Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Speaking In Tongues (part 3)

Corinth was a very wealthy city, as it was a center of commerce.  Naturally, a city that is a center of commerce is also an intersection of culture as well.  Corinth was situated on the isthmus that connected the area of Achaia with that of Macedonia and Thrace, all of which, taken together (along with some islands), form the area generally referred to as Greece.  Situated on the isthmus, Corinth had two harbors, east and west, thus effectively connecting Asia with Italy (Rome most importantly) and by extension the rest of the known western world. 

One can easily imagine Corinth’s being viewed as a quite attractive place to do business.  Owing to that, it would also be an ideal place from which to exert cultural influence, which probably accounts for the fact that Paul spends so much time with this body of Jesus-followers, taking great pains to influence it in its unique role as an embassy for the kingdom of the covenant God, and working diligently to see that it behaves in ways that will appropriately represent the King and the kingdom to which it claims its allegiance. 

At the same time, one can also understand how and why accepted practices of the wider culture could creep into this believing fellowship, as its members were constantly exposed to the ideologies and practices of practically the entire world, and almost always within what would have been a competitive commercial environment (not to mention the ongoing honor competition). 

Not only was Corinth a center of commerce, but it was also a center for sport, as it would play host to the Isthmian games (similar to the Olympics) every two years, while hosting the Imperial and Caesarean games every four years.  This, of course, would attract tourists, thereby increasing the opportunities for commerce as well as its cultural standing within the empire.  Though Corinth would have had its share of wealthy inhabitants, it would also have had its poor, with some in-between, therefore reflecting the variety of social levels which characterized the large cities of the ancient world. 

As one considers Paul’s letters to the church of Corinth, and hears him specifically dealing with the issue of speaking in tongues and what it would represent within the church and to those outside the church--- as the church lived and worshiped and exercised their spiritual gifts within a culture largely dependent on constructs of honor and shame (the pursuit of honor for social advancement in public and in private associations), care must be taken to never forget the underlying and quite visible, accepted, and enforced social stratifications and ordering of the ancient world. 

While taking care to consider the social stratifications and cultural cues of Corinth while observing Paul’s instructions to this congregation, it is also quite interesting to note that the very term “glossolalia,” which is used to denote what is generally believed to be the uniquely Christian practice of speaking in tongues, is a term that is in wide use long before this church in this city (or any church in any city) is on the scene.  This reminds an observer that it is not a term that had to originate with Christians for the purpose of explaining their ecstatic utterances, and that this church that was situated at the crossroads of the world did not have to explain itself or find a way to fit this particular practice into the ongoing honor competition of the day.  

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