It’s an unusual idea for a Christian academic book – use the form of the novella to tell a story. That’s what Ben Witherington, American New Testament Scholar at Asbury Theological Seminary, did with A Week in the Life of Cornith. He wrote a novella, and made life in Corinth at the time of St. Paul come alive.
Corinth is one of the “cities of St. Paul,” and one where the apostle lived for an extended period. In Witherington’s story, St. Paul is a character, but not the major character. That title belongs to Nicanor, a freedman, who is establishing his various business activities, making alliances, developing contacts and networks. He’s a former tutor in the family of Erastos, a wealthy landowner who has come to follow the new religion called Christianity. (Erastus – with a u – and Nicanor are two names belonging to two of the original seven deacons appointed by the early church in Jerusalem; they served with the more well known Stephen.)
Wrapped all around the story are sidebars about aspects of life in Corinth and the Roman Empire. They include factual information of gladiators and gladiatorial schools, slavery, Corinth’s destruction and rebirth as a Roman colony, Paul’s physical appearance, how patronage functioned in Roman society, the role of money and bartering, the education of children, the Roman baths, food establishments, and many other subjects. Also included are photographs, city maps and diagrams of Roman homes, villas and other structures.
All of this factual information supplements how Witherington integrates historical understanding into a fictional narrative. And it works, and works well.
While not the main character, St. Paul is a character, living with a couple from Rome (the Prisca or Priscilla and Aquila of the Bible) and working as a tentmaker to support himself. He is facing a trial before the proconsul Gallio (a real person and a brother of Seneca the Younger, the Roman philosopher and statesman). And he will also play a critical role in the lives of both Erastos and Nicanor.
What A Week in the Life of Corinth does is to make Roman history and early Christian history approachable and understandable. It also gives history the sense of immediacy, that the reader is right there with the characters, both fictional and real, whether it’s the smell of the streets in the Corinth slums or the gluttony of a rich men’s banquet.
It’s life as St. Paul and the early Christians experienced it.