Performing 1 Corinthians

Creating-a-scene.jpgAmong the thousands of publications on St. Paul’s letters to the Christians in Corinth, Creating a Scene in Corinth: A Simulation (MennoMedia 2013) stands out for its unique approach to biblical study through simulation and performance. Written by Reta Finger and George McClain, the work invites its readers to experience 1 Corinthians by directly entering into conversation and even debate with the apostle and his conflicted Christian communities. Creating a Scene is designed to give students and small groups of 15-25 an immersive experience in studying Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. And while this is a work written for church groups, not academics, the authors have attempted to make accessible to their readers an extensive and complex scholarly literature related to Corinth, Pauline studies, and ancient religion.

Like A Week in the Life of Corinth (discussed last week), Creating a Scene is based on imaginative play around a series of characters—some historical, some fictive—such as the individuals known from the Pauline letters and local elite known from inscriptions (e.g., Babbius Italicus and Junia Theodora). But the main purpose of the work is less a primer for bible study than simulating the conflicts of 1 Corinthians through creative role playing. As the publisher page notes,

Creating a Scene imaginatively draws readers into Chloe’s house church, which has just received a letter from their church planter, the apostle Paul. Using group simulation, the book brings to life scholarly research on how the gospel penetrated the Roman Empire. As participants role-play early believers and debate with each other, they gain new insights and will never read 1 Corinthians the same way again.

First-century Corinthians were just as human as church people today. They did not consider Paul’s letters authoritative Scripture when he wrote them, so lively group discussion and debate are encouraged. This method of Bible study works for many levels, from youth groups to Sunday school classes, or in college and seminary courses.

While Creating a Scene frequently moves between simulation and character development, commentary, and voices from the authors themselves, the work consistently interweaves social and historical background content with role playing. One constantly feels while reading this that the community in Corinth had problems (and the leaders of the church just seem a lot less saintly than they do in A Week in the Life of Corinth). The first part of the work (pp. 11-94) includes an introduction to the idea of simulation as well as important matters for understanding Corinth, such as the conflicts in 1 Corinthians, the archaeology and history of the Roman city, the values of a Roman society in the first century, polytheism and religion, social status and inequality, among others. The second part (The Play Begins! Reenacting Chloe’s House Church, pp. 95-209) takes readers into the heart of the simulation, with each successive chapter working through the major points of commentary and conflict in the letter, as for example:

    • Hidden Persuasions in Paul’s Greeting—1 Corinthians 1:1-9
    • The Wisdom of the World versus the Wisdom of God—1 Corinthians 1:10-3:4
    • Field Hands and Master Builders: Images of Unity—1 Corinthians 3:5-4:21

Each of these chapters include background information, commentary, photographs and plans, rubric for simulation, and concluding sections inviting the four different groups—the factions of Christ, Apollos, Paul, and Peter—to respond to and apply what they have learned through reenactment (e.g., “What impact does this topic of resurrection have on you and your faction?…How does Paul’s view of bodily resurrection challenge common assumptions about the afterlife held among Christians today?”). The final chapter includes a simulation exercise for recreating a Corinthian agape meal including prayers, hymns, readings, dialogue, and even recipes! The two appendixes are devoted to additional reenactment (Corinthian elite gathered at the Isthmian games) and a leader’s guide.

Beyond the book, the publisher page makes available a number of extra digital resources including lengthy slide presentations about Corinth with plans and images, imaginary speeches from members in Chloe’s house church, supplemental material for character development, and recommendations for implementing the simulation in churches and seminary classes (based on Finger’s previous simulations carried out in her bible classes). Creating a Scene is intended for study by small groups in churches or introductory academic classes to 1 Corinthians (who can act their way through the book in 10-15 sessions), but it may be of interest  to  anyone interested in learning about the backgrounds of First Corinthians.

For full contents, see the table of contents at Amazon.

Additional reviews of Creating a Scene in Corinth are available here:

This is the eighth post in a series on resources for the study of ancient religion and Christianity in Corinth. Earlier posts include:

Imagining the Corinthians: A Week in the Life of Corinth

In the late spring of 2012, there was a buzz in the biblioblog world about a new book by Ben Witherington III called A Week in the Life of Corinth (InterVarsity Press Academic), a fictional work about a character named Nicanor who converts to Christianity after meeting the apostle Paul. Seminarians, pastors, preachers, interested Christians, and not a few professors of New Testament blogged the book—so frequently that by August I had declared AWLC the hit Corinthian book of the summer. One may not find many academic reviews of this work in the principal New Testament journals, but AWLC has perhaps reached a broader audience than the typical academic monograph on Corinthian churches, or even the excellent commentaries on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Compare, for example, the dozens of book reviews (now 55 at Amazon alone) with whatever your favorite book on Corinth happens to be.

ACLC is accessible in its length (ca 150 pages), price ($14), and genre (historical fiction), and unique within a Corinthian context for adopting historical fiction for educational purposes. So the book description highlights fiction (an imaginary week) to highlight the work’s pedagogical ends:


“Intrigue is in the air as Nicanor returns to Corinth and reports to his patron Erastos on recent business dealings in Rome. Nicanor, a former slave, is a man on the make. But surprises keep springing up in his path. A political rival of Erastos is laying a plot, and a new religion from the East keeps pressing in his life. Spend an imaginary week in Paul’sCorinth as the story of Nicanor winds through street and forum, marketplace and baths, taking us into shop, villa and apartment, where we meet friends new and old. From our observing a dinner in the temple of Aesclepius to Christian worship in the home of Erastos, Paul’s dealings with the Corinthians in his letters take focused relevance and social clarity. The result is an unforgettable introduction to life in a major center of the New Testament world. Throughout the text, helpful sidebars, maps and diagrams serve to further illuminate the sociocultural context of the early Christian world.”

And the publisher page makes clear that the scope of the book is intentionally educational:

  • Uses historical fiction to introduce the social and cultural world of Corinth
  • Includes close-up looks at important features of social and cultural life of Corinth
  • Gives a sense of what early Christian life and worship was like
  • Makes the social world of Paul’s Corinth come alive
  • Supplements or replaces customary textbooks on Paul’s social and cultural world
  • Written by an authority on Paul and the New Testament world

The purpose of the work, is, as many bloggers have pointed out, not gripping historical fiction, but, rather, whetting the appetite of someone setting out to study the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians. It is a kind of primer to the study of the Corinthian correspondence. Some of the reviews on Amazon give a sense of the need that it meets:

“A winsome introduction to ancient Corinth”
“Why aren’t books like this more popular in Christian circles?”
“An Entertaining, Educational Resource on Corinth for All in the Church”
“A novella with great historical background.”
“Saint Paul up close”
“Wow, this book was really fun to read.”
“Corinth comes alive”

“Entertaining way to educate”

AWLC, then, is not written for Corinthian archaeologists, classicists, or bible scholars per se, who will find plenty of things to quibble about. It is, rather, written to encourage undergraduate students, new seminarians, and readers of the bible to think about Paul’s Corinth in context. With its numerous photograps of Greco-Roman contexts, including Corinth, and its sections devoted to taking “A Closer Look,” it acts as introduction.


Since the book is necessarily cursory in its discussions of background context, and controversial in its particular picture of Corinthian churches (the Corinthian assembly, which includes elites like Erastus, seem to me to be too saintly!), I would hope that the use of such work, whether in bible studies or seminary classes, would move quickly on to serious commentaries or some of the good scholarship on archaeology, texts, and ancient religion in Corinth such as Corinth in Context, Urban Religion in Roman Corinthor Corinth in Contrast

The book is available in Google Books for preview.

This is the seventh post in a series on resources for the study of ancient religion and Christianity in Corinth. Earlier posts include:


A Week in the Life of Corinth

Judging from blogosphere traffic, the hit book on Corinth this summer was an historical fiction about Nicanor, a Corinthian of the mid-1st century, who encounters Paul the apostle and becomes a Christian. I noted this book by Ben Witherington III on this blog back in May, and I’ve continued to see reviews and summaries over the summer.

The publisher, IVP Academic Press, describes it this way:

“Ben Witherington III attempts to reenchant our reading of Paul in this creative reconstruction of ancient Corinth. Following a fictitious Corinthian man named Nicanor through an eventful week of business dealings and conflict, you will encounter life at various levels of Roman society–eventually meeting Paul himself and gaining entrance into the Christian community there. The result is an unforgettable introduction to life in a major center of the New Testament world. Numerous full-page text boxes expand on a variety of aspects of life and culture as we encounter them in the narrative.”

Recent reviews describe the story as interesting, engaging, and entertaining, and comment on its usefulness for drawing the reader into the world of first century Corinth. Captured by Christ, for example, describes it in this way:

It traces the business, social, political and religious dealings of Nicanor and his patron Erastos. Don’t make the mistake by thinking that this will be a boring and dry book. To the contrary “A Week in the Life of Corinth” is filled with twists and turns, attempted murder, bribes, gladiators, and of course the Apostle Paul makes a few appearances. It is an engaging story.

Nijay Gupta notes its potential for teaching 1 Corinthians:

The advantage with Ben’s novel is that you get to see Nicanor out and about, as well as Erastos (an elite) and Gallio. The book also includes little sidebar excurses where Ben-as-scholar gives more information about various social matters in the Greco-Roman world, like bath houses, schooling, and Greek medicine. In the book you get glimpses of Corinthian eating habits, entertainment, social conflict, family life, etc…One of my favorite parts of Ben’s book is the window into how house church services operated, especially with Paul at the helm! It was enjoyable to see the various stages of the service.

Some other reviews:

Judging from the wide range of reviews that mainly come from pastors and non-academic evangelical Christians, I would say the author is right in thinking that fiction makes accessible the otherwise enormous and complex world of New Testament scholarship.

In two 14 minute podcasts (here and here), Gordon Govier (of the book and the spade) interviews the author about why he chose Corinth for this work, the character of Erastus, and background information on everything from Roman slavery to fast food to house churches. Some discussion of American School excavations there as well. Clearly there are some points of contention here in the sort of world that the author has cast as the backdrop to his story. we meet the character Erastus, for example, who is the center of a debate about the social composition of the early Christian community in Corinth.

Historical fictions about Corinth are nothing new, and in their modern guise, date back to at least the mid-19th century. I have noted their current popularity here.  What makes Witherington’s book a little different is that the author is an established and well-published New Testament scholar who has turned his attention to fiction.

A Week in the Life of Corinth

Jason Maston has a review at Dunelm Road on Ben Witherington’s recently published A Week in the Life of Corinth.  Haven’t yet read the book, but it is on my list.  Here’s a snippet of Maston’s short review:

“I managed to get a copy of Ben Witherington‘s new book A Week in the Life of Corinth(IVP, 2012). It is a novel (about 150 small pages) centred around the life of Nicanor, a former slave of Erastos. Basically Nicanor has secured his freedom and is now an up-and-coming businessman. The novel tells of his business adventures and his encounter with the new religion, ‘Christianity’….

Beyond the story itself, Witherington has managed to sneak in a large amount of history. One is introduced to the city of Corinth, key historical figures, what life was like for both the wealthy and the poor, how people travelled, and other things. Alongside what comes out in the story itself are short sidebars, ‘A Closer Look’, that provide explanations and historical details about things mentioned in the story.”

Read the rest of the review here

Corinthian Scholarship (February)

Here’s the latest in Corinthian-related scholarship published, presented, or released online in February.  These 13 articles, books, and studies represent about 7% of ca 175 studies that triggered Google Scholar alerts last month.  There are many, many “false positives” that have little to do with ancient or medieval Corinth, or make only passing and insignificant remarks about Corinth.


Roman and Late Antique

New Testament


Corinthian Scholarship (November)

Hard to believe that December is already here – quite a lot of new scholarship delivered electronically in November. 

Bronze Age


New Testament:

Late Antiquity

Early Modern and Modern:


Histories of Peirene

There are no monuments of ancient Corinth more famous and iconic than the Fountain of Peirene.  Any modern visitor who has wandered among the ruins will likely have shot a photo like the one below of the Roman spring facade and court.  And anyone who walks into a tourist shop will have seen plenty of postcard images of the arcade and courtyard.  Indeed, the fountain ranks as one of the greatest discoveries of the American School of Classical Studies Excavations at Corinth.

bartleyvisit 365

In recent years, a rope around the courtyard has kept tourists a stones throw away from the arcade but only 10-15 years ago, the visitor could walk directly on the pavements.  This seeming accessibility to the monument in former days, however, was itself nothing more than a facade, for the court and arches and columns represent but the start of an intricate underground water system stretching hundreds of meters beneath the Roman forum, and the architecture preserved today marks a visual fragment of numerous phases of construction, use, additions, and renovations.   The publication of Betsey Robinson’s Histories of Peirene: A Corinthian Fountain in Three Millennia (The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, Princeton 2011) is a major milestone in Corinthian studies because it makes accessible the complex histories of a monument that was always central to the life of the ancient city.

Arkadia_June 4 017 

Histories of Peirene has much to say about contexts and histories.  The first part of the book (Chs. 1-4) places the fountain into its various landscapes: the physical subterranean landscape of topography, springs, and underground tunnels (Ch. 1), the imaginative conceptions of well-watered Corinth promoted through ancient visual images and literature (Ch. 2), and the history of archaeological investigations of the American School’s Excavations (Ch. 3), including especially the work of the excavator Bert Hodge Hill (Ch. 4) whose life was dedicated to documenting and publishing the fountain.  The second part of the book (Chs. 5-11) offers a “biography of the fountain” from the Geometric era through post-antique periods.  Two chapters explore the Geometric-Hellenistic developments (Ch. 5 and 6), three are dedicated to Early Roman phases (Ch. 7-9), and one each to the 4th and 5th century (still visible today) and post-antique phases.  

An outline:

1. Peirene Today and Yesterday: Anatomy and Physiology

2. The Storied Spring: Peirene in Pictures and Poetry

3. Great and Fearful Days: the Rediscovery of Peirene

4. A Corinthian Hydra: the Labors of Bert Hodge Hill

5. Beginnings: Hellenic and Hellenistic Peirene

6. Corinthian Grotesque: The Cyclopean Fountain

7. The Genius of Place and Master: Romanizing Peirene

8. High Roman Style: the Marble Court

9. A Pendant for Peirene: The Scylla of Corinth

10. Palace for the People: The Triconch Court

11. The Ruin of a Beautiful Thing

In a certain sense, this study is written for scholars and archaeologists, the sorts of people who would feel at home reading through the stratigraphic descriptions of a field report in the journal Hesperia or trudging through a final archaeological report in the Corinth series.  One finds in Histories many interpretive essays, arguments, and hypotheses based on detailed and comparative discussions of art and architecture, block dimensions, walls, faces, phases, and dating.  Robinson arrives at many original conclusions along the way.  To name a few, the enigmatic and grotto-like Cyclopean Fountain is actually a 6th century BC creation and designed to represent a natural grotto, the dark home of the famous nymph Peirene; the memory and monument of Peirene was appropriated early in the life of the new Roman colony because the mythology surrounding the nymph, Pegasos, and Bellerophon was historically meaningful and generally known; and the triconch court, still visible today, is later 4th (not 2nd) Century AD.

But the work is also accessible and relevant to a wider readership including, for example, anyone interested in New Testament studies or Greek and Roman archaeology.  Allow me to explain why.

1. This book is not simply a study of a fountain, but a study of the most famous fountain in Greece and a monument that was central to the city’s ancient image.  Peirene is the only Corinthian fountain to have held widespread and enduring literary fame in antiquity.  As such, it is, like the Isthmus and Acrocorinth and the harbors, a major orienting point in the landscape for understanding Corinthian history and ancient conceptions of the city.  Peirene was so identified with Corinth, in fact, that it became another name for the city. The nymph and her associates-associations such as the hero Bellerophon, Pegasos the horse, the grotto and fountain, and Acrocorinth appear on a wide range of media (protocorinthian pottery, red-figure vases, wall painting, stone reliefs, sarcophagi, coins, glass phiales, and silver cups) across a wide span of space (Patras, Pompeii, Rome, S. Italy, Algiers, Tyre) over a long period of time (7th century BC to 4th century AD).  The Corinthian myth of Peirene and the importance of her fountain would have been common knowledge for any educated child in antiquity.

2. This is a visual work.  While the text of the work is lengthy (nearly 400 pages with notes and references), one finds nearly 200 figures, some in color, some black and white, including photos of architecture, wall paintings, coins, statues, elevations, aerial photos, and architectural plans.  The photos take us into Corinth’s watery underland and back in time to the first excavations at the site in the late 19th century.  Collectively the images are instructive and interesting and demonstrate how art historical evidence can inform our understandings of material contexts.  

3. The book provides an excellent introduction to the water systems of ancient Corinth.  The Roman facade and arcade are only the beginning of the fountain.  The spring facade gives way to chambers, drawbasins, reservoirs, and tunnels through the marl of Corinth’s plateau.  We learn how Corinthian geography naturally channels water, how the fountain flows at a rate of 7-12 cu. meters / hour, how ancient engineers created a vast underland of tunnels, and how the water of Peirene is salty, hard, and easily contaminated.  We also meet some inhabitants of the underland including bats, crabs, freshwater shrimp, and early 20th century archaeologists. 

4. The third and fourth chapters are a riveting case study in the history of classical archaeology in the early to mid-20th century through quotations from field notebooks and correspondence.  We learn of the discovery of the monument at the start of American School excavations at Corinth and how it provided the key to unlocking the entire urban plan.  We discover quite a bit about early methods of excavation: 500 railroad carts of earth were removed per day.  We hear about the difficult, miserable, and heroic process of clearing earth and mud from the entire tunnel system in the first three decades of the 20th century, and the ensuing results: desertion of workers, broken bones, bouts of malaria and typhoid, and even deaths of directors.  We find Bert Hodge Hill, the principal excavator of the site, giving site tours to German soldiers during World War II and unable to complete the work after the war due to his perfectionist personality and ethnical obligations to the villagers to sanitize the water.  

5. The study provides an up-to-date chronological discussion of the complex history of Peirene.  The visitor to Corinth peers on a marble facade of the 2nd to 4th centuries AD, and thinks she is beholding the ancient fountain.  But the fountain is (like most archaeological sites) actually a complex palimpsest of development, aggregation, revision, and transformation that stretches centuries of time from the 8th century BC to the 20th century.  Robinson makes these histories accessible and gives readers the diachronic overview of one of the social focal points of Corinth at many points in its history.  In making accessible the chronological phases of the fountain, Robinson also contextualizes the developments in terms of the broader urban development of Corinth—we, consequently, learn a good deal about the history and archaeology of Corinth.  People who study or dabble in New Testament studies will find in Ch. 7 a valuable overview of current debates about Romanization and Hellenization.  Writers of historical fiction will find plenty of text and visual material for creative retellings. 

6. Finally, Robinson’s overall approach is not a technical archaeological report so much as a contextual study of text and material culture.  There’s a creative flow that makes it interesting reading.  From the book jacket, we appreciate the basic idea of this flow:

“Peirene developed from a nameless spring to a renowned source of inspiration, from a busy landmark in Classical Corinth to a quiet churchyard and cemetery in the Byzantine ear, and finally from free-flowing Ottoman fountains back to the streams of the source within a living ruin.  These histories of Peirene as a spring and as a fountain, and of its water imagery, form a rich cultural narrative whose interrelations and meanings are best appreciated when studied together.”

Such webs of meaning bring otherwise dry archaeological evidence to life through association with ancient poetry, modern stories, and visual media.  In short, this text should be of interest to many different kinds of readers interested in Corinth. 

For further review, see:

  • Andrew Reinhard’s overview at the ASCSA webpage including a preview (PDF) of front matter and Chapter 1 and 3.
  • Bill Caraher’s review at The New Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

Historical Fictions

Since antiquity, the Corinthia has formed a rather fitting stage for imaginative narratives and outright fictions.  In the long Roman era, we have frequent examples of writers (e.g., Apuleius, Lucian, Libanius, and Themistius) placing their fictional characters and events in Corinth and the Isthmus. And in the modern era, scholars have often turned to the imaginative exercises that make use of archaeological discoveries.  Consider Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s, “The Corinth that Paul Saw” (Biblical Archaeologist 47 (1984), 147-159), or the opening passages of Donald Engels’ Roman Corinth, which considers what a first century visitor might have seen.

Outright historical fictions are also not uncommon.  I learned through google alerts that Steven Saylor, author of historical fiction, has a forthcoming work (2012) of short stories including one on the “The Witch of Corinth.”  In that work, two characters, Gordinaus and Antipater, visit the Isthmus of Corinth in the early 1st century BC, when the city lay desolate and abandoned.  This crime fiction blogger summarizes and quotes a passage from the book as one of the characters walks among the ruins:

“Heat and thirst made me light-headed. The piles of rubble all looked a like. I became disoriented and confused. I began to see phantom movements from the corners of my eyes, and the least sound–the scrambling of a lizard or the call of a bird–startled me. I thought of the mother who had killed her daughter and then herself, and all the countless others who had suffered and died. I felt the ghosts of Corinth watching me, and whispered words to placate the dead, asking forgiveness for my trespass.”

Or consider Peter Longley’s The Mist of God, the third volume of the Magdala Trilogy, a series about Mary Magdalene and the birth of Christianity.  In this 700 page epic, the author adopts historical and archaeological knowledge of Corinth to place his characters. 

Mist of God 


I love these passages discussing Corinth posted on Google Books:

(Page 471): “Four days later, Agrippa was escorted south to Puteoli where he was placed on a ship bound for Brundisium.  There, he and his retinues were transferred to a smaller ship sailing to Corinth.  It was hot and the air was still.  The ship moved ever so slowly toward the Peloponnese.  Then, it hugged the hazy coast until it arrived at the harbor of Lechaion on the Ionian side of the Greek city that straddled two seas.  In a miraculous maneuver of engineering, the ship was pulled the four miles overland on wooden rollers along a marble tramway that took it to the harbor of Conchreae on the waters of the Aegean.”

(Page 522): “Corinth really had a lot to offer.  It was rich, gaudy, and beautiful all at the same time….Every Sabbath, they all ceremonially broke bread at the port district known locally as Poseidonia.  The very name conjured up a centuries old controversy that the sea gods did not want the isthmus to be breached by a canal.  The tyrant Periander had first suggested a canal some six centuries before, but because of his perception of the wishes of the sea god, Poseidon, he had decided instead to create the diolkos roadway.”

It’s a testimony, I suppose, to the historical significance of the city that modern writers continue to find it a fitting arena for placing their characters.  And certainly the archaeological investigation of the Corinthia has produced a knowledge of ancient Corinth that makes such fictions a little more compelling.  I am also glad that we have these modern writers who attempt to turn often dusty archaeological reports into living environments. 


I take a break from uploading images of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey to drop some Corinthiaka that have come through my feed in the last month.