Wednesday, April 8, 2015


Cavan W. Concannon, "When You Were Gentiles": Specters of Ethnicity in Roman Corinth and Paul's Corinthian Correspondence. Synkrisis: comparative approaches to early Christianity in Greco-Roman culture. New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. xvii, 301. ISBN 9780300197938. $65.00.

Reviewed by Dominik Wolff, Lamstedt (

Version at BMCR home site


To speak with ghosts and make them audible again seems to be a job for either a necromancer or a historian. In his thesis, Cavan W. Concannon fills both roles by conjuring the specters of the Christ-believing community in Roman Corinth in order to reconstruct their ethnic identity — or rather identities. (The image of conjuring ghosts from the past is invented and used occasionally by the author himself.)

Concannon embraces a pluralistic view of society — past and present. Along with this pluralistic worldview comes his sympathy for the feminist biblical approach that tries to take into account not only the loud and dominant (and often male) voices in Scripture but even more so those voices one can discover by reading between the lines. This leads Concannon to weigh Paul's insights as equal to those of the members of the Corinthian Christic congregation, and thus to take their concerns as seriously as those of the apostle.1 Moreover, Concannon does not accept Paul's description of the Corinthians as objective, but regards it as rhetoric that the apostle uses for his own argumentative purposes. Since we only possess the Pauline half of the correspondence between the apostle and his Corinthian fellows, it is an ambitious task to shed some light onto that dark side of the moon.

The quest to view the Corinthians on par with Paul is reflected by the organization of the book. It falls into two parts, each containing three chapters. Each part begins with a chapter outlining the Pauline perspective on a certain issue, after which possible (and actual) Corinthian perspectives regarding that issue are presented. By this Concannon takes a different approach than many other scholarly pieces that deductively try to make a case for Paul by first exploring and defining a certain phenomenon in the ancient world and only then adjusting it to the apostle. By starting with Paul's conception of the issue, however, Concannon identifies a problem or issue relevant to the Corinthians and goes on to find a setting for it in their world and against their background. In that regard, the first part deals with the (re-)construction of Corinthian ethnic identities, whereas the topic of the second part is the Corinthians' handling of ethnic or local history as a means to receive an identifying past for their community. With his focus on ethnicity, Concannon tries to work against the traditional view on Christianity as the universal and non-ethnic religion of humankind, over against which Judaism appears in a negative way as an exclusive and rigid religion. Instead Concannon wants to show that Christianity stems from an ethnic viewpoint, too.

Concannon expertly interweaves archaeological and historical evidence with insights of biblical scholarship to undergird his arguments as well as to make the Corinthian ghosts and their world come to life again. To aid in this purpose, the book is enriched with ten photographs of ancient Corinthians ruins, taken by the author himself. These pictures are a welcome reminder that Corinth's inhabitants are not just products of a scholar's imagination, but were actual people who still leave their marks through their buildings. In order to stay with his focus on Corinth and its congregation, Concannon refuses to make use of other Pauline letters. Also, he rejects Luke's Acts as a primary source for his study due to its own theological and political preoccupations.

The first chapter offers a comparison of Paul and the second century CE rhetorician Favorinus. Favorinus represents a fitting comparison, as he is not only ambiguous in terms of 'his' gender identity (being a hermaphrodite), but also in terms of his ethnic identity, presenting himself in his speech to the Corinthians (as delivered in Dion Chrys. or. 37) as a Roman citizen who in fact is more Greek than his addressees. Concannon then uses 1Cor 9:19–27 to reveal that not only is Favorinus's ethnicity malleable but that Paul's is as well. He interprets this famous passage — about the apostle becoming as different to different people — as an example that "Paul […] presents himself as an ethnically polymorphous politician" (27) in order to connect to his ethnically various Corinthian addressees. Paul's self-presentation as an athlete in 9:24–27 is thus regarded as the apostle's training for ethnic flexibility.

Chapter 2 explores Corinth as a Roman city in a Greek environment. The city's inhabitants, as Roman colonists in Greek surroundings, negotiated their identities in special ways. Here, Concannon argues against the opinion of Roman colonies as mini-Romes and presents them as individual places with considerable fluidity and flexibility in adopting much of the surrounding Greek culture. The Corinthians to whom Paul wrote seem to have been equally flexible.

Chapter 3 takes Paul's Corinthians as its focus. (Concannon constantly calls them "'some' Corinthians", presumably to acknowledge that they do not represent the whole city.) Concannon defines them as being "Greek-speaking im/migrants" (77) who as migrants were naturally open to the message of a travelling teacher such as Paul. Within Paul's own distinction of humanity into Greeks and Jews ("Judeans"), the Christic Corinthians fall in between those two and form a new group of people called by God (79). Just as the inhabitants of Corinth negotiated their identities between different Romans and Greeks, this new group seems to have been flexible towards their surrounding culture, especially regarding pagan cultic meals. Although Paul claims ethnical malleability for himself in 1Cor 9:19–27, he does not intend this as an example for the congregation to follow. Rather the apostle urges them to become inoffensive to any ethnicity just as he already is as well as to regard himself as an authoritative figure (10:32–11:1). With rejecting that the Corinthians be as malleable as himself, Paul seems to have left the Corinthians behind with the impression that he was a duplicitous flatterer — an issue that recurs massively in 2Cor.

The second part of the book examines how the Corinthians negotiated their collective identity regarding history. In Chapter 4, Concannon attends to 1Cor 10:1–13 and 2Cor 3:7–18, and to Paul's handling of his people's past. By evoking of "our fathers" (1Cor 10:1) as examples, Paul creates a common history for his Corinthians, himself, and Israel in general. 2Cor 3:7–18 presents another take on ancestry, since here, Paul claims a certain discontinuity between the "sons of Israel" and Moses on the one hand, and Paul and the Corinthians on the other hand. Thus "the identity of the Corinthians remains fluid and 'in-between' in Paul's rhetoric […]: between Judean and Greek, Gentile and Israelite" (115).

Chapter 5 presents the fountains of Peirene and Glauke as architectural examples of Romans claming a Greek past and thus a means by which the inhabitants of Corinth could negotiate their own historic identity. Against these claims, Concannon sets the views of Pausanias, Favorinus, and the Argive Letter on Roman Corinth, all of which mark a difference between the city's Greek past and its Roman present. Again, Roman Corinth appears as a city in-between.

Chapter 6 takes a look at the Christic Corinthians and their dealings with the past. Concannon sees their roots as lying in between Greeks and Romans, since he denies (in spite of Acts 18) the existence of a larger Corinth-based Jewish community at the time of Paul. Nevertheless, Israel's history as presented by the apostle functions as an appealing offer to the historically flexible Corinthians, especially for im/migrants in a diaspora situation. Still, "we cannot assume that Paul's definitions were heard, understood, or accepted in Corinth" (165). That the congregation knew about many Christic missionaries is seemingly indicative of its social capacity. It is also a hint towards an intellectual and discriminating group, whose members constantly evaluate Paul. In that regard, the congregations' relationship with Paul in 2Cor (understood as a composition of various letter fragments) had deteriorated in comparison to 1Cor, pushing Paul not only to emphasize his authority once again, but also to neglect his bodily malleability and to stress his Jewish provenance over against the competing super-apostles, being Jews themselves (2Cor 11:22).

Concannon's book offers an interesting and lucid read. Still, like an apparition in the night, it leaves one behind in the morning with a yearning for more substance. Some of this is intentional, as Concannon careful resists definitive statements — or as he phrases it: "What exactly those whom I called 'some' Corinthians might have been still eludes me, though that is by intention" (170). Yet some of this haziness stems from his exegeses. For instance, Concannon, in his treatment of 1Cor 9:19–23, does not regard v.22 as a (or the) focal point of the whole argument in 1Cor 8–10 (a call to not alienate the "weak" siblings of the congregation). 2 Also, as Concannon admits, he does not know what ἔννομος Χριστοῦ in v.21 means, yet he refrains from a further discussion (229). Furthermore, the training image in 9:24–27 seems to me to be more about self-control (v.25!) than about ethnic malleability. In that regard, I am not sure, if Concannon can build his thesis that Paul's Corinthians are all (or at least partially) about ethnicity on a text like 1Cor 9. (Of course, the Corinthians might have understood Paul at that point differently than I do.) Also the phrase "our fathers" in 1Cor 10:1 should have deserved at least a short discussion about the question about whether the first-person plural may be understood not as inclusive towards the Corinthian congregation but rather about Paul and his Jewish siblings or co-workers or co-senders.

Even more disturbing seems to me, particularly as a non-native English speaker, Concannon's repeated use of the phrase "Paul's malleable body" to describe Paul's flexibility or suppleness regarding his contacts with people of different backgrounds. Maybe it is easier for an English-speaking author to use this kind of expression, since one can refer to someone as "some-body". And of course, Paul himself can refer to his body in an objectified manner (e.g. 1Cor 9:27). But would and, even more so, could he have spoken in such a manner with regards to the (proposed) malleability of his body? On the whole the expression remains unusual to me.

All in all, Concannon's book is a welcome and laudable effort to bring the ghost of Paul's Corinthians, if not back to life, to be heard again. Although, what they have to say lies not within the power of the conjurer, but within the spectres themselves.3


1.   By "Christic", I mean "belonging to Christ" or "believing in Christ". I avoid the term "Christian" in the context of Paul's letters, since Christianity as a fully-formed religion had not appeared on the scene by then.
2.   In 9:22, Paul says about himself that he has not become "as" (ὡς) other people but rather that he himself has in fact become a weak person. Other than in the previous sentences, the word "as" is missing — a strong point that Paul's argument here is not chiefly about ethnicity.
3.   As a German-speaker, I may be allowed a further little nitpicking: "Verschwörung" does not translate as conjurement or conjuration (173) but as conspiracy.

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