Corinth in Context at Society of Biblical Literature, London 2011

Last week I spent conferencing in London at the international meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature.  With the exception of one rainy day, the weather was cool and beautiful.  My own visit was improved by the presence of my wife, Kate, and toddler son James, who ensured that I spent more time at London’s best playgrounds and parks than the typical tourist attractions.

At the conference on the Waterloo campus of King’s College, I made it my goal to attend as many of the Corinth papers as possible.  There were a lot of Corinth papers, and I was only somewhat successful.  I have said it before that New Testament scholars have a great deal to say about Corinthian matters – more perhaps by volume than archaeologists and historians (compare the annual corpus of dissertations and publications).  And they are especially interested in understanding the various contexts that might shed light on the Corinthian community to whom Paul writes in 1 and 2 Corinthians.  In my own reading of the papers and abstracts, there were six sorts of contexts or aspects of Corinthians that the presenters discussed.  These are not neat and exclusive categories, of course, but I think they represent some of the main categories of research of NT scholars:

1. Historical and Social Contexts

A number of papers aimed to understand or explain aspects of 1 and 2 Corinthians by seeking, describing, or applying historical and social contexts.  So, for example, two papers dealing with meat and idols address the likely historical situation behind 1 Cor. 8-10 (I regret that my inability to figure out the London Underground led me to miss both of these):

Similarly, Oh-Young Kwon (A Glimpse of Greco-Roman Practice of Collegia Sodalicia in 1 Cor 8 and of Collegia Tenuiorum in 1 Cor 15) suggested that Christian participation in voluntary collegia would help to explain passages in 1 Corinthians dealing with eating meat sacrificed to idols and the resurrection of the dead, while Sin Pan Daniel Ho’s paper (Unmasking a Scandalous Taboo or Taking a Stand Against the Streams? A Counter-cultural Reading of 1 Cor 5:1 and its Implication for the Theme of 1 Cor 5) examined attitudes to sexuality in the first century to argue that incestuous unions were not all that shocking to the early Corinthian Christians!

Other papers along these lines:

Listening to the papers and the audience feedback suggested suggested several difficulties in doing this kind of work:

a) Establishing the general context, whether it be a ‘social ethos’ or patronage networks, is not at all easy.  For example, did inhabitants of Roman colonies really think incestuous unions were acceptable or even good?  How does one convincingly make that sort of case given our extant textual and material forms of evidence?

b) Knowing whether a probable general context (e.g., collegia) of the Greco-Roman is the actual particular situation implicit in 1 and 2 Corinthians, especially when alternate explanations are possible.

2. Literary, Rhetorical, and Inter-textual Contexts

A few papers dealt with literary issues like the form of the letters, its composition, Paul’s use of rhetoric, intertextuality, and theological formulation:

  • Jeffrey Peterson, for example, suggested in  Inclusio and Integrity in 2 Corinthians 2:17 and 12:19 that the phrase “we are speaking before God in Christ” in chapter two and twelve of 2 Corinthians represents an inclusio that frames the letter and supports an argument against partition theories of 2 Corinthians.
  • Tobias Hagerland considered in Paul’s Elaboration of a Jesus Chreia whether 1 Cor. 11.23-25 might qualify as a ‘chreia’  used in progymnastic rhetoric.
  • Matthew R. Malcolm of cryptotheology fame gave a brilliant paper (Beyond Greco-Roman Rhetorical Criticism) highlighting the limits of classical rhetoric for understanding the form and content of 1 Corinthians.  He argued rather that the experience of a died-and-raised Messiah shaped and structured the overall form of the letter: death – ethical instruction – resurrection.  This paper will be published in the near future and sounds like a balance to the recent emphasis in NT studies on classical rhetoric.
  • See also:

3. Paul’s Mission

Several papers dealt with aspects of Paul’s mission, ministry, and teaching evident in 1 and 2 Corinthians and known by comparison with other documents of the New Testament (Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles).  In this case, the context is created by reference to other NT texts that makes meaningful particular passages of the Corinthian correspondence:

4. Early Christian (and Christian) Contexts

A number of papers used passages in 1 and 2 Corinthians to inform our knowledge of early Christianity, or indeed, Christianity generally:

5. Modern Contexts

Then there were papers applying, addressing, or critiquing modern contexts or theory for interpreting the letters.

6. Archaeological Context

Finally, there were papers dealing with archaeological context.  While I was only able to hear a portion of the Corinth-related papers outlined above, what I heard suggested that material culture played a small role in understanding the Corinthian correspondence.  A session on the last day of the conference called “Becoming Roman Corinth: New Research” was designed to do exactly that.  Rather than reading the text of 1 and 2 Corinthians and seeking historical or material contexts to explain problem areas (as in #1 above), this session aimed to establish the sort of place Corinth was in the late Hellenistic to Early Roman era.  While all of the following papers contribute to our understanding of NT studies, the papers do not aim to solve or address specific problems in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.  This session re-presented in modified form papers delivered elsewhere, at the “Corinth in Contrast” conference in Austin, TX, in October 2010, with one addition (Melfi’s paper).  Expect to see most of the following papers published in 2012 in Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality (eds. Friesen, James, and Schowalter).  See my previous comments on that conference here, here, and here.

It was interesting to hear members of the audience try to connect the conclusions of the individual papers with issues of Paul’s Corinthian community.  Ben Millis’ paper, for example, has significant implications for understanding the kind of hierarchical society Paul came to and the question of elite Christians—and the audience was particularly interested in his thoughts on questions of social dissonance (Meeks), stratification, and patronage.  In my own conclusions that the Isthmus was not the commercial thoroughfare we have often imagined it to be, I was asked the interesting question what the take-away would be for someone preaching from 1 Corinthians.  I will have to give that some more thought!


Overall, it was great to sit in on another set of conversations about Corinthiaka and better understand NT methods and contexts.  And for an ancient historian, it was interesting to see participants flipping through their Greek New Testaments (or the computerized versions) and grill each other on the particular meaning of a verse challenging the presenter’s interpretation.  But as an archaeologist who works with chronologically coarse materials like ceramics and coins, my favorite line from the conference was a presenter who said she favored the “late dating of Galatians, Autumn 55 AD”!  What, then, is the early dating: winter?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: