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 Corinthian Pyxis Podcast

At the start of a new semester at Messiah College, I have been looking for ways to make my lectures in the History of Western Civilization I a little more dynamic.  For example, I have spiced up old lectures about premodern economies by assigning all my students particular statuses (peasant, wealthy peasant, artisan, and elite) for the semester.  In lecturing earlier this week on hoplite warfare in the Archaic age, I made several of those wealthier peasants demonstrate a hoplite phalanx formation with some home-made weapons and panoply (too bad no photos).  I have also been incorporating short video clips of Greece like tours of tholos tombs.  These breaks from lecturing have made the classes a little more dynamic and interesting. 

In searching on the keywords “Archaic Greece,” I stumbled upon this Corinthian pyxis podcast below (in two parts).  The podcast is part of the SCARABsolutions Ancient Art Podcasts series founded and hosted by Lucas Livingston, an assistant director in the Museum Education Department at The Art Institute of Chicago.  These are interesting and polished clips which, in the words on the website,

Uncover the truths and unravel the mysteries of the civilizations that shaped our modern world. Each episode features detailed examinations of exemplary works from the Art Institute of Chicago and other notable collections in addition to broad themes and concepts of Ancient Mediterranean art and culture.

The Corinthian Pyxis podcast is a little over 11 minutes long in two parts.

St. Paul on the Isthmus

Last week I had the chance to visit Grand Forks, North Dakota, and give a talk on the subject of “Setting the Stage for St. Paul’s Corinth: How an Isthmus Determined the Character of a Roman City.”  It was great to visit Grand Forks and the University of North Dakota especially as the weather was so pleasant.  Thanks to Bill Caraher, the Department of History, and the 2010 Cyprus Research Fund for sponsoring my visit.  The crowd that came out asked a round of great questions about the environment, religion in Corinth, and the nature of ancient evidence.  The full talk was recorded as a podcast that is available here.

Here’s a brief synopsis of the talk:

Why was Corinth so commonly associated in antiquity with travel and trade?  How should we understand that widely-circulating proverb “it is not for every man to sail to Corinth”?  In the talk, I discussed how ancient writers pinned Corinth’s history, power, character, uniqueness on its proximity to an isthmus: in ancient conception, the land bridge determined the character of the city.  I then asked the question of how exactly Greek and Roman writers understood the land bridge influencing the city’s development and character.  The ancients did not conceive of the isthmus as a commercial thoroughfare for ships and cargoes, or think that portaging via a diolkos road made the city wealthy, but they did consistently represent it as a marketplace for the exchange of goods.  The final part of the talk examined whether archaeological evidence supported the ancient view of the Corinthia as a region with greater commercial connectivity than other places. Examining the evidence from the Eastern Korinthia Survey, I suggested that the region was in fact more oriented to commerce over the broad Roman era than many other territories.  My conclusions pretty much as I gave them in Grand Forks:

First, when thinking about a city like Corinth, and St. Paul’s community there, it is important to not dwell in the urban center alone.  If territory was always important for ancient cities, it was especially significant for Corinth.  Ancient authors consistently discuss Corinth in terms of the concentrated economic exchanges across the landscape and especially in the ports and the biannual fair at Isthmia.  Kenchreai, Lechaion, and Isthmia were important bustling places in the landscape and integral to the regional economy.  It is surely not mere coincidence that we hear of Kenchreai developing its own separate church community with a famous deaconess named Phoebe.

Second,  archaeology has demonstrated how important is  a regional framework for understanding Roman Corinth’s economy.  The urban center, the sanctuary at Isthmia, the lands, the scattered villas and farms across the Isthmus created an integrated economy of production and exchange that constantly interlinked the city center, suburbs, and seascape together.  Archaeological investigations in town and country have shown that the Corinthia was more connected to markets than many other regions of the eastern Mediterranean.  This ‘connectivity’ and orientation to markets  provides the backdrop to understanding both the literary anecdotes about Corinth and Paul’s community in crisis.

Third, the Corinthia was a place to which people voyaged, not simply a region that people passed through.  People visited the Isthmus for a variety of reasons, not least of which was to conduct trade and business.  This may well have been a motivation for St. Paul himself who knew that here on the Isthmus he would meet bustling crowds associated with the market places, the tourist sites, and the Isthmian games.