Anyone who has studied Scripture has faced the challenge of understanding historical and cultural context. Asbury Theological Seminary professor Ben Witherington III has made a career of explaining just that with his series of “socio-rhetorical” commentaries on New Testament books. His new A Week in the Life of Corinth approaches the issue of cultural background with a different method: historical fiction.
The setting is the time of Paul’s residence in Corinth recorded by Luke in Acts 18. Witherington follows Paul as he works as a tent maker and through his appearance before Roman proconsul Gallio. Paul’s presence is a unifying element in Witherington’s fictional account, but the real protagonist is a freedman named Nicanor, a former slave of Erastos. Erastos is running for town aedile, a Roman magistrate akin to a treasurer (we know he wins from Romans 16:23 where he is mentioned as “Erastus”).
Witherington tells a story of intrigue that involves Erastos’s rival for the office of aedile, Aemilianus who is a ruthless man of privilege. Through the story we explore the role of the pagan temples in daily life as well as the complicated world of patron and client social roles. Nicanor is a man on the make whose loyalties and religious views are challenged. He is forced by circumstance to make life changing decisions.
The idea of teaching history through fiction is a time honored method. It makes the past come alive through story rather than lecture, showing rather than telling. If done well, historical fiction can open up a long gone era far more vividly than a straightforward history.
Witherington straddles the fence as he both tells and shows. His story is interspersed with “A Closer Look” inset boxes as well as maps and pictures that explain issues raised in the narrative. These can sometimes be distracting to the story flow, but serve well Witherington’s overall goal of providing background for Acts era Corinth.
Witherington’s plot and characters are strong enough to make reading the book pleasant. There are occasional anachronisms such as a reference to a horse’s stirrup (not used in Europe for several centuries), as well as Witherington’s corny references to such things as “an offer you can’t refuse” and “live long and prosper.”
The weakest point of the book, however, is Witherington’s imagining of a Christian worship service at the home of Erastos. Although Witherington uses a long quote from 1 Corinthians 11 when Paul leads the Lord’s supper, Witherington appends the communion service to the end of a common meal, which is something Paul specifically condemns in 1 Corinthians 11:20-22.
There is also questionable use of women speaking in the assembly and the voice of Jesus speaking through a prophetess in an assembly. One must be careful about literally putting words in Jesus’ mouth (or, I suppose, putting Jesus’ words in someone else’s mouth) particularly in a context for which there is no precedent. I did find Witherington’s application of 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 regarding a visitor to the assembly intriguing.
Other theological biases (or modern projections) appear when slaves play the lyre during hymn singing (another anachronism) and communion is taken by dipping bread in a goblet of wine. The goal is for our worship to look like those of the first century rather than vice versa.
Despite the frustrations, the novel has enough useful historical background material to reward the critical reader. The preacher, Bible class teacher or independent student will find value from Witherington’s foray into historical fiction. A Week in the Life of Corinth stands as a useful companion to the standard commentary and reference works.