It looms there, staring down at us, always watching, always knowing where we are and where we might go. The air thick with the salt of the Aegean, our sandals slap against marble tiles that line the ancient road of Roman Corinth and we listen on the wind for the voices of fish mongers and leather workers, creatures of every color and class and stripe from across the Empire who have washed ashore to find their fortunes.
At the fountain, where water used to flow in and out of arches carved out of stone and children would play and women gathered water for the day; it is always present, always in the line of sight. On the bema, where those accused stood before Praetorian guards, it's lofty height is the backdrop, the Acrocorinth, first a Greek acropolis then a Roman citadel and the home of the Temple to Aphrodite. The highest point of the raised city center, an ancient shrine of a by gone temple where the goddess herself was worshiped on the altar of prostitution. It is thought that more than 1,000 women served the temple at any given time in the first century, paying tribute through ritual shearing of their hair and giving their bodies over for sexual sacrifice.
It is in this city, in the shadow of the Acrocorinth and under the stronghold of temple sanctioned prostitution where the Apostle Paul joined forces with Prisca and Aquilla to preach the gospel to the hoards of people who flooded the city looking to sell their wares, achieve their wealth and attend the Isthmanian games. It is to the struggling community of the baptized where named city officials and slaves, former synagogue rulers and barbarians, wealthy benefactresses and newly made freedmen that Paul would write of community, give us words for the ages to express the many who are one, it is to this cacophony of humanity Paul would urge, "we are one body."
To know the story of Roman Corinth helps us take to heart the words of Paul's correspondence, sent first in response to reports from Chloe's people. To feel the thrum of the city, the vibe of human enterprise and the competition of wills gives us the backdrop needed to consider Paul's exhortation in context. When we understand the stronghold of Corinth was prostitution, we are able to read Paul's recommendations to women in worship in a new light.
In first century Corinth, much like today, women sold into prostitution were not free to leave of their own devices. In community of the baptized then, there must have been women who had been smuggled or purchased from the temples, liberated from commercial sex trade. We wonder then if this is why Erastus' name is so important; as the city aedile, did he make financial gifts for the freedom of women possible? Was Erastus instrumental in working together with Paul and Prisca in the freedom of women enslaved?
This backdrop then moves us to read chapter 11 regarding the covering of women's heads as they pray in a new light. Suddenly this text is no longer a restriction for women in worship, rather a compassionate consideration, the expectation of authentic community. Here Paul thinks of the women who have been set free from the temple, whose heads are shaven to mark them as prostitutes of Aphrodite and so, he asks women to cover so that the newly freed prostitutes are no longer ostracized by sight.
Perhaps all of scripture, just like the Corinthian correspondence must be parsed out this way, by women and men who will walk the ancient roads, study the lost civilizations and unearth the narratives of antiquity that inform our sacred texts. After all, our holy books are living breathing words, artifacts of revelation and the divine, human relationship. Perhaps our study of the people, the times and the stories out of which the texts are formed is as holy as the texts themselves.
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