Power, status and influence in Paul’s Corinth – Student dissertation (part 2)

In Part 1 of Newman graduand Isabella Wray‘s examination of Paul’s use of ‘slave’ and ‘freedman’ in 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 she described the geopolitical setting of Corinth and emphasised how the tumultuous events of the re-establishment of this Roman colony contributed to creating a climate in which social advancement was made possible even for those who would normally have been excluded by law from it – namely freed slaves (the apeleutheroi). This excerpt develops this theme by including an example of just such a freedman, Babbius Philinus.

As Isabella remarked during one tutorial, people like Babbius must have sprung into the minds of the Corinthian readers at his mention of ἀπελεύθερος (apeleutheros), in v.22…

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


Isabella Wray

Once again we are grateful to Isabella for allowing us to use her work. 

1.5 The ambiguity in status at Corinth

Isabella Wray

The absence of the “extreme top” (Meeks, 1983, p.73) of the social strata in Paul’s movement is telling of Corinthian society as a whole. Epigraphic evidence supports Strabo’s (2016) claim that freed persons dominated Corinthian society, and more so, unlike the other Imperial provinces, freed persons and freed born made up at least some of the ruling class (Millis, 2014, p.38). The epigraphic and archaeological evidence shows freedmen in ruling positions which would be illegal for them to hold elsewhere in the Empire. One example of this is presented by Benjamin Millis (2014, pp.38-53) whose evidence portrays the career of one of the most prestigious members of Corinth society in the Julio-Claudian era. The career and life of Babbius Philinus encapsulated and displayed the opportunity for upward social mobility at Corinth for ambitious freedmen. Evidentially from his own wealth, Babbius Philinus had an impressive monument erected in the Western agora proclaiming a Latin inscription translated as, “Cnaeus Babbius Philinus, aedile, pontifex, undertook the construction at his own expense, and the same, as duovir, approved it.” (Hagner, et al, 2000 p.9).

The inscription of aedile Babbius Philinus at Corinth. Image: http://corinth.sas.upenn.edu/ad150wftemple.html

As duoviri iure dicundo (chief magistrate), Babbius proclaims his position which was one of the highest roles held in the Corinth administration. In doing so, his own status, having achieved the height of social mobility, was flaunted for all visitors to Corinth. Erected in the time of Tiberius (Hagner, et al, 2000, p.9), Paul would have been faced with this monument during his own work in the same  agora less than two decades later. However, this flaunting of status has been revealed by scholars such as Murphy O’Connor (2002. P.27) as a sign of Babbius’ personal deep insecurities regarding his status and achievements. This insecurity displayed by Babbius projects a symbol of status ambiguity and complexity of libertas (free) status and casts doubts on existing ideas around the first century Corinthians. Additionally, the status symbols projected by Babbius can shed light on why Paul repeatedly reinforces his own authority as an Apostle in his writings. For example, it could be said that Paul is reflecting the ambiguity over his status and is ‘flaunting’ his authority as a reflection of his insecurities, which is evident in his repeated defence as a tentmaker (1 Cor 4:10-13, 1 Cor 9: 1-19 and 2 Cor 11:7-9). In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul lists out his credentials to assert his authority as an Apostle (Phil 3: 2-5) to defend his status.

The complexity in status at Corinth is based in the structuring of its managerial positions which were quickly and easily filled by eager and grateful freed persons (Millis, 2014, p.45). The re-establishment of the transportation systems earlier destroyed by Mummius were crucial for the continuation of power and dominance for the Empire. With the reconstruction of the city in mind, wealthy senators in Rome were willing to bend the laws regarding administration roles at Corinth to allow for ardent men (of whom most were freedmen) seeking to enhance their own social mobility to take these roles (Millis, 2014, p.48). Whereas elsewhere in the empire to achieve high-status careers, birth and wealth were the defining factors (Horrell, 1996, p.66), at Corinth the organisation of the city was unique. What quickly replaced the overbearing presence of the armed military, which would have put off many trading visitors, was an administration reliant on an “elaborate network” of personal relationships within the household codes and a patron-client structure. Paul would observe the city ruled by “wealthy and powerful magnates, lacking even the minimal prestige of ‘noble’ birth” (Horsley, 2004, p.12), who retained their positions by exploiting lower status members of society. The wealthy and powerful rulers at Corinth made up only 1% of the population in Corinthia, as artisans, landlords and tradesmen they earned an annual income more than eight times that of the poorest (Sanders, 2014, p.122). Although a minority, the elite’s power and influence was seen and felt throughout the city thanks to the visibility of men like Babbius.

1.6 Patron-Client relationships and the Roman symbolic order

One cannot investigate the status complexities of the Corinthian population, particularly the slaves and freed persons, without first understanding the patron-client structure that abounded throughout the colony in Paul’s time. The patron-client relationship was a transaction of obligations, wherein the patron offered money, work, protection and influence and in turn the client would provide their bodies as service to their patron (Dunn, 1999, p.51). Every member of society in Corinth was party to the patron-client relationship structure even “the senior figures in the Imperial administration were the Emperor’s clients” (Dunn, 1999, p.51). However, being a client did not necessarily equate to low status or power because the Emperor’s clients within the administration held a great deal of power over the masses. Clearly, these clients who were also patrons were of high status and possessed great influence and a great number of clients themselves. The higher status people had more wealth and with more wealth came more dependant clients; it was a “reality that [being] subservient to a powerful patron was the surest route to power for oneself” (Martin, 1990, p.29). The Emperor was patron to the whole Empire and in return for their security the clients offered themselves as a sacrifice to serve his interests (Chow, 1982, p.41). People working and living in the city of Corinth was constantly reminded of this hierarchical power structure serving the interests of the Emperor by “symbols which convey the power and presence of the Emperor” (Chow, 1982, p.41). Temples, coins, monuments and statues acted as a constant symbolic reminder to all Corinthians that Emperors were all powerful masters and patrons worthy of praise by their subjects.

The social theory of a symbolic order was first developed by Berger and Luckmann (2011). This theory was taken up by Horrell (1996) and applied to Paul’s community at Corinth in The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence in a quest to achieve a deeper understanding of Corinth’s social context. The symbolic order in first century Corinth was relatively typical for Roman social structuring, this social structure (or order) was foundational to the power of the Imperial family in Rome and to the prevention of riots or revolution. The hierarchical distribution of power throughout the Roman world was reinforced and justified by a symbolic order which was displayed by, and performed through several aspects of society (Horrell, 1996, p.44). Alongside the hero cult was the veneration of the Emperor as the State religion for all the Roman Empire, and monuments were regularly erected by the residents of the Empire in appreciation for the security the Emperor provided. Members of society engaged in this symbolic order through the Imperial cult practices on certain days which were often celebrated by holding athletic games at the same time (Winter, 2015, p.5). In Corinth, judicial hearings were publicly held in the court situated at the centre of the polis and one of the ways in which the power of the upper strata was reinforced was their regular use of the public court to reclaim debts and to settle disputes. Horrell (1996, p.70) identifies how the wealthy Corinthians had regular and open access to the courts and often used them as “a way of upholding honour”. The law courts were symbols where social control was exercised and projected by their prefence to people of higher status. Lower status people would be subjected to much harsher judgements than high status citizens (Horsley, 2004, p.88). Paul discusses this issue in his letter where he openly condemns the use of law courts to settle issues between his followers: “When any of you has a grievance against another, do you dare to take it to court before the unrighteous, instead of taking it before the saints?” (1 Cor 6:1), Paul appears to be defiantly opposed to the use of the Roman law courts.

The complexity and confusion over status in Corinth at Paul’s time cannot be overestimated. To jump to conclusions regarding the status and power of Paul’s congregation without a close examination and amalgamation of the evidence would be hasty and misleading (Lyall, 1970, p.73). These assumptions surrounding Paul’s advice and his hearers has led to many a misunderstanding (Avalos, 2013, p.98.) One of the clearest examples of this is the translation of 1 Corinthians 7:21-24, where Paul appears to be instructing slaves to remain as they are. The overall theme of 1 Corinthians 7, has been traditionally summarised as Paul advocating that all Christ followers at Corinth should remain in their social position (Avalos, 2013, p.98). However, postcolonial studies of this letter highlight alternative possibilities behind Paul’s instructions here (Stanley, 2011, p.55), particularly in regards to social status.

Next post: The making of a freedperson

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