the Week of Proper 4 / Ordinary 9
Layman's Bible Commentary Layman's Bible Commentary
- 1 Corinthians
by Various Authors
THE FIRST LETTER OF PAUL TO THE
Paul, the Author
Paul is so well known that no biography of him, not even a thumbnail sketch, will be given here. The basic facts about him are in the Book of Acts, and in his own letters. How these are put together, along with some side information drawn from history outside the Bible, the reader may read for himself in a good Bible dictionary.
What we need to remember about Paul, in connection with these Corinthian letters, is that he had a good reason to know the Corinthian church, its members and its problems. He had founded the church himself, from nothing at all, for so far as we know there were no Christians in that city when Paul arrived. Unlike Romans, which was written mostly to strangers, in a strange church in a strange city, these letters were written to personal friends, in a situation Paul knew very well.
Paul and the Church at Corinth
Any man who had the intention of telling the story of Jesus in the Roman Empire would certainly have Corinth on his itinerary, though Paul’s actual going there might seem to have been almost an accident. He had been in different places in Macedonia, to the north, but had been driven out by rioters. "Wherever Paul went," it has been said, "there was either a revival or a riot." And sometimes both! He then went to Athens, where he had a short and not entirely successful stay. From there he went to Corinth "in weakness and in much fear and trembling," as he himself said (1 Corinthians 2:3). After being driven out of Thessalonica and Beroea, and after what must have been a disheartening experience in Athens, no wonder he was not filled with confidence at the sight of Corinth. It was like Chicago, "stormy, husky, brawling." It needed Christianity; but would this city take it? At first the answer seemed to be, No. Paul began his work, as always if possible, by speaking in the local synagogue. As a rabbi from the beloved capital of all Jewish people, and (as is probable) a former member of the High Court or Sanhedrin there, Paul would be welcome in any synagogue, and sooner or later would be asked for "a few remarks." One thing led to another, and presently Paul was speaking every Sabbath (Saturday) in the synagogue, and winning converts too. This led to a riot, but Paul was not to be stopped. He announced that he now would go to the Gentiles, then he moved next door and started a church in the house of Titius Justus, presumably a Roman.
For eighteen months Paul stayed there, talking to anyone who would listen, teaching, counseling, quietly gathering a Christian church. As to what the church was like, First Corinthians gives us the inside information. At all events, after eighteen months there was another riot. Paul took his time about leaving, but "after . . . many days" set off for Jerusalem and Antioch. He stayed in Corinth longer than any other city on his travels, except Ephesus where on a later visit he remained about three years.
The Corinthian Correspondence
While Paul was in Ephesus, two or three years after this, he had occasion to write the Corinthians a letter, which he mentions in 1 Corinthians 5:9. It is possible, and even probable, that 2 Corinthians 6:14 to 2 Corinthians 7:1 is a quotation from that letter. At any rate, that passage represents the spirit of the letter to which Paul refers in 1 Corinthians 5:9.
Sometime after this, Paul heard of troubles in the church at Corinth. Besides, the members of the church wrote him a letter asking his advice on a variety of problems they had. In answer to that letter, Paul wrote what we know as First Corinthians. Unfortunately the letter did not produce good results. Paul himself had to leave Ephesus and pay the Corinthians a visit—not a pleasant one. He was in the position of a minister with a church that asks his advice but has no intention of taking it. (Some scholars believe Paul made the trip to Corinth from some other city than Ephesus, but the point does not seem to be important, either way.)
So Paul, after reaching Ephesus again, sent the Corinthians a scorching letter to which he himself refers in 2 Corinthians 2:4 and 2 Corinthians 7:8. Indeed, Paul admits that he almost regrets that he wrote such a letter at all. This severe letter worked, however; and so Paul writes still another letter, which is (see below) either all or a part of our Second Corinthians.
Is that "severe letter" in existence? Many interpreters have given convincing arguments that we do have at least a large part of that severe letter, in 2 Corinthians 10-13. Whoever thought first of publishing Paul’s letters would likely write around to churches where he was known to have worked, to see if he had written them any letters. The Corinthian church would presumably go through their files (as we say) and send all they thought wise to release to the Church at large. The collectors or editors would then in all probability combine two or three letters, or parts of letters, though not in the original order. That may or may not have been the case with the Corinthian correspondence. At any rate, Second Corinthians seems to make more sense if we think of chapters 10-13 as the severe letter, or most of it; and chapters 1-9 as the letter of reconciliation. (More about that when we come to it.)
In this theory the whole correspondence would be something like this:
Paul’s first letter (either now lost, or else a fragment of it preserved in 2 Corinthians 6:14 to 2 Corinthians 7:1).
The Corinthians’ letter to Paul (referred to in 1 Corinthians 7:1), now lost.
First Corinthians, written by Paul in answer to their letter to him.
The severe letter, referred to in II Corinthians 2:4 and 7:8. Probably preserved in 2 Corinthians 10-13.
The "letter of reconciliation," the cheerful and relaxed chapters 1-9 of Second Corinthians.
The City of Corinth
Much in these letters can be better understood by knowing something about the city of Corinth. Just as churches today in different countries or even in different sections of the same city reflect the kind of places where they are, so in Corinth. It was a big city and the church was very small. You would have had a harder time finding the church there than you have finding, say, Christadelphians in New York without the help of newspaper ads or phone book.
Corinth was a new city, comparatively speaking. It had been burned to the ground by a Roman general’s orders back in 146 B.C., lay in ashes for one hundred years, and then got a new start. Like all new cities "zoned commercial" it had few "fine old traditions." Everybody was out for the almighty drachma. It was a great shipping port. All the cargoes going east or west across the Isthmus of Corinth were handled at Corinth city. The Isthmian Games, a big athletic series, were held near there. The general morals of the place were even lower than the average of cities in the Roman Empire, so much so that the word "Corinthianize" was used to refer to unmentionable sins.
The city was at the same time a very tough place to start a church, and a wonderful place too. It was tough because while the place reeked with "religions," some of them were so depraved that even the Roman government refused to license them. The people were mostly hard-boiled lovers of pleasure, materialists to the core, the last people in the world you would think capable of "spiritual" understanding or living. If you could get a church going in Corinth, you could get it going anywhere. That little church at Corinth was a real experiment station. It was demonstrated there once and for all that the Christian faith can take root anywhere. After Corinth, you cannot point to any part of the world, then or since, and say, "That place is so degraded that it is useless to send Christian workers there."
Corinth was a great place to begin a church for another reason. Just because it was a kind of Chicago of its time, a center of trade and transportation, a big business city and sports center also, anything well started in Corinth would soon make its way to other parts of the Empire. Paul was himself a city man and he knew the importance of the city. He never visited villages. This was not because he thought villagers not worth saving, but villagers in those days died where they were born and lived. It was the city people who traveled; it was city Christians who would carry the gospel out on highways and seaways to the frontiers of the Empire and beyond.
Date and Authorship of Corinthians
In this commentary, where the whole Corinthian correspondence is meant the one word "Corinthians" includes it all. Where the reference is to just one of these letters, the numbers I and II will be used.
Placing the activities and the letters of Paul in their right years in history is a kind of jigsaw puzzle. If you are curious enough, you may find a variety of answers in various books. One thing is certain; the Corinthian Letters were earlier than the Letter to Rome by two or three years, since they were written while Paul was headquartered in Ephesus, and Romans was written after Paul had left that city. If we set the date of A.D. 55 for Corinthians and A.D. 58 for Romans, we shall not be far wrong.
There is no doubt that Paul wrote these letters. Doubts have been expressed about a few of the letters attributed to Paul, but not about these. This fact is important, because when you read Corinthians, you are reading unquestionably firsthand materials, written by a man who was in the midst of what he was writing about. Romans may have been written with half an eye to circulating it among other churches; but the Corinthian Letters were written to a particular church about its particular problems, with no apparent thought of publication.
A Note on Paul’s Style
Four points should be remembered when reading Paul’s writings.
He did not actually write his letters himself; they were dictated (see Romans 16:22, for example). There is some reason to believe that Paul’s eyesight was very poor, and he may not even have read them over. So we do not have the style of a man sitting at a desk writing, crossing out, erasing, writing again, looking at his outline to make sure of not going off on tangents. It is the style of a man sometimes thinking while he talks, and sometimes putting into a rush of words something he has had on his mind for a long time. It is the style of a man who as preacher and teacher knew the value of repeating an idea, even a word, over and over until it sticks. It is the style of a man with a very lively, "that-reminds-me" sort of mind. He will go off the highway of his main idea into a detour, and then off on a detour from the detour, just as people do when they are talking. Hence Paul is the despair of tidy minds, and it is impossible to make perfect outlines of writing that did not have a clear outline to begin with.
Paul lacked three things no present-day theologian would do without. One was a copy of a reference Bible. His quotations from the Old Testament are numerous, but seldom word for word. Commentators are not always sure just where the quotations come from. Books were extremely expensive in those days, and Paul was not a rich man. A papyrus copy of the Old Testament, complete, would cost about eight times what a skilled workman, such as Paul was, could earn in a year. This is probably the reason why his Bible quotations seem to be mostly from memory, and are often inaccurate. He knew Hebrew well, and also Greek; so his quotations are sometimes more like the Old Testament Hebrew, although normally they reflect the great Greek translation (the Septuagint) which was to be the standard version used by the Church for three hundred years and more.
Another thing Paul lacked was carbon copies of other letters he had written. Some modern commentators are distressed to find that Paul does not always agree with himself at every point. But Paul did not have the advantage the commentator has, of a handy volume of Paul’s letters—past and future! We should be thankful for Paul’s freedom, not apologetic about it.
The third thing he lacked was a copy of the Church’s creed. No creed had yet come into existence, not even the Apostles’ Creed, still less the Nicene Creed or the Westminster Confession of Faith or the Thirty-nine Articles. Paul was not, strictly speaking, a "systematic theologian." He was a great theological thinker writing letters about pressing problems. But he was never trying to be "orthodox." The great creeds try to agree with Paul, not the other way around. The very fact that Christians of every variety cherish Paul’s writings and live by them is evidence enough that his letters cannot be squeezed into the shape of any particular denominational creed. If we find him saying things that do not quite fit the creed of our own church, it is always possible to try to revise his remarks, or to reinterpret them, so that they do fit. But it is more honest to let him say what he does say, and maybe reflect that perhaps our orthodoxy might be wrong at that point!
Introduction, Blessing and Thanksgiving. 1 Corinthians 1a-9
Unity in the Congregation. I Corinthians 1:10--4:2i
The Parties, the Partisans (1:10-17)
The Key to Unity: the Message of the Cross (1:18-3:4) God’s Workmen, the Apostles; God’s Workmanship, the Church (3:5-4:21)
Immorality of Church Members; Lawsuits Among Christians; Church Discipline. 1 Corinthians 5:I-6:20
Sex and Marriage. 1 Corinthians 7:1-40
Food from Idols’ Temples: Can Harmless Acts Be Wrong? I Corinthians 8:i-1m
The First Answer (8:1-6)
A Second Answer (8:7-13)
Paul’s Good Example (9:1-27)
A Bad Example from Ancient Israel (10:1-13)
Summing Up (10:14-11:1)
Public Worship: Bad and Good Ways. 1 Corinthians 11:2-34 Women’s Place in the Church (11:2-16)
Disunity ( 11 : 17-22 )
The Lord’s Supper (11:23-34)
Spiritual Gifts; Worship (continued). 1 Corinthians 12:1 to 1 Corinthians 14:39 Spiritual Gifts (12:1-11)
The Unity of the Church as the Body of Christ (12:12-30) The "More Excellent Way" of Love (12:31-13:13)
The Gift of "Tongues"; a Primitive Worship Service (14:1-40)
The Resurrection and the Life Everlasting. 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 The Resurrection of Christ Is a Part of the Gospel (15:1-11) Christ’s Resurrection and the General Resurrection (15:12-19) Adam and Death; Christ and Life (15:20-23)
The End: God Will Be All in All (15:24-28)
An Argument from Baptizing for the Dead (15:29-34) Faith’s Answer to a Foolish Question (15:35-57)
Imperishable Lives in a Perishing World (15:58)
Closing Notes, Greetings, Benediction. 1 Corinthians 16:1-24