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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through 1 Corinthians

The Address ( 1, 1–9 )

The address contains a greeting ( 1, 1–3 ) and thanksgiving ( 1, 4–9 ). In the greeting, Paul refers to himself as an “apostle of Jesus Christ” and identifies a “brother,” Sosthenes, as co‐author who, however, does not reappear in the letter. He is perhaps to be identified with the synagogue official of the same name in Acts 18, 17 . Paul addresses the community as a “church” (ekklesia), which has been “sanctified in Christ Jesus” and “called to be holy.” Paul thus reminds the Corinthians that they have a common vocation (ek‐klesia literally means “called out of”). This is Paul's usual word for the assembly of believers, taken from the civic word for the assembly of citizens in a free city‐state. It may also be a conscious translation of the Hebrew qahal, the biblical assembly of Israel. The Corinthians have a new identity, rooted in God, that distinguishes them from the world around them.

Paul's adaptation of the thanksgiving usually found in Hellenistic letters focuses on the blessings received by his addressees. Moreover, the thanksgiving announces themes Paul will develop in the letter. The Corinthians lack no spiritual gift whatsoever ( 1, 7 ). The factions among them that so concerned Paul are rooted precisely in their envy of and competition for extraordinary gifts.

The Body of the Letter ( 1, 10–15, 58 )

The whole of 1 Corinthians addresses specific issues that caused dissension and strained the fabric of the Corinthian community. In the first section of the body or main part of the letter, Paul discusses the divisions he has heard about among the Corinthians ( 1, 10–6, 20 ). He then turns to address matters that the Corinthians had themselves directed to him (see 7, 1–11, 1 ). Finally, Paul will consider other issues relevant to the Corinthian community; namely appropriate ways of celebrating the Eucharist ( 11, 2–14, 40 ), and the meaning of the Resurrection ( 15, 1–58 ). Following this general outline, we can now comment on the main message of 1 Corinthians.

Reported Divisions and Abuses ( 1, 10–6, 20 )

Reports from Chloe's people (see 1, 11 ) identified some problems at Corinth stemming from two matters: (1) factions ( 1, 10–4, 21 ) and (2) immoral behavior ( 5, 1–6, 20 ).

Factions in Corinth ( 1, 10–4, 21 ). The variety of backgrounds of its members caused many problems in the community of Corinth. Various members of the community turned to different leaders, and groups began to vie with one another for superiority and recognition. Paul first takes up the slogans adopted by groups who profess allegiance to the various leaders. He names group leaders, specifically Cephas (that is, Peter), Apollos, and himself. He shows the absurdity of divisions based on leadership, which is superficial compared to the common baptism by which all Christians are sanctified and saved.

The Corinthians disagreed among themselves about which leaders were the most important and which group of Christians was the most prestigious. They may have taken their lead from disagreements among the great figures themselves. James disagreed with Paul, for example, about whether any aspects of the Jewish Law were required of Gentile Christians (Gal 2 ). Peter favored at least minimal requirements, while Paul advocated complete freedom from the Jewish Law for Gentile converts. First Corinthians suggests that the leaders' disagreement affected the Corinthians and caused many to side with one leader against another. But the Corinthians also had their own divisions.

Another leader was Apollos who, for very different reasons, had a following that competed for the Corinthians' loyalty. Apollos attracted many Corinthians because of his eloquence in speaking (see Acts 18, 24–28 ). Meanwhile, some of the Corinthians cited Paul's unimpressive physical presence and speaking abilities as reason to reject him (1 Cor 2, 1–5; 2 Cor 1, 10 ). Paul chided the Corinthians for judging by human standards, not by God's as revealed in the cross of Christ. Paul reminded them that neither he nor Peter nor Apollos were crucified for them. The Corinthians were baptized in Christ's name and belonged to Christ. The formation of competitive groups within the Christian community is absurd. Paul admonishes the Corinthians to remember who they are‐that by worldly standards few among them have any reason to boast ( 1, 26–31 )—but that “in the Lord” they can boast that they are saved and form a “new creation” (2 Cor 5, 17 ). They do not have wealth or nobility or education, but they are rich in the blessings of the Spirit of God. The “not many of you” in verse 26 has been read both ways: Paul is stressing the humble origins and status of most, but in saying this he suggests that some really were of higher social status and wealth.

The first part of this letter ( 1, 10–4, 21 ) may be summarized as the gospel paradox, the teaching that God's wisdom is greater than human wisdom, that the power of the cross outweighs all human power. The Corinthians portrayed themselves as sophisticated, mature, and truly wise. Paul describes them as rather immature, of the “flesh” rather than spiritual ( 3, 1 ), deceiving themselves and therefore lacking in the most fundamental knowledge. They erroneously judged according to standards that are transitory rather than eternal. The riches and wisdom of God surpass all understanding and may be perceived only through wisdom that is revealed by the Spirit ( 2, 10 ).

Immoral behavior ( 5, 1–6, 20 ). In chapters 5 and 6 , Paul gives instances when judgments on the appropriate behavior for believers would be necessary. The Christian message of salvation has many implications‐doctrinal, liturgical, ethical. Certain behavior is inconsistent with belonging to the Christian community. Chapters 5 and 6 specifically mention incest, bringing lawsuits against other members of the community, and sexual promiscuity, as liable to the community's judgment.

The Corinthians were complacent about keeping in their community someone who violated Jewish incest laws by living with his stepmother. Paul uses a traditional image of “yeast” to help describe the impact of the presence of such a one in their midst. The proverb “a little yeast leavens all the dough” illustrates the extent to which the sinner's action corrupts the whole community. Jesus uses this same image to warn about the influence of the Pharisees on the disciples (Mt 16, 6; Mk 8, 15; Lk 12, 1 ). Paul was concerned about the impact of the sinner on the community and the “contagion” of sinful actions. Throughout this letter, a fundamental point of Christian theology is emphasized: namely, as Christians we cannot act alone without regard for one another. Our actions affect others, for good or evil. Paul sees conversion as turning “from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thes 1, 9 ). This conversion requires a readiness to change not only our hearts but also our actions so that we may live in accordance with our baptism. Continuing the yeast image, Paul cites the formula of the paschal lamb and unleavened bread, pure and free from yeast. Yeast, as it is here, is usually a negative symbol. The connection is especially relevant at the time of the year in which Paul writes, the season of Passover ( 16, 8 ).

It troubles Paul to hear that some in the community are bringing lawsuits against one another, when what they should be doing is suffering wrongs in imitation of Christ. At best, they should settle such disputes among themselves. He reminds them of the eschatological scenario in which God's holy ones will judge the earth. They therefore have no business submitting their grievances to unbelieving judges now. Nor do they know what they are doing by participation in prostitution. “Everything is lawful” to the one who is free in Christ, but this does not mean everything is acceptable. The body of every believer is a temple of the Holy Spirit that cannot be profaned.

Answers to the Corinthians' Questions ( 7, 1–11, 1 )

Paul then takes up the Corinthians' own questions about how daily life is an expression of their faith. The Corinthians themselves identified certain issues within their community that were disturbing their unity. They wrote to Paul about these two types of questions: those about marriage and virginity (see 7, 1–40 ), and those pertaining to the eating of idol meats and participation at pagan meals ( 8, 1–11, 1 ).

Marriage and Virginity ( 7, 1–40 ). In chapter 7 Paul specifically discusses three life choices that many Christians believed were affected by baptism with an advantage on one side: marriage or virginity ( 7, 1–7.16 ), fidelity to Judaism signified by circumcision versus uncircumcision (vv. 18–20 ), and slavery versus manumission or freedom (vv. 21–24 ). According to 1 Corinthians 7, a specific question arose concerning whether married Christians ought to remain married. An understanding of baptism as initiation into the eschatological community seemed to imply that the baptized should renounce the constraints and responsibilities of marriage. Jesus' opposition to divorce is first attested here ( 7, 10.11 ). Some asked whether a Christian married to an unbeliever could or should remain in the marriage. Some men wondered if there was an advantage to circumcision. Some slaves thought, and perhaps expected, that they would be better off freed.

Paul's general advice is to “remain in the state in which you were called” (see 7, 17.20.24 ). His reasoning is that the time is short ( 7, 29.31 ), too short for unnecessary social entanglements. It is debatable whether Paul believed literally that the eschatological end was imminent or whether this was his way to see all of life as contingent on the absolute power and will of God. Although Christians are “in” the world, they are not “of” it as John says (Jn 17, 14–16 ). The particular circumstances of believers do not interfere with or lessen the effect of the new status of their identity in Christ. Christians have always sensed the need to express the implications of their new identity as baptized persons with an appropriate way of life.

Paul agreed with a position held by some in Corinth, that “it is a good thing…not to touch a woman” (1 Cor 7, 1 ). Paul acknowledged his own preference for celibacy that leaves one “free of anxieties” ( 7, 32 ). The Gospels record Jesus' saying that “in heaven there is neither giving nor taking in marriage” (see Mk 12, 25 and parallel passages). Sexuality, circumcision, even slavery do not have significance in the new age. Indeed, the hope for a new society of equals was one of the reasons Christianity was so appealing to many “minority” groups, including women, slaves, and others who lacked status in the Greco‐Roman world.

Paul's response is to advocate no change in social status since it is unimportant in the Christian context. Responding to those who challenge the right of Christians to marry, Paul drew on the word of Jesus regarding the indissolubility of marriage ( 7, 10–11 ). Yet Paul added an exception that considerably weakens the effect of Jesus' statement. In the case of unwillingness of the unbelieving spouse to remain married to a baptized person, they may separate. Furthermore, Paul applied the exception to both men and women, giving women the same rights as men.

We should note Paul's remarkable freedom in relating Jesus' words to the pastoral situation of Corinth. In all of the questions with which he has to deal, Paul demonstrates a surprising creativity and flexibility.

Food Offered to Idols ( 8, 1–11, 1 ). Here Paul responds to three very practical situations about which the Corinthians must make everyday decisions: whether they should (1) eat meat bought in the marketplace that was probably originally offered in sacrifice at a pagan temple; (2) accept dinner invitations in rented banquet rooms in pagan temples, during which there was a sacrificial libation to the god in whose temple they were; (3) accept dinner invitations to the homes of unbelievers. He asserts a basic theological position that these gods are not really gods at all, supporting it with reference to Israel's history as recorded in the Scriptures ( 10, 1–13 ) and with the example of his own experience. But the bottom line is the unity of the community. If anyone of weaker conscience will be scandalized, then it is not to be done.

Exercising Knowledge and Love ( 8, 1–7 and 10, 23–11, 1 ). Paul quotes a Corinthian slogan, acknowledging the truth that “all of us have knowledge” ( 8, 1 ). The Corinthians apparently assumed that such knowledge made some of them superior to others. So, for example, it was their “knowledge” that allowed them to overlook incest in one of their members (see chapter 5 ). It was the competition for the gifts considered superior that was disrupting their assemblies ( 14, 20–33 ) and even the Lord's Supper ( 11, 17–18 ). Paul proposes charity as a remedy for the rivalry of the various kinds of “knowledge” that inflate the ego and that were causing factions in the Corinthian church. Whereas knowledge divides, love unites, enabling the Corinthians' many gifts to supply various needs in the community, helping them to “build up” (see the description of the role of prophecy in 1 Cor 14, 3 ), rather than destroy (1 Cor 11, 17–34 ).

In discussing the factions between the “weak and the strong,” Paul speaks of “conscience,” a term that appears almost exclusively in Pauline writings with little impact on other New Testament authors (for instance, Rom 2, 15; 9, 1; 13, 5; 1 Cor 8, 7.10.12; 10,; 2 Cor 1, 12; 1 Tm 1, 5; 2 Tm 1, 3; Ti 1, 15; see also Acts 23, 1; Heb 9, 9.14; 1 Pt 2, 19; 3, 16.21 ). In biblical thinking, conscience is never an individualist function. It always has to do with how one sees oneself in relation to one's community. Paul gives a communal meaning to conscience and places it in a new Christian context. In this context, the personal consciences of both the “weak” and the “strong” are subordinate to the obligations of mutual charity. The weak must not judge the strong and the strong not scandalize the weak. For Paul, conscience is not autonomous. It cannot be the last court of appeal among Christians. It is subject to charity and concern for one “for whom Christ has died” ( 8, 11 ).

In 1 Corinthians 10, 23–11, 1 , Paul summarizes his discussion of knowledge of the specific issues regarding pagan meals and customs, and of imitation of his own example. Quoting another Corinthian slogan (as he did in 8, 1 where he said “all of us have knowledge”), Paul agrees “Everything is lawful” ( 10, 23 ). Yet, he continues, not everything is beneficial. The merit of an action is related to its effects on the community. Concrete questions about whether to eat or not should be resolved in view of their effect on the other members of the community. For Paul, the morality of a decision depends upon its impact on the conscience of other brothers and sisters. Paul's attempt to win others over rather than to alienate them keeps their salvation in view. Thus he concludes that Corinthian Christians ought to imitate him as he does Christ ( 11, 1 ).

The Example of Paul ( 9, 1–27 ). To support his argument about mutual love and avoidance of scandal, Paul inserts between the two parts of the argument the example of his own conduct. (Chapter 9 represents B in the A‐B‐A' pattern discussed in the introduction.) Though he could demand material support, though he could exercise a great deal more freedom and authority, he instead tries to become all things to everyone by being as much like them as possible. The hint is clear: you too do not need to exercise all the freedom to which you have a right, but you can subordinate some of it sometimes for the good of the whole. The Corinthians' problems reflect their mixed makeup of predominantly Gentile but also partly Jewish members, as well as a certain level of education and intellectual refinement. Greek intellectual life valued gifts of mind and spirit, such as knowledge and eloquent reasoning. Such gifts contributed to the status of the individuals who possessed them, sometimes to the detriment of charity.

In many of his letters Paul refers to the fact that he works with his hands and thus gives an example for his addressees to follow (1 Thes 2, 9; 2 Thes 3, 7–10 ). Paul freely forfeited the apostolic privilege of support in order “not to place an obstacle to the gospel of Christ” (1 Cor 9, 12 ). He served all‐Jews, Gentiles, the “strong and the weak”‐so that through this service the gospel message would be available to them. No one should be denied the gospel because of inability to pay. This forfeiting of privilege makes Paul freer to serve. Yet, as he will argue in 2 Corinthians 8, 1–9, 15 , after receiving the gospel message Christians have a responsibility to contribute to the support of other Christians in need. Here he ends this digression about his own example with an athletic image. Just like a professional athlete, he disciplines himself, training not for a perishable crown of laurel or celery, as did the athletes of the day, but for an imperishable one.

Asceticism has played an important role in Christian spirituality throughout the history of the church. Paul legitimizes asceticism or self‐denial for apostolic reasons. Today we live in a world that encourages individual freedom without constraints and the pursuit of happiness almost to any length. Such a mentality is not so distant from the sophisticated world of the Corinthians. Paul's corrective view suggests another approach altogether. The community's pursuit of charity should be the focus of the individual's energies and form the individual's conscience. Freedom is for the service of the gospel message. A person's rights are subject to God's call to preach the gospel. The charity of God compels us, training us in the school of self‐denial and the pursuit of God's will in our lives.

Problems in Liturgical Assemblies ( 11, 2–14, 40 )

Paul now turns to issues affecting the ways that the Corinthians are worshipping together. They fall into three categories: decorum at assemblies ( 11, 2–16 ), celebration of the Lord's Supper ( 11, 17–34 ), and the unity and variety of spiritual gifts ( 12, 1–14, 40 ).

Dress and Decorum in the Assembly ( 11, 2–16 ). This is a problematic passage that has received much attention. Throughout the ancient Mediterranean world, among Jews, Greeks, and Romans alike, the subordination of women to men was a common part of the thinking, even though by this time women of sufficient wealth and status exercised a great deal of social and economic autonomy. It was common custom that respectable adult women veiled themselves in public, even though that custom was changing in social circles that were more sensitive to Roman customs. In more traditional circles, as is still the case in some cultures, the unveiled female head was a sign of sexual availability. It appears that some female members of the Corinthian church, however, were combining their knowledge of newer social customs with Paul's own preaching about freedom in the Spirit, and concluded that the veil was no longer necessary in some circumstances, particularly the church assembly, where others, including Paul, judged that it was. While never questioning women's right to pray and prophesy publicly ( 11, 5 ), he simply judged that it must be done with traditional dress. In his attempt to provide a theological explanation, Paul draws on traditional images of headship and subordination, using as illustration three parallel examples: Christ and man, man and woman, God and Christ. He then goes on to appeal to “nature,” which really means “common sense,” that is, what people were used to. Finally, he realizes that he has not proved his case and simply withdraws to the position of authority: we just don't do it that way ( 11, 16 )! While affirming women's full position in the church, he capitulates on the question of dress in favor of something that will not cause scandal among conservative outsiders (and perhaps some insiders, too) who are undoubtedly watching this new movement.

Celebration of the Eucharist ( 11, 17–34 ). There were divisions among the Corinthians on social and economic grounds. Wealthy Christians apparently boasted great meals at which the poor were either not welcomed or treated badly. Some became drunk while others went away hungry ( 11, 20–22.33–34 ). Paul says that this is not the Lord's Supper and that the Corinthians are eating and drinking their own condemnation (see 11, 27–29 ). Within the context of the discussion of abuses in the community's liturgical celebrations, Paul inserts his account of the institution of the Last Supper in order to put the troubles in the proper context. This is the earliest written account of the institution of the Lord's Supper in the New Testament (see the note on 11, 23–25 ). Paul's version, also reflected in Luke 22, 14–20 , contains at least three significant differences from the version given in Mk 14, 22–25; Mt 26, 26–29 . These variants are in the additions of the words “for you,” the command “Do this in remembrance of me” (v. 24 ), and the qualifier “new” before “covenant” in 11, 25 . These variants witness to several early versions of the eucharistic sayings.

By emphasizing that Jesus' body was given “for you,” Paul reminds the Corinthians of Jesus' self‐giving act in which they participate by receiving the bread and the cup. They are then warned that an “unworthy” reception would not bring salvation but rather condemnation. The command to do this in memory of Jesus calls the Christians to offer a fitting memorial, including calling to mind Jesus' self‐offering and imitating him in this. The insertion of “new” before “covenant” reminds the Corinthians that Jeremiah's prophecy of a “new covenant” is fulfilled in Christ (see Jer 31, 31; 2 Cor 3, 3.6 ). This is an inclusive covenant, one that is already proclaimed in ancient Israel and that will be extended to all, one that provides the basis for a new society and a new relationship with God. It is important to realize that Paul's critique of the Corinthian Eucharist is not proper reverence toward the sacrament, but proper reverence toward the poor and all members who participate in it.

The Spiritual Gifts ( 12, 1–14, 40 ). The divisions among the Corinthians based on competition for the higher gifts continues to occupy Paul. He reminds the Corinthians that when they were pagans they were “attracted and led away” by idols ( 12, 2 ). Idolatry attributes the honor and devotion that belongs to God to false gods. Paul advises the Corinthians that in true conversion to Jesus Christ there is unity with others who also worship the same God.

The hymn of love in 1 Corinthians 13, inserted within the context of chapters 12 and 14 on the variety of gifts, may not be a Pauline composition but something borrowed from Stoic sources, which he found helpful to illustrate the unity that should characterize the Corinthians (see note on 13, 1–13 ). In chapter 11 , Paul alluded to the divisions between the wealthy and the poor at the common table. In chapters 12 and 14 , it is not so much the social distinctions as striving for spiritual gifts that threatens the Corinthians' unity. As remedy, Paul offers reflections on the community as the body of Christ ( 12, 12–27 ), a new adaptation of an old image of social unity. A very high estimation is placed on prophecy, the action of the Spirit through members of the community. But the new context Paul provides emphasizes that love is the highest spiritual gift, one to which all believers must aspire to achieve ( 13, 13 ). Love remains the most important of all the spiritual gifts in the church. This is not to diminish faith and hope and the other spiritual gifts such as teaching and administration. Love is an expression of God's own love, enabling us to act mercifully and kindly toward one another. Love in action, at the service of others, is the essential message of the gospel.

The Resurrection ( 15, 1–58 )

For Paul, the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ are the central mystery of the Christian life‐but not in isolation. If we are to experience death and burial, we are also to experience resurrection. Paul claims to have met the Risen Christ directly, and we can assume that some of his assertions about the Resurrection are derived from that experience (Gal 1, 12.15–16 ). Others perhaps came from his meeting with Cephas (Gal 1, 18 ), who had participated in the post‐Easter appearances, and from his own apocalyptic theology in Pharisaic context. Paul implies that if the Corinthians really grasped and accepted the Resurrection and its implications, many of the problems he has addressed throughout the letter would have been resolved. In the first part of this chapter(15, 1–11 ), he states the fundamental teaching on the resurrection of Christ and recites the earliest surviving creed and list of appearances. He stresses the appearances of the Risen Christ that were the foundational experiences, beginning with Peter's and ending with his own.

A second section ( 15, 12–28 ) states emphatically, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is in vain” ( 15, 14.17 ). The resurrection of Christ forms the basis of faith and causes believers to reassess all of life and death. By his resurrection, Christ is revealed as the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” ( 15, 20 ). Christ is our hope, our assurance that we too will have the same experience. Without it, perseverance in faith, including the sacrifices involved in suffering persecution, is pointless.

In a third section ( 15, 29–34 ), Paul is trying to shame the Corinthians by showing them the absurdities of some Christian practices and beliefs without faith in the Resurrection as the fate of all the faithful. The slogan quoted by Paul, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” ( 15, 32 ) is the wisdom of those without hope in the life to come.

In the next section ( 15, 35–50 ), he takes up those who speculate on the nature of resurrection and the risen body. He uses the example of dissimilar creatures such as birds and fish, the sun and the moon, to show the qualitative difference between bodies, as a way of stressing, without going into detail, the differences in our bodies before and after the resurrection. The seed sown in the ground is not the same as the green shoot that springs from it, yet the shoot is continuous with the life of the seed that must die in order to produce it. Paul draws a contrast between the first Adam, the earthly, corruptible one whose image we now bear, and the last Adam, Christ, the incorruptible and eternal one, whose image we will bear in the resurrection.

The last section of 1 Corinthians 15 (vv. 51–58 ) incorporates a hymnic celebration of God's victory through Christ over sin and death, compiled from verses of Isaiah and Hosea. Conquered by Christ, sin and death have lost their sting. By the resurrection of Christ, God has shown us that sin and death are not the last word, but only lead to life. Therefore Paul sings God's praises for the hope that the Resurrection gives. He reminds the Corinthians that their “labor is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Cor 15, 58 ). The rousing message of the chapter is: hang on! The best is yet to come!

Conclusion ( 16, 1–24 )

Finally, Paul speaks of the collection and how it is to be taken to alleviate the suffering of the saints ( 16, 1–4 ). Paul then reports his travel plans, sends greetings to his friends, and concludes with a blessing. Comparison of the persons named with those mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1 and Acts 18 renders an interesting profile of the Corinthian community with its mixture of notable men and women, rich and poor, powerful and ordinary citizens. Paul greets representatives of all categories, personally demonstrating the acceptance and unity he has been advocating.

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