'In Corinthians we get we get a pretty clear picture of a completely novel social experiment'
We asked popular historian, writer and co-presenter of the The Rest is History podcast, Tom Holland, to interview author Philip Plyming about his new book Being Real: The Apostle Paul's Hardship Narratives and the Stories we Tell Today.
Tom Holland: Philip, what is so interesting about two letters that an itinerant preacher wrote almost 2000 years ago?
Philip Plyming: Well you might expect me to say that 1 and 2 Corinthians are interesting because they are part of Christian scripture, and as a Christian I certainly think they are important for that reason. But what makes them really interesting is that in these two long letters we see a church and its founder struggling to understand and implement the radical social implications of the Christian gospel – which had only been around for 25 years or so. In other words, in these letters we get a glimpse of the chaos and conflict of a very young church trying to understand what it means to not only believe in the crucified and risen Jesus, but also live that out in every area of their lives. Ok, they seem to getting a few things wrong, but given the complete worldview shift that they have been confronted with, is that really so surprising?
Tom Holland: So, does it matter to our understanding of the letters to the Corinthians that Corinth was a Roman Colonia?
Philip Plyming: Absolutely it does, Tom. One of the mistakes we can make when we read letters to particular churches is to imagine that they were a group of Christians whose only other influences were other Christians. But the reality is that the most significant pressure on the Corinthian church was from the culture around it. And while Corinth was physically located in Greece and influenced by some the Greek rhetorical innovations of the time, the fact that it was a Roman Colonia (it was established by Julius Caesar just before he was assassinated) has two major implications for understanding the cultural forces at play. First, settled as it was with many ex-slaves, it had a level of social mobility that was typical of a Roman Colonia, and that speaks to the level of self-promotion that seemed to be normal in Corinth. Second, the priority given to human strength echoed with the statues you saw everywhere in a Roman Colonia. All the emperors projected an image of strength, which makes Paul’s narration of his own human weakness all the more remarkable
Tom Holland: And how far do you think we can reconstruct the lived experience of Christians in the Corinthian church from Paul’s letters to them?
Philip Plyming: This is a notoriously difficult question, because you can’t get away from the fact that in 1 and 2 Corinthians we are only hearing one side of the story. It’s like being on the train and someone is on their phone having a row with the person the other end of the line; you can get the gist of what is going on, but you can’t be certain. So we need to be careful not to overclaim from the material we have. However, simply from the issues Paul is addressing in his letters (which have clearly not come from nowhere) we can get a pretty clear picture that this was a diverse Christian community encompassing men and women, slave and free, rich and poor, Jew and Gentile. In other words, a completely novel social experiment (nowhere else in Corinth would such a group have come together). Yes, this was a community with a number of problems, but before we sit in judgement on them we might just wonder that such a community had even started in the first place.
Tom Holland: What sense of Paul’s personality do you get from the letters?
Philip Plyming: I’ve taught on Paul in all sorts of contexts over the last twenty years, and one of the things I have found is that people often see Paul as a man with a big brain and a mean face. New Testament scholars are partly to blame for this, because they spend so much time arguing over the finer points of Paul’s writing in Romans and Galatians, when he is at his most cerebral. But what I love about 1 and 2 Corinthians is we see a Paul who is much more emotional, as a man who cares deeply for his relationship with a church into which he poured 18 months of his life. Yes he gets cross (he feels there is a lot at stake in some of the decisions the Corinthians are making), but he is also deeply vulnerable about his own struggles, and that is what I have ended up exploring in the book. So my overall sense of Paul’s personality is that he was someone who was a real, not a plaster saint who was right all the time but someone with feelings, struggles, and above all a deep passion the revolutionary good news of Jesus Christ.
Tom Holland: What might surprise us in the book?
Philip Plyming: I think what might surprise people is how relevant some 2000 year old letters are for the contemporary world of social media. Because we live in a world of such rapid technological innovation, we can think that eras before our own have very little to say that can really be of use. But what I hope to show in this book is that the sort of things Paul was grappling with in his correspondence with the Corinthians church – questions of image, vulnerability and reputation – have a huge amount to say to us today, not least because the controlling theological message, namely the cross of Christ, is of enduring relevance. Hopefully my book shows us how.