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There is a general consensus among scholars that 1 Corinthians
was written by the important early Christian missionary Paul of
Tarsus. In late 56 or early 57 a.d.,
Paul was in the city of Ephesus in Asia Minor. From there, writing
with his collaborator Sosthenes, he addressed a series of letters
to the Greek city of Corinth, which he had visited between 50 and 52 a.d.,
and where he had converted both Jews and Gentiles to the Christian
faith. Corinth was located on the isthmus connecting the Peloponnesian
peninsula to the Greek mainland, and its advantageous location allowed
it to become a prosperous merchant city. Prosperity, however, brought
pagan hedonism. Corinth developed a reputation, widespread throughout the
ancient world, for sexual license. Paul’s letters to the Christians at
Corinth address his concern over a pressing issue: the rampant immorality
associated with the paganism of Corinth. This immorality had begun
to infect the Corinthian church. Paul was deeply concerned for the
spiritual health of the Corinthian church, which had been deprived
of his guidance for several years. As a result, Paul corresponded
at greater length with the Corinthian church than with any of the
other communities that he established. The New Testament preserves
two of these letters, 1 and 2 Corinthians,
and makes reference to at least one other lost letter (1 Cor. 5:9).
Paul begins 1 Corinthians with
a greeting to “the church of God that is in Corinth,” in which
he offers thanks for the faith and strength of the Corinthian church
(1:2). He immediately
begins, however, to list and address the problems that plague that
church. The first problem, to which he devotes almost four chapters,
concerns factionalism within the church. Paul has heard that the
Corinthian church has divided itself according to the various preachers
of the Gospel: “each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong
to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ’” (1:12). Paul
stresses that each preacher of the Gospel is merely a servant of Jesus,
and that all believers should be united in Jesus. The faithful should
put aside their differences and remember that “[a]ll things are
yours. . . . You belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (3:23).
The place of the preachers is not to establish themselves as leaders
among men; instead, “[p]eople should think of us as servants of
Paul enumerates various immoral tendencies of the Corinthian Christians.
He cautions them to condemn sexual immorality within the church.
Membership in the community of the faithful, he teaches, means that
the church faithful must adjudicate moral matters amongst themselves,
chastising and expelling sinners. In response to questions put to
him about specific confusions over religious practice, Paul sets
forth a principle that becomes embedded in church doctrine: “To
the unmarried . . . I say: it is well for them to remain unmarried
as I am. But if they are not practicing self-control, they should
Paul advocates freedom of conscience within the bounds of faith.
He does not mandate circumcision, although many early Christians,
who were practically all Jewish, assumed that circumcision was a
prerequisite for conversion to Christianity. Paul declares it permissible
to eat food dedicated to false gods, provided that one does not
compromise the conscience of another Christian by doing so.
In a break from his instruction, Paul spends
Chapter 9 discussing his own case. He sees
himself as a man who has sacrificed everything to preach the Gospel,
forgoing material comfort and becoming all things to all people.
Returning to his moral instruction, Paul invokes the example of
the ancient Israelites, who were punished for their immorality and
faithlessness, and exhorts the Corinthians to avoid idolatrous worship
and sexual immorality. He explains to them that while it is not
forbidden to eat certain foods, it is best to avoid offending people
and to respect the consciences of others. Paul then speaks on public
worship. He says that women must cover their heads during prayer,
while men must pray with heads bared. When the Lord’s Supper is
commemorated, it must be celebrated in true communal fashion, and must
be preceded by careful self-inspection.
In Chapters 12 and 14,
Paul speaks of the regulation of spiritual gifts in the church of
believers. There are many instances in the Corinthian church of
people prophesying and speaking in tongues. These spiritual gifts
are important because they help to strengthen the community. All
gifts, and all believers, are indispensable to the church. Each
believer is a part of the incarnated body of Jesus, and each fulfills
his or her own particular function. But Paul prioritizes prophecy,
with its clarity of message, over speaking in tongues, which is
generally indecipherable and therefore cannot provide instruction
to the community. Paul interrupts this discussion of spiritual gifts
with Chapter 13, which has become known as
the Hymn to Love, in which he expounds upon the importance of love:
“And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest
of these is love” (13:13).
Paul moves toward his conclusion with an exposition on
the doctrinal question of the resurrection of the dead. He reminds
the Corinthians of the core Christian doctrine. The resurrection
of Jesus, he insists, is a cardinal point of the Christian faith.
The future resurrection of all the dead stems from Jesus’s own resurrection,
and it is the future resurrection—the promise of eternal life—that
makes Christian sacrifice meaningful: “If the dead are not raised,
Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (15:33).
Paul explains the nature of resurrection, noting that the physical
body will not be resurrected. Rather, it is the spiritual body that
is immortal. The immortality of the spiritual body signifies the
true victory of faith over death, and Paul concludes, “Thanks be
to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ”
(15:57). Finally, 1 Corinthians ends
with Paul’s instruction to the Corinthians to take up a collection
for the benefit of the poor in Jerusalem. He expresses his hope that
he will be able to visit Corinth soon, and in the meanwhile urges the
Corinthians to accept his emissary Timothy with open arms. He charges
them to “[k]eep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous,
be strong. Let all that you do be done in love” (16:13–14).
In 1 Corinthians, through the issues
that he chooses to address, Paul provides us with historical insight
into the early Christian Church. It was a church without any single
supreme authority. The missionaries and preachers who spread the
Gospel in the decades after Jesus were by no means homogenous in
their approaches to Christian doctrine and practice. Paul speaks
of divisions in the church at Corinth that stem from perceived differences
in the Gospel as preached by various missionaries. It seems that
Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (the Aramaic name given to Peter) each
had adherents in the Corinthian church. It is possible that the
Christians at Corinth, recent converts who were inadequately instructed
in Christianity, simply misunderstood the missionaries and believed
doctrinal differences to exist. It is also possible that there were
actual important differences between the Christianity of Peter and
that of Paul. Instances of disagreements between early Christian
leaders are both implicit and explicit in The New Testament. For
instance, in Acts 15, it is evident that
the apostles Peter and James are more conservative than Paul with
regard to adhering to Jewish law. But it is also true that in Corinthians,
Paul addresses a group of people with little knowledge of Paul’s
Jewish culture. A certain amount of confusion was probably inevitable.
Paul’s letter is remarkable in that it exhorts the Corinthians toward
unity rather than ideological division. He does not mandate resolving
whatever differences may exist between the factions of the Corinthian
church. Rather, he reminds them of the all-important unity that
binds them and supersedes their differences. Throughout 1 Corinthians,
the themes of unity and the importance of freedom of conscience
within certain moral boundaries are constantly stressed. This freedom
of conscience extends from doctrinal issues to questions of practice:
for instance, Paul permits the Corinthians to eat food sacrificed
to idols (10:26–27),
in direct defiance of the principle established by the church leaders
in Jerusalem (Acts 15:28–29). In
his discussion of the various spiritual gifts granted to the faithful, Paul
returns again to the theme of unity through diversity: “Now there
are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of
services, but the same Lord” (12:4–5).
Paul’s great commandment is to love. He hopes that love
will bind the community together despite its differences, and lead
people to achieve faith and godliness in anticipation of the imminent
Second Coming. Paul attempts to unify the church by accepting varying beliefs
and practices, but his emphasis on unity does not reflect any willingness
to compromise his religious faith. Paul’s accepting attitude has
limitations, and 1 Corinthians is filled
with Paul’s righteous indignation. He does not hesitate to “say
this to your shame” to the Corinthians, nor to chastise them for
their moral misdeeds (15:34). In
this letter, Paul assumes the voice of a stern but loving parent.
He says, “In Christ Jesus I became your father” (4:15),
and he tells the Corinthians, “I fed you with milk” (3:2).
The family of believers is open to all who are faithful. Unlike
many of the early Christians, Paul is willing to accept Gentile
as well as Jew: “For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into
one body . . . slaves or free” (12:13).
But acceptance does not mean tolerance of repeated misdeeds and
the refusal to repent: “Drive out the wicked person from among you”