First 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. Continue reading
Having examined the respective perspectives of Hays, Horsley, and Martin, we now place their understandings of Pauline conceptions of the body in conversation with each other. First, we note the importance of the reconstructed socio-historical context for each of the scholar’s respective views on Paul’s conception of the human body. For Hays, the need to distinguish between Christian bodies and other Corinthian bodies led Paul to argue for the importance of symbolic distinctions between male and female bodies. For Horsley, the need for ordered Corinthian Christians as living distinctly different lives from the chaos of other forms of Corinthian worship led Paul to enforce the ordered hierarchy of the congregation within the paradigm of an honor and shame context. Martin, while paying less attention to the general socio-historical context of Greco-Roman Corinth, nonetheless uses his reconstruction of the rhetorical and medical conventions of the first century to argue for Paul’s understanding of the female body as especially susceptible to corrupting pollution. Continue reading
Our third perspective on Head Coverings in Corinth comes from Dale B. Martin in his work The Corinthian Body, which examines the constructions of body and sexuality within Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Here we will examine the contextual concerns Martin argues are important for interpreting First Corinthians 11.2-16, his interpretation of the passage on ‘head coverings,’ and his understanding of the Pauline conception of body. Ultimately, we find that Martin argues that Paul understands the body to be a potentially polluted agent.
Martin’s perspective is unique in that he pays little attention to more traditional historical-critical resources in his construction of the Corinthian context. He argues that Paul conceived of Corinth as one of his most important operational locals as he propagated his message about Jesus of Nazareth and that because of this centrality Paul paid special attention to the competing ideologies of the human body within the Corinthian congregation. Key for Martin’s reading of First Corinthians is his argument that the numerous conflicts between the Corinthian Strong and Corinthian Weak stemmed from their differing conceptions of the normative human body. Within this framework, Martin understands Paul, along with the majority of the Corinthian Christians, to have viewed the body as being threatened by polluting agents, while a minority of Corinthians elites emphasized a hierarchical balance in the arrangement of the body without Paul’s concerning for bodily boundaries and pollution. The divide between Strong and Weak encompassed socioeconomic status, though Martin argues that a more important contextual concern were ancient discourses about the body driven by ideological constructions viewing the human body in certain ways due to societal influences and interests. Martin argues that for ancients, the body was a microcosm of the universe, perceived as a transitory point in the midst of cosmic movement, within the hierarchical structure of Roman society. 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. Setting Paul’s writing firmly within the tradition of Greco-Roman rhetoric, Martin argues that Paul rejected the higher status Corinthians denigrating lower status Corinthians because of their lack of gnosis, as he understands Paul to reverse normal power and hierarchy structures within the church whilst simultaneously affirming communal boundaries between the body and corrupt cosmos, especially concerning issues divided along social status lines. Ultimately, Martin divides Paul’s concerns in First Corinthians into two major topical sections, those concerned with hierarchy and those concerned with pollution, situating Paul’s discourse on head coverings that we now turn to within his consideration of bodily pollution. Continue reading