1 Corinthians (1)


Collins, Raymond.  First Corinthians.  Part of the Sacra Pagina Series edited by Daniel J. Harrington S.J..   Liturgical Press.  Collegeville, MN.  1999.

Fitzmyer, Joseph.  First Corinthians.  Part of the Anchor Yale Bible series edited by William F. Albright and David Noel Freedman.  Yale University Press.  New Haven CT.  2008.

Gorman, Michael J.  Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters.  Eerdmans Publishing Co..   Grand Rapids, MI.  2004

Hays, Richard B..  First Corinthians.  Part of the Interpretation series edited by James. L. Mays.   John Knox Press.  Louisville.  1997.

Quast, Kevin.  Reading the Corinthian Correspondence: An Introduction.  Paulist.  New York, NY.  1994.

The Bible Today.   Volume 48, Number 5.  September/October 2010 issue.  Edited by Donald Senior, CP.   Biblical Update: Lessons from the Corinthian Correspondence includes articles by Vincent Branick,  John Gillman,  and Florence Morgan Gillman.


Fitzmyer makes a claim that I have not seen anywhere else on p. 21: “…, after classical Athens, Corinth was the second most important city in ancient Greece, but in the first century A.D. it would have been more important than Athens.  Along with Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch on the Orontes (Syria), it would have been one of the four most important cities of the Mediterranean world.”

There was a Greek era and a Roman era for the city.  In between the two was a lost war and complete destruction and desolation.  In the time of Paul it was Roman law, Roman architecture, and Roman rule – but Greek language, Greek philosophy, and Greek culture.

Collins p. xiii: “…a flesh-and-blood community whose humanness was all too apparent.  Sex, death, and money were among the issues they had to face.  Social conflicts and tension within their Christian community were part of their daily life.  It was to a very real community with very real issues that Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians.”

This letter was part of a series of letters between Paul and the church / community in Corinth.  It is clearly a response to a letter sent to Paul which reported certain goings-on there and asked questions.  There were at least 4 letters by Paul to the Corinthians, we have only 2 of them – unless the existing letters are the 4 which  have been compacted together, which some scholars believe is the case.  There is no way to tell for certain.  The oldest manuscript is from the year 200 AD or so and contains 1 Corinthians as we have it today except for three verses.   (The oldest complete gospel manuscript we have is from about the year 400.)

The letter was written by Paul during one of his stays in Ephesus.

Collins p. 21: 2 aspects of the overall problem in Corinth  “How is the community one?  How is the community distinct?” (from the secular world around it).

Paul (via Acts, other sources) likely founded the church in Corinth on a lengthy visit in the 49 to 51AD time period.  This letter was written from Ephesus some time between 53 and 57.  Fitzmyer suggests that is was written at the end of that range (56, 57).

Corinth was a commercial / trading center.  Back then there was access to the sea via a road on which light ships could be hauled overland.  Actual canal only completed in 1893.

Quast (p. 22) contends that the church in Corinth was large enough that it met in several different house churches and that part of the “divisions” referred to in the letter are due to this reality.  50 persons in a house church was about the maximum even the largest homes could have held.


Gorman p. 227: “The letter has the appearance of a laundry list of problems, but these are in many respects the presenting symptoms of a more significant disease. …  a failure to understand the real-life consequences of the gospel of “Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2).  His goal became to convince the Corinthians to embody the cross in daily life in light of the past resurrection and soon return of their crucified Lord.”

It is possible to read Paul’s thanksgiving section as being an ironic foreshadowing of the criticisms which will come later (“you are not lacking in any gift”).  It is also possible to read it such that Paul is genuinely appreciative of their gifts and will later simply criticize the excesses of the community in their exercise of those gifts.

Paul launches the body of the letter with a direct and blunt appeal for unity within the community.  Some scholars believe that actual factions existed within the community led by the various named people or by their disciples (Fitzmyer is one of them).  Collins asserts differently: p. 73 “The so-called slogans are not slogans used by various groups among the Corinthians.  They are caricatures created by Paul.  These caricatures implicitly compare the behavior of the Corinthians to that of groups of children who are dependent on their parents or groups of slaves dependent on their masters.”

Hays p. 24 suggests that perhaps the factions / persons were based on who had done the baptisms of their followers – in which case Paul suggests that they completely misunderstood what baptism was all about.

“Rhetorical questions” used in rhetoric to put the other side on the defensive.  Then, and today.  A way of framing the discussion to come.

Paul then argues – the gospel IS divisive – those who hear it and respond are definitively separated from non-believers.  BUT – those who respond to the gospel are united together in Jesus.



Collins p. 127: “There are things that divide the community.  Among them is the understanding that some members o f the community have of one another.  Paul urges them to correct their view and consider all things in the perspective of the Christ event.   His appeal to Christ, his apocalyptic language and his anthropological corrective are intended to dispel the lack of harmony that has fractured the community.”

No OT passage corresponds closely to Paul’s quotation (What eye has not seen…)

natural persons – ordinary persons, not in the Spirit.  Spiritual persons have the Spirit.

Paul directly challenges what he has heard from some in the community.  They are not wise as they have thought.  They are not spiritual as they have thought.  Perhaps it is similar to the cockiness / confidence of teenagers who think they already know everything?  There is wisdom in the idea that the beginning of true knowledge is the awareness of all that we don’t know.  A corollary of that is “It’s not what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you think you know.”

Quast p. 33 “From Paul’s perspective, the Corinthian Christians have fallen into the same trap as some among  earlier generations of God’s people.  The have presumed that God’s wisdom will give them status by this world’s standards.”  particularly Greek philosophy, rhetorical skills and eloquence.

Jesus crucified on a cross and raised from the dead, the last will be first and the first will be last … = the wisdom of God.  It remains contrary to the wisdom of the world even today.


Hays p. 48: Give the Corinthians some credit.  “The factions in the community were caused – at least to some extent- by serious questions of theological understanding and religious practice.  How do we attain divine wisdom?  What actions constitute idolatry?  What sexual norms should be observed in marriage?  How should manifestations of the Spirit function in worship?  What is the meaning of resurrection?  These are the sorts of issues that were splitting the church, and the different groups were no doubt zealous in their defense of the convictions.  Paul insists , however, that when such matters produce ‘quarreling’ it is a sign that the contending factions are not truly spiritual but ‘of the flesh’.”

Paul uses three metaphors in a row to make his points.  Mother/child.  Farmers/ field.   Builder/building.

Collins p. 150:  the list of building materials are similar to lists of materials used to build the Temple in Jerusalem.  The Community as a new temple?  Some of these materials are flammable, some are not.

Fitzmyer (p. 198) – listed in order least flammable to most flammable, some teaching from others is more reliable and some much less reliable, time will tell.

The verses regarding a purifying fire, along with a handful of other metaphorical verses elsewhere, morphed in Catholic tradition into a doctrine of purgatory.  Fitzmyer (p. 201,202) notes that purgatory is not a clear biblical or consistently taught doctrine from tradition, it first really emerged around 500 A.D.



Paul begins this chapter with a courtroom metaphor.  Has he been accused by someone in the community?  Not clear.

Fitzmyer p. 211: “Verses 7 – 13 are full of irony, as Paul recalls his toil, deprivation, and suffering as a preacher among them.”

“not to go beyond what is written” means?   Rabbinic teaching – you should tithe, but are not permitted to give more.  Why?  It goes beyond what is written in the Law.  Who are you to “improve” on the law?  Who are you to decide for yourself what is really best to do?   Hays p. 69,  agrees with this position – to go beyond  what is written (in the Scriptures) would be to rely on human wisdom, exactly what he is telling them to stop doing.

Collins p. 184: “The ability to submit to hardships was a sign of wisdom.  Paul used the list of his tribulations in order to portray human weakness, despite which the gospel of God is able to achieve its effect.  The hardships he and Apollos endured were a sign of their wisdom.”



With this chapter Paul begins to address  a second topic – the holiness/purity of the community.  They have been set aside for the Lord, therefore the community cannot tolerate the excesses and sin as it apparently has.

Quast p. 43: “Because Corinthian Christians misunderstood what it means to be ‘spiritual’, their sense of being ‘set apart’ was also skewed.  Instead of avoiding unrighteous behavior, they have separated their physical and spiritual lives.  For some, this permits immoral living: what happens in the body lacks spiritual consequence.  For others, the dichotomy requires an ascetic lifestyle: to experience fully the spiritual life, the physical must be stifled.”

The OT Law has numerous sins and conditions for which banishment from the community is the penalty – some of which are not even moral matters (leprosy …).  The health and well-being of the whole is too important to tolerate what is not healthy.  Additionally – there is a very real sense in that culture and time of corporate responsibility for sins committed and tolerated by others.  This chapter collides with our sense of individual freedom/”rights” and “judge not, lest you be judged”.

Hays p. 89: “First of all, the passage emphatically calls the church to claim its cultural identity as a people with a distinct character and mission, a counter-cultural prophetic community.  Within such a community, the members are called to take active responsibility for one another’s lives and spiritual wholeness.”

Fitzmyer, p. 231 notes that under Roman law adultery was a public crime – punished by loss of much of their property for both parties and banishment to different islands.

Corinthian slogans Paul references over the next few chapters:

·         liberty in all things, all things are lawful for me

·         food for the stomach, the stomach for food

·         it is good for a man not to touch a woman.

normally Paul concedes the slogans have a grain of truth but need to be modified or corrected.

Collins p. 219/220: listing “vices” fairly common in the rhetoric of the times, the length gives it “heft” or “weight”.  Hence it is not necessary that each of these be common within the Corinthian community.  However – as the rest of the letter reveals, many of these vices WERE problems for the community.


New problem – Christians bringing their internal disputes to pagans for settlement.  Justice was not “blind” in these courts – the wealthy had influence and power, the poor did not fare well.  There is an element of not wanting to ‘bare the dirty laundry’ in front of others as it gives bad witness.  This is currently being felt / tested as the Episcopal church in Virginia is fighting in public courts with the parishes that want to leave (over the property).

Hays pp 92,93: “…Paul is upset with the Corinthians because they are failing to act as a community, failing to take responsibility for one another.  Just as they have failed to discipline the incestuous man, so they are failing to take responsibility for settling their own disputes…”

Older scholarship, knowing that Corinth was a trading center, read this chapter thinking that sexual immorality that Corinth struggled with was too much sex – use of prostitutes etc.   Newer scholarship believes the problem was more an avoidance of sex – which will be dealt with in the next chapter.  Perhaps it was a bit of both?  Hence the divided nature of the community.

Fitzmyer p. 262:  The key to Paul’s position is that Christians are in the Lord “body and soul”, redeemed.  Hence sins involving the body should be unthinkable.  This is not meant to send the community into a headlong rush to the ascetic life!


Paul’s thoughts on marriage / sex are firmly in the moderate realm of the Judaism of his day and place.  Collins p. 257: “With regard to sexual abstinence he offers advice on his own authority, perhaps reflecting a Jewish tradition to which he and the rabbis were heir.  Paul can abide sexual continence within marriage, but only if three conditions are fulfilled: 1) that the abstinence be mutually agreed upon by husband and wife; 2) that it be limited to a relatively short period of time; and 3) that its purpose be prayer.”   Judaism held marriage in high esteem, tracing it back to creation and the commandment to be fruitful and multiply.

How to read “It is good for a man not to touch a woman.”?  Is it a quote from the Corinthians that Paul rejects?  OR a statement by Paul that he goes on to modify?  Collins goes the former, Fitzmyer the latter.

Fitzmyer p. 282: “Paul uses no term like “command” or “counsel” but speaks of both marriage and celibacy as gifts of God, hence as an invitation or call.”

Paul’s opinions on mixed marriages were actually quite liberal for the time – society expected a whole household to belong to the same tradition, worship the same gods.  Paul says to give the mixed situation some time, not to automatically end marriages because of a conversion to Christianity.

In this section is contained the so-called “Pauline Privilege”  – when 2 non-baptized persons are married and then one of them converts and the other initiates a divorce (whether or not Christianity is the cause) – the one who became a Christian is permitted to remarry.

Collins p. 275: “The real life situation of any human being is characterized by gender, ethnicity, and social status.  These are the major social factors that differentiate one human from another.  Paul is aware of the importance of all three in the social mix.  For Paul divisions based on gender, ethnicity, and social class have been transcended by God’s call in Christ.  The call of God in Christ relativizes all social conditions.”

Collins p. 281ff:  Slaves in Corinth and the region at the time of Paul could expect to be freed after 10 to 20 years of service – solely at the discretion of the master (there was no “right” to it).

Manumission  did not necessarily mean that the slave was better off – sometimes the slave was being jettisoned by the owner who had extracted all of his/her good working years and the slave had to fend for himself/herself in their old age.

Paul offers a general principle – “it is good for a person to remain as he or she is”.  He makes it clear that this is his opinion and not from Jesus.  He goes on to qualify it, to allow for exceptions.  Fitzmyer p. 305 says Paul means “lead  the life the Lord has given to you”.

Paul does not believe that virginity is holier than the married life.  Both states are holy.  He says this in apparent rejection of a Corinthian group that seems to be arguing for the first as a superior state.



Paul turns to a new topic in this chapter – food.  This is a contentious area when different cultures mix – particularly when those of Jewish descent mix with others, since Jewish law and custom forbade many foods as well as eating with those who did not observe their practices.

An additional concern was the reality that the Christians were a small minority in a larger pagan community in which virtually all food was symbolically offered to the various gods at some point or another in its life cycle.  There were also numerous social occasions in which a Christian person would encounter food that had been offered to idols (weddings, funerals, public festivals, work…)

So, what were the Corinthians to do?  Some in the community had “knowledge” which they said permitted them to eat the meat and food offered to idols.  Paul seems to say that they are right – but still should not eat of it.

Quast p. 56: “…his conviction that where one ate and why one ate were more important than what one ate.  Since people ate ‘idol meat’ in a variety of settings, at times its consumption by Christians was wrong and at other times it was allowable.”

Why would a Christian EVER be in the temple of an idol?  Archeology has discovered numerous temples in Corinth.  Many have a number of banquet rooms – generally used, they think, for religious rituals and meals – but also apparently rented out as we ourselves rent out our rooms for large celebrations.  Hence, someone might well see Christians going into such places!

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