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An Introduction to the New Testament

IV

THE FIRST LETTER TO THE
CORINTHIANS


Occasion. Dr. Stalker once said that the letters of Paul take the roofs off the meeting places of the early Christians and let us look inside, [1] and this is peculiarly true of the letters to the Corinthians. Paul had again journeyed westward, through Asia Minor, to the Aegean and was settled at Ephesus for what was to prove the longest missionary activity of his life. He had previously reconnoitered Ephesus as a place for missionary work. Acts 18:19-21, when he left Corinth after his eighteen months' stay there, described in Acts 18:1-17, and set out for the east. We are to think of him as settled in Ephesus, working as usual at his trade and preaching in his leisure hours with such success. Acts records, "that everyone who lived in Asia, Greeks as well as Jews, heard the Lord's message," 19:10.

Just across the Aegean, almost opposite Ephesus, lay Corinth. It was not the old luxury-loving city of classical times; that had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. The new city had been founded just a century later by Julius Caesar and had developed rapidly. The notorious Astarte-Aphrodite worship of the older

[1] James Stalker, The Life of St. Paul (Edinburgh), 129.

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city was revived but never regained its old proportions, when it had claimed a thousand hierodules. The new Roman Corinth was pervaded by the mystery religions, and their practices of initiation and religious meals, their universalism and sense of individual salvation, and their mystical experience of identification with a Lord and Savior, form part of the background of I Corinthians and had an undoubted influence upon Paul's ways of describing the religious significance of Jesus to them. To the Corinthians the Christian faith must have appeared another, but superior, mystery religion.

Corinth was only a couple of days' sail from Ephesus and must have been in constant communication with it. Visitors from Corinth were frequent in Ephesus, and among those who came and went were some who knew the little group of Christians in Corinth and indeed probably belonged to it. They are referred to by Paul as "Chloe's people." Perhaps they were her slaves or her freedmen or were employed by her in some way. At any rate they had brought Paul news about his Christian friends in Corinth, and it was very disturbing.

The Corinthians it seemed, according to these visitors, were breaking up into cliques or factions; not about anything of moral or doctrinal significance but merely about their favorite teachers. Perhaps Apollos with his polished Alexandrian style had caught their fancy and struck them as a better man than Paul. At any rate Acts speaks of his coming to Corinth, 18:24-19:1, and of his being there when Paul reached

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Ephesus and settled there, and Paul repeatedly speaks in I Corinthians as though he were being compared with Apollos, 1:12; 3:4; 4:6. Certainly a distaste for Paul's style had developed. The Corinthians considered him "rude in speech" and wished he would give more attention to the refinements of expression, like the Stoic philosopher-preachers to whom they were accustomed. But Paul insisted upon talking simply and directly in the plain speech of everyday life. That he used the vernacular in his letters the Greek papyri discovered in the sands of Egypt in the last forty years have abundantly proved. These are documents of common life, written by all sorts of people—men, women, and children—and they exhibit the same linguistic features as Paul's letters. Paul made no effort to be "literary" in writing his letters.

Not only did Paul seem less gifted than Apollos but the Corinthians had come to think him inferior in position to such Christian leaders as Cephas, that is, Peter. Possibly Judaizing Christian teachers from Jerusalem had come among them, as they had among the Galatians, and aroused these suspicions.

But more serious evils than these were reported to Paul by Chloe's people. There were cases of immoral conduct among the Corinthian Christians. One man had married his widowed stepmother. And in their business disagreements among themselves the Corinthians were actually going to pagan courts to have their differences settled.

Another matter brought to Paul by his Corinthian visitors was the shocking way in which the Lord's

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Supper was being kept in Corinth. It was the custom there for each one to bring his own food and drink for the occasion and to join some congenial group to share it, so that some had not enough to eat and drink and others had too much, and the Supper degenerated into a carouse.

Paul's mind was seething with all this distressing information, when three men from Corinth sought him out in his lodgings at Ephesus or perhaps at Aquila's workshop, where he was probably employed. Acts 18:2, 3, 24, 26-28; 19:1, and put into his hands a letter, I Cor. 7:1. Paul must have received hundreds of letters, for the papyri show that the Greeks were great letter-writers, and Paul himself has lived in history chiefly as a writer of letters. But this is the only one that we definitely know of his receiving. It was from the Christians at Corinth and was brought to him by Stephanas, Achaicus, and Fortunatus as representatives of the Corinthian church. Stephanas may have been the leader of the Corinthian church, for Paul seems to speak of him in that way, in I Cor. 16:15-18.

Paul had already written a letter to Corinth, charging the Corinthians not to associate with immoral people who were supposed to be Christians, I Cor. 5:9-13. This letter was probably short and must have been lost, unless it is preserved, perhaps in pan, in what we know as II Cor. 6:14-7:1. That section seems quite detached from its more spirited context; in fact, the context gains greatly in coherence and movement without it. And while Paul often interrupts himself, he usually interrupts a less animated passage

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with a more animated one. But here it is the less animated passage that interrupts the more animated one. It reads:

Do not get into close and incongruous relations with unbelievers. What partnership can uprightness have with iniquity, or what can light have to do with darkness? How can Christ agree with Belial? Or what has a believer in common with an unbeliever? What bargain can a temple of God make with idols? For we are a temple of the living God, just as God said, "I will live in them and move among them, And I will be their God and they will be my people." [1]

Therefore,

"Come out from them,
And separate from them, says the Lord,
And touch nothing that is unclean. [2]
Then I will welcome you,
I will become a father to you, [3]
And you shall become my sons and daughters,
Says the Lord." [4]

So since we have promises like these, dear friends, let us cleanse ourselves of everything that can defile body or spirit, and by reverence for God make our consecration complete. [5]

The passage deals with just the matter with which Paul's missing letter evidently dealt; except that it has to do with the Christian's relation with unbelievers, and the lost letter dealt with immoral people inside the church, I Cor. 5:9-13. But it must be noted that it required some explanation in Paul's next letter to

[1] Lev. 26:11, 12

[3] Jer. 31:1.

 

[2] Isa. 52:11.

[4] Hos. l:10; Isa. 43:10.

[5] II Cor. 6:14-7:1

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make this distinction clear. We cannot be by any means sure that II Cor. 6:14-7:1 is the lost letter, or even a part of it, but II Corinthians is certainly not a single letter but a combination of letters, and the passage is a difficult interruption where it now stands.

Whatever may have become of that first letter to Corinth, the Corinthians now had a host of other questions for him to answer. They had not been Christians very long, and there was no Christian literature to guide them in their new life. Yet problems were constantly arising. One was the age-long question of the sexes and their relations, which each new generation discovers for itself with delight and surprise. What is the meaning of marriage? Is it wrong to marry? What about divorce? What about engaged people? Shall they proceed to marry?

Another question that greatly concerned the Corinthians was where they should buy their meat. The best meat in Corinth was to be had at the markets connected with the great idol temples. It was from specially bred and fattened animals, in prime condition and properly slaughtered, and may be compared with the prize beef from a modern fat-stock show, which is so much better than even the best beef one can ordinarily buy. The Corinthians knew what good living was, and they had been accustomed to buy this meat. But now that they were Christians, what ought they to do?

One party at Corinth, knowing that an idol was nothing and the meat had suffered nothing from being offered in sacrifice, maintained its right to buy and

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eat this meat, as it had always done. But there was another group in the church that had grave misgivings about it. They pointed out that this proceeding made the Christians supporters of the heathen cultus, which was of course, in part maintained by the profits of these temple markets. And when Christians were found attending dinners given in the clubrooms attached to the idol temples, other Christians might easily be led into semi-idolatrous practices. [1]

How men, and especially women, should conduct themselves in church was a matter that gave rise to a whole series of questions at Corinth. One was whether women should wear veils in Christian meetings. The early Christians of course had no church buildings and held their meetings in private houses. Some brother with a large house would open it for Christian worship. In such a place should a woman dress as she would in a private house or as in a public place? Eastern and Western proprieties were also involved. Paul was a Jew by education, and women had no part in Jewish worship; it was carried on by the men and boys. Even to this day, in orthodox Jewish synagogues, the women witness the service from a gallery or from behind a screen. In Herod's temple the women could not advance beyond their own court into the Court of the Men of Israel. But, through the influence of the mystery cults and other forces, women in the Greek world had more freedom and a greater place in religion, and capable Greek women in Corinth felt quite equal to taking part with the men in the meetings

[1] Cf. Oxyrhynchus Papyri 110, an invitation to dinner at the Serapeum.

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of the church. The Corinthians are not sure which practice to follow in their meetings.

But the great problem in their worship was occasioned by ecstatic speaking. This familiar religious phenomenon, not unknown today in unsophisticated circles, was disturbing the Corinthian meetings and giving the brothers great concern. There is always something infectious about it, and when one brother under great religious excitement broke out into an unintelligible babble, others were almost sure to follow his example. The result was bedlam; a stranger coming in would have said that they were mad. Still Corinthian leaders like Stephanas hesitated to forbid ecstatic speaking altogether, for they recognized it as in a sense, though a very primitive one, a religious expression.

Another question on which the Corinthians needed Paul's counsel was the matter of the Resurrection. To the Greek mind, immortality was a familiar idea, but the Jewish way of describing it as "Resurrection," which formed part of Paul's apocalyptic teaching, created grave difficulties. These they seem to have laid before Paul in their letter, which was, in short, a veritable question box.

Contents. Paul's answer is our I Corinthians. But, before he begins to deal with their list of questions, he takes up the matters of which he had been told by Chloe's people, which had been preying upon his mind for some time, chapters 1-6. He seems unable to talk over the Corinthians' questions until he has got

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the matters of hearsay off his mind, and, first of all, the Corinthians' objections to his literary style.

The vigor and informality of Paul's style in his letters give us some faint idea of how trenchant, swift, and informal he must have been as a speaker. He does not deny the familiar, conversational style of his preaching. On the contrary, he admits it and declares that he will never attempt fine language in preaching, lest his diction come to have more of his attention than his message and so the cross of Christ may seem an empty thing. It is just here that the modern discoveries of Greek papyrus documents in Egypt have come to our aid in translating and understanding Paul. These papers of common life—deeds, letters, leases, contracts, notices, invitations, accounts—have given us for the first time a complete picture of the familiar spoken Greek of New Testament times. We actually possess at least one dated Greek document from every single year of the first century, and they have proved that Paul meant just what he said. His style was not literary, it was colloquial. The New Testament was written in colloquial Greek. The modern-speech translations that have resulted from this discovery have made Paul's letters more coherently intelligible and continuously readable than they have ever been in English before.

Paul condemns the Corinthian factions and explains what his relation to other teachers really is. He presented the gospel to them in simple direct terms, for they could not have grasped anything more advanced. He had done the planting, Apollos the watering, but

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it was God who had made the plants grow. Their belittling of his work stirs Paul to compare himself to the men condemned to death in the arena, who trudged along at the very end of the procession that passed through the streets to the amphitheater. He still feels toward them like a father, he declares, 4:14, 15, but he closes this discussion of the factions and parties at Corinth, chapters 1-4, on a threatening note:

"Which will you have? Shall I come to you with a stick, or in a loving and gentle spirit?"

In chapters 5 and 6 he takes up the case of immorality at Corinth, insisting upon the Christian duty of purity and truth. Business differences are not to be taken before heathen tribunals for settlement; the Christians are to judge the world, how much more ordinary matters? The Christian is the temple of the Spirit of God; they must honor God with their bodies.

The matters of hearsay brought to Paul by Chloe's people having been mostly disposed of (with the exception of the Lord's Supper, 11:17-34), Paul turns to the Corinthians' letter which he has not thus far even mentioned. The procedure here is like that in the Letter of Claudius to the Alexandrians, written soon after his accession, in reply to a letter from them, proposing certain honors for him and asking certain favors. [1] The phraseology with which new topics of their letter are introduced is like that with which Paul passes to each new subject raised by the Corinthians, 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1.

[1] H. I. Bell, Jews And Christians in Egypt (London, 1924), p. 24.

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The first of their questions has to do with marriage, chapter 7. We are so accustomed to think of the church as the one great force favoring and fostering marriage that it seems strange that it is here so depreciated. Once entered into, it is of course to be sacredly respected. But Paul feels that the single life is the one more likely to be pleasing to God. "It is an excellent thing if they can remain single as I am."

Two things must be remembered in dealing with Paul's letters and especially with the letters to Corinth. One is his half-oriental background—his Jewish upbringing. The other is his vivid expectation of Jesus' speedy messianic return. It was Paul's Jewish background that led him to refuse support from his churches, for the rabbi taught without pay, while the Greek lecturer expected a fee from his class. [1] Paul's Jewish background also held him in spite of himself, as revealed in Gal. 3:28, to a low view of the place of women in religion: "Women are to keep quiet in church," I Cor. 14:34.

But it was his messianic expectation that largely controlled his views on marriage and slavery. The time is short. The Lord is at hand. Let the unmarried remain unmarried, the married not seek to separate, the slave disdain emancipation. Not that it is a sin to marry, but the unmarried man or woman is freer to do the Lord's work. Young people who are engaged may marry if passion is getting too strong for them; but the better course is for them to remain as

[1] Justin Dialogue ii. 3.

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they are. [1] A widow may marry again, if she marries a Christian; but she will be happier, Paul thinks, if she does not.

It may seem that no problem could have been more unpromising than where the Corinthians should do their marketing, 8:1-11:1, and yet nowhere does Paul show his greatness as a teacher more than in this and the next discussion—that on order in public worship. He might have dismissed these petty questions with curt answers, but instead he states them fully and fairly and then debates them until he reaches some great principle of Christian conduct, vastly more far-reaching than the petty question in hand might seem to call for.

The positions of the party that has knowledge and the party that has scruples are both fairly stated, chapter 8. Then Paul seems to forget all about the question and to wander off into a long series of rhetorical questions about his own procedure in a variety of matters, which at first appear to have little to do with the Corinthians' questions, chapter 9. The chapter is suggested by the claim of the party of knowledge that it has a perfect right to buy meat at the temple markets, as it had always done. Paul admits this but points out that he had relinquished a whole series of cherished rights in order to do a greater service for the Kingdom of God. In so doing he actually works out the program of civilization, for it is only by the voluntary

[1] This position has recently received strong Jewish support from Samuel Belkin, "The Problems of Paul's Background," Journal of Biblical Literature, LIV (1935), 49.

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relinquishment of natural rights that man has been able to rise out of barbarism.

So when Paul returns to the problem of where the Corinthians are to do their marketing, chapter 10, there is nothing more to be said. He has freely admitted the Corinthian claim to certain rights but has then shown by his own experience and example that sometimes the best possible use we can make of our rights is to relinquish them when a great cause will be furthered by our doing so. They must follow his example in this as he follows Christ's.

When the matter of dress and behavior in church is reached, 11:2-14:40, Paul's Jewish training is again involved. Paul had already come to see that in union with Christ differences of sex no longer mattered, Gal. 3:28. But old social inheritances are not easily cast aside, and it still seemed to him indecent for a woman to appear in church without a veil—not, indeed, over her face, but on her head and shoulders. And it must be remembered that from a strictly Jewish point of view it was a great concession when Paul admitted women to any share in public worship. While Paul says farther on in the letter, 14:34, that women are not allowed to speak in church, here he speaks of them as offering prayer and explaining the will of God, 11:5, 13, apparently in church. They evidently had some speaking privileges, and the prohibition of 14:34 is probably much less sweeping than is usually supposed.

The matter of dress and behavior in church seems to remind Paul of what he has heard, doubtless from

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Chloe's people, of the abuse of the Lord's Supper at Corinth. It had evidently degenerated into a sort of carouse. This was not so strange in a Greek world, accustomed to the rites of Bacchus, which found something religious even in intoxication. Paul interrupts his answers to the Corinthians' questions to correct this matter with a good deal of sternness. He takes occasion to repeat, evidently from the Oral Gospel familiar to them in its Greek form, the oldest account of the Last Supper and tells them to make every observance of it the occasion of a serious self-examination, 11:17-34.

Returning to the topics of their letter, he comes to the question of spiritual endowments, and particularly the disturbing matter of ecstatic speaking, which was apparently wrecking their public worship and mutual instruction, chapter 12. Paul deals with this matter patiently and fairly, not denying it a place in religion, and pointing out what varied manifestations there are of the Spirit. Then, in chapter 13, he seems to turn aside again, as he had done in chapter 9, and talk of other things. He breaks forth into an encomium upon love, the supreme endowment, one of the three really enduring ones, and the greatest of the three. And here as in chapter 9, he carries the Corinthians through with him to a great Christian attitude which will settle the matter of ecstatic speaking and most other problems besides. For here Paul has worked out nothing less than the principle of Christian courtesy—one of Christianity's chief endowments. In the light of that principle even ecstatic speakers will first consider

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whether their meaningless speaking is going to be helpful to the brotherhood, and if it is not, they will of course be silent.

So Paul comes back from the praise of love to the matter of ecstatic speaking, chapter 14, with the matter really settled, just as he came back from his discussion of the voluntary relinquishment of personal rights for a larger good at the beginning of chapter 10. It is these great principle to which Paul leads the halting and perhaps rather small-minded Corinthians that make his letters live so fruitfully today.

Whether the Resurrection was also one of the matters about which the Corinthians asked has been much debated, but the place it has in the letter and the tout in which Paul discusses it seem to prove that it was. In a magnificent series of paragraphs Paul argues for it, chapter 15, as no one among his Jewish predecessors had ever done.

The letter draws to a close with what may be called business and personal matters, chapter 16. Well-to-do Jews out in the Greek west were accustomed to send money to Jerusalem to help maintain the Jewish group there, just as they do today. Paul and the Christian leaders at Jerusalem were anxious to continue such aid to dependent Jerusalem Jews who became Christians, Gal. 2:10. He now invites the Corinthians to join in this contribution, as the Galatians were doing, 16:1-4. He is planning a visit to Corinth, for his work in Ephesus is nearing its end, 16:5-9. There are personal messages, interspersed with crisp

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epigrams, 16:10-20. He closes as usual with his autograph farewell, 16:21-24.

No document of the New Testament is more closely and convincingly integrated with the church life of its time than I Corinthians. It reveals it frankly and fully, in its imperfections and in its strength. In mountain regions one sometimes wanders through dark, intricate defiles and then suddenly emerges, surprised, upon some vast and dazzling prospect. It is so with I Corinthians. One is led through intricate antique discussions of petty and insignificant matters of ancient life, like marketing and speaking with tongues, to sudden, vast outlooks upon human life, its motives and its possibilities, that still command the assent of all thinking people.

LITERATURE

Lietzmann, Hans. Handbuch zum Neuen Testament: An die Korinther I-II. (2d ed.; Tübingen, 1923).

Robertson, Archibald, and Plummer, Alfred. First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (2d ed.; New York, 1916).


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