Letters from the Ancient World

The Corinthian letters open a tinted window. In them we glimpse an early community of believers in the city of Corinth 20 to 25 years after the death of Jesus. They reveal an intense and complex relationship between Paul and the church he founded and continued to lead, even at a distance.

In contrast to the idealized vision of the New Testament church often presented as we look back over two millennia, this church had significant failings and internal divisions. Paul, also an idealized figure, and the church become very human as we enter into the conversation they shared.

One of the difficulties in understanding these letters is the nature of this conversation. We hear only one voice—that of Paul. Questions asked by the church and criticisms they made of Paul we know only through Paul's perspective. Contextualizing the letters within the world of Corinth in the first century, however, sheds light on their meaning.

How do we read these letters as God's word to us today? Not primarily, I would argue, as God's universal commands, but as an example of how we, too, are called to live as faithful followers of Jesus within our changing world.

The Roman Empire, spanning the lands around the Mediterranean Sea and further in all directions, increased geographic and social mobility. For hundreds of years, Greek language and culture had dominated the area, bringing a common language as well as significant foundational cultural schemas. Hierarchy was one such foundational schema in the ancient world. It framed and structured both society and the universe. From Zeus to the emperor, the city magistrate to the head of the household, clear lines of status and power were drawn. Within this system, one's status was measured by public recognition. It was an environment of honor and shame, and of male/female, public/private hierarchical categories.

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Sojourners Magazine March-April 2000
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