Early Christianity, Method, and the Body

Ancient Jesus Image

Earliest Extant Image of Jesus (here as Good Shepherd)

The academic study of the ancient world remains a field full of exciting realms of consideration. This remains especially true for historians of the early Jesus Movement and Christian Church, where numerous fields of study are in need of critical exploration, including conceptions of the human body and sexuality within early Christianity. As a means to further study of this period, in recent decades scholars have turned to consideration of the ways in which the body and human sexuality were conceived by early Christians. In this article, I employ the works of Bernadette Brooten, Peter Brown, and Dale Martin to offer insights into areas of critical needs in this field. As these and numerous other scholars have pointed out, the need for clear, critical, and contextualized definitions and an approach devoid of assumed chronological superiority are necessary considerations for future study of the body and sexuality in the ancient world. Here I argue that key to critically thinking about conceptions of body and sexuality in early Christianity are answering questions concerning the role the historical-critical method and the place of ethics in such a study. Continue reading

Book Review: The Body and Society (Brown)

The Body and SocietyIn the updated 20th anniversary edition of his classic work, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Peter Brown examines the “practice of permanent sexual renunciation—continence, celibacy, life-long virginity” that developed in Christian circles from the first through fifth centuries.[1] In this work, Brown examines a vast array of perspectives within the early Christian context, purposing to clarify notions of the human body and society within Christian renunciation and to examine the effects of those ideas among Christian writers.[2] This review will summarize Brown’s work and offer an assessment of the strength of his claim that there was no mainstream perspective on sexuality and the body in early Christianity.[3] Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Head Coverings in Corinth: Conclusions

This is the final post in our series on Head Coverings in Corinth.
Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth

In this series we have examined interpretations of First Corinthians 11.2-16 by three notable New Testament scholars, Richard B. Hays, Richard A. Horsley, and Dale B. Martin. To briefly summarize their respective interpretations and understandings of Paul’s views of the human body, we characterized Hays’ position as that of the socially gendered body, Horsley’s view as the ordered body, and Martin’s perspective as the polluted body. After reviewing each scholars contextual considerations for their perspective, their commentary and interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16, and the general shape of their understanding of the construction of the human body found in that passage, we turned to an extended consideration of the conception of the human body that can be drawn from this noteworthy passage in Paul’s first letter to Corinth. Here we argued that each perspective relies heavily upon social scientific reconstructions of the Corinthian context that directly impact conceptions of the human body. We noted that each scholar conceived of the Paul’s understanding of the body within the communal framework of the entire Corinthian Christian body. Additionally, we examined Hays, Horsley, Martin, Osiek and Pouya’s interpretations on the impact of Greco-Roman hierarchical norms on Paul’s conception of the human body. Finally, we explicated the various ways in which these scholars understood Paul’s emphasis on bodily difference in Corinth, arguing that the conception of bodily difference was the unifying feature of these three interpretations of First Corinthians.

Interpretations of Paul’s writings, especially those with potentially profound implications for understanding the human body and its relation to other bodies and persons, will undoubtedly continue for years to come. And while this study has only examined three perspectives on Paul’s conception of the human body taken from a short (though notable) passage of one of his letters, the unifying feature of these interpretations concerning Paul’s understanding of Corinthian Christian male and female bodies as different within the Greco-Roman social context, it may be that this unifying conception of body may very well point to a wider field of interpretive discussion and Pauline thought to be found in later studies of the body. As has been the case with the interpretation (and application) of First Corinthians 11.2-16, only time will tell. Continue reading

Head Coverings in Corinth: Comparing Interpretations

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.
Ancient Corinth

Ancient Corinth

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

The Polluted Body: Dale B. Martin

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.

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.

Dale B. MartinMartin’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.[1] 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.[2] The divide between Strong and Weak encompassed socioeconomic status,[3] 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.[4] Martin argues that for ancients, the body was a microcosm of the universe,[5] perceived as a transitory point in the midst of cosmic movement,[6] within the hierarchical structure of Roman society.[7] 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.[8] Setting Paul’s writing firmly within the tradition of Greco-Roman rhetoric,[9] Martin argues that Paul rejected the higher status Corinthians denigrating lower status Corinthians because of their lack of gnosis,[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] Continue reading

The Ordered Body: Richard A. Horsley

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.

Today we turn to Richard A. Horsley’s perspective as found in I Corinthians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries). Upon examining Horsley’s contextual concerns, his interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16, and the conceptions of the human body within that passage, we will note that the human body within this passage should be understood as highly ordered.

Richard HorsleyHorsley argues that First Corinthians must be read and interpreted as a communal letter in which Paul rhetorically pits groups within the divided Corinthian church against one another to contrast their positions.[1] Along with the diverse urban background that made up the urban area[2] Horsley notes the patron-client system of Roman governance (which was not militarily enforced) in Corinth.[3] This combination of the urban setting and patronage system gave rise to the centrality of the emperor cult in Corinthian worship.[4] Horsley also notes the plurality of Roman, Greek, and Egyptian forms of worship within Corinth, relying upon archeological evidence attesting to Corinthian worship of Athena, Apollos, Demeter, Kore, Aphrodite, Asclepius, Poseidon, and Isis in addition to the cult of the emperor.[5] Within this plurality of worship settings, Horsley argues that Corinthians who became Christians were apparently taken by Paul’s working of spiritual acts.[6] Horsley also indicates the deep socioeconomic inequality present in Corinth and the deeply ingrained Greco-Roman hierarchical system which placed masters over slaves, husbands over wives, and the upper strata of society over the lower and led to the development of an aristocratic “spiritual” status within the Corinthian church.[7] Further, Horsley finds it extremely likely that a large number of Corinthian Christians were women.[8] A final important piece of Horsley’s contextual puzzle is his understanding of the major division in the Corinthian church to have been between followers of Apollos and followers of Paul,[9] who disagreed fundamentally not only on which preacher to follow, but also in their understandings of reality and the new social order coming because of God’s work in Christ.[10] This division appears to influence Paul’s rhetoric concerning divisions of belief and practice as he addresses not only his own followers, but seeks to transform the entire Corinthian congregation.[11] Continue reading

The Socially Gendered Body: Richard B. Hays

This post is part of our ongoing series on Head Coverings in Corinth.

We begin with Richard B. Hays’ perspective found in First Corinthians: An Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. As we examine the context, his interpretation of First Corinthians 11.2-16, and the conceptions of body that come from this passage, we will find that Hays conceives of the human body found in First Corinthians to be socially gendered.

Richard B. Hays

Richard B. Hays

Contextually, Hays emphasizes the importance of reading First Corinthians with the consciousness that modern readers are eaves dropping on a portion of an ancient conversation between Paul and the church at Corinth.[1] Concerning his approach to the text, Hays writes that interpretation involves a “process of distancing ourselves from the text enough to see its foreignness and then allowing the text to draw near again and claim us.”[2] Regarding Corinth, he notes the importance of remembering that Paul’s Corinth existed as a commercial city full of sporting games that was well acquainted with political prowess.[3] Additionally he argues for contextualizing Corinth as a colonial city full of people seeking upward mobility.[4] Socio-religiously, Hays indicates the importance of understanding the diversity of deities and centers of worship within Corinth, especially the Corinthians reputation (at least among the Athenians) for sexually promiscuous worship and the Jewish presence within the city.[5] Also noteworthy was the apparent socioeconomic diversity likely represented within any given house church.[6] Hays locates two occasions for Paul’s writing to Corinth, the first of which was Paul’s reception of a letter from “Chloe’s people” concerning dissensions among the Corinthians on matters of sexuality, legal disputes, abuses of the Lord’s Supper, and controversies concerning the resurrection of the dead.[7] Additionally, the Corinthians had written Paul asking for advice on sex within marriage, food sacrificed to idols, spiritual gifts, and Paul’s collection for Jerusalem.[8] As Hays understands it, this two-fold communication from the city indicated to Paul a church in a moment of division and crisis—hence his multiple letters to the congregation.[9] Paul’s response to these issues are framed within theological terms, however it seems clear that not every concern would have been understood by the Corinthians as a necessarily theological issue, perhaps causing even greater divisions in the church.[10] Continue reading

Head Coverings in Corinth

The next two weeks Pursuing Veritas is running a series on contemporary scholar’s perspectives on Head Coverings in Corinth. This series is based on a paper written for a graduate seminar at Wake Forest University that focused on topics surrounding the human body and sexuality in Early Christianity. The topic of head coverings is often discussed among Christians, especially younger Evangelicals, as a perplexing example of the complexity of Biblical Interpretation within contemporary American Christianity.

Head CoveringsThe writings of the Apostle Paul found in the New Testament are some of the most formative documents of Western Civilization. Pauline thought, through the long-standing prominence of the Western Christian Church, has long influenced interpretations of history, human application of ethics, the relationship between ‘church and state,’ and perspectives on the human body and sexuality. Portions of specific letters of Paul, such as Romans, Galatians, and First Corinthians, have long been used to explicate the appropriate norms for human existence through their use as authoritative scripture within the Christian tradition. Such powerful influence, however, has not been without its difficulties. As perspectives on Paul multiplied, the diversity of convictions and interpretations have exponentially increased, providing the modern reader of Paul with numerous and often strongly differing interpretive lenses through which to examine Pauline thought. Passages that were long interpreted in a certain fashion to promote a specific principle are now said to mean very different things. Understandably, certain passages lend themselves to different readings more easily, among these Paul’s statements in concerning the role of women in the Christian church and appropriate ‘head coverings.’ Continue reading