THE LETTERS OF ST. PAUL TO THE CORINTHIANS - PART I
THE CORINTHIANS AND INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST LETTER
I Corinth had been a prominent Greek city, which the Romans destroyed in 146 B.C. and rebuilt 100 years later. It was a wealthy city, but had a reputation for laxity.
A. According to Homer
it had been founded in the ninth century B.C. Its glory days were
in the fifth and sixth centuries B.C., when schools of rhetoric and
philosophy flourished and great buildings abounded. Its citizens
included the philosopher and teacher Diogenes, who often ridiculed both
social conventions and the pursuit of pleasure, power and the like (412-323
B. However, in response
to a rebellion against Rome, the general Lucius Mummius Achaicus destroyed
it completely in 146 B.C.
C. Julius Caesar, however, rebuilt the city in 44 B.C. and it quickly became a thriving commercial town.
- Corinth once
again had access to two ports, one each on the Aegean Sea to the east
facing Asia Minor and one on the Iconian Sea leading to Italy in the
West. This placement made the city central to trading.
- In addition,
it controlled the land route between the northern and southern parts
of the province of Achaia, of which Corinth appeared to be the capital.
That province was roughly the area of the former city states of Greece,
and Corinth was between northern Greece and the Peloponnesus.
D. Because of its favored status, the city had a great deal of wealth and many Roman families were moving in, making the city's population about 100,000 by St. Paul's time.
- However, there
were also a very active slave trade and up to two thirds of the people
in Corinth were slaves.
- On the cultural
front, Corinth was also the site of the Isthmus Games, a major biennial
sporting event that may have been the inspiration for St. Paul's comparisons
to athletics in these letters.
E. The city had an extremely varied population, with people from all over the known world, which led it to have an openness to the Gospel, but also to numerous vices.
- There was a
great paradox, for the city prided itself on knowledge of the great
philosophers, being just to the south of Athens. However, there
was a great deal of depravity, including fertility rites and two temples
of Aphrodite, that marked Corinth. In an earlier time, Corinth
was particularly noted for its decadence, although it is not clear whether
that reputation was still around at the time of these letters.
Compare Zondervan, Handbook to the Bible 694 (2002) with Fr. O'Connor
O.P "The First Letter to the Corinthians" in The New Jerome Biblical
Commentary 799 (1990.)
were also a large number of Jews there, including the synagogue leader
Crispus, who became Christian. See Acts 18:8.
F. The city was damaged
during the Greek war of independence (1821-1832) and completely destroyed
by a earthquake in 1848. Another city called New Corinth has been
built in its place.
II. St. Paul had evangelized this community during his second missionary journey. See Acts 18:1-11.
A. St. Paul had brought
the Gospel to Athens in about 50 A.D., with the result that a few people
there became Christians, and some others delayed a commitment, and still
others scoffed at the idea of the resurrection. See Acts 17:32-34.
B. St. Paul then went to Corinth and stayed there about 18 months.
- With some Christians
who had been thrown out of Rome by Claudius, he preached and debated
in the synagogue and made some converts. However, opposition led
to allegations before the proconsul Gallio, whose term in office was
51-52 A.D. Because the disputes were religious, Gallio deflected them
back to the accusers. There was then a riot, during which St.
Paul's opponents beat Sosthenes, a synagogue official who was evidently
siding with St. Paul. St. Paul then proceeded onto Ephesus and
Antioch to complete the journey, apparently taking with him Sosthenes,
who appears as a co-author of the first letter.
C. Sometime after
he left Corinth on his second missionary journey, St. Paul received
reports of problems with that community, especially with regard to factions,
rivalries within the church, immorality, and some doctrinal errors among
people who denied the resurrection. These reports were the occasion
of the first letter, which was written between about 52 and 57 A.D.
Most scholars favor the middle range, perhaps near the beginning of
his third missionary journey. The idea would be that he planned
to visit the church in Corinth again and intended this letter to raise
issues before he did so. In the meantime, before he set forth
on his journey, St. Paul sent his two of his assistants St. Timothy
and Erastus (who may have been the city treasurer of Corinth, see Rom
16:24), ahead of him. St. Paul refers to sending St. Timothy in
the first letter to the Corinthians and as a co-author of the second
letter. See 1 Cor. 4:17, 16:10; 2 Cor. 1:1.
D. During his third missionary
journey, St. Paul did in fact visit Corinth briefly around 57-58 A.D.
as a part of his pastoral visits mostly to churches he established.
He apparently had sent at least one letter (and very possibly more)
before the canonical letter, which among other things called for an
end to ecclesial and moral abuses and asked for donations to the church
in Jerusalem. See 1 Cor. 16:1. It appears that when he was
in or around Corinth, he discovered a plot to assassinate him and, therefore,
changed the plans he had made to continue directly to Antioch, and instead
returned towards Jerusalem the way he came. See Acts 20:1-3.
E. It is not perfectly clear when the second canonical letter to the Corinthians was written or even whether it is one letter or a combination of two or more.
1. The letter was written at a time when a visit by St. Paul had been delayed and some Corinthians were apparently angry about it. See 2 Cor. 1:12-2:4. The Corinthians may have thought that St. Paul was, during his third missionary journey, going to sail to Achaia, including Corinth, first and then visit the other churches to the north and east, rather than get to Corinth last. But he wanted to delay the visit to Corinth so that the people there would have time to repent after his first letter and possibly another letter. Se 2 Cor. 2:1-4, 7:8.
the letter says that St. Paul anticipates a "third visit" to the
Corinthians after this letter arrives. See 2 Cor. 12;14, 13:1.
It may be that St. Paul had been in Corinth twice during his second
missionary journey. Or it may be that St. Paul wrote this letter
after he had left Corinth during the third missionary journey, but had
indicated an intention to return soon.
- It also
appears that some people were challenging St. Paul's authority, in part
by reference to some people calling themselves (or perhaps pejoratively
called) super-apostles who came to the community after St. Paul.
- It also
appears that the community was becoming too comfortable with the surrounding
communities and was thus allowing immoralities into its midst.
And those who were resisting that tendency may have been facing the
first waves of discrimination.
2. Due to the
fact that the tone is harsher in chapters 10-13 and that those chapters
use the first person singular, rather than plural which much of the
rest of the letter uses, some have argued that it is a separate letter
that was attached as an addendum, perhaps the earlier letter referred
to in the second and seventh chapters. If so, that part would
have been written earlier, perhaps at the beginning of the third missionary
journey. Also, due to the rather self-contained nature of chapters
9, and the fact that it repeats some material as chapter 8, some have
argued that that part is also a separate letter. Some other theories
posit five letters contained in this epistle.
III. The First Letter to the Corinthians deals with the great themes of Church unity, holiness of life, and unity with Christ in the Eucharist and the resurrection.
A. All of these themes
deal with the body of Christ in different ways, such as the Church as
the Body of Christ, the importance of Christians treating their bodies
and lives as joined to Christ, the Body of Christ that is the Eucharist,
and the resurrection.
B. The overall structure is sometimes debated, but can be seen in the following terms.
1. The introduction
in the first nine verses, which introduces the themes of the church,
true wisdom, spiritual gifts, and holiness of life in anticipation of
the final judgment.
2. The first major section, which extends through chapter 4, deals with divisions within the church.
- There is
a passionate call to avoid all party factions and rivalries, and to
think in terms of the wisdom of God, rather than the wisdom of the world,
to seek glory in struggles and suffering for Christ, rather than worldly
3. The next major section, in chapters 5 through 7, deals with moral issues, especially in terms of sexuality and marriage.
due to the prevalence of impurities, there is an emphasis on that vice.
See 1 Cor. 5:1-8, 6:12-20. However, the implication is that immorality,
such as drunkenness and greed, tear apart the church and are inconsistent
with the Christian's call to glory. See 1 Cor. 5:9-6:11.
- On the
more positive side, chapter 7 discusses the good of marriage, and the
even greater calling to celibacy for the sake of the kingdom.
In chapters 5 and 6, St. Paul condemns a false notion of freedom, but
here he opposes an excessive rigorism or otherworldliness that would
see marriage as at best a tolerated evil.
4. The third major section, in chapters 8 through 10, discusses the sacrifices needed in addition to those that are strictly required in order to be a witness to Christ and a fitting member of His body.
- In the
background was the fact that food was often offered in pagan temples
to the gods, and then the leftovers were taken back and served at dinners.
Because Christians were still dealing with people in the world, they
would often be at such dinners, and the question arose of whether they
could eat such food.
- St. Paul
resolves the matter saying that the eating of the food in itself has
no moral implications, but should be avoided if it causes scandal or
could be a temptation.
- The overall
lesson, which includes a reflection upon his own life, is that one should
go beyond what is strictly required and ask what is for the glory of
10 contains a transition into the theme of the Eucharist and unity.
5. The fourth major section, in chapter 11, describes the Eucharist and being properly fitted to worship together and received the Eucharist.
- There is
a dramatic contrast to the pagan food sacrificed to idols, as described
in chapter 10, and the body of Christ offered to us, which must be received
humbly, reverently, and with charity.
6. The fifth major section, in chapters 12 through 14, describe the church as guided by the Spirit to be one, while having different members with many varied gifts.
- Prominent in this section are the description of the Church as the body of Christ, see 1 Cor. 12:12-30, and the praise of perfect love (agape) as the controlling principle of the Christian life, with faith and hope and the other greatest virtues. See 1 Cor. 12:31-14:1.
14 also indicates that speaking in tongues had become something of an
issue, and that a gift called prophesy was also common. This gift
could have been simply a special insight into the faith, not necessarily
a prediction of the future. See also Num. 11:29; 1 Thess. 5:19.
7. The final major section, consisting of chapter 15, concerns the Resurrection of Christ and the resurrection of the body generally.
- There were
probably some Gnostic elements in Corinth, including among Corinthians
Christians, who denied the goodness of the body, instead believing it
to be a prison of the soul.
- St. Paul
strongly insists upon the fact that Christ was truly raised with a glorified
human body, and that such a resurrection will be for all people.
- This section
is probably last because this Resurrection is the goal of each person,
of the world, and of the Church. The section concludes with a
triumphant eschatological hymn
8. Chapter 16 is the conclusion, which describes St. Paul's travel plans to come through Macedonia to Corinth.
- This section
mentions several prominent early Christians, including St. Timothy to
whom two Biblical letters would later be addressed.