My new favorite Bible story isn’t really a story. It’s about a guy named Sosthenes (pronounced sauce-the-knees) who is either one person mentioned in the New Testament twice, or he’s two people with the same name in the same city.
So, disclaimer: this story may be true, but there’s not hard evidence for it. However, there are some good reasons to believe it’s the same guy, and it’s not going to change your understanding of Biblical history whether or not you believe it. So, let’s be just ever-so-slightly imaginative in our Scripture reading and see where that takes us.
Exhibit A: Acts 18
Paul is traveling around the Near East, hitting up all the major synagogues. At some point, he travels to Corinth to “reason with the Jews” about Jesus. At some point, Paul gets frustrated with his audience and moves the show next door to the synagogue and starts preaching to the Gentiles. They’re pretty down with what he’s saying, so Paul sticks around for a year and a half, preaching away.
At some point in this period, the synagogue ruler (who is a Christian) gets replaced by this guy Sosthenes. Sosthenes is not down with Paul or Jesus. He gets together all the Jewish folk of Corinth and drags Paul to court. They complain to the local tribunal that Paul is teaching people to worship contrary to Jewish law (pretty much the standby complaint for Paul and his crowd).
But before Paul can defend himself, Gallio—the local ruler—brutally shuts them down. He basically says, “Sounds like a Jewish problem, so you deal with it. This is kid stuff.” He basically gives them the finger.
This is a humiliating defeat for the Corinthian Jews.
You have to understand—Sosthenes and his crew were probably preparing for this day for a while. They had a legal case to present, and instead of their grand display, the court threw the case out of court. Dismissed it before opening remarks out of apathy. This isn’t just a legal defeat; it’s a public slap in the face.
The crowd responds by beating Sosthenes in front of the tribunal. Just straight up kicks the crap out of him in court. It’s further humiliation because the court doesn’t even care. Then…we don’t hear about him ever again. Paul sticks around Corinth for a little longer, then bounces around on his tour again.
Exhibit B: 1 Corinthians 1
For those of my readers who are unfamiliar with the Bible, Christians regard 1 Corinthians as one of the most important epistles in the Bible. Or at the very least, it’s one that we quote quite a bit. If the books of the Bible were ranked according to how often we reference it, 1 Corinthians is near the top. It’s one of Paul’s most theologically complex letters, filled with all kinds of homilies and passages that shape Christian thought1.
Here’s what Paul says in the opening passage of the letter:
“Paul, called by the will of God to be an apostle of Christ Jesus, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God that is in Corinth…”
Here’s why that inclusion is a huge honor. One, Paul is straight up giving co-author credit for 1 Corinthians to a guy named Sosthenes2. That gives us a few clues: one, this guy was well known to the Corinthians, at least as well known as Paul. He doesn’t even need to tell the church who he is; they know him. Two, Paul considers him a theologian and Jewish scholar of equal standing.
So we have two mentions of a Sosthenes who is a prominent figure in Corinth, a well-regarded Jewish scholar, and someone Paul would have wrote the letter with to add weight and credibility to his harsh rebuke of the Corinthian church.
Is it proof? No, but it’s compelling enough evidence to entertain the possibility that the Sosthenes who tried to get Paul arrested (or worse) is the same Sosthenes who co-wrote one of Paul’s most monumental letters.
Kill ‘Em with Kindness
Now, here’s the part where we use our imagination a little.
Imagine that Sosthenes crawls away from the lowest, most shameful moment of his life to physically and psychologically lick his wounds. Paul witnesses his destruction firsthand, seeing how the violence Sosthenes tried to bring against Paul splashed back and hurt him instead. Now imagine Paul—an ex-member of the Jewish religious establishment, the shame of the great Rabbi Gamaliel, the man who transformed from a persecutor to a worshipper thanks to the courageous kindness of another believer, the preacher who claims himself “saved by grace” not as a dusty theological truism but as a vital, lived imperative.
This is the same Paul who writes “when your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink”3.
How can Paul not go to Sosthenes? And if he does, how is Sosthenes not both touched and taken aback by the radical kindness and graciousness of his enemy? Does Paul go to Sosthenes, show him kindness in the face of blind hatred, and eventually convince him that his faith is the ultimate expression of the God they both worship?
No one knows. But if it’s something we entertained as a possibility, maybe we’d be reminded of a few things through Paul and Sosthenes’ partnership.
Maybe it would remind us that to profess the gospel is to remember that your enmity with anyone doesn’t need to be permanent.
Maybe it would remind us that God calling us to love our enemies is not some soft-hearted avoidance of conflict, but a genuine call to put ourselves at risk.
Maybe it shows us that God asks us to refuse the power of the sword because our enemies are never beyond saving. Here, on this side of eternity, we believe that reconciliation is a half-measure and the sword is a permanent one. To be a disciple of Jesus is to recognize that way of thinking is backwards. The sword, the gun, the drone, the tank—Jesus tells us these do nothing but create more enemies. The only way we can end our enemies forever is to show sacrificial kindness—and thereby perhaps make them our brothers and sisters.
An End to Excusing Ourselves from Sacrifice
Before I’m accused of being too sentimental, I recognize that most enemies aren’t metaphorical. Many of us face enemies who actively want our harm, who oppose who we are or what we stand for on a fundamental level. There are people with whom you will never make peace. There are people who will never respond to your kindness, no matter how much you show it.
Some of you have them in mind right now. You may already have a good reason to hate whomever you’re thinking about. You might certainly have a good reason to call them an enemy, a good reason to oppose them and what they stand for, or a good reason to believe that you’ll never understand them. That’s inevitable, and in some cases these reasons are true. Jesus said to love your enemies, not pretend that you don’t have them.
But as long as we remember Sosthenes, we can never be certain who is beyond kindness. We can never say with sureness who will remain our enemies and who will be reconciled to us. We can never say about another person, ”Ah, yes, surely this person is beyond the grace and kindness of God. He would certainly understand if I hated this one.”
Maybe the story of Sosthenes would remind us that our enemies are never too far from being our friends. And as long as that’s true, we are never permitted to hate them.
- Confession: I skip the opening remarks of Paul’s letters. They just seem like the Thank You’s of an acceptance speech: sincere, but for the most part you know what to expect. However, like most of the Bible, there’s some fascinating stuff in the “boring parts” if you go digging. ↩
- And, in fact, many Biblical epistles have numerous contributors who made up the team Paul traveled with. Our Western idea of Paul as a singular thinker doesn’t jive with the actual way Middle Eastern ancients wrote letters and theological essays. They usually sat in a group and dissected letters, revising as a group. This would have been the mode of working Paul would be most familiar with. ↩
- Romans 12:20 ↩