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July 2, 2012

Breathing life into the dry bones of ancient Corinth: Witherington’s Week in the Life

by quaesitor
Ancient Corinth Temple of Apollo

It seems that everyone’s joined in the cross-over craze. Rock stars are writing ballets and operas, chick-lit writers are getting elected to Parliament, and now a NT scholar has turned novelist. The point about Witherington’s very enjoyable new book, A Week In The Life Of Corinth, though, is it that it is entirely in keeping with his primary profession of opening modern eyes to an ancient and alien past. This explains the narrative’s regular interruption by text boxes providing historical background (covering topics such as slavery, the client/patron relationship, gladiators, the Roman legal system and a potted history of Roman as opposed to Greek Corinth).

For by simply indulging in some scholarly imagination, he has brought to life a world that often seems hard to conceive of. The book is precisely what it’s title suggests – but the week in question is an intriguing one: the week in which the apostle Paul was hauled up in front of the Roman governor of Achaea, Gallio (Acts 18:12-18). This episode helps the reader better to appreciate Paul’s challenges:

The life of a Jewish evangelist like Paulos was precarious, especially when his own people largely rejected his message. In many ways he realized he was a man without an earthly country. Unwelcome in Judaea, and beaten, jailed or cast out of one town after another, the fact that he had been able to stay in Corinth for over a year without real trouble was something of a record respite. In part this was because he had converted enough high-status citizens that they had his back when necessary. (p96)

Now Witherington should not necessarily succumb to the temptation to give up his day job and write fiction full-time! This isn’t great literature – but that is hardly the point. As a didactic tool it succeeds brilliantly – and the book’s inspired conceit is to write a narrative through the eyes of a pagan freedman, Nicanor, a former slave and now trusted employee of recently converted (and friend of Paul’s) Erastus. This enables Witherington to draw on a number of the themes of Paul’s subsequent Corinthian letters – in particular the absurdity of a crucified saviour to the Greek mind (1 Cor 1:18-25) and how off-putting chaotic and ecstatic worship can be to outsiders (1 Cor 12-14).

Furthermore making Erastus one of the book’s key characters, however, the speculations are rooted in real events. As Witherington comments in an appendix:

There are two famous inscriptions from Roman Corinth that mention Erastos. Both are in Latin. One, which probably comes from the late Claudian or early Nero period, reads: “Erastos for the office of aedile laid this pavement at his own expense.” [see right – click image for link to fascinating Bible & Archaeology website] It is found in front of the large theatre at Corinth, still in situ where it was discovered. The second inscription reads ‘The Vitelli, Frontius, and Erastus, dedicate this…”

Here we likely have one of those rare synchronisms between artifacts and inscriptions on the one hand, and the New Testament on the other. In my judgment, it is hardly likely that there were two Erasti who were aediles in the 50s in Corinth when Paul was there and just afterward. No, the two inscriptions refer to one and the same Erastos. And in Romans 16:23, writing from Corinth, Paul sends the greetings of Erastos, the oikonomenos tēs poleōs, Greek for ‘aedile of the city’. All of this raises the interesting question of how a high-status Christian like Erastos managed to function, including helping maintaining pagan temples, all the while keeping his new faith. In short, the story in this book, while fiction, is based in the historical realities of the Corinthian Christian community that Paul founded. (p156)

Some will quibble with some of the author’s extrapolations towards the end of the book about what actually went on during Corinthian worship. It is always tricky to read between Paul’s lines (and anyway, the excesses described in the letters presumably took place some time after Paul left). But he makes a good stab at it.

And despite my aspersions about his writing style, I did find the end of the story curiously moving and satisfying. Just as one of the book’s commenders noted, this book really does breathe life and flesh into the dry bones of ancient history. As a companion to (though of course never replacement for) Paul’s letters, this is a brilliant and exciting read.

Click on the photo below for a few happy snaps from a visit to ancient Corinth last year…

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