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 Christ” (4:1).
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 marry” (7:8–9). 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).