Amidst a number of fields pooling their resources to examine early Christianity and the interaction of law and life, Bradley Bitner’s important book shows how Paul evoked the ways laws were constitutively embodied in Corinth’s physical space in order to renovate understandings of community and authority. Bitner argues that 1 Corinthians draws on language of colonial politeiai and juxtaposes with it God’s new constitution or “covenant.” Colonial constitutions not only lay beneath a city’s conceptual understanding and functioning but also physically dominated urban centers as monumental inscriptions. The provisions of a politeia similarly grounded practices of monumental thanksgiving for patronage, practices that functioned as reconstitutions of communal bonds. Against this background, Paul’s language of testimonial in 1 Cor 1:4-9 recycles such language to portray Christ as a patron whose benefits were testified to by Paul’s preaching and are to be confirmed in the eschatological future. Further, Paul’s intricate depiction of the community as a building or “temple” and himself as a “wise architect” (1 Cor 3:5-4:5) reconfigures his audience’s understanding of status and authority, grounded again in constitutional provisions for public building. As such, Paul addresses factionalism by imaginatively constructing a new community using the language of constitution and its monumental expressions. Throughout the book, Bitner judiciously and with agility traverses among literary, epigraphical, and archaeological evidence to create a space in which to understand anew how Paul’s communities creatively inhabited their civic space.
The book begins with methodological considerations. After briefly considering a broad history of reception of Paul as political actor, Bitner chooses among four contemporary approaches (philosophical—here, the recent turn to Paul among continental philosophers such as Taubes, Badiou, and Agamben; empire-critical; feminist; and social-historical), selecting a social-historical approach in order simply to understand Paul without reference to present-day concerns or applications. The compact second chapter treats J.A. Crook’s work on the relation between law and life in the Roman world. Crook argues that Roman legal history should analyze not just legal systems but also how such systems guided the everyday life of social interactions.
Chapter three begins reconstructing an understanding of the Corinthian colonial constitution. While we do not have the actual constitution enacted under the leadership of Julius Caesar in 44 B.C.E., Bitner plausibly argues (with the support of other scholars) that we can attain a general understanding of its contents and municipal setting by examining recovered constitutions from locales in Roman Spain—namely, those at the colonia Urso (founded in the same year as Corinth) and at the municipia Salpensa, Malaca, and Irni. Roman cities displayed their constitutions in their fora in the form of massive bronze tablets. As monuments, politeiai were quite literally and materially encountered by city inhabitants engaged in the basic life of the community. As a set of laws, Bitner explains, “the constitution plays an important role in structuring the physical space of the colony. From the monumental forum, to the network of roads, on to the boundaries of the colonial territory, magistrates and slaves alike moved through spaces that were constructed by the dynamic contact between lex, topography, and local culture” (71).
Within this legally constituted life in Corinth, another understanding of law and life operated among the Jewish community and, subsequently, the Christ-believing group attempting to understand its Jewish roots in light of the message about Jesus of Nazareth. So, in chapter four, Bitner feels it necessary to review evidence for a Corinthian Jewish community organized around synagogue life. First and Second Corinthians evince Paul’s extensive engagement both with Deuteronomy as covenantal text as well as assumed constitutive aspects of communal life (marked with the frequent phrase οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι). Chapter five addresses further methodological considerations pertaining to comparisons of constitutions and covenantal language in 1 Corinthians as epistle, a discussion of metaphor in preparation for exegesis of Paul’s building language, and reflections of the nature of Pauline rhetoric in the context of epistolary activity. In general, Bitner admirably attends not only to Paul’s rhetoric and programs of persuasion but also to the multiple ways such rhetoric could have been received by his audience.
Chapter six begins the second part of the book, applying the background work in the study’s first half to two passages of the letter’s initial chapters. First, Bitner approaches the thanksgiving period of 1:4-9, reviving Paul Schubert’s suggestion that the section most clearly evokes the language of Hellenistic and Roman epigraphy, particularly the Augustan inscription OGIS 456 thanking an ambassador for his work. Colonial constitutions regulated the city’s adoption of patrons (aside from the descendants of the colony’s founder) and thus directly impacted the choice of benefactors for whom monumental thanksgivings could be erected. (Bitner marshals evidence from Josephus and Philo that Jewish communities engaged in similar thanksgiving testimonials.) Such a background helps us understand Paul’s introductory thanksgiving; as in the inscribed testimonials, Paul thanks (εὐχαριστῶ) God that his testimony through the Spirit about Christ (Bitner’s deciphering of the vague τὸ μαρτύριον τοῦ Χριστοῦ in 1:6) has been and will be further confirmed (ἐβεβαιώθην and βεβαιώσει in 1:6 and 8) by Christ as “ambassador-patron” of God (as Bitner argues for the antecedent of the relative in 1:8), bringing the community into κοινωνία based on God’s fidelity (1:9). In this way, the period evokes “a testimonial to the merits of Christ, originally proclaimed at Corinth, that becomes fixed in symbolic or physical form to anchor the identity of the new community in relation to its patron and the privileges he has mediated” (182).
Civic patronage often took the form of funding for building projects. Bitner’s lengthy chapter seven, then, makes up the exegetical bulk of the study by arguing that the building metaphor of 1 Cor 3:5-4:5 (though significantly including 4:6) should also be understood in light of patronage language and provisions as governed by colonial politeiai. Roman building projects established and displayed precise building specifications. Bitner uses specifications for a temple in Lebadeia of Boeotia from the second century BCE ( IG VII 3073) as a main comparandum for understanding the echoes of such rules in 1 Corinthians. Normally, a project’s architect, though having the status and wage of a normal builder, was enjoined with the authority to interpret said specifications. These guidelines also tended to provide for payment of wages over the course of building, with final payment subject to approval by magistrates. Similarly, colonial and municipal constitutions themselves provided for competitive bidding among contractors, public display of contracts, oversight by city government, and final approval of work.
Paul also uses similar building language from Jeremiah (as he does in defending his authority elsewhere in the Corinthian correspondence; see 2 Cor 10 and 13). By inserting this prophetic language of commission to “build up” into the language of municipal building regulations, Paul communicates to members of his community their proper role within the new covenant-as-constitution. As in building provisions, Paul depicts the Corinthian community as a temple built by many workers, one of whom, Paul, is the “wise architect” (3:10) working for God. The conditionals of 3:13-15 appear as stipulations for approval of work, depicting Paul and Apollos, not as patrons to be extolled, but rather as lowly builders, shifting the community’s expectations about authority within the movement. Indeed, Bitner insists on “the total denigrating effect [of Paul’s ministerial language] with reference to the colonial politeia. . . the language of labor, and the insistence on recompense and evaluation are seen to act relentlessly in creating a sobering and socially unflattering profile” (261).
Bitner sees Paul’s devaluing of ministerial status (without diminishing his own relative power as “architect”) as targeting a specific situation among the Corinthian factions addressed in 1 Cor 1-4—likely not the actions or presentation of Apollos himself but the ways in which some in Corinth held him in excessive esteem. (Bitner suspects Crispus [1 Cor 1:14; cf. Acts 18:8] as the most likely suspect for the community leader and Apollos-partisan targeted here.) Paul’s language of thanksgiving acclamation at the dedication of a building helps assure that proper glory goes to God as “builder;” a frequent acclamation at such events was “αὔξι!” addressed to the one who funded the project, an honorific Paul evokes through the use of αὐξάνω in 3:6 and 7 to denote God’s function as builder. Bitner oddly saves for an excursus to the chapter (presumably because the verse falls outside the structure of the passage as he defines it) a discussion of the famously cryptic saying “not beyond what is written (τὸ μὴ ὑπὲρ ἃ γέγραπται)” of 4:6, which, in light of the preceding discussion, calls to mind warnings not to act against posted stipulations in monumental constructions. For Bitner, Paul metaphorically “remodels” (μετασχημάτισα εἰς) building imagery to apply it to the Corinthian community.
The payoff of the study for Bitner is that Paul “deconstructs” colonial language of patronage, building, and politeia by insisting that the motley crew constituting the Corinthian community is in fact a monumental temple of God with the crucified Christ as paradoxical patron, solidifying his own strange and humble authority as worker and architect.
Bitner’s argument, based on his 2013 dissertation for Macquarie University, yields new understanding of some famously troublesome aspects of 1 Cor 1-4 while providing an abundance of fuel for further investigation. Such room for inquiry is due not just to the generative nature of the constitutional metaphors as explained by Bitner but also because of Bitner’s methodological circumspection, which at times obstructs his quite worthwhile interdisciplinary endeavors. It is unclear to me why a social-historical approach needs to be quarantined (even heuristically) from other methods. Appeal to choosing “description” over “application” inserts a dubious hermeneutical distinction.1 And while Bitner admirably combats the division between Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds in critical scholarship, his insistence on proving that Jewish communities also participated in each broader convention under consideration threatens to reinsert the division with which he is trying to dispense. I suppose I mark these points (formal aspects of the argument’s structure more than anything) since they jar against the bulk of the argument, which successfully inhabits a multidimensional space among rhetoric, metaphor, materialism, law, and life. As such, it finds congenial company among other recent work taking seriously the material and spatial aspects of the politics of Pauline communities.
Further questions abound as one completes the book: how might we theorize the “figurative” relationship between a community (understood as individuals united as a people) and their material embodiment? Or: how does public opinion interact with shared space? While Paul’s application of building and patronage language to the gospel of a crucified messiah may “deconstruct” or challenge prevalent values, how might Corinthian reaction to this language serve to reinscribe imperial authority structures (as recent attention to “colonial ambivalence” suggests it surely would)? How does the colonial politeia continue to relate to life in Christ for a community understanding itself governed by a “covenant” as fictive “constitution?” (Here, Pauline evocation of communal acclamations as constituting koinonia through public opinion likely plays a role; the whole idea resonates with the recent work on glory and political economy by Giorgio Agamben, which Bitner briefly mentions in the notes.2) And how can we read the rest of 1 Corinthians as explaining how this constitutive covenant relates to communal life, both in conceptual and spatial/material terms? This book leaves me anticipating the many ways in which its benefits will continue to be confirmed in the future work of Bitner and those who build upon his foundation.
1. See on this, for example, Dale B. Martin, Sex and the Single Savior (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminister John Knox Press, 2006), 126-27.
2. Giorgio Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government, trans. Lorenzo Chiesa with Matteo Mandarini (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).