Paul’s often-quoted pastoral letter addresses many issues related to living in Christian community. Problems facing the Corinthian congregation of the first century are remarkably applicable to life in Christian community in the 21st century. This study offers an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of being in community where members are as likely to disagree on some questions as they are likely to agree. It also helps learners think about living in the world beyond the Christian community.
This letter was written about 20 years into Paul’s ministry and work among the Gentiles. The issues of divisiveness and separation were counter to Paul’s vision of the fulfillment of God’s promised new age of relationship with him.
Meet Our Professors
Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament
Harry Attridge has made scholarly contributions to New Testament exegesis and to the study of Hellenistic Judaism and the history of the early Church. He has published numerous books, authored book chapters and articles in scholarly journals, and has edited 11 books, including Hebrews: A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, First-Century Cynicism in the Epistles of Heraclitus, The Interpretation of Biblical History in the Antiquitates Judaicae of Flavius Josephus, Nag Hammadi Codex I: The Jung Codex, and Psalms in Community. Dean Attridge has been an editorial board member of Catholic Biblical Quarterly, the Harvard Theological Review, the Journal of Biblical Literature, and the Hermeneia Commentary Series. Before coming to Yale, Dr. Attridge was Professor of New Testament Studies and Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame. He has served as president of the Society of Biblical Literature since 2001. He holds degrees from Boston College (A.B.), Cambridge University (B.A., M.A.), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Harvard University (Ph.D.).
David L. Bartlett
David L. Bartlett was the J. Edward and Ruth Cox Lantz Professor Emeritus of Christian Communication at Yale Divinity School and Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Churches, USA, Bartlett served as the senior minister of congregations in Minnesota, Illinois, and California. From 1990 to 2005, Bartlett served at YDS on the faculty as well as in administrative roles including Associate Dean of Academic Affairs and Dean of Academic Affairs. Bartlett has published numerous books and scholarly articles. It is with great sadness that we note his passing in late 2017.
Yale Bible Study
Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians is a masterpiece of pastoral theology in which the Apostle to the Gentiles treats a number of issues that have caused difficulties in the Christian community at Corinth. The issues faced by Paul and his Church reflect conditions and issues of the first-century. At the same time they often offer remarkable parallels to issues that confront Christian communities today. Study of the letter provides an opportunity to reflect on what it means to be a community of believers, who share many things but disagree on others. It challenges readers to think about how they relate to the wider world that they fully engage even if it does not always share their values. Finally, the letter provokes readers to imitate Paul’s pastoral logic, which probes fundamental convictions to see how they apply in difficult situations.
Circumstances of Composition
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from the city of Ephesus on the west coast of Asia Minor, the headquarters of his missionary activity for several years in the mid 50’s of the first century. He wrote to the community in Corinth which he had personally founded several years earlier, at the beginning of the decade, probably 50-52. He had maintained contact with the congregation by letter and through personal emissaries, perhaps people who traveled across the Aegean Sea on business. At several points in the letter Paul alludes to these on-going contacts. At 1 Cor 1:11 he mentions the news brought to him by “Chloe’s people” about divisions in the church. These messengers were probably freedmen or slaves in the household of a woman of some means. Later, at 1 Cor 7:1, Paul mentions that he is responding to what the Corinthians had “written about.” It may be that Chloe’s people had brought him letters with questions about the issues disputed at Corinth.
It is useful to remember the larger context of Paul’s ministry at this time. He had been involved in work among Gentiles, i.e., non-Jews for some twenty years. His preaching to them was grounded in his conviction that God, by raising Jesus from the dead, was beginning a new age in his relationship with humankind. God, who had created the human race, wanted to extend his sovereignty to all humankind and, through the prophets of Israel, had promised to do so at the end of time. The resurrection of God’s emissary, Jesus, signaled that those end-times had begun and Paul was engaged in the mission to help bring God’s promise to reality. That meant for Paul, that Gentiles could become members of the fellowship of followers of Jesus without becoming Jews. The position was controversial, but had been accepted in principle by the leaders of the community of believers in Jerusalem (Gal 2:1-10). They only asked that Paul and his communities “remember the poor” in Jerusalem. In order to do so Paul was engaged in a fund-raising drive, taking up a collection from all of his congregations to be delivered to Jerusalem. Paul alludes to this process in 1 Cor 16:1-4. He will return to the issue in 2 Corinthians at a later stage of his relationship with the Corinthians.
Paul, then, has a vision of the relationship of all believers in Jesus, whether they be Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free, who base their relationship with one another on what God has done for them and who thereby overcome whatever divides them. The divisions and difficulties in Corinth test that vision and threaten the success of the larger project to demonstrate solidarity among all the Christian communities now forming in the eastern Mediterranean region. Much is at stake as Paul responds to the news from Chloe’s people and the letter from the Corinthians.
Major segments of the Letter
|I.||1:1-2:16||Divisions at Corinth: Spirit and Wisdom|
|II.||3:1-4:21||Paul and Apollos: The Meaning of “Apostle”|
|III.||5:1-6:20||Sex and Courts|
|IV.||7:1-40||Marriage and Slavery|
|V.||8:1-11:1||Idol Meat: To eat or not to eat?|
|VI.||11:2-34||The Lord’s Supper and Women at Prayer|
|VII.||12:1-14:40||Glossolalia: Spiritual Experience and Social Order|
|VIII.||15:1-58||The Meaning of Resurrection|
Yale Bible Study
I. First Corinthians 1:1-2:16: Divisions at Corinth
In reading any of Paul’s letters, it is useful to take a moment to attend to what Paul says in his initial greetings (1:1-3). Paul introduces himself, as “an apostle of Christ Jesus,” hinting at an issue in his relationship with his Corinthian community, what his status was and what it meant to be an “apostle” of Christ. We shall hear more about these issues in this and the next session of our study.
Paul goes on to greet his congregation as those who have been “sanctified in Christ Jesus.” In this seemingly innocuous phrase Paul at once celebrates what he believes has taken place in Corinth. His preaching and the Corinthians acceptance of it has led to a change in their status. Once they were “profane” Gentiles, outside the orbit of a relationship with God. Now they stand in such a relationship and it is worth celebrating. It may be, however,that one of the problems that Paul is confronting in this community is an excessive celebration of person spiritual experience and relationship with God. His next phrase, “called to be saints” introduces a hint that there remains an important element of moral responsibility in his gospel message to the Corinthians. The verse summarizes much of the argument of the whole text: “Yes,” says Paul, “something significant has happened to you in your encounter with Christ, but, No, you are not perfect. You are called to be something special. Act on that calling!”
Paul often offers a little prayer of thanks at the beginning of his letters, imitating a custom in contemporary Greek letter writing. In this thanksgiving (1:4-9) he continues to develop the balance that he struck in the greeting. The Corinthians have been blessed, “enriched,” with all sorts of “speech and knowledge.” They have learned and experienced something very special, and have received “spiritual gifts.” With that prayer of thanks, comes a prayer for “strengthening” (1:9).
After the prayer comes some indication of the problem on the table (1:10-16). The community is apparently divided, with different factions pledging allegiance to one or another preacher and teacher (including Christ! v.12). Information about these divisions has apparently been brought to Paul by “Chloe’s people” (v. 11), perhaps slaves or freedmen of a well-to-do woman in Corinth.
In response to these divisions in Corinth, Paul issues a fundamental challenge: Think about Christ crucified. That is where true wisdom resides (1:18-25). Paul recognizes that what he is saying, that the touchstone of enlightenment is the corpse of condemned criminal, is likely to be rejected and derided (1:23), but he goes ahead and makes that claim. The cross of Christ is somehow the criterion by which other claims to meaning and value are to be judged.
From such a dramatic challenge Paul returns to the concrete situation of his audience (1:26-31). Some, but certainly not all, are people of means or status. His reference to issues of social status may point to some of the factors that caused divisions in the community.
Paul makes his fundamental moves in the first chapter, challenging his audience to think about who they are in the light of their belief in Christ. In his next chapter (2:1-16), Paul develops these thoughts in a positive way, claiming that Christ crucified is indeed the “wisdom of God,” hidden from all eternity (2:7), that in Christ something is revealed that had long been hidden (2:9). The strong contrast between divine revelation and human expectation hints at an issue that Paul will address more concretely in later chapters, how a community of believers relates to a world with very different expectations and assumptions.
Sigurd Grindheim, “Wisdom for the Perfect: Paul’s Challenge to the Corinthian Church (1 Corinthians 2:6-16),” JBL 121 (2002) 689-709 or http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=22&hid=105&sid=9cb1b54a-ce84-4fbc-a41e-e2a3d31d2806%40sessionmgr109
Lawrence L. Welborn, “ First Corinthians 1-4 and Ancient Politics,” in idem, Politics and Rhetoric in the Corinthian Epistles (Macon: Macon University Press, 1997) 1-42, revised from JBL 106 (1987) 85-111
Nils A. Dahl, “Paul and the church at Corinth according to 1 Cor 1:10-4:21,” in W. R. Farmer, C.F.D. Moule, and R.R. Niebuhr, eds., Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox (Cambidge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), repr. in Studies in Paul (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1977).
Questions for Discussion:
- Are there divisions in the congregation of which you are a part? What is at their roots?
- What do you make of Paul’s claim that the cross of Christ is in some fashion or other a basic criterion of meaning and truth?
- How would you analyze the ways in which your Church community divides along lines of status or wealth? Are such division a major element in the life of the community?
- Do we share Paul’s perspective that there is a dramatic difference between “revelation” and the world that we confront every day? What is the relationship between Christ and culture?
Yale Bible Study
II. First Corinthians 3:1-4:21: Paul and Apollos
Paul was the founder of the Corinthian church, and Apollos apparently followed him as a leader of the church not long after. While the author of the Book of Acts undoubtedly told the story of the early church with his own biases, it seems reasonable to suppose that his description of Apollos is trustworthy. “Now there came to Ephesus a Jew named Apollos, a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures. He had been instructed in the Way of the Lord; and he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” (Acts 18:24-25)
We saw in reading 1 Corinthians 1 that the Corinthians were divided into groups based in part on the leader each group claimed for its own: “I belong to Paul. I belong to Apollos.” Others say “I belong to Cephas (Peter)” and some even apparently say, “I belong to Jesus.” It is unclear why exactly the Cephas party and the Jesus party (if there was one) differed from the Paul party, but we can make some guesses about those who followed Apollos. If Acts is right that Apollos was an “eloquent man” it seems quite possible that the Corinthians contrasted him with Paul, who preceded him. Paul says of himself “When I came to you brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words of wisdom. . .My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom…” Any pastor who has heard reports of the astonishing success of his or her successor can sympathize with what Paul must have been feeling.
By the time our letter is written, Apollos has also left Corinth, and it may not help Paul’s mood that some of the Corinthians are obviously eager to have Apollos visit again. (1 Cor 16:12)
In 1 Corinthians 3 and 4, however Paul wants to make clear that he and Apollos are joined in exactly the same task—the building up of the church.
And he wants to insist that neither of them finally is of much significance because they are “servants of Christ and stewards of God’s mysteries.” The self-deprecating terms—“servants,” “stewards” make clear that the ones who count are Christ and God.
And yet, for all his impressive humility and collegiality, in these chapters as in all our epistle Paul wants to make clear that he has a special role in regard to the Corinthians. For one thing “Though you might have many guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed in Jesus Christ I became your father through the gospel.” (4:15) Because he is their father they are called to imitate him—as the loyal child learns from imitating the behavior of a parent.
Most important, Paul is an apostle, as he insists at the beginning of this letter and all his letters, except Philippians. Though in the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts the apostles are the eleven who followed Jesus through his ministry plus one appointed to replace Judas, Paul does not seem to have any particular number of apostles in mind.
Apostles are those who have seen the risen Lord and who are sent by Christ as his emissaries. The term “apostle” is a form of the Greek verb apostellō, and Paul wants to insist that he (like Peter and others) is sent by Jesus and that he (like Peter and others) speaks authoritatively for Jesus.
Furthermore the apostles whom the Corinthians claim to follow do not exhibit the kind of power, wisdom and boastfulness the Corinthians seem to love. Their apostleship has turned them into rubbish—an example of the foolishness that stands under and against the wisdom of the world.
From Paul’s perspective the Corinthians are making two mistakes. First of all they think that they belong to Peter or Paul, the apostles, or to Apollos who’s not really an apostle at all. (Point taken, we assume.) Second they somehow also think that they have everything they need: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich.”
Paul wants to reform (re-form) them to the proper shape of their belonging: “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours—whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all belong to you. And you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”
Beverly Roberts Gaventa, “Mothers Milk and Ministry in 1 Corinthians 3,” in Eugene H. Lovering and Jerry L. Sumney, eds., Theology and Ethics in Paul and His Interpreters: Essays in Honor of Victor Paul Furnish (Nashville: Abingdon: 1996) 101-13
Questions for Further Study:
- Are there any clues in the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians about what might have been dividing the Corinthian factions from each other—in addition to, or in relation to their loyalty to particular leaders?
- What picture do you get of the importance of future judgement in Paul’s warning to the Corinthians, especially in 3:10-15?
- And how does this talk about judgement relate to the traditional Protestant interpretation of Paul as on who insists on salvation by faith and not by good works?
- What is the function of Paul’s not too friendly reminder to the Corinthians that they are still infants in Christ?
Questions for Discussion:
- We claim that the church (and our churches) are holy, universal and apostolic. What does an apostolic church look like if the apostles “have become like the rubbish of the world.”? (3:13)
- What are the divisions we find in our own churches—around leaders, doctrines, disputes about acceptable behavior? Does Paul’s insistence that the church is not defined by its leaders but by its belonging help us in thinking about our own situation?
- In looking at 4:8 we realize that in important ways Paul’s words speak to our affluent society: “Already we have all you (could reasonably) want! Already you are (relatively) rich.” Should we just rejoice and be glad in that—or does this letter raise some questions about our comfort?
- Do we get any clues from these chapters about what we might appropriately expect from church leaders—ordained or lay? And do those of us who are leaders learn anything about the appropriate style and strategies and grounds of our leadership?
Yale Bible Study
III. First Corinthians 5:1-6:20: Sex and Courts
After Paul’s reflection on the significance of the Cross of Christ and his, perhaps defensive remarks on himself and the missionary Apollos, he turns to specific problems that vex the Corinthian community. The issues that Paul confronts appear to be very specific and reflect first-century conditions. The way in which he deals with those issues may, however, be instructive for contemporary Christians.
The first problem that Paul confronts is a matter of sexual ethics. A man is in a relationship with his step-mother (5:1), an arrangement that the Corinthians apparently find acceptable, but Paul finds problematic. His objections to the arrangement lead him to urge the community to expel the man involved, to “hand him over to Satan” (v. 5). As often Paul immediately qualifies his recommendation by indicating that it does not mean general dissociation from society (vv 9-12). That may be comforting to a contemporary audience, but what of Paul’s basic admonition to expel the offender? It was probably based on teachings in the Book of Leviticus that prohibited sexual relations between people within certain degrees of kinship with one another (Leviticus 18, especially v. 8). Those regulations were meant to preserve the “holiness” of the people of Israel.
After dealing with the matter of sexual behavior that Paul finds objectionable, he turns to another that apparently has been reported to him. Members of the Corinthian community are actually going to civil court to redress grievances (6:1). Paul finds this fact scandalous and urges his addressees to find ways to adjudicate disputes among themselves (6:7). Even more basically, he finds it a scandal that members of his community should have lawsuits against one another at all (6:7). He admonishes them not to have any wrongdoers among themselves and lists various categories of sinners (6:9-11). Most of the elements of that list would stir little controversy today, although two (NRSV: “male prostitutes, sodomites”) have often been translated to support negative judgments on any same-sex relations.
In concluding this reflection on sex and law, Paul returns to foundational principles of a very specifically Christian sort (6:13-20), and probably reflects debates that are happening within the Corinthian community. He begins by balancing two princples, “all things may be lawful.” He is perhaps citing a claim made by the man who was in a relationship with his step-mother. His next phrase, “but not all things are beneficial,” introduces a consideration that he will constantly put before the Corinthians. Their existence as the “body of Christ” is a fundamental value that must be preserved. Corresponding to that social value is a personal one that Paul now highlights. The bodies of the Corinthians are temple of the Holy Spirit (6:19), making them incompatible with sexual immorality. Bodies and what we do with them matter very much for Paul, perhaps in contrast to some in the community who have a very exalted notion of the human soul or spirit, liberated from bodily constraints. Paul concludes with the admonition to “glorify God in your bodies.”
Adela Y. Collins, “The Function of ‘Excommunication’ in Paul,” Harvard Theological Review, 73 (1980), 251-67.
Questions for Discussion:
- Was Paul’s recommendation that a member of the congregation be expelled justifiable?
- Is the category of “holiness,” which may have motivated Paul’s judgement, something that makes sense today? If so, what does it mean? Should the Christian community be concerned to be “holy.”
- Are there grounds on which you would want to exclude a member of your congregation? If so, what would they be?
- What do you make of Paul’s insistence on the relevance of the “body” for the moral and spiritual life? In what ways does modern society challenge or support that claim?
Yale Bible Study
IV. First Corinthians 7:1-40: Marriage and Slavery
1 Corinthians 7:1 begins a new section of the epistle. Now Paul is not referring to matters he has heard about by word of mouth. He is responding to a letter written to him by some of the Corinthian Christians. Almost certainly, as the quotation marks in our English translations suggest, Paul begins by quoting their letter quite directly: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”
Paul writes without the slightest hint of romantic intuition. The Corinthians are almost certainly writing to him about the place of sexual intercourse (that’s what “touching” means in this context) within marriage. It seems likely that some Corinthians have thought that as part of their life in the Spirit, as they await the return of Christ, they should simply refrain from sexual relations. Paul cuts to the practical chase. If two married people stop having sex with one another it will be all too tempting for one or both of them to have sex with someone else.
The other issue for married people is the issue of divorce, presumably for couples where one spouse is a believer and the other not. Paul recalls a teaching of Jesus on the subject (an infrequent device in his letters) and counsels against divorce. More than that, consistent with his belief that our bodies have the potential for genuine holiness he argues that when a believer has intercourse with a nonbelieving spouse the result is the sanctification of the unbeliever and not the corruption of the believer.
In general, Paul believes that because Jesus is returning soon people should try to remain as they are. Widows and widowers should not hurry to remarry. “Virgins” (umarried young women?) should not hurry to marry at all. The advantage of singleness is that the unmarried have more time and energy to devote to the work of the Lord. However, while marriage is not to be encouraged for those who have lost their spouses, it us better than one familiar alternative: “For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.” (7:9)
All of this leads towards one of the most striking and complicated of Paul’s injunctions… Christians are to live as if they were not who they are. The married as if they were unmarried, the mournful as though they were not mourning and the worldly as if they were not worldly at all. Because all worldly things are passing away and the new world is coming.
So stay as you are but without being bound by your circumstances, says Paul. For better or for worse, he thinks this applies to slaves as well. Given the shortness of time slaves should 1) make the most of their difficult condition, and 2) recognize that they are really Christ’s slaves and therefore really free.
Excellent scholars tell us that slavery in the first century Greek and Roman worlds was not the same as slavery in the ante-bellum American South, but no African American Christian I know has ever found this very comforting. Perhaps because he is in some ways socially conservative, certainly because he believes Jesus will return in his lifetime, Paul does not make a connection between Christian freedom and emancipation.
Many Christians, noting that Jesus has tarried and skeptical that slavery can be compatible with the Gospel, have thought Paul needed stretching here.
Sheila Briggs, “Paul on Bondage and Freedom in Imperial Roman Society,” in Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000) 110-23
Questions for Further Study:
- How do you understand Paul’s instructions to married couples, to widows and widowers, and to “virgins” or “fiancées”?
- In addition to the exhortation to the Corinthians not to change their status in relationship to either marriage or to slavery, Paul urges the uncircumcised not to get circumcised and the circumcised not to try to cover their circumcision. This seems to have something to do with not changing one’s status as Jew or a Gentile, and the whole chapter may call to mind the baptismal claim of Galatians 3:28. Is this what life looks like for the community of the baptized?
- Though the description of marriage is almost totally lacking in romance, are there signs of genuine mutuality—or is Paul’s vision of marriage here hierarchical?
- Notice the distinction Paul makes between what he has learned “from the Lord” and his own opinion (7:10:7:12). Is this a helpful distinction when we think about Christian ethical practice today?
Questions for Discussion:
- What can we learn from Paul’s discussion of sexual ethics in and out of marriage? Or is this all so hopelessly bound to his own time that we simply leave it aside?
- How do you respond to Paul’s general claim that faithful people should not change their social status but should change their attitudes—those who mourn acting as if they rejoiced, those who were slaves as if they were free? Does this leave any room for Christian social action or do we simply try to make people feel better about the status quo?
- We talk a good deal about an “inclusive” church? Does Paul’s openness to people in a variety of circumstances provide a helpful model of inclusiveness? Are there limits to how open we should be?
Yale Bible Study
V. First Corinthians 8:1-11:1: Idol Meat
A very large portion of Paul’s first letter to Corinth, chapters 8-10, focuses on an issue that seems a bit quaint to modern ears, the question of whether followers of Jesus could eat meat, “sacrificed to idols,” i.e., meat derived from animals butchered as part of a sacrifice to a traditional deity. The problem arose in part because of the commitment to “one God” that Paul’s community had made in becoming followers of Jesus. Some members thought that the implications of such a basic commitment needed to be followed with rigorous consistency throughout daily life. Others apparently thought that what Paul had taught them rendered obsolete old religious practices and concerns. The two different positions within the community had apparently produced discord and threatened group solidarity.
In these three chapters Paul tries to be sensitive to the concerns of both sides of the divide, affirming fundamental values that each side held while asking them to subordinate those values to a greater good, their relationship with one another.
Paul begins by reminding his addressees of what they had learned, from himself and other apostles, the enlightened doctrine, grounded in centuries of prophetic proclamation (see, e.g., Isaiah 44:9-20), that “no idols in the world really exists” (v. 4). Rejection of idolatry was in turn grounded in the confession of “one God” (v. 6), another hallmark of traditional Jewish faith (see Deuteronomy 6:4, the “Shema,” or confessional prayer that still stands at the heart of Jewish worship). Paul’s form of Messianic Judaism has expanded that confession of one God with a reference to Jesus, the “one Lord, … through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” Paul’s insistence on faith in Christ as part of faith in God will ground his final appeal to his discordant congregation.
After affirming the principle that he had probably taught them, Paul reminds his readers, echoing the themes of the first chapters, that their insight needs to be balanced with humility and concern for the tender conscience of their fellow believers (8:7-13). When people acting pridefully on their theological convictions offend their brothers and sisters, they offend Christ himself (v. 12).
In what appears to be a digression (chap. 9), Paul again puts himself forward as an example of the kind of basic orientation that he wants his congregation to display. He has authority and rights in abundance, the right to be supported in his work like other apostles, the right to have a wife working with him (9:3-5), but he has forgone such “rights” for the sake of his people. He even suggests that his work is like that of priests in the Temple of Jerusalem (9:13-15), working in effect, in the new Temple of the community (cf. 3:16-17), but unlike the priests, he does not receive a tax from the worshippers! Paul concludes the chapter with some of his most stirring rhetoric, affirming his subjection to the imperative of the Gospel and the service of his community (9:19-27).
After his digression Paul returns to the concrete case of eating meat sacrificed to idols, now affirming the other position in the debate, that it is indeed a good thing to avoid involvement in any worship of idols. To make his point, Paul engages in a little “midrash,” or creative appropriation of Scripture, likening his congregation to ancient Israel at the time of the Exodus. Despite their participation in a kind of “baptism” and “spiritual meal” (10:1-2), some of them fell from divine favor through idolatry and sexual immorality (10:6-11). Don’t go there, says Paul, but remember what we do in our sacred meal: we share in the body and blood of Christ and that must form us (10:14-17). That action is not compatible with worship of what is not God (10:20-23).
Paul concludes with practical advice, focused once again, on the conscience of one’s fellow believer (10:23-11:1). Meat from sacrificial animals is morally indifferent; doing something that will scandalize a fellow believer is not. Live within that tension, imitating Paul who imitates Christ.
Gregory W. Dawes, “The Danger of Idolatry: First Corinthians 8:7–13,” CBQ 58 (1996) 82–98
Jerry L. Sumney, “The Place of 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 in Paul’s Argument,” JBL 119 (2000) 329-333
Wendell Willis, “1 Corinthians 8-10: A Retrospective after 25 Years,” Restoration Quarterly 49 (2007) 103-12 or http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=3&hid=3&sid=55f3fb40-624f-40fb-8e8b-32bc32597dee%40sessionmgr2
Questions for Discussion:
- What do you think of Paul’s strategy, clearly at work in these chapters, to be “all things to all people”?
- Are there examples today of behaviors that some members of your congregation find unacceptable that others find to be morally indifferent? Do debates over such issues cause tension in your community? Does Paul offer any help in dealing with them?
- What do you make of Paul’s appeal to the Old Testament (chap. 10)? Does his “midrash” provide a model of how we should read the text?
- Does Paul’s use of Christian worship practice have any contemporary force? Can we derive norms for our general behavior from what we experience “in church”?
Yale Bible Study
VI. First Corinthians 11:2-34: The Lord’s Supper and Women at Prayer
Paul uses the language of “commendation” somewhat sneakily in this chapter. In 11:2 he says” “I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions just as I handed them on to you.” However, he goes on to show the ways in which he thinks the Corinthians are not maintaining tradition very well when it comes to the role of women in leading prayer. When it comes to writing to them about the Lord’s Supper Paul is much more direct. “Now in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse.” (11:17).
Both these issues are issues of how the Corinthians are to conduct their common life of worship.
We look briefly at the question of women at prayer, because the issues remain murky and because this passage is probably not so directly relevant to contemporary Christian practice.
Note that there is here no question about the right of women to lead in public prayer. The problem seems to be that when women lead in prayer some of them are praying with their heads uncovered. The solution is that they should cut this out. Paul employs a variety of warrants to make his case.
We are not sure whether women are simply praying without wearing a veil or some kind of head covering, or whether the issue is that they are letting their hair down—so that it no longer sits in a seemly fashion as a cover for their heads.
The issue is in part hierarchical. God is the head of Christ who is the head of the man who is the head of the woman. Christ would do nothing to shame God; a faithful man will do nothing to shame Christ; a faithful woman will do nothing to shame her husband—and by implication to shame God and Christ as well.
Then Paul interprets Genesis 1-3 suggesting that males are made in the image of God, while women are presumably not God’s image in the same way. Again she reflects the man who reflects God. Then he insists that a man wearing long hair is unnatural and while for a woman it is gloriously natural. (We are bound to wonder whether what we sometimes argue is “natural” is more about what’s culturally acceptable.) Finally, like an exasperated parent Paul pretty much throws up his hands—do what I tell you, he says, and behave like your Christian brothers and sisters.
The issue at the Lord’s Supper is in part a theological issue and in part a socio-economic one. The Lord’s Supper is celebrated in the house of a wealthier Christian and it looks as though other wealthier Christians are either going ahead and eating a meal before the hard-working laboring Christians get there; or they are devouring their meals without sharing food with those who have less.
In either case, says Paul, save the banqueting for private parties. At the community feast we come together as equals.
As equals we “remember.” Remembrance probably means more than “think back kindly on Jesus” and suggests that we bring him to remembrance and therefore into the presence of the community.
And we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. It may be that the Corinthians are so excited by Jesus’ resurrection that they think that the communion table is a place to receive the heavenly banquet. Not yet, says Paul. For now, remember; for now, wait.
Paul also insists that no one should come to the meal without self- examination. In this context the examination seems to raise one question: How have I treated other members of the community? In other words, how have I discerned the body. There are practical consequences for liturgical unfaithfulness: this failure to observe the brother and sister at the communion table has led to illness and death. A sharp warning; an essential lesson.
Troy Martin, “Paul’s Argument from Nature for the Veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle instead of a Head Covering,” JBL 123 (2004) 75-84 or http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=5&hid=105&sid=9cb1b54a-ce84-4fbc-a41e-e2a3d31d2806%40sessionmgr109
Jason David DeBuhn, “’Because of the Angels’: Unveiling Paul’s Anthropology in 1 Corinthians 11,” JBL 118 (1999) 295-320 and http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=22&hid=105&sid=9cb1b54a-ce84-4fbc-a41e-e2a3d31d2806%40sessionmgr109
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, “Corinthian Women Prophets and Paul’s Argumentation in 1 Corinthians,” in Richard A. Horsley, ed., Paul and Politics: Ekklesia, Israel, Imperium, Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Krister Stendahl (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 2000) 103-9
Questions for Further Study
- Some scholars think that Paul is especially concerned about a whole group of women prophets who are praying with their heads uncovered, living as if they were already in the last days, and generally making life difficult for Paul. Do you see any evidence of such a designated sub-group in the Corinthian community?
- The material about the Lord’s Supper in 11:23-25 is one of the few places where Paul draws on words attributed to Jesus himself. How is this important for Paul’s argument?
- The suggestion that some of the Corinthians have become ill and others have died because of mistaken communion practices seems both harsh and strange to us. Are there ways to make a link between Paul’s kind of spiritual “realism” and our frequent division between spiritual matters and bodily consequences?
Questions for Discussion:
- Do Paul’s distinctions between what is appropriate for a male and what is appropriate for a female provide any guidance for appropriate socialization in the church today—or is he simply hopelessly hierarchical?
- Where are the specific places where class, economic and educational distinctions in our churches are evident today?
- If you were to rethink the practice of the Lord’s Supper in your church on the basis of 1 Corinthians 11, what—if anything— would you do differently?
Yale Bible Study
VII. First Corinthians 12:1-13:40: Glossolalia
In the last portion of his letter, Paul had been concerned with what was happening at the assembly, probably in a private home, where Chrsitians came together for worship. A combination of theological convictions and practices reflecting social standing was causing difficulty. Paul now turns to another set of interrelated issues having to do with worship, particularly the practice of glossolalia or ecstatic “speaking in tongues.” His treatment of the issue is quite similar to the approach he used in discussing the question of sacrificial meat in chapters 8-10. That is, Paul considers both of the factions that have emerged on this issue, finds ways of affirming a fundamental value that each holds, while he tries to point them to an even more fundamental value that both share, a value that can help them overcome their differences and modulate their practices.
Paul begins with a broad view of the “gifts and graces” that his community exhibits. He celebrates the abundance and diversity of such spiritual endowments, while noting that there are clear limits that everyone would recognize (12:3). All, however, have one source, the Spirit, and serve one end, the benefit of the community (12:4-7). To press that point, Paul deploys a metaphor well known in ancient political discourse, the comparison of the social unit to a “body” (12:12-26), a metaphor that is still very much with us (“body politic”). Paul’s use of the metaphor differs from many contemporary uses in its stress on the mutuality of the body’s parts. Contemporary politicians usually emphasized the hierarchical relationship among those parts. Paul, in fact, makes just the opposite, and somewhat humorous point, that the “inferior” bodily parts get the most attention (12:14). Paul, however, concludes this stage of his reflection with a hierarchical note: there is a hierarchy of “gifts” and the ones at the top are those that benefit the community.
Chapter 13 offers a digression analogous to chapter 9, where Paul had spoken of himself as an example of the selflessness that he advocated. Here he offers a beautiful paean to the virtue that should underlie whatever the Corinthians do, the virtue of love. Most modern Christians know of this passage from its use in weddings, but its function here is more basic and its implications more broadly social.
In chapter 14 Paul returns to the issue of “speaking in tongues,” applying some of the general principles he had articulated in chapters 12 and 13. It is fine to have such wonderful displays of spiritual empowerment, but it is not as valuable as a gift that builds the community (14:1-5). Paul himself can speak in tongues more than any of his addressees (14:19), but such an exercise focuses on the self (14:4), not on the community. What builds up the community is not what is hidden and obscure, but what is rational and clear (14:6-12). Prayer must be not only with the mysterious language of the heart, but also with the language of the “mind” (Greek: nous; 14:14-15). Interestingly enough, it must be speech that an outsider can understand (14:16, 23-24).
Carl R. Holladay, “1 Corinthians 13: Paul as Apostolic Paradigm,” in David Balch, et al., eds., Greeks, Romans, and Christians: Abraham Malherbe Festschrift (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990) 80-98
Questions for Discussion:
- Are there spiritual practices or behaviors that cause difficultly within your community? Are they related to social standing within the community? How does your community deal with them?
- Is Paul’s image of the Church as a “body” meaningful in our individualistic age?
- Paul strikes a balance between the personal/emotional dimension of religious life and the communal/rational. Are there similar balances to be struck in contemporary Christianity?
Yale Bible Study
VIII. First Corinthians 15:1-58: The Meaning of Resurrection
It is fairly clear that Paul thinks the Corinthians are making a big mistake when it comes to their faith in Jesus’ resurrection. It would be a big help if we knew what that mistake was.
Here are some possibilities that have been suggested.
1) At least some of the Corinthians believe that there is no life after death—of any form. They may actually believe the slogan, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (15:32)
2) At least some of the Corinthians believe that there is life after death, but that life is not the resurrection of the body but some kind of continuing existence for the soul.
3) At least some of the Corinthians believe that Resurrection is not a future event, but that for believers’ resurrection has already happened. Scholars who think that this is the Corinthian “heresy” often claim that 1 Corinthians 15 is the clue to many of the Corinthians problems. When some say “already we are rich” they are saying, “Resurrection now!” When they speak in the tongues of angels they think they are participating in resurrection conversation. When a man sleeps with his stepmother it is because he’s already resurrected and does not need to worry about the rules and stigmas of the present age. And when Paul says that in the Lord’s Supper we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes, that is a reminder that Christian worship is not yet the heavenly banquet but a time of remembrance and hope.
In a strategy a little like the TV program “Jeopardy” we suggest that we start with Paul’s answers and then make our best guesses about the Corinthians’ questions.
Paul’s first answer is that the belief in Jesus’ resurrection is a given of the Christian faith. That is non-negotiable. It seems likely that he assumes the Corinthians believe in that resurrection, too.
Paul’s second answer is that you cannot make sense of Jesus’ resurrection unless you believe that Jesus’ rising is only the first act in the general drama of the resurrection of the dead. All by itself Jesus’ resurrection makes no sense. It takes its meaning from the larger context. Because Jesus did rise, so will the faithful.
Paul’s third answer is that what will rise at the last day is not the “soul” but the body. On the other hand the body that rises will not be just like the earthly body. Paul knows that bodies decay and turn to dust. What will rise is a spiritual body, by which he apparently means those who rise on the last day will be distinctively themselves but not simply their same old selves.
Paul’s fourth answer is that the general resurrection is decidedly a future event and not a present reality.
Paul’s fifth answer is that the purpose of resurrection—like the purpose of creation, redemption and the life of the Corinthian church and every church—is the triumph of God. The great promise toward which the whole cosmos moves is not (just) that Paul and the Corinthians will rise again; it is not even, surprisingly, that Jesus will be proclaimed as Lord. The great promise toward which the whole cosmos moves is that God will be “all in all.” 15:28
Jeffrey Asher, “SPEIRETAI: Paul’s Anthropogenic Metaphor in 1 Corinthians 15:42-44,” JBL 120 (2001) 101-22 or http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=22&hid=105&sid=9cb1b54a-ce84-4fbc-a41e-e2a3d31d2806%40sessionmgr109
Richard A. Horsley, “Pneumatikos vs. Psychikos: Distinctions of Spiritual Status among the Corinthians,” Harvard Theological Review 69 (1976) 269-88.
Idem, “How Can Some of You Say, ‘There is no Resurrection of the Dead’? Spiritual Elitism in Corinth,” NovT 20 (1978) 203-31
William O. Walker, “1 Corinthians 15:29-24 as a non-Pauline Interpolation,” CBQ 69 (2007) 84-103 or http://web.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdf?vid=3&hid=3&sid=55f3fb40-624f-40fb-8e8b-32bc32597dee%40sessionmgr2
Questions for Further Study:
- How do you think Paul’s reminder of the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection relates to what he says about the resurrection of believers? Looking at it from the other direction, does what Paul says about the resurrection of believers give us any clues to his understanding of Jesus’ resurrection?
- Notice the way in which Paul uses analogies from nature (vss. 36-42) to try to explain his view of the resurrected body. Do you find such arguments helpful here? Where are other places where we might look at the relationship between the natural world and the world of faith?
- Paul never writes down a systematic discussion of the relationship of Jesus to God in his letters. If you had only this chapter, how might you describe Jesus’ role in God’s plan? Look at the material on Adam in vv.45 ff and about the consummation of history in vv. 24-28.
Questions for Discussion:
- David Bartlett once preached an Easter sermon on this text where he tried to sound very much like Paul, saying that what the Corinthians seemed to think was that Jesus had risen from the dead but that none of the later Christians would do so. A very wise member of the congregation came up afterwards and said: “That’s exactly what I believe.” How would Paul respond to this? How would you?
- In Christian funerals and memorial services we often hear that the person who has died has “gone to be with God.” Or is “in heaven with the saints.” There are some New Testament passages that might suggest such a hope, but there is no such claim in 1 Corinthians 15. Does it make any difference whether Paul’s view of death and resurrection is right or whether the more common view reflected in our funerals is right?
- Look at the way Paul ends the chapter: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.” How do these exhortations follow from all that he’s been saying about resurrection? Or is this just like the parental PS “Don’t forget to finish your final paper before you come home for Christmas”?