Monday, August 21, 2017


James R. Harrison, L. L. Welborn (ed.), The First Urban Churches 2: Roman Corinth. Writings from the Greco-Roman world Supplement series, 8. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2016. Pp. xvi, 353. ISBN 9780884141112. $51.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Laura S. Nasrallah, Harvard University: The Divinity School (

Version at BMCR home site

Publisher's Preview

Let me first offer disclosures: I was doctoral advisor to one of the contributors, and I now serve on the publication board of the Society of Biblical Literature, although I was not at the time of the submission and publication of this volume.

This co-edited volume investigates Roman Corinth and the relevance of its social, political, and economic context to the study of the apostle Paul's letters to the Corinthians. 1 and 2 Corinthians, written in the mid first century CE, are embedded within the New or Christian Testament and comprise more than two letters. 2 Corinthians, as we have it, is likely an edition of multiple letters, and 1 Corinthians is not in fact the beginning of Paul's correspondence with an ekklēsia in Christ at Corinth, since it mentions an earlier letter. 1 and 2 Corinthians are co-written by Paul, a Jew who professes Jesus as the Christ/Messiah. (3 Corinthians is an early Christian text that reads like a writing assignment to bored scribes to imitate a Pauline letter; Eddie Izzard's "St. Paul's Letter to the Corinthians" is something else altogether.) Within a broader field of contemporaneous Jewish missionaries, Paul seeks to convince various Gentiles in Corinth that his teachings regarding social life, ethics, and theology are the right ones to follow (with mixed success, as 2 Corinthians indicates). Paul's letters, written before the term "Christian" was coined, are part of the evidence we have for Jewish diversity in antiquity and the appeal of Jewish ethics and practice to "the nations" or Gentiles. The Acts of the Apostles is a later text, with its own ideological agenda and a portrait of Paul which conflicts in various ways with his self-depiction; this text is nonetheless often used for reconstruction of Paul's life or of the life of the earliest Christ-community in Corinth. (In the volume under review, some authors use Acts to provide historical data for Paul's life, and some don't.)

These Christian Testament materials, as well as other early Christian writings, are relevant to those interested in Roman history, although they have generally been underutilized. So too, scholars of the New or Christian Testament often miss the opportunity to use a range of Roman-period sources. Both fields have suffered from the Tupperware syndrome of sealing our texts away in separate containers, and/or of thinking that our heuristic categories of Christians, pagans, and Jews were largely separate in antiquity.

The volume under review seeks to bring together the study of the New Testament and Roman history, particularly including archaeological remains. Moreover, its title, The First Urban Churches 2, situates it in relation to two larger fields. First, an earlier volume by the same co-editors, The First Urban Churches 1, provides methodological foundations; each chapter presents a case study or experiment, working across archaeological remains and a New Testament text. 1 Second, The First Urban Churches 2: Roman Corinth emerges in the wake of Wayne Meeks's influential The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul and retrospectives on that volume.2 Meeks emphasized the complexity of Greco-Roman social and economic life within the poleis of antiquity as an important context in which to understand the letters of Paul. The academic genealogy of Meeks and others is nicely summarized in Pettegrew's contribution in the volume under review (see p. 154), even as he insists upon the importance of looking at the broader countryside. The First Urban Church 2: Roman Corinth also takes part in a larger Zeitgeist regarding Roman Corinth, New Testament Studies, and archaeology, found in the volumes edited by Steven J. Friesen, Daniel Schowalter, and others, which bring together archaeologists, epigraphers, and scholars of the New Testament.3

The theoretical framework of The First Urban Churches 2: Roman Corinth is historical or historical critical, and all the essays to greater and lesser extent use archaeological remains, primarily epigraphic, to expand our understanding of the social, economic, and political life of the ekklēsia at Corinth.

James R. Harrison's "Introduction: Excavating the Urban Life of Roman Corinth," surveys the development of the Roman colony of Corinth up to end of the first century CE. The essay articulates five methodological desiderata (although this reviewer didn't understand the enumeration), which match the volume's commitment to placing New Testament texts within a broader historical context, including archaeological remains. This concern is important, and could be enhanced in several ways. Harrison works to reconstruct the "Corinthian group" which Paul addresses; it is unclear how this essay's reconstruction fits within recent debates about scholarly terminology of group, community, or house church.4 The chapter, with its concerns about ekklēsia and polis, would have been enriched by Anna Miller's study of 1 Corinthians and the political valence of the term ekklēsia even in Greek cities under Roman rule, as well as scholarship regarding civic life under the Roman Empire.5

Larry Welborn's "Inequality in Roman Corinth: Evidence from Diverse Sources Evaluated by a Neo-Ricardian Model" continues his important work on poverty. He describes the current scholarly impasse regarding the economic (and social) status of those in the ekklēsia in Christ at Corinth: Was a scholar like Meeks correct, that the range of social and economic status of Roman Corinth was mirrored in the ekklēsia to which Paul wrote, or is Justin Meggitt right that the majority of the community was poor?6 Welborn introduces a Neo-Ricardian model that predicts that land-owning urban elites will enjoy an increase in wealth and rural tenants, while urban wage laborers experience a downward economic spiral into poverty, as an increase in a population leads to scarcity of land relative to labor (p. 61). The chapter uses the Corinthian correspondence for a prosopographical study—limited given the available data— and argues that a Neo-Ricardian model fits Roman Corinth. The essay includes a helpful survey of some wealthy Corinthians who were freedmen. Further integration between chapters in this volume would have allowed Welborn to consider how his economic model might be impacted by Pettegrew's and other's theories about the diolkos, the expansion of the isthmus road, and harbor-trade routes.

Cavan Concannon's "Negotiating Multiple Modes of Religion and Identity in Roman Corinth" focuses not on Paul's thought or a singular narrative regarding those who followed Christ at Corinth, but on "some Corinthians," and particularly on the "im/migrant" identity of those whom Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians. Bilingualism, evidence of gods from Egypt and around the Mediterranean, "itinerant" myths central to Corinth but also well-known elsewhere: all these form the grounds for Concannon's argument that 1 Corinthians offers "some Corinthians new ideas about how to reconcile the problems occasioned by distance from home" (p. 101). Concannon also discusses the diverse conceptualities of ancestors that might inform practices of baptism of the dead in the Corinthian ekklēsia.

Kathy Ehrensperger's "Between Polis, Oikos, and Ekklesia: The Challenge of Negotiating the Spirit World (1 Cor 12:1-11)" is a close exegetical study. She explicates ancient ideas of spirits and daimones that inhabit not just the domestic sphere but also the civic, using this to contextualize Paul's argument that a diversity of daimones is not necessary: that all comes from the one God. This essay could have been further enriched by engagement with Caroline Johnson Hodge's work on mixed marriages7 and Plutarch's discussions of Apollo, divine presence, and daimones at the oracle of Delphi in De defectu oraculorum.

Michael Peppard's "Brother against Brother: Controversiae about Inheritance Disputes and 1 Corinthians 6:1-11" interprets the puzzling question: "Don't you know that wrongdoers will not inherit God's kingdom?" (Peppard's translation), reading it in light of depictions of legal controversiae in antiquity, particularly inheritance disputes between brothers. Peppard interestingly suggests that addressees of 1 Corinthians, frequently addressed as adelphoi, are enjoined to keep their arguments within the "family," and that the spirit/genius available to this new ecclesial family allowed Paul or another sophos to be able to judge the controversy. This reviewer would be eager to hear Peppard address how the enslaved or poor—and we know both are part of the community at Corinth—might receive and interpret such a passage in the context of their relation to the law in Roman Corinth.

David Pettegrew's "The Changing Rural Horizons of Corinth's First Urban Christians" explains how scholars of the Corinthian correspondence have relied on outmoded data regarding the diolkos, a paved roadway from north to south across the isthmus. Pettegrew details the current state of archaeological evidence and interpretation of this roadway, which do not indicate a system of portaging ships' cargo in the Roman period. This excellent chapter suggests a more important avenue for the study of early Christianity: the work under Nero of digging a canal across the Isthmus involved significant manpower, engineering coordination, and disrupted travel routes. The essay concludes with implications for the study of Paul at Corinth —at a crucial moment between its identity as a small colonial city and a bustling provincial capital.

Bradley J. Bitner's "Mixed-Language Inscribing at Roman Corinth" is a clear, technical discussion of epigraphic evidence. He rightly argues that scholars should attend more to the study of "mixed-language inscriptions and other inscribed instances of language contact at Roman Corinth" (p. 212). No clear connection to Paul's letters is made, but the chapter's methodology helps the non-specialist to think about the differences between bilingualism, code-switching, and other modes of multiple language use.

Fredrick J. Long's "'The God of This Age' (2 Cor 4:4) and Paul's Empire-Resisting Gospel at Corinth" argues that Paul's phrase "the god of this age" refers to the emperor(s), not a Satanic figure. The first portion of this chapter discusses imperial cult in Corinth around the time of Paul; the second treats passages in 2 Corinthians that the writer sees as evidence of a sophisticated argument against the emperors (see e.g. the chart on p. 256). The chapter begins with archaeological evidence local to Corinth, and it would have been strengthened by keeping this at the center of the essay: there is, for example, no discussion of how imperial veneration at Corinth compared to a city like Ephesos. The chapter's strong, close analysis of 2 Corinthians would benefit from engagement with Timothy Luckritz Marquis's work on Paul's language of triumphal procession and Shelly Matthews's study of language of mercy in early Christian texts in the context of Roman imperial rhetoric of clementia.8

James R. Harrison's "Paul and the Agonothetai at Corinth: Engaging the Civic Values of Antiquity" uses epigraphic evidence of agōnothetai to argue that while Paul does not upend the "Greco-Roman honor system," he does parody the cursus honorum in his fool's speech in 2 Corinthians 11-12. The essay provides a useful and interesting discussion of the Isthmian games as a site for athletics and oratorical prowess. The chapter could also have addressed performances of masculinity in oration, as well as Joseph Hellerman's argument about a Christian "cursus pudorum" in the Letter to the Philippians.9

The book bears the usual hallmark of an edited volume: unevenness. Depending on the chapter, contributions could have considered 2 Corinthians in more depth, knowledge of ongoing archaeological work is spotty, arguments regarding Paul's anti-imperial attitude are asserted rather than argued, significant scholarship on evolutions in the "epigraphic habit" is missing. Original languages for the inscriptions are unevenly provided. Small typographical errors, while not tragic, do exist (e.g., Sherry Cox for Sherry Fox, and the dreaded automatic spell checker disaster: "negotiators" for negotiatores). In addition, the overwhelmingly historical critical framework for the volume constrains the creativity and potential impact of these essays. For example, feminist scholarship is largely ignored (although Concannon's contribution is undergirded by feminist scholarship), and Harrison's admirable reference to postcolonial criticism in the introduction does not fully engage Bhabha's ideas of hybridity for understanding ethnicity in Roman Corinth. Some essays seem to grapple sub rosa with theology; better to discuss these openly and with an eye to constructive theological and historiographical purposes. I note that out of the eight contributors to this volume, only one was a woman, and I am not sure that any would identify as a racial or other minority.

In sum, this book adds depth and detail to the study of the Corinthian correspondence. It is particularly helpful for specialists in the Corinthian correspondence who wish to consider how to use archaeological remains and a broader historical context in their analysis of these letters.


1.   James R. Harrison and L. L. Welborn, eds., The First Urban Churches: Methodological Considerations. Writings from the Greco-Roman world supplement 7 (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2015). 
2.   Wayne Meeks, First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).
3.   Daniel N. Schowalter and Steven J. Friesen, eds., Urban Religion and Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches, Harvard Theological Studies (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2005); Steven J. Friesen, Daniel N. Schowalter, and James C. Walters, eds., Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society (Leiden: Brill, 2010), and Steven J. Friesen, Sarah A. James, and Daniel N. Schowalter, eds., Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality (Boston: Brill, 2014; full disclosure: I have an essay in this volume).
4.   E.g., Stanley Stowers, "The Concept of 'Community' and the History of Early Christianity," Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, vol. 23(3-4) (2011): 238-256; John Kloppenborg, "Membership Practices in Pauline Christ Groups," Early Christianity, vol. 4(2) (2013): 183-215; Jorunn Økland, Women in Their Place: Paul and the Corinthian Discourse of Gender and Sanctuary Space (New York: T & T Clark, 2004).
5.   Anna Miller, Corinthian Democracy: Democratic Discourse in 1 Corinthians (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications, 2015). See also Onno M. van Nijf and Richard Alston, eds., Political Culture in the Greek City after the Classical Age (Leuven: Peeters, 2011); Arjan Zuiderhoek, The Ancient City (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017); and Cédric Brélaz's work, e.g., "Entre Philippe II, Auguste et Paul : la commémoration des origines dans la colonie romaine de Philippes," in Une mémoire en Actes: espaces, figures et discours dans le monde Romain, ed. Stephanie Benoist, Anne Daguet-Gagey, and Christine Hoet-van Cauwenberghe (Villeneuve-d'Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2016).
6.   Justin Meggitt, Paul, Poverty, and Survival (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998).
7.   Caroline Johnson Hodge, "'Mixed Marriage' in Early Christianity: Trajectories from Corinth," in Corinth in Contrast.
8.   Timothy Luckritz Marquis, Transient Apostle: Paul, Travel, and the Rhetoric of Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013); Shelly Matthews, "Clemency and Cruelty: Forgiveness and Force in the Dying Prayers of Jesus and Stephen," Biblical Interpretation 17 (2009): 118-146. Reprinted in Ra'anan Boustan, Alex Jassen and Calvin Roetzel, eds., Violence, Scripture, and Textual Practice in Early Judaism and Christianity. (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2010), 117-144. Also see her Perfect Martyr: The Stoning of Stephen and the Construction of Christian Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
9.   Joseph Hellermann, Reconstructing Honor in Roman Philippi: Carmen Christi as Cursus Pudorum (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).

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