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.

More Corinth in Contrast

On Monday I posted a general overview of the conference Corinth in Contrast and today I want to comment on a few of the specific papers that focused on material culture.  Defining which papers fit into the category of material culture is not straightforward.  Most of the papers, including those by New Testament scholars, made some use of archaeology, but not all the archaeologists (e.g., Sanders and myself) focused on archaeological evidence per se.  Moreover, some presenters (Ben Millis, Dan Schowalter, and Ron Stroud) focused on inscriptions that belong to overlapping evidence categories of text and material culture.  And even the explicitly archaeological papers did not focus on the normal stratigraphic grit of archaeological research.  A few highlights:

For the urban center, Sarah James gave an important paper (“The Last Corinthians? Society and Settlement from 146 BCE to the Roman Colony”) synthesizing the evidence for continuing settlement and society in the so-called interim period between the city’s destruction in 146 BC and refoundation as a Roman colony in 44 BC.  James discussed an enormous amount of evidence (adding up to half a metric ton of pottery!) suggesting that activities continued in the urban center in the late 2nd to early 1st centuries BC.  She presented a number of ceramic deposits showing evidence for imports and trade and production of ceramic crafts that indicates continuity with preexisting populations.  This paper, which draws on conclusions reached in her dissertation, will have significant ramifications for understanding the interim period in Corinth.  Start discontinuity, the blank slate, and the squatters are all going to have to go away.

Ben Millis was not physically present at the conference but he did make several appearances via Skype and in this capacity presented a paper on “The Local Magistrates and Elite of Roman Corinth.”  The paper complemented an earlier paper that he gave in 2007, recently published in Corinth in Context, by discussing the role of freedmen in promoting their commercial interests in the newfound colony.  In his talk, Millis discussed the origins and careers of Roman Corinth’s first elites whose names appear in inscriptions in the city.  Three distinct elite groups appear frequently: 1) Greek provincial elite, which formed the smallest elite group; 2) Romans, who were also a numerically small group but formed a more significant core of Corinthian elites; and 3) freedmen, who made up the largest group of the colony’s ruling class.  Millis suggested that the latter group clearly had the most potential for upward mobility, but that personal connections were important in achieving this mobility.  Freedmen who became part of the new local elite formed a very closed system that was nearly impossible to break into.  There were, in other words, social and economic impediments and requirements to office holding in the new colony.

Sarah Lepinski discussed the evidence from wall painting in the Roman city and considered the question of whether painting practices reflected Greek or Roman themes, styles, and tastes.  Her presentation highlighted the practices, tastes, and decorative programs that point strongly to western connections, especially during most of the first century after Christ.  However, her presentation also highlighted the complexities of such connections for in the later 1st century a break with western practices led to more localized decorative programs.

Bill Caraher gave a paper on the final day on the subject of the “The Ambivalent Landscape of Christian Corinth: The Archaeology of Place, Theology, and Politics in a Late Antique City.”  The paper provided a very useful overview of the “building boom” of the fifth and sixth centuries AD in the Corinthia that included monumental church architecture (e.g., Lechaion basilica), villa culture in the territory, and urban and trans-isthmus fortification walls.  Bill suggested that this building activity created a medium for various groups of the population to communicate theological messages and local expression.  His discussion of local “resistance” provided some interesting and lively audience feedback.

Ronald Stroud presented an interesting paper called the “Varieties of Inequality in Corinthian Magic and Ritual,” which examined the evidence for “black magic” at Corinth around 50 AD, especially the inscribed lead curse tablets found at the Sanctuary of Demeter and Kore on the lower slopes of Acrocorinth.  Before official cult was reestablished in a Roman manner at the sanctuary, women were practicing nocturnal rites associated with a space connected to Kore, goddess of underworld.  Such practices blend the distinction between religion and magic.  This paper will be very interesting for those interested in the kinds of cults and religious practices that formed a backdrop to St. Paul’s mission in the city.

All of these papers will appear in expanded form (6,000-8,000 words) in a volume that should be published relatively quickly.

Inequalities in Corinth

I just returned from Austin where I participated in the “Corinth in Contrast” conference.  As I detailed in earlier posts, the conference was dedicated to exploring the theme of inequality in the Corinthia in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.  It was, in this sense, a bit more focused than the two earlier conferences organized by Friesen, Schowalter, and Walters: “Urban Religion in Roman Corinth” and “Corinth in Context.”  Both of those earlier conferences resulted in two books Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches (2004) and Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society(2010), each containing articles that were broad and synthetic in content, especially those chapters exploring archaeological evidence.  For example, while Corinth in Context contains some focused problem-specific studies on Erastus (Friesen) and dining and domestic space in 1 Corinthians (Walters, Schowalter), among others, there are numerous synthetic chapters on topics like “Asklepios in Greek and Roman Corinth” (B. Wickkiser), “The Coinage of Roman Corinth” (Walbank), “Religion and Society at Roman Kenchreai” (Rife), “The Christian Community in Corinth in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Eras” (Walbank), and “Religion and society in the Roman Eastern Corinthia” (Gregory).  Both of those volumes, then, will form very useful starting places for anyone interested in New Testament Corinth and recent assessments of religion and society in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.

Like the last two conferences, Corinth in Contrast brought together scholars of varied backgrounds familiar with different kinds of evidence and models: the New Testament, religious studies, early Christianity, Classics, field archaeology, art history, and ancient history.  One major difference this time around: a Corinthian archaeologist, Dr. Sarah James, played a role as co-organizer.  The papers focused around the theme of wealth and inequality and each paper more or less addressed the themes as part of broader discussions of problems related to the ancient economy, agriculture and trade, the nature of leadership and patronage, gender inequities, elite expressions, banqueting, magic, and monumental architecture, among others.

The presenters and paper respondents gave us a sense of the nature of inequality in a region like ancient Corinth and how differently it looked from the inequities of our own modern world.  As L. Michael White noted, inequality in antiquity was not simply a matter of net worth, but centered around issues of personal connectedness and relationships, land ownership, and one’s relative isolation from supporting social networks.  The different presentations showed how inequality in Hellenistic and Roman Corinth originated in different ways (agriculture, trade, social connection) and was articulated in the local urban and rural landscape: in the program that an elite villa owner adopted to paint the wall of a house; in the boundaries that the newly-wealthy freedmen class reinscribed around their new political powers; in the inequities of gender and status that were constant in public discourses, private households, and banqueting; and in the local “resistances” by day laborers to imperial theological messages.

And yet, the framework of inequality is, as Steve Friesen noted in his opening remarks, so compelling because of its importance for understanding the layers of our own society.  Is it not fundamental to understand the nature of wealth and poverty, and social and economic inequities in ancient society?  As an intellectual framework, it provides a means to understand the ancient world, ancient Corinth, the Pauline community, more concretely.  And as a modern framework, it provides for educators a means of helping students (and ourselves) think about the social conditions of our world and the “abnormal” nature of inequality.

I hope to write more about some of the individual papers in the rest of this week.  All of them were interesting, some controversial, some “blockbusters.”  Check out the blog of Bill Caraher of the University of North Dakota, who was also in attendance at the conference and has already shared his thoughts.

The Diolkos — A New Video

I recently came upon this animated documentary short called the “Diolkos for 1500 Years” depicting the use of the ancient diolkos portage road across the Isthmus of Corinth.  It is in Greek, of course, but you can still follow along.  The film was initiated by the Society of Ancient Greek Technology, produced by the Technical Chamber of Greece, and directed by T.P. Tassios, N. Mikas, and G. Polyzos.  In three parts, it shows the transporting of a small merchant ship of the 4th century BC the 7-8 km distance from one sea to the other.  The video was awarded best ancient film at the International Film festival in Cyprus (2009) and best educational film at the International Meeting of Archaeological Film (2010).

You can  find the first and third parts of the short video on Youtube, or the entire film here.  The short is a fascinating reconstruction of what must have been an incredible operation, but it does raise questions about the use of the road.  Was it really that easy to transport a 30,000 lb wooden vessel overland in antiquity?  Ten guys easy?  And what evidence is there to suggest that commercial vessels were transferred overland in antiquity?

The Commercial Facility of the Isthmus

Bill Caraher has given us additional thoughts about some graffiti text on a wall of the baptistery of the Lechaion Basilica — observations that will be part of his presentation for the Corinth in Contrast Conference at the upcoming University of Texas.  I myself have been finishing up my own presentation on “Turning Profit on the Isthmus of Corinth: The Commercial Facility of an Ancient Land Bridge.” My talk addresses the question of how Corinth’s isthmus contributed to the wealth of the city in antiquity.

The question has a long history.  Thucydides was the first to raise it in the 5th century BC when he pinned Corinth’s wealth and power on its position on an isthmus.  But the question circulated widely throughout antiquity.  In the modern period, since the 19th century,  scholars have argued that Corinth’s territory facilitated wealth in four ways: 1) through its agricultural productivity; 2) through the services provided to passing travelers; 3) through the trans-shipment of goods in long-distant trade routes; and 4) through commercial markets.

The first of these has been the subject of recent archaeological  research on the agricultural orientation of the Roman  colony and the meaning of the patterns of land division still visible in the landscape today.  The second was the subject of Engel’s interesting and controversial work Roman Corinth (1990) which argue that the Corinthian economy in the Roman era was based not on agriculture but on the services provided (religious, political, entertainment)  provided to passing travelers.  The third explanation centers on archaeological and historical scholarship on the diolkos portage road–the idea is that the diolkos was used to trans-ship cargoes and ships from one side of the isthmus, and Corinth benefited from the portage business in the form of transport fees and transit duties.   The fourth view explains Corinthian wealth in terms of its markets.  It is largely based on the city’s ancient reputation for being a market city and trader’s depot and it is relatively unexplored in modern scholarship on the Roman city.

In my paper, I will be exploring the third and fourth view, the ones that concern the commercial facility of the Isthmus.  I will be arguing against the notion that the  diolkos was used regularly for portaging commercial ships and cargoes, and will come out in favor of the view of the land bridge as an emporium.  Stay tuned as I’ll unpack this a bit in the next two weeks.

Corinth in Contrast Conference

We’ve got another Corinth conference in the works at the University of Texas.   In late September, the Departments of Religious Studies and Classics, and the Institute for the Study of Antiquity and Christian Origins will be hosting a conference on the theme of “Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality.  As the conference website states:

“This conference explores the stratified nature of social, political, economic, and religious spheres at Corinth, and how the resulting inequalities are reflected in literary texts and material remains.  The analysis focuses on a specific population center (the Corinthia) over a given period of time (Hellenistic to Late Antique).”

The 12 presentations include topics covering the city and territory from the 3rd century BC to 7th century AD, and include discussions on individuals like Phoebe of Kenchreai, Junia Theodora, Herodes Atticus, and the Emperor Justinian.  Judging from the titles, St. Paul should make an appearance in at least a few papers.  Thematically, the papers include such topics as agricultural systems, magic and ritual, dining, slavery, and mixed marriages in 1 Corinthians, and elite expenditure and expression.

This is the third conference held at the University of Texas dedicated to  interdisciplinary discussion of the themes of religion and society in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.  The last two were published as Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Appraoches (2004) and Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society (2010).  And the  conference organizers, Steve Friesen and Sarah James, have plans to publish this third conference quickly.

Over the next few weeks, I will be blogging about the conference presentations including my own paper on the diolkos and the commercial facility of Corinth.  I expect that my colleague Bill Caraher of the University of North Dakota will be as well.  He has already give us some preliminary thoughts about late antique prosperity and monumental architecture in the 5th and 6th century Corinthia.


Welcome to Corinthian Matters, a website/ blog dedicated to the history and archaeology of ancient Corinth and its territory.  Presumably you’ve stumbled on this site because you have some interest in things Corinthian.  The Corinth canal.  Modern archaeology.  Or St. Paul and his problematic Christan community.

There’s a good share of Corinthiaka already online in websites on archaeological projects, travel and vacation blogs, and discussions of Pauline epistles.  I hope to give some attention here to these.  There’s a good deal more Corinthian history and archaeology that is being slowly filtered through academic channels of journals, conferences, dissertations, and books.  Such stuff, I figure, could be useful for individuals interested in the classical or Christian history of Corinth.

I’ve spent a good many summers walking about the Corinthia, conducting archaeological research, and writing about the city on the Isthmus.  So I figure I’ve got at least something to say.  And because I’m working on a book on the Roman Isthmus, I hope this site can provide an outlet for some of the interesting finds I stumble upon.  Although I’m usually hesitant about starting a blog that fizzles, this one seems pretty low risk.  Blog platforms like WordPress have expanded their capacity for displaying information traditionally found on website pages.  I figure that this site with its various pages can at least be a stop on the road to Corinth and perhaps I’ll also occasionally post something useful as well.

We’re under construction for now.  If you’ve got news about Corinth, ancient or modern, its territory, and the research revealing them, send them my way.