Book Review: A Week in the Life of Corinth

A Week in the Life of Corinth, by Ben Witherington, III. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2012. 158 pages. Reviewed by AM.

The modern church has an imagination deficit. Too often, we read the Bible as a compendium of dictations and writings from various apostles and leaders, divorced from the cultural context and social realities surrounding its writing. We are prone to viewing the Bible as an aloof book, distanced from the everyday events of life.

But the Bible was borne out of the real world. This is a world where donkeys can talk, fish can swallow people, and dead people can live again. But this is also a world where people go to work, people go to the market, and people do ordinary things. God’s power is evident not just in the miracles of the Bible, but also the mundane events, too. His presence is seen not just in the phenomenal, but also in the prosaic.

Perhaps this is why we Christians can often miss the presence of God in our lives. We see recorded in Scripture the unusual events of the lives of certain figures, but we often see our lives as filled with mere usual events. We affirm that God moves in mysterious ways, yes, but we often forget that he moves in the plain events of our lives. We would do well to return to an understanding that even the everyday occurrences in our lives are part of the symphony of history conducted by God. What we see as normal happenings such as going to the store, visiting a friend, or even going to work are often used by God to accomplish his purposes. If we apply this same principle to the world of the New Testament, we may better connect with the Word of God.

It is through this context that Ben Witherington has written A Week in the Life of Corinth, a book of historical-fiction which is set in first century Corinth. Various characters in the book are also found referenced in the pages of Paul’s letters: Erastos, Stephanus, Priscilla, Aquilla, and Paul himself, of course. Witherington’s book fills in many of the gaps of history for these characters, as well as introducing us to new characters who fit well in the world of Corinth. It is important to remember that Paul spent years in Corinth, ministering and building up the body of believers in that city. But Paul did not just sit around all day writing letters to churches. He had a full-time job by which he supported himself. He often visited friends and fellow believers, and he spent time witnessing to the lost and to fellow Jews. In other words, Paul lived his life around and amongst the Corinthians, and it is through this experience that he was able to speak so well to their struggles and issues in his letters to them from afar. It is precisely because of his time spent with them that he is so passionate about their sanctification and so zealous for their faith to be strengthened.

The greatest strength of the book is Witherington’s encyclopedic knowledge of first-century Greek and Roman culture. It takes a specially-trained scholar and historian to successfully marry the theological implications of 1 and 2 Corinthians to their historical context, but Witherington has accomplished the task. His grasp of first-century culture is evident throughout his story, and he often weaves Greek and Latin words into the text that can provide the reader extra knowledge regarding the story’s events.

Evidence of Witherington’s knowledge are the sections spliced throughout the story called “A Closer Look.” These sections range widely in topics, from the Roman calendar to elements of Roman and Greek culture to social standards to finance to jurisprudence to education, etc. All of these sections are borne out of and contribute to the main story that Witherington weaves. Thankfully, when an unfamiliar or little-known concept is introduced in the course of the story, Witherington includes an “A Closer Look” section in order for the reader to better understand the historical context. Although I have been a student of the Bible for years, there are still many things I learned throughout the course of reading this book, especially about the context in which some New Testament letters were written. One fascinating “A Closer Look” dealt with the social conventions surrounding patrons and clients in Greco-Roman culture. While we use the term “client” today as basically synonymous with the word “customer,” ancient Greeks and Romans would not have used it that way. Clients were social inferiors to patrons and relationships between the two were marked by quid pro quo reciprocity. Witherington even provides an understanding of why Paul largely avoids using the term “friendship” in his letters since the connotation behind that word in the first century was largely reciprocal. In addition to “A Closer Look” sections on various Scripture-related topics, there were a lot of helpful teaching tools devoted to Greco-Roman culture. For instance, Witherington uses Erastos’ mention in the Bible as an aedile as a central plot point of the story. This allows him to bring the reader along and gently show the reader a lot about how ancient Corinth would have worked as the capital of a Roman province.

Another strength is how Witherington weaves Scripture passages and biblical events into the fictional story. One such instance was when Paul and Priscilla decide to go visit Erastos to pray over him for healing. Just as they are about to leave, Paulos mentions that he is going to bring some anointing oil. Immediately called to mind are the passages in the Old and New Testaments that deal with anointing the sick with oil and praying for their healing. Although no references to anointing oil appear in any of Paul’s letters, it is entirely reasonable to assume that he knew of the practice from his Jewish upbringing as well as his knowledge of the disciples’ use of it, as recorded in Mark 6:13. Another disciple, James, wrote about the practice in his letter, instructing church elders to anoint the sick with oil and pray for them (cf. Jas. 5:14). It was this part of the story that may inspire the reader to go back to the Scriptures to look at various passages on the topic. Another section of the story that may drive the reader to further study and comparison with the Scriptures was during the worship service at Erastos’ house wherein Paul gave an after-dinner speech on love. Much of the dialogue was taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Although these examples are perhaps minor parts of the story, they contribute to Witherington’s overall intention to provoke further biblical study from the reader.

One of the more moving examples of Witherington’s writing comes during the scene where Paul prays for an unconscious and dying Erastos. As Nicanor, an unbeliever, looks on, Erastos suddenly wakes up and is healed. I thought that Witherington did a masterful job of setting the scene for this occurrence and he did well to write it from Nicanor’s perspective. Such writing gives the reader a new perspective about how many first century Christians must have felt when they saw the miraculous gifts being performed by the Holy Spirit through the apostles. It truly must have been a glorious and awesome thing to behold. The passage calls to memory the various times in the book of Acts wherein the apostles exercised the power of the Holy Spirit to heal the sick. If Witherington’s goal was to inspire my imagination to further study of the Scriptures, then this book facilitates his success.

If there are any weaknesses of the book, they are minor. Perhaps the weakness that was most obvious was that the dialogue at times seems stilted and forced. Characters in the story sometimes experience changes of thought that are not predicated by enough character development, they sometimes say things that seem over-explained in order for the reader to better understand, and the environmental descriptions are sometimes sparse or even absent. For instance, when Nicanor is speaking with Krackus and Gordianus regarding his businesses, he mentions to Krackus, who he just met days earlier, that he’d like to eventually become full business partners in the tavern. He then mentions to Gordianus that he wants to become full partners with him in his construction business. Because this might seem abrupt to the reader, Witherington forces the character development a bit by telling us that Gordianus and Krackus “could see that though he had not mentioned any of this before, clearly Nicanor had been thinking about this for some time, thinking ahead, and wisely, too.” Witherington’s exposition of their thoughts here seemed a bit forced and a little too convenient.

However, Witherington can be forgiven of these small slights. First, the book is only 158 pages, so character development for at least three or four main characters and a host of other minor characters is not easy to do in such a small space. Second, while it is obvious that Witherington has a solid grasp of history and theology, he is not a fiction writer by profession. He certainly does a decent job of conveying the story to the reader, but his greatest strength lies in his ability to understand the history and biblical context behind his story.

Again, these are not really big concerns for the reader, who is most likely caught up in realizing just how complex the world of the Bible really was. While one may notice all of the aforementioned issues in the course of reading the book, they should still be able to stay highly engaged with the story due to the great job that Witherington did of crafting a back story for some of what we read in Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. These issues could even be seen not as weaknesses, but rather as stylistic differences with certain readers. Overall, Witherington’s work was well-planned, well-researched, and well-written.

Witherington has done a service for Christians by writing this book. This was a compelling story that allows readers to immerse themselves in the world of the Bible – the real world – to better understand the context surrounding Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. Too often in studying of the Bible, our research can become rote and monotonous when only scholarly journal articles and books are read. This book is an easy-to-read Biblical study supplement that actually incites a desire in the reader for further learning and academic study.

As such, this book should serve to engage Christians of all types. It provides more scholarly Christians with a real-world understanding of the things we study in Scripture and it provides lay Christians with fuel for their imagination in helping the world of the Bible come alive. No doubt, all Christians could glean something from Witherington and what he demonstrates. That makes it a successful endeavor from Witherington. The secret to this book’s success is the author’s ability to seamlessly weave the informative into the entertaining. The book is not entertaining in a traditional sense wherein there is little to no redeemable value, however. It is entertaining because it is based on a text which has infinitely redeemable value: the Bible.

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Theology and Ethics