Book Review: The Corinthian Body (Martin)

The Corinthian BodyFirst Century Corinth was arguably one of the most important locales for Paul of Tarsus as he propagated his message about Jesus of Nazareth in the first century, as literary evidence suggests that he wrote at least three letters to this Roman city and stayed there for some time when he wrote his letter to the church at Rome. Scholars have long noted that Paul touched on a number of issues within the Corinthian church in the canonical letters of First and Second Corinthians, including a number of issues involving the human body and sexuality. In The Corinthian Body, Dale B. Martin examines Paul’s first letter to Corinth within the context of ancient constructions and ideologies of the human body (xi). In this work Martin argues that the theological differences reflected in Paul’s first letter to Corinth stemmed from conflicts rooted in differing ideological constructions of the human body, and that these differences were between Paul, along with the majority of the Corinthian Christians, who viewed the body as threatened by polluting agents and a minority of relatively elite Corinthian Christians who emphasized hierarchical balance in the arrangement of the body without much concern for bodily boundaries and pollution (xv). Martin links this divide in Corinth to positions on the human body in relation to the socioeconomic status of the majority, the Weak, and the elite minority, the Strong (xv). While Martin does not seek to directly link Pauline thought with Greek medical theories concerning the body, he does argue that discourses concerning the ancient body were driven by ideological constructions that viewed the human body in certain ways due to societal influences and interests (xii). In attempting to discern different ideologies of the body within the Greco-Roman context, Martin purposes to examine ancient concepts of hierarchy and pollution, especially as they are at work within Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (xii). This review will summarize Martin’s work within the paradigms of hierarchy and pollution in the Greco-Roman world and offer an assessment of the strength of his claims that interpretation of I Corinthians should consider the ideological differences between Paul and the Strong concerning the human body.

Key for Martin’s interpretation of I Corinthians involves rethinking the modern conception of the Greco-Roman world outside the category of Cartesian dualism (3, 7). For the ancients, the body was a microcosm of the universe (16), perceived as a transitory point in the midst of cosmic movement (25), within the hierarchical structure of Roman society (30). Hierarchy was similarly formative with respect to the construction of sexuality, as all humans were understood along the lines of the spectrums of active/male and passive/female (32-4). Within these hierarchies each body occupied a proper place that, once vacated, would threaten the health of the entire societal organism as conceived of by the elite (34-7). Martin understands Paul’s primary concern throughout I Corinthians to involve unity within the church (39). By analyzing Paul’s use of rhetorical “homonoia” speeches, he argues that Paul reversed the normal rhetorical goal of such elite and normalizing speeches, instead turning the form on its head to promote unity, self-lowering of the Strong, and status reversal within the church (47, 68). Key for this analysis is the assumption that Paul himself was a rather skilled rhetorician, as it is argued that it would have been impossible for any moderately educated person such as Paul to have dwelled in an urban setting without a good deal of exposure to rhetorical devices and education (47-52, 67).

Dale B. Martin
Dale B. Martin

Throughout The Corinthian Body Martin argues for simple a “fault line” in the Corinthian church—that between a higher-status group, the Strong, and a lower-status group, the Weak (69)—which appears to have hinged on a connection between status and gnosis (69-71). Martin understands Paul to reverse normal power and hierarchy structures within the church whilst simultaneously affirming communal boundaries between the body and corrupt cosmos (79), especially concerning issues divided along social status lines, whence Paul addressed high-status Christians, imploring them to alter their behavior and urging them to support lower-status Christians for the sake of recognizing the alternate value system of the apocalyptic kingdom of God, thereby reversing the established hierarchical body (86). In Martin’s understanding, glossolalia constituted another opportunity for Paul to institute the body of Christ by which the hierarchical structures of the higher-status ideology was reversed, as the Strong were called to surrender their own interests for the sake of the Weak (89-103).

To conclude his section on hierarchy, Martin examines Paul and the Strong’s disagreement concerning the nature of the afterlife and the resurrection of the dead, arguing that their disagreement resulted from differing ideologies of the body stemming from divergent physiological and cosmological perspectives (104, 7). Arguing that many non-Jewish inhabitants in the Greco-Roman world would have accepted some form of resurrection from the dead (108), Martin conceives of a potential resurrection and a form of body/soul dualism to have been fairly widespread throughout Roman Empire, among both elites as well as commoners (110, 5). Whilst Martin argues that no single Christian understanding of the resurrection of the body existed amongst early Christians (123) and that both Paul and the philosophies of his day would not have understood celestial bodies as “immaterial,” he argues that Paul’s understanding of the resurrection would have appeared vulgar and philosophically obtuse to the Strong in Corinth who were acquainted with popular philosophy (123, 129) demonstrating a strong ontological differences in their respective conceptions of a resurrection (127). The chief difference between conceptions of resurrection for Paul and the Strong appears to be Paul’s return to the discourse of Jewish apocalypticism that would have come across to non-Jewish intellectuals as extremely bizarre (133). At this point, Paul’s theological system was constrained by his physiology, as he would not accept the dominant hierarchy of the world and restructure his understanding to the body apart from his Jewish apocalyptic eschatology and faith in the crucified Messiah (135). Martin finishes by noting that Paul and the Strong in Corinth disagree about the acceptability of benevolent patriarchalism (135) and by indicating that while Paul differentiates himself from the hierarchical conservatism of the Strong, he will also differentiate himself concerning pollution and boundaries of the human body (136).

Martin begins his consideration of pollution by noting that notions of body and pollution in the ancient world were intricately linked to concepts of disease (139), arguing that different roles assigned to disease in the Greco-Roman world were directly related to differing conceptions of the body and etiologies of disease (140). Part of Martin’s program involves destabilizing modern categories of knowledge by considering alternate forms of “naturalness” concerning the human body (141). In examining ancient Greco-Roman disease etiologies, he notes two main disease categorizations that correspond with distributions of social power and knowledge: imbalance and invasion (143, 5). Martin notes that those most likely to reject pollution etiologies (those based on invasion) where those belonging to classes with some familiarity with popular philosophy, which had been influenced by physicians to adopt an imbalance etiology (153, 7). Considering social and political overtones of an imbalance etiology, Martin argues that disease occurs only when stability has been disturbed, much like when class divisions arise (159). The social and political implications of an invasion etiology Martin likens to a position of helplessness against outside powers, with permeating threats on every side (161). Thus in The Corinthian Body¸ ancient disease etiologies are understood to reflect the conflict between higher- and lower-status members in society (162).

Apostle PaulThe case of the man having sexual relations with his stepmother, Paul’s concerns about Christian men visiting prostitutes, the debate about eating meat sacrificed to idols, and Paul’s claim that some Corinthians have become sick or have died owing to improper eating of the Lord’s Supper: all of these for Martin reflect different concerns stemming from one major conflict, differences concerning the boundaries of the human body (163). Whereas higher-status Corinthians were concerned with stability and hierarchy, Paul remained concentrated on purity and avoidance of pollution, since he operated by a logic of invasion (163). Martin argues that the theological and ethical disagreements represented in I Corinthians can be understood in terms of assumptions about the human body, its boundaries, and its possibility of becoming polluted (164). In cases of potential  pollution, the Strong and Paul did not see eye to eye, as the Strong likely believed that educating the Weak would solve all concerns, whereas Paul seems to have argued that the Weak’s fears were well-founded and that, apart from gnosis, potential pollutants should be avoided (186). Martin believes strongly that Paul and the Strong differed greatly in their concepts of the body and its potential for pollution, whether from sex with outsiders or food sacrificed to idols (197). For Paul, strict boundaries remained necessary in order to maintain the integrity and purity of the body (197).

Towards the end of The Corinthian Body, Martin argues that whilst Paul has sought to reverse normal instances of hierarchy within the Corinthian church, he failed to reverse the status of women because he unquestionably accepted the Greco-Roman physiology of gender domination (198-9). Arguing that throughout most, if not all, of Greco-Roman culture sex was understood as the battlefield of weak versus strong (205), Martin notes that because of Paul’s concern with pollution and sexual desire he conceived of a medicinal economy of mechanisms that can protect the individual, and subsequently the entire church, from contamination on the outside (208, 12). While Paul and the Strong both called for control and sexual asceticism, Paul remained more concerned with desire, thereby allowing sexual intercourse under certain circumstances when it would have waylaid desire (217). For Martin, Paul and the Strong reflect a growing consensus concerning the negativity of sexual intercourse; however, he argues that Paul did not fear intercourse so much as he expressed concern for the boundaries of the body and its protection from pollutants (228). In his final chapter, Martin argues that neither Paul’s androgynous statement in Galatians 3.28 nor his placement of women in relatively important positions of church leadership demonstrates that he was a gender egalitarian (231). Instead, Martin understands Paul to conceive of women as potential loci of danger and as more susceptible to penetration and invasion by outside agents, concerns that Martin believes lead Paul to encourage the veiling of women, especially within prophetic situations (233, 39, 42). Martin includes a somewhat curious section on the interaction of the role of angels, physiology of prophetic utterance, and the sexuality of women in which he argues that Paul concluded angels represented some sort of sexual threat to women who prophesied (245). Martin surmises that Paul’s anxieties about women being lightning rods for pollution of the Christian church leads to his attempts to defend the purity of the communal body (248). Whereas Paul consistently attempted to undermine the hierarchical ideology of the body in Corinth, females could never be truly equal to males in spite of his seemingly androgynous language concerning the kingdom of God, primarily due to the assumption of the general Greco-Roman physiology of women that understood them as more permeable and susceptible to invasion and contamination of the whole church body (248-9).

Ancient Corinth
Ancient Corinth

There are several things which may be said in assessment of Martin’s work.  First, his total project comes across as detailed and in-depth, drawing upon a plethora of sources, especially those of contemporary Greco-Roman philosophers and physicians. The Corinthian Body integrates numerous perspectives and studies on the body, sexuality, Greco-Roman philosophy, and the church at Corinth in a well-packaged format that is easy to read and use. Second, this work stands apart with respect towards its rhetorical analysis of Paul’s argument in I Corinthians. Martin persuasively argues for Paul’s knowledge and application of a common form of Greco-Roman rhetorical finesse, and his inclusion of Greco-Roman sources and perspectives for informing Paul’s rhetorical model and perception of status and sexuality in the Corinthian church provides both a model and foundation for further study of Paul’s letters, the Corinthian church, and conceptions of body and sexuality in the Greco-Roman world. Third, the breadth of this work provides numerous insights, not only for an interpretation of I Corinthians, insights into Pauline views of the body and sexuality, and the Corinthian congregation, but also insights into popular philosophy, a wider understanding of socioeconomic status in the Greco-Roman world, and potential implications for acceptability of Greco-Roman philosophical perspectives within Jewish/Christian teachings, among the lower-status commoners across the empire, and within the relatively well-to-do and elite, especially in the Corinthian context. Fourth, Martin sheds light on a number of methodological concerns, most notably his deeming it necessary to use this work as a reminder of the need to consider and question the ethical ramifications of professed beliefs, for both scholars and adherents to Christianity (251). It should be noted, however, that his methodology seems to sit somewhat at odds with his interpretation of certain passages, such as reinterpretation of the Eucharistic conflict (194), where alternative interpretations of the conflict along historical and theological lines may make more sense of the passage.

Perhaps of greatest concern in this book involves Martin’s assumptions about Paul’s perspective as one, at least as presented here, almost entirely imbued within Greco-Roman philosophical discourses. While noting Paul’s somewhat unorthodox use of rhetorical practices and strategies, Martin nonetheless presupposes that Paul’s argument in I Corinthians remains based almost exclusively out of a Greco-Roman philosophical background. Whereas Martin’s argument that Paul received at least some form of rhetorical training comes across as generally persuasive, it seems something of a stretch to assume Paul’s entire perspective on matters of the body and sexuality would appear to be based out of a Greco-Roman philosophical context. Martin seems to only fall back on Paul’s Judaic roots when an appeal to Greco-Roman thought and context fail to adequately explain his position, for example, when his conception of the resurrection only makes sense within the discourse of apocalyptic Judaism. Martin’s perspective, while seeming to provide a possible explanation of Paul’s total argument along the lines of Greco-Roman thought, does not seems to do justice to Paul’s Jewish background and context. Such concerns aside, Martin’s book stands as an excellent example of discursive scholarship on the body and sexuality in the writings of Paul of Tarsus within the context of first century Corinth.

Overall, The Corinthian Body provides numerous insights into the paradigms of hierarchy and pollution within the Greco-Roman context within Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church. Martin persuasively argues for the importance of considering the status differentiation of Weak and Strong as at least an important concern underlying Paul’s writing. While Martin may presuppose too much concerning Paul’s being a citizen of Rome while leaving too much of his Judaism behind, The Corinthian Body represents a project worthy of methodological and contextual consideration when considering early Christian conceptions of the human body and sexuality.

Dale B. Martin. The Corinthian Body. Yale University Press: New Haven, 1999. 300 pages.


Published by Jacob J. Prahlow

Husband of Hayley. Dad of Bree and Judah. Lead pastor at Arise Church. MATS from Saint Louis University, MA from Wake Forest University, BA from Valparaiso University. Theologian and writer here and at Conciliar Post. Find me on social at @pastorjakestl

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