Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.06.15

Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change.   Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans, 2001.  Pp. 344.  ISBN 0-8028-4898-2.  $28.00.  

Reviewed by Debra Bucher, University of Pennsylvania (
Word count: 1788 words

The aim of Bruce Winter's After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change is to provide New Testament scholars with information concerning the cultural context of 1st century CE Corinth. Winter contends that this context is crucial to the understanding of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians in two ways: in knowing the influence of secular ethics (especially Part 1) and of the social change that took place during the decade of the 50's in Corinth (Part 2). Contrary to mainstream scholarly opinion which contends that the Corinthian Christians were affected by an early 'gnosticism' or a realized eschatology, Winter maintains that the issues Paul dealt with in 1 Corinthians were either a result of 'culturally determined responses' to situations or to certain social changes that occurred after he left. These overarching influences dictate the organization of the book.

Part 1 (chapters 2-9) covers the passages of 1 Corinthians that suggest culturally determined responses. Chapter 2 concerns issues of secular discipleship raised in 1 Cor 1-4; Chapters 3 and 4 relate to matters of criminal and civil law raised in 1 Cor 5 and 1 Cor 6:1-8; in Chapter 5 Winter sees 1 Cor 6:12-20; 10:23; 15:29-34 as evidence of the influence of elitist ethics on the Christians; Chapter 6 covers the passage in 1 Cor 11:2-16 concerning the veiling of both men and women ('wives'); Chapter 7 discusses the notion of private dinner parties raised by the passage in 1 Cor 11:17-34; in Chapter 8, Winter seeks to demonstrate the pagan influence of cursing by examining 1 Cor 12-14; the concluding chapter of this section, Chapter 9, concerns secular patronage issues raised in Cor 16:15-16.

The chapters in Part 2 cover the implications of possible social changes that occurred after Paul left Corinth; Chapters 10 and 11 concern the issues of sexual abstinence and the marriage of betrothed persons discussed in 1 Cor 7:1-5; 25-38 and whether these were related to the influence of possible 1st century grain shortages; Chapter 12 concerns the establishment of the imperial cult and the re-establishment of the Isthmian Games in Corinth and their subsequent influence on the eating of idol meat (1 Cor 8-10:21); the final chapter (13) examines the influence that the possible withdrawing of kosher meat from the meat market by the Corinthian magistrates may have had on Paul's ruling in 1 Cor 10:25-28 concerning eating the meat bought there. Winter's approach is to provide external evidence -- archaeological, numismatic, epigraphic, and literary -- in order to prove his claim that the responses of Christians were influenced primarily by prevailing secular ethics or social changes, and not theological or eschatological ideas. In the process, Winter brings to the forefront some interesting source material concerning life in the 1st century CE and provides some interesting (new?) ideas concerning the factors affecting early Christians in Corinth.

Much of the primary evidence Winter provides is useful for understanding what is currently known about the prevailing attitudes of the 1st century. Relying on descriptions from Dio Chrysostom and Epictetus of the disciple/sophist relationship and the subsequent competition between their pupils and the sophists themselves, Winter paints a useful background picture for understanding the possible divisions between the Apollos and Paul camps among the Christians described in 1 Cor 1-4 (Chapter 2). Using evidence ranging from Egyptian papyri to Seneca, Dio Chrysostom, and Apuleius, Winter also provides an interesting account of the role of civil litigation in Roman society in Chapter 4's discussion of 1 Cor 6:1-8. The civil courts were the site of power struggles between the elite, and the judges and juries often corrupt. Winter maintains that those among the Corinthians who had higher social status allowed the prevailing attitude of 'vexatious litigation' (p.74) to control their relationships with one another. Winter's discussion about 1 Cor 11:17-34 in Chapter 7 includes some brief, but helpful material about private dinners and the role they played in Roman society. His survey provides a backdrop for understanding the range of dinner possibilities that may have influenced the Corinthian Christians.

Chapter 6 shows Winter's use of sources. Since the Romans would have perceived the Christian movement as political (Winter points to the suffix -ianos from Acts 11:26 as evidence that the term 'christianoi' implied a political comment), and therefore possibly seditious, it was worthy of monitoring. Meetings were open to public scrutiny, and in fact it was the responsibility of citizens to be aware of groups that might be political threats; 'associations were singled out for special attention' (p.137). Winter suggests a new interpretation based on the use of ἄγγελος in Epictetus (2.23.4; 3.22.23-24) describing the messengers (as scouts of sorts) used during this period to report on the activities of questionable groups. In this context, the phrase 'because of the angels' (διὰ τοὺς ἀγγέλους) really means 'because of the messengers' (scouts). Therefore it was necessary for the married women to appear as proper Roman matrons by wearing a veil.

In Part 2, 'The Influence of Social Change,' Winter postulates that social changes occurred in Corinth after Paul left, which caused the Christians to query Paul on certain issues affected by these changes. In Chapters 10 and 11, Winter suggests that the 'present distress' (ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην) Paul refers to in 1 Cor 7:26 is related to food shortages which occurred in the mid-1st century and not to Paul's eschatological framework. Although Winter presents quite a bit of interesting information regarding the social distress caused by grain shortages in Corinth during this period, I was not convinced that there was a cause and effect relationship between the food shortages and the questions concerning marriage and betrothal in 1 Cor 7. Winter uses sources such as Thucydides and Dionysius of Halicarnassus to document the connection between distress and famines (a fairly obvious connection in my mind -- would it be helpful to know what other 'distresses' these authors refer to?) and what he sees as the cause and effect relationship between the famine during the reign of Claudius and the 'heightened expectation of the parousia as witnessed in the Thessalonian letters of Paul' (p.224). It is on this basis that Winter suggests that the distress in 1 Cor. 7 and the questions concerning marriage and betrothal are related to food shortages. Winter does not deny the 'overarching theological framework' of 'Christian eschatology' (p.259), but believes that the eschatology merely serves to assign 'relative importance' to marriage and other human activities and feelings (p.260). I do wonder if this applies to the slavery and circumcision passages, also in 1 Cor 7, two topics Winter chooses not to discuss.

The last two chapters cover issues relating to food: eating meat sacrificed to idols, eating in the temple, and buying meat from the meat market. Winter's conclusions in both chapters are based on the incident portrayed in Acts 18 when the Jews bring Paul to Gallio, claiming that he was misleading people. Gallio rules that Paul is not guilty and declares the whole issue to be a matter of their (the Jews') law. This implies that Gallio sees Christians and Jews as a single entity, therefore entitling Christians to the same exemptions and privileges as Jews: exemption from the Imperial Cult and access to 'kosher' food in the meat market. In Chapter 12, Winter suggests that the establishment of the Imperial Cult in Corinth and the re-establishment of the Isthmian Games after Paul left Corinth had a direct impact on eating food sacrificed to idols and eating in the temple of an idol described in 1 Cor 8-10. He presents a combination of documentary and epigraphic sources, including an inscription that reveals that the President of the Games gave a banquet for all the citizens (colonis), the privileged elite. From this, Winter postulates that those Christians who were eating in the temple were exercising their right (ἐξουσία) to do so because they were citizens, not because, according to other interpreters, they had certain knowledge which gave them the liberty to do as they wished, even though they were actually exempt from the Imperial Cult because of Gallio's ruling.

In Chapter 13, Winter postulates that after Paul left Corinth, the magistrates and Council of Corinth moved to withdraw the acceptable meat from the market 'out of loyalty to the anti-Semitism of Claudius' (Acts 18:17) (p.301). On the basis of a decree recorded by Josephus, 'suitable meat' (τροφὴ ἐπιτήδεια), i.e., 'kosher' food, had been provided for the Jews of Sardis (p.291), and because of the ruling by Gallio, Winter also believes Christians had access to the 'kosher' meat available in the meat market. With acceptable meat gone, Paul counsels the Corinthian Christians to eat the meat from the market. This is an interesting solution to the inconsistency of Paul's statements in 1 Cor 10, but there is no evidence for a Corinthian decree similar to that of Sardis, nor do we really know what τροφὴ ἐπιτήδεια meant to the Jews of Sardis. Secondly, this argument seems to be based on the precise dating not only of Claudius' expulsion of the Jews and the Gallio incident recorded in Acts, but also of Paul's actual visit to Corinth and the subsequent letter. Most scholars argue that 1 Cor dates anywhere between 53-55 CE, although there are some scholars who argue for a date as early as 46-49 CE. However, since the expulsion of the Jews from Rome is probably dated to 49 CE and an inscription found in Delphi dating to 52 CE mentions Gallio, implying his term as proconsul of Achaia began around 50 CE, Winter needed to spend more time arguing for an early date for the Corinthian letter for his argument to be truly convincing.

In conclusion, Winter makes the assumption that 1 Corinthians is evidence that there were issues Paul did not deal with while he was in Corinth. It is not surprising that problems arose after Paul left and that the Corinthian Christians queried him on such; however, one wonders why Winter believes this is so important. Eighteen months (the approximate amount of time Paul supposedly spent in Corinth) is a relatively short time for Paul's influence to pervade all aspects of the religious life of his converts. One would be surprised if both parties had not written any number of letters of clarification. In fact, we have several if we consider 2 Corinthians to be a composite document comprising more than one letter. Winter's correlation in Part 2 between the questions of 1 Corinthians and possible changes in the wider Corinthian society, although interesting to reflect upon, is unconvincing. However, his chapters in Part I add additional weight to the already-established fact that the Corinthian Christians were, indeed, influenced by their culture and responded accordingly.

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