Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Corinth, the First City of Greece: An Urban History of Late Antique Cult and Religion

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Corinth, the First City of Greece: An Urban History of Late Antique Cult and Religion

Article excerpt

Corinth, The First City of Greece: An Urban History of Late Antique Cult and Religion, by Richard M. Rothaus. Religions in the Graeco-Roman World 139. Leiden: Brill, 2000. Pp. x + 173. $75.00 (cloth).

Readers may well wonder whether a book whose subject matter lies outside the ordinary purview of NT studies deserves notice. Rothaus looks at Corinth in the fourth through sixth centuries, only occasionally touching on earlier centuries. Yet the book merits attention, and not simply because its geographical focus is near and dear to the hearts of those interested in the first urban Christians. What the author undertakes has obvious ramifications for NT scholars: he writes a history of religion in Corinth and its environs (Kenchreai, Isthmia, Lechaion), focusing on the interaction between polytheism and Christianity; he bases this history on the rich archaeological record of the Corinthia and attempts to integrate it with the literary record; and, as he leads readers through the many categories of archaeological data, he evaluates excavation reports and challenges many of the reigning interpretations of the data. Thus, the book, which is not without serious flaws, is significant to NT scholars for several reasons. First, Rothaus offers synthetic and integrative treatment of a topic that lacks such studies. Second, he models the kind of history writing NT scholars would do well to emulate as they situate early Christian communities socially. In addition, the book is a serviceable map both to Corinth's archaeological record and to the excavations that unearthed and assembled it, making it as relevant to scholars of early Roman Corinth as to scholars of late antiquity.

The book has nine chapters, the first two of which serve as an introduction to the body of the study in chs. 3-8. Chapter 1, "Reconsidering Late Antique Religion," offers a seven-page statement of how Rothaus approaches his subject. The book's focus is cultic practice, because the material record speaks more directly about religious activity than about religious beliefs. From this perspective, Rothaus finds the labels Christian and pagan understood as mutually exclusive categories inappropriate. For at Corinth there appears to be a range of cultic activities, some of which both Christians and polytheists could perform. The second introductory chapter, "The Late Antique City," introduces us to Corinth in the late Roman period. There, in twenty-one pages, Rothaus characterizes the social and political realities of late antique Roman Greece generally. Then he turns to the archaeological record to document the Corinthian situation. From the fourth to the sixth centuries, the city suffered significant damage on occasion, brought about by seismic or (perhaps) barbarian activity, and its civic center underwent major alteration. Yet Rothaus also finds evidence of its resilience, general prosperity, and remarkable continuity with earlier centuries. For instance, he finds little evidence for the building of rural villas and thus no sign of the decentralization that overtook the western empire at this time.

The next six chapters, the heart of the book, use Corinth's considerable (though fragmentary) material record to characterize the changing religious topography of Corinth and other nearby sites in the late Roman period. The major religious change of the time was the christianization of the empire and the concomitant decline of polytheism, and Rothaus is keen to characterize that shift on Corinthian soil. Contrary to what the growing hegemony of Christianity might suggest, Rothaus sees polytheism maintaining its vitality in Corinth, although it does change. Thus, Rothaus seeks to show throughout the body of the book that it is most accurate to speak of Christianity and polytheism coexisting, not of the former superseding or wiping out the latter, in late Roman Corinth.

Two chapters, the third and the eighth, articulate this position the most clearly and fully. …

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