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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

The Corinthian Church.

1.

Recent scholarship has highlighted the importance of the social divisions in the church in Corinth and has posited the disproportionate influence of a small élite group within the church, whose attitude to their social inferiors and whose class-determined interpretations of the Christian faith underlie many of the issues addressed in this letter (see esp. Theissen 1982; Chow 1992; Clarke 1993; Martin 1995 ; more generally on Pauline Christians, Meeks 1983 ; see, however, the strong arguments to the contrary by Meggitt 1998 ). Paul's statement about the generally lowly make-up of the church in 1:26–8 none the less indicates that there were some members of education, power, or noble birth, and some named individuals seem to belong to such an upper stratum. For instance, Gaius ( 1:14 ) must be a man of some wealth to be able to house the whole church (Rom 16:23 , written from Corinth); some think the church may have grown to fifty or more members. If Crispus and Sosthenes were rulers of the synagogue, as Acts 18 indicates, they must have been from wealthy families (the title normally designates financial patronage). Moreover, the Erastus who sends greetings from Corinth in Rom 16:23 is there listed as ‘city treasurer’. The title might designate a lowly office, but it is extremely rare for Paul to mention the occupations of Christians and he would probably do so only if they were of social importance. It is tantalizing that an inscription from Corinth from around the middle of the first century CE mentions one Erastus (a very rare name in Corinth) as paying for a piece of pavement after his appointment as aedile. It is possible that this is the same Erastus as the one mentioned by Paul, at a subsequent and more exalted rung up the social ladder (aediles were among the highest civic leaders in Corinth; Theissen 1982: 75–83).

2.

Thus the church in Corinth covered a broad social spectrum, with a few highly placed individuals who probably played a major role in shaping the life of the church and its relations with wider Corinthian society. The divisions at the Corinthian Lord's Supper ( 11:17–34 ) indicate the problems inherent in staging communal meals across such a spectrum, and the ‘knowledgeable’ who cared little for the scruples of their ‘weaker brothers’ in relation to sacrificial food (1 Cor 8–10 ) may have been those of higher status whose contacts with their social equals would have been greatly disrupted by taking a scrupulous stance on this matter. Other topics raised in this letter may also be related to wealth and status. The Corinthian Christians who took each other to court ( 6:1–8 ) might have been wealthy (court cases were often expensive) and were perhaps engaged in a power-struggle within the church. Speaking in tongues (1 Cor 12–14 ) was possibly an élitist activity (Martin 1991 ) and the whole spirituality of the Corinthian church probably reflects the confidence of those who accommodated their faith to their social aspirations ( 4:6–13 ). The party groupings mentioned in 1:12 may represent splits among the social élite who competed for patronage in the church. It is harder to discern how such social divisions related to the ethnic mix of the church (Jews and Gentiles) or to different opinions about sexual activity (contrast the ascetic Corinthian statement in 7:1 with the apparently libertine one in 6:12 ).

3.

The leaders of the church in Corinth seem to have prided themselves on their status as ‘spiritual people’ ( 3:1–3; 14:37 ). That involved a particular eagerness for spiritual gifts ( 12:1; 14:12 ), but also a high evaluation of ‘wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ ( 2:6; 8:1–3 ) which included the appreciation of mysteries ( 2:6–16; 13:1–2 ) and the conviction that others' so-called ‘gods’ are really shadows (‘idols’, 8:4–6 ). Their ‘spiritual’ status also encouraged a sense of ‘authority’—particularly the permission to eat whatever they wished and to use their bodies however they liked ( 6:12; 10:23 ). Such an emphasis on spiritual knowledge seems to have reinforced and even extended the common Greek disparagement of the body as a paltry piece of material; as a result, there are partial parallels with the later phenomenon of Christian ‘Gnosticism’, though not to the extent some have claimed (e.g. Schmithals 1971 ). In any case, some Corinthian believers appear to have balked at Paul's notion of a resurrected body ( 15:12, 35–57 ) and others understood their new possession by the Spirit to require complete sexual abstinence ( 7:1, 25–39 ). Paul finds the claims being made by the Corinthians absurdly inflated, tantamount to claiming exemption from all the inevitable weaknesses and imperfections of the present ( 4:8–13; 13:8–13 ). It is not clear whether the Corinthians thought themselves already ‘resurrected’ in some final sense, or whether that is merely Paul's caricature of their position ( 4:8; cf. 1 Tim 2:18; Thiselton 1977–8 ). Paul attempts throughout the letter to puncture their pride and to redirect their sense of honour towards mutual service in the community.

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