I just returned from Austin where I participated in the “Corinth in Contrast” conference. As I detailed in earlier posts, the conference was dedicated to exploring the theme of inequality in the Corinthia in the Hellenistic and Roman eras. It was, in this sense, a bit more focused than the two earlier conferences organized by Friesen, Schowalter, and Walters: “Urban Religion in Roman Corinth” and “Corinth in Context.” Both of those earlier conferences resulted in two books Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches (2004) and Corinth in Context: Comparative Studies on Religion and Society(2010), each containing articles that were broad and synthetic in content, especially those chapters exploring archaeological evidence. For example, while Corinth in Context contains some focused problem-specific studies on Erastus (Friesen) and dining and domestic space in 1 Corinthians (Walters, Schowalter), among others, there are numerous synthetic chapters on topics like “Asklepios in Greek and Roman Corinth” (B. Wickkiser), “The Coinage of Roman Corinth” (Walbank), “Religion and Society at Roman Kenchreai” (Rife), “The Christian Community in Corinth in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Eras” (Walbank), and “Religion and society in the Roman Eastern Corinthia” (Gregory). Both of those volumes, then, will form very useful starting places for anyone interested in New Testament Corinth and recent assessments of religion and society in the Hellenistic and Roman eras.
Like the last two conferences, Corinth in Contrast brought together scholars of varied backgrounds familiar with different kinds of evidence and models: the New Testament, religious studies, early Christianity, Classics, field archaeology, art history, and ancient history. One major difference this time around: a Corinthian archaeologist, Dr. Sarah James, played a role as co-organizer. The papers focused around the theme of wealth and inequality and each paper more or less addressed the themes as part of broader discussions of problems related to the ancient economy, agriculture and trade, the nature of leadership and patronage, gender inequities, elite expressions, banqueting, magic, and monumental architecture, among others.
The presenters and paper respondents gave us a sense of the nature of inequality in a region like ancient Corinth and how differently it looked from the inequities of our own modern world. As L. Michael White noted, inequality in antiquity was not simply a matter of net worth, but centered around issues of personal connectedness and relationships, land ownership, and one’s relative isolation from supporting social networks. The different presentations showed how inequality in Hellenistic and Roman Corinth originated in different ways (agriculture, trade, social connection) and was articulated in the local urban and rural landscape: in the program that an elite villa owner adopted to paint the wall of a house; in the boundaries that the newly-wealthy freedmen class reinscribed around their new political powers; in the inequities of gender and status that were constant in public discourses, private households, and banqueting; and in the local “resistances” by day laborers to imperial theological messages.
And yet, the framework of inequality is, as Steve Friesen noted in his opening remarks, so compelling because of its importance for understanding the layers of our own society. Is it not fundamental to understand the nature of wealth and poverty, and social and economic inequities in ancient society? As an intellectual framework, it provides a means to understand the ancient world, ancient Corinth, the Pauline community, more concretely. And as a modern framework, it provides for educators a means of helping students (and ourselves) think about the social conditions of our world and the “abnormal” nature of inequality.
I hope to write more about some of the individual papers in the rest of this week. All of them were interesting, some controversial, some “blockbusters.” Check out the blog of Bill Caraher of the University of North Dakota, who was also in attendance at the conference and has already shared his thoughts.