How important is understanding cultural and social background for preaching and teaching on 1 and 2 Corinthians? In late July, I stumbled upon Michael Bird’s post at Evangelion on the importance of understanding background for effective preaching. He comments on video discussion (reposted below) between D.A. Carson and John Piper about whether a pastor whose time is limited ought to sit down with books about the historical background of Corinth before preaching from the letters. If a teacher has a long day, say 10 hours, to better understand the Corinthian situation, how should the day be spent? Studying social and cultural background or getting to know the letters better? In the video, Piper suggests that the time would be better spent on reading and learning the letters themselves while Carson suggests that understanding background is fundamental.
The interesting discussion points to the varied discussion in New Testament studies about different sorts of contexts for understanding the first Christian communities at Corinth: social and economic, archaeological, epistolary and rhetorical, etc… See, for example, my summary posts of 2011 SBL conferences here and here. See also Matt Malcolm’s recent post at cryptotheology for a juxtaposition of the social-historical and the textual-rhetorical.
I get both sides of this debate and can understand why a teacher or homilist with only a day to prepare for a sermon series would not want to spend it reading through, say, the American School of Classical Studies volumes of the Corinth series. But, of course, as an ancient historian and archaeologist, I see tremendous benefit in knowing the worlds in which ideas were formulated. I couldn’t imagine disconnecting that text from real place and time. And as a Christian, I think the very notion of the incarnation requires sensitivity to time and place.
But on to main my point. For the preacher who does see the value of committing some time to studying the cultural and social background of the first Christian communities at Corinth, what resources are available for better understanding Roman Corinth? In his post, Bird suggests that you sit down and
“read books by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Bruce Winter, and Gerd Theissen, check out some inscriptions if you can find them in print or on-line. Then launch into your study of Corinthians week by week, passage by passage, with a good historically sensitive commentary on hand like Anthony Thiselton, Gordon Fee, David Garlington, or Brian Rosner and Roy Ciampa.”
I like his choices. Reading Gerd Theissen’s now classic The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth opened my eyes to the social stratification of the Christian communities at Corinth. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth: Text and Archaeology is also “classic.” In its third edition (2003), it is still an excellent compilation of literary sources related to Roman Corinth and pays attention to the archaeology of the city. Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (2001) is an excellent attempt to bring relevant Roman textual sources and the material culture of the city to bear on understanding 1 Corinthians. Each of these books is accessible and affordable.
However, all three of these books were written by New Testament scholars and are based on research 10-30 years old. So, I’d like to add the following possible resources to the list:
- A synthesis of the Roman Corinthia like Donald Engel’s Roman Corinth(1990). The work is out of date, but still useful, brief, and digestible. It’s expensive, however, so borrow from a library if available. Read reviews of the book as some of Engels’ interpretations were controversial and some proved incorrect.
- One of the three works by the Daniel Schowalter and Steven Friesen crew. These guys have brought together New Testament scholars, historians, and archaeologists for three conferences over the last decade. Two of these conferences have appeared in print, and a third is on its way. These volumes offer up to date syntheses of scholars working in the field.
- Daniel Schowalter and Steven Friesen (eds.), Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches (Harvard 2005). The reader can selectively read or browse chapters devoted to urban religion, sacred prostitution, cultures of water, burial practices, and the archaeology of early Christianity, along with chapters on the Pauline letters.
- Steven Friesen, Daniel Schowalter, and James Walters (eds.), Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society (Leiden 2010). Continues the conversation of Urban Religionwith chapters on (among others) colonists, identity, coinage, Asklepios, Corinthian names, house churches, sacred meals, Kenchreai, and the countryside. Best to get this from your local library, if possible, since the volume is so expensive.
- Steven Friesen, Sarah James, and Daniel Schowalter, Corinth in Contrast (Leiden 2012). Explores the idea of contrast and inequality at Corinth. See a summary post of the conference here, and reports on the conference here, here, here, and here.
- Williams and Bookidis (ed.) Corinth, the Centenary: 1896-1996(2003). This is a great volume, with 26 valuable synthetic pieces on everything under the sun: clay, stone, baths, sanctuaries, pottery, bronze, city planning, trade.
- As for commentaries, I would add Scott Nash’s 1 Corinthians to the list since it is recent (2009) and written with an awareness of archaeological evidence. Nash knows the Corinthia well and has worked with the OSU Isthmia Excavations.
What would your list look like?