Paul and the freedmen of Corinth – Student dissertation (part 1)

One of the highlights each year is working with undergraduate students on their dissertations. It is the time when they choose the topic they want to research – rather than it being imposed upon them – and apply all their learning and skills that they have gained throughout their three years with us. I have had the pleasure of supervising some excellent work this year. One of the dissertations, by graduand Isabella Wray, is particularly suited for this blog and, I think, many will find it interesting and add a new dimension to your reading of 1 Corinthians 7.

With Isabella’s generous permission, I thought that it would be fun to post excerpts from her work. It is not just a great example of the types of questions and issues that students can explore in our degree programme, but I am also sure that a number of people will appreciate learning a little more about Paul, Corinth and the church that he founded there.

Why ‘slaves’ and ‘free’?

Isabella Wray

Isabella was intrigued by this text that we had  studied in class in relation to Paul’s attitude to women and his community ethics within the Corinthian assembly. Why did Paul suddenly stop halfway through his teaching about marriage (7:1-16) to address circumcision and slavery, only to then pick up the theme of marriage once more (7:25-39)? Isabella was particularly interested in the references to slavery and manumission (the process through which a slave became a freedperson) and was not entirely convinced with my, rather off-hand, remark that this was just Paul, typically, getting side-tracked and his attempt to provide further examples of the principle he was attempting to present. Moreover, Isabella noted that the text relating to slavery and manumission was extremely ambiguous. Furthermore, she was struck by Paul’s language in this section, not just his use of δοῦλος (doulos) , ‘slave’, but also his singular use of ἀπελεύθερος (apeleutheros) , ‘freedman’ in 7:22. Paul uses this term only once in his entire writings; why here and what would it have meant to his Corinthian readers? Isabella’s interest in post-colonialism suggested to her that there might be a far deeper issue behind Paul’s choice of topic and words. The question that Isabella wanted to explore was how would these words have been understood by Paul’s readers? Why would someone who had ‘fought’ for their freedom want to then end up being a slave of Christ (7:22)? Was there anything specifically about the socio-political context of Corinth that would make these terms particularly pertinent and add to their rhetorical power?

Isabella combined historical and exegetical approaches to the text which was also  informed by the experiences she gained from her time at the site of Corinth the previous summer. You can read more about her time at Corinth in her Theologian in Progress blog.

Paul’s Liberating Theology in 1 Corinthians 7:21-24: The Freedperson’s Journey to Liberation


Isabella Wray

(Please note that all words and images – unless stated otherwise – are the property of Isabella Wray)

The following is an excerpt that provides the geopolitical context of Corinth, which highlights its rather singular nature and its relationship with Rome, as well as introducing the themes of ‘status’ ‘slavery,’ and ‘freedpersons’ that Isabella goes on to explore in greater depth. 

1.2 Making of the Corinth colony (Colonia Laus Julia Corinthiensis)

The city of Corinth was re-established as a Roman colony in 44 BCE by Julius Caesar. Its location is on a narrow Isthmus between Athens and Sparta and is overlooked by an Acropolis which made it a natural trade centre linking the Asian East to the Roman West. This link created a land-bridge between Athens and Sparta and was littered with many natural springs making the land agriculturally rich. Strabo (2016, loc.16367) situates the city as “commanding two harbours”, one, named Cenchrea, looks out towards Asia and the other, named Lechaio, looks out toward Italy.

Corinth had suffered a catastrophic invasion by the Romans in 146 BCE led by commanding officer Mummius, who in quick succession had destroyed Carthage and Corinth almost simultaneously (Beard, 2015, p.487).  During the invasion, Corinth was burned, the men were killed, and “the women and children sold into slavery” (Adams and Horrell, 2004, p.3). The impressive conquest of these trade cities by Mummius marked a turning point for the Empire from one of military might to a sophisticatedly managed political Empire (Beard, 2015, p.487). Strabo (2015, loc.16454) illustrates how the re-population of Corinth in 44 BCE consisted of colonists from all over the Empire and states that the new inhabitants “consisted of, for the most part, the descendants of freemen”. The population rapidly grew from this period as people were drawn to Corinth for its economic opportunities as the centre for trading activity (Adams and Horrell, 2004, p.3). By the middle of the Julio-Claudian period Corinth was “a fiercely competitive commercial centre” (Murphy O’Connor, 1999, p.799). By Paul’s arrival, Corinth was a multicultural centre of activity surrounded by several agorae (markets), selling a vast array of goods including tents such as Paul sold (Murphy O’Connor, 2002, p.15). A mercantile centre such as this would have bought profit to the Roman senate through taxation and was applied in such a complex manner that even the briefest of visits to Corinth would entail some charge.

Alongside the exotic merchandise, slaves were also bought and sold and by 48CE Corinth was described as being the centre of the Roman slave trade (Bartchy, 2003). Paul’s arrival in Corinth occurred when the polis was at its height of Roman sophisticated rule and had been awarded the Senatorial capital of Achaia. From Acts 18 we can estimate that Paul arrived in Corinth around 50CE and his ekklesia was established between his arrival and 52CE under the reign of Claudius (Dunn, 1995, p.10). Paul lived and worked among many traders at Corinth for approximately eighteen months. Paul’s place of trade, among the agora, would have an open front and would mean he came into contact with a variety of people. It is possible that from his store front (as in the picture below which shows the remains of a typical Corinthian store) he preached the Gospel (Hock, 2007, p.67).

Example of a shop at Corinth. Image: Isabella Wray 2016

1.3 Corinthian Economy

The gradual yet violent conquering of the Greek polis by Rome’s Emperors and their military generals over almost two centuries had by this point been typically masqueraded as an establishment of peace or Pax Romana. On this establishment, an elaborate judicial system had been implemented and was overseen by a burgeoning senatorial corporation only replicated elsewhere in Rome itself; Murphy O’Connor (2002, p.8) names Corinth “a miniature replica” of Rome. Thus, the imperialising of Corinth had put an end to its turbulent past and, at last, brought hope of a prosperous future; the Corinthians were apparently willing to overlook Rome’s “military and economic domination” (Horrell, 1996, p.70) – the violent enemy had now become the business partner. Violent conquering was required to bring order and thereafter peace and the peace and order was welcomed by the displaced and traumatised inhabitants of Corinth. By the middle of the first century, Rome and its empire had “evolved into an intensely competitive state, one that glorified the military and acclaimed violence and killing” (Frankopan, 2016, p.12). This competitiveness was central to Corinth’s success.

Competition underpinned Corinth society and is made evident through Paul’s Corinthian correspondence in which he uses athletic games imagery to project his message to his hearers. For example: “Do you not know that in a race the runners all compete, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win it” (1 Cor 9:24-25). Murphy O’Connor (2002, p.74) portrays Corinth as dependent on its competitive commercial trade whereby “material gain was the one true God”. Competition abounded among the high-status members of Corinth where not only wealth but, equally, honour would be vigorously fought for not just in the arena but throughout the polis (Engels, 1990, p.86). Rome had chosen Corinth as a site to be repopulated by ‘aliens’ from all over the Roman Empire who would find an unparalleled chance to be included in this economic success and this opportunity was repaid with “the loyalty and devotion of these groups” (Engels, 1990, p.17), to the Emperor through Imperial cult practices. The possibility of social mobility for Roman citizens would be visible for all inhabitants of the Empire, particularly for freed persons, where to join the elites a ‘noble’ heritage was usually required regardless of how much wealth a citizen had acquired (Horrell, 1996, p.65). However, unlike the rest of the Roman Empire, in Corinth, it was wealth and powerful referees (or patrons), and not status, that was the driving factor for the organization of its citizens (Millis, 2014, p.50). This meant that for the first time during the Empire, uniquely, Corinth was managed by freedmen who had succeeded in winning their own manumission and had in some cases amassed great wealth and had now succeeded in winning Roman high status.

The wealth accumulated at Corinth for Empire was derived from two main sources. The first of these sources was through the merchant trade taxes and duties which were sent to Rome by the municipal administrators of Corinth; possibly by the two duoviri (magistrates) or two aediles (city managers). These trading expenses were multifaceted and were applied through several avenues: harbour taxes, duty on cargo, expenses for hiring transit men and finally drivers or oxen to pull their goods over the dioklos (track) (Pettegrew, 2014, p.132). The second source of wealth came in the form of the ager republicus (the Roman owned land), where tenant farmers would pay taxes for the use of the now, Roman farmlands. In the mid-first century, around the time of Paul’s mission in Corinth “international commerce was of major significance to the city” (Sanders, 2014, p.120) and the “ager republicus of Corinth was producing considerable revenue for Rome” (James, 2014, p.19). Equal to that, the games attracted many people from neighbouring cities who stayed in tents during their stay (Hock, 2007). This presented an economic opportunity for Paul and his co-workers, Pricilla and Aquila to find work in the polis. By the mid-first century extreme poverty was experienced by many Corinthians and the divide between the rich and the poor had reached a new height (Theissen, 1982). So much debt and poverty was enforced onto those who lived outside the polis that many had little option but to become a slave to a wealthier master.

Next post: The politics of status on Roman Corinth

5 thoughts on “Paul and the freedmen of Corinth – Student dissertation (part 1)

  1. I can only assume that you must have read this dissertation with delight and some satisfaction. It is such a privilege to have a student who listens carefully enough to understand a teacher and then to challenge them.
    I have never noticed that interruption that takes place of Paul’s reflections on marriage.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Forgive me, I must have inadvertently pressed the “Send” button!
    Actually, I have never even recognised it as an interruption! I love the way that Isabella Wray moves to the essential issue which is that of economics. And, of course, she will also (I hope?) move to the essential issue of theology, of the way we speak about God. I have long been influenced by the work of Walter Hollenweger on the sociology and economics of the Corinthian church. Hollenweger taught just a mile or two down the road from Newman and was in Birmingham when I first arrived in the city in 1988. He showed that the controversy about the gifts of the Holy Spirit lay within the tension of the relationship between slaves and freedmen in the church and that Paul attempted to resolve this in the famous poem about love in 1 Corinthians 13. I think that he does something truly radical here. I also suspect that he failed. I doubt if the Corinthian church became the radically democratic community that the first letter points to but the letter remains a time bomb ticking away waiting for the moment when it will do its work in church and society.
    And there is apparently Paul displaying a blind spot regarding the relationship between men and women. Thus the interruption during teaching on marriage. I look forward to reading Isabella Wray’s reflection on this. It ought to be radically feminist in nature, not because it happens to


  3. My tablet is being a nuisance today!
    Not because it happens to be a current fashion but because Paul’s trajectory of thought is leading him towards this conclusion. He gets there in Galatians where he speaks of there being neither male nor female in Christ (I read recently that Paul uses the en Christo as a way of speaking about the relationship between the Son and the Father to which all humanity is invited). He seems to pull back in 1 Corinthians.
    I look forward to reading more of this excellent work. Many thanks for posting it!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you Stephen for your comments. I was very spoilt this year with the dissertations I supervised. This one is really the most suitable for this site, but there was also another excellent one that I think you would have really liked on a theology that includes those with dementia.
    Isabella’s contention is that Paul (or would it be the church?) ultimately failed in this radical equality. Her interest in this area sprang from a session we did looking at 1 Clement – the Corinthian church further along its journey. I like the image of a ticking time bomb, it still packs a punch every time I teach it.
    I am interested by your suggestion that Paul ‘pulls back’ a bit in 1 Corinthians. I would argue that the way chapter 7, for example, is structured suggests a rigidly imposed equity between both male and female – perhaps loaded towards the women in the socially radical implications.
    I’ll need to dig out Hollenweger – is this the one on Pentecostals or Pentecostalism?


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