Contextualizing Paul’s Rhetoric of the μέθυσος: Attitudes Toward Drunkenness and Its Stigma in the Early Imperial Period

The apostle Paul alludes to drunkenness several times in his letters to the ekklēsiai, often in reproachful ways that seem arbitrary, such as the instances found in the vice lists (1 Cor 6:10, Gal 5:21). Although some scholars believe that Paul appears to tailor the list of vices according to each issue he addresses, little attention is given to show how or why the subject is significant in his writings. This paper provides a social-historical context that informs Paul’s writing and understanding of μέθυσος and drunkenness by focusing on Roman attitudes toward excessive drinking/intoxication through the analysis of material culture and literature of the early imperial period. I argue that early imperial Roman society viewed drunkenness, or the drunkard, as a danger to violating valued sociocultural boundaries and norms, and in turn, carried stigma in rhetorical attacks. Where the House of Dionysos in Sepphoris provides a mosaic that shows how iconography could have been used to reinforce proper drinking behavior when banqueters gathered together, the Roman literature reveals more clearly the deep social concerns surrounding drunkenness as a danger that threatens the blurring of sexual and social boundaries. The attitudes of shame and stigma attributed to μέθυσος then become a rhetorical tool for authors who sought to slander their opponents. An understanding of these Roman cultural aspects provides a historical context for the socio-cultural attitudes toward excessive alcohol consumption which specifically informed Paul’s discussion of drunkenness, as well as early “Christian” perceptions of alcohol consumption more broadly. Ultimately, I aim to contribute to New Testament studies by providing a background that can help us elaborate on understanding both Paul and the development of later Christian theology regarding drunkenness. [Note: Full paper sent to chairs of this SBL Unit]