In the late spring of 2012, there was a buzz in the biblioblog world about a new book by Ben Witherington III called A Week in the Life of Corinth (InterVarsity Press Academic), a fictional work about a character named Nicanor who converts to Christianity after meeting the apostle Paul. Seminarians, pastors, preachers, interested Christians, and not a few professors of New Testament blogged the book—so frequently that by August I had declared AWLC the hit Corinthian book of the summer. One may not find many academic reviews of this work in the principal New Testament journals, but AWLC has perhaps reached a broader audience than the typical academic monograph on Corinthian churches, or even the excellent commentaries on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Compare, for example, the dozens of book reviews (now 55 at Amazon alone) with whatever your favorite book on Corinth happens to be.
ACLC is accessible in its length (ca 150 pages), price ($14), and genre (historical fiction), and unique within a Corinthian context for adopting historical fiction for educational purposes. So the book description highlights fiction (an imaginary week) to highlight the work’s pedagogical ends:
“Intrigue is in the air as Nicanor returns to Corinth and reports to his patron Erastos on recent business dealings in Rome. Nicanor, a former slave, is a man on the make. But surprises keep springing up in his path. A political rival of Erastos is laying a plot, and a new religion from the East keeps pressing in his life. Spend an imaginary week in Paul’sCorinth as the story of Nicanor winds through street and forum, marketplace and baths, taking us into shop, villa and apartment, where we meet friends new and old. From our observing a dinner in the temple of Aesclepius to Christian worship in the home of Erastos, Paul’s dealings with the Corinthians in his letters take focused relevance and social clarity. The result is an unforgettable introduction to life in a major center of the New Testament world. Throughout the text, helpful sidebars, maps and diagrams serve to further illuminate the sociocultural context of the early Christian world.”
And the publisher page makes clear that the scope of the book is intentionally educational:
- Uses historical fiction to introduce the social and cultural world of Corinth
- Includes close-up looks at important features of social and cultural life of Corinth
- Gives a sense of what early Christian life and worship was like
- Makes the social world of Paul’s Corinth come alive
- Supplements or replaces customary textbooks on Paul’s social and cultural world
- Written by an authority on Paul and the New Testament world
The purpose of the work, is, as many bloggers have pointed out, not gripping historical fiction, but, rather, whetting the appetite of someone setting out to study the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians. It is a kind of primer to the study of the Corinthian correspondence. Some of the reviews on Amazon give a sense of the need that it meets:
“A winsome introduction to ancient Corinth”
“Why aren’t books like this more popular in Christian circles?”
“An Entertaining, Educational Resource on Corinth for All in the Church”
“A novella with great historical background.”
“Saint Paul up close”
“Wow, this book was really fun to read.”
“Corinth comes alive”
“Entertaining way to educate”
AWLC, then, is not written for Corinthian archaeologists, classicists, or bible scholars per se, who will find plenty of things to quibble about. It is, rather, written to encourage undergraduate students, new seminarians, and readers of the bible to think about Paul’s Corinth in context. With its numerous photograps of Greco-Roman contexts, including Corinth, and its sections devoted to taking “A Closer Look,” it acts as introduction.
Since the book is necessarily cursory in its discussions of background context, and controversial in its particular picture of Corinthian churches (the Corinthian assembly, which includes elites like Erastus, seem to me to be too saintly!), I would hope that the use of such work, whether in bible studies or seminary classes, would move quickly on to serious commentaries or some of the good scholarship on archaeology, texts, and ancient religion in Corinth such as Corinth in Context, Urban Religion in Roman Corinth, or Corinth in Contrast.
The book is available in Google Books for preview.
This is the seventh post in a series on resources for the study of ancient religion and Christianity in Corinth. Earlier posts include:
- Crowdsourcing Paul’s Letters to Corinth (March 23)
- Reading 1 and 2 Corinthians in the Digital Age (March 16)
- On the Churches and Saints of Corinth (March 9)
- An Open Bibliography in Corinthian and New Testament Studies (March 3)
- 2015 Publications in Corinthian Studies: New Testament, Christianity, and Judaism (Feb. 24)
- Finding Academic Blogs on Corinth and New Testament Studies (Feb. 17)