Honour and Conflict in the Ancient World: 1 Corinthians in Its Greco-Roman Social Setting
Mark Finney has produced a helpful volume that attempts to read 1 Corinthians in its social context. Of central importance to this reading is the cultural construct of honor and shame. These concepts are also important in many places today, though in the West, honor and shame have been minimized as controlling factors in behavior.
Finney begins by discussing his approach to the topic. He notes that his study of 1 Corinthians will explore the notion of honor and consider the role of honor (and its pursuit) in the conflicts described in the letter (pp. 1–2). Chapter 1 evaluates the use of honor and shame in biblical studies. Finney is skeptical of approaches that simply use data from modern Mediterranean cultures to understand honor and shame in the ancient context (pp. 5–8). Further, he insists that one should draw one’s understanding of what is honorable and shameful in a specific context from the ancient data (pp. 8–12). He does not dismiss modern data entirely but rather realizes its drawbacks and approaches such data with caution. Sometimes such information is too quickly applied to the New Testament text and results in a simplistic or stereotypical reading of the New Testament. Those who are from contexts where honor and shame is not emphasized can easily make this error.
Finney’s approach has the potential of avoiding two different but related errors. First, it assures (as much as presently possible) that his conclusions accurately reflect the ancient world (see, e.g., p. 9). Second, Finney acknowledges that honor and shame systems can be realized by different (even contradictory) behaviors (the content of what is honorable and shameful) in different contexts, and he tries to determine the content specific to Corinth (pp. 9–10). This avoids the identification of one’s own cultural honor and shame content with that of the biblical text. Those from cultures that emphasize honor and shame are more susceptible to this problem. One cannot assume, just because the New Testament was written in an honor and shame context, that one’s own specifics are the same as those of the biblical world. It is the honor and shame value system that is similar, not the specific actions that are honorable and shameful.
In chapter 2, Finney describes honor and shame, tracing their expression from Homer through the Roman period in which the New Testament was written. The pursuit of honor motivated people during this period (pp. 28, 33, 35, 48, and throughout), so much so that one’s life was not as valuable as one’s honor. Finney states, “The priority of death with honour is preferable to a life of shame” (p. 30). Also, results, not intention, were what mattered. For example, courage was not honorable or valuable if the courage failed to accomplish its intended results (p. 25). This chapter and the previous are valuable as an introduction to honor and shame and appropriate methodology.
Chapter 3 discusses aspects of the Corinthian context that will be useful for understanding the impact of honor on Finney’s interpretation of 1 Corinthians. Honor in political and religious contexts (although such a distinction is anachronistic, as Finney no doubt is aware) in a Roman colony such as Corinth was a central concern (pp. 57–63). In this chapter, Finney discusses the size and meetings of the Corinthian church and concludes that the church probably was composed of three or four house churches that met regularly and shared an occasional large meeting (possibly monthly) (pp. 63–68).
Chapters 4 through 7 explore 1 Corinthians in light of the context he has described. Here is where Finney provides the exegetical payoff of his approach. He does not have the space to pursue detailed exegetical analysis (see p. 4). Nevertheless, his approach illuminates the text in many helpful ways. Finney’s discussion of the role of honor in conflict helps make sense of the factions that are described in 1 Corinthians 1:11–13 and the challenge to Paul’s authority (pp. 72–79). Honor is at stake.
Some readers will desire greater coverage of issues. For example, his discussion of the court case in 1 Corinthians 6:1–11 is too brief to get into the specifics of the issues involved (pp. 121–26). He provides a helpful overview of the Roman context and a brief discussion of the passage and concludes that the Corinthians’ actions were shameful (p. 126). Unfortunately, this passage is complex, with numerous issues involved. Finney’s main goal is accomplished. He demonstrates that honor is involved, but the exegetical payoff is minimal. Also, I was hoping to see how his approach illuminated 1 Corinthians 7:21b, which is ambiguous as to whether Paul is encouraging slaves to seek freedom (pp. 142–44). However, his discussion does little to shed light on this difficult passage. His focus is on a slave’s freedom in Christ (p. 144). Nevertheless, although readers may disagree on points of interpretation, Finney has provided an approach to 1 Corinthians that takes seriously an important aspect of the book’s Corinthian context.
Finney’s discussion of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15 is very helpful (pp. 209–18). He discusses ancient views of the afterlife and the generally negative view associated with the body. It is likely that new believers had come into the church who would have been troubled by a bodily resurrection (p. 217). Given the general beliefs of the Roman world, Paul needed to clarify his teaching on this matter, namely, that the believer could expect a transformed resurrected body (pp. 216–17).
A brief conclusion follows chapter 7 and summarizes Finney’s arguments (pp. 219–23). The volume concludes with a bibliography (pp. 225–66) and two indexes: ancient sources and authors (pp. 267–88).
This is a valuable study. Although this volume is focused on 1 Corinthians, it can contribute to a clearer understanding of much of the New Testament (chapters 1–3 are especially widely applicable). This book’s careful methodology and important topic help illuminate a portion of the New Testament world often lost today. Any attempt to understand the New Testament in its ancient context is better than those approaches that ignore it. As more research reveals more about Corinth, studies such as Finney’s will have aspects confirmed, modified, or rejected. Also, his brief treatment of many passages points to further work needed in this area. Finally, given the state of current knowledge, Finney’s approach and others like it provide a glimpse of the New Testament from the perspective of the original participants in the communicative process.
About the Contributors
Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God’s Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ’s love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. Dr. Fantin’s research interests include the first-century world, Greek language and linguistics, exegetical method, and exegesis of the prison epistles. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.