A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. II)

A brief history of Corinth:

Corinth in Brief

Prior to the Roman conquering in 146 B.C., “Corinth had been a leading center of Greek power.…In 44 B.C.E, Caesar refounded Corinth as a Roman colony,” and during Paul’s day, Corinth was officially, according to architecture and inscription, Roman (Keener 6-7).  Alan Johnson writes, “…the city’s architecture looked Roman, it was governed by a Roman civic structure, and it was inhabited largely by Roman people—a small contingent of Caesar’s military veterans, many freedmen and women, and urban plebeians” (14).  F. F. Bruce adds, “…its citizens were Romans, probably freemen from Italy, but the population was augmented by Greeks and Levantines, including Jews” (Bruce 19).  “Evidence for the prominence of Roman, rather than Greek, patterns of culture in the most respected mores….[is the] clear example concern[ing] the wearing of hoods by women in public, especially in public worship, as well as the issue of head covering (just possibly an issue about hair) for men (1 Cor 11:2-16)….” (Thiselton 5).

In the first century, “…the city was a bustling commercial crossroads for Europe and Asia.  Ships from the west traveling from Italy through the Corinthian Gulf would head for the port of Lechaeum, Corinth’s eastern harbor.  Those from the east could harbor at Cenchreae, which faced eastward toward the Saronic gulf, which eventually led to the Aegean Se and Asia.  An ancient cargo roadway a few miles to the north connected the western sea lanes with the eastern across the isthmus at is narrowest point…” (Johnson 15).  In addition to being the primary harbor for ships, Corinth was also known for the manufacturing of goods (Johnson 15).  Keener notes, “Its location on the Isthmus had long involved Corinth in trade….Local banking, artisans, and finally the current provincial seat would have further augmented the city’s wealth” (7).

Bruce provides some insight into “Old Corinth” Prior to Roman conquering,

Old Corinth had been a by-word for licentiousness, and this hotch-potch of races would have hastened the process by which the new Corinth acquired an equally unsavoury reputation.  AM Hunter says that in the popular mind Corinth suggested ‘culture and courtesans… “Corinthian words” implied pretensions to philosophy and letters, and to ‘Corinthianize’ was popular Greek for ‘go to the devil’….[Corinth] acquired a reputation for luxury, and its name became proverbial for sexual license.  It was a centre of the worship of Aphrodite, whose temple stood on the summit of the Acrocointhus… (18).

Even after Rome conquered Corinth and turned it from Greek ways to Roman ways, Corinth was able regain its wealth (Bruce 18).  However, with the return of its wealth  “…the old reputation for sexual laxity also returned: the temple of Aphrodite was staffed by 1, 000 female slaves dedicated to her worship, who are said to have made the city a tourist attraction and enhanced its prosperity (Strabo, Geog. Viii. Vi. 20)” (Bruce 18-9).

Though there was a vast amount of wealth in Corinth, Horsley observes that there was a ‘gulf’ between the scant wealthy and powerful and the larger, poorer population (31).  He writes,

Despite this, or perhaps partly because of this, Greek society—and even more so Roman society—was obsessed with rank and status…. women were subordinated to and under the power of their husbands and masters.  In Corinth the lower strata must have been every bit as concerned with their status as the elite scrambling for provincial honors and imperial favor (Horsley 31).

Keener makes the point that “condescending below” one’s social classes “was considered shameful in terms of social intercourse” (8).

However, though there was a vast gap between the haves and the have-nots, Johnson proclaims that  growth between the classes was possible, “…at Corinth the culture allowed a rapid rise in social status for many people.  Power (to achieve goals), education, wealth, knowledge, religious and moral purity, family and ethnic group position, and local community status were prized goals in this highly status conscious society” (18).  “‘Corinth was a city where public boasting and self-promotion had become an art form.  The Corinthian people thus lived with an honor-shame cultural orientation, where public recognition was often more important than facts…’” (Witherington qtd. in Thiselton 13).

In fact, this status seeking tendency was not localized in the pagan society surrounding the budding churches in Corinth, Johnson observes,

Many characteristics of the cultural life of first-century Corinth were seeping into the life of the Christian community.  Instead of being transformed by Christian values and viewpoints, they were behaving like their counterparts in the pagan society around them.  Status seeking, self-promotion, a competitive drive for adulation and success, even use of the Christian church as a means of self-promotion and advancement are themes that reoccur though out the letter.  There was a spirit of self-satisfaction and boasting, a spirit of having arrived and not needing anything else (4:6-8).  Those without means were being marginalized, neglected and even humiliated in the church’s meetings (11;7-34; 12:21-26).  A wrong notion of Christian freedom, more like the ‘freedom’ of the surrounding culture, was prevailing in their relationships with each other and toward the wider culture (6:12; 8:9; 10:23) (Johnson 22-3).

It is not naïve to assume that there was a predominance of Greco-Roman ways and thoughts that were infiltrating the Corinthian churches and are the reasons why Paul treats those Corinthian questions in the manner in which he does (Morris 18).  “Only when Paul went to Corinth did he encounter a Hellenistic urban ethos that was both the product of and fully assimilated into the Roman imperial order” (Horsley 28).

It is typically understood by scholars that the Corinthians, as a society, were immensely concerned with Sophia, and the effects Sophia had on their social relations.  “Their strong enlightened consciousness freed them from the parochial prejudices of conventional moral codes.  Spiritual experiences in particular were given for the satisfaction, illumination, and personal fulfillment of the individual” (Horsley 37).  Horsley notes, “The Corinthian’s exalted spiritual status and immortality gained from their intimate relationship with Sophia had significant implications for mundane social relations.  On the one hand, for some Corinthians the all-important cultivation of their relationship with heavenly Sophia required devoting their energies to the spiritual life” (Horsley 37).  The intimacy with Sophia was not restricted to men, but was available to women, as well.  Intimacy with Sophia as described by Horsley above meant, “devoting their [men’s and women’s] energies to the spiritual life.”  Therefore, as Horsley comments, “…intimacy with Sophia meant avoidance of marital/sexual relations, and perhaps, by implication, liberation from confining subordination in a traditional patriarchal marriage for women” (Horsley 37).

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