Religion and Society in Roman Corinth

Later change (12-13-12) noted by asterick * 

A little over a week ago, I had the privilege to participate in a double session at the Society of Biblical Literature conference dedicated to the theme of “Polis and Ecclesia: Roman Corinth.” Organized by Larry Welborn and Jim Harrison, the session continued an endeavor begun in 2011 to investigate the relationship of churches to their urban environments in the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. In 2012, the focus was Roman Corinth. As the session abstract notes:

“This Consultation investigates the expansion of early Christianity as an urban phenomenon from Jerusalem to Rome, from the perspective of Paul’s letters and the Book of Acts, in the context of local documentary and archaeological evidence. The consultation seeks to be a venue for collaboration between scholars of early Christianity, classicists and archaeologists, in the study of the New Testament and early Christian literature as primary evidence for understanding the civic, religious and cultural life of the Mediterranean world of the first two centuries. The wide range of methodologies employed and the interdisciplinary nature of the investigation aim at a holistic presentation of the relationship between each polis and its ekklesia. Roman Corinth is the focus of the consultation for 2012. Two sessions are planned: a closed session and an open session.”

Interdisciplinary study, integrating contexts, new methodologies are now common aims in the study of the situation of early Christian communities.  Unsurprisingly, the papers varied in approach and focus.

In the morning session, the greater share of the papers examined specific passages of 1 Corinthians in light of broader contexts of the Roman Mediterranean. Katherine Ehrensperger, for instance, considered Paul’s strong statements about the Holy Spirit and the oneness of God in 1 Cor. 12 in light of a world full of gods who touched every aspect of life. Paul’s insistence on exclusive worship of Christ (1 Cor. 8-10) must have been not only alienating (from the community) for early Christians but also dangerous, impractical, almost impossible, as the traditional gods supported the most ordinary and dangerous functions of life, like childbirth; Paul elevated the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit as God’s way of divine communication, healing, and care of community. Michael Peppard considered the lawcourt disputes in 1 Cor. 6 in light of a Roman tradition of legal cases about fraternal disputes of inheritance (controversiae). Paul’s language would have brought to mind the theme of inheritance lawsuits and reinforced the community as spiritual family. Annette Weissenrider examined the meaning of the sitter who receives revelation in 1 Cor. 14.30 in light of a broader context of reclining as silent and respectful listening. Cavan Concannon’s paper was a bit different in beginning from the point of view of an immigrant resettled in Corinth who had to negotiate different ‘ordering principles’ between homeland and place of migration. Cavan raised the question of how immigrants turned Christians may have understood Paul’s teaching according to their own categories of thought.

My own paper on the diolkos was the great outlier to the session in its archaeological and historical focus that related only in conclusion to the question of early Christian community. Dale Martin’s response to the papers raised questions for the presenters and commented on the frequent use of material culture, and emphasis on space and place—consistent with the session theme of polis and ecclesia.

The afternoon session had the potential for a lively methodological conversation but ran short of time, steam, or both. There was, on the one hand, Timothy Gregory’s broad comments about the methodological difference between archaeological evidence (general, vague, medium and long time ranges) and literary texts (precise, specific, short term), and the problems that emerge when texts are used to guide and drive archaeological fieldwork and interpretation. Gregory, at one point, went so far as to state that the archaeological evidence usually drummed up for the study of the New Testament (Erastus, the cults of Aphrodite and the Egyptian deities) tells us almost nothing about the early Christian communities—how did that not evoke questions? Then, on the other hand, there were interesting and thought-provoking presentations by Laura Nasrallah (on the language of commodity, slavery, and the meat market—making reference to narrowly-dated manumissions lists from Delphi), Bruce Winter (on an inscription of 44 BC referring to Gaius Julius Spartiaticus’ management of the imperial cult), and Michel Amandry’s presentation from coins that Hadrian visited Corinth in AD 124-125 (*an argument made originally by Mary Hoskins Walbank in “Marsyas at Corinth,” in AJN 1 (1989)  79-87). In short, comments by Gregory about the coarseness of archaeological data were followed by papers focusing on the rare bird in archaeology—inscriptions and coins. If these papers are published, these presenters need to talk to one another.

So, all in all, in two sessions, a focus mainly on understanding text against a Greco-Roman backdrop and an emphasis on the specific over the general (text, inscriptions). It seems there is room here for approaches that make use of more typical mundane archaeological data (potsherds, buildings, and inscriptions without dramatic stories) to understand the urban communities of the first Christian centuries.

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