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Article Info:
published: 3/17/04
updated: 8/14/14

Book of 1 Corinthians



Facts and summary

1 Corinthians is the seventh book of the Christian New Testament. The authorship of the book is traditionally understood to be the Apostle Paul and that he wrote it from Ephesus in the mid 50's A.D. The book is 16 chapters in length and is often coupled with the eighth book of the New Testament - 2 Corinthians. The original recipients of the book are the Christians at the church in Corinth. The purpose of the book is to respond to reports of immorality in the Corinthian church, to provide counsel on several subjects as requested by the church, and to correct false teachings related to the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

On the whole the text of 1 Corinthians flows on consistently, only at times, in a characteristic fashion, winding back upon itself, and few serious criticisms are made on its unity, although the case is different in this respect with its companion epistle, 2 Corinthians. Some writers, on insufficient grounds, believe that 1 Corinthians contains relics of a previous epistle (compare 5:9), e.g. in 7:17-24; 9:1-10:22; 15:1-55.


Paul's Previous Relations with Corinth

When, in the course of his 2nd missionary journey, Paul left Athens (Acts 18:1), he sailed westward to Cenchrea, and entered Corinth "in weakness, and in fear, and in much trembling" (1 Cor 2:3). He was doubtless alone, although Silas and Timothy afterward joined him (Acts 18:5; 2 Cor 1:19). The ancient city of Corinth had been utterly laid in ruins when Rome subjugated Greece in the middle of the 2nd century BC. But in the year 46 BC Caesar had caused it to be rebuilt and colonized in the Roman manner, and during the century that had elapsed it had prospered and grown enormously.

Its population at this time has been estimated at between 600,000 and 700,000, by far the larger portion of whom were slaves. Its magnificent harbors, Cenchrea and Lechaeum, opening to the commerce of East and West, were crowded with ships, and its streets with travelers and merchants from almost every country under heaven. Even in that old pagan world the reputation of the city was bad; it has been compared (Baring-Gould, Study of Paul, 241) to an amalgam of new-market, Chicago and Paris, and probably it contained the worst features of each.

At night it was made hideous by the brawls and lewd songs of drunken revelry. In the daytime its markets and squares swarmed with Jewish peddlers, foreign traders, sailors, soldiers, athletes in training, boxers, wrestlers, charioteers, racing-men, betting-men, courtesans, slaves, idlers and parasites of every description. The corrupting worship of Aphrodite, with its hordes of Grk: hierodouloi, was dominant, and all over the Greek-Roman world, "to behave as a Corinthian" was a proverbial synonym for leading a low, shameless and immoral life. Very naturally such a polluted and idolatrous environment accounts for much that has to be recorded of the semi-pagan and imperfect life of many of the early converts.

Founding of the Church

Paul was himself the founder of the church in Corinth (1 Cor 3:6,10). Entering the city with anxiety, and yet with almost audacious hopefulness, he determined to know nothing among its people save Jesus Christ and Him crucified (1 Cor 2:2). Undoubtedly he was conscious that the mission of the Cross here approached its crisis.

If it could abide here, it could abide anywhere. At first he confined himself to working quietly at his trade, and cultivating the friendship of Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:2 f); then he opened his campaign in the synagogue where he persuaded both Jews and Greeks, and ultimately, when opposition became violent, carried it on in the house of Titus Justus, a proselyte. He made deep impressions, and gradually gathered round him a number who were received into the faith (Acts 18:7,8; 1 Cor 1:14-16).

The converts were drawn largely but not entirely from the lower or servile classes (1 Cor 1:26; 7:21); they included Crispus and Sosthenes, rulers of the synagogue, Gaius, and Stephanas with his household, "the firstfruits of Achaia" (1 Cor 16:15). He regarded himself joyfully as the father of this community (1 Cor 4:14,15), every member of which seemed to him like his own child.

Date of the Epistle

After a sojourn of eighteen months (Acts 18:11) in this fruitful field, Paul departed, most probably in the year 52 (compare Turner, article "Chron. New Testament," HDB, I, 422 ff), and, having visited Jerusalem and returned to Asia Minor (third journey), established himself for a period of between two and three years (trietia, Acts 20:31) in Ephesus (Acts 18:18 onward).

It was during his stay there that his epistle was written, either in the spring (pre-Pentecost, 1 Cor 16:8) of the year in which he left, 55; or, if that does not give sufficient interval for a visit and a letter to Corinth, which there is considerable ground for believing intervened between 1 Cor and the departure from Ephesus, then in the spring of the preceding year, 54. This would give ample time for the conjectured events, and there is no insuperable reason against it. Pauline chronology is a subject by itself, but the suggested dates for the departure from Ephesus, and for the writing of 1 Corinthians, really fluctuate between the years 53 and 57.

Occasion of the Epistle

A Previous Letter

After Paul's departure from Corinth, events moved rapidly, and far from satisfactorily. He was quite cognizant of them. The distance from Ephesus was not great--about eight days' journey by sea--and in the constant coming and going between the cities news of what was transpiring must frequently have come to his ears. Members of the household of Chloe are distinctly mentioned (1 Cor 1:11) as having brought tidings of the contentions that prevailed, and there were no doubt other informants.

Paul was so concerned by what he heard that he sent Timothy on a conciliatory mission with many commendations (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10 f), although the present epistle probably reached Corinth first. He had also felt impelled, in a letter (1 Cor 5:9) which is now lost, to send earnest warning against companying with the immoral. Moreover, Apollos, after excellent work in Corinth, had come to Ephesus, and was received as a brother by the apostle (1 Cor 3:5,6; 16:12). Equally welcome was a deputation consisting of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Cor 16:17), from whom the fullest information could be gained, and who were the probable bearers of a letter from the church of Corinth itself (1 Cor 7:1), appealing for advice and direction on a number of points.

Letter from Corinth

This letter has not been preserved, but it was evidently the immediate occasion of our epistle, and its tenor is clearly indicated by the nature of the apostle's reply. (The letter, professing to be this letter to Paul, and its companion, professing to be Paul's own lost letter just referred to, which deal with Gnostic heresies, and were for long accepted by the Syrian and Armenian churches, are manifestly apocryphal. (Compare Stanley's Corinthians, Appendix; Harnack's Gesch. der altchrist. Litt., I, 37-39, and II, 506-8; Zahn, Einleitung., I, 183-249; Sanday, Encyclopedia Biblica, I, 906-7.)

If there be any relic in existence of Paul's previous letter, it is possibly to be found in the passage 2 Cor 6:14 through 7:1; at all events that passage may be regarded as reminiscent of its style and message.) So that 1 Corinthians is no bow drawn at a venture. It treats of a fully understood, and, on the whole, of a most unhappy situation. The church had broken into factions, and was distracted by party cries. Some of its members were living openly immoral lives, and discipline was practically in abeyance.

Others had quarrels over which they dragged one another into the heathen courts. Great differences of opinion had also arisen with regard to marriage and the social relations generally; with regard to banquets and the eating of food offered to idols; with regard to the behavior of women in the assemblies, to the Lord's Supper and the love-feasts, to the use and value of spiritual gifts, and with regard to the hope of the resurrection.

The apostle was filled with grief and indignation, which the too complacent tone of the Corinthians only intensified. They discussed questions in a lofty, intellectual way, without seeming to perceive their real drift, or the life and spirit which lay imperiled at their heart. Resisting the impulse to visit them "with a rod" (4:21), the apostle wrote the present epistle, and dispatched it, if not by the hands of Stephanas and his comrades, most probably by the hands of Titus.

Contents

General Character

In its general character the epistle is a strenuous writing, masterly in its restraint in dealing with opposition, firm in its grasp of ethical and spiritual principles, and wise and faithful in their application. It is calm, full of reasoning, clear and balanced in judgment; very varied in its lights and shadows, in its kindness, its gravity, its irony. It moves with firm tread among the commonest themes, but also rises easily into the loftiest spheres of thought and vision, breaking again and again into passages of glowing and rhythmical eloquence. It rebukes error, exposes and condemns sin, solves doubts, upholds and encourages faith, and all in a spirit of the utmost tenderness and love, full of grace and truth. It is broad in its outlook, penetrating in its insight, unending in its interest and application.

Order and Division

It is also very orderly in its arrangement, so that it is not difficult to follow the writer as he advances from point to point. Weizsacker (Apos Age, I, 324-25) suggestively distinguishes the matter into (1) subjects introduced by the letter from Corinth, and (2) those on which Paul had obtained information otherwise. He includes three main topics in the first class: marriage, meat offered to idols and spiritual gifts (there is a fourth--the logia or collection, 1 Cor 16:1); six in the second class: the factions, the case of incest, the lawsuits, the free customs of the women, the abuse connected with the Supper and the denial of the resurrection. It is useful, however, to adhere to the sequence of the epistle In broadly outlining the subject-matter we may make a threefold division: (1) chapters 1 through 6; (2) chapters 7 through 10; and (3) chapter 11 through end.

Outline summary

1 Corinthians 1 through 6

After salutation, in which he associates Sosthenes with himself, and thanksgiving for the grace given to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1:1-9), Paul immediately begins (1 Cor 1:10-13) to refer to the internal divisions among them, and to the unworthy and misguided party cries that had arisen. (Many theories have been formed as to the exact significance of the so-called "Christus-party," a party whose danger becomes more obvious in 2 Cor. Compare Meyer-Heinrici, Comm., 8th edition; Godet, Intro, 250 ff; Stanley, Cor, 29-30; Farrar, Paul, chapter xxxi; Pfleiderer, Paulinism, II, 28-31; Weiss, Intro, I, 259-65; Weizsacker, Apos Age, I, 325-33, and 354 ff. Weizsacker holds that the name indicates exclusive relation to an authority, while Baur and Pfleiderer argue that it was a party watchword (virtually Petrine) taken to bring out the apostolic inferiority of Paul.

On the other hand a few scholars maintain that the name does not, strictly speaking, indicate a party at all but rather designates those who were disgusted at the display of all party spirit, and with whom Paul was in hearty sympathy. See McGiffert, Apos Age, 295-97.)

After denouncing this petty partisanship, Paul offers an elaborate defense of his own ministry, declaring the power and wisdom of God in the gospel of the Cross (1:14 through 2:16), returning in chapter 3 to the spirit of faction, showing its absurdity and narrowness in face of the fullness of the Christian heritage in "all things" that belong to them as belonging to Christ; and once more defending his ministry in chapter 4, making a touching appeal to his readers as his "beloved children," whom he had begotten through the gospel. In chapter 5 he deals with the case of a notorious offender, guilty of incest, whom they unworthily harbor in their midst, and in the name of Christ demands that they should expel him from the church, pointing out at the same time that it is against the countenancing of immorality within the church membership that he specially warns, and had previously warned in his former epistle Ch 6 deals with the shamefulness of Christian brethren haling one another to the heathen courts, and not rather seeking the settlement of their differences within themselves; reverting once more in the closing verses to the subject of unchastity, which irrepressibly haunts him as he thinks of them.

1 Corinthians 7 through 10

In 1 Cor 7 he begins to reply to two of the matters on which the church had expressly consulted him in its ep., and which he usually induces by the phrase peri de, "now concerning." The first of these bears (chapter 7) upon celibacy and marriage, including the case of "mixed" marriage. These questions he treats quite frankly, yet with delicacy and circumspection, always careful to distinguish between what he has received as the direct word of the Lord, and what he only delivers as his own opinion, the utterance of his own sanctified common-sense, yet to which the good spirit within him gives weight.

The second matter on which advice was solicited, questions regarding eidolothuta, meats offered to idols, he discusses in chapter 8, recurring to it again in chapter 10 to end. The scruples and casuistries involved he handles with excellent wisdom, and lays down a rule for the Christian conscience of a far-reaching kind, happily expressed: "All things are lawful; but not all things are expedient. All things are lawful; but not all things edify. Let no man seek his own, but each his neighbor's good" (10:23,14). By lifting their differences into the purer atmosphere of love and duty, he causes them to dissolve away.

Chapter 9 contains another notable defense of his apostleship, in which he asserts the principle that the Christian ministry has a claim for its support on those to whom it ministers, although in his own case he deliberately waived his right, that no challenge on such a matter should be possible among them. The earlier portion of chapter 10 contains a reference to Jewish idolatry and sacramental abuse, in order that the evils that resulted might point a moral, and act as a solemn warning to Christians in relation to their own rites.

1 Corinthians 11 through 16

The third section deals with certain errors and defects that had crept into the inner life and observances of the church, also with further matters on which the Corinthians sought guidance, namely, spiritual gifts and the collection for the saints. 1 Cor 11:1-16 has regard to the deportment of women and their veiling in church, a matter which seems to have occasioned some difficulty, and which Paul deals with in a manner quite his own; passing thereafter to treat of graver and more disorderly affairs, gross abuses in the form of gluttony and drunkenness at the Lord's Supper, which leads him, after severe censure, to make his classic reference to that sacred ordinance (verse 20 to end).

Chapter 12 sets forth the diversity, yet true unity, of spiritual gifts, and the confusion and jealousy to which a false conception of them inevitably leads, obscuring that "most excellent way," the love which transcends them all, which never faileth, the greatest of the Christian graces, whose praise he chants in language of surpassing beauty (chapter 13). He strives also, in the following chapter, to correct the disorder arising from the abuse of the gift of tongues, many desiring to speak at once, and many speaking only a vain babble which no one could understand, thinking themselves thereby highly gifted. It is not edifying: "I had rather," he declares, "speak five words with my understanding, that I might instruct others also, than ten thousand words in a tongue" (14:19). Thereafter follows the immortal chapter on the resurrection, which he had learned that some denied (15:12).

He anchors the faith to the resurrection of Christ as historic fact, abundantly attested (verses 3-8), shows how all-essential it is to the Christian hope (verses 13-19), and then proceeds by reasoning and analogy to brush aside certain naturalistic objections to the great doctrine, "then they that are Christ's, at his coming" (verse 23), when this mortal shall have put on immortality, and death be swallowed up in victory (verse 54). The closing chapter gives directions as to the collection for the saints in Jerusalem, on which his heart was deeply set, and in which he hoped the Corinthians would bear a worthy share. He promises to visit them, and even to tarry the winter with them. He then makes a series of tender personal references, and so brings the great epistle to a close.

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