[Marc comments: Brother Fee’s intro to the whole commentary here is essential to grasp if we’re to understand how God wants to solve the issues that plague His church in the West and affluent centers, especially America. Paul is not nice as many count it today with his church plant here, being very argumentative, and makes a grandiose defense of himself and his apostleship. This too, at the altar of tolerance, is anathema – but routine in God’s Word!
He takes on this group “at every turn,” describes Fee. Most people today would rebuke Paul for not being Christ-like. The reason they would do this to Paul: most Christians are not in the Word of God, and if they are, most read for comfort and not for the reality of a holy life that deals with life head on. This piece is a word to the wise. We urge every family that strivers for holiness to have a copy of this and incorporate it’s principles in their teachings. Enjoy…and use, please. This is a long piece.
Fee is also the co-author of Reading The Bible For All Its Worth, a best seller and one of the best ever at deciphering the Word of God for the average person like us.]
FIRST CORINTHIANS COMMENTARY
By Gordon Fee; 1987 Eerdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, MI
“the arrogance that attends (the Corinthians) understanding of spirituality, the accommodation of the gospel to the surrounding culture in so many ways-these and many other features of the Corinthian church are but mirrors held up before the church of today..”
I. THE CITY AND ITS PEOPLE
As much as for any other document in the NT-and more so than for most the various sociological, economic, and religious factors that make up the environment of the city of Corinth have a profound influence on one’s understanding of Paul’s letters to the church there. Its strategic location as sentry of the four-and-one-half-mile (5,950-meter) Isthmus that bridged the Peloponnese and the mainland and separated the Saronic and Corinthian gulfs insured for it a long and illustrious history. It controlled both the overland commercial traffic and that between Italy and Asia, which for the most part found it safer and more convenient to take this “inland” route than to go around the Peloponnese.
The city’s history is essentially in two parts. As a Greek city-state it flourished both before and after the golden years of Athens (5th c. B.C.). But as leader of the Achaean League in the mid-second century B.C., it came into conflict with Rome and was destroyed by the Roman consul Lucius Mummmius in 146 B.C. The site lay dormant for one hundred years, until it was refounded in 44 B.C. by Julius Caesar as a Roman colony. The reason for its refounding was probably twofold. First, its strategic location for commerce (described by Strabo) made its refounding almost inevitable. All the necessary ingredients for economic boom were available: a natural defense in the Acrocorinth; adequate water supply from springs; the relationship to Rome; being master of the two harbors for East -West commerce; and control of the Isthmian games, which ranked just below the Olympian in importance (see on 9:24-27). Second, according to Strabo (8.6.23c), Corinth was repopulated by freedmen from Rome. Since their status was just above that of the slave, 4 and since Rome often tended to be overpopulated with such, this was a convenient way for Rome to rid itself of potential trouble, on the one hand, and for the freedman to seize an opportunity for socioeconomic advancement, on the other.
As the description by Strabo some fifty years later makes abundantly clear, prosperity returned to the city almost immediately.
Since money attracts people like dead meat attracts flies, Corinth quickly experienced a great influx of people from both West and East, along with all the attendant gains and ills of such growth. The Romans were dominant; they brought with them not only their laws but also their culture and religions. But the Roman world had been thoroughly Hellenized; and since Corinth was historically Greek, it maintained many of those ties-religion, philosophy, the arts. And from the East came the mystery cults of Egypt and Asia and the Jews with their synagogue and “peculiar” belief in a single God.
Since Corinth lacked a landed aristocracy, an aristocracy of money soon developed, along with a fiercely independent spirit. But not all would strike it rich, hence thousands of artisans and slaves made up the bulk of the population. Most likely, however, the splendid wealth of the city spilled over to the advantage of these people as well.
As often happens in such centers, vice and religion flourished side by side. Old Corinth had gained such a reputation for sexual vice that Aristophanes (ca. 450-385 B.C.) coined the verb korinthiazo (= to act like a Corinthian, i.e., to commit fornication). The Asclepius room in the present museum in Corinth provides mute evidence of this facet of city life; here on one wall are a large number of clay votives of human genitals that had been offered to the god for the healing of that part of the body, apparently ravaged by venereal disease. This aspect of Corinthian life, however, has tended to be overplayed by most NT scholars, relying on Strabo’s (surely erroneous) description of the thousand temple prostitutes who were alleged to have plied their trade at the temple of Aphrodite on the Acrocorinth. In the first place Strabo was speaking of Old Corinth, and even then it is doubtful whether his information was accurate. Sexual sin there undoubtedly was in abundance; but it would have been of the same kind that one would expect in any seaport where money flowed freely and women and men were available.
The religious expression of Corinth was as diverse as its population. Pausanias describes at least 26 sacred places (not all were temples) devoted to the “gods many” (the Roman-Greek pantheon) and “lords many” (the mystery cults) mentioned by Paul in 1 Cor. 8:5-and Pausanias does not mention the Jewish synagogue, whose partial lintel with the inscription “synagogue of the Hebrews” has been discovered. Although there is no direct evidence for it, the very wealth that attracted artisans and tradesmen undoubtedly also lured to Corinth artists and philosophers of all kinds, in search of patronage. The latter would also have included a fair share of itinerants and charlatans.
All of this evidence together suggests that Paul’s Corinth was at once the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world. The scattered pieces of evidence from Acts, 1 Corinthians, and Romans suggest that the church was in many ways a mirror of the city. In 1 Cor. 12: 13 Paul interrupts his argument to emphasize the diversity of those who have all become one body-Jew, Greek, slave, free. This mix is substantiated in other ways as well. Of the people who are named, at least three are Jews (Aquila, Priscilla, Crispus), even though they bear Latin names. Three (or four) others who also have Latin names are probably Romans (Fortunatus, Quartus, Gaius, Titius Justus), at least one (or two) of whom (Gaius, Titius Justus) were among the wealthier members. The others bear Greek names (Stephanas, Achaicus, Erastus), and of these at least Stephanas and Erastus were probably well-to-do. According to 1 :26, however, not many of them came from the upper socioeconomic strata; indeed, the evidence of 7:20-24 suggests that some were slaves. The mention of Stephanas’s household (l: 16) probably reflects a situation where besides his family there were slaves or attached freedmen (see on 16: 15-17). If our interpretation of 11: 17 – 34 is correct (q. v .), some of the tensions in the community were between the well-to-do and the poor.
Although there were some Jews in the community, very little in the letter suggests a Jewish background. At least three texts that speak of their former way of life explicitly indicate that they were former idolaters and therefore chiefly Gentiles (6:10-11; 8:7; 12:2). Other items imply the same: e.g., the whole matter of going to the temple feasts in 8: 1-10:22 is a strictly Gentile phenomenon; the attitude toward marriage, thinking it to be a sin, in chap. 7 scarcely fits Judaism, even Hellenistic Judaism; going to the proconsul, or city magistrates, for adjudication (6: 1-11) fits the normal processes of the Greeks and Romans within the city, whereas the Jews were forbidden to ask Gentiles for judgments. Their arguing for the right to go to the prostitutes (6:12-20) and their denial of a future bodily resurrection (15:1-58) also sound more Hellenistic than Jewish.
Thus, the picture that emerges is one of a predominantly Gentile community, the majority of whom were at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder, although there were two or three wealthy families. As former pagans they brought to the Christian faith a Hellenistic worldview and attitude toward ethical behavior. Although they were the Christian church in Corinth, an inordinate amount of Corinth was yet in them, emerging in a number of attitudes and behaviors that required radical surgery without killing the patient. This is what 1 Corinthians attempts to do.
II. THE CHURCH AND ITS APOSTLE
The Problem. Our 1 Corinthians is an occasional, ad hoc response to the situation that had developed in the Corinthian church between the time Paul left the city, sometime in A.D. 51-52, and the writing of our letter approximately three years later. The difficulty in determining the nature of that situation is intrinsic to the text. Paul addresses, in response to reports (1: 11 ; 5:1; 11:18) or to their letter (cf. 7:1), at least eleven different, somewhat disparate concerns, ten of which are behavioral; only chap. 15 is theological as such, and even there he concludes both major sections with ethical warnings and imperatives (vv. 33-34,58). But in every case his greater concern is the theological stance behind the behavior. Our difficulty at this distance is threefold: (1) to discover the relationship, if indeed there is one, of these various items to one another; (2) to determine the relationship of the community to Paul; and (3) to determine what influences/positions in the Corinthian “theology” allowed them not only to adopt such behavior but also to argue for the right to do it.
For the most part, historically, these matters were resolved (if noted at all) in terms either of Paul’s informing or correcting the Corinthians in areas where they were deficient or had gone astray. As such our letter has usually been understood as a response to their division into parties, wherein Paul takes the side of one over against the other (or sometimes, it is argued, he speaks to both groups). There are, however, a number of difficulties with this point of view:
(a) That there is some form of internal division in the church is evident from three texts: 1:10-12; 3:4-5; and 11:18-19. That this division is at least along socioeconomic lines is indicated by Paul’s response in 11: 17-34 (cf. 1:26; 7:20-24; 12: 13); but whether it is also along spiritual! theological lines is moot. In any case, nothing in chaps. 7-16, where Paul is responding to their letter, suggests as much. Indeed, it is probably quite wrong to envision the church as split into “parties” at all, 14 since nothing in the letter itself gives much in the way of hints as to how these might be viewed.
(b) Apart from 7:1-40 and 11:2-16–and even here he stands over against their point of view-the language and style of 1 Corinthians are especially rhetorical and combative. Paul is taking them on at every turn. There is little to suggest that he is either informing or merely correcting; instead, he is attacking and challenging with all the weapons in his literary arsenal. If 1 Corinthians is a response to their letter, in which they are asking Paul to arbitrate their differences, then one must judge him to have misread their letter rather considerably.
(c) The letter in its entirety is addressed to the whole church, with no suggestion that he is speaking now to one group, and then to another. Nearly everything is in the second person plural, except for a few instances where he shifts to the second singular, perhaps with some specific person(s) in view. If Paul were settling differences among them, one would expect at least some word to that effect. But there is none.
These factors together suggest that the traditional viewpoint comes up lacking at crucial points. What is needed is a way of looking at the letter that will hold all these items together within a more consistent framework.
A Proposed Reconstruction.
The basic stance of the present commentary is that the historical situation in Corinth was one of conflict between the church and its founder. This is not to deny that the church was experiencing internal strife, but it is to argue that the greater problem of “division” was between Paul and some in the community who were leading the church as a whole into an anti-Pauline view of things. For Paul this conflict presents a twofold crisis—over his authority and his gospel. Furthermore, the key issue between Paul and them, which created both of these crises, has to do with the Corinthian understanding of what it means to be “spiritual” (pneumatikos). Several factors go into this view of things:
(a) The occasion of 1 Corinthians. Our letter records Paul’s third dealings with this church. The most plausible understanding of these relationships is that 1 Corinthians is the third in an exchange of letters between Paul and Corinth. Thus:
(i) Paul’s first association with them was the founding visit mentioned in Acts 18 (ca. A.D. 49-51), a visit that had a unique feature to it-the length of stay. Although both Acts 18 and 1 Corinthians give us some information about the makeup of the community, we learn nothing as to its size, its place(s) and times of meeting, nor the nature of its leadership.
(ii) A couple of years later, while Paul was in Ephesus, he wrote the Previous Letter to the community mentioned in 1 Cor. 5:9. Although one cannot be sure as to what prompted this letter, he at least dealt with some problems of sexual immorality: he told them not to associate with fornicators, by which he intended that they should not associate with brothers who were acting in such a way. Besides fornicators, he also mentions in 5: 10 the covetous, robbers, and idolaters. Were these also dealt with in the Previous Letter? The best guess would seem to be yes, at least on the matter of idolatry, because this problem also emerges in our letter in a way that makes most sense if Paul had already spoken to it in the former letter.
If in fact the Previous Letter dealt at least with two of the issues that resurface in this one, namely fornication and idolatry, then most likely that letter was also written as a response of some kind to the situation in Corinth.
It is clear from I Corinthians 5 that the Corinthians themselves have misunderstood the letter; it seems more than likely that they have in fact disregarded it (see on 5:9-11).
(iii) That leads, then, to our 1 Corinthians, which was occasioned primarily by a letter brought to Paul by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:15-17), a letter that makes most sense when viewed under very ordinary circumstances-as a response on their part to his letter. Given the combative nature of so much of his response, it seems highly likely that in their r letter they have taken considerable exception to several of his positions and/or prohibitions. Paul’s attitude toward their letter, and thus toward the Corinthians, is further exacerbated by an oral communication from some believers from Chloe’s household (1:11), who filled his ears with information about what was going on in Corinth that Paul probably suspected from their letter but which he now knows for certain. The coming of Chloe’s people at least helps Paul better to understand their letter.
Paul’s difficulties in writing this letter are essentially twofold: On the one hand, he must reassert his authority in a situation where it has severely eroded. This is made the more difficult by his use of servant imagery as the model of leadership in the church (3:5-9; 4: 1-5)-how shall he reassert his own authority over them and not destroy the perspective of that imagery? On the other hand, he must convince them to change both their theology and their behavior to conform to his, since they are moving toward positions that threaten the gospel itself–every bit as much as the Judaizers in Galatia were doing in another direction.
(b) The opposition. The available data make it clear that between Paul’s leaving the church, recorded in Acts 18:18, and his writing of our 2 Corinthians, some “bad blood” had developed between Paul and this church. These tensions apparently come to a head in an unexpected visit that he makes to them, noted in 2 Cor. 2:1-4. The evidence of 1 Corinthians indicates that the problem had already been brewing before that “painful” visit. The question is, Where does 1 Corinthians fit into this scheme?
(i) Quite in contrast to 2 Corinthians and Galatians, this letter yields little or no evidence that the church has yet been invaded by the outsiders mentioned in 2 Cor. 10-13. In fact, the mention in 1 Cor. 9:12 of some “others” who share the Corinthians’ provisions is the one possible reference to outsiders, and such an understanding is not demanded by the context. Thus it is not quite proper to speak of Paul’s “opponents” in the ordinary sense of that word, as referring to outside agitators. Rather, the opposition is led by “some among you” (15:12; cf. 4:18).
(ii) Our 1 Corinthians reflects the problem at a middle stage. The situation is not good; the relationship between Paul and the church is visibly deteriorating, but apparently it has not yet resulted in open hostility. They are still communicating by letter. Nonetheless, a decidedly anti-Pauline sentiment has developed in the church. Initiated by a few, this sentiment is infecting nearly the whole. Therefore, although there are certainly divisions within the community itself (probably along sociological lines), the most serious form of “division” is that between the majority of the community and Paul himself. They stand over against him on almost every issue. The key issue here is their calling his authority into question. What right does he have to speak to them as he did in the Previous Letter, since there is considerable doubt, based on their own criteria, whether he is truly pneumatikos (spiritual) or a prophet (cf. 14:37)?
One cannot be certain how such a situation developed. The evidence from chaps. 1-4, 9, and 14 suggests that it was a combination of several factors. (1) In chaps. 1-4, perhaps as a result of the ministry of Apollos, it seems certain that the Corinthians have begun to think of their new faith in terms of sophia (wisdom), as though, in comparison with others, it were the ultimate expression of divine sophia. Under these new criteria, neither Paul nor his gospel fared well. As to the content of wisdom, they considered his gospel and preaching to be something like “milk” for babes, whereas they had moved on to headier stuff designed for the “mature” (see 2:6; 3:1). Likewise as to the form of wisdom, they were particularly repelled by his lack of the rhetorical skills that ordinarily accompanied sophia (cf. 1: 17; 2: 1-5).
It should be noted at this point that the argument of 1: 10-4:21 does not conclude at 3:18-23, as most commentators tend to see it, but with the rather considerable defense of his apostolic ministry found in 4: 1-21. This suggests that the “divisions” that have preceded are not simply a matter of playing favorites with regard to their various teachers. They are at the same time decidedly over against Paul. According to v. 3, they have been sitting in judgment on him. In v. 6 he notes that they have been puffed up for the one (Apollos) and against the other (Paul). At the end of the argument he says that he has sent Timothy to them so that they might once again be reminded of his ways, and that they might return to them. He concludes on a final hot note about some who have been arrogant about him and his coming to them, and asks the whole church how he wants his next coming to be with a rod, or in a spirit of gentleness? As is argued in the commentary, the whole of chaps. 5-6 is also best understood as reflecting this same crisis of authority over his rights to direct their affairs.
(2) The same kind of fierce defense emerges again in chap. 9, in the middle of an argument where he and they seem clearly to be at loggerheads. Again, he accuses them of “sitting in judgment” on him (v. 3). The issue at hand is their rejection of his prior prohibition of their attending idol feasts in the pagan shrines (see the introduction to 8: 1-11: 1). Their rejection seems to have been expressed at least in part as the result of what they perceived to be his vacillation in behavior with regard to marketplace food: he ate such food in some settings, but abstained in others (see on 9:19-23; cf. 10:29-33). Indeed, he seems to take a considerable swipe at his opponents on this matter at the conclusion of the argument in 10:30: “If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?”
In defending these actions of his, however, he also takes up another area of tension between them-his working with his own hands at the demeaning (for a “wise man”) task of tent-making with his concomitant refusal to accept patronage from them (see on 9:3-14). That this issue emerges again in 2 Corinthians (cf. 11 :8-9; 12: 13) indicates that it was a festering sore between them. Apparently they were either offended by his not accepting their patronage or they questioned the apostleship of one who acted thus-or perhaps both!
(3) Finally, in 14:37, in another passage where he and they are at odds, he asserts in an ad hominem way: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or pneumatikos, let him acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command.” And he concludes by pronouncing judgment on those who fail to recognize his word as authority among them.
A man who talks thus, and this is the tenor of the whole argument (except for chaps. 7 and 11 :2-16), is not attempting to inform his readers because of their deficient understanding; nor is he trying to reconcile warring factions. Furthermore, the letter is not written to one group, nor directed against the ringleaders of the opposition.24 Rather, Paul is on the attack, contending with them, arguing with them, trying to convince them that he is right and they are wrong. Over and again he resorts to rhetoric (“Do you not know that. . . ?” [ten times]; or “If anyone thinks that he/she is … ” [three times]), to sarcasm, to irony. Thus the letter is basically the apostle Paul vis-a-vis the whole Corinthian congregation.
(c) The point(s) of contention. Most likely the insurgents are not only calling his authority into question, but also are modifying the gospel toward Hellenism. For Paul these two crises always overlap. It is not his own person that is at stake in their denial of his authority, but the gospel he preaches. To deny the one is to deny the other. Most likely the key issue between them is a basic theological problem, what it means to be pneumatikos. The problem here is not so much a matter of elitism among themselves-there is not a hint of such in chaps. 12-14 (i.e., that some feel superior to others because of their gifts, or that others feel inferior for the lack thereof). This habitually given answer is not based on anything explicit in the text, but is read in from the outside.
More likely the problem is that they think of themselves as pneumatikoi, but are not so sure about the apostle Paul (cf. 14:37). Here indeed some odious comparisons may have been made between him and Apollos (although 16:12 makes it clear that neither of them was party to such a rift). In any case Paul seems to feel a need to explain, indeed glory in, his weaknesses as a demonstration of his gospel (cf. 2:1-5; 4:9-13; 15:8-11).
Although one cannot be sure, their understanding of being pneumatikos is most likely related to their experience of Spirit inspiration, especially their overemphasis on the gift of tongues (see especially the introduction to chaps. 12-14). In 14:23, somewhat rhetorically but nonetheless realistically, Paul says that if they all come together at the same place and all speak in tongues, the outsider will declare them mad. This, plus the very need to order that gift to “one at a time” and not more than two or three in sequence, suggests that they were both overly and singularly enthusiastic about this gift. If, as suggested in 13:1, “speaking the tongues of angels” reflects their own understanding of this gift, then one can begin to appreciate how they made it the basic criterion for their understanding of spirituality. Glossolalia was for them the evidence that they had already assumed the spiritual existence of the angels.
This in turn is probably related to their interest in sophia and gnosis (wisdom and knowledge), two words that occur primarily in the context of specific behavioral aberrations (chaps. 1-4 and 8-10 respectively). Both of these” gifts” have become their special possession by means of the Spirit. They are spiritually endowed, hence they have special wisdom and superior knowledge. It is probably no accident that the statement “if anyone thinks that he/she is … ” (3:18; 8:1; 14:37) is found in each of the three major sections of the letter (chaps. 1-4; 8-10; 12-14) and reflects these three crucial Corinthian terms (“wisdom,” “knowledge,” and “spiritual”).
Further related to this is their apparently” spiritual” understanding of the sacraments, whereby the one who has been baptized and partakes of the” spiritual food” of the Lord’s Table also finds security, so that behavior in this present life has little or no effect on one’s true spirituality.
All of this, of course, stands over against both Paul and his gospel in radical ways and results in kauchesis (“boasting” or false confidence). Hence they are “puffed up” (4:6, 18; 5:2) and full of arrogance (5:6), and even have gross immorality in their midst-so little is their true spiritual condition affected by such things.
Closely related to this are two further crucial theological aberrations: (i) Their worldview has been “tainted” (ingrained by a lifetime) by Hellenistic dualism. Because they were “spiritual,” they took a dim view of continuing existence in the material world, including the body. This is the element seized on by Walther Schmithalsand others (e. g., U. Wilckens and R. Jewett), who argue that the Corinthians were “Gnostics.” But such language is not only anachronistic, it fails adequately to describe this element in the Corinthian spirituality. None of the essential phenomena of Gnosticism is present in this letter except the dualism itself, which can be explained on other grounds.
Despite their continuing existence in the body, the Corinthians consider themselves to be the “spiritual ones,” already as the angels. Hence, since from their perspective the body is eschatologically insignificant (cf. 6: 13; 15: 12), neither does it have present significance. This attitude toward corporeal existence is at least in part responsible for such things as the denial of a future bodily resurrection (15: 12) and both the affirmation of sexual immorality and the denial of sexual relations within marriage (6:12-20 and 7:1-6).
(ii) Finally, and probably very closely related to the former, is the likelihood that they had a considerably “overrealized” eschatological view of their present existence, for which I have coined the inelegant expression “spiritualized eschatology.” This would follow directly from their view of being pneumatikoi (people of the Spirit, whose present existence is to be understood in strictly spiritual terms). The Spirit belongs to the Eschaton, and they are already experiencing the Spirit in full measure. If tongues is understood as the “language of angels,” then their experience of Glossolalia is evidence for them that they have already arrived (already they speak the language of heaven).
It is doubtful, however, whether they also have a Jewish apocalyptic view of the End; rather, they have probably translated such a view into their framework of “spirituality,” in which they regarded their present spiritual existence as an assumption of that which is to be, minus the physical body. From their point of view it would not so much be the “time” of the future that has become a present reality for them, as the “existence” of the future. They are now experiencing a kind of ultimate spirituality in which they live above the merely material existence of the present age.
If the Lukan version of the saying of Jesus on resurrection and marriage (Luke 20:35) is the one known in the Pauline churches (“Those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels”), then Robin Scroggs may well be right that part of the problem in chaps. 7 and 11 is with some “eschatological women,” who are already living as if they had totally entered the new age.
This would also explain in part their attitude toward Paul (whose weaknesses make it obvious that he had not arrived), and why Paul so often views their present existence in light of the future, since neither have they yet arrived (1:5-8; 3:13-15, 17; 4:5; 5:5; 6:13-14; 7:26-31; 11:26,32; 15:24, 51-56; 16:22). Thus, with fine sarcasm Paul in 4:8 takes the measure of their present attitude (“already” they are rich, full, and reigning) and in light of present apostolic existence finds it wanting (4:9-13).
(d) The source of their false spirituality. Although not all would put the various components together in this way, there is a growing consensus among scholars that these are the basic components of the Corinthian false theology. But that is scarcely so on the question of the source of the problem, both in its anti-Pauline and theological dimensions. Several suggestions have been made:
(i) J. C. Hurdsuggested that most of the problems stem from Paul himself. In a scheme that totally disregards the historical value of Acts in terms of dating Paul’s activities, Hurd proposes that the Previous Letter (5:9) was written as a result of the Apostolic Decree (Acts 15:29). In this letter Paul made some decided changes from his earlier preaching in Corinth as a form of accommodation to Jerusalem. The net result is that the Corinthians in their letter to him are more faithful to the early Paul than he was in his own letter. Our 1 Corinthians turns out to be a middle ground, in which he avoids the excessive caution of the Previous Letter and the extremes of his earlier preaching, which are now found in the Corinthian positions. Despite a considerable number of helpful insights into the relationship between Paul and Corinth, this thesis, when tested against the hard evidence of 1 Corinthians and the letters on either side (1 and 2 Thessalonians; 2 Corinthians, Romans,33 and Galatians), is found wanting, especially in terms of Paul’s radical shift of positions from extreme freedom (earlier preaching [thesis]) to restrictions (Previous Letter [antithesis]) to moderation (l Corinthians [synthesis]).
(ii) More recently Birger Pearson, Richard Horsley, and James Davis have argued that the Corinthian error derives from wisdom speculation in Hellenistic Judaism, either of the personified wisdom associated with Philo (Horsley) or with Torah-wisdom of the type found in Sirach and Qumran (Davis). These scholars have mustered considerable evidence to show possible parallels between the language assumed to be from the Corinthians and that of this literature. What is less certain is that the parallels reflect what is essential to Judaism in this tradition rather than its hellenization. At best the parallels only allow that the Corinthian errors may derive from this source. What remains unprovable-and improbable-is that they in fact do.
The basic problem with this approach lies with the explicitly Gentile features of this letter, noted above (p. 4), that emerge at several crucial points. In 8: 1-10: 22 the Corinthians are arguing for the right to attend pagan feasts in the idol temples, and some among them are unable to do so precisely because they were “formerly accustomed” to eating in the idol’s presence as though it were a god (8:7). One can scarcely imagine the context in which a Diaspora Jew would so argue–even Philo would be horrified here. In I :22 Paul explicitly says of “wisdom” that this is the Greek quest, while Jews demand “miraculous signs.” It does no good, as Davis argues, to assign this statement merely to Paul’s rhetoric.37 Even as rhetoric, the statement is quite explicit, while the idea that the section reflects a Jewish midrashic homily against wisdom is speculative at best. Furthermore, in 12:2, again addressing the whole church, in the context of their misguided emphasis on tongues, Paul says that they formerly were led astray to mute idols-hardly the stuff of an essentially Hellenistic Jewish error.
(iii) Most likely, therefore, most of the error comes from their former paganism. Little or no Jew-Gentile tension is in fact perceptible in the letter. As noted above, at least three texts explicitly point out how things were in their former pagan days (6:9-11; 8:7; 12:1-3). Perhaps in part related to the coming and going of Paul and Apollos, and especially to Apollos’s eloquence, they probably began to think of their teachers in terms similar to itinerant philosophers. Thus they began to view their new faith as the new sophia-the divine sophia. In this light, and in light of their experience of the Spirit, they considered themselves to have arrived at sophia itself. Under such new criteria, neither the gospel nor the apostle Paul comes off very well. Hence their rejection of Paul, and with that their tacit rejection of his gospel. Under such conditions one can understand Paul’s great urgency to reassert the gospel as the message of a crucified Messiah and himself as the apostle of such a Messiah and message.
In any case, nothing in the letter cannot be explained in light of its Greco-Roman origins; whereas several items are extremely difficult to explain on the hypothesis of Hellenistic Jewish origins.
(iv) Finally, a “source” solution of a considerably different type should be noted. Gerd Theissen has argued that the basic tensions both within the community and between some of the community and Paul are best explained along sociological lines. Since the wealthy would be responsible for patronage both for the house churches and for the itinerant teachers, Theissen has suggested that the rival factions represent rival house churches and “patrons.” Again, there are some especially helpful insights here; in fact, this suggestion can be modified toward rivalry between the “patrons” and Paul, some of whom are the leaders of the anti-Pauline sentiments in the church, and many things fall into place, including their dabbling in sophia, their “examination” of Paul because he refused to accept patronage (9:1-19), and their abuse of the poor at the Lord’s Table.
The present commentary proceeds from this perspective. Its advantages are (1) that it takes seriously all the data of the letter, in terms of both content and style, and (2) that it can be consistently maintained throughout the letter, tying together the various parts in a coherent way.
III. SOME CRITICAL QUESTIONS
In general 1 Corinthians is remarkably free of the kinds of questions that fit under this rubric. Discussions may be found in the standard Introductions. The letter may be safely dated in the Spring (see on 16:8), ca. A.D. 53-55, depending on the time of Paul’s departure from Corinth (Acts 18: 18) and the length of his stay in Ephesus. The single issue of significance is whether or not the letter is a unity. For various reasons several scholars have divided it (along with 2 Corinthians) into various letters sent to Corinth by Paul. The starting point is Paul’s mention of the Previous Letter in 5:9, which is assumed to be visible in some sections of 2 Corinthians. Then, on the basis of alleged contradictions between some sections of our 1 Corinthians, the letter has been broken up into three letters.
But these theories run aground at four points: (1) The very fact that there is so little agreement in the theories suggests that the various reconstructions are not as viable as their proponents would lead one to believe. (2) The alleged contradictions are invariably resolvable exegetically. For example, as argued in the present commentary, the tensions that some find between 8:1-13 and 10:23-33 are the result of Paul’s speaking to two quite different, though related, issues. (3) Related to this, these theories miss a basic form of argumentation in this letter, the “A-B-A” pattem.40 In each case the first” A” section puts the matter into a larger, more general theological perspective; the “B” section is an explanatory digression of some kind, yet crucial to the argument as a whole; and the second “A” section is the very specific response to the matter at hand.41 (4) When one can make perfectly good sense of the document as it comes to us, such theories are as unnecessary as they are improvable. As Hurd concludes (p. 47), the evidence does not seem “strong enough to support the burden of proof which this kind of theory must always bear.”
IV. THEOLOGICAL CONTRIBUTIONS
Although I Corinthians is not often consulted, except by scholars, for Pauline theology, its theological contributions are writ large in the history of the church. For here Paul is doing what he does best, bringing the gospel to bear in the marketplace. For him the truth of his gospel is finally tested in its ability to work its way out in the exigencies of everyday life in some very ticklish situations. Much could be said here; the present observations are limited to three areas, each of which is also crucial to a good understanding of the letter as a whole.
1. Eschatology. As much as in any of his writings, the essentially eschatological framework of Paul’s theological thinking stands out in bold relief in this letter. For Paul this thinking has its focus in the event of Christ, his death and resurrection, and the subsequent gift of the Spirit. Christ’s resurrection marks the turning of the ages; the subsequent gift of the eschatological Spirit is certain evidence that the End has begun. But the fact that we still live in bodies subject to decay (15:49-53), and that there is yet a future Parousia of the Lord (11:26; 15:23) with a subsequent resurrection (15:20-28), is also clear evidence that what has begun has not yet been fully brought to consummation. Thus for Paul, believers are thoroughly eschatological people, determined and conditioned by the reality of the future that has already begun, but still awaiting the final glory. We are therefore both “already” and “not yet.”
This framework is thoroughgoing in Paul, yet nowhere more evident than here. This is true not only of his language (e.g., the kingdom of God is both now [4:20] and not yet [6:10-11; 15:50]) and of his expectations (e.g., the gifted Corinthians still await the revelation of the Lord Jesus [l :4-8]; at the Lord’s Table we proclaim his death until he comes [11:26]), but especially of his understanding of present Christian life. On the one hand, because the future has already been set in motion, one’s entire present existence is determined by this reality (7:29-31). God’s people live “as if not”; they are not, as others, conditioned by the present order that is passing away. Such a point of view controls Paul’s ethical imperatives at every step. Believers may not take one another to pagan courts because in light of their eschatological existence such things as redressing one’s grievances are mere trivialities (6: 1-6); Christians may not attend pagan feasts because the judgments against idolatry of a former time have been written down to warn those on whom the end of the ages has come (10: 11). All merely human values and behavior have already been judged by God in Christ; already the present age is passing away (1 :26-28; 7:31). Thus believers must exercise internal judgments in the present (5: 12-13); the church must cleanse out the old leaven so that it may be a new loaf (5:7-8).
On the other hand, the future that has begun and absolutely conditions present existence still awaits its final consummation. But such a future is as certain as life itself. Again, this certainty has been guaranteed by the resurrection. Just as God raised up the Lord, so he will raise us up (6:14; 15: 1-28). Christ is the first fruits, God’s own surety of the full harvest. When Christ comes again, not only will he raise the dead and transform the living, but by these events he will also have finally destroyed the last enemy, death itself (15:24-28, 54-57).
But neither the certain future nor the reality of eschatological existence in the present means that one has already fully arrived. Death is ours (3:22), but some still die (11:30); the present and future are ours (3:22), but the paradigm of present ethical life is our crucified Messiah (4:10-13). Thus, Christian life is paradox, apparent contradictions held together in tension. The guarantee rests not in present circumstances, but in the absolute certainty of the future that has already determined our present existence as well. The whole of our letter must be understood as flowing out of this essential framework (see on 4:1-5; 6:1-6; 7:29-31; 15:12-28,35-38).
2. The Gospel and Ethical Life. Related to the eschatological framework just noted is Paul’s insistence on radical obedience to Christ as the norm of Christian existence. If Romans and Galatians make it plain that one is not saved by obedience to the law, 1 Corinthians makes it equally plain that the saved are expected to live out their lives in obedience to the “commandments of God” (7:19) and the “law of Christ” (9:21). If such obedience is not required for entry into faith, it is nonetheless required as the outflow of faith.
Paul understands Christian ethics in terms of “becoming what you are,” a perspective that emerges in 1 Corinthians in a number of ways. He is never short on the imperative, but he always sets it in the context of God’s prior action on our behalf in Christ. Thus Paul commands the Corinthians to clean out the old leaven that they may become a new loaf, because in Christ our Passover they have already become a new loaf (5:7-8); they cannot go to the prostitutes because their bodies have already been set apart for Christ through his resurrection and they are already one S/spirit with him (6: 14-17); they must cease acting as in their former pagan way of life or else they will not inherit the kingdom, but at the same time they are reminded that such were some of them and they are so no longer through Christ and the Spirit (6:9-11).
In such ethics there are some absolutes, precisely because some sins are quite incompatible with life in Christ (sexual immorality, 6:12-20; attending temple feasts, 10: 14- 22). This is not law, in the sense of gaining right standing with God. But it is absolute since some behavior is absolutely contradictory to the character of God. On the other hand, merely religious scruples–circumcision (7:19); marketplace idol food (9:19-13; 10:23-30)-are irrelevant to the believer since they have been done away with in Christ. The only exception is when such behavior offends another (10:31-33).
The pattern for all behavior is Christ himself (11: 1) as his life is mediated through the life of the apostle (4: 16-17; 11:1). Thus the gospel is not turned into law, but neither is it divested of its true response. All is of grace, but grace brings the Spirit who enables the imitation of Christ.
3. The Church. Perhaps the single greatest theological contribution of our letter to the Christian faith is Paul’s understanding of the nature of the church, especially in its local expression. If the gospel itself is at stake in the Corinthians’ theology and behavior, so also is its visible expression in the local community of redeemed people. The net result is more teaching on the church here than in any of Paul’s letters.
Two great images predominate. First, the local church is God’s temple in Corinth (3: 16-17). With this imagery Paul makes several points: (a) As the temple of God they are expected to live as his alternative both to the pagan temples and to the way of life that surrounds them. Indeed, this is precisely the concern throughout so much of the letter, that there are so many gray areas that the Corinthian Christians are hardly distinguishable from the Corinth in which they live (cf. 5:1; 6:7; 10:32; 14:23). (b) What makes them God’s temple is the presence of the Holy Spirit in their midst. Thus, in contrast to the mute idols that surround them, they are themselves the sanctuary of the living God by his Spirit. And when God’s Spirit is manifested among them by prophetic utterance, pagans will have their hearts searched and judged and they will come to recognize that God is among his people (14:24-25). (c) So sacred to God is his temple that those who would destroy it-as they are doing by their quarrels and worldly wisdom-will themselves be destroyed by God (3:17). This understanding of their existence as a people among whom God is powerfully present by his Spirit makes possible our understanding of 5:1-13, where the church is purified by removing the incestuous man, yet he himself will experience salvation through such an action. Apparently being removed from such a community will lead to his repentance.
Second, the church is the body of Christ (10:17; 11:29; 12:12-26). With this image Paul makes essentially two points: (a) Underlying the imagery is the necessity of unity. As with the preceding image, the key to this unity is their common experience of the Spirit (12:13). Whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, they are one in Christ through the Spirit. Precisely because they are one body in Christ, the rich must cease abusing the poor at the Lord’s Table (11:22,29); and those who are more visible may not say to the less visible, “we have no need of you” (12:21-26). God has so arranged the body that all the members are essential to one another. (b) But his greater concern with this imagery is the concomitant necessity of diversity. Rather than the uniformity that the Corinthians value, Paul urges that they recognize the need for all the various manifestations of the one Spirit. Otherwise there is no body, only a monstrosity (12: 15-20).
Given this concern, therefore, it is of some interest that there is no teaching on church order as such. There is no mention of “elders” or of the “overseers” and “deacons” of Phil. 1: 1. Moreover, there is not a hint as to the nature, times, and leadership of their gatherings for worship. Two expressions of worship emerge. According to 11: 17-34 they gather at the same place for a meal that is held in conjunction with the Lord’s Supper. But we know nothing as to how often they ate this meal together, nor of its relationship to the expression of vocal worship referred to in 14:26, whether the latter happened in conjunction with the former (very likely) or reflected a separate gathering of its own. In either case, Paul emphasizes the truly corporate nature of such worship. Provision is to be made for “each one” to participate so that the whole body may be edified. The purpose of such worship is twofold. On the one hand, singing, praying, and thanksgiving are directed toward God (11:13; 14:14-17); on the other hand, utterances of various kinds are directed toward the community so that it may be built up.
A final word needs to be said about the considerable importance of this letter to today’s church. The cosmopolitan character of the city and church, the strident individualism that emerges in so many of their behavioral aberrations, the arrogance that attends their understanding of spirituality, the accommodation of the gospel to the surrounding culture in so many ways-these and many other features of the Corinthian church are but mirrors held up before the church of today. Likewise the need for discipleship modeled after the “weakness” of Christ (4:9-13), for love to rule over all (13: 1-13), for edification to be the aim of worship (14:1-33), for sexual immorality to be seen for what it is (5:1-13; 6: 12-20), for the expectation of marriages to be permanent (7:1-40)-these and many others are every bit as relevant to us as to those to whom they were first spoken. It is my prayer that this commentary may help us hear the voice of Paul, inspired by the Spirit, in a still clearer way in our own day.
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