I (John) was invited by Emily Varner at Zondervan to review the section on 1 Corinthians in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible (CBSB). Many thanks to Emily for inviting me and for providing a review copy.

Let me say at the start that this is a wonderfully written and beautifully produced resource, edited by John Walton and Craig Keener. It makes great sense for John and Craig to have overseen this project, since they have become perhaps the leading evangelical voices on the study of the historical-cultural contexts of the Old and New Testaments. Many will already know that John edited the Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (on the OT), while Craig has written numerous (multi-volume) commentaries on various NT books (those on Matthew, John, Acts, Romans, and 1 Corinthians come specially to mind). And of course, some years ago John and Craig also authored the two-volume IVP Bible Background Commentary. Given, then, their expertise on biblical backgrounds, this was bound to be a masterfully written study Bible.

As I said above, my focus here will be on the background comments on 1 Corinthians. The primary features of the study on 1 Corinthians are: (1) the opening essay introducing Corinth and the background to 1 Corinthians; (2) the notes commenting on specific verses; and (3) the numerous articles/sidebars included throughout (some even with colored images).

The articles are a truly wonderful feature, since they dive a bit deeper into this or that ancient cultural practice and thus illuminate a key unit of the letter without being restricted to a verse-by-verse commentary. For 1 Corinthians, these articles focus on:

  • 2:1-5, “Rhetoric and Paul’s Letters,” with an illustration of first-century Corinth;
  • 6:12-20, “Prostitution and Sexual Immorality,” with an image of a stone bed inside the Lupanar brothel in Pompeii;
  • 7:1, “Celibacy in Antiquity”;
  • 8:1-13, “Sacrificed Food”;
  • 9:24-27, “Athletic Imagery in 1 Corinthians 9,” with an image of two wreaths (the likes of which would have been awarded to winners of the Isthmian and Olympic games) and an amphora depicting boxing in ancient Athens;
  • 11:2-16, “Head Coverings in Antiquity,” with an image of a sculpture of a woman wearing a chiton and himation;
  • 11:20-21, “Banquets in Corinth,” with an image of a fresco depicting a Roman banquet;
  • 14:1, “Prophecy in Antiquity”;
  • Ch. 15, “Resurrection,” with an image of a Coptic icon of the disciples’ encounter with the risen Christ.

Because of the extent to which 1 Corinthians assumes some knowledge of Greco-Roman and Jewish culture and convictions, many, many more articles could have been written on the backgrounds to this letter. However, I believe Craig has done a really nice job selecting key topics that truly illuminate the text for a popular audience and will catch the attention of the interested reader. Of course, some of the articles included for other passages of the NT are relevant for 1 Corinthians as well. For example, the article on the crucifixion (at John 19) will be helpful for understanding what Paul says about the folly and shamefulness of the message of the cross in 1 Cor 1:18. The colored images are also well chosen and add considerably to the attractiveness of this volume.

The essay introducing Corinth and the backgrounds to 1 Corinthians also impressed me. While brief, the essay exhibits great familiarity with the ancient site and recent developments on the study of the Roman colony and its surrounding area. For example, the essay rightly states—though this is sometimes ignored by commentators—that “some local Greeks continued to live on the site” of the city even following its destruction by the Roman General Lucius Mummius in 146 BC. Moreover, the essay correctly notes that it was “Julius Caesar’s decree in 44 BC that led to the city’s refounding.” This sentence, though simple, struck me as carefully and responsibly written (the key phrase being “led to”). For while Julius decreed that Corinth be recolonized, it was Antony, following Caesar’s murder, who implemented Corinth’s refounding (see Mary E. Hoskins Walbank, “The Foundation and Planning of Early Roman Corinth, Journal of Roman Archaeology 10 [1997]: 95-130, at 97-99”).

The same is true of the following statement: “Because most maritime trade between Rome and Asia Minor passed through the Isthmus of Corinth (the rugged southern coast of Greece was dangerous for ships), Corinth was well positioned for trade and wealth.” I was pleased that it wasn’t assumed here—as has been suggested by some early historians—that the Isthmus (specifically, the diolkos road) functioned as a commercial thoroughfare, whereby smaller ships heading either east or west could be carried by trolleys from one end of the isthmus to the other. Rather, as David Pettegrew has argued, goods were probably unloaded at the harbors in Lechaion and Cenchreae and were then exchanged on the isthmus at the emporium (among his other publications, see now David K. Pettegrew, The Isthmus of Corinth: Crossroads of the Mediterranean World [University of Michigan Press, 2016]). All this to say, the essay introducing the letter is well done and while concise, shows signs of familiarity with the best of ancient historical scholarship.

The notes on the biblical text themselves are also very helpful. There were a couple of times, however, that I wondered if they could have been improved. For example, at 1:11 the note reads, “Chloe may have owned a business in Corinth or Ephesus.” Craig’s inclusion of Ephesus as a possible geographical location for Chloe (and her business) is understandable considering that Paul writes 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8). However, nowhere do the notes or essays indicate as much up to this point in the study of the letter, so the reason for considering Ephesus in this respect might be lost on some readers.

Moreover, the very next note (on 1:12) reads: “the phrase [I follow/I am of] was sometimes used as a slogan of ancient political partisans, which Paul caricatures here.” I am aware that such has been claimed by scholars for some time (e.g., L. L. Welborn, “On the Discord in Corinth: 1 Corinthians 1-4 and Ancient Politics,” JBL 106 [1987]: 85-111, at 90-93). However, Margaret Mitchell called into question this assumption (esp. as put forth by Welborn) some years ago:

The problem with this conclusion is that in his analysis Welborn has not produced one example of an ancient political slogan which has the same formula (personal pronoun + εἰμι [or ellipsed] + genitive of a proper name) (nor has anyone else, to my knowledge). The evidence which he cited is significantly relevant to the background of these slogans, but not to their form. . . . As much as these phrases rightly point to the dependence of a faction upon a leader, that is all they can show. They do not supply formal parallels to Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 1:12. . . . An exact replica of the formulae in 1 Cor 1:12 from ancient political literature has not yet been adduced in the history of exegesis of 1 Cor. The absence of this formula in our extant historical writings, a considerable corpus of material, is significant, and casts doubt on the view that these share a common form of political sloganeering. (Paul and the Rhetoric Reconciliation, 83-85)

Now, I have to admit that I have not been able to keep up on this particular debate since first reading Mitchell, or to research whether or not anybody has produced any such evidence since the publication of her work. But I wonder if Craig is simply following the lead of Welborn and others here, or if he is aware of some evidence to support his comment on the use of “I follow/I am of” as an ancient political slogan that I’m not familiar with.

Aside from these minor quibbles, I found the section on 1 Corinthians in the NIV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible to be very impressive. There don’t appear to be any references to ancient literature outside of the OT, NT, or Apocrypha in the pages I read, or to scholarly literature that readers might consult for further study. Therefore, the classroom utility of this work has limitations. However, the CBSB will undoubtedly prove to be immensely helpful to lay readers who wish to access those cultural insights that the biblical text simply does not provide.

Well done, John and Craig and the team at Zondervan, for producing this well-conceived study Bible!