Corinthians, Epistles to the

views updated May 09 2018


First Corinthians. The longer of the two canonical letters to the "church of God at Corinth" appears in the canon of the New Testament immediately after Paul's letter to the Romans. paul, accompanied by Timothy, had visited Corinth for an 18-month period during 5152 a.d.. He was in the city during the proconsulate of Gallio (Acts 18:12). The First Letter to the Corinthians, to which the Apostle added a personally signed a postscript (16:2124), was written from Ephesus soon after Paul's visit to Corinth, probably as early as 5354 a.d.

The variety of issues addressed in the letter led many 20th-century scholars, notably Johannes Weiss and Walter Schmithals, to claim that First Corinthians was not one letter but rather a composite text comprised of several

fragments of letters sent by Paul to the Corinthian Christians during the course of a relatively long correspondence. No manuscript evidence exists to suggest that the letter is a scribal composite. Insights derived from classical rhetoric allow the letter to be seen as a single composition whose theme is articulated in the plea "that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you are united in the same mind and the same purpose" (1:10). The appeal for harmony is a classical topos of Hellenistic rhetoric. From this perspective the body of the letter is a manifold plea for the unity of the church at Corinth as Paul successively addresses issues that had caused division within the community. Its structure is as follows:

1:19 Introduction

1:13 Epistolary Opening

1:49 Epistolary Thanksgiving

1:1015:58 Body of the Letter

1:1017 Theme and Occasion

1:184:21 First Rhetorical Demonstration: Wisdom and Power

5:17:40 Second Rhetorical Demonstration: Human Sexuality

8:111:1 Third Rhetorical Demonstration: Food Offered to Idols

11:234 Fourth Rhetorical Demonstration: The Christian Assembly

12:114:40 Fifth Rhetorical Demonstration: Spiritual Gifts

15:158 Sixth Rhetorical Demonstration: The Resurrection

16:124 The Letter Closing

16:14 Collection for the Holy Ones

16:59 Travel Plans

16:1012 Timothy and Apollos

16:1314 Farewell

16:1518 Commendation of Stephanas

16:1921 Final Greetings

16:2224 The Apostle's Postscript

When writing the letter Paul was self-consciously aware that he was writing a letter and why he was writing it (4:14 5:11; 9:15; 14:37). Its length is such that many of its subunits are similar in form to one kind or another of a Hellenistic letter. Thus, the commendation of Timothy in 4:1721 and of Stephanas and his companions in 16:1518 are similar to the Hellenistic letter of recommendation while the admonition of 4:1416 is similar to the Hellenistic letter of admonition. In many respects the letter in its entirety is similar to many of the Moral Epistles of Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and brother of the proconsul Gallio.

Paul had several sources of information regard the divisive issues, including a visit from people belonging to Chloe's household (1:11), a letter sent by the Corinthians (7:1), and a visit by Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17). If these three brought the Corinthians' letter to Paul, as is likely, they would have the opportunity to expand on and explain its contents. The length of Paul's own letter owes to the variety of topics addressed and Paul's various sources of information. It is not unlikely that Paul had already begun to address some of the issues dividing the community before the Corinthians' letter to him arrived.

The introduction to First Corinthians (1:19) anticipates the arguments that Paul develops in later sections of the letter. Paul introduces himself as an apostle, invoking the apostolic authority to which he will appeal in 7:12, 40; 9:127. He addresses the Corinthian Christians as "the church of God," a motif that recalls the unity of God's holy people and subtly challenges the Corinthians to serve God alone (cf. 8:111:1). Paul's thanksgiving reflects his gratitude for the gifts of speech and knowledge and many spiritual gifts given to the Corinthians. These are themes to which he returns at length in the first and fifth rhetorical demonstrations (1:184:21; 12:114:40). The introduction concludes on a note of anticipation of the parousia, an eschatological motif to which Paul returns in his final rhetorical demonstration (15:158).

The first rhetorical demonstration (1:184:21) addresses a claim to the possession of knowledge (γνώση) by a group of puffed up Corinthians. Paul attempts to put them in their place by speaking about the power of the cross, "God's foolishness," and telling them that his proclamation of the Gospel did not rely on lofty words and rhetorical eloquence but on the power of the Spirit of God. Although Paul attributes the power of his proclamation to the demonstration of the Spirit (2:4), his letter is one in which he shows himself to be a master of Hellenistic rhetoric. The Spirit speaks through his rhetorical chiasms and the example that he offers of himself, the ethos appeal of Hellenistic orators. In his first demonstration Paul puts forth the imagery of a house and family. He appeals to the family ties that bind Christians to one another and uses the metaphor of the house, God's temple, to show that all have their role to play and that all will be judged on the quality of their work.

In the second rhetorical demonstration (5:17:40) Paul addresses a variety of issues that pertain to human sexuality. His starting point was a report that he had received concerning a member of the community who was involved in an incestuous relationship with his own father's wife. Paul scolds the community for not taking issue with this scandalous conduct. After a digression on Christians taking other Christians to court, presumably the rich and powerful taking the poor and powerless before secular judges instead of choosing a Christian arbitrator to help with the resolution of the dispute, Paul gets to the foundations of his understanding of sexuality, namely, the nature of human freedom and of the human body. As was customary in the Hellenistic world, Paul wrote about prostitution. Among Hellenistic moralists prostitution was the starting point for the discussion of sexual ethics. Thereafter, Paul describes a concern about which he had been informed by letter, namely, the claim by some that men should totally refrain from sexual relationships. Dividing the question, Paul writes about the sexuality of married people, widows and widowers, those contemplating divorce, mixed marriages, and those not yet married.

Food that had been offered to idols is the theme of Paul's third rhetorical demonstration (8:111:1). The matter was particularly problematic in a cosmopolitan city with temples devoted to the gods of various peoples and nations. The temple precincts often included halls that were used for festive banquets, particularly by people belonging to different guilds and brotherhoods. Compounding the urgency of the matter was that many Corinthian Christians were slaves or belonged to lower classes of society. These people rarely ate meat except if they benefited from the leftovers after a celebration that began with an invocation to the gods. Paul deftly wends his way through a variety of situations in which Christians might be inclined to eat food offered to idols. Throughout it all, his fundamental theme is "flee from the worship of idols." He undergirds the authority of his exhortation with an extensive digression on his own apostolic authority (9:127).

The fourth rhetorical demonstration (11:234) addresses two practical issues that must be resolved in a Christian fashion when the community assembles for worship. The first concerns the attire, specifically, the hair style of men and women. The issue was often addressed by the philosophic moralists of Paul's day. Paul's use of midrash makes it difficult for the modern reader to understand the precise meaning of his words but he certainly means that men and women are to be properly attired and coiffed when the Christian community comes together. Paul's second concern is more serious, namely, that some Christians have eviscerated the Eucharistic celebration itself by allowing their social divisions to separate Christians who gather to celebrate the Lord's Supper. Paul's response to them incorporates the oldest literary evidence of the institution of the Eucharist (12:2326).

Spiritual gifts are the topic of Paul's fifth rhetorical demonstration (12:114:40). Some "charismatic" Christians who were able to speak in tongues considered themselves to be especially important within the community. Paul's censure of them began with a reminder that all Christians are charismatic; all possess some spiritual gifts. The Spirit allots these gifts to different individuals as the Spirit wills. What is crucial for the believer is that each and every believer use these gifts for the building up of the Church. The Church is the body of Christ in which each Christian has a role to play. Listing some of the gifts that are given to Christians, Paul deliberately places the gift of tongues at the end of the list. Doing so, he reminds the community that the gift of tongues is but one of the gifts of the Spirit. There follows a beautiful digression in which Paul speaks of love as the fundamental gift of the Spirit. Only thereafter does he come back to the gift of tongues, showing that it pales in comparison with the gift of prophecy that is so necessary for building up the Church.

The epistle's final rhetorical demonstration (15:158) considers the resurrection of the dead. The issue arose because some were saying that there is no resurrection of the dead (15:13). Paul begins his reflection by rehearsing an early Christian creed (15:37) in which the burial of Jesus attests to the reality of his death and his Resurrection appearances, beginning with his appearance to Cephas (Peter) and ending with the experience of Paul, witness to the reality of the Resurrection. Christians hold that the resurrection of the dead is a reality because they believe that Christ was raised from the dead. In God's eschatological plan, Christ's Resurrection is the first fruits of the resurrection of those who have died. Before the end comes, when the kingdom will be handed over to the Father, all those who belong to Christ will be raised.

Chapter 16 brings 1 Corinthians to a close. The letter began by recalling that the church of God in Corinth is "together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" (1:2). The epistle's final chapter articulates some elements of that togetherness. Paul gives directions for organizing a collection for Christians in Jerusalem, the mother church of Christianity, and offers the churches of Galatia as an example of how this is to be done. Paul's desire to go from Ephesus to Macedonia and then to Corinth speaks of his pastoral care for all the churches. The travels of Timothy, Apollos, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus are a reminder of the interaction among members of the Christian community. Greetings sent from the Church that gathered in the house of Aquila and Prisca and from all the brothers and sisters attest to the bonds of affection that bound Christians in Asia to those in Achaia. The letter concludes with an expression of Paul's love for the community. No similar postscript is found in any of the other NT letters.

Distinguished by its length and the depth of Paul's theology, the First Letter to the Corinthians is particularly important insofar as it sheds light, as no other NT text does, on a 1st-century Christian community. Not only does it mention various people by name, but it also speaks of human problems and of the realities of human life in which the message of the gospel must be embodiedthe use of one's mind and one's sexuality, concern for others and the sharing of wealth, social divisions within a community along with the Eucharistic celebration of its unity, and human death overshadowed by Christ's Resurrection.

Second Corinthians. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians is part of the extensive correspondence that took place between the Apostle and the community on the isthmus of Achaia, which he had evangelized. 1 Cor 5:9 mentions a letter that Paul had written to the Corinthians prior to the letter known as First Corinthians. 1 Cor 7:1 cites a letter that Paul had received. 2 Cor 2:34 mentions a "tearful" letter written prior to 2 Corinthians. The tearful letter can hardly be identified with 1 Corinthians, a challenging but loving piece of correspondence. Second Corinthians thus appears to have been at least the fourth of Paul's letters to the Corinthians. It is called the Second Letter to the Corinthians because it is shorter than the other Pauline letter to the Corinthians that is now part of the NT canon.

The fact that some of Paul's letters to the Corinthians are no longer extant, coupled with the harsh connections between some of the successive verses in 2 Corinthians, led the majority of late 20th-century interpreters of the epistle to consider it as a composite text compiled from fragments of Paul's ongoing correspondence with the Corinthians. On this hypothesis, articulated in Günther Bornkamm's seminal study (1961), extant 2 Corinthians consists of six fragments:

  1. A letter of reconciliation, providing the extant text's epistolary framework (1:12:13; 7:516; 13:1113).
  2. A Pauline apology (2:146:13; 7:24).
  3. A tearful letter (10:113:10).
  4. A letter of recommendation of Titus (8:124).
  5. An administrative letter to the churches of Achaia (9:115).
  6. A non-Pauline interpolation (6:147:1).

Some less radical scholars (e.g., Victor Furnish) have proposed that the literary features of 2 Corinthians suggest that 2 Corinthians is a composite of but two previous texts, extant 2 Corinthians 19, and 2 Corinthians 1013. Still others (e.g., Jan Lambrecht) hold that despite the harsh literary connections in the present text the epistle is one integral letter. On any theory the place of the exhortation in 2 Cor 6:147:1 must be given special consideration. Its Qumran-like language and the fact that 2 Cor 7:2 follows so readably after 2 Cor 6:10 make the origin of this passage and its place within the Pauline corpus an enigma.

In its extant state 2 Corinthians can be structured in this way:

1:111 Introduction

1:12 Epistolary Greeting

1:311 Praise of God

1:1212:10 Body of the Letter

1:122:13 The Trustworthiness of the Apostle

2:147:4 Paul's Apostolate

7:516 The Return of Titus

8:19:15 The Collection for the Saints

10:113:10 A Pauline Apology

13:1113 Epistolary Closing

The letter's epistolary greeting and closing are similar to those generally found in the Pauline letters. On the hypothesis that 2 Corinthians is a compilation, such epistolary features would have been taken into the composite text only once so as to avoid redundancy. The solemnity of the final greeting (13:13) has a liturgical ring such that it has been taken over into the Latin liturgy and suggests that extant 2 Corinthians was read to a community gathered for worship. This liturgical tone is also found in a prayer of praise (1:310) that resembles the Jewish běrakâ and takes the place of the thanksgiving typical in Paul's letters.

Apart from the two-chapter appeal on behalf of the collection for the saints, a classic reflection on the reality of love among Christians, the body of the letter is essentially apologetic. Paul is engaged in a task of self-defense against his opponents. Who those opponents are is a moot point among scholars. Various proposals have been advanced but none has gained a scholarly consensus. Among those considered to have been Paul's opponents are a group of Judaizers similar to those whom Paul confronted in Galatia, Jewish-Christian Gnostics, Hellenistic Christian preachers coming from Greece or Asia, Christians who oppose Paul and appeal to Jerusalem for support (cf. 11:5, 13; 12:1), and Hellenistic secularists who deem that Paul did not meet accepted social standards. There is no way to determine precisely who the trouble-makers were. It may be that their christology led them to oppose Paul. In any case, it is well known that the Christian community at Corinth was rife with conflict and division at least from the time of Paul's first letter to the time of Clement's letter, and perhaps thereafter.

Paul's extensive apology had as its purpose the reconciliation of his opponents and the reconciliation of the community. Paul used a variety of rhetorical techniques to pursue his defense and foster reconciliation. Not only had he written a tearful letter to the Corinthians, but he also appeals to them as to his children and speaks of his intention to visit them for yet a third time (12:14; 13:12). The "fool's speech" (ch. 11) is a classic example of self-demeaning rhetoric in which Paul boasts of his own weakness and speaks of the many adversities that he had encountered; yet, he commends himself in 4:2 and 6:4. He speaks of his lack of rhetorical skill but proclaims his moral rectitude (2:17; 4:2; 6:4). He swears to his love for the Corinthians (11:11) and recalls that the signs of a true apostle had been present among them (12:12), thus recalling his own miraculous deeds. He uses the imagery of a triumphant procession led by Christ (2:1417) whose herald is Paul (4:5). That Paul writes at such length and in so many different ways about his ministry leads many to conclude that 2 Corinthians is, in fact, the most personal of all Paul's extant letters.

Bibliography: r. bieringer, ed., "The Corinthian Correspondence," Bibliotheca ephemeridum theologicarum Lovaniensium 125 (Louvain 1996). j. lambrecht, "Second Corinthians," Sacra Pagina 8 (Collegeville, Minn. 1999). v. p. furnish, "II Corinthians," Anchor Bible 32A (Garden City, N.Y. 1984). r. f. collins, "First Corinthians," Sacra Pagina 7 (Collegeville, Minn.1999). g. d. fee, "The First Epistle to the Corinthians," New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.1987). m. m. mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians (Louisville 1991). g. theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth (Philadelphia 1982).

[r. f. collins]

Corinthians, Epistles to the

views updated May 29 2018

Corinthians, Epistles to the Two books of the New Testament that are two letters of Saint Paul addressed to the Christian Church in Corinth, Greece. The letters cover a number of issues but centre on the teething troubles of the newly founded Christian community at Corinth.

Corinthians, Letters to the

views updated May 29 2018

Corinthians, Letters to the. Two epistles of Paul and books of the New Testament.