Scholarly Novel About Ancient Corinth Shows How Christians Can Live in a Hostile Pagan Society
Ben Witherington III is a serious scholar. He’s probably best known in academic circles for his development of a new Biblical interpretive approach known as socio-rhetorical commentary. The idea is that, although the Bible’s style feels odd to modern readers who are used to modern literature, such as long-form novels, historical biographies, memoirs, self-improvement books, etc., the styles used in various New Testament books were quite familiar to experienced ancient readers. There were already well-established formats for certain types of biographies or for letters of persuasion and advice. Witherington has done more than anyone else to put the New Testament writings not only into their historical context (as, for example, N.T. Wright does) but also into their specific rhetorical context. When we start to read a book, say a Harry Potter book (have I just lost half of my evangelical readers?), we pretty quickly recognize the genre: Young Adult Fiction. When we read Game of Thrones (okay, now I’ve lost the rest) we see the genre called Fantasy, but with certain variations — more gritty and bleak. The authors know that we know the conventions of the genre and they follow those conventions, but they can also play off of those expectations. But when we read the Bible, we don’t have the right categories in mind, so we don’t really have as full an understanding as we could. To solve the problem, we could all read Asiatic rhetoric or Cicero’s letters or Plutarch’s Lives and immerse ourselves in the accepted styles of writing of each time period and place – if we didn’t have day jobs. Or we could read Witherington, because helping us to understand the rhetorical style of each of these books is his day job.
Perhaps it’s Witherington’s awareness of genres which has led him to create a new one, which I call Scholarly Historical Novella, but don’t let the word ‘scholarly’ frighten you. It’s the author who is expected to be a scholar, not the reader; these books are accessible. I’d say a bright high school student could handle them quite readily. But any alert high schooler will pretty quickly smell that there is some schooling going on. This is not indulgently fun beach reading: there are sidebars with Wikipedia-like intros to various elements of the story like geography, historical context, even some economics (which I guess makes it indulgently fun beach reading for me). The narratives are passable as stories with enough drive to keep you going. I’d say that if this genre is to rise to its full potential, there’s room to grow in the literary quality department.
Witherington’s first installment in the series was A Week in the Life of Ancient Corinth. It focused on the community to which St. Paul wrote two letters, and on a particularly important week—the week in which the apostle was put on trial—which sets in motion a chain of events which leads him to Rome and to execution, and yet also to triumph as his religious message takes hold in the capital city of the ancient Western world. Witherington puts such trials into context, explaining the nature of the accusation and how being put on trial is something which Paul actually turns to his tactical advantage.
Witherington chose Corinth precisely because it was an area of specialty knowledge for him; he wrote this novella after a time of scholarly immersion in the archaeology of Corinth.
The main point was to show us what it looked like for followers of Jesus to live in an environment in which the dominant culture oscillated between bewilderment and hostility towards them. This means that it is a book which is both historical and contemporary. Corinthian Christians lived in an environment in which elites held great wealth, largely due to international financial connections, while ordinary people barely got through the day. They lived in a society in which the cultural forms were drenched in highly sexualized pagan public displays, and they were suspicious towards Jews and Christians who chose not to participate. They lived in times in which the idea of religious liberty was in flux and there was increasing pressure on these religious dissenters to abandon their consciences in favor of full participation in the fluid sexual mores of their culture. In other words, this is a book about them and about us.
I sat down across a Skype line with Dr. Witherington recently and we discussed both his book about Corinth and his newly published book, A Week in the Fall of Jerusalem (which will be the subject of a future column). You can listen to our wide-ranging discussion here. The audio has been edited for clarity.
Originally published on Forbes.
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