The epistle of 1 Corinthians was one of the most influential writings of Paul in the ancient church. Its universal appeal and unquestioned importance earned it first place in some early collections of Paul’s letters, only later to be edged out by Romans. All this in spite of its being addressed quite specifically—and exclusively—to the church of God which is at Corinth. Although it has addressed the needs of churches in every age, it first addressed the needs of a church in another age—a fledgling church, incredibly diverse, predominantly Gentile, established by Paul in a major urban center during one of the most active and productive periods of his missionary work.
The Corinthian church can best be understood by examining its general complexion (insofar as it can be ascertained) and its specific situation when Paul wrote the epistle. At least four factors helped shape the personality of the Corinthian church: (1) its founder, (2) its location, (3) its date of establishment, and (4) its membership.
In one sense the Corinthian church was begotten by God (1 Cor. 1:2), in another sense by Paul; he emphatically insists that he was its father in a unique sense (1 Cor. 4:15; cf. 2:1ff.; Acts 18:1ff.). For a church to be the child of Paul inevitably meant that it would bear his distinctive imprint. This remained true even though co-workers assisted him in both preaching and teaching. While Paul insists that his preaching and teaching stood firmly within the apostolic tradition and derived ultimately from the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 7:10; 11:23ff.; 15:1ff.), it is nevertheless true that both were transmitted through his personality. The gospel, after all, was entrusted to earthen vessels (2 Cor. 4:7).
Concretely, this means that the Corinthian church, in addition to being instructed in “traditions” (cf. 1 Cor. 11:2; 15:1ff.) which were pre-Pauline both chronologically and terminologically, also received their initial instruction in the faith couched in words and phrases often peculiarly Pauline. He explained Christ to them not only in widely used terms, such as Son of God, but also in ways and words uniquely Pauline. They are used nowhere else in the New Testament, at least in this way, except by Paul. These include “Christ our paschal lamb” (1 Cor. 5:7), “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24), “the Rock” (1 Cor. 10:4), “the first fruits” (1 Cor. 15:20, 23).
The personality of the Corinthian church was also shaped by its location within a major urban center. In many ways the church reflected the personality of the city.
The Corinth which Paul entered was, by ancient standards at least, a new city, less than a hundred years old. Old Corinth had the misfortune of being leader of the Achaean League when it decided to resist Rome, and the city was destroyed in 146 B.C. It had thus lain in ruins for close to a century when Julius Caesar decreed in 44 B.C. that it be rebuilt on the same site, not as a Greek city but as a Roman colony. Its strategic location, controlling the isthmus which connected the lower half of Greece, the Peloponnesus, with the rest of mainland Greece, and which separated the Gulf of Corinth on the north from the Saronic Gulf on the east, had destined it for new life and insured that its ancient and well-founded reputation for wealth and power would be rapidly regained.
Commercial life was again revitalized, and the city became famous for mining, manufacturing, and craftsmanship. It would understandably attract the likes of artisans such as Aquila and Priscilla. Within fifty years after the city’s refounding, the Isthmian games had moved back to Corinth—an indication of both its economic stability and growing influence—and they may well provide some of the imagery which Paul employs in writing to the Corinthian church (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24ff.). Thriving trade meant that the city had considerable cash flow, and by the early second century A.D. it was listed as one of the three banking centers of Greece, along with Athens and Patara. All of this may help to account for the presence of some affluent members in the Corinthian church, or may explain why the most extensive appeal for funds found in the New Testament (2 Cor. 8–9) is addressed to this church.
The city would, above all, have a mobile population. According to some ancient sources, Corinth was full of people on the move; according to others, it was full of people on the make. Dio Chysostom (Oration 37.8) mentions the constant flow of traders, pilgrims, diplomats, and those “just passing through,” but this early second-century description only reinforces the picture we already know from the New Testament itself.
Politically, the new city was sufficiently flourishing within twenty years of its founding to be made the seat of provincial government in Achaia (27 B.C.), but it took almost seventy-five years for the Romans to judge the whole area stable enough to be made a senatorial province. A flourishing provincial capital inevitably brought the apparatus of government, and the future for aspiring civil servants possessing skill matched with energy would be promising; there were all the opportunities for upward social mobility, and with it influence. Erastus was one such civil servant (cf. Rom. 16:23); perhaps the secretarial skills of Tertius places him in the same category (cf. Rom. 16:22). The judicial system in such a city would also develop rapidly, and the wealthy would have their usual advantage in using it (cf. 1 Cor. 6:1ff.).
That the Corinthian church was established in the early fifties of the first century is one of the best attested chronological data in the history of early Christianity. The beginnings of the church are linked in Acts with the proconsulship of Gallio (Acts 18:12). The discovery of an inscription at Delphi which not only mentions Gallio but also provides evidence pertaining to the date of his proconsulship in Achaia has made it possible to establish, with relative precision, the outer limits of his proconsulship from A.D. 51–53. If the church was established prior to Gallio’s accession as proconsul, as the Acts account seems to imply, this would conceivably place the beginning of the Corinthian church as early as the spring of A.D.50.
A few details of the establishment of the church are provided by the epistle itself (1 Cor. 1:14ff.; 2:1ff.; 3:2, 6; 15:1ff.), but the longest and most coherent account is provided by Acts (18:1ff.). Both accounts complement each other in providing important details, making it possible to set the founding of the Corinthian church within the overall chronological framework of Paul’s life and ministry. (For a fuller treatment of the details and chronology of the establishment of the church, cf. introduction to 2 Corinthians.)
The period in which the Corinthian church was established was not only one of the most crisis-ridden periods, but (and probably for that reason) the most productive literary period of Paul’s life. It was a period when, besides his work with the churches of Corinth and Ephesus (Acts 18–19), opposition to his preaching to the Gentiles intensified (cf. esp. 2 Cor., Gal.); it was also the period throughout which he seems to have been preoccupied with the collection for the Jerusalem poor (Rom. 15:14ff.). Yet these five or six years saw the appearance of the Thessalonian letters, the Corinthian correspondence, Galatians, Romans, and possibly Philippians and Philemon as well; in other words, the bulk of Paul’s major writings.
The data the New Testament provides about persons associated with the Corinthian church, either as resident or nonresident members, are remarkable in at least two respects: (1) the sheer number of individuals named, and (2) the diversity among them.
The following persons were associated with the Corinthian church, though not all at the same time or in the same way. Resident members include those who did not leave Corinth except for brief intervals; nonresident members include all of those whose stay in Corinth was in any sense temporary.
Nonresident Members. The first figure, of course, was Paul. Besides the obvious sources informing us about the relationship of Paul to the Corinthians (Acts 18:1ff.; 1 and 2 Corinthians), the letters written from Corinth can yield valuable information not only about Paul’s circumstances while there but about his relationship to the church after leaving. The following passages provide information about Paul’s relationship to the Corinthian church: Romans 1:13ff.; 14:1–15:6; 15:14ff., especially verses 17ff., 23-30; 16:1-2, 3-5, 16, 21-23; 1 Thessalonians 1:7f.; 2:18; 3:6-10; 2 Thessalonians 1:4; 3:1-2.
After Paul, the one person who exercised the most influence upon the young Corinthian church was Apollos, the intellectually sophisticated teacher from Alexandria. This is confirmed not only by 1 Corinthians, where Apollos is mentioned by name more often than anyone else (except Paul)—and always conspicuously before Peter (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22)—and where he is clearly responsible for the second stage of the work at Corinth (cf. 1 Cor. 3:6; 4:6), but also by the manner in which he is introduced in Acts. Acts tells the reader little about Corinth after Paul’s departure except for Apollos’ forceful ministry.
The presence of the “Apollos party” (1 Cor. 1:12) indicates that he was capable of engendering extreme personal loyalty although it is questionable whether that was his intention. The possible rivalry between Apollos the golden-tongued and Paul the silver-tongued is frequently exaggerated. Paul, it is true, in 1 Corinthians 1–4 does debunk wisdom and eloquence, which were Apollos’ forte, and insists on the primacy of his own work (cf. 3:16; 4:15); and later (2 Cor. 3:1) he minimizes the value of letters of recommendation, the means by which Apollos had gained an entree into Corinth (cf. Acts 18:27). But what rivalry there was, if any, was apparently negligible, for Paul willingly urges Apollos to return to Corinth (1 Cor. 16:12).
Aquila and Priscilla (Prisca) were among the estimated two to four million Jews who lived in the Diaspora during the first century. As tentmakers they belonged to the artisan class and traveled extensively, which was not uncommon for Diaspora Jews, especially those who were well off financially. From the New Testament evidence alone, which provides glimpses of their whereabouts, we know that they lived in at least the following places: Pontus (Acts 18:2), Rome (Acts 18:2), Corinth (Acts 18:2), Ephesus (Acts 18:19; 1 Cor. 16:19), and Rome again (Rom. 16:3-5); it is difficult to know where 2 Timothy 4:19 places them. They were probably already Christians when they met Paul in Corinth, since the household of Stephanas had the honor of being the “first fruits of Achaia” (1 Cor. 16:15).
Aquila and Priscilla are perhaps best known for expounding “the way of God more accurately” to Apollos, a fellow Diaspora Jewish Christian, which probably means that they were the first to inform him about the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 18:24ff.). They became intimate co-workers with Paul, and their work among the fledgling Gentile churches, their willingness to risk friendship with the mercurial Paul, and their habitual hospitality to individuals such as Paul (Acts 18:3), and churches such as those at Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19) and Rome (Rom. 16:5), brought them unusually high praise and placed all the Gentile churches in their debt (cf. 1 Cor. 16:19; Rom. 16:3-5).
Before he became one of Paul’s co-workers, Silas was an important leader in the early church, respected enough by both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to be selected as one of the two persons to accompany Paul and Barnabas in delivering the Jerusalem decree to the Gentile churches (Acts 15:22ff.). A prophet capable of edifying speech (Acts 15:32), he was also distinguished by his literary ability (cf. 1 Peter 5:12). That he was a co-addressor with Paul in writing to the Thessalonians from Corinth may mean that he assisted in writing the epistle, if not in actual composition, at least in copying the letter (cf. 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; also cf. 1 Peter 5:12). All these qualifications would have made him especially useful as a companion of Paul and likely figured into Paul’s decision to select him as a traveling companion in his mission to the Gentiles (Acts 15:40; cf. 16:19,25,29; 17:4, 10,14,15). He may have been left behind in Corinth to strengthen the newly established church (cf. Acts 18:18), which seems to have been Paul’s pattern (cf. Acts 17:15). He played an active role in the missionary preaching, second in importance only to Paul (cf. Acts 18:5; 2 Cor. 1:19). When he is mentioned with Paul, he is always mentioned second; but when mentioned with Timothy, he is always mentioned first.
As Paul’s protege, Timothy was overshadowed by Silas in the early stages of the European mission (cf. Acts 16:1–18:21; esp. Acts 16:1; 17:14f.; 18:5; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; 2 Cor. 1:19), but he eventually became an important figure in his own right (Acts 19:22; 20:4; 1 Thess. 3:2ff.; 1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10f.; 2 Cor. 1:1; Rom. 16:21; Phil. 1:1; 2:19; Col. 1:1; Phile. 1; 1 Tim. 1:2, 18; 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:2; Heb. 13:23). He is most often found instructing Paul’s newly established churches in Paul’s “ways in Christ” (cf. 1 Cor. 4:17), a role for which he seems to have been especially suited, and in which he functioned as Paul’s alter ego (cf. 1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10f.; 1 Thess. 3:1ff.; 3:6ff.; especially Phil. 2:19ff.). Whereas Silas eventually faded out of the picture, the Pauline picture that is (cf. 1 Peter 5:12), Timothy’s importance to Paul and his influence among the Pauline churches gradually increased (cf. Phil. 1:1; Col. 1:1; Phile. 1; 1 Tim. 1:2, 18; 6:20; 2 Tim. 1:2). Thus in the “Corinthian years” he was a relatively minor figure who could all too easily be ignored rather than taken seriously (1 Cor. 16:10ff.), who seems at first to have split his time between Thessalonica and Corinth, but who came to play a crucial role as the mediator of Paul’s teaching to the Corinthian church as he did to the Thessalonian church earlier (1 Thess. 3:1ff.) and to the Philippian church later (Phil. 1:1; 2:19).
There is no evidence that Titus played any role in the early stages of the Corinthian work; he is mentioned neither in Acts nor 1 Corinthians. But in the troubled years that followed Paul’s departure from Corinth, he was to play a leading role, chiefly as liaison between Paul and the Corinthian church. Unlike Timothy, teaching seems not to have been his forte. In his relationship with the Corinthian church he is never singled out for his ability to instruct and strengthen the young church. This general portrait seems to be supported by the epistle addressed to him (cf. Titus 1:5).
Besides his role as liaison between Paul and the embattled Corinthian church, a role in which he functioned primarily as courier and general troubleshooter (cf. 2 Cor. 2:13; 7:6ff.; 7:13; cf. Titus 1:5), he is mentioned primarily in connection with the collection for the Jerusalem poor (2 Cor. 8:6, 16ff., 23; 12:18). As a Gentile who had contacts with the Jerusalem church and as one who had not been required by the Jewish leaders to be circumcised (cf. Gal. 2:1ff.), he could effectively plead for the Gentile churches to participate in the collection, especially if they bore any resentment to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Later he is found working in other areas, specifically Dalmatia (2 Tim. 4:10) and Crete (Titus 1:5).
It is not known for sure how Peter was related to the Corinthian church in its early years. What is certain is the existence of one group within the church who was either especially loyal to the teaching of Peter or attracted to him personally, or both (cf. 1 Cor. 1:12; 3:22; 9:5; 15:5). There is no explicit evidence in the New Testament that he ever visited Corinth, although it is not impossible; the likelihood of his doing so depends, in part, upon whether one understands the agreement between Paul and Peter regarding their respective missions to be an agreement over geographical territory or ethnic territory (cf. Gal. 2:1ff., especially vss. 7ff.; 1:18), and whether Peter’s visiting the Corinthian church would have violated that agreement. It is possible that the influence of Peter was mediated to the Corinthian church through Silas who is known to have had early contacts with Peter in Jerusalem (cf. Acts 15:22ff.) and whose later association with Peter is beyond question (cf. 1 Peter 5:12).
Nothing more is known of Tertius except that he was in Corinth with Paul during his last visit there (cf. Acts 20:2f.), and that he served as Paul’s amanuensis in writing the epistle to the Romans from Corinth (cf. Rom. 16:22). He may have been a resident member of the Corinthian church, but that is uncertain.
Resident Members. Crispus has the distinction of being the first full-fledged Jew converted by Paul whose name we know (Acts 18:8); in fact, he was personally baptized by Paul (1 Cor. 1:14), which was unusual in itself (1 Cor. 1:17). As “ruler of the synagogue” he was mainly responsible for organizing, supervising, and administering the public worship (Acts 13:15; Luke 13:14). In this position he could be, but was not necessarily, one of the leaders of the Jewish community; his responsibility was more narrowly defined and could include responsibility for the buildings and grounds. Evidence from inscriptions suggests that the leader of the synagogue was often financially well off, and would not only refill the till occasionally but even, on occasion, would substantially underwrite the building of the synagogue. It was an esteemed position, one in which he could exercise great influence, and the narrative of Acts clearly implies that the impressive response of the Corinthians to Paul’s preaching was related to the conversion of Crispus and his household.
It was people such as Crispus in the Corinthian congregation who would most easily be able to grasp the subtleties of Paul’s interpretation of the Old Testament (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1ff.; 15:21ff., 45ff.), or who would most easily catch allusions to Old Testament words or phrases (cf. 1:9, 31; 2:9; 5:6-8; passim).
Gaius was among those personally baptized by Paul (1 Cor. 1:14). While staying as a guest in his house, Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans; in addition, Gaius hosted a house-church (cf. Rom. 16:23; cf. Acts 20:1ff.).
After Paul met resistance at the synagogue in Corinth, he moved next door to the private home of a Gentile “God-fearer,” Titius Justus (Acts 18:7). The language may suggest that he not only moved from the synagogue but from the home of Aquila and Priscilla. The term “God-fearer” was a technical term for a Gentile who was attracted to Judaism strongly enough to attend the synagogue, perhaps even to observe some Jewish practices, but not enough to become a proselyte, i.e., a full-fledged “son of the covenant.” Christianity especially appealed to such people, and we meet a number of them in the New Testament (cf. Acts 10:2; 13:16, 26; 16:14; 17:4, 17). Although it is never said that Titius Justus became a believer, the way he is introduced in the Acts narrative makes it likely, and it has been suggested that he is to be identified with Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14). Whether he may be counted as a charter member of the Corinthian church remains uncertain.
If the Sosthenes mentioned in Acts is to be identified with “our brother Sosthenes” mentioned in 1 Corinthians 1:1, then the Corinthian church could, at one point, boast two former synagogue presidents among its members. Interpreted one way, the Acts account (cf. Acts 18:17) presents a Sosthenes sympathetic to Paul; if so, he probably received his beating at the hands of the Jews. In any case, we can with confidence number him among Paul’s converts, even though at the time Paul writes 1 Corinthians, he is with Paul at Ephesus. In either case, Sosthenes represents another member of the Corinthian church with deep roots in Judaism, and would therefore view his new identity “in Christ” through darkly shaded Jewish glasses.
The identity of Chloe's people is a mystery. They are mentioned only once in the New Testament (1 Cor. 1:11), and we do not know who Chloe was, whether she was a Christian, or even whether she resided in Corinth or Ephesus, or either. Generally, it is thought that Chloe and her household were Christians from Corinth who brought the bad news to Paul in Ephesus. That she had a retinue of “people,” probably slaves, may suggest that she was a well-to-do free woman. If so, she is yet another member of the Corinthian church belonging to the “haves,” and representing the relatively higher socioeconomic class.
The “city treasurer” Erastus, who is with Paul in Corinth when he writes Romans (cf. Rom. 16:23) must have been a Roman citizen. He is probably not to be identified with the Erastus mentioned elsewhere (Acts 19:22; 2 Tim. 4:20), since it would have been difficult to have retained his position as a civil servant while serving as a travel companion of Paul. In his position, he could have exercised considerable influence.
The household of Stephanas had the distinction of being the first converts of Achaia (1 Cor. 16:15), personally baptized by Paul (1 Cor. 1:16). Their service in behalf of the church had placed them in a well-earned position of leadership which the rest of the church is urged to acknowledge. When Paul writes 1 Corinthians, Stephanas has traveled to Ephesus, possibly bearing a list of questions submitted by the Corinthian church (cf. 7:1ff.), and he may have delivered the epistle of 1 Corinthians back to the church.
Otherwise unknown, and undistinguished except for their Latin names, Fortunatus and Achaicus are members of the Corinthian church who accompanied Stephanas to Ephesus, probably bearing the Corinthians’ questions (cf. 1 Cor. 16:17). Whether they were members of the household of Stephanas, perhaps slaves, we cannot say.
By referring to Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater as “my kinsmen” (Rom. 16:21), Paul probably means that they are Jewish Christians. Jason was often the Greek name adopted by Jews named Joshua.
The only other person singled out in 1 Corinthians is the man rebuked by Paul as a “man living with his father’s wife” (1 Cor. 5:1ff.). As a result, he has deserved anonymity.
Phoebe, the “deaconess” of the church at Cenchreae, should also be listed among the members of the Corinthian church, since the church at Cenchreae (the port of Corinth) almost certainly belongs to the “church at Corinth.” En route to Rome, she receives a high recommendation from Paul because of her leadership and service in the Cenchreaean church (Rom. 16:1, 2).
Circumstances in the Church
But what were the specific circumstances of the church when Paul wrote this epistle?
Intramural Tensions. Explicit references are made throughout the epistle to tensions of one sort or another (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10ff.; 3:3ff., esp. vs. 21; 4:6; 6:6; 8:7ff.; 10:24; 11:16 (?); 11:18ff.; 12–14, esp. 14:26ff.; 16:14, 16, 22). It is extraordinarily difficult to establish the source and nature of these tensions. For example, are the tensions seen throughout the epistle to be traced to the existence of four well-defined groups within the church (cf. 1:10ff.), or do tensions reflected elsewhere presuppose a different grouping, e.g., the “weak” and the “strong” (cf. chs. 8 and 10)?
Emerging Arrogance. There are also explicit references throughout the epistle to an emerging sense of arrogance within the church (cf. 1 Cor. 3:18ff.; 4:6ff., 8ff.; 4:18ff.; 5:2, 6ff.; 6:5ff.; 9:2; 10:6ff., esp. vs. 12; 13:4; 14:37; cf. 16:11). “Boasting” is a related term used to describe this attitude (1 Cor. 1:29, 31; 4:7; 5:6; 10:12; 13:4; cf. 3:18; 8:2; 10:12). Some within the church were placing great stock in wisdom (1 Cor. 2:5; 3:18ff.; 4:10), its corollary rhetorical eloquence (1:17; 2:1ff.), knowledge (8:1ff., 10), power (4:10,19; cf. 1:17,18ff., 26), and the signs of power, such as charismatic gifts (12–14).
But again, precisely who is arrogant, and why, is often difficult to determine. At times Paul seems to attribute arrogance to the entire congregation (3:18), at other times only to “some” (4:18ff.).
Contacts with the Church
Paul was prompted to write 1 Corinthians by two reports which he had received from the church: one from Chloe’s people, the other from the Stephanas delegation; there were possibly other reports (cf. 5:1; 11:18). He had already written the church one letter (5:9), but the exact contents of this letter are unknown to us; we can only deduce the gist of the letter from Paul’s comments in chapter 5.
In addition to information which he had received about the church, there was information which the church (at least some of its members) wished to receive from Paul (7:1). Several things are worth noticing.
First, Paul does not intend for this letter to be an exhaustive treatment of these questions, only a response to the most urgent aspects of the questions (cf. 1 Cor. 11:34). He intends to visit them shortly, and for this reason, the letter should be seen as a provisional response intended to serve their needs in the absence of their two most influential teachers, Paul and Apollos, both of whom were in Ephesus, the one unable, the other unwilling to return (16:12).
Second, it has been suggested that the reports contained disparaging information about Paul which he now seeks to rebut, but this is far from certain. Such reports are said to have suggested that he did not intend to return (cf. 1 Cor. 4:16), and therefore was no longer concerned for their welfare; and (2) that his leadership was openly being opposed by some of the members (cf. 4:13; 9:3). Opposition to his leadership and doubts about his travel plans had developed by the time 2 Corinthians was written, but they do not appear to have figured prominently in the circumstances prompting the writing of 1 Corinthians.
Some salient features of the epistle itself are worth noticing. First, because it is the most obvious and therefore least likely to be noticed, is the fact that it is, above all, a letter. While letters may, in some cases, be a poor substitute for a personal visit, Paul often appears to have been more effective on paper than he was in person (2 Cor. 10:10). This may have been true partially because he was so short-fused (cf. Acts 23:3ff.), but also because of the decided advantage of being able, in a letter, to compose deliberately and thoughtfully, and if necessary, slowly. We can assume that 1 Corinthians was dictated to a secretary, which seems to have been Paul’s practice (cf. Rom. 16:22). This may account for the apparent lapse of memory in recalling those whom he baptized (1 Cor. 1:14ff.). The letter contains the standard features found in ancient letters, such as the greeting (1:1ff.) or thanksgiving (1:4ff.), but even these written features are peculiarly Pauline.
It was a custom, and probably the norm, for Paul’s letters to be read aloud to his churches (Col. 4:16); whether to his churches or privately, they were read aloud in any case, since silent reading appears not to have been discovered until several centuries later. We thus find stylistic devices peculiarly suited to oral address, such as the diatribe (cf. Rom. 2:1ff.; 4:1ff.; 6:1ff., passim; James 2:18; cf. 1 Cor. 10:23ff.; 15:29ff.) and irony (1 Cor. 4:8ff.). Because the letter, in effect, functioned as oral address, it often sounded very much like a sermon. It is not surprising, then, to find that the letter of 1 Corinthians contains material which Paul had employed in his missionary preaching and in his teaching, material known as “traditional,” since it consisted of “traditions” of and about Jesus, much of which was common stock among the early churches. This material would include words of the Lord (1 Cor. 7:10; 9:14), outline summaries of the preaching (15:1ff.; cf. 1 Thess. 1:9f.), summaries of the Christian confession (8:4ff.; cf. Rom. 1:3f.), narrative material preserving the institution of the Lord’s supper (11:34ff.), prayers (1:4ff.; cf. 2 Cor. 1:3ff.), and hymns (cf. 1 Cor. 13; cf. Phil. 2:5ff.).
Second, the epistle is, in part at least (beginning with ch. 7), a written response to another letter (cf. 1 Cor. 7:1), and the only book in the New Testament of which this can be said with certainty. The structure of the second half of the epistle is determined accordingly, and may be regarded as the apostle’s answers to these questions which he takes up one by one. This is seen by the repeated phrase “now concerning,” which indicates, usually, that he is taking up a new question (1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12).
Third, the epistle is one part of a larger set of correspondence, and not the first part at that. One letter by Paul to the Corinthians had already preceded our 1 Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9ff.), and two more were to follow: the “tearful letter” (2 Cor. 2:4) and our 2 Corinthians. Numerous theories, many of them extremely complex, suggest that the two “lost” letters are embedded within our 1 and 2 Corinthians. Although many of these theories are untenable, they nevertheless force the interpreter to allow for the possibility that the epistles of 1 and 2 Corinthians may contain the fragments of other smaller letters. Specifically, this means that 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1 may have been part of Paul’s “previous letter” (1 Cor. 5:9), and may therefore have caused the Corinthians to raise the question addressed in 1 Corinthians 5:9ff., namely, “Shall we withdraw completely from the world (as implied by 2 Cor. 6:14–7:1)?” It is unlikely that 1 Corinthians itself is a composite of several of Paul’s shorter letters.
Fourth, the epistle was written at Ephesus during a ministry which, at the best of times, was turbulent. Just as Paul’s letters written from Corinth can inform us about the Corinthian church, 1 and 2 Corinthians can yield the same type of information about Ephesus (cf. 1 Cor. 15:32f.; 2 Cor. 1:8ff., 15ff.). This, along with the caution that the letter was not necessarily written at one time, much less one sitting, may help to account for the unevenness one detects occasionally in the overall tone of the letter. Or, it may help to explain certain interpretive problems, such as the apparent difference in Paul’s plans concerning the sending of Timothy (1 Cor. 4:17; 16:10f.). Thus, reading through the letter, one must remember that it was composed in less than ideal circumstances and may well represent the apostle’s thought spread out over a period of months.
Fifth, as to the structure of the letter, it consists of two parts. Chapters 1–6 provide the substructure of the entire epistle, for in them we see unfold (1) his appeal for unity, (2) his devastating attack upon human presumption and the debilitating effects it has begun to have upon the Corinthian church, and (3) his description of the nature of his ministry and his relationship with them. These three themes are interwoven in chapters 1–4. Chapters 5–6 provide two concrete instances of how their arrogance had kept them from properly defining themselves within the society in which they lived. Chapters 7–16 constitute part two. They provide instructions on topics of pressing concern to the church. Here Paul takes up the questions on which they had requested, or needed, information. Basically there are six: (1) marriage (ch. 7), (2) eating sacrificial meats (chs. 8–10), (3) Christian worship (ch. 11), (4) spiritual gifts (chs. 12–14), (5) the resurrection of the dead (ch. 15), and (6) the collection (ch. 16).
|III.||Appeal for unity, attack upon human presumption, and call for imitation of Paul’s apostolic behavior, 1:10–4:21|
|IV.||The church and pagan society, 5:1–6:20|
|V.||Response to topics on which the Corinthians have either written or about which they need instruction, 7:1–16:4|
|A. Marriage, 7:1-40|
|B. Food offered to idols, 8:1–11:1|
|C. Christian worship, 11:2-34|
|D. Spiritual gifts, 12:1–14:40|
|E. The resurrection, 15:1-58|
|F. The collection, 16:1-4|
|VI.||Travel plans, personal greetings and exhortations, benediction, 16:5-24|
Barrett, C. K. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. 2d ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1973.
Conzelmann, H. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Translated by J.W. Leitch. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
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