It was a Friday afternoon, two days before I was to begin my sermon series on 1 Corinthians 1-3. I had the whole series laid out, my first sermon nearly completed. Highly exegetical, deeply theological, desperately needed. But utterly uninteresting. The thought hit me: “Why not tell a story?” And thus “Gaia’s Story” was born, each installment written one at a time.
“Gaia’s Story” is a work of fiction. However, I tried to make it as true-to-life as possible without getting bogged down in details of historical background or cultural context. 1 Corinthians is a letter that lends itself to this contextual reading: the problems in the Corinthian church were woven into the fabric of Corinthian culture, and much of Paul’s letter only makes sense when we understand some of that culture. Thankfully, ancient Corinth has been well-excavated; we know as much or more about Corinth as any other New Testament city. See here and here for some great photos of ruins and artefacts of ancient Corinth.
The only specific setting I mention in “Gaia’s Story” is the forum. This is the large “city square” that stood at the heart of Corinth. I’ve placed Gaia’s food stall among the shops on the north side of the forum, simply because it’s a great location: the temple of Apollo behind it to the north, the open forum before it with another temple to the west and a large basilica to the west, and looming to the south the Acrocorinth with its temple of Aphrodite on top. Other locations in the story such as Gaia’s flat and Stephanas’ home are undefined.
Gaia’s food stall features prominently in the story. These popinae were popular in many cities. Those that have been preserved were made of stone, with holes carved out for holding basins of food. Fires could be lit underneath to keep the food warm. These food stalls were likely popular for civic workers and tourists. They were also the only hot food many of the poorer citizens could hope to get, with no kitchens or sometimes even fireplaces in many of their homes or tenement-style flats.
Corinthian society was diverse but highly stratified. All types of people came to Corinth from all over the Roman Empire and beyond, bringing their languages and cultures with them. A wide variety of religious options were available for people to choose from; it was not unusual for people to adhere to several at once. Within Corinth, the upper classes were highly competitive, seeking honour through acts of patronage and association with honorable people. The working poor and slaves lived at the whim of the wealthy. Women could achieve significant status and roles in Corinthian society, but this was relatively rare and notable when it happened. All this is reflected in “Gaia’s Story.”
The characters in “Gaia’s Story” are a mix of historical and fictional. Gaia herself is fictional: “Gaia” was a common Roman woman’s name. Leukos, Agathon, Melita, Iris, Oresus, Joseph, and Jonathan are also fictional, though the names are actual Roman, Greek, or Jewish names from the period.
Stephanas, Crispus, Gaius, and Phoebe come from Paul’s writings. Stephanas was the one who brought 1 Corinthians from Paul (1 Cor 16:15-18). Crispus is mentioned among those Paul baptized (1 Cor 1:14); this is likely the same Crispus mentioned in Acts as a synagogue official who became a believer in Jesus (Acts 18:8). Gaius was another baptisand of Paul’s; I’ve given him the full name “Tisias Gaius” simply to avoid confusion with “Gaia.”
Phoebe is the most fascinating of the lot: she is described by Paul as a deacon and a patron of the church in Cenchreae, as well as the carrier of the letter to the Romans (Rom 16:1-2). As letter carrier, she would most likely have been the one to explain anything in Paul’s letter which the Romans did not understand—a high calling indeed. This is why I have had Phoebe read the excerpt from Paul in the final episode.
Apollos and Cephas (Peter) are also mentioned directly in 1 Corinthians 1-3. We hear more about Apollos in Acts 18: a Hellenized Jew from Alexandria in Egypt, well educated and highly skilled in rhetoric. These qualities make him a plausible candidate for being the author of the sermon known as the Letter to the Hebrews—which is why I’ve had Crispus read an excerpt from Hebrews as from Apollos in the last installment of the story.
Peter, of course, was a fisherman from Galilee, trained directly by Rabbi Jesus. We have no reason to believe that he himself had been to Corinth before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians; more likely is that he was known by reputation in Corinth, or that some of his followers had brought Peter’s particular angle on the gospel to Corinth. An ancient tradition (and a plausible theory) has Peter being the primary source of the Gospel we know of us Mark—thus my description in the final episode of Mark’s Gospel as Peter’s story of Jesus.
And the oracle of Christ from Jonathan in that final episode? That, of course, is from Revelation, which claims to be written by an otherwise unknown prophet named “John” (Rev 22:8-9) A bit of a stretch, I know, but it is fiction, after all.