1 Corinthians: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries

1 Corinthians: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries

by Richard A. Horsley


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This commentary highlights both the socio-political context of 1 Corinthians and the clash of significantly different religious viewpoints represented by Paul and the congregation he had founded in Corinth. In particular, Richard Horsley shows that this letter provides a window through which one may view the tension between the Corinthians' interest in cultivating individual spirituality and the apostle's concern for building up a social-religious community devoted to the common advantage, for the flourishing both of personal dignity and a humanizing solidarity.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780687058389
Publisher: Abingdon Press
Publication date: 09/25/2007
Series: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries Series , #1
Pages: 244
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.61(d)

About the Author

Richard A. Horsley is Professor of Religion at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

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Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 1 Corinthians

By Richard A. Horsley

Abingdon Press

Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-687-05838-9



Salutation and Thanksgiving (1:1–9)

Like most Greco-Roman letters, Paul's letters usually begin with a threefold salutation followed by an opening thanksgiving. In the salutation the writers identify themselves, then name the addressees and offer greetings. The thanksgiving often is a prayer to god(s) for the well-being of the addressee(s). Also it often praises the addressees and attempts to elicit their goodwill. In prolonged rhetorical arguments such as Paul's letters, the thanksgiving can function as the introduction to the argument in the body of the letter, establishing major themes that the subsequent discussion amplifies. The expanded salutation and thanksgiving here suggest that Paul is anticipating the issues at stake in the Corinthian community.

Salutation (1:1–3)

In identifying himself more elaborately as "an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God" (v. 1), and not simply listing his own name along with those of co-writers, as in 1 Thess 1:1, Paul is already responding to the challenge to his authority among the Corinthians (cf. 3:1–4, 5–15; 4:1–20; 9; 15:8–10). Not yet limited to the twelve disciples, "apostle" was the title given to leaders of the expanding movement(s) who preached the gospel and founded communities. In connection with his own authority as an apostle, Paul is emphasizing a point with each of three terms, over against some Corinthians whose focus he finds problematic: he was "called" to his historic role, "by the will of God" who is accomplishing purposes through him, and his apostleship is "of Christ Jesus," whose lordship over the movement and its assemblies he is eager to assert repeatedly in the letter. Sosthenes is not necessarily the same as the officer of the Jewish synagogue in Corinth in Acts 18:17. Acts is not a trustworthy source for the existence of a Jewish "assembly" in Corinth because the author repeatedly stereotypes "the Jews" as attacking Paul and other apostles. If he had been a Jew in Corinth, Sosthenes must have joined the movement Paul started there and become a coworker in his subseqent ministry.

First Corinthians 1:2 is the most elaborate address of the genuine letters. Here Paul is already framing his argument to the Corinthians. The Greek term ekklesia, usually translated "church," has a basically political meaning. It was the standard term for the assembly of the citizens of the Greek city-state (polis). As a virtual synonym for "synagogue" (synagoge), ekklesia also had connotations of the assembly of Israel as a whole or that of its local village communities in the biblical tradition or both. Given its basically political meaning, the "assembly" that Paul had founded in Corinth constituted an alternative to the established assembly of the city of Corinth. Paul's Corinthian assembly, moreover, was part of an international network of assemblies, an expanding movement that Paul also called "the assembly." (The term assembly will thus be used instead of the NRSV's church in this commentary.) In a phrase peculiar to the Corinthian correspondence and aimed surely at the divisiveness he is about to discuss (cf. 1:10–13; 3:9, 21–23), Paul characterizes the Corinthian assembly as "of God" (contrast Gal 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1). By adding "together with all those who in every place" he attempts to expand the perspective of the Corinthians—who were focused on their own divisions—to the broader movement of all the assemblies.

"Called to be saints" (v. 2) introduces the hope of imminent fulfillment of a world of justice ruled by God. This hope, prominent in Jewish revelatory (apocalyptic) literature such as the book of Daniel (on "saints" see esp. Dan 7:18–27) and the Dead Sea Scrolls, is inherent in the ethical definition of the Corinthian assembly as "those who are sanctified" (cf. 1 Thess 4:3). In addition to the references in the formal phrases "an apostle of Christ Jesus" (v. 1) and "grace ... from ... the Lord Jesus" (v. 3), Paul adds references to an instrumental role of Christ Jesus as the agent of their sanctification and to Christ's political role as the exalted universal Lord (v. 2). This anticipates later assertions of the centrality of Christ as the focus of faith and the basis for unity (1:23–25; 3:22–23; 6:15; 8:6; 10:4, 16; 12:27; 15:20–28, 45–49; 16:22–24). In verse 3 Paul changes the traditional hellenistic greeting "rejoice" to "grace" and combines it with the traditional Jewish greeting "peace."

Thanksgiving (1:4–9)

The thanksgiving is even more pointedly oriented toward the Corinthian situation and the arguments Paul is about to make. In contrast with the faith, hope, love, and partnership in the gospel for which Paul offers thanks in 1 Thess 1:3 and Phil 1:5, 9, Paul focuses here on "speech" (logos), "knowledge" (gnosis), and "spiritual gifts" (charismata; vv. 5, 7), anticipating his critique of them later in the letter (1:18–2:4; 8; 12–14). Paul evaluates the Corinthians' spiritual gifts of speech and knowledge in this highly positive evaluation at the outset of the letter in order to elicit their positive disposition to the arguments that follow. Here, as throughout the letter, Paul addresses the assembly as a whole, even though it is divided. He never dignifies or blames any particular faction by naming specific people. The opening thanksgiving sets a tone for the whole letter by focusing on Christ, and especially on the full "revealing" of Christ as the world ruler on the day of his return.

"As you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ" (v. 7b) and the parallel relative clause (v. 8, a new sentence in NRSV) place the Corinthians' spiritual gifts in the context of the "day of [the] Lord." This is the typically Pauline orientation toward the imminent completion of the final events of history now underway (cf. 1 Thess 1:10; 2:12, 19; 3:13; 4:14–17; 5:23). Although Paul ordinarily speaks of the "return" or "coming" (parousia) of Christ, he may have used "revelation" (apokalypsis) in verse 7b to emphasize that the final or full revelation involved still-awaited future events, in contrast with the partial revelations of prophecy and knowledge already experienced by himself and the Corinthians. Paul is not addressing people who believed that expectations about the future had already come about, but people for whom the notion of world-transforming historical events would have been relatively new, strange, and difficult to understand. The relative clause in 1:8 (cf. 1 Thess 3:13) elaborates the anticipation of Christ's return, repeating a legal metaphor from verse 6: he will "confirm" ("guarantee"; NRSV: "strengthen") you (in whom the testimony of Christ has been confirmed) until the end, so that you will be "blameless" at the judgment that "the day of our Lord" will bring. In a play on the Greek term "blameless" (anegkletous, v. 9), Paul refers to the ultimate agent, God, by whom "you were called" (eklethete) and focuses not only on Christ again, but also on "the fellowship" (koinonia, "community") of Christ (v. 9), in transition to the main theme of the first major section of the letter: divisiveness.

* * *

Paul places the distinctive gifts of the Corinthians firmly in the context of his own focus on Christ and Christ's imminent return. He saturates the salutation and thanksgiving with repetitive references to Jesus Christ as the instrument of salvation and the exalted and returning political Lord. Christ is also now the content of the "testimony" that is "confirmed" (or "guaranteed"—a legal metaphor) among them (v. 6). Paul is suggesting here that the eloquence and knowledge with which the Corinthians are enriched is the evidence that confirms the testimony of the gospel of Christ presented to them.

Divisiveness and Unity (1:10–4:21)

Three or four closely interrelated oppositions stand out in this section: the divisions Paul sees among the Corinthians versus the unity he would like to see established (1:10–11; 3:1–3); their boasting in their favorite "guru" versus his concern for the cohesion of the community under its common Lord (1:12, 31; 3:4, 5–17, 21–23; 4:1–7); their attachment to wisdom (sophia) versus his gospel of the crucified Christ (1:17, 18–25; 2:1–5, 6–9; 3:18–20); and their excitement over the exalted spiritual status that seems closely related to their possession of wisdom (sophia) versus the low social status of the members and leaders of the movement (1:26–29; 2:3, 6, 14–16; 4:8–13). Underlying the argument is Paul's concern with his own authority, which has been threatened by a rival servant of the movement who has been building on the foundation Paul laid (3:5–10) and by Corinthian criticism (4:3–5).

Paul's rhetorical strategy unfolds in five major steps. (1) After issuing a formal appeal in 1:10–17 to overcome their divisiveness, he moves (2) in 1:18–2:5 to counter the wisdom (sophia) that he sees lying behind the divisiveness with the foolishness of the gospel that features the crucified Christ. (3) In 2:6–3:4 he resorts to the standard rhetorical device of sarcasm to attack the exalted spiritual status in which he believes the divisive attachment to particular apostles is rooted. (4) In 3:5–17 Paul presents his view of the relationship between his ministry and the ministry of Apollos in Corinth. (5) In the final step of his argument for unity, 4:1–21, he defends himself against Corinthian criticism and asserts his fatherly role in the foundation of the community. Each of these five steps is an integral component of the overall argument in 1:10–4:21.

In the course of this argument Paul employs some of the standard forms of ancient hellenistic-Roman oratory: persuasian (deliberative rhetoric), praise and blame (epideictic rhetoric), and sarcasm (a subcategory of irony). In particular, his use of censure and sarcasm serves his overall deliberative rhetorical strategy of calling the assembly to think and act in concord. As he indicates explicitly at the end (4:14, 16), he is admonishing them to change and calling them to imitate him in the appropriate humility that will foster concord (4:16). In the latter appeal he is again following a standard deliberative procedure in which the speaker calls for imitation of himself as a model of appropriate moral character (ethos). Yet he displays a decisive substantive difference as well. Paul's presentation of his own character, as being in utter "disrepute" and "the rubbish of the world" (4:8–13) is diametrically opposite to the standard aristocratic paradigms of the imperial hellenistic-Roman culture.

First Step in Paul's Argument for Unity (1:10–17)

In this introduction to his argument Paul states that divisions in the assembly are obvious from their slogans about attachment to favorite "gurus" (vv. 11–13), perhaps having something to do with their baptism by particular apostles (vv. 13–16). Finally (v. 17), he indicates that these divisions and slogans are related to a polarity between wisdom (sophia) and the cross of Christ.

* * *

Paul's formal appeal to the Corinthians for unity in 1:10 articulates his dominant concern in the whole letter as well as in the first major argument. "I appeal" is common in calls to political concord. Like later leaders and members of popular protest or revolutionary movements, Paul frequently addresses his fellow believers as "brothers" using the masculine plural in an inclusive sense (NRSV: "brothers and sisters"). The formal phrase "by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ" constitutes Paul's appeal to the source of his own apostolic authority, which he considers to have been called into question by the divisions in the community. Contrary to his practice on other matters in the letter (5:1; 11:18; 15:12), Paul mentions his source for the information about quarreling among the Corinthians (v. 11). We have virtually no information about "those of Chloe" (NRSV: "Chloe's people"), although this phrase suggests members of Chloe's household, perhaps slaves or freed persons (but "Chloe" was itself a name often given to female slaves). That Paul does not mention them along with the representatives from the Corinthian community named later (16:15–18) suggests that they were probably not from Corinth. They probably lived in Ephesus, from where Paul was writing, and likely belonged to the movement.

The phrases "I belong to Paul ... Apollos, and so forth" (v. 12) have been the principal bases for reconstructions of the situation in Corinth and interpretations of Paul's response, but nothing requires us to posit the existence of identifiable "factions" or "parties." Nothing similar in form has been identified in ancient literature that could qualify as a political party slogan. Although Paul introduces the statements with "each of you says," his introductory phrase "what I mean is" may indicate that he is telling the Corinthians how their quarrelling sounds to him. That Paul is setting the stage, rhetorically, for the rest of the letter is evident when he cites two of these same statements again in 3:4 and mentions all four names in his recapitulation of the argument in 3:21–23. Subsequent steps in the argument (especially 3:4 and 3:5–15) show that Paul believes the quarrel is between his followers and the followers of Apollos. So far as we know, Cephas (Peter) had not visited Corinth; hypotheses about his role in the Corinthian community are based on either chapters 10–13 or the now discredited theory of "Judaizers" as the opponents of Paul wherever he went or both. Paul himself may be responsible for the inclusion of Cephas in the list of names in verse 12.

How shall we explain the slogan, "I belong to Christ"? That Paul later makes a point of subordinating the whole community to Christ (3:21–23) and that he reasserts in no uncertain terms his own fundamental gospel of Christ's crucifixion and resurrection (1:18–2:5; 15:1–28) suggests that at least some Corinthians did not understand Christ in the way Paul would have liked. Again, most likely Paul himself is responsible for this slogan, used as a rhetorical device to set up the rhetorical questions in verse 13. With the implied negative answers, he in effect reasserts the unity of the assembly in (under) Christ. From what follows, it appears that the Corinthians may have understood Christ as a wisdom teacher somewhat like Apollos or Paul, and not as the crucified, resurrected Lord.

In an aside (vv. 14–16) Paul rejects partisanship by discounting his own role in baptism. He is not devaluing baptism in general (cf. Rom 6:3–7). He has in mind the importance of baptism for some in the Corinthian assembly who practiced a "baptism on behalf of the dead" (see on 15:29 below). That Paul baptized these particular people or their household(s), however, may have some significance for understanding the situation in Corinth and later sections of the letter.

Precisely with reference to Crispus, Gaius, and Stephanas (vv. 14–16) it has been argued that early Christianity was a religious movement sponsored by wealthy patrons for their social dependents—wives, children, clients, slaves or freedpersons—and not a movement of the disinherited poor, as previously thought. Luke's later portrayal of Crispus as an "official" (not "ruler") of the Jewish synagogue and head of a household (Acts 18:7–8) is part of a historically unreliable theme in the book of Acts. We have no information about him beyond Paul's passing mention. That Gaius is later the "host" of Paul and "the whole assembly" (Rom 16:23) suggests that he has a house large enough to accommodate at least a small group of people. The "household" of Stephanas (v. 16) could have included some slaves or freedpeople along with his wife and children, perhaps including Fortunatas and Achaicus, the two men with slavelike names mentioned along with Stephanas in 16:17–18. As heads of households that joined the assembly or owners of houses large enough to host "the whole assembly" or both, Stephanas and Gaius were relatively well-off in comparison with ordinary artisans and freed persons. Yet men who had a modest-sized house and owned a few slaves would hardly have been considered wealthy in a city such as Corinth. However modest their economic circumstances, they may nevertheless have been playing the role of patrons in the fledgling assembly. As head of the household that became the "first converts of Achaia" (the area of Greece around Corinth) and the apparent bearer of the Corinthians' letter to Paul (16:15–16), Stephanas was clearly a leader in the Corinthian assembly.


Excerpted from Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: 1 Corinthians by Richard A. Horsley. Copyright © 1998 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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