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Corinth in Contrast: Some Reflective Notes

I was fortunate enough to spend the last four days in Austin, Texas at the Corinth in Contrast conference.  The conference sought to bring together archaeologists working in Corinth and scholars interested in New Testament studies, particularly the work of Paul and his correspondents in Corinth.  The hope was to produce more informed scholars on both sides of the discussion: archaeologists, on the one hand, who have a better idea of the impact of their work on the field of New Testament studies, and, on the other hand, New Testament scholars who have a more solid grasp significant, ongoing work at Corinth.  As I’ve blogged here in the run up to the conference, the theme was “studies in inequality” and generally speaking the papers presented showed a real willingness to attempt to understand inequality in Hellenistic and Roman Corinth.

So, here are a few of my notes on what was a pretty illuminating four days:

1. While it comes as no surprise, the folks who studied the New Testament were generally more engaged with archaeology than the archaeologists were with New Testament texts. In fact, many of the New Testament scholars had significant experience doing field work or were directing their own projects.  This almost certainly followed the age old precedent of  Biblical archaeology, which one could argue dates to Late Antiquity and the excavations of St. Helena.  I couldn’t help think that archaeologists will probably benefit by the sustained interested in their field by New Testament scholars especially as resources to Classical studies continue to decline.

2. Mechanisms of inequality.  The scholars working in New Testament studies had much clearer ideas about how individuals or groups in Corinth produced inequality.  Steve Friesen and James Walters, for example, both argued that ritual forms of interaction served to reinforce and challenge (at different times) unequal relationships in the Pauline community.  Among the archaeologists, Guy Sanders identified share-cropping as a method for maintaining economic inequality and a cycle of dependency; Sarah James saw the political arrangements following the sack of Corinth in 146 as crucial context for a hitherto overlooked group of Corinthians who probably struggled for an economic and political place within Greek society as much as they have within the dominant historical narrative of the city.  Pettegrew suggested that inequality may have been a product of Corinth’s place as an emporium in the ancient world and seemed to suggest that market forced created a kind of inequality in a way that our image of a state sponsored diolkos would not. (The diolkos was the supposed road across the Isthmus of Corinth ostensibly designed to facilitate dragging ships between the Corinthian and Saronic gulf).

3. Inequality and Marx.  One thing that really struck me as a historian was the almost complete absence of Marx from the conference. Marx, to my mind, was the foremost theorist of inequality in the academic world today.  In fact, it would be fair to suggest that Marx’s critique of social inequality was central to our imagining of a future where social, economic, and political inequality did not exist.  While it is always easy to say that Marx lurked in the background of many of these papers (and to be fair Guy Sanders did mention Marx and James Walters referenced Althusser), it really amazed me that Marx’s interest in the material conditions of inequality and his later use by so many literary theorists did not form a central axis around which New Testament scholars and archaeologists could find common methodological ground.

4. Religion and Inequality.  It’s hardly surprising, of course, that a conference that combines New Testament scholars and archaeologists would understand religion to be a major mechanism for producing (and challenging) inequality in the ancient world, but at the same time, it was remarkable to see the difficulty archaeology has in penetrating the dense intersection of cult, economy, and society.  Ron Stroud’s paper on Corinthian Magic and Ritual did the best at this by looking at the archaeological evidence for the activities surrounding the use of curse tablets at the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore at Corinth during the Roman period.  He was successful in suggesting that the rituals surrounding the use of curse tablets represented the activities of a group who were alienated from access to more highly structured and regulated types of religious power.  In the case of the curse tablets from Demeter and Kore at Corinth, these individuals appeared to be women who sought recourse to both personal and social grievances by appeals to black magic.

5. Historical Inequality. One thing that wanted to hear more about at the conference is the historiography (if you will) of inequality.  In other words, I wanted to understand a bit more about how our expectations and understanding of (in)equality have shaped our reading of the ancient world. Steve Fiesen’s opening remarks prompted me to consider the crucial link between teaching about inequality in the past and producing a better future.  Michael White’s closing remarks returned to some of these point by pointing out how different expectations of equality were in the ancient world and how the elaborately dendridic systems of patronage the created social cohesion, in fact, relied upon certain expectations of inequality to function. If nothing else the relationship between the patron and client (in its simplest form) implied a difference in power between the two parts of the dyad. A couple of papers suggested that the inequality of the ancient world depended, at least in part, on our approach to the past, how we have organized our evidence from the past, and what we think it means.  Sarah Lepinski for example, pointed out that the lack of interest in Roman wall painting and the social and cultural networks involved in its production stemmed in part from the way tendency in the modern nation of Greece to overlook a “colonial” period in its own history.  By overlooking the Roman period we have consigned Roman Greeks to an unequal status both to the dominant Roman power and to earlier “free” Greeks of the Classical period.

The opportunity to contemplate these ideas was the product of a brilliantly organized conference with plenty of time for informal discussions, engaging plenary sessions, and fantastic logistical coordination. The conference experience easily ranks among the best that I’ve encountered.  Thanks to everyone involved from the organizers, Steve Friesen, Daniel Schowalkter, and Sarah James to the graduate assistant Ann Morgan!

One more thing, David Pettegrew has promised some comments of his own on the conference over at his new Corinthian Matters blog.  They aren’t posted yet, but keep your eyes peeled!

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