The First Letter Of Paul To The Corinthians - Introduction
First Corinthians offers a fascinating window into the struggles of one Christian community at an early stage in the history of the movement that developed into Christianity. Paul's attempts to persuade the Corinthians to see and do things his way reveals how difficult it was for people rooted in the Hellenistic culture of a large metropolis such as Corinth to assimilate Paul's gospel of Christ and its implications for personal and community life as well as for their relations with the larger Roman imperial society.
The city of Corinth had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE for leading the resistance to Roman incursion into Greece. It was rebuilt in 44 BCE as a colony to which the Roman patricians sent surplus population from Rome itself, such as recently freed slaves, displaced peasants, and army veterans. Corinth quickly developed into a busy hub of east‐west trade in the empire and the center of Roman imperial culture in Greece. Except for Antioch in Syria, where Paul was based at the beginning of his mission to various peoples of the eastern Mediterranean, Corinth was the first major urban center to which Paul brought his mission. For eighteen months (Acts 18.11 ), with several coworkers such as Timothy and Silvanus, Prisca (Priscilla) and her husband Aquila, and Phoebe, leader of the community at nearby Cenchreae, he organized and taught in house‐assemblies of Corinthians. Believers came together periodically as a “whole assembly” (church) to celebrate the Lord's Supper. After Paul moved across the Aegean to work in the city of Ephesus, another missionary, Apollos, an eloquent Hellenistic Jew from Alexandria in Egypt, also taught in the community at Corinth.
First Corinthians was written in Ephesus ( 16.8 ) in the early 50s CE. Paul was responding both to a letter from the Corinthians (see 7.1; 8.1; 12.1 ) and to news he had received through “Chloe's people” ( 1.11 ). The letter begins with the usual address, greeting, and opening thanksgiving ( 1.1–9 ) and ends with the standard closing exhortation, greetings, and grace ( 16.13–24 ). The body of the letter consists of a series of issues over which the Corinthian community was experiencing internal conflict: divisions within the community connected with the claims by some to possess a superior wisdom ( 1.10–4.21 ); how to deal with a man living with his stepmother (ch 5 ); on not taking disputes to the official courts (ch 6 ); on marriage and sexual relations ( 6.12–7.40 ); on eating food sacrificed to idols ( 8.1–11.1 ); on hair arrangement when prophesying ( 11.2–16 ); on procedure at celebration of the Lord's Supper ( 11.17–34 ); on the use of spiritual gifts, particularly “tongues” (chs 12–14 ); on the resurrection of the dead (ch 15 ). The letter concludes with Paul's arrangements for a collection to help the church in Jerusalem, and his travel plans ( 16.1–12 ).
Much of the language that Paul uses in dealing with issues in 1 Corinthians is very different from that in his other letters. That suggests that the opinions he confronts in 1 Corinthians were distinctive to the Corinthians among the various communities Paul founded (and perhaps had something to do with Apollos's ministry in Corinth after Paul had gone to Ephesus). Indeed, it appears from the way Paul uses some of these distinctive terms that some of the Corinthians understood themselves as “spiritual” and “mature,” as opposed to merely “unspiritual” or “physical” and “infants” ( 2.6,14–15; 3.1; 15.44,46 ) and as “wise,” “powerful,” “of noble birth,” “rich,” and “kings,” as opposed to “foolish,” “weak,” and “rubbish” ( 1.26–27; 4.8–13 ), apparently because of their possession of “wisdom” as the agent or substance of salvation, a religious self‐understanding known from contemporary Jewish communities in Alexandria, where Apollos came from. Throughout 1 Corinthians Paul is responding to what certain Corinthians were saying and doing. At points in his major arguments he even uses their language and slogans.
Paul's arguments in 1 Corinthians were not immediately effective, as is clear from evidence for continuing conflicts in sections of 2 Corinthians (see Introduction to 2 Corinthians). In addition to polemics, 1 Corinthians contains some of the earliest Christian faith traditions, such as the words of institution for the Lord's Supper ( 11.23–26 ) and the basic creed of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection ( 15.3–5 ). First Corinthians also contains Paul's most insistent emphasis on the cross of Christ ( 1.18–2.9 ), and his most extensive discussion of the resurrection of the dead (ch 15 ). Moreover, Paul's use of the Corinthians’ language resulted in formulations that were incorporated into subsequent Christian belief and practices. In 1 Corinthians are the only statements among Paul's genuine letters in which Christ appears to be a preexistent figure ( 8.6; 10.4 ). Only in 1 Corinthians does Paul deal with issues such as sex and marriage and spiritual gifts such as glossolalia (speaking in “tongues”). Given the ways that subsequent generations of Christians have understood them, Paul's formulations in ch 7 in particular became a basis for Christian sexual asceticism and one of the texts used to legitimate the practice of slavery. Passages in 1 Corinthians ( 11.2–17; 14.34–36 ), moreover, became some of the principal bases on which women were subordinated in the family and the church. And it is in 1 Corinthians that Paul composes the famous “hymn to love” (ch 13 ) as part of his argument for solidarity of the community as the “body of Christ” (chs 12–14 ), and his almost ecstatic vision of the dramatic parousia, the coming of Christ and the resurrection of believers, “at the last trumpet” ( 15.51–55 ).