Take a trip with me to the mid-1st century, won’t you, aboard a ship bound for Corinth. Nicanor is our guide to one of the most important regions and cities in the New Testament. He also happens to be the main character in Ben Witherington’s delightful new book, A Week in the Life of Corinth. I’m told this book is the first in a new genre of historic nonfiction Witherington hopes to write to help the Church better understand and engage the 1st century NT world. Based on this solid first offering I hope it does well enough to justify more such books—imagine similar ones on Rome, Galatia, and Colossi!
A Week in the Life of Corinth is a piece of historical nonfiction that traces the life of one Nicanor, a manumitted—former, released slave—businessman-in-the-making who serves a successful tradesman, businessman, and political up-and-comer, Erastos. Along the way you meet a cast of fictitious characters that give flesh to Witherington’s tale and actual characters, like Pricilla, Aquilla, and the apostle Paul himself. You also encounter the typical staples of modern Corinthian life: forums, baths, marketplaces, medicine, politics, slavery, and many other facets that create a compelling, accurate world for Witherington’s historical fiction.
Speaking of compelling historical fiction, the book is actually a compelling, enjoyable read from a narrative, literary perspective! I was pleasantly surprised to find some degree of character development and a nice plot-line along which the author brought his characters, with conflict, climax, resolution and all. I liken this book to the wildly popular and compelling historical fiction author, Steven Saylor. Witherington’s Corinth book is similar in tone and depth to Saylor’s Rome books—I’ve read Roma and Empire—though not as thoroughly developed which is fine. What Saylor has accomplished several times over in these thick volumes, Witherington does in good measure through this shorter one. That’s no small feat!
Aside from the story, though, is a central element that really makes this title soar: the “A Closer Look” sections. Keep in mind that Witherington aims to educate the reader in the life of Corinth, even though he’s entertained along the way. So throughout this book alongside the story are these fabulously short sections that drill down into key aspects of life in Corinth. You’ll learn about slaves and manumission, the Roman calendar, a little history about Corinth’s destruction and Romanization, Jews in Corinth, religious beliefs, and Christianity’s place and role in the city, among other things. Each article is highly accessible and informative, which makes it ideal for the lay or student Christian who wants to better understand this important city. These sections will also make handy reference guides for pastors who need quick references that summarize important aspects of 1st century Roman life for sermons.
One thing that would have been nice is an index of sorts that listed all of the “A Closer Look” sections for a handy reference. This could easily have been done and, if an editor from IVP or perhaps the author himself reads this, I would suggest should be done in future volumes. Doing so would plus an already fantastic guide by transforming it into a handy quick-reference piece. Along the same lines, adding a glossary in the back could serve a similar purpose while also aiding lay people who may not be as versed in 1st century Roman customs and vocabulary, though the author did do a good job of defining these along the way. Other than these two suggestions, there is nothing to roast and much to toast in this book!
Ok, so this is a readable, enjoyable, whimsical tale that also happens to be historically accurate and engaging. Now who is this for? I dare say it is for everyone, perhaps just shy of your PhD in biblical studies. This is a beach read for the lay person, in that Witherington spins a surprisingly engaging, developed story. This is a pastoral resources, in that it is filled with short references to the historical nuances of Corinth that will help give potent historical anecdotes to sermons while also giving some playful, narrative flesh along the way. This is a college book that will be a great supplement to undergraduate (and even graduate) biblical studies courses, because it provides deep, accessible historical insight in a one-off volume.
Again, at the risk of diluting Witherington’s audience, I do think this book will serve almost everyone in the church. It is an easy, engaging read that tells a nice tale, and you might just learn something about a key city of the early church along the way. So add this book to your summer reading list for sure!