A Week in the Life of Corinth

Book Cover

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I love good historical fiction. Some of my favorite books are from this genre — Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, The Flames of Rome by Paul Maier, and Quo Vadis by Henrik Sienkowicz, to name just a few. So, I was thrilled to discover that Ben Witherington III had written a work of historical fiction about Paul’s life in Corinth.

Witherington is eminently qualified for such an undertaking.  He is professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary and has written more than forty books on the socio-cultural background of the New Testament.  He knows the first century world intimately and is an imaginative and talented writer. He is exactly the kind of person to engage such an undertaking.

The storyline of A Week in the Life of Corinth is derived from the biblical account found in Acts 18:1-17.  It is a charming story that is faithful to the details of the biblical record.  It is imaginative and creative without resorting to unnecessary speculation.

The book was not what I was expecting, but that is not to say that it is not a good book.  I would recommend the book without hesitation.  I was expecting the book to be more story driven.  However, the story seemed to be used more as a pedagogical tool for those who are seeking to better understand the Roman provincial system, more especially first century Corinth and the spread of the gospel within its community.  Louis L’Amour once said that “Historical novels are, without question, the best way of teaching history, for they offer the human stories behind the events and leave the reader with a desire to know more.”  A Week in the Life of Corinth does just that and readers will find it to be both profitable and enjoyable.

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Here are a few quotes from the book taken mainly from the “A Closer Look” sections interspersed throughout the story.

… the Romans even had a religious ceremony called the depositio barbae, in which a teenage boy had the fuzz removed from his face for the first time!

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In the Syriac text of the second-century apocryphal document called the Acts of Paul and Thecla, Paul is described as follows: “He was a man of middling size, and his hair was scanty, and his legs were a little crooked, and his knees were projecting, and he had large eyes and his eyebrows met, and his nose was somewhat long, and he was full of grace and mercy; at one time he seemed like a man, and at another time he seemed like an angel.”

We have no way of being certain about the accuracy of this physical description, and in any case, the function of such descriptions was to reveal something about the character of the man (hence the reference to “he seemed like an angel”) more than the appearance of the man. In ancient iconography a high forehead would be a sign of wisdom more than just intelligence, and since eyes were seen as the windows of the soul in antiquity, large eyes suggested a large or deep soul to the ancients.

The physical description in the Acts of Paul and Thecla seems to also give us a stereotypical description of a Jewish man with a long nose and bushy eyebrows that met. Median height in Paul’s age, for a Jewish man, seems to mean somewhere between five foot five and five foot ten. Paul was certainly no Goliath, even by ancient standards. The crooked legs and protruding knees might be taken as the signs of a man long on the road, and aging rapidly. Whatever the actual appearance of Paul, this description is meant to convey the impression that Paul, by Jewish or Christian standards, was a saintly man, well traveled and wise.

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In the Greco-Roman world, social relationships worked differently than they do today in the West (and much more like they do in many non-Western cultures today). Reciprocity, or payback, was something that characterized relationships not only between patrons and their social inferiors, who were their clients, but even between social equals in business transactions. Most patron-client relationships were euphemistically called friendships (amicitia). And this is apparently one reason Paul largely avoids using such language in his letters. It would have signaled that Paul and his converts were in a patron-client relationship.

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So in Corinth Paul was diligent in avoiding “gifts” and patronage since they always came with strings attached. Because of the party spirit of the Corinthians, if Paul had accepted patronage there, he would have only exacerbated a spirit of rivalry. Patronage was not simply a matter of economic or social power and control. It was a matter of honor and shame, and even of spiritual or religious control. Paul had to tiptoe carefully through the minefields of this social network to make sure the gospel was not seen as a commodity to be bought, and its apostle was not seen as a gun for hire. In short, Paul avoided patronage forthe same reason he was reluctant to use his Roman citizenship to further the gospel. In both cases, doing so just further inscribed the entrenched social hierarchies. By contrast, Paul believed that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, neither patrician nor plebian, neither Jew nor Gentile, and no male and female as well. All are one in Christ.

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This episode in Paul’s life can be rather precisely dated, as Gallio was only in Corinth for a couple of years before his health caused him to withdraw. He seems to have arrived in Corinth no later than May of A.D. 51, and we know he was gone by A.D. 53. Therefore, this trial probably occurred about A.D. 52.

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The traditional Roman fasces consisted of a bundle of white birch rods, tied together with a red leather ribbon into a cylinder, and often including a bronze axe (or sometimes two) amongst the rods, with the blade(s) on the side, projecting from the bundle. They were carried by the lictors who accompanied the magistrates. The axe often represented the power over life or death through the death penalty, although after the laws of the twelve tables, no Roman magistrate could summarily execute a Roman citizen.

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…”salvation” in the pagan mind almost always referred to something happening in this world, in this life, of direct material benefit.

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There were three major types of ancient rhetoric. (1) There was the rhetoric of attack and defense, which focused on the past. This was forensic rhetoric, the rhetoric of lawyers and law courts. (2) There was the rhetoric of advice and consent, which focused on the future, deliberative rhetoric, the rhetoric of the ancient Greek ekklesia, or democratic assembly. It is likely no accident that Paul called his house churches ekklesiai, since they were places where deliberative persuasion and advice would be given. (3) Finally, there was epideictic rhetoric, the rhetoric of praising or blaming someone or something in the present. This was a frequent and popular form of rhetoric, which was heard in the agora or after dinner at a banquet and as an encomium at a funeral.