Reading 1 Corinthians with Philosophically Educated Women (Barnes)

The last issue of the Review of Biblical Literature includes a critical review of Nathan Barnes’ book, Reading 1 Corinthians with Philosophically Educated Women, Eugene, OR, 2014: Wipf and Stock Publishers. The book, which revises Barnes’ PhD dissertation on the subject (2012), explores how philosophically educated women in the young Corinthian church would have interacted with concepts such as family, marriage, and patronage. As the publisher page describes the work:

“Women were involved in every popular philosophy in the first century, and the participation of women reaches back to the Greek origins of these schools. Philosophers often taught their daughters, wives, and other friends the basic tenets of their thinking. The Isthmian games and a tolerance for independent thinking made Corinth an attractive place for philosophers to engage in dialogue and debate, further facilitating the philosophical education of women. The activity of philosophically educated women directly informs our understanding of 1 Corinthians when Paul uses concepts that also appear in popular moral philosophy. This book explores how philosophically educated women would interact with three such concepts: marriage and family, patronage, and self-sufficiency.”

With the reviewer, I am skeptical that there were many elite educated women among the first Christian communities in Corinth. Recent scholarship has significantly undermined the older view that elite and well-born individuals factored significantly in the Corinthian ekklesia by calling attention to the poor and their worlds defined by tremendous contrast and inequalities. So, Timothy Brookins concludes in his review of Barnes’ work, “Given that there probably were no “elites” in the Corinthian church, that many elites were not philosophically educated, and that the phenomenon of philosophically educated women was very rare as it was (Barnes’s catalog notwithstanding), it seems difficult to sustain the case, given the evidence provided, that Paul’s church really contained any elite, philosophically educated women.”  The debate over rich and poor in early Christian communities is not over, of course, but one must acknowledge that the scholarly pendulum has swung back to the poor.

Still, as Brookin notes in his reviewReading 1 Corinthians with Philosophically Educated Women offers valuable insights into how individuals in these developing communities may have heard Paul’s message and instructions.  A couple of excerpts from the review:

In this book Nathan Barnes asks how Paul’s interaction with the ideas of popular contemporary Hellenistic moral philosophy might have been heard by wealthy, “philosophically educated women” within the church at Corinth. We follow the text of 1 Corinthians through the lenses of two, (re)constructed, philosophically educated women—Sophia, a sympathetic listener; and Fortuna, an unsympathetic one—examining how each of these women might have responded to Paul’s discussions of patronage (esp. 1 Cor 1–4), marriage and family (esp. 1 Cor 7), and self-sufficiency (esp. 1 Cor 9)….

Despite these criticisms, the book makes a valuable and much needed contribution to the field. It reminds us of the critical importance of understanding the value systems of the first century to interpretation of the New Testament and, through its unique approach, constrains us to listen to Paul’s interaction with those systems through the ears of “real” (i.e., hypothetically reconstructed) Corinthian church members. Barnes’s choice to follow two listeners separately rather than reading through a homogeneous audience-collectivity helps illustrate the point that not everyone in the ancient world thought in the same way (which those of us who “model” the ancient world can easily forget). At many points the exercise helps raise our awareness to issues that we do not always bear in mind (e.g., To what extent were Paul’s letters constrained by the responses he anticipated from the church’s wealthier patrons?). Attention to more “marginal” members of the ancient community, especially those who have been left to the sidelines in modern scholarship, represents a welcome contribution as well. In that regard, one hopes that this book represents one of many more studies to come.”

Read the rest of the review here.

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Categories: Periods, Roman, Philosophy, Religion, 1 Corinthians, Religion, St. Paul

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