Report of the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins

Stephen J. Patterson, Chair

From The Fourth R
Volume 24-4
July-August 2011

When the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins gathered in Salem, Oregon on April 1–2, there were two things on the agenda. The first was to get a bearing on the next location for our continuing exploration of Christian origins, Roman Corinth, the site of a major Pauline community and the recipient of several extant letters from the Apostle Paul. The second was to sit down for an extended conversation with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, whose work on Christian origins has transformed the way we think about this same Apostle Paul, as well as many other facets of the long story of how Christianity began.

Archaeology and Roman Corinth

Friday was devoted to Roman Corinth. We began with an illustrated lecture from Betsey Robinson of the Department of Classics at Vanderbilt University, an expert on Corinth in the period of Christian origins. Robinson’s finely tuned architectural eye helped us to understand the extent to which Corinth in Paul’s day was a veritable display of Roman imperial presence and power. Corinth was of enormous strategic importance to anyone who wanted to control trade and transportation along the northern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Located on the narrow isthmus connecting the Greek mainland to the Peloponnesus, it was a point of transfer for east-west sea trade as well as north-south land routes. The Acrocorinth, a towering peak rising up several hundred feet behind the ancient city, offered a defensive position from which one could survey both land and sea for miles around. And in Corinth itself, springs gushed forth the most important commodity of all in that relatively arid landscape: water. These may not have been the reasons Paul came to Corinth, but they were the reasons Rome made Corinth its provincial capital. When Paul arrived there in the 40s of the Common Era, it was already one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire.

Roman Corinth has been excavated since the nineteenth century, but how much have we learned that will guide us in our understanding of the nascent Christian groups that took root there? Not as much as we think, it turns out. One of the most famous discoveries at Corinth is a paving stone into which is carved the name “Erastus,” who, so it indicates, paid for that ancient paving project in return for having been chosen “aedile,” a high office open only to the wealthiest first citizens of the city. It just so happens that Paul, in his letter to the Romans (16:23), mentions a certain Erastus from his own circle, who was the city oikonomos (often translated “city treasurer”). Could this be the same person? Steve Friesen (“The Wrong Erastus: Ideology, Archaeology, and Exegesis”) warned us not to assume so. In fact, the story of the Erastus inscription turns out to be something of a cautionary tale. Careful archaeological analysis shows that the paving stone into which the inscription was carved was quarried no earlier than the second century; therefore, its inscription could not refer to our New Testament Erastus, who would have lived a century earlier. But scholars eager to find New Testament references cast in stone, and archaeologists equally eager for pilgrims (and the tourist dollars they bring with them), have been less than discerning with this evidence. And so, virtually every commentary on Paul’s letter to the Romans mentions this inscription and its famous aedile.

The results of this mistaken identity have not been minor. For example, scholars wishing to show that Paul’s missionary efforts were not aimed primarily at the poor (or “nothings” of this world, as Paul himself calls them in 1 Corinthians 1:28), but also at the very wealthy, routinely point to the figure of Erastus as a case in point. He is actually the only clear case in point, that is, if he really was an aedile. But he wasn’t. The Erastus Paul mentions in Roman 16:23 was a city oikonomos, a low- level function often assigned to slaves, not a wealthy aedile. For Friesen, this is just the kind of gaffe that can result when exegetes and archaeologists reinforce one another’s bad habits.

Dan Schowalter (“Seeking Shelter
in Roman Corinth: Archaeology and the
Placement of Paul’s Communities”) had a
similar message of caution. His contribution had to do with the question of where, or in what kind of space, we might imagine nascent Christians to have gathered in Corinth. In the 1960s the once magnificent Anaploga Villa had just been excavated, so all attention was focused
there as a representative example of typical
domestic space in Corinth. This would have
been the setting for early Christian gatherings. In the 1980s another kind of domestic
space was imagined in the area east of the
ancient theatre in Corinth. There one finds
a series of small shops that scholars once 
thought would have constituted the first
floor of small multi-storied structures with
cramped apartments rising above the shops
below. This, argued others, would have
been a more likely domestic space within
which to imagine the gatherings of nascent
Christian groups. The problem with both
suggestions, however, is that neither rests
on a complete archaeological record. It turns out that the theater district shops had no upper floors after all. As for the Anaploga Villa, the results of its excavation were never fully published and the remains of the villa now reside a few feet below a modern olive grove. We don’t know how typical it was, or even how its rooms might have been used.

Material culture, it turns out, is a powerful lure for those of us who deal primarily in texts. Texts require interpretation. Material culture seems to hold out the possibility of concrete, hard data. But this is an illusion. Material re- mains are also a subject matter requiring much interpretation. They make our work more complete and interesting, but they do not solve all our problems.

One of the ways archaeology makes our work more complete is by the addition of non-literary evidence. The ancient world was largely an illiterate world. Texts, there- fore, offer a fairly narrow slice of the culture by which to study the ancient world, and a very elite one at that. Material culture can broaden that narrow vision by adding to it things that virtually everyone could see, think about, use, etc. Sometimes when material remains are brought into the picture we see just how distorted the textual view can be. Christine Thomas’ paper (“Greek Heritage in Roman Corinth and Ephesos: Hybrid Identities and the Strategies of Display in the Material Record of Traditional Mediterranean Religions”) offered an illustration of great importance to a deeper understanding of Corinth. From the extant literature from this period, one might easily conclude that the identity of Roman Corinth was distinctly Greek. But analysis in the early Augustan period, all of its old temples were rebuilt in more or less the same sacred locations on which they had stood a century before. But architecturally, the new structures were all Roman in both style and function. When Paul came to Corinth, it was no longer the ancient Greek city renowned for its prostitutes and wild living, but a thoroughly Romanized provincial capital whose physical aspect embodied power, order, and control.

James Walters’ paper (“Paul and the Politics of Meals in Roman Corinth”) also offers an excellent example of how material culture can make our discussion of texts more interesting and complete. In 1 Corinthians 11 Paul takes issue with the Corinthian leaders for the way in which they are conducting the common meals that these nascent Christian groups were accustomed to holding. From the text of Paul’s letter, we gain access to some important aspects of the problem, especially that their practices had begun to create distinctions between the haves and the have-nots, so that those who have nothing come to the meal and are once again humiliated. Walters, however, shows that there is more. The focus of his paper was the Roman law that governed newly established colonies like Corinth, as revealed by a set of surviving bronze tablets from a similar and contemporary colony in Spain. Part of the law governs the staging of banquets: in a year in which one is to stand for election to high office, one is prohibited from throwing large banquets, as this would be considered a form of bribery. This may at first appear absurd. But the simple facts of ancient life—as pertains to food—make this far from the case. The vast majority of ancient folk lived at subsistence level, earning just enough to feed themselves and perhaps a small family on rations of meal and water laced with wine. With simple fare, and in spare quantities, one may easily imagine the effect a well- provisioned banquet might have. Walters argues, therefore, that part of Paul’s problem in Corinth was that the banquets themselves were a sign that local leaders were about the business of building up a following, and perhaps challenging Paul as the original patron of the group. If “money talks” today, in Antiquity food did most of the talking.

As we move forward in our study of nascent Christianity in Corinth, studies like these will help us mark the way. All of the papers offered in these sessions are published in Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society (Brill, 2010), edited by Friesen Schowalter, and Walters. It is hoped that this initial collaboration between the Jesus Seminar on Christian Origins and this group of scholars will continue.

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