole New Testament, but in 1:5 the three most semitically coloured chapters of the New Testament start.

Many of my analyses on the forgoing point you can find in ‘Reading Torah, the Key to the Gospels’ (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B016F9535G) and in ‘Luke the Jew’ (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B016GVIHYC). Unfortunately, my most thorough work on this subject, ‘Luke versus Matthew’, isn’t translated in English yet.

Interesting is what you said about David Flusser. I know his work very well. He as well as many other Jewish authors on the New Testament (Klausner, Sandmel, Vermes etc.) were mainly interested in the history of Jesus, which is important but not enough to understand the gospel literature. Flusser’s approach is very philological. He denies that the evangelists wrote there gospels with their own theological aim. The weak point in this approach is that if you don’t analyse the gospels and the Acts as literary creations, you will never find out what purposes the evangelists could have had with their writings.

Finally a remark at what you wrote about my presumed view on Paul. I’ve never claimed that Paul was a Gentile. Obviously he was a Jew, but what kinds of a Jew? Maybe he had a Roman father, but surely a Jewish mother. The problem with Paul is that almost all Bible scholars have a too narrow scope on him. For some he was a post-Jewish Christian, for some a Hellenist, for others a Pharisaic Jew. But why not a mix of all? In my book ‘Paul, a Hellenistic Jew’ I’ve showed many Hellenistic-Jewish features in Paul’s letters. In a new book (now in translation) I’ve shown the large influence of Roman governmental, military and legalistic culture, of Middle Platonism and even of the mystery religions on his theology.

At this moment I’m researching the influence of the Aramaic Judaism including Pharisaism on Paul’s letters. That’s why I’m interested in Yosef’s research too. Could we find some Pharisaic traits in 1 Corinthians and how can we decide whether those traits couldn’t be of an another origin?

Best regards, Peter

Chris H. - February the 15th 2021

Hi Peter,

When you put it like that, how can I disagree?! :^)

Actually, I can recall a number of times in the past while reading the NT and saying 'hmm...Luke sounds like he's rehashing the Sinai event', or 'John seems to be repeating Deuteronomy', and the like. So I can see what you mean. But I also believe these guys can write with factual precision even when they create their midrash type commentaries.

I agree what that too. How many times over the years have I told people they need to look at the text as Literature, not some science experiment (i.e., the critics). It's especially important to look at the OT Prophets from a literary viewpoint, with a solid background in ancient Hebrew and geo-politics. I find the Prophets some of the most challenging to interpret.

I agree with you about Paul too. But I consider Paul to be a Pharisee to the core. He was a very powerful public official. You just don't lose all that thinking, even after a life-changing event. I'm sure he was quite well versed in International politics and law, as well as culture. So why not see those traits in him, as an sort of Cosmopolitan Pharisee who observed 2nd Temple halakha fastidiously when in Israel, and dropping all the irrelevant halakha (but not Moses!) while among the Gentile converts and mixed congregations?

Thanx for your explanation. Your books appeal to me in the light you present your ideas. Maybe I'll be able to find time to read them in the near future during this busy life!

Cheers... Chris

Peter van 't Riet - February the 15th 2021

Thank you, Yosef and Chris,

In the course of my present study of the Aramaic Jewish influence on Paul’s letters I hope to get a better insight in the extent Paul was a Pharisee. Maybe we’ll continue our discussion in due time.

Regards, Peter


This is the website of Peter van 't Riet