Paul - Essay 2 on First Corinthians

How does the teaching on the body of Christ develop between the Great Epistles of Paul and the Deutero-Paulines?

In First Corinthians Paul applies the image of a community as a body to the Christian community at Corinth in quite a new way, based on his conception of Christ's presence in the Christian. In the Deutero-Paulines the image is again used, consonantly with the new vision of Christ's cosmic lordship.

It was a commonplace of the ancient world that a community could be described as a body. Agrippa had so described the Roman body politic as the secession of the plebs (Livy 2.32.8-12), likening the patricians to the head and the plebeians to the belly, each dependent on the other. Plato called the world a zwon and writes of the swma tou kosmou, tou pantoj (Tim 30B-34B). Not long after Paul, the Stoic Marcus Aurelius teaches the universal human brotherhood, membra sumus unius corporis magni, from which he deduces that human beings should help one other.

It has often been claimed that this common use is at the base of Paul's use of the image. Against this theory it must be argued that the idea of parts contributing to the well-being of the whole organism is only one of Paul's several applications of the imagery. Andrew Hill ('The Temple of Aesculapius: an alternative source for Paul's body theology?' JBL 99 (1980), 437-439) has made the attractive suggestion that this particular usage was suggested to Paul by the dismembered commemorative terra-cotta representations of human members (eyes, ears, hands, feet, breasts, genitals) found at the shrine of Aeculapius in Corinth. Paul picked up other imagery from Corinthian life, such as slavery and prostitution, and especially the athletics metaphors of running, boxing and winning which would be familiar from the Isthmian Games.

In fact, by the time Paul comes to use this image in 1 Cor 12, he has already twice used the image of the body of Christ in other ways. First he uses it when dissuading Christians from physical union with a prostitute. This is also instructive for his understanding of the term. In English 'body' may be used with overtones it does not have in Greek; in Paul's semitic Greek it may have other connotations. In English 'body' may be opposed to 'soul' (a Platonic idea); it may be used of a corpse, as opposed to a live person. These usages overlap exactly neither sarc nor swma. For Paul swma can be used as an equivalent to the English 'personality' (Rm 12.1, 'I urge you to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice'; Phl 1.20, 'Christ will be glorified in my body, whether by my life or by my death'; Eph 5.28, 'husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies'. There is nothing particularly physical about any of these).

In 1 Cor 6.12-20 the message is not simply physical. The evil of a Christian uniting with a prostitute is not simply that the two are united physically, but rather that this is an expression of personal union. Indeed, it seems to have been the contention of Corinthian sophistication, in pleading that 'for me everything is permissible', that mere base bodily functions could be divorced from the personality: 'foods are for the stomach and the stomach for foods', 'every sin that someone commits is outside the body' (6.18). It is precisely this disjunction that Paul refutes, 'since the two become one flesh', that is, one personality or one human entity. This is the first way in which Paul employs the idea of bodily union with Christ, implying a sharing of life primarily not with other members of the community but with Christ.

The second usage concerns the eucharist. Here there is more thought of the diversity of the community, but the main point is still a community of life with Christ. As so often, Paul's categories are not neat to the modern mind. The loaf of bread is a sharing (koinwnia) in the body of Christ. How can a loaf be a koinwnia? 'As there is one loaf, so we, although there are many of us, are one single body, for we all share (metexomen) in the one loaf'(1 Cor 10.17). The sharing in the loaf either makes, or at least expresses, a participation in Christ's body. This crossing of categories in the passage makes sense only on the presupposition that the eating of the loaf creates or intensifies a sharing in Christ's life which is shared by all who participate.

Thre is obviously a hidden agenda which does not come to expression in these passages. It seems to me that it is expressed in Romans 5-8 through two ideas, the notion of the Second Adam and the idea of the sharing of life in Christ through his Spirit, entered upon by baptism. The former of these may not be Paul's own idea, since the comparison and contrast between Christ and Adam is already made in the Philippians hymn. It is built upon the Hebrew idea of a corporate personality: as Adam, the progenitor of the human race, contains all his descendants, and Abraham, the progenitor of the Israelites, and each of the eponymous ancestors of the Twelve Tribes contain all theirs, so are all Christians contained in Christ, the Second Adam, the progenitor of the renewed humanity. The latter idea comes to expression in the Romans passage on baptism:

'When we were baptised into Christ, we were baptised into his death. So by our baptism into his death we were buried with him, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the Father's glorious power, so we too should begin living a new life' (Rm 6.3-4).

The community of life with Christ is expressed by a series of neologisms invented by Paul for the purpose. Sunestaurwmai Xrist% (Ga 2.19); I carry Christ's wounds on my body (Ga 6.17). Christians are summorfoi with Christ (Rm 8.29; Phil 3.21), suntafentej with him (Rm 6.4; Col 2.12), sundocasqeij (Rm 8.17), sunklhronomoi (Rm 8.17) - none of these words occur in the LXX; it is a new situation which Paul struggles to express. This must be related to Paul's teaching on the Spirit: 'and if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead has made a home in you, then he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your own mortal bodies through his Spirit living in you' (Rm 8.11). The two aspects are combined already, though not so explicitly, in First Corinthians: 'since the last Adam has become a life-giving spirit' (1 Cor 15.45).

This is the more profound context which gives the teaching on the body and its members in First Corinthians 12 its background. This application of the political figure of the body merely combines with Paul's conception of the union of life between the Christian and Christ.


In the Deutero-Paulines the development of the theme of the body accords with the general development which has occurred as a result of the broadening of vision. In the face of controversy about the position of 'sovereignties and powers' and other heavenly beings with regard to Christ, the author has come to see Christ in cosmic terms, as superior to creation as a whole. Christ is now seen to have cosmic stature, to pervade the cosmos with his presence and rule. The author seems close to the idea of Philo, that the universe is 'the most perfect man' (Migr Abr 220), or the great Man (Rer Div Her 155). The author may well also be reacting to, and using, the stoic idea that the cosmos is the body of the world-soul (Seneca, De Ira II.31.7-8). The basic consequences of this are two:

1. In Corinthians the members go to make up the body of Christ, including its head; the head is one of the members of the body which is Christ (1 Cor 12.21). In Colossians 2.19 the Head is set over against the body. The development of the imagery comports new elements to the relationship between Christ and his body;

a. The idea of authority, contained in the Hebrew ro'sh. Philo voices the same thought when he says that the head is to hgemonikwtaton of the parts of the body (Spec Leg 3.184). Ephesians 5.22-23 teaches, 'Wives should be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, since, as Christ is head of the church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife.'

b. According to hellenistic medicine, nourishment flowed from the head to its members. It is also the principle of organisation. These are both reflected in Colossians 2.19, '...the Head, by which the whole body, given all that it needs and held together by joints and sinews, grows with the growth given by God'. Most notably it is expressed in the hymn of Ephesians 1.10, that God planned 'to bring everything together under Christ as head' (anakefalaiwsasqai ta panta en Xrist%). This combines the ideas of the head as a heading (kefalaion) or principle of organisation or categorisation with the leadership principle.

2. In Corinthians the image was used of the local community, without at least explicit relation to the Christian community as a whole. Now that the optic is wider, the body image is applied more widely too. It is plausibly suggested (E. Schweizer, Beitrage (1969), p. 113ff) that the original poem behind Col 1.15-20 read [additions in italics]:

He is the image of the unseen God,

the first-born of all creation,

for in him were created all things,

everything visible and everything invisible

thrones, ruling forces, sovereignties, powers

All things were created through him and for him,

and in him all things hold together,

and he is the head of the body, the Church.

He is the beginning, the first-born from the dead,

so that he should be supreme in every way

because God wanted all fullness to be found in him,

and through him to reconcile all things to himself,

everything in heaven and everything on earth,

making peace by his death on the cross.

The change wrought by the addition to the second stanza is that, instead of the body being equated with 'all things' or the cosmic powers, it is now referred specifically to the Church. It certainly makes the sequence of thought less clear, for the rest of the poem is concerned with Christ's relationship to the cosmos. The same duality of relationship occurs in Ephesians 2.22-23, 'He has put all things under his feet, and has made him, as he is above all things, the head of the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who is filled, all in all'. Here the 'fullness' is interpreted as being his body, the Church. It is simply not clear what the difference of the relationship of Christ is to the Church and to ta panta. Of each he is head in the sense explained above. Has Paul really thought out the difference?

The connections between Eph/Col and Corinthians/Romans on the body raise the question of the authorship of the later, more developed letters. Various arguments have been put forward about their pseudonmymity. Raymond Brown (as well-informed an authority as any) reckoned in his 1996 D'Arcy Memorial Lectures that 60% of scholars view Colossians as pseudonymous and 70% Ephesians.

The Authorship of Colossians

Stylistically it is difficult or impossible to attribute the letter to the same writer as that of the great epistles.

1. Vocabulary

Various word-lists have been published, but they lack conviction because the absence of certain words could be the consequence of different subject-matter: it is not surprising that words from the root (righteous) are absent in a letter where justice and justification play little part, and the Jewish problematic has passed.

2. Sentence Structure

More convincing is that general argument from sentence-structure; the cut-and-thrust of diatribe has given place to an ample, rhetorical or even liturgical style. Thus in Col 1 verses 3-8 and verses 9-20 may each be construed as a single sentence, phrase piled upon phrase.

3. Grammatical Construction

The argument which I find most convincing is that of grammatical construction: conjunctions denoting logical connection are far less used than in the genuine letters ( , , , ..., etc ('therefore', 'accordingly', 'indeed')(1). Instead the constructions are loose, relying on connections such as , ('i', 'through'), and piled up genitives of quality. On the other hand, the use of relative clauses and participial constructions is considerably higher.

4. Difference of approach

Evidence for a different approach as well as different circumstances is provided by the vagueness of characterisation of opponents: previously Paul had been crisply specific about his opponents and their tendencies. The generality of the approach in Colossians is shown by the number of different heresies suggested as the author's target, ranging from Pythagoreanism, Mithraism, Essenism, Gnosticism, syncretistic mystery cult to Judaism - 13 of them, according to Kiley(2).

5. Imitation

A further phenomenon which carries implications about the author is the use of whole phrases from Philippians and Philemon. These must be the fruit of deliberate imitation. The author must be carefully trying to make the letter as Pauline as possible.

The Authorship of Ephesians

Before discussing the authorship of the letter we must consider its character, and particularly that of the first part. Paul's letters regularly begin with an address to his correspondents, followed by a thanksgiving and prayer, which introduce the subject of the letter (see p. 14). In the oldest tradition of the text of Ephesians (represented by some good ancient manuscripts, and by the quotations in the writers of the second century) the address includes no name. Another unprecedented feature is that this mode of prayer and thanksgiving extends not only through an introductory paragraph, but through the whole of the first, doctrinal part of the letter. The blessing comprises the whole of the hymn in 1.3-14, after which there follows the thanksgiving for the faith and fidelity of the readers (1.15-2.22), the whole section concluding with a prayer for their deeper understanding (3.14-21). Interposed before this is a reflection on Paul's apostolate (3.1-13). All these elements are standard in the introductions to Paul's letters, but in a much shorter compass.

The whole difficulty, of course, in deciding on the authorship of the letter is that the author does in fact succeed in his object to 'pass on an interpretation of the Pauline tradition in a way that will speak to... the needs of his readers'(3). Heinrich Schlier, in his great commentary on the letter, calls the author a 'Paul after Paul'. The pseud tries to think the thoughts of the name, and in this case does so with a confusing degree of success.

It is therefore more profitable to detail differences from the Pauline letters than to delay on the question of authorship. The pattern of differences is consistent, and shows both why scholarly opinion is still divided, and why the question who actually wrote the letter is not of primary importance. The author takes Pauline elements, but gives them a different stress. Thus

1. Paul mentions the (the mystery) in Rm 11.25 and 1 Cor 2.1 (never elsewhere with the same meaning and weight nor with the article), whereas in Eph it comes 6 times and in Col 4 times. Similarly he does speak of the (fullness, completion) in Christ, whereas in Ephesians the term is used much more widely and fully (4 times and twice in Col). In Rm 11-15 plh/rwma is used four times to mean fulfilment of the Law. In Eph it means either the fullness of time (it is used thus once in Ga) or the completion of the world.

2. Paul's theology is centred on the Cross (see particularly the previous chapter), though the resurrection is also important to him. In Ephesians the Cross is mentioned only 2.16, whereas the emphasis is all on the resurrection and exaltation of Christ.

3. Paul often mentions his apostolic task, whereas Eph 3.1-13 reads like a retrospective estimate of his whole apostolate. It is a good deal too complacent for the earlier Paul. Despite calling himself 'the least of God's holy people', he does seem to be remarkably full of his achievements. On the other hand, there are no details of his sufferings and hardships, whereas Paul delighted to detail and list them. Now there is only general reference to Paul's trials, an interpretation of them and an appeal that they should be an inspiration to the Ephesians rather than a stumbling-block: 'I beg you, do not let the hardships I undergo on your behalf make you waver; they are for your glory' (3.13).

4. For Paul the fate of Israel is a burning issue and an anguished concern (e.g. Rm 9-11). By contrast, in Ephesians Israel is a simply thing of the past, something from which gentiles used to be excluded (2.12). The strongest difference from Pauline theology is that Paul insisted that Christ had not rendered the Law void (especially in Ga and Rm, but also in 1-2 Cor), whereas in Eph 2.15 he starkly affirms that Christ destroyed (the same very word is used for 'annulling') the Law of the commandments.

5. Paul does speak of the Church of God as an entity which he persecuted (Ga 1.13; 1 Cor 15.9); but he normally speaks of 'the churches', communities in particular places. Ephesians regularly speaks of the universal Church as a single entity, and rather more as a theological entity than as a particular gathering of people in one place.

6. The most notable difference of course is the style, and it was the style which first alerted the Renaissance scholar Erasmus to the problem of Pauline authorship. Gone is the darting, questing diatribe (see p. 46-47), replaced by long periods (1.3-14, 15-23; 2.1-7; 3.1-7, 14-19; 4.11-16; 5.7-13; 6.14-20). This is a pleonastic, rhetorical style, almost liturgical in its rotundity. Sanday and Headlam wrote unkindly in 1902 (The Epistle to the Romans), 'We shut up the epistle to the Romans, and we open that to the Ephesians; how great is the contrast! We cannot speak here of vivacity, hardly of energy...In its place we have a slowly moving, onwards advancing mass, like a glacier working its way inch by inch down the valley.'

6. There are expressions frequent in Ephesians which depart from Pauline custom: for 'in the heavens' the author writes (5 times) instead of ; he uses 'the devil' (twice) instead of Paul's 'Satan'. Above all, there is a plethora of qualifying and complementary genitives which impart a quite un-Pauline rotundity to the language, and qualifying phrases tacked on by and ('according to' and 'in'). Significant for the placing of the letter is a list of nine words(4) unique to Ephesians in the New Testament but common in the post-apostolic literature. This fits well with the changed situation of a church settling into the world: whereas Paul regarded marriage as an appeasement for the weak, hardly sensible in view of the threatening final catastrophes, Ephesians 5.22 honours it to the extent of comparing it to the relationship of Christ to the Church.

7. The most curious feature of all is that the letter slavishly uses phrases taken especially from Colossians. Over a quarter of the 2,411 words used in Ephesians are used also in Colossians, and in the passage recommending Tychicus (Eph 6.21) 23 consecutive words are the same as Col 4.7. Particularly the section 4.17-24 takes up words and phrases used in Col 3.5-11, re-using them and changing them sometimes in a curious way. Another instance is 5.20, where the author re-uses the phrases of Col 3.15-17, but in a different order and connection: particularly 'in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ' now refers not to all activity of the Christian (as in Col) but specifically to thanksgiving.

After this it is not necessary from the theological point of view to come to a final decision about the authorship of Ephesians. The author certainly may be deduced from his use of Colossians to have seen Colossians as a model, presumably - rightly or wrongly - by Paul. If Ephesians is not by Paul, it is at least a faithful development from Paul. The lexicographical data, the admiration for Paul as an apostolic figure, the moderation of eschatological expectation, all point to a later date, soon after the Paul we know from the letters. The letter is in faithful continuity with the earlier Paul, representing a sensitive and legitimate development from the earlier letters.

The situation, however, has changed. The problematic is no longer the delay of the return of Christ, nor the relationship of Christianity to the Jews, nor yet the running sore of disorder at Corinth. The barrier between Jew and gentile has been broken down, so that the two have become united in the single New Man (1.15-16). Christ himself is viewed in a cosmic perspective, his resurrection from the dead leading straight on to his enthronement 'in heaven, far above every principality, ruling force, power or sovereignty or any other name that can be named' (1.21).

Perhaps the most attractive solution to these problems(5) is to regard Ephesians as a mediation, or even a celebration of Paul's teaching, probably written by a follower of Paul, using especially Colossians as a template.


R. Banks, Paul's Idea of a Community (1981), chap. 6

R. Schnackenburg, Ephesians (1991), pp. 298-302

Arthur E. Hill, JBL 99 (1980), pp. 437-439

Daniel J. Harrington, God's People in Christ (1980)

Wayne A. Meeks, 'In One Body', in God's Christ and his People [Festschrift NA Dahl] (1977), ed. J. Jervell and WA Meeks

John AT Robinson, The Body

1. Evidence in Mark Kiley, Colossians as Pseudepigraphy (1986), p.51-52.

2. op. cit., p. 61-62.

3. Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians [Word Commentary, 1990], p.83.

4. Lincoln, Ephesians, p.lxv.

5. See 'Ephesians', article by James D.G. Dunn in Oxford Bible Commentary (forthcoming).