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Lecture 1―Ewald Seidel

Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians

Background

Roman influences in Corinth

It seems that the wealth of Corinth was due to its being the most significant harbour in Greece. The other harbour was at Cenchreae, and between it and Corinth, 9 kilometres away, was a 6 kilometre rock-cut track connecting the two ports, making possible for cargo and even small ships to be hauled across the isthmus to the other gulf. This way ships could avoid the treacherous sea journey around the cape of the Peloponnese. Corinth was a natural crossroad for land and sea travel.

But, Corinth had not always been a centre of wealth and commerce. In 146 BC, Lucius Mummius, the Roman general, defeated and burned the city because of Corinth’s association with the Achaean league which threatened Rome’s total control over the area. The town remained desolated and largely uninhabited for 102 years after this defeat. In 44 BC, shortly before his assassination, Julius Caesar decided to establish a Roman colony on the site of the old Corinth with the official name, Colony of Corinth in Honour of Julius. Rome began these colonies to solve the problem of overcrowding in Rome, and to promote Roman civilisation across the world. This resettlement created a new Roman heritage for Corinth and gave it a different appearance from its Greek period. Julius Caesar colonised the city with people belonging to the ‘freedman class’. Rome needed to resettle the growing numbers of the poor and its potentially restless army veterans.

The city was soon transformed from ruin to riches. The favourable economic climate attracted settlers from all over the empire who could work their way up the social ladder. This society, however, was not egalitarian. It was an oligarchy that was hierarchic and elitist, and it was difficult to get into this ruling group. Despite the city’s prosperity, there was a lot of poverty among many of its inhabitants. It was not an easy city in which to survive. After Paul left Corinth there was a severe grain shortage that worsened the division between the rich and the poor.

In Paul’s time, Corinth had a mixed ethnic population of Roman freedmen, indigenous Greeks, and immigrants from far and wide. Despite this diversity, Corinth was heavily influenced by Rome. Its population felt themselves to be Roman, wrote one historian. When Paul visited Corinth, the city was geographically in Greece but culturally in Rome.

Question: In what way did this multicultural mix impact on the life of the church in Corinth?

Social relations and religious/philosophical influences in the life of the city had a direct influence on the situation that existed in the Corinthian church and their failure to understand the true nature of the Christian faith.

Social Relations

Paul’s letter to the Corinthians should be read against the background of Corinth as a city imbued with Roman cultural values. Rome’s colonies were miniatures of Rome. They were established to foster the glory of Roman culture, religion, and values.

When Paul came to Corinth to begin his missionary work, the city teemed with commerce as the vital link between Rome and its eastern provinces, attracting traders from everywhere in the empire. Great crowds attended the Isthmian games. Many inhabitants were so rich that they lived to show off their wealth. However, the way people lived in the city and in the province was completely different. Corinth rose in status as a Roman colony, while the surrounding areas tied to the Greek past, decreased in status.

This letter should also be read against the background of a mercantile society where the core value was entrepreneurial pragmatism in the pursuit of success.

Question: What do we mean by that?

These values motivated people to attain public status, to promote one’s own honour, and to secure power. In the kind of social climate that existed in Corinth, a person could only increase his standing through wealthy patrons, marriage, wealth, and patient cultivation of connections.

Few Christians could have avoided the influence of this dominant culture that surrounded them, even if it was a subconscious assimilation of it. These were values that were contrary to the message of the cross—particularly those values that were related to honour and status, so basic to the Graeco-Roman social system where power was expressed in ruthlessness and self-advancement. This kind of thinking had evidently seeped into the church, destroying its fellowship and its Christian witness. Some members tried to make themselves acceptable in society while at the same time trying to live with Christian norms. Secular wisdom dominated the way members of the church lived their lives. These values were destroying Paul’s attempt to build a community based on love, selflessness, and the equal worth of every member. Corinthian society was saturated with competitive individualism, and this ethos spilled over into the relationships in the church as wealthier members competed for followers.

Question: It seems to me that the kinds of divisions that existed in the church had to do with people grouping themselves around strong personalities within the leadership, past and present. Is that right?

In recent studies of the letters of Paul to the Corinthian church, a number of commentators have tried to trace the problem in Corinth back to “personality-centred politics”. Paul does condemn the fact that the Corinthians were aligning themselves along party lines and around specific persons, who evidently developed and encouraged personality cults. These were most likely those who provided homes for worship.

Question: But what was the fundamental problem behind these problems?

The believers were influenced largely by the ‘spirit of the world’ (2:12), the ‘wisdom of the world’ (1:20; 3:19), or ‘wisdom of this age’ (2:6). When Paul uses this kind of language, he refers in some sense at least, to the values which govern the attitudes, judgements and behaviour of the people in the world. This tendency was behind the Corinthians’ attitude to show off their knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual gifts. This helps us to understand the reasons behind the problem of some people eating food sacrificed to idols so that they would be accepted by those around them; why some wanted to show off their spiritual gifts above others; and so on. Paul pictures the church as divided between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Barclay points out that the difference between the Corinthians and the Thessalonians was that the Thessalonians felt the pressure of the isolation that their new-found experience of Christ had brought about for them, whereas the Corinthians were striving to be part of society, refusing to let go of it.

The problem was not that the church was in Corinth, but that too much of ‘Corinth’ was in the church. Paul seeks to disarm the warring factions, to encourage them to think of their common union in Christ, and to widen the distance between the church and its surrounding culture. Paul seeks to reform their values so that they live in a manner consistent with the cross, and to make them aware that only God’s measure of judgement at the end of the ages is what they should be considering.

Religious Influences

As a cosmopolitan city, Corinth was a religious melting pot with older and newer religions flourishing side by side. In addition to the multitude of Greek gods, there were Egyptian cults, the ever-present attraction of magic, and the imperial cult. The imperial cult was extremely influential in a Roman colony. Most people could accommodate all gods and goddesses into their religious behaviour. Many believed that there was safety in numbers. The private chapel of the emperor Alexander Severus (3rd century) contained shrines to Orpheus, Abraham, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jesus. Roman officials did not police private associations, and became upset with religious behaviour only when they believed it disturbed the peace and security that they so zealously guarded.

Paul’s opening comments in Romans 1:18-32 may give us some idea of Corinth’s religious and ethical climate. The multitude of idols in the city illustrated his point that humans had exchanged the true God for false gods and honoured the creature rather than the Creator. The pagan mind is so corrupted that it no longer can think straight and becomes a totally untrustworthy guide in moral decisions. The city’s widespread immorality was living proof of this principle. The breakdown of morals leads to the breakdown of society, as illustrated in Romans 1:29-32.

Christians were labelled “misanthropes”

Question: What does that mean, and why were they called that?

A “misanthrope” is someone who hates other human beings. They were called that because they refused to join in the worship and sacrificial meals offered to local, traditional gods; in their great festivals that promoted local pride; or helped promote a city’s image as loyal to the emperor by taking part in the imperial cult. Since the gods were also seen to be the ones who preserved the state and social order, to reject them opened up the city to their judgement and catastrophe. Christians may also have been considered strange because they themselves had no temples or national temple. Christians also had no particular national identity and consequently had no established political ties with the Romans. Any rejection of the imperial cult would have made them particularly vulnerable and politically suspect.

The most important religious influence in Corinth at this time was the imperial cult, which worshipped political power as divine. “Religious ceremony and political authority were inseparable.” The Romans in the first century did not worship the emperor directly, but only his “genius”, or “his inspiration, or the daemons or god or spirituality that empowered the ruler.”

Paul’s proclamation that Jesus alone is Lord (8:5-6) directly challenged the imperial cult. The problem for some was that this Lord offered no actual political favours in this worldly realm.

Question: When did Paul first visit this city?

Paul’s contact with the Corinthians while in Ephesus

According to the account in Acts, Paul’s first visit to Corinth was made in the last stages of his second missionary journey. After leaving Athens he went to Corinth, where he met with a Jewish couple Aquila and Priscilla, who had recently been forced to leave Rome. Paul worked with them, making tents during the week, and every Sabbath argued and persuaded Jews and Greeks in the synagogue (Acts 18:1–4).

We can say with some confidence that Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians spanned approximately a seven-year period. Between 50 and 52 AD, he spent one-and-a-half years establishing the church there. Some time between 55 and 56 AD he made, what is usually referred to as the ‘painful’ visit. Then between 56 and 57 AD he came to Corinth for the third time, spending three months with them. It is from Corinth that Paul wrote his letter to the church in Rome at this time.

The Jews in Corinth rejected Paul’s message, opposing him, and finally stirring up the whole city against him. They dragged him before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, accusing him of teaching people to worship contrary to the law of God. Gallio refused to judge in matters of Jewish law, and drove the Jews from his presence. Paul continued to minister in Corinth for many more days. He then sailed to Syria, ending his first visit to Corinth, and his second missionary journey.

After spending some time in (Syrian) Antioch, he began his third missionary journey, travelling through Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all those who had come to faith in Christ during his previous missionary journeys. Paul then went to Ephesus, arriving there just after Apollos had left to go to Corinth (Acts 18:24–19:1).

Despite all the opposition Paul met in Ephesus, his ministry was greatly blessed. He continued there for two years, seeing many people turn from their pagan worship practices and burning their idols and books of magic. This upset the idol makers, and under the leadership of Demetrius the silversmith, stirred the city into a great riot (Acts 19:8–41). It was then that many of Paul’s contacts with the Corinthian Church were made:

Question: What kinds of contacts?

  1. Paul’s ‘previous’ letter was written telling them ‘not to associate with evil men’. This letter was misunderstood by them, and led Paul in his next correspondence with them to clarify the issue (i.e. in 1 Cor. 5:11).
  2. Visitors from Corinth informed Paul of what was happening in the Church in Corinth, i.e. Chloe’s household (1 Cor. 1:11–12), and Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor. 16:15–18).
  3. The Corinthians’ letter to Paul arrived, raising a number of issues they wanted Paul to clarify, and which became the basis of a large part of what we have as 1 Corinthians.
  4. Tension between Paul and the Corinthians is already apparent. This is hinted at, in 1) statements by arrogant people who claimed that Paul was not prepared to face them again (1 Cor. 4:18–19); 2) those who wanted to examine Paul about his apostolic status (1 Cor. 9:3–4); 3) those who considered themselves as prophets, or spiritual, casting doubts on what Paul had said (1 Cor. 14:37–38).
  5. The writing of 1 Corinthians, answered their questions, and addressed them about the problems that had been reported to him.
  6. Timothy’s visit to Corinth. What happened, we are not told. By the time Timothy returned to Ephesus, Paul was getting ready to write 2 Corinthians. Evidently, Timothy brought back disturbing news about what was happening in Corinth.
  7. Paul’s ‘painful visit’. Paul changed his plans as outlined in 1 Corinthians 16:5–9, and went directly to Corinth himself. When he arrived there, he found that he was under a particularly hurtful attack made by an individual (2 Cor. 2:5; 7:12). What hurt him the most, was that the Corinthians did not support Paul. Once again he changed his plans and returned to Ephesus (2 Cor. 1:23; 2:1).
  8. Paul’s ‘severe’ letter. Once Paul was back in Ephesus, he wrote a ‘severe’ letter, a record of which is no longer available. In it, Paul told them to take action against the one who had caused Paul such hurt, and thereby demonstrate that they were innocent in the matter, and to show their affection for Paul (2 Cor. 2:3–4; 7:8, 12). It may have been delivered to the Corinthians by the hand of Titus, for Paul expressed to Titus his confidence that the Corinthians would do the right thing. He expressed this before he sent the letter. Paul was also very anxious as he waited for Titus’ return with the news of what happened. Plans had been made for the two of them to meet in Troas. But while in Troas Paul could not wait, and crossed into Macedonia to intercept Titus there (2 Cor. 2:12–13).

Question: How was Paul’s nervousness put to rest by going to Macedonia?

Paul’s contact with the Corinthians while in Macedonia

While in Macedonia, Paul discovered that the Churches there were experiencing persecution, and this made him even more anxious.

Titus’ arrival in Macedonia and Paul’s letter of relief. When Titus arrived in Macedonia, he brought the news that the Church had taken disciplinary measures against the immoral man to show their affection for Paul. In response to this news Paul wrote to them 2 Corinthians 1–9. Although Paul was greatly pleased that they had punished the individual, he wanted them to forgive him now, to love and restore him, lest Satan should lead the man to despair.

Titus returns to Corinth. Paul’s intention was to send Titus ahead of him to ensure that the Corinthians were thoroughly prepared for the collection that he had spoken to them about in his previous correspondence. When Titus and some of the Macedonians accompanying him arrived in Corinth, they found a deteriorating situation. False apostles as Paul called them, had influenced the Corinthians against Paul. Titus brought the bad news to Paul who was still in Macedonia.

Paul’s final letter to Corinth. In response to this situation, Paul wrote his final and most severe letter to them, i.e. 2 Corinthians 10–13. It was written to answer the accusations that the false apostles had levelled against Paul. In it he warned them of his third visit to Corinth, with the hope that they would deal with the problem themselves before his arrival. If they were not prepared to do that, he would use his apostolic authority to deal with it himself. (12:14; 13:1–4, 10)

Question: This seems pretty strong language to adopt with the church that he had so many problems with. So what did he end up doing?

Paul’s third visit to Corinth

According to Acts 20:2–3, Paul returned to Corinth for his third visit and spent three months there. Whether as a result of his letter, or the promised visit, the problem in Corinth was temporarily resolved. From Romans 15:25–26, we understand that the offerings from the believers in Achaia went ahead, and were sent to Jerusalem, suggesting that at least some of the problems between the Achaians, most of whom would have been Corinthians, was resolved. Unfortunately, history shows that the problems in Corinth did not go away. The First Epistle of Clement (c.95 AD) indicates that disharmony became a problem there once more.

Misinterpretation of the Christian Faith

Question: If Paul thought that a misrepresentation of the gospel he first preached to them lay behind their problems, then why did he not provide them with a more explicit theological corrective as he does, for example, in Galatians?

It is far more likely that the influences on them were quite deep, and that their behaviour was influenced by culturally ingrained habits from their pagan past, and by values instilled by a popular secular ethic. Grounded in Stoicism from their young days, they would have exalted the individual wise person at the expense of the community, and would have permitted the wise person to do whatever was right in his own judgement.

The Corinthians misinterpreted their experience of the Spirit. They may have understood the Spirit to be the inrush of heavenly power into their lives that granted them a new status and gave them special knowledge and great spiritual gifts. This could have fed their pride, so that they became puffed up and arrogant and fancied themselves to be ‘spiritual ones’ (3:1; cf. 2:12, 15; 9:11; 12:1; 14:37), ‘mature’ (2:6), and ‘wise’ (3:18; 4:10). Certain gifts were considered as more important than others, and certain persons displaying those gifts were promoted over others.

Another problem that seems to have prevented their spiritual growth was their apparent misunderstanding of the end times and the last judgement. The Corinthians’ problems are more attributable to a lack of a clear eschatological vision of the defeat of the powers of this age and the final judgement of God. They did not view this world as evil and consequently were ready to make compromises with it.

Question: How does Paul deal with this problem?

Paul’s Response

Paul’s response is a theological one. He is concerned about the Corinthians’ social, moral, spiritual and theological growth. For him these issues are interrelated. For Paul, correct living reflects correct theological understanding: about the significance of the cross, the belief in one God, the work of the Spirit, and the hope of resurrection, and so on.

Paul seeks to stop personal rivalries among the church members and the idea that some people are superior to others. He wants to see a harmonious community that is living to the praise of God’s saving work among them. He encourages the Corinthians no longer to be motivated by self-interest but to work for the common good. He often uses the imagery of ‘building up’ when he refers to the church community. The only things that need to be ‘torn down’ are ideas that spoil the church from being what God intended it to be. God gives the Holy Spirit to help build up such a community, not for some Christians to claim to be superior to others.

Question: Paul seems to use illustrations that are so contrary to our natural way of understanding life, and how it is to be lived. Why does he do that?

Paul seeks to turn their values upside down, based on the theology of the cross, and that God has revealed His strength in what is commonly regarded as weakness. He challenges their inherited understanding of ‘shame’ and ‘honour’ by using himself and Jesus Christ as figures of shame. He uses paradoxes to alter their understanding, e.g. ‘strength is made perfect in weakness’; ‘the married should live as if not married’; ‘those who have nothing in fact possess all things’; ‘as the scum of the earth they are the ones who obtain salvation’; ‘those who die, in fact live’. At the heart of this lies a gospel that seems completely foolish to the world, but is in fact the means by which God demonstrates His power and His wisdom. The Corinthians need to reassess what truly counts before God and to rely on their status in Christ, rather than on their social status.

Paul also seeks to undermine the self-promotion of the leading figures in the church by pointing out that he and Apollos are just like field hands, building contractors, servants, and as apostles, are like the dregs of society (4:10-13).

The Corinthian belief that the Spirit was most apparent in unusual and impressive manifestations such as speaking in tongues was used to show off their superiority. The most central work of the Spirit is something that is unexpected. It leads the believers to the crucified Christ (2:2) and to the glory that awaits them at the end of the age (2:9-10). Paul says that he spoke to them not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught by the Spirit, fitting spiritual things to spiritual expressions. It is in order that the community of faith might be built up (14:1-5).

Paul’s opening prayer in 1:8 that they may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ introduces the issue of eschatology that the Corinthians had neglected or misunderstood. Paul believed that Christians were living at the intersection of two ages, the present evil age and the age to come. The present evil age is the world of ordinary realities as seen and understood by unregenerate people, while the age to come is the kind of existence that God has planned and that He wants His people to understand and live in. The one will perish with all who cling to it; the other will last forever. The day of God’s judgement will make clear which belongs, where.

The cross of Christ and his resurrection have inaugurated the end of this age and its rule over humanity (10:11; cf 2 Cor. 5:17). It has inaugurated the beginning of the defeat of sin and death (15:54-57) and the reversal of the law’s curse and judgement. Christians have experienced a foretaste of the age to come, but it is only a foretaste. Paul applies the issue of eschatology to every issue except the one concerning headdress in 11:2-16. The cross, its wisdom or its effect, is also central in every issue except the one concerning headdress.