The Unknown Chloe: 1st Corinthians 1.11 in light of the Roman Household

Many times, people focus on Phoebe (Romans 16.1) as an example of the woman’s role in primitive Christianity – but what about Chloe?

For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. (1Co 1:11 NKJ)

We know several things about the background of 1st Corinthians, the first and foremost, that the local church was undergoing factionalism. At this time, local congregations did not meet in a large assembly hall, but in homes, perhaps many homes, throughout the city. Further, we know that women were rarely given the same social standing as men.

Who was Chloe to the Church at Corinth? William Ramsey (Historical Commentary on 1st Corinthians) notes that most likely, considering the weight that Paul placed on her representative’s testimony, she was an outsider to the local squabbles in the congregation. This is plausible considering that Paul did not take sides in the letter, but sought to bring both back to the one foundation. Had he adopted one side over the other, it would have muted his voice. Paul goes so far as to figuratively place himself and Apollos at the head of the divisions so as to not single out the true instigators of the troubles (1st Cor. 4.6). This has to add weight to the mention of Chloe’s name as the instigator of the the letter. Further,  as Calvin (on his commentary) points out, Paul didn’t mention ‘some of the household’ of Chloe had reported these things to him, but all those of the household. It would be absurd to believe that Paul hid the culprits of the report behind the head of the household and those who brought what could have been a condemnation from Corinth on the entire household.

What made up a household in Roman times? According to Florence Dupontv (Daily Life in Ancient Rome), the household was made up of more than just the immediate family and hangers on, but slaves, freedmen and women, including aunts, uncles, cousins, and ex-in-laws. Families to the Romans were more about alliances and contacts than our notion of Traditional Marriage. Considering the Roman rules on marriage, bloodlines, and property ownership, it is difficult to see Chloe, as mentioned here, as anything but the head of the house – whether by widowhood or not. Normally, a woman would be considered as a part, or perhaps apart, from her husband’s household, owing more to the male ownership of women and a tool to carry on the bloodline or to forge alliances than to an actual marriage of love. If it is Chloe’s house, it is the exception to the rule; if it was another’s house, such as Chloe’s husband, son, or brother, then they would have been mentioned. The weight of evidence suggests nothing more than this was her house, and she was the head of it.

So, who exactly is Chloe? First, she is the exception to the rule in ancient Roman Society. Secondly, she is not an exception to the rule in Pauline thought. As we have mentioned Phoebe who was a deaconess in the early Church, we’ll move to three other highlights in Paul’s doctrine:

  • Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews, who were in prison with me. They are highly respected among the apostles and became followers of Christ before I did. (Rom 16:7 NLT)
  • Give my greetings to Priscilla and Aquila, my co-workers in the ministry of Christ Jesus. (Rom 16:3 NLT)
  • There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28 NLT)

First, here, Junia is a feminine name, and Paul counted her among the Apostles (note, the term ‘apostle’ means a wide range of people. Only later did it come to fully stand for the Twelve.) Second, it was against custom to present the name of the wife before the name of her husband. Third, as we will cover later, those in Christ did not operate in the same social structure as those in the world around them. For in Christ, there was no respect of a person based on their style and manner of their birth.

Paul displays the characteristics of someone who was highborn – he was the product of a marital union which netted him Roman citizenship – and a Pharisee. He was a member of the ruling class in ancient Palestine, and indeed, for much of the world due to his Roman citizenship. he was well-educated, and no doubt connected. Yet, for Paul, after Christ, he became no one. While we find that Paul does respect roles for men and women (some would dispute the letters in which this is showcased) he is careful, I believe, to keep them equal as humans, and further, to remind us that the social structure of the outside world is not the social structure of the Church.

It is possible that Chloe was indeed head of the household; however, since not only did she send out messengers to report to Paul, was she something more than the head of a household, an anomaly in and of itself in ancient Rome. Returning to the point that her name was mentioned, she had to have served in a more secure position than a simple ‘pew filler.’

Just who was Chloe, and how important was she?

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29 Replies to “The Unknown Chloe: 1st Corinthians 1.11 in light of the Roman Household”

  1. This is one of the coolest blog entries I have stumbled upon! Love it, love it, love it. It is great fun to unravel the mysteries of the life and times of the people who lived out Scripture. What I love more, though is to figure out the Roman society as it related to the church. Really enjoyed this one! Thanks for posting it!
    PS … Wonder what they were arguing about? Obviously something juicy.

  2. Thanks, Heidi.

    Thinking about, it might be that during this time, the local church met in different homes. Maybe factionalism and favoritism was destroying the fellowship. Maybe Bob wouldn’t go to Mike’s house on Saturday because last week, they served chicken. But, Bob will go to Cindy’s house because they do. But Sally won’t go to Cindy’s house because they serve lamb, but will go to Mike’s house.

    So, instead of it being the house of God, it became the house of Mike and Cindy, Bob, and Sally.

  3. I have always thought that Lydia also was head of her household, as was Nympha and the elect lady. Perhaps widows were not that uncommon. I don’t know.

  4. Lydia was a seller of purple, a rare trade, but not necessarily a widow. Perhaps she was an only child who gradually took over the business from her aging father. That would give her more years to do her selling than if her husband died and left her a business – unless her husband died young.

    Just throwing in two more bits for a great conversation.

  5. I’m using Ben Witherington’s commentary to study through 1 Corinthians this month, and he tells it similarly to you, Joel, regarding Chloe’s place as head of a household. He comes at the factionalism from a different angle, though (which I think is defensible from the first few chapters of Corinthians), about the factionalism being about the how ‘presentable’ of the absent tent-maker Paul was compared to local religious leaders like Apollos.

  6. Sorry, yes, he was. Both Apollos and Paul were absent; in their absence, factionalism appeared based on their images. His understanding seems to be that Apollos was in Corinth more recently than Paul. He so argues that the factionalism was based on the fact the Romans saw ‘wise men’ as people who didn’t do hard labour – professional philosophers. He doesn’t present any evidence that Apollos is one of these (aside from the letter itself); it seems to be independent of Paul’s knowledge of rhetoric and Greek language.

  7. If followers of Paul and Apollos were causing the divisions, then it is reasonable for Paul to refer to himself and Apollos as those causing division. Witherington claims noting figurative language is a rhetorical device making note that those listening are being childish (I assume you’re speaking of Ch.4?).

  8. I think it’s valuable, as his use of rhetoric reveals a lot about his purposes. It’s clear that Paul used rhetoric, even if it was lost on some of his followers. I’ve certainly benefited from Witherington on that account, if only from his sections on Greek rhetoric and how it functions in Paul’s letters.

  9. Just a hunch… but I’d guess Paul was no more a trained rhetorician than I am a professionally trained scholar. I’ve picked up a lot. So did they. So what? They were amateurs, not graduates of the Lyceum.

    Like I said, just a hunch. A common one, I’m sure…

  10. Also a very good commentary on 1 Corinthians is from the NIGTC series, by Anthony C. Thiselton (2000).
    This “sees the epistle as largely a conflict between “apostolic” authority (Paul) and “prophetic” authority or autonomy (especially liberated women at Corinth as prophets). Paul uses a rhetoric of power to dissociate thought (theirs) from reality (his); private from public to constrain women’s freedom; self from community; and “flesh” from “Spirit”. (page 45 footnote)
    Fr. R.

  11. Joel, I’d tend to agree with premise that Chloe’s household or Chloe’s people referred to a home in which a church met, and their leader or head of the household. I would tend to say leader, because it it’s evident that there are female leaders in the Corinthian church considering the confusion about the place of females within the congregation that is addressed later on.

  12. What I think is quite funny (or perhaps ironic) is that the replies to this very blog entry begin to follow the exact same pattern Paul was trying to address in the letter. Although here you have “I agree with Witherington,” or “I follow Thiselton” instead of Paul or Apollos.

    At least in my admitted layman’s perspective. My best guess is that Paul is trying to deal with factionalism that springs up when ANYONE beyond “Christ and Him crucified” becomes the focus of people’s faith and worship, whether that be Paul himself or the (as my musty old study bible says) more eloquent Apollos.

    For what it’s worth though, I’ll say that this interpretation of things makes sense to me because Paul mentions the fact that he spoke plainly (and the reason why) when he was in Corinth. So, I can see the hipsters in the Corinthian church being fed their boring old spiritual “milk” by Paul, and then when the sophisticated Mr. Apollos comes in with his perhaps more “grown up” theology, they maybe get swept up in it and begin to play favorites. Keep in mind, Greeks and Romans didn’t have TV, but they did have public speakers. Public speaking, for them, was a form of entertainment, so I do think they’d be able to appreciate the nuanced style of one rhetorical speaker over another.

    All that being said, as regards my introductory statement about the replies to this blog entry beginning to head in the same direction as the Corinthian church, I think it’s actually (hopefully) more of a “solid food” discussion, not wanting to get accusatory or anything, but the observation did strike me a little funny.

    And THAT being said, thanks for the info on “Chloe’s people,” which is what I actually came here for!

    God Bless!

    1. Though I’m four years later in my comments, perhaps some of you will still read this. Teephphah, I would be careful not to equate regard for a certain person’s expertise and scholarly work with “factionalism.” They are very much two different things. On the other hand, it is true that these types of matters are sometimes decided for us on account of simply liking one teacher above another, which is fair to warn against. We are only ever to follow a person “as they follow Christ.”

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