Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Lessons from the workshops of Corinth

So, I'm pondering the second half of my chapter on the social location of the Pauline communities (while listening to Chacago Transit Authority) and formulating a thesis (as you do when writing a dissertation - though some might think I should have formulated a thesis already, but let's not go there!) and it strikes me that it might have implications for how we understand church today.

The thesis is simple (and not very original - but I'm doing a review dissertation, so originality is not expected): Paul was a craft worker - a tentmaker, probably a worker in leather rather than a weaver of cloth - who worked from sunrise to sunset in a workshop with others in the same trade. He probably slept at the back of the workshop or on a mezzanine floor above his bench; maybe in a first floor room. He would have eaten there or in the popina (the Roman equivalent of a fast food outlet) on the corner of the street, where for a few pennies he'd have picked a chunck of bread and vegetable stew.

So, where did church and mission happen? In the workshop. As he worked, he talked; his audience was his fellow workers, customers, passers-by drawn by a vigorous conversation. Nearly everyone who heard him speak would have been craft workers or slaves from customers houses come to place or collect orders. This explains why the Pauline communities were dominated by artisans and why there's such a stress on working for a living and sharing what you've made with those who haven't had such a good day or week as you.

It possibly has implications for how we read 1 Corinthians 11-14. Scholars generally agree that this teaching refers to the gathering of believers around a meal for what we now call 'worship' (Paul wouldn't have called it that, however). The apostle envisages prayer and prophecy, teaching and learning all in the context of a meal, at the heart of which was a remembering of Jesus and the cross. Many reckon it was loosely based on the Graeco-Roman symposium (and they are probably right).

But what if, instead of taking place in a family home or appartment, Paul envisages the Corinthians gathered in a workshop, eating together at the end of the working day? In fact, it wouldn't have been like this for all the communities in Corinth because it's clear that one of the problems in some gatherings was that some started eating before others arrived. This implies that some didn't need to work until sunset, suggesting a degree of wealth (though not at all suggesting membership of the tiny social elite as some have argued). But it would almost certainly have been like this in Thessalonica where, from Paul's letters, we get the flavout of a small gathering that is very workshop-based.

It all leads me to the conclusion that Paul's communities were socially located in craft workers shops and appartments and therefore consisted overwhelmingly of poor to moderately ok working people. The typical member of a Pauline community was someone who had to work each day to ensure they got to eat, who worked long hours with their hands, who lived in a space not much bigger than a modern British garage and who were drawn to the faith of Paul by his stress on grace and forgiveness, sharing and economic mutuality.

And what does it tell us about church today? Possibly that it needs few of the trappings that we think are essential. Where a small group of people meet to eat, remember Jesus, pray for and support one another, there is church. So, why can't it be happening in pubs and restaurants, cafes and workplace meeting areas?

I've changed the music to Bowie's Station to Station as I return to dissertation writing wondering what this picture of the chruch says about the role of full-time paid ministers...


Sue Barker said...

I'm fascinated by the idea that they met in the workshop - I always imagined them meeting in each other's homes. But your thoughts mean that Paul could have taught throughout the day as they worked.

If our way of church life changed this much we would still need biblically trained folk to be able to explain the scriptures and maybe they would have to be non-stipendary.

simon said...

1 Thesalonians 2:1-12 suggests that Paul taugt as he worked.

The early Christians did meet in each other's homes but for many of them, their home was a room at the back or above a workshop. Very few of the early followers of Jesus lived in large houses.

Ia gree with the continuing need for biblically trained people who make their living in a variety of ways.

Charles said...

Fascinating post Thank you!
I guess this chimes in a lot with the kind of thing Reggie Mcneal talks about in Missional Renaissance and Hirsch talks about in Forgotten Ways handbook........but how to get from here to there?

simon said...

That's the key question for us, Charles.

I think all that close examination of the NT texts gives us is permission to be bold, to think in new ways about what our churches might look and feel like.

But it doesn't really give a working model because our culture is so different from that of the first century