"Quarrelling over Opinions" (Rom. 14:1): Verbal Disorder and Competitive Speech at Greco-Roman Meals

At Greco-Roman communal meals the production of fellowship among fellow diners went hand in hand with competition for status and prestige. Internal hierarchies were negotiated through seating arrangements and food distribution, but also through competitive speaking, which occasionally resulted in verbal disorder. This paper aims to foreground these verbal aspects of sympotic competition as a model for the dinner table discussions about diet and calendar that are addressed in Paul's Romans (14:1-15:13), which, compared to 1 Corinthians, is not often interpreted in a sympotic context. It will do so by reading Paul's concern for the tone of conversation and his exhortation to stop 'quarrelling over opinions' in light of contemporary Greco-Roman sources that address the issue of verbal disorder and competitive speech, drawing on epigraphic and papyrological evidence for collegia regulations (e.g. the regulations of the Philadelphian synodos of Zeus Hypsistos, P.Lond. 7.2193) as well as on literary representations of the elite symposium (passages from Plutarch's Table Talk and Athenaeus' Deipnosophists). These sources, while relating to very different social settings, demonstrate how verbal activities such as performing learned discourse, mocking diets and genealogies and abusive language were linked to competitive dining and provide a cultural framework for the quarrelsome interactions between Christ believers in mid-first century Rome.