Harper’s Bible Dictionary
edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)
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One of two canonical Letters addressed to Corinth and one of the five letters Paul is known to have written to his congregation there. An earlier letter is described below; three later letters are discussed in the article on 2 Corinthians. A so-called 3 Corinthians, which has been incorporated into the apocryphal Acts of Paul, dates only from the end of the second century.
OUTLINE OF CONTENTS
The First Letter of Paul to the Corinthians
This Letter follows the general pattern exhibited by virtually all of the Pauline Letters (opening, with address and blessing; thanksgiving; body of the letter; and closing, with greetings and benediction).
I. Letter opening (1:1-9)
A. Address and apostolic blessing (1:1-3)
B. Thanksgiving (1:4-9)
II. Letter body (1:10-16:4)
A. Appeal to adhere to Paul’s ‘ways in Christ’ (1:10-6:20)
1. On true and false wisdom (1:10-3:20)
2. On spiritual pretentiousness (3:21-4:21)
3. On immorality (5:1-6:20)
B. Replies to questions (7:1-16:4)
1. About sex, marriage, and divorce (7:1-40)
2. About food offered to idols (8:1-11:1)
3. About public worship and spiritual gifts (11:2-14:40)
4. About the resurrection of the dead (15:1-58)
5. About the collection for the saints (16:1-4)
III. Letter closing (16:5-24)
A. Itineraries (16:5-12)
B. Final admonitions (16:13-18)
C. Greetings (16:19-20)
D. Apostolic attestation and benediction (16:21-24)
The Church in Corinth: It is probable that Paul’s first visit to Corinth, and therefore his founding of a congregation there, took place in a.d. 50-51, although a date nearly ten years earlier has also been suggested. Silvanus and Timothy were active along with Paul in this venture (2 Cor. 1:19). Apollos is not mentioned as one of the founders, but since he was well known to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 1:12; 3:4-6; 4:6; 16:12) he must have exercised some kind of responsibility in the congregation between the time of its founding and the writing of 1 Corinthians. Peter, referred to as ‘Cephas’ in 1 Cor. 1:12, was most likely known to the Corinthians only by reputation, however.
Paul’s earliest converts in the city were Stephanas and his household (1 Cor. 1:16; 16:15). Other prominent converts included Crispus (1 Cor. 1:14) who, according to Acts 18:8, had been president of the local synagogue, Gaius (1 Cor. 1:14; cf. Rom. 16:23a), and (if chap. 16 of Romans was written from Corinth) Lucius, Jason, Erastus (a public official), Quartus, and perhaps Tertius the scribe (Rom. 16:21-23). While the Corinthian Christians were primarily Gentile, it is clear that some were of Jewish background; and while they belonged primarily to the lower socioeconomic class (1 Cor. 1:26), it is clear that some were persons of higher social and economic standing.
The religious beliefs and activities of the congregation, as these developed between its founding and the writing of 1 Corinthians, have often been described as ‘Gnostic,’ since there is evidence that the Corinthian Christians attached great importance to the acquisition and display of special religious knowledge (gnoµsis, e.g., 1 Cor. 1:5; 8:1, 10) and wisdom (e.g., 1 Cor. 1:20-2:13; 3:18-19), that they tended to equate spirituality with possession of the more spectacular kinds of spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14), and that they dissolved the Christian hope for resurrection from the dead into pretentious claims about the believer’s present life (see esp. 1 Cor. 4:8; 15:12-19). Whether these tendencies be called Gnostic, proto-Gnostic, or simply Hellenistic, it is clear that they led to serious divisions within the congregation and were a matter of serious concern to Paul.
The ‘Previous Letter’: The first letter Paul is known to have written to Corinth is not the canonical 1 Corinthians but a letter referred to by the apostle himself as one sent previously (1 Cor. 5:9-11). According to 1 Cor. 5:9, this previous letter contained instructions ‘not to associate with immoral persons,’ and some scholars believe that part (or most) of that letter has been preserved in 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1. Other parts of that letter may also have been inserted later into 1 Corinthians (6:12-20; 10:1-22 or 10:1-23; and 11:2-34 are among passages scholars have suggested). If so, it would appear that, contrary to Paul’s comments in 1 Cor. 5:10-11, the Corinthians had in fact understood the earlier letter, and that it is the apostle who is changing his mind when he now says that he had only immoral Christians in view. Such a conclusion is, however, based on scholarly speculation. Where this ‘previous’ letter was written from and how much else it may have contained is not known. It would have been sent sometime between a.d. 51 and 54.
Authenticity and Literary Integrity: No serious question can be raised about the authenticity of 1 Corinthians as a whole, although certain passages are sometimes held to be later, non-Pauline additions (e.g., 11:3-16; chap. 13; 14:34-35). Various interpreters question its literary integrity, however, maintaining that in its canonical form it is a composite of parts of two or more originally distinct Pauline letters. In particular, passages such as 6:12-20; 9:1-18; 10:1-22 or 10:1-23; and 11:2-34 are sometimes regarded as intrusive where they stand, and so are assigned to some other letter. Most scholars, however, do not find the alleged difficulties serious enough to warrant the kinds of partition hypotheses that have been proposed and continue to accept 1 Corinthians as an integral whole.
Occasion and Purpose: As Paul writes 1 Corinthians, he is in Ephesus where he intends to remain until Pentecost (16:8). Sosthenes is with him (1:1), but Timothy seems to be en route to Corinth (4:17; 16:10). Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus are also with Paul, apparently as representatives of the Corinthian congregation (16:17-18). There is no indication that the apostle has been back to Corinth since the conclusion of his initial, extended period of evangelization (see Acts 18:1-18). The present Letter has been dated as early as a.d. 49 and as late as a.d. 56, but the most likely year is 54.
The purpose of 1 Corinthians is to deal with a number of specific problems the apostle has learned are endangering the Christian life and witness of his Christian congregation. From ‘Chloe’s people’ he has learned of the emergence of various factions threatening the church’s unity (1:11-12), and perhaps from the same source he has heard an alarming report about one of the brethren whose incestuous relationship with his stepmother has gone undisciplined by the congregation (5:1-13). These matters are addressed in chaps. 1-6. Beginning in chap. 7, Paul takes up several topics raised by the Corinthians themselves in a letter he has received from them (see 7:1). These apparently included questions about the appropriateness for Christians of sexual relationships, marriage, and divorce (chap. 7); about eating food sacrificed to idols (chaps. 8-10); about various matters pertaining to Christian worship, including speaking in tongues (chaps. 11-14); about the resurrection of the dead (chap. 15); and about the collection for the Jerusalem church which Paul had solicited from them earlier (chap. 16).
Major Themes: The conviction that underlies and finds expression in all of the specific apostolic appeals of chaps. 1-6 is articulated in 2:5—that faith should ‘not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.’ In opposition to those who would attach themselves to particular apostolic leaders in the quest for special religious knowledge and spiritual power, Paul insists that it is only in the apparent foolishness and weakness of the cross that salvation is to be found (1:18-25). Presupposed here is the apostle’s ‘theology of the cross,’ which finds expression in other Letters: that in Christ’s obedience unto death God’s saving love is disclosed and operative (Rom. 5:6-11; Gal. 2:20), and that those who by faith in Christ ‘die’ to their old selves are drawn under the rule of Christ’s love and find new life in him (2 Cor. 5:14-15; cf. Rom. 6:3-11). It is in this saving love, according to Paul, that the power of the cross consists, and that is why he urges the Corinthians to give up their boasting in human wisdom, be it their own or that of their apostles (see, e.g., 1 Cor. 1:28-31; 2:13; 3:5-9, 18-23; 4:6-7). That Paul believes the Corinthians’ spiritual arrogance has also eroded their sense of right and wrong is clear from chaps. 5 and 6, where he reminds them that Christ’s death involves a claim as well as a gift (e.g., 5:6-8; 6:19-20).
Paul’s theology of the cross is also apparent as the apostle responds to the topics his correspondents have raised with him (1 Cor. 7:1-16:4), although it is expressed in various ways. In chap. 7, the Corinthians are reminded that a high price was paid to bring them out of slavery to their old way of life, and that they were called thereby to a new life of devotion to the Lord (e.g., 7:23-24, 35). The fundamental concern of 8:1-11:1 is for the ‘building up’ in love of those who, because they share the common salvation bestowed in Christ’s death, have been incorporated into his ‘body’ (see esp. 8:1-13; 10:14-24; 11:1). The idea of the community of faith as Christ’s body is reiterated in 11:23-32 and subsequently elaborated in chaps. 12-14, love is identified as its life-force and the criterion by which every spiritual gift is to be evaluated. Finally, echoing in part the themes of earlier chapters, Paul summarizes his whole gospel by citing a creedal statement about Christ’s saving death and the power of his resurrection life (15:1-11), and urges his readers to abound ‘in the work of the Lord,’ confident that it is God’s future that gives meaning to the present (15:58).
Edited for BibleTexts.com by Robert Nguyen Cramer