What were Paul's chief concerns in writing his first letter to the Corinthians?
There is no particular reason to suppose that any one concern or any one set of concerns need have dominated Paul's thought in writing his first letter to the Corinthians. He was responding to the gossip or news he had received from Chloe's envoys, as well as answering specific questions put to him by the Church at Corinth, and finally expressing his own views on the risen Christ as the exemplar of Christians. Some of the problems he addresses may be regarded as isolated and not characteristic of any special tendency, though of course no less grave for that. Such problems are the case of 'incest'(1) and recourse to secular courts. But a preliminary glance at the community of Corinth suggests that a particular direction of thought may be connected with the nature of the community.
The most obvious characteristic of this community was fragmentation, fragmentation in numbers and fragmentation in class. This is to be expected from the archaeological and literary findings catalogued by Murphy O'Connor (a fascinating picture in Paul, A Critical Life, p.108 and 265). It was a university city of philosophers and a port-city of dockers, of Jews and Greeks, of residents and migrants, a temporary centre for the great Isthmian Games, with a double-port and the isthmian causeway, over which were dragged most of the ships and goods transported between east and west of the mediterranean. It was a fast and loose city: korinqia,zein was an expression for sexual licence; there were reported to be over 1,000 licenced sacred prostitutes. The saying non cuivis homini contingit adire Corinthum carries in it a leer (wink, wink). Contributory to the fragmentation is the size of houses: Murphy O'Connor maintains that no room yet found would admit comfortably more than two score people. Rather than one large community, there must have been several different groups. The small synagogue-type communities which resulted gave plenty of opportunity for rivalry and dissension between converts of Peter, Paul and Apollos, and for exclusion of the poor from the main supper-room.
Features of the letter accord with this background. The thanksgiving at the beginning of Paul's letters often, in a veiled sort of way, gives the clue to his central interest in the letter. In this case this clue seems to be the compliment that they are 'richly endowed in every kind of utterance and knowledge' (1.5), which accords both with Paul's prolonged emphasis on the spiritual gifts and the bitter sarcasm which is such a feature of the letter. Before that, however, he tackles directly the problem of unity. Murphy O'Connor maintains that one of Paul's chief weapons in this letter (and one of the reasons why it brought Paul such deserved unpopularity) was his way of putting the Corinthians down. Is he then merely being sarcastic with his, 'I am for Cephas... I am for Christ', and attacking mere squabbling rather than settled parties. If he really were seriously singling out separate parties, it is odd that he never mentions them subsequently. However, in this letter in which chiasmus plays such an important part, Talbert may be right to see Paul's three questions all on the subject of unity:
1. 'Has Christ been split up?'
2. 'Was it Paul that was crucified for you?'
3. 'Was it in Paul's name that you were baptised?'
Talbert maintains that these questions are answered:
3. No one but Stephanas and his family (1.15-16).
2. Not Paul but Christ was crucified for you. It is difficult to agree that Talbert's next section (1.18-31) is chiastically centred on 'we are preaching a crucified Christ' in answer to Paul's second rhetorical question. The stress is not on who was crucified, but on the folly of the Cross to both Jews and Greeks.
Nor is there sufficient reason to speak of any proto-Gnosis, as though some sophisticated heresy were begin to rear its head. The wisdom of which Paul speaks is simply allied to academic pride. The presence of the slogans later in the letter gives the impression that the Corinthians thought they knew all the answers, and encapsulated these answers in neat phrases. The dismissiveness of the slogans themselves bears this out: 'for me everything is permissible' (6.12), 'all of us have knowledge' (8.1), 'none of the false gods exist in reality' (8.4). The impression is strengthened by the male chauvinism of 14.34-35, if this is interpreted as a slogan because of its opposition to Paul's normal stance (he rejects sexism explicitly in Ga 3.27-28, and lays down rules about women prophesying in 1 Cor 11.5; if it is judged too long to be a slogan, another let-out is to consider it an interpolation) and because of Paul's own attack in the next verse on their arrogating the right to make such judgements. When Paul couples weakness and trembling to the absence of human wisdom and of logical expertise which characterised his approach at Corinth (2.1-3) he is attacking not Gnosticism but intellectualism. This would tally with their contempt for bodily things such as sex and food, and their presumption that no approach to these matters had any ethical importance.
In Romans 1 Paul is explicit enough about the inability of human wisdom in fact to discover God, despite all claims to be wise (Rm 1.21-23). In 1 Cor 1.20 he is more pointed and sarcastic still: pou'/ so,foj pou/ gramma,teuj pou/ suzh,thj; He is attacking not a particular kind of wisdom, a proto-Gnosticism, but wisdom as such. Everything about crucifixion was nauseating, but especially nauseating to the cultured hellenistic mind, and it is for this reason that Paul makes quite sure that they face up to the fact of crucifixion. The unity which Paul is urging in this section would, then, be unity between the cultured philosopher and the sweaty dock-hand.
Concern for unity comes to the fore increasingly also in the latter part of the letter. This is particularly clear in Paul's treatment of three topics, idololyths, the eucharist and spiritual gifts, each of which is treated specifically from this point of view.
On idololyths the trouble seems to have been twofold, including eating food once dedicated to false gods and eating in a temple. Paul begins his discussion by devaluating knowledge in favour of love (8.1-2), and ends it with a warning against wounding the conscience of a brother (8.12-13). This aspect therefore brackets and rules the discussion. The same concern also determines the renewed discussion in 10.23-33.
On the eucharist the motif of unity is stronger still, since 'we, though there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share in the one loaf' (10.17). Paul speaks of the body of Christ in such a way that it is difficult to tell whether he means the eucharistic body or the body which is the community: 'the loaf of bread which we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?' (10.16). In the discussion of the disorders of the eucharistic assembly, at which there was unevenness of placing (no doubt the richer members filled the triclinium, leaving the poorer in the atrium of the small houses) and of provisions brought to the 'common' meal, Paul appeals for a regard for God's assembly. In speaking of the need to drink the cup of the Lord worthily, the only criterion he has given for 'examining' oneself is on the matter of avoiding the 'separate factions' and 'different groups' (11.18-19).
Finally, on spiritual gifts, while he does not speak specifically of disunity and faction, he regards the main purpose of the exercise of these gifts as community-building. The basic view of these gifts must be from the framework of the body of Christ formed by the members of the community. He begins the discussion by putting forward the analogy of the body whose parts respect one another as interdependent (12.12-26). In his listing of the gifts in 12.26, only the last (which caused a particular difficulty) is not one which obviously affects other members: apostles, prophets, teachers, miraculous powers, gifts of healing, avntilh,myeij, various kinds of tongues. The highest of all the gifts is love (13), whose unitive force is obvious. The final discussion of prophecy and speaking in tongues is coloured by repeated appeal to the task of building up the community (oivkodomh. 7 times).
There are, it is true, other concerns addressed by Paul in the letter. The chief positive concern is for unity, but there is also concern about excessive eschatological fever. It may have been connected with the obvious manifestations of the eschatological Spirit which were such a feature of the community way of life. Perhaps it was these that led the Corinthian Christians to suppose that the final crisis and consummation could not be long delayed. Eschatological fever was, of course, a problem also at Thessalonika. At Corinth it led to concern about marriage and virginity, which Paul sets out to allay. He assures them that it is still reputable to marry, though he tempers this with the advice that everyone should stay in the state in which they were called (7.17). He does not seem to envisage that the end can be long delayed: the time has become limited (7.29) and the avnagkh. is pressing (7.26).
It is perhaps also in this connection that Paul teaches that there is a resurrection from the dead. The mistake of the Corinthians may have been, not that death was the end of everything, but that the eschatological reality was so vivid that there was no need for death. There is some need to show why Paul should suddenly launch into the disquisition on resurrection. Perhaps the Corinthians were so elated by their hypereschatologisation that they were prepared to put all their eggs in this basket and forget about those who were already dead. In reply Paul insists that there is still a future event in the presentation of the kingdom by Christ to his Father. Only in the future, after death, can perishable nature put on imperishability and death be swallowed up in victory (15.50-53).
What are the central concerns of Paul in writing his First Letter to the Corinthians?
JC Hurd The Origins of 1 Cor (1965)
Jerome Murphy-O'Connor article 49 in NJBC
St Paul's Corinth (1983)
'Corinthian Slogans in 1 Cor 6.12-20', CBQ 40 (1978) 391-396
'Eucharist and Community in 1 Cor' Worship 50 (1976) 370-385; 51 (1977) 56-69
Paul, a critical life (1996): sketch of letter p. 280-290, of personalities p. 265-273
Gerd Theissen The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity Essays on Corinth (1982)
RA Horsley 'Wisdom of Word and Words of Wisdom in Corinth', CBQ 39 (1977), 224-239
Charles H Talbert Reading Corinthians, a new commentary for preachers (SPCK 1987)
1. It would be fairer to call this 'illicit marriage'. If the man had married his step-mother, his father's widowed second wife, this would be illicit in Jewish law, but acceptable by normal Roman standards.