It’s always interesting to read a book which works hard to overturn a consensus. I’ve just finished a scholarly monograph which attempts to do just that: The Pauline Church and the Corinthian Ekklēsia by Richard Last.
Last’s aim is to set the Corinthian church in the context of Greco-Roman associations. He thinks previous scholarship has overestimated both the size and the distinctiveness of the Corinthian church. As he makes his case he pays particular attention to questions of membership dues, elections of officers, and honorific awards.
A lot of scholars have tried to find points of comparison for the first-century church: the most common models suggested are synagogues, philosophical cults or schools and voluntary associations. Last (following his mentor Kloppenborg) suggests that this is mistaken: philosophical groups and synagogues are simply varieties of association. Synagogue, in fact, is just one of several words that can be used to refer to an association, and the word ekklēsia (church) can also be used in an association context. He therefore uses the phrases Christ group and YHWH group to refer to Christian and Jewish groups respectively. The latter is an odd description, since no member of such a group would ever have used it. Perhaps Torah group would have been more descriptive.
The benefit of this is that he can then look at the kind of features which marked associations fairly generally in the ancient world, without ruling any particular feature out of court by his starting definitions. The problem is that by drawing the field so widely, the term becomes increasingly vague. In today’s world, there are ways in which we could class church, football, stamp-collecting, yoga, retained fire-fighting and Territorial Army as “hobbies”. Such a classification is at least as unhelpful in several respects as it may be helpful in others.
By taking this approach he is at least able to identify a number of ways in which prior judgements about the early churches and the association model owe more to assumptions than to evidence. Some of the more interesting questions he raises, at least for me, come from his case that membership dues should be presumed to have been expected, unless there is evidence to the contrary. This has quite a lot to say about how we think of early church meetings. He is in agreement with Edward Adams’ case that too much has been invested in the model of “house church” and other (rented) meeting spaces should be given much greater consideration. This model also questions the assumption of a newish consensus that Paul’s Christians live at or near subsistence level, in favour of seeing them having at least a modest surplus.
He is also particularly interesting on the question of elections, arguing that like other associations, Paul’s Christ group at Corinth elected “temporary, rotating, officers” (p183). In particular, he suggests that the otherwise baffling language of 1 Corinthians 11:19 “there have to be factions among you” is a mistranslation better interpreted as “elections are necessary”. Other language in these verses may also be better understood in this context.
I find this fascinating, even while I hesitate before being fully persuaded. I think Last identifies a language problem very clearly, but I’m not sure his solution makes the most sense of the overall context. On my reading, some senior members (Stephanas and his household), far from being emissaries of the church, are crying on Paul’s shoulder about the way they’ve been treated. Paul’s injunction is that the church should “submit” (ὑποτάσσησθε – 16.16) to such people. It doesn’t fit well with Last’s scenario that Paul is supporting the church in replacing their present leaders with a new set.
Finally, I note Last’s view that the church gave honorifics to its members, crowns (or at least laurels) and inscriptions (at least on lists) “to encourage members to make the financial contributions that their club needed in order for its survival or reputational enhancement” (p151). This is most interesting when it is related to the Jerusalem collection: I find the idea of a long list of Gentile names being inscribed as benefactors and despatched with the collection rather intriguing. It is another example of typical associational behaviour.
Here, I think I agree with Last that some such practices may have been going on in the Corinthian Christ group. I am much less certain that Paul approved of all such practices, or encouraged them as an associational norm. Nearly everything he says about honour turns such awards upside down, whether it is the honour of being publically beaten, or the underlying symbolic value of the foolishness of Christ crucified. It is hard to see typical association honorifics as anything other than “the wisdom of this age” (1 Cor 2:6).
Perhaps for me, this is the greatest weakness of Last’s fascinating exploration. He doesn’t bring this often ground-breaking analysis into any real interaction with the theological and ideological content of Paul’s rhetoric, which has a great deal to say about honour, exemplary leadership and achievement. It may be ideal, and it may exist more in Paul’s head than the Corinthian reality, but it is, nonetheless, the most unavoidable fact on the page that Paul is heavily invested in a rather different cursus honorum to the Roman model.
In the end, then, I am unpersuaded of the thesis as a whole, but find many parts of it absolutely fascinating, and well worth giving a great deal more thought to his many detailed observations, well-researched comparisons and intriguing arguments.