On Phoebe, Honored Courier of St. Paul (Michael Peppard)

We’ve mentioned Phoebe of Kenchreai here at Corinthian Matters as an individual who was not simply a “helper” to St. Paul — one translation of the Greek diakonos) — but also a prostasis, an influential member of some wealth and authority in the earliest Christian community of the region.

Michael Peppard has recently published an article in Commonweal  (Household Names: Junia, Phoebe, & Prisca in Early Christian Rome“) about Phoebe and two other significant women named in the final chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. Peppard’s piece discusses the high status of these women and their importance in the mission of Paul. It’s a thoughtful piece of which I include a few snippets below.

But pay closer attention to whom Paul addresses and a surprise emerges: the status of women in the early church in Rome. Specifically, three women: Junia, Phoebe, and Prisca. They are not household names. They are not mentioned from pulpits on Sunday morning. But they were undeniably important to Paul—and to the Christian assemblies in Rome and Corinth, where they were authoritative leaders….

…Back to the first-century Phoebe: a more powerful translation than “benefactor” for prostatis would also be more faithful to the Greek term in its social context. When used in the masculine form prostatês, its semantic range covers “leader,” “ruler,” “presiding officer,” “administrator,” “protector,” “guardian,” or “patron.” Certainly the possession of wealth and the concomitant powers of benefaction could be related to one’s role as a leader, presider, or protector. But generosity alone does not capture the meaning of the term that Paul uses for Phoebe…

…As an honored and trusted courier, Phoebe could have had the sender’s blessing to explain her letter and its author’s intention as well. The social context thus suggests that, in addition to being a diakonos, a prostatis, and the courier of the most important theological text in Christian history, Phoebe may also have been its first authorized interpreter….

Thus when Phoebe arrived in Rome with Paul’s letter, it was into Prisca’s hand she most likely placed the scroll. Prisca had known Paul for years, and she was one of his most trusted partners, just as Phoebe was a trusted courier. So when we envision the very first discussion of the letter to the Romans, both scriptural and historical evidence suggest the same thing: it was women who were doing the talking.



Corinthian Scholarship (monthly): June-August

The second installment of Corinth-related scholarship that went digital in June-August. Happy reading!



Roman-Late Antique

New Testament and Early Christianity

Medieval and Post-Medieval

The Search for the Historical Erastus

In case you missed it, the feast day of St. Erastus, friend and associate of the apostle Paul, came and went three weeks ago in the western church calendar (July 26).  And in case you missed him, Erastus is a relatively minor figure mentioned only three times in the New Testament: 1) In Acts 19.22, Paul sent “into Macedonia two of those who ministered to him, Timothy and Erastus, but he himself stayed in Asia for a time.”  2) In 2 Timothy 4.19-21, the writer says, “Greet Prisca and Aquila, and the household of Onesiphorus. Erastus stayed in Corinth, but Trophimus I have left in Miletus sick.”  And 3) in Romans 16.23, Paul concludes: “Gaius, my host and the host of the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the treasurer [oikonomos] of the city, greets you, and Quartus, a brother.”  Later authors like Chrysostom, Epiphanius, and Thedoret, among others, commented only briefly on Erastus, and a later tradition linked him with an Erastus bishop of Paneas (Palestine), now celebrated in the Orthodox church on Jan. 4 and Nov. 10.

For such an unknown figure, Erastus stands at the center of a major contemporary debate among New Testament scholars.  The debate concerns the social status of the earliest Christians and hinges on the interpretation of the Greek word oikonomos of Romans 16.23 (the word translated in the NJKV above as “treasurer”) as well as the tangential connection of the Erastus of the New Testament to an Erastus named as aedile in a Roman pavement found east of the theater in Corinth.  This inscription, uncovered in the late 1920s, reads “Erastus for his aedileship paved (this) at his own expense.”

If Erastus, the aedile named in the inscription, is the same as Erastus the oikonomos of the book of Romans (and presumably Acts and 2 Timothy), we have the exceptional coincidence of a New Testament figure being named in an archaeological context.  More importantly, at least for scholars of 1 and 2 Corinthians, we have a believer of the earliest Christian community coming from the highest ranks of Roman Corinth.  This, in turn, would help to explain the language of social division and stratification of Paul’s Corinthian community found in 1 Corinthians: rich – poor, wise – foolish, powerful – weak, etc..  However, if the two Erasti are unrelated, the argument for local elite numbering among the first Christians loses much of its force.

Since Cadbury’s discussion of the inscription (1931), scholars have been interested but skeptical about the connection.  The Latin word aedile mentioned in the inscription is clearly not equivalent to the Greek word oikonomos named in Romans 16.23—the former was an official magistrate of public works (hence, the dedication for the pavement), the latter was connected with financial management and could refer to either a lowly steward or a high-ranking financial officer.  Yet, a generation ago Theissen proposed that the Erastus of Romans 16.23 could have been a quaestor before he became an aedile, for the Latin word quaestor might just be the equivalent of the Greek oikonomos.  In that case, the Erastus inscription and the verse from Romans would shed light on the course of honors that Erastus followed in his political career.

In recent years, the debate over Erastus has grown more intense as New Testament scholars have argued about the social context of the first urban Christians.  Last year, in fact, was a bumper year in the search for the historical Erastus.  First, John Goodrich published “Erastus, Quaestor of Corinth: The Administrative Rank of ὁ οἰκονόμος τῆς πόλεως (Rom 16.23) in an Achaean Colony,” in which he argued in support of Theissen’s thesis that an oikonomos could be the equivalent of a quaestor.  To make the argument, he collected a large corpus of oikonomos inscriptions from Greece, the Aegean, and Asia Minor dating from the late 4th century BC to the 4th c. AD, and presented a recently discovered inscription from nearby Patras, another Roman colony.  This inscription shows a clear link between the Greek oikonomos  and Latin quaestor.  An oikonomos can be a quaestor.  The abstract to the article:

“Erastus (Rom 16.23) has featured prominently in the ongoing debate over the social and economic make-up of the early Pauline communities, since how one renders his title (ὁ οἰκονόμος τῆς πόλεως) dramatically affects the range of economic stratification represented in the Corinthian church. Relying chiefly on epigraphy, including an important new inscription from the Achaean colony of Patras, this article engages the scholarly dialogue about the Latin equivalent of Erastus’ title, rebutting the arguments in favour of arcarius and aedilis, and contends that he served as quaestor, a high-ranking municipal position exclusively occupied by the economic elite.”

As Goodrich concludes his discussion of the inscription (p. 112), “Since the text was derived from an Achaean colony in close proximity to Corinth with an apparently identical political structure as Corinth, it provides the best known comparative evidence for the rank of municipal οἰκονόμοι in Roman Corinth. In light of this evidence, it is then highly probable that the Erastus from Rom 16.23 was the quaestor of Corinth.”

At about the same time that Goodrich’s article was published, the Corinth in Context volume also appeared in print and in it an article by Steve Friesen called “The Wrong Erastus: Ideology, Archaeology, and Exegesis.”  In this article, Friesen critiqued the misuse of archaeological evidence by New Testament scholars and a generational trend to think of the Erastus of Romans as a character with aspirations of upward social mobility.  The Erastus inscription from Corinth is in a secondary, not primary, context and, in any case, was probably not commissioned before the mid-second century AD, well after the time of the Erastus of Romans 16.  The inscription is not, therefore, evidence for the man named by the apostle Paul but a non-Christian aedile who hailed from the highest status group of Roman society.  By contrast, Erastus the oikonomos was a low-status (non-citizen) manager of finance, possibly a slave, and probably not a Christian.  The first Christian communities at Corinth were overwhelmingly poor, like the population of the Roman world generally.  Friesen concludes that scholars should dispense with the ‘ideology of social mobility’ which has blinded them to the inequalities that characterized early Christian churches.

Finally, Alexander Weiss published a short study in response to Goodrich (and ultimately, Theissen) critiquing Goodrich’s view that Corinth and Patras had identical political structures.  Weiss, in fact, argues that political structures were very different in the two cities—reflecting different foundations as Julian and Augustan colonies—and that the municipal office of quaestor did not even exist at Corinth.

This is surely not the last word, though, as Goodrich has an article (to be published in October) called “Erastus of Corinth (Rom 16.23): Responding to Recent Proposals on His Rank, Status, and Faith,” in New Testament Studies 57.3 (2011), which responds to both Friesen and Weiss. His abstract:

“Studies on Erastus, the Corinthian oikonomos (Rom 16.23), continue to dispute the fundamental make up of his identity, including his administrative rank, socio-economic standing, even his status as a believer. Ultimately seeking to defend the view that Erastus was a Christian who served as a Corinthian municipal quaestor, this article responds separately to two recent essays, replying initially to Weiss’ charge that Corinth did not have the municipal quaestorship, then critiquing Friesen’s proposal that Erastus was an unbelieving public slave.”

Goodrich will deal with Weiss’ direct critique of his comparison between Patras and Corinth by some comparative examples of quaestors in pre-Augustan colonies.  And he also intends to problematize some of the provocative lines of argument in Friesen’s reassessment of the Erasti.  We should also expect him to have things to say about oikonomoi in a forthcoming book called Paul as an Administrator of God in 1 Corinthians. (Thanks to John Goodrich for sharing the above information with me in advance of publication).

These 2010 studies are significant in highlighting the state of the field on the historical Erastus and poles in the debate over the social constituency of the first Christian communities.  They also highlight the methodical problems of linking text with material culture.

Below is an incomplete bibliography relevant to the Erastus debate.  If you need a more exhaustive listing, consult the 2010 articles outlined above.

Cadbury, H.J., “Erastus of Corinth,” JBL 50 (1931), 42-58.

Clarke, A.D. “Another Corinthian Erastus Inscription,”  TynBul 42 (1991), 146-151.

Friesen, S.J., “The Wrong Erastus: Ideology, Archaeology, and Exegesis,” in S.J. Friesen, D.N. Schowalter, and J.C. Walters, Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society, Leiden 2010, 231-256: Brill.

Gill, D.W.J., “Erastus the Aedile,” TynBul 40 (1989), 293-301.

Goodrich, J., “Erastus, Quaestor of Corinth: The Administrative Rank of ὁ οἰκονόμος τῆς πόλεως (Rom 16.23) in an Achaean Colony,” New Testament Studies 56, 90-115.

Goodrich, J., “Erastus of Corinth (Rom 16.23): Responding to Recent Proposals on His Rank, Status, and Faith,” New Testament Studies 57.3 (2011), forthcoming.

Meeks, W.A., The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul, New Haven 1983, 51-73: Yale University Press.

Meggitt, J.J., “The Social Status of Erastus (Rom. 16.23),” NovT 38 (1996), 218-23.

Theissen, G., The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, Philadelphia 1982, 69-119: Fortress Press.

Thomas, W.D., “Erastus: The V.I.P. at Corinth,” ExpTim 95 (1984), 369-370.

Weiss, A., “Keine Quästoren in Korinth: Zu Goodrichs (und Theißens) These über das Amt des Erastos (Röm 16.23),” New Testament Studies 2010, 576-581.

[The debate on Erastus continues here.]

“Letter to the Corinthians – Yes we can”

This Reuters article came through my feed last week describing how the modern village of ancient Corinth is dealing with Greece’s economic crisis.  The author seems to me to be painting an overly dramatized view of the drop in tourism in the village.  In my 15 summers of visits to the Corinthia, I don’t recall large crowds ever swarming Acrocorinth, and indeed, this summer there were two bus loads of students touring the acropolis when we visited at the start of June.  Conversations with Corinthians this summer suggest that there is a real concern to improve tourism (is that really a new concern?), but I also heard from a tavern owner that tourism was not down.  One’s impression of tourism in a place like ancient Corinth depends in large part on the time of day and year one is there—unlike, say, the Acropolis in Athens where the tourists come in more constant flows.  See, by contrast, Joel Willitts’ recent visit to Corinth after a ten year period — he describes it as ‘bustling tourist trap’!  I would be curious to see some figures for the drop in tourism in 2011.

A replica of the Argo ship sails into the Corinth canal some 100 km (62 miles) west of Athens July 2, 2008. REUTERS/Yiorgos Karahalis

St. Kodratos and Company

March 10 marks the feast day of a third century martyr named Kodratos, a Christian poorly known today but evidently important for the church communities of Late Antique and Byzantine Corinth.  This Kodratos (aka Codratus / Quadratus) is not to be confused with the famous Kodratos of Athens, the bishop and apologist of the second century.

The information available on the internet about Kodratos of Corinth  is remarkably slim.  The wikipedia article notes only that he “was a hermit and healer who was martyred at Corinth with his friends Cyprian, Dionysius, Anectus, Paul and Crescens.” This is not much more than we find in the Synaxarion as well as in today’s note from the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: “these martyrs contested for piety’s sake in Corinth during the reign of the Emperor Valerian (253-260).”  I found a short summary of his life and martyrdom here and a slightly longer version here.  His life is also treated briefly in Engel’s Roman Corinth and Vasiliki Limberis’ “Ecclesiastical Ambiguities: Corinth in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries” (in Urban Religion in Roman Corinth), which summarizes the account in the Menologion.

A couple of years ago, I managed to convince friends, colleagues, and students from Messiah College’s spring Latin Lunch reading group to plow through a version of the life of Kodratos.  It’s a late version by the 14th century Byzantine intellectual Nikephoros Gregoras, a man impressive for his breadth of interest: a history of the Roman state of his own day, astronomical treatises, commentaries on Homer, among others.  A copy of Gregoras’ manuscript ended up in Bavaria, where it was translated into Latin by a  Jesuit named Reinold Dehnius. As a Latin text translated from the Greek, it was not easy reading.  Someday perhaps, I’ll post a complete translation, but for now, I only have time for this brief paraphrase.

Kodratos was born on the Isthmus famous for its pleasures and opulence and to noble family with Christian parents who practiced virtue.  He had chance to enjoy neither for long.  While still an infant, his mother died and then his father, and he was loosened from the bonds of nature.

Destitute of resources, his hope now lay in the Lord alone who raised the boy in a marvelous manner, nourishing him in the fields as He once did John the Baptist in the desert.  Taken care of in this way, he grew in grace and wisdom, and all sorts of miracles surrounded him daily.  Not unlike the Israelites in their flight from Egypt, God provided for him, accompanying him in clouds and light.  Of garments and clothing and the sorts of things which bring comfort to the body, he had no need, for he lived the life of a man of the country and mountains.

When he reached a mature age, he descended from his mountain, went down to the city, and began to converse with men, serving out divine oracles as food.  He smelled like the country, ever fruitful, like one blessed by the Lord.  The people hung on to every word of his mouth, not unlike the Israelites listening to Moses, the contemplative.  A small group of like-minded sojourners joined him in his way of life, at one moment heading out to the country, at another returning to the city.  His stays in the country grew longer, his time in the city shorter.  Prudently he fled the crowd and henceforth devoted his whole course of life to divine conversation.

At this point, when the emperor Decius had gained control of the state and Jason was proconsul, they spread their wicked dogma, and the Christians willingly undertook danger.  Here divine Kodratos excelled before all others, as did his friends and comrades in their way of life, training their bodies as athletes for the great contest.  Led in chains before Jason, he addressed the governor with strong words: ‘Whence, o wicked head, does your great wrath move against Christ and us, his servants?’  Threatened with torture, Kodratos promises he will endure sword, fire, flood, and any other device.  “Bring it on!” [as one colleague of mine put this line: adhibe nobis omnia!].  Tortured in nasty ways, he encourages his companions to die in Christ.  Dragged through the city, these athletes of Christ were at last taken out of the city and decapitated.  Their blood fell on a stone which sprung a fountain of water that survives even into our own time and which has been a cure for main illnesses and ailments. Pious men gathered their remains and built a church on the spot.

How (not) to write history

This weekend Messiah College is hosting the annual National History Day competition for the south-central Pennsylvania region.  Hundreds of junior high and high school kids will descend on our campus and engage in  historical research through papers, films, posters, and performances.  It is enjoyable to see kids recognizing the value of learning the methods of history and investing energy and effort into their projects.

On this occasion of our region’s celebration of history day, I give you some excerpts from the 2nd century AD essay How to Write History (translation F.G. and H.W. Fowler’s 1905) by the orator Lucian of Samosata in Syria.  Unfortunately, Lucian can only think of bad Corinthian historians, so our two examples will be instances of how not to write history.

First, though, Lucian’s reason for writing, which calls to mind Diogenes the philosopher who lived in a large ceramic vessel in the Kraneion suburb of Corinth:

(2-3) “You cannot find a man but is writing history; every one you meet is a Thucydides, a Herodotus, a Xenophon. The old saying must be true, and war be the father of all things, seeing what a litter of historians it has now teemed forth at a birth.

Such sights and sounds, my Philo, brought into my head that old anecdote about Diogenes. A report that Philip was marching on the town had thrown all Corinth into a bustle; one was furbishing his arms, another wheeling stones, a third patching the wall, a fourth strengthening a battlement, every one making himself useful somehow or other. Diogenes having nothing to do–of course no one thought of giving him a job–was moved by the sight to gird up his philosopher’s cloak and begin rolling his tub-dwelling energetically up and down the Kraneion; an acquaintance asked, and got, the explanation: ‘I do not want to be thought the only idler in such a busy multitude; I am rolling my tub to be like the rest.’…”

And then, on to our bad historians in Corinth:

“(17) Perhaps I should balance him with a philosophic historian; this gentleman’s name I will conceal, and merely indicate his attitude, as revealed in a recent publication at Corinth. Much had been expected of him, but not enough; starting straight off with the first sentence of the preface, he subjects his readers to a dialectic catechism, his thesis being the highly philosophic one, that no one but a philosopher should write history. Very shortly there follows a second logical process, itself followed by a third; in fact the whole preface is one mass of dialectic figures. There is flattery, indeed, ad nauseam, eulogy vulgar to the point of farce; but never without the logical trimmings; always that dialectical catechism. I confess it strikes me as a vulgarity also, hardly worthy of a philosopher with so long and white a beard, when he gives it in his preface as our ruler’s special good fortune that philosophers should consent to record his actions; he had better have left us to reach that conclusion for ourselves–if at all….

(29) Another entertaining person, who has never set foot outside Corinth, nor traveled as far as its harbor–not to mention seeing Syria or Armenia–, starts with words which impressed themselves on my memory:–‘Seeing is believing: I therefore write what I have seen, not what I have been told.’ His personal observation has been so close that he describes the Parthian ‘Dragons’ (they use this ensign as a numerical formula–a thousand men to the Dragon, I believe): they are huge live dragons, he says, breeding in Persian territory beyond Iberia; these are first fastened to great poles and hoisted up aloft, striking terror at a distance while the advance is going on; then, when the battle begins, they are released and set on the enemy; numbers of our men, it seems, were actually swallowed by them, and others strangled or crushed in their coils; of all this he was an eye-witness, taking his observations, however, from a safe perch up a tree. Thank goodness he did not come to close quarters with the brutes! we should have lost a very remarkable historian, and one who did doughty deeds in this war with his own right hand; for he had many adventures, and was wounded at Sura (in the course of a stroll from the Kraneion to Lerna, apparently). All this he used to read to a Corinthian audience, which was perfectly aware that he had never so much as seen a battle-picture. Why, he did not know one weapon or engine from another; the names of maneuvers and formations had no meaning for him; flank or front, line or column, it was all one.”

The moral of the story: if you want to write good history, avoid dialectic method and get out of Corinth.  The latter reminds me of the quip from the most recent Indiana Jones movie: ‘if you want to be a good archaeologist, you’ve got to get out of the library.’

Polycarp and Socrates in Corinth

The martyrdom of Polycarp bishop of Smyrna, celebrated yesterday in both eastern and western churches, is remarkable in many respects.  It is not often that old men got martyred for religious beliefs in antiquity, let alone 86 year old men, and the account itself is among the earliest surviving martyr accounts in early Christian literature recording a martyrdom in the 150s or 160s AD.

The story also is interesting and shows certain parallels with the death of Jesus: the bishop is pursued by the police into the country where he is arrested, allowed to pray for everyone he ever knew for two hours, brought into the city via donkey, and tried by the proconsul.  Ordered to revile Christ he responds “I’m 86 years old and still I am serving him, and he has never wronged me.”  Threatened with death in the amphitheater, he invites both beast and fire.  Ordered to shout “away with the atheists” to the other Christians, he directs the accusation  instead to the roaring crowds.  And he is protected from death: the flames intended to consume him actually refine him (like precious metal) and give off a sweet smell of perfume.  Eventually the executioner thrusts a sword into his side, which releases a dove and so much blood that the fire is extinguished.  These are extraordinary events.

It is the subsequent history of the martyrdom that takes us to Corinth.  The account itself assumes the form of a letter from the church in Smyrna to the church in Philomelium and all sojourners everywhere.  A man named Marcion seems to the be the source of information (20) which was written down by a scribe named Evaristus.  The church of Smyrna encourages the letter to be circulated to Christians elsewhere.

The account comes to an end in 20 or 21, but then an epilogue (22) is tacked on noting the history of the transcription and copies.  The  letter evidently finds its way to Irenaeus, the famous bishop in Gaul who was (as Eusebius later notes) a student of Polycarp.  A man named Gaius, who lived in the same city as Irenaeus copied out the document from his version.  And then (shifting to the first person), “I Socrates in Corinth wrote it out from the copies of Gaius.  Grace  be with all.  And I, Pionius, again wrote out a copy seeking these things from the aforementioned one.”  Pionius notes that he gathered the papers which were worn from old age and made a copy so that the Lord Jesus Christ would remember him with his elect in the kingdom.

There is nothing surprising about these sorts of connections in the movement of texts in the Mediterranean but  not often do we have the recorded path of transcription, in this case between Smyrna — the west (Gaul? Rome?) — Corinth — ??  Interesting that Corinth, situated between east and west, would be a critical link here and that the text discovered by Pionius was the old Corinthian copy (did Pionius find it in Corinth or elsewhere?). This Socrates is an otherwise anonymous Christian living in the city of Corinth in the later 2nd or 3rd century who gained access to a copy of the account transcribed by Gaius.  It is at least curious that a Christian named after a philosopher sentenced to die in old age (and with charges of atheism) would be interested in preserving the story of an old bishop sentenced to die in old age (and with charges of atheism).   Not only does he write himself into the margins: “I Socrates in Corinth” but he also adds his own little salutation: “Grace be with all.”  Here in a postscript of one of the most significant martyr accounts of the early church we find an educated but anonymous Corinthian Christian, or individual residing in Corinth, who has inserted himself into the story and greeted the reader.

A couple of other blogs on yesterday’s feast day: the daily office and cyber brethren.  The entire account can be found here.