Paul’s Corinthians in Contrast and Context

Last week I posted a general overview of the “Corinth in Contrast” conference as well as a piece summarizing the papers on archaeology in the Hellenistic to Roman era.  Today I conclude my overview of the conference with notes on the papers that dealt explicitly with St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.  Only three papers were devoted explicitly to Pauline issues, but the apostle made brief appearances in other papers and was always present in the subsequent discussion of the papers at the end of each day.  Recall that New Testament scholars have been the organizing force behind all three of these conferences.  If each of the three papers on Paul dealt with inequality and contrast on some level—in dining, marriage, and female status and leadership—the papers also made efforts to understand problems in Corinth’s early Christian community within broader contexts of different kinds.

Steve Friesen of the University of Texas at Austin, for example, set Phoebe, the deaconess of Kenchreai, in comparison (and contrast) with Junia Theodora, an elite woman from Lycia known from an honorary Greek inscription from the Corinthia.  Friesen has argued in recent years that the great majority of Christian converts in cities like Corinth came from the 90% of the population that was barely making a living.  Friesen’s discussion in his paper on Thursday centered on the meaning of the rare term “prostatis” (προστατις) and “prostasia” to characterize the actions of Junia Theodora, Phoebe, and a several other women in the Roman era.  The use of the word, Friesen suggested, has no clear translation but implies unusual responsibility and authority that originated in differential economic resources, family power, and religious practice.  Phoebe herself, Friesen argued, may have belonged to that small group of individuals who managed to get ahead in the Roman era without ever achieving elite status.

On Friday, James Walters of Boston University presented “A Ritual Analysis of 1 Cor. 11:17-34: Enacting Equality and Inequality at a Corinthian Banquet.”  Walters aimed to set the interpretation of dining within the broader context of ritual.  His starting point was, on the one hand, recent Pauline scholarship that characterizes and interprets early Christian gatherings in terms of ritual activity and space.  On the other hand, ritual theory more generally provided a starting point for understanding the banqueting passage. Reading 1 Corinthians 11:17-34 in terms of ritual activity, Walters discussed how Paul evokes a ritual recognition of Jesus’ last supper by representing Jesus as the host of the Corinthian meal.  The ritual would have diminished inequality between those gathered while simultaneously fostering inequality in the differential authority between Paul and his enemies.

On the final day of the conference, Caroline Johnson Hodge (College of the Holy Cross) discussed 1 Corinthians 7 about mixed marriages between believer and non-believers within its broader historical context.  What happens, Hodge asked, when Christians and non-Christians shared the same household space in mixed marriages?  What kind of conflict existed when the newly baptized believers were subordinate members of the household (e.g., wives)?  In the view of the apostle Paul, the ‘contagious holiness’ of the believer could sanctify the family.  But looking ahead to the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7 in the later 2nd-3rd centuries, Hodge shows how a Christian like Tertullian ‘corrected’ this misreading of Paul with the injunction that a believer ‘must marry in the Lord.’  Tertullian condemns mixed marriages because unholiness is contagious.

If you’re interested in learning more about these papers, the published volumes should appear relatively quickly.  Given that the essays in the publication of the conference will double the length of the papers, I expect that the final papers will be more developed and contextual.

Over the next week or two, I will present some summary pieces about my own recent work on the diolkos, the subject of my Corinth in Contrast paper.

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