In Paul and Image, Philip Erwin challenges conventional interpretations of 1 Corinthians that tend to overlook the significance of ancient Roman visual culture in framing and posing exegetical questions. He argues that in 1 Corinthians Paul engaged in a long-standing philosophical discussion of visual representation, with consequential implications for how he and his Corinthian addressees interacted with the imagery around them. By situating Paul’s letter in the context of the critical discourse on visual representation from Plato to Philo to the Second Sophistic, Erwin redefines Paul’s critique of human wisdom, treatment of idols, and resurrection discourse in visual terms.
In this seminal and ground-breaking monograph, Philip Erwin argues that Paul’s theological and pastoral arguments in 1 Corinthians would (paradoxically) have been seen as much as heard by his original auditors in first-century Roman Corinth. Erwin rides with absolute expertise the new wave of Visual Exegesis Studies, pioneered by scholars such as David Balch, Annette Weissenrieder, Harry Maier, and Rosemary Canavan in the last decade. In this incisive contribution to Pauline exegesis, Erwin turns to the material evidence of the imperial statuary of Augustus and his adopted sons, Gaius and Lucius, at Corinth, as well as to the statuary of the Olympic deities in chthonic garb, in order to understand better 1 Corinthians 1-2, 8, 10, and 15. This is prefaced by an authoritative discussion of Plato’s philosophical discourse on the visual media and the later critical reaction of Philo, Dio Chrysostom, and Lucian to Plato’s dismissal of the visual arts. The philosophically and visually attuned Corinthian converts would have been tantalized by Paul’s deep engagement with the visual evidence of his culture, including its debates, in presenting the central image of his gospel: Christ crucified and risen. This is an outstanding and highly original contribution to Pauline studies that deserves a very wide readership amongst New Testament scholars and their students.
Hundreds of books have been published on 1 Corinthians; this one is indeed a paradigm change, pivoting to a focus on the visual world. Reading Plato’s critique of poets (Homer) and of the visual nature of writing and the arts of sculpture and painting (chap. 1) may surprise, but it has stunning dividends in later chapters. Erwin examines Paul’s vocabulary and also displays statues and reliefs of emperors and Olympian god(desse)s that first-century Corinthians would actually have seen in the forum and in their temples. For example, Erwin interprets 1 Cor 8 not primarily as concerned with food laws but as addressing both philosophical and practical, everyday concerns. Is the deity actually visually “imitated” or represented by Greco-Roman statues? Is the deity present or absent in those visual representations? Phil Erwin gives readers a radically new perception of Paul’s visual world and of this letter.
In this far-reaching, illuminating, and impressive book, Philip Erwin brings the visual turn in New Testament exegesis to 1 Corinthians and in so doing moves beyond current debates concerning the relationship of the letter to the doctrines of philosophical schools and the conventions of rhetoric. He elegantly relates ancient philosophical considerations of objects and their images to Paul’s treatment of the relation of speech to divine revelation, the signifying truth of idols, and the resurrection bodies of believers. The images that accompany the discussion richly illustrate Paul’s embeddedness in his visual imperial world and help to reveal an apostle fully immersed in philosophical and religious consideration of the divine and the possibilities of its representation. This is an important book for anyone seeking a nuanced account of Paul’s relation to ancient visual culture and the religious and political iconography of Corinth and the Empire more generally.
In Paul and Image, Philip Erwin reframes the scholarly conversation on image-text relations in 1 Corinthians. Erwin's close attention to Paul's visual concepts and context open our eyes to the Corinthian situation anew. Through bringing together philosophical discourse, rhetorical analysis, and critical engagement with visual representation, innovative questions about the promises, pitfalls, and potentialities of Paul's rhetoric and its reception emerge. Readers and interpreters of Paul's letters should be energized by this contribution.