The founding of the church at Corinth by Paul is described in Acts 18; and in Acts 19 it is recorded that Paul subsequently spent some months at Ephesus. These two chapters provide the background of THE FIRST LETTER OF PAUL TO THE CORINTHIANS. The letter was written by Paul from Ephesus (16.8) a certain time after his first visit to Corinth, and deals with a number of practical issues (though such issues often had theological implications) which had arisen there since his departure. But the present letter was not by any means the beginning of the correspondence. Paul had already had occasion to write to the Corinthians once before (5.9), and had received a letter from them (7.1). He had also received information from members of the Corinthian congregation who had visited him at Ephesus (1.11; 16.17). Our FIRST LETTER is therefore Paul's second letter to the Corinthians, and contains both a reply to their letter to him and some comments on the information which he had received. Much of the difficulty of interpreting this letter lies in the fact that we do not possess the earlier stages of the correspondence; it is not always easy to see precisely what questions, complaints or difficulties Paul is answering.
The first six chapters are concerned mainly with some serious matters of Unity and order in the church which Paul had heard about through his informants. The remaining chapters appear to answer, one by one, points made by the Corinthians in their letter to Paul.
The opening of the letter, as in Romans, follows the conventional form: From Paul ... to the congregation of God's people at Corinth ... Grace and peace (1). But as usual Paul makes this conventional framework carry a good deal of distinctively Christian matter. In Romans, he adds a long parenthesis concerning his own apostleship. Here, he is content with only a brief statement about himself, and inserts instead some words about the Corinthians, emphasizing two things: that they are not a self-appointed congregation, but owe their existence and "dedication" (the word dedicated (2) is perhaps an allusion to their baptism) entirely to the fact that God has called them (or claimed them, as the NEB renders it); and that they are not an isolated group, but just one part of the universal fellowship of Christians. Paul also associates with himself as a colleague (the Greek word is the same as that usually translated "brother") a certain Sosthenes, who appears in Acts 18.17 as a prominent Corinthian Jew.
The greeting is followed by the usual thanksgiving for the state of the church which is being addressed. The Corinthians' conduct comes under a good deal of criticism in the course of the letter; but this does not affect the fact that they have undoubtedly received great enrichment (5) by their conversion, not only intellectually in knowledge and in giving expression to that knowledge, but also with regard to their remarkable "gifts". There is indeed no single gift you lack (7)—and the word means, not self-cultivated talents and virtues, but those altogether exceptional powers which proceed from the possession of God's Spirit, and which (as we can see from chapters 12-14) were a striking feature of the Corinthian congregation. This enrichment was both confirmation (6) of the reality of their faith, and a source of confidence that they would be without reproach on the Day of our Lord Jesus (8)—a Day not only of glory but of judgement; and Paul, at least when he wrote this letter, confidently expected this Day to dawn in his own lifetime.
There was no doubt, then, of the Corinthians' gifts; but equally, their present conduct showed serious deficiencies, and Paul begins in a tone of severity: I appeal to you (10). He has been informed that there are divisions (10) and quarrels (11) in the Corinthian congregation—at least, that is how he regards n the fact (even if the Corinthians did not think it so serious) that the names Paul, Apollos, Cephas and Christ were being used as some kind of party labels. The Corinthians will have known at once what he was referring to; for us, it has to be guesswork. We have no other evidence that Cephas (12) (which is how Paul normally refers to Simon Peter) ever visited Corinth, though equally we cannot say that he did not. Apollos, on the other hand, was certainly a well-known person there (3.6; 16.12), and Acts (18.24-19.1) gives this information about him: that he was a scholarly Alexandrian Jew, that he was associated with John the Baptist before he became a Christian, and that he carried on the work of preaching in Corinth after Paul had left. What sort of groups or parties these men could have given their names or their support to, and why another group called themselves Christ's, are questions which the names alone do not enable us to answer. But something may be learnt from the way Paul approaches the matter.
Paul does not take the side of any of these groups against the others—not even the one which bears his own name—but instead attacks the whole idea of a divided Congregation. Possibly one source of division lay in the circumstances of each convert's baptism: they were attaching importance to the person by whom they had been baptized or the group which had received them at their baptism. If so, Paul could demonstrate the futility of such a distinction by the fact that he personally (even though one of the parties bore his name) did no baptizing—or at least, only in a very few cases, such as
Stephanas and his family, who were among his first converts (16.15). Our second clue is that Paul himself had preached without relying on the language of worldly wisdom (17); and since the next chapters are devoted to an attack on this worldly wisdom in the light of the Gospel, it is a fair inference that the divisions, whatever the exact significance of the individual names they bore, were created by too much reliance on different intellectual formulations of the truth—rather in the manner of the schools of philosophy which proliferated in cultured Greek cities such as Athens and Corinth.
In any case, Paul's concern is to show that the doctrine of the cross (18) supersedes the trivial distinctions which are the essence of worldly wisdom. He uses three arguments.
First, look at the doctrine itself—Christ nailed to the cross (23). The learning of the Jews could make nothing of this: Jews call for miracles, a miraculously powerful Messiah, not a crucified one; and so the cross could be only a stumbling-block (23) in the way of believing that Jesus was the promised Christ. Equally, for Greeks, who look for wisdom (22) (that is to say, who expect to find the truth expressed in philosophical terms), the claim that the divine nature could be revealed in an ignominious execution was obviously folly (23). Such a doctrine, in short, did not fit the presuppositions of any
24 intellectual system; yet it was known, to those who have heard his call (24), to be an authentic revelation of God. Christ, who by any ordinary standard was a spectacle of weakness and folly, was empirically known by Christians to be the power of God and the wisdom of God. This was God's way of saving the world, not random but ordained in God's own wisdom (21), not unprepared but foretold in a prophecy of Isaiah (19) (29.14). The period of the wise and the clever (and these words of Isaiah are probably taken by Paul as pointing to both the Greek philosophers and the Jewish scholars of his own day) was that of the present passing age (20), which all Jews knew would ultimately be superseded by a more glorious age, but which Christians believed had only a brief time still to run before the imminent Day of the Lord.
Secondly, look at the intellectual calibre of the Corinthian Christians. If the doctrine of the cross had been principally an intellectual discovery, the congregation would hardly have consisted from the beginning of such undistinguished members as in fact it did. And if it was not because of their own distinction that God had chosen them (27), but rather the reverse, then the important theological point follows (which, in the original, Paul expresses in a striking Old Testament idiom): there is no place for human pride in the presence of God (29). The Corinthian Christians have nothing of their own to be proud of. Not only their new righteousness (30) (in the specifically Christian sense expounded in, for instance, Romans 3.21-8), their "consecration" (probably again their baptism) and their freedom, but even their only true wisdom, proceeds from Christ. He is their only source of pride, the only thing they have to boast of. And sincc Christ now bears the same
title as the "Lord" of the Old Testament, the words of Jeremiah are appropriate: 'If a man must boast, let him boast of the Lord' (31) (Jeremiah 9.23-4, somewhat freely quoted).
Thirdly, look at Paul himself and the manner of his original preaching. He had voluntarily renounced all subtle arguments (4), he had made no show of rhetoric, and his bearing, far from being confident and persuasive, had been nervous and unsure. There had been nothing that could have made any appeal on the level of worldly wisdom; if Paul carried conviction, it could have been only on the level of the spirit, the power of God (5).
The kind of philosophical wisdom, therefore, on which the Corinthian Christians were priding themselves and which (we may suppose) was the reason for their divisions, was no qualification for receiving the 'doctrine of the cross'. Yet the word wisdom itself was not thereby made obsolete. In the later books of the Old Testament, "wisdom" had assumed great importance as an almost personified attribute of God: it had been present at the creation of the world, it provided a clue both to the pattern of the universe and to the correct ordering of moral behaviour (see especially Job 28; Proverbs 7-9; Ecclesiasticus 24). Furthermore, one of the presuppositions of the many secret pagan rites which flourished in Paul's time was that there existed a secret and esoteric "wisdom" accessible only to initiates (and the technical Greek word for these initiates occurs here, translated those who are ripe for it (6)). In this realm of ideas, Christianity was also a kind of wisdom —God's hidden wisdom, his secret purpose (7)—but not (Paul hastens to add) a wisdom of the ordinary philosophical kind (which would be a wisdom belonging to this passing age (6)), nor even a more psychic and esoteric wisdom to do with those demonic powers which were widely believed to influence the course of the world and its rulers (Paul here calls them the powers that rule the world (7))—for these very powers had been on the wrong side (so to speak) at the time of the crucifixion, and no wisdom about them could have much to do with God. Yet a kind of wisdom it was, as Scripture itself had promised (it is not clear whether Paul's quotation (9) is a rough paraphrase of, say, Isaiah 64.4, or is drawn from some lost apocryphal writing); and it was revealed (10), not through philosophy, the rites of mystery religions, or psychic investigation, but through the Spirit.
The point is reinforced by an argument that is partly philosophical, partly psychological. It was a commonly accepted philosophical maxim that among conscious beings only like knows like. In the case of men, only man's consciousness (here called, for the purpose of the argument, man's own spirit (11)) can know what a man is. In the case of God, only the Spirit of God knows what God is. Man's consciousness, or spirit, cannot know
what God is, and no amount of human "wisdom" will help him to do so. But Christians now have a way out of this. They have received the Spirit (13), that very same Spirit of God which knows what God is; or (to put it in more psychological language) by virtue of their union with Christ they possess the mind of Christ (16), which gives them insight into the nature of God. Their language about God consequently owes nothing to human wisdom (13) (for it comes by the Spirit), and is not subject to human judgement. If a Christian is criticized by his fellow-men (15) for his presumption in claiming such knowledge, and if he is attacked with the scornful words of Isaiah (40.13), 'Who knows the mind of the Lord? Who can advise him?', he can answer that what could be said of the "Lord" of the Old Testament can now be said of Christ, and—we possess the mind of Christ.
Christian "wisdom", then, is the possession of those who have the Spirit (1). But having the Spirit is not only manifested in wisdom, it is manifested also in moral behaviour; and the jealousy and strife (3) which Paul had heard about were quite incompatible with this. Such behaviour meant that, far from being motivated by the Spirit, they were living on the purely human level (1). So Paul could not address them as people who have the Spirit. The solid food (2) of real wisdom was too advanced for them, and Paul had to give them weaker stuff. Or else (for this is another possible meaning of the Greek and yields a more logical interpretation) the single-minded concentration and 'spiritual power' of Paul's original preaching (as described above in 2.4-5) was understood by them only on the merely natural plane (3), and so turned out to be no more than milk to drink, instead of solid food (2).
What then of Apollos, Paul, and perhaps others who had influence in the church at Corinth? If they were not to be party leaders, what was their true role? Paul's answer is: essentially subordinate. We are simply God's agents (5)—literally, "deacons", men who have some kind of service to perform. Paul gives two analogies, both quite conventional:gardening and building. In either case the actual gardeners or builders are not important: all that matters is who gives the growth (God (1)), or what the foundation is (Jesus Christ himself (11)).
Not that this makes the agents' work any less responsible. Let each take care how he builds (10). The quality of each builder's work will be exposed at the day of judgement (13); and the conventional Jewish imagery of fire associated with the day of judgement is now worked into the building metaphor (even though it does not quite harmonize in every detail). Yet even the poor builder, though all his work may be lost, will escape with his life (15) (for his failure does not exclude him from the company of those who are saved). On the other hand, there is another side to this building metaphor. It was a Christian commonplace that the church is a new, "spiritual" temple. So anyone who destroys (17) this building (or begins to destroy it, as the Greek could also mean) will receive, at the same judgement, a far severer sentence— a hint which brings Paul back to the subject of those who are causing divisions in Corinth.
Anyone, therefore, who fancies himself wise (18) must not merely abandon his philosophical pretensions to eminence in the Christian congregation; if he is to gain true wisdom, he must learn to deem himself what, as a philosopher, he most despised—a fool. Verses from Job (19) (5.13) and a psalm (20) (97.11), though originally directed more against the cunning and the unscrupulous than against the philosopher, are pressed into service to reinforce the point. Equally, the congregation as a whole must learn where to place their allegiance: never make mere men a cause for pride (21).
Another consequence of the' divisions' in Corinth was that the Corinthians inevitably found themselves comparing one leader with another; and it sounds as if adverse judgements had been passed on Paul. But again, if Paul and other prominent men in the church are God's 'agents'—you might call them subordinates or stewards (1)—then the only person who can call them to account is their employer, and the only standard by which they will be judged is whether or not they have been trustworthy (2). Any human judgement at this stage is premature (5): the divine judgement, the coming of the Lord, is not far off.
All this does not merely concern the apostle Paul and his principal deputy in Corinth, Apollos. These two are taken only as examples. The principle that no member of the congregation has any reason to put himself forward as having special gifts of his own (What do you possess that was not given to you? (7)) applies to everyone, and is illustrated by what appears to have been a proverb. Unfortunately we no longer know what the proverb meant. The NEB makes a guess at it with the translation, 'keep within the rules' (6).
Yet another side-effect of these divisions is that the various party-leaders derive respect, power, and perhaps even material advantages from their position. Paul's tone is ironical, and he may be exaggerating the sense of superiority felt by these men; nevertheless, they offer a poignant contrast to himself and his real fellow-workers. Not only does Paul's work bring him insult and deprivation; it brings him an opportunity (which is denied to the proud Corinthian leaders) of penetrating into the meaning of Christian discipleship. For curses he returns blessings (12); for persecution, submission; for slander, words of persuasion and consolation (13).Such a comparison might well make the Corinthians ashamed; but this is not Paul's main purpose. He puts himself forward as an example (16), not of superior virtue or asceticism, but of the relationship which should hold between 'God's agents' and the congregation. Paul's way of life in Christ (17) is not a reference to his own moral excellence, but to the humble status and rewards which any church leader should expect to have, and which Paul is trying to establish in all our congregations.
The actual situation in the Corinthian church must have been in flagrant conflict with these principles; and Paul urges them to reform. He bases his appeal on the unique relationship which he has with them, that of father (15) as opposed to tutor (on which see below on Galatians 3.24); and he is also sending his most trusted fellow-worker, Timothy (17), to see to the matter in person. In any case he is confident that the contrast he imagines between himself and the Corinthian leaders, and the power (20) which belongs to his own gifts and authority, will be apparent the moment he is present among them. It belongs to a 'father' to bring to his children, not only love and a gentle spirit, but (if their conduct deserves it) the rod of discipline (21). It is for them to choose which side of their father's nature they wish to see when they confront him in person.
I actually hear reports (1). Divisions and quarrels were only a part of the disquieting news brought to Paul by his informants. There had also been a serious case of sexual immorality. Both Jewish law (Leviticus 18.8) and Roman law forbade a man to marry his stepmother; yet the Corinthian Christians, perhaps mistakenly thinking themselves above the law, were complacently tolerating such a relationship in their midst. Paul, without pausing to give reasons why this state of affairs was as unlawful for them as for anyone else, sternly lays down the procedure to be followed. There can be no possible reason for hesitation or further delay (in view, say, of alleged mitigating circumstances): my judgement upon the man who did this thing is already given (3). A solemn assembly of the whole congregation, with an invocation of the name and the power of our Lord Jesus (4), must pass sentence of excommunication; and at that time it seems to have been believed that exclusion from the church would be followed inevitably by sickness and death (to be inflicted by Satan (5), to use a turn of phrase current since the Book of Job). This punishment sounds extreme, but in fact it was held to be the lesser of two evils. The day of judgement was believed to be imminent; soon it would be too late. Once dead, and his sin punished, a man might still qualify for the resurrection-life of the spirit promised to all Christians; whereas if he were still alive when the day of judgement came, he would be classed with 'those on their way to ruin' (1.18).
So much for the sake of the offender. But this act of excommunication was equally necessary for the church, which might otherwise be corrupted by the presence of the offender in its midst. A familiar proverb makes the poinl well enough: 'A little leaven leavens all the dough' (6); but Paul develops the leaven idea into a piece of complex Christian imagery. A possible metaphor for describing the saving work of Christ was furnished by the Passover. Christ, who was crucified at Passover time, could be seen as the Passover sacrifice (7), and the Christian life could be described as observing the Passover festival. But—to carry the metaphor still further—the Jewish Passover festival opened a period when only unleavened bread was eaten. All the old leaven had to be cleared out and a completely fresh start made in baking (for, during the rest of the year, a scrap of dough from a previous baking would be used to leaven the new dough). In the same way, the Christian "Passover festival" must be observed by making a clean break from the leaven of corruption and wickedness (8).
This leads Paul to mention a point which had come up earlier in the correspondence. In a previous letter Paul had written that they must have nothing to do with loose livers (9). This had been (perhaps deliberately) misunderstood by the Corinthians. They had replied that, unless they got out of the world altogether, they could not possibly avoid such people. Paul now explains what he meant: he was not talking about the citizens of Corinth in general, but about people who claimed to be Christians. No such person must be admitted within the congregation—you should not even eat with any such person (11) (which may refer to ordinary social gatherings, or else, possibly, to the Lord's Supper). An injunction that was frequently laid upon the Israelite community is in this sense applicable to a Christian congregation: Root out the evil-doer from your community (Deuteronomy 13.5 and elsewhere).
Paul had also heard of another moral lapse.
Must brother go to law with brother—and before unbelievers? (6) Both in Jewish communities of the dispersion, and also in some of the religious and other unofficial societies which abounded in the Greek-speaking world, it was normal for disputes to be settled within the community, without recourse to official courts. By taking each other (their own "brothers") to law, Christians were falling below the standards even of other societies; and this was all the more inexcusable in that, at the imminent day of judgement, they were destined to have a place on the tribunal, as it were, with Christ— to judge the world (2). And not only the world: since, with Christ, they would have a place superior to all lesser beings, they were even destined to judge angels (3). On these grounds alone, the Christians' conduct was reprehensible; but Paul characteristically treats the matter on a deeper level. The whole idea of going to law with one another is far below your standard (7). It is the exact opposite of the way Christians should behave to one another. Why not rather suffer injury? (7) Furthermore, any such dispute in court will end in a verdict being given. One side or the other (even if both are Christians) will be pronounced unjust (9); and anyone who publicly places himself in one of the traditional categories of wrongdoerswill inevitably incur the traditional penalty (failure to possess the kingdom of God (10)). It is true that there are Christians who have once been such people, but who now, by virtue of their faith, can nevertheless expect to possess the kingdom. But this is no argument for doing evil now. Such people, since their wrong-doing, have been through the purifying waters (11)—they have received baptism and are enjoying all the tremendous consequences which flow from it: they have been both dedicated and justified.
'I am free to do anything' (12). These are the next words in the Greek; and since a Greek manuscript had no quotation marks we cannot be sure who is speaking. The NEB is probably right to take this as a slogan used by the Corinthians to justify their behaviour. If so, we reach here the root cause of the Corinthians' conduct. Christianity is indeed much concerned with freedom—for instance (in Paul's time), freedom from the restraints of the Jewish ceremonial law; and Paul had no wish to deny the truth of the slogan (no doubt I am free (12)). At the same time, Christians have to guard against their freedom turning into a new slavery to baser things (I for one will not let anything make free with me). Or take another of the Corinthians' slogans: 'Food is for the belly and the belly for food' (13). True; neither food nor belly has much religious importance, and the slogan was a useful one to employ against religions such as Judaism which insisted on elaborate food laws. But again, the slogan could be easily misused. If it was intended so generally that everything to do with the body was regarded as unimportant, or merely for lust (13), then not only did it become a spurious pretext for the kind of behaviour the Corinthians had been indulging in, but it contradicted a vital Christian principle. For Christians, the body is far from unimportant: it is for the Lord (13). For
(i) The resurrection, which has already taken place in Christ, and which is promised to all believers (he will also raise us (14)), is a resurrection of the body.
(ii) The union of Christians with Christ is not to be understood in a rarefied spiritual or mystical sense, but quite physically: your bodies are limbs and organs of Christ (15). So much so, that Christians have a new and powerful reason to shun one of the sins which were most sternly condemned 18,16 in Jewish ethics: fornication (18). The words in Genesis (2.24),'The pair shall become one flesh' (16), were often interpreted by Jewish scholars (as well as by Jesus himself—see above on Mark 10.1-12) in a very far-reaching sense, according to which it was held that sexual intercourse makes two people physically one. In this sense, fornication affects the body in a way no other sin does: the fornicator sins against his own body (18). And since a Christian's body is united with Christ's body, it follows that for him fornication is a sin against Christ himself.
(iii) Not only is the community a temple of the Spirit (3.16), but so also is the individual Christian. And since it was impossible for anyone educated as a Jew to make any distinction (as a Greek might do) between "body" and "soul"—in the Hebrew idiom, an individual could not be conceived of apart from his body—it followed that a Christian's body is a shrine of the indwelling Holy Spirit (19).
Christians were bought at a price (20). The metaphor is probably from purchasing slaves. The purchaser does not buy only a part of a slave, his "will" or his "soul", as if this were detachable from his body. No, the new master possesses the whole man, and the slave must honour him with his body as much as with his mind.
And now for the matters you wrote about (1). Apart from the disturbing reports he had heard about Corinthian church life, Paul's main reason for writing seems to have been a letter which he had received from the Corinthians; and the rest of 1 Corinthians is devoted mainly to answering that letter point by point. Precisely why the Corinthians had written, and whether their questions to Paul were in the form of protests against his previous teaching, or genuine requests for guidance, we cannot be sure. But in general, the first few matters on which Paul had to give an answer were practical problems which would naturally beset The Christian in a pagan society.
The first topic is relations between the sexes. It is a good thing for a man to have nothing to do with women (1). This general proposition (which, as the subsequent discussion shows, is not as general as it looks: to have nothing to do with women is a euphemism for "to avoid sexual intercourse") may be another instance of Paul quoting one of the Corinthians' own slogans (as the NEB footnote allows) and then going on to qualify it; in any case, it was a proposition with which he was in broad agreement. He himself clearly had no wife (though, since he began life as an orthodox and devout Jew, it would be surprising if he had not at one time been married), and his personal view followed from this: I should like you all to be as I am myself (7). (He also had other less personal reasons for this view, which he gives later on.) On the general principle there does not seem to have been any difference of opinion between Paul and the Corinthians; for the Corinthians clearly held the same view as Paul about sexual intercourse, though probably for more ascetic reasons. What appears to be in dispute is the extent to which the principle should be applied in practice.
First, with regard to marriage itself: both Paul's own feelings and the Corinthians' asceticism point to continence even within marriage. But not everyone has this gift (7), and Paul qualifies the principle by way of concession (6): because there is so much immorality (or, "because of the danger of it": the Greek does not necessarily imply that it is happening), normal marital relationships are allowable—and Paul prescribes a pattern for them which is in the very best philosophical and religious tradition of the ancient world.
Secondly, with regard to the unmarried and to widows (8): Paul again is in general agreement with the Corinthians, and his personal view is clear. They should stay as I am myself. But again, there is a danger that this may lead to tension or even immorality; so a similar concession is necessary.
On the other hand, there is one application of the general principle which is definitely not allowable. The ascetic approach might seem to suggest that it would be better for married couples to separate, in which case any ' concession' to married couples would be unnecessary. But against this stands the Lord's ruling against divorce (10) (which Paul evidently knew in much the same form as it has in Mark 10, Matthew 19). And although Jesus, when he gave this ruling, presumably did not envisage the problems of mixed marriages in which only one partner is a Christian, yet Paul feels justified in extending the prohibition to marriages of this kind. For in the first place, the conversion of one parent makes the whole family into a Christian household, and is bound in some way to involve the other partner (so that a mixed marriage is by no means to be thought of as a pagan marriage, to which, of course, the Lord's ruling would not apply); and secondly, it is always possible that the unbelieving partner may find salvation (16) if the marriage continues. The only exception allowed is if the heathen partner (not being subject to the Lord's ruling) wishes for a separation (15). The peace of a Christian household is not to be threatened by a desperate attempt to hold on to a non-Christian partner.
Before going on, Paul digresses a little to place the whole matter in a wider context. At this time, it seems to have been an almost unquestioned belief among Christians that the Day of the Lord, the end of the present age, would occur within the next few years; and this expectation could easily have made Christianity into an anarchic movement if Christians had started to abandon their ordinary occupations and social obligations. Paul's teaching in all our congregations (17) had been sternly against this, even with respect to slaves (though whether or not a Christian slave was supposed to seize a legitimate chance of freedom when it came is a detail which the obscurity of Paul's Greek hides from us). Any agitation of this kind would only result in their becoming once more slaves of men (23), and would be incompatible with Christians' real and dearly bought freedom. So in general (and not only with regard to marriage), each one ... is to remain before God in the condition in which he received his call (24).
This principle is relevant when Paul comes to his third topic, the question of celibacy (25). Here (by contrast with the question of divorce) there is no specific saying of Jesus to appeal to: I have no instructions from the Lord (25). But Paul can give his own judgement: although there is nothing wrong in marriage, those who are not already committed to it would do better to remain single. The time we live in will not last long (29); the pressing imminence of the end of this world places a question mark over all human possessions and institutions—even marriage, which cannot be expected to continue unchanged into the new age. If they are to take this prospect seriously, men must be prepared to look upon even marriage as something provisional—in this sense, married men should be as if they had no wives (29)—just as they must have a certain detachment from human grief, human joy, and the world's wealth (31). At the same time, the imminence of the end must never be a pretext for irresponsible conduct. Again and again in the New Testament the same lesson is drawn from the fact that the end is near: behave with decency (Romans 13.13); have no anxiety (Philippians 4.6); keep awake and sober (1 Thessalonians 5.6); be patient (James 5.7); lead an ordered and sober life (1 Peter 4.7)—and so on through at least the first century of Christian literature. The same applies to the matter in hand: the best way to be free from anxious care (32) is not to take on the commitments of married life. Yet even so, Paul is prepared to make his 'concession'. I have no wish to keep you on a tight rein (32). Neither the inclination of his own temperament, nor the Corinthians' asceticism, nor even the imminence of the Day, should be allowed to turn celibacy into an absolute rule.
Paul still had one more topic to deal with under this general heading, but we cannot be certain what it was. The Greek word parthenos means, literally, "virgin"; but it can also have a wider meaning than this; and on this one page of the NEB it has already been rendered: (i) "celibate" (male or female), and so celibacy (verse 25), (ii) virgin (verse 28), (iii) celibate woman (verse 34). The difficulty is to know what the word means in verse 36. The traditional view, accepted until the end of the last century, was that this paragraph is about the problems of parents marrying off their "virgin daughters" (as in the footnotes in NEB). But this involves severe difficulties of interpretation, and a somewhat easier view, which is adopted in the main text of NEB, is that parthenos here means partner in celibacy (36). It is assumed (on this view) that couples in Corinth were entering into a kind of "spiritual marriage", without either the legal form or the physical reality of normal marriage, and that this experiment had been subject to the inevitable strains of such relationships. Experiments of this kind took place in Christian communities in later centuries; it is not impossible that they had already begun at Corinth. If so, we may suppose that Paul, on his own principles, was not opposed to such spiritual marriages; but if the Corinthians, out of asceticism, ihoughl I hat ii was sinful 10 turn such a relationship into a real marriage, Paul's reply was: if anyone finds it necessary to take this course, he will do well (37).
Now about food consecrated to heathen deities (1). This is the next subject about which the Corinthians had written to Paul, and is one which arose out of the ordinary circumstances of life in a city such as Corinth.
The many temples and altars dedicated to the different gods of Greek religion demanded frequent sacrifices of animals. But only a small part of each animal was actually burnt on the altar; the rest was disposed of in one of two ways. Either an individual, at the time of the sacrifice, might invite his friends to join him in the temple and dine off the "consecrated" meat; or else the meat, after the sacrifice, was returned to the trade to be retailed in the meat-market.
By the ordinary citizen all this was taken for granted: it formed an accepted part both of social life and of marketing arrangements. But for the Jewish community in any such city, this connection of meat with pagan worship could not be a matter of indifference. Indeed, the Jews coined their own word for it, here translated by the phrase food consecrated to heathen deities (1), and they had a clear policy towards the whole question. Their religion forbade them to join in social gatherings in heathen temples, or indeed to sit at table anywhere with non-Jews; and their scruples about the way in which meat should be slaughtered prevented them in any case from buying meat in the ordinary market, and so protected them from the danger of eating anything that had been contaminated by pagan worship.
What was to be the attitude of non-Jewish Christians? On the one hand, their faith in the one true God (like that of the Jews) was clearly incompatible with any participation in pagan worship; on the other hand, they shared none of the Jews' scruples about eating with Gentiles or about the kind of meat they ate. To have adopted the Jewish policy would have caused them considerable difficulties: it would have cut them off from a great deal of social contact with their non-Christian friends, and would have greatly complicated their shopping in the meat-market. Yet clearly some policy was necessary, if only to demonstrate to non-Christians the seriousness of their monotheistic faith.
Paul deals first with the question of invitations to meals in pagan temples. The Corinthians had taken the line that it was best for them to go on as before, and had used certain arguments in support of this('We have knowledge' (1), 'a false god has no existence in the real world' (4)). With these arguments Paul was broadly in agreement. The worship of the many "false gods" of the Greeks could be of no significance to Christians, who had superior 'knowledge' of one God, the Father (6). (Here Paul adds some somewhat metaphysical-sounding attributes—from whom all being comes, etc.—which may already have been familiar in the church, and which receive elaboration in the letter to the Colossians). Even though for many of them (and certainly for Paul) the universe was peopled with supernatural beings such as angels and demons, and so the words 'gods' and 'lords' (5) were often on their lips, yet this did not affect the fact that there was only one God (6), infinitely superior to all such beings. And since pagan worship had no reality for Christians, association with it could do them no harm.
But Paul, though he does not dispute these premises, introduces another consideration. 'Knowledge' breeds conceit; it is love that builds (1). The relationship of love between Christians was far more important than the intellectual justification of their policy, and the Corinthians' simple solution to the problem was in danger of becoming a pitfall for the weak (9). Not all their members had reached the same point of enlightened 'knowledge'. Long association with heathen practices made it impossible for some of them to be present at sacrifices without some sense of involvement; for them, it was better to stay away, and the spectacle of their fellow-Christians openly sitting down to a meal in a heathen temple (10) might only tempt them to do what they conscientiously felt they ought not to do. Therefore, although Paul is prepared to agree that nothing to do with food can affect us so far as God is concerned, yet there may be unfortunate consequences for the Christian fellowship. It is only love that builds (1): insensitivity may lead to sin. For himself, Paul would rather take the extreme step of becoming a vegetarian than risk being the cause of my brother's downfall (13).
Am I not a free man? (1) Suddenly—and this outburst is so sudden and unexplained that it ought possibly to be regarded as a subsequent addition to the original draft of the letter—Paul begins to defend himself. Clearly he has been under some kind of attack; and he addresses at least part of this chapter against those who put me in the dock (3). He appears to be sensitive on two points: his freedom (which is relevant to the question under discussion), and his right to be called an apostle (which seems to be connected with his freedom). The fact of his apostolate could hardly be denied by the Corinthians. It rested ultimately, as with all the apostles, on the fact that after the resurrection he had had an opportunity actually to see Jesus our Lord (1); and the fruits of his work in Corinth were clear evidence that Paul had been faithful to the 'commission' he had received to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (Romans 1.5-6): you are yourselves the very seal of my apostolate (2).
So much, in general terms, the Corinthians could hardly dispute. But the accusation against Paul seems to have been on a specific point. Paul (as we are told also in Acts 18.3-4) did not expect the Corinthian congregation to provide for him, but earned his own living or relied on support from elsewhere. This he did by personal preference; but ii appears that his practice was not in line with that of the rest of the apostles (5). (Paul adds, and the Lord's s brothers: we know from the New Testament that one of Jesus' "brothers", James, became a leader of the Jerusalem church; and there is a later tradition that other relatives subsequently held a position of authority.) They, apparently, felt entitled to support from their congregations, both for themselves and for their wives. This difference of practice between Paul (and perhaps his fellow-worker Barnabas) and the others seems to have provided his opponents with an argument against him. The argument perhaps ran like this: If Paul were a real apostle, he would enjoy the same material privileges as the other apostles. But in fact he has to earn his own living. Therefore he cannot be a real apostle.
Paul attacks both the premise and the conclusion of this argument. The reason why the other apostles received support from their congregations was not because of any privilege which belonged to an "apostle" as such, but lay in the kind of work they were doing. Ordinary human analogies (8) showed that such work would entitle anyone to a reward; and indeed the principle had the authority of Scripture itself—granted a somewhat specialized method of interpretation. This method assumed that many passages of Scripture had a deeper meaning than the literal one. A passage was thought particularly likely to have such a deeper meaning if its literal sense seemed inappropriate or unedifying. Paul here applies this method to a passage in Deuteronomy (25.4): 'You shall not muzzle a threshing ox' (9) . There is no doubt that this article of the Law of Moses was originally intended to be exactly what it seems, a humanitarian regulation about the use of domestic animals in the threshing mill. But the extreme reverence in which the Law of Moses came to be held by the Jews as the revealed will of God for his people made this literal sense seem inappropriate; and Paul could say, 'Do you suppose God's concern is with oxen?' Evidently there was a hidden meaning—of course it refers to us—yielding a sense which reinforced Paul's point that work of any kind entitles the worker to a reward. Now what Paul had been doing was certainly work; so (all questions of apostleship apart) of course he was entitled to a material harvest (11). Furthermore, what was true of manual work was equally true of religious service. It was true under the temple regulations at Jerusalem (13); and it was true, on the authority of Jesus himself, of those who preach the Gospel (14). (The instructions Paul refers to were probably something like Jesus' saying recorded in Matthew 10.10, 'The worker earns his keep'. It seems unlikely that Jesus originally intended his words to be taken in quite this sense, but the early church evidently took them so.) There could be no question, therefore, but that Paul had as much right as anyone else to material support. His opponents were quite wrong on their facts. But they were also wrong in their conclusion. Paul is had come to his own decision, and had acted of his own free will. I have never taken advantage of any such right, nor do I intend to claim it in this letter (15). His reasons were entirely personal, one might almost say psychological (he has expressed them somewhat obscurely). But the important point was that he felt himself entirely free to follow his own mind on this matter—which brings him back to the question of his "freedom".
Paul's conduct, especially with regard to certain observances laid down in the Law of Moses, and perhaps also with regard to the Gentiles' problem of 'food consecrated to heathen deities', may have seemed, at times, inconsistent (and possibly this inconsistency was at the root of the charges laid against him, and made it the more difficult for him to give a ruling on practical matters of this kind). Paul does not deny this apparent inconsistency; on the contrary, he justifies it, on the grounds (i) that he is a free man (19) (free, that is, like every Christian, from religious ordinances and conventions), (ii) that he has not been exercising this freedom for its own sake, but for the sake of the Gospel (23). His willingness to accommodate himself to the scruples of others has brought him even to the point (which would particularly touch the Corinthians, and shows how they too ought to behave) that he can say, to the weak I became weak, to win the weak (22).
Not that this can have been easy. A man brought up as a strict Jew could hardly feel indifferent to the principles which had governed his whole upbringing. In the same way, the Corinthians could not expect to be able to accommodate themselves to their more scrupulous fellow-Christians without severe self-discipline. But if athletes (a popular comparison in rhetoric) were prepared to go into strict training (25) for a mere wreath of leaves (the only prize given at the Greek games), how much more should Christians be prepared to do for a wreath that never fades!
You should understand, my brothers (1). The tone becomes somewhat more severe. It may be that the Corinthians, with all their "knowledge" and "freedom", had allowed themselves to slip into a false sense of security. They believed, as Paul certainly did at the time when he wrote this letter, that the present world order was rapidly coming to an end: they were the people on whom the fulfilment of the ages has come (11), they were marked out, as it were, to be the triumphant survivors of the day of judgement, and they already possessed a supernatural guarantee of their destiny in the rites of baptism and eucharist. But—beware! You may fall (12). Paul has a warning for them derived from his reading of certain passages of Scripture.
The basic narrative referred to is contained in Exodus 13-17. The people of Israel (Paul's physical ancestors, but also, in a sense, the spiritual ancestors of Christians (1)), were preserved during their flight from Egypt by means of certain supernatural events: they were preceded (or "covered", according to Psalm 105.39) by a pillar of cloud (Exodus 13.21), they miraculously passed through the Red Sea (3) (Exodus 14), they were supplied with the supernatural food of manna (4) (Exodus 16), and were provided with drink (4) out of the rock at Horeb (Exodus 17; Numbers 20.11). This narrative had for a long time been the subject of much scholarly interpretation. Exactly how the people of Israel had passed through the Red Sea (1), for example, was a question only sketchily answered by the biblical account, and later elaborations of the story made it into a kind of ordeal by water, a symbol (as it seemed to Paul, and perhaps to other Jewish interpreters) of that baptism (2) which was one of the rites by which a proselyte was received into the Jewish community, the fellowship of Moses. To this extent, it could be said that they all received baptism, a clear foreshadowing of Christian baptism, though it was baptism, not "into Christ", but into the fellowship of Moses. Similarly, the story of the rock had received considerable elaboration. It not only provided the people with drink—even in the Exodus account it was clearly a supernatural rock (4)—but it came to be thought of, like the pillar of cloud, as a symbol of the concern of God for his people, which accompanied their travels and provided supernatural drink in the form of divine wisdom. This kind of speculation made of the rock a powerful symbol of the gifts of God to his people; and Paul was apparently only taking the same line of thought a stage further when he made it stand for the greatest of all God's gifts: that rock was Christ. In this way he found clear parallels in the Exodus narrative to the Christian sacraments of baptism and eucharist.
These events happened as symbols (6)—literally "types", that is to say, not belonging completely to the past, but pointing forward to some subsequent event. The people of Israel received supernatural blessings; but even so—the desert was strewn with their corpses (5) (Numbers 14.16 and elsewhere). Their sins (i) of desiring evil things (6) (Numbers 11.34); (ii) of idolatry ('the people sat down to feast and rose up to revel' (7) is a quotation from the story of the golden calf, Exodus 32.6); (iii) of fornication (8) (Numbers 25.1,9); (iv) of putting the power of the Lord to the test (9) (Numbers 21.5-6); (v) of being disposed to grumble against God (10) (Numbers 14. 36-7) were all duly punished—and for the last punishment Paul uses the biblical expression the Destroyer (as in Exodus 12.23). These people, then, were "types" or symbols (6); they pointed forward to those others who would also receive supernatural blessings (baptism and eucharist), and who would also stand under imminent judgement (upon us the fulfilment of the ages has come (11)). These events of past history were recorded for our benefit as a warning (13). No trial or test will be any excuse for Christians to commit these sins: punishment is as inevitable as it was for the people of Israel. So then (to take from this list the particular sin involved in the original question (8.10) of'sitting down to a meal in a heathen temple') shun idolatry (14).
So much by way of a general warning against associating with heathen worship. Paul now urges a deeper consideration. Christians had their own sacred meal, and they knew this to involve not merely a profound solidarity with each other, but also a sharing in the blood and body of Christ (16). This
sharing was doubtless unique; but it was not altogether without analogy. In the Jewish religion, for instance, the sacrifices made the participants sharers in the altar (18) (which is Paul's roundabout Jewish way of saying, sharers in God). What about pagan sacrifices? Surely the same principle could hardly apply: if it did, it would seem to imply that an idol was more than an idol, and had some supernatural existence in which the worshippers could "share". Paul would have agreed that an idol has no reality; but his argument is that the real point of resemblance rests, not on that to which the sacrifice is made, but on the act of sacrificing. The act itself is never, so to speak, neutral. If it is not offered to God, it becomes demonic. At the receiving end is not mere nothing, but demons (20) (this is proved by Scripture: Leviticus 17.7; Deuteronomy 32.17; Psalm 106.37). If a meal partaken of in a heathen temple were just an empty parody of the Lord's Supper, it might be harmless. But in fact it is a real involvement with the demonic. It is therefore quite incompatible with the communion of the Lord's table (21), and is a clear instance of that sin described in Leviticus 17.7; Deuteronomy 31.21, "They roused my jealousy with a god of no account, with their false gods they provoked me"—to which, in the Greek, Paul's question, Can we defy the Lord? (22), is a clear allusion.
Paul is now ready to give a ruling on the remaining questions raised by 'food offered to heathen deities'. He quotes once again (as above, 6.12) the Corinthians' slogan, 'We are free to do anything' (23), which in this, as in the matter of sexual morals, is the key to their behaviour; and once again he accepts it, but qualifies it with the principle that it is still more important to do what will help the building of the community (23) and to show consideration for others. The earth is the Lord's and everything in it (26) (Psalm 24.1), so that a Christian, when shopping at the meat-market, may buy anything: no one's conscience is going to be troubled. Equally, Christians may continue to accept invitations to dine at the houses of pagan friends; their "freedom" allows them to eat whatever is put before them (27). But if on such an occasion the host or a fellow-guest explicitly points out that the food has been offered in sacrifice (28) (the term used here is the one a pagan would have used, not the special Jewish term used above in 8.1), then it becomes necessary to consider questions of conscience (27), such as the inferences which may be drawn from the Christians' behaviour in public. The principle of freedom must always be qualified by another, equally important (29): give no offence to Jews, or Greeks, or to the church of God (32). Paul himself has set an example of this; and, in this matter, Paul is following Christ.
The next topic is the ordering of public worship. The Corinthians seem to have said in their letter, by way of justifying their own practice, "We have always kept you in mind; we have maintained the tradition you handed on to us". But at the same time they had been permitting women to attend services unveiled. We know very little about the background to this. The Corinthians may have thought that their new Christian principles allowed this (Paul states such a principle in verses 11-12); or they may simply have been continuing ordinary pagan practice—unfortunately, we do not know exactly what this practice would have been. Furthermore, we do not know whether this was something Paul would always have opposed, or whether he had recently changed his mind about it (hence the Corinthians' self-righteous defence). All we can say for certain is that Paul was now giving a ruling against women laying aside their veils; but his arguments are as obscure as the matter in question. They may be tentatively set out as follows:
(i) Despite the undoubted equality of the sexes before God (Galatians 3.28), there is still a certain order of precedence (3): God-Christ-man-woman. (This argument depends on an untranslatable play upon words: head is used both literally and metaphorically, and man, in Greek, means both "man" and "husband".)
(ii) An argument from custom (4-6): if shaving off the hair is a disgrace for a woman, so presumably is taking off the veil.
(iii) An argument from Scripture (7-10): the Genesis account of creation seems to imply the priority of man. In addition, there are angels to be reckoned with: either the "bad angels" of Genesis 6, or perhaps good angels such as some may have believed were present at Christian worship. In either case the veil would be important, to ward off the evil angels or to show proper respect to the good ones.
(Verses 11-12 are parenthetical: a concession that, despite these somewhat conservative arguments, in Christ's fellowship there exists a deeper partnership between man and woman.)
(iv) An argument from Nature (of a kind probably borrowed from popular Stoic philosophy) (13-15): flowing locks, and therefore presumably also veils, are "natural" for women.
(v) An appeal to universal Christian practice (16): there is no such custom among us.
But Paul has also heard about a much more serious breach of order in the Corinthians' worship. The 'quarrels and divisions' which beset the whole membership of the church are also in evidence at their services; and although there is a sense in which dissensions are necessary (19)—in that, before the Christians can take their place beside Christ at the imminent judgement, their community will need to have been already sifted out to show which ... members are sound—yet such things should not he allowed to interfere with worship. The particular abuse Paul has in mind concerns the Lord's Supper (20)—and this is the earliest account we have of the Christian eucharist. It appears that at this stage it was a real supper, supplied by the individual members of the congregation—hence the possibilities of social injustice and selfishness which had so scandalized Paul. But (even if the Corinthians had not fully realized it) it was also much more than this. It was a direct continuation of that supper which the Lord Jesus held on the night of his arrest (23); and the tradition which Paul appeals to, and for which he claims the Lord's authority, corresponds essentially with the accounts given by Matthew, Mark and (in one version) Luke. One detail is peculiar to this passage and to the longer text of Luke:
|ΚΑΝ ΕΧΩ ΠΡΟΦΗΤΕΙΑΝ ΚΑΙ ΕΙΔΩ |
ΤΑ ΜΥΣΤΗΡΙΑ ΠΑΝΤΑ ΚΑΙ ΠΑΣΑΝ |
ΤΗΝ ΓΝΩΣΙΝ ΚΑΝ ΕΧΩ ΠΑΣΑΝ ΤΗ |
ΠΙΣΤΙΝ ΩΣΤΕ ΟΡΗ ΜΕΘΙΣΤΑΝΑΙ | ΑΓΑΠΗΝ ΔΕ ΜΗ ΕΧΩ ΟΥΘΕΝ ΕΙΜΙ
AND-IF I HAVE PROPHECY AND KNOW | THE MYSTERIES ALL AND-IF I HAVE ALL THE | FAITH SO AS TO REMOVE-MOUNTAINS BUT-LOVE I DO NOT HAVE NOTHING I-HAVE-GAINED.
|Chester Beatty Papyrus P46, generally dated by writing style between ad.150 & ad.250, with an earliest assessment of c.ad.80. This part of P46, the folio of 1 Corinthians 13:2-11is at the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. View the whole passage HERE.|
The next topic on which Paul had to answer the Corinthians is indicated by the heading Spiritual gifts.
From chapter 14 it is clear that in Corinth there was one mode in particular in which the reality of the Spirit was experienced, namely ecstatic utterance (10), that is, a form of trance in which the worshipper was inspired to utter words that were either more-or-less unintelligible, or else in a foreign language unknown to the speaker.
The full Christian experience of the Spirit is highly diversified. Just as, if one follows the example of the Lord's service (5), there is more than one way in which one can serve; and just as, if one recognizes the work (literally, "working" (6)) of God in anything, one must be prepared to recognize it in everyone and everything; so with the Spirit: there is not just one possible manifestation, but in each of us the Spirit is manifested in one particular way (7). Many different kinds of gifts (which the Corinthians doubtless possessed, but had not associated with the Spirit) are in fact exercised, through the Spirit (8), and the Corinthians' particular gift of ecstatic utterance (10) does not even come very high on the list.
To drive this point home, Paul uses an analogy which was popular among philosophers of his day: the members of any human society are related to each other like the limbs of a body. The analogy was commonly used to demonstrate the interdependence of the various members; and this is a sufficiently Christian point (especially as it touches the treatment of humbler members (24)) for Paul to devote a few lines to it here. But there is another implication. The body-analogy would make no sense if all the members of the society were identical—if they all had the same function or the same gifts. If the whole were one single organ, there would not be a body at all (19). In so far, then, as the Christian community is like a body, there must be, not just one gift, but varieties of gifts (4).
But is the Christian congregation like a body? And if it is, what has this to do with the Spirit? May not the analogy simply show that from the point of view of, say, administrative organization or social status, the congregation does indeed consist of different kinds of people closely dependent upon one another? It may still be the case that the Spirit (as the Corinthians probably believed) manifests itself in one gift only.
By way of answer, Paul shows that the body-analogy is more than a rhetorical commonplace: it applies to the Christian congregation in a quite special (some would say "mystical") way. When Christians are baptized, they are brought into a close unity, not only with one another, but with Christ (12). As a result, Christ, present as he is in a congregation of Christians who have been united with him through baptism, is like a single body with its many limbs and organs. To put it still more boldly: you are Christ's body (27). And if anyone doubts that this involves the Spirit, he need only recall the circumstances and nature of his baptism. Baptism is in the one Spirit (13). To use another metaphor (which we cannot interpret with certainty: it may come from water being poured into different channels for irrigation, or into different cups for drinking), one Holy Spirit was poured out for all of us (13). This means, of course, an end to all racial and social barriers (a point very precious to Paul—see Galatians 3.26-8—though not strictly relevant here); but it also means that the Spirit is given to all of us, not just those who experience ecstatic utterance. So that the congregation, if it is to be in a true sense a body, must exhibit varieties of gifts (4).
How does this work out in practice? Within our community God has appointed, in the first place apostles (28)—and there follows a whole list of the different offices and gifts which (we may suppose) were in fact exercised in the congregation. Since all these should be present in the community, the situation would be absurd if all the members had one and the same gift and function. Moreover, the gift to which the Corinthians attached so much importance—ecstatic utterance—comes right at the bottom of the list. If there was a lack of diversity at Corinth, it was because the Corinthians were not aiming high enough: they were resting content with one relatively unimportant gift.
And now I will show you the best way of all (12.31). Over against the Corinthians' slogans of "knowledge" and "freedom", Paul has had occasion to invoke a still more important principle, that of 'building the community' (10.23) and of showing consideration for all its members (including the weakest). He has already once called this principle, quite simply, 'love' (8.1); and now, in view of the Corinthians' exclusive reliance on one particular gift of the Spirit, he draws out some of its implications. What is this 'love'? It is often felt that the old English word "charity" is still a better translation of the Greek word agape. An almost decisive objection to this (at least in a modern translation) is that in contemporary speech the word "charity" no longer bears its original meaning, and now has the quite different sense of "charitable institutions". On the other hand, it is certainly true that when the early Christians used the word agape, it was a far less common word, and had a far narrower range of meanings, than our modern word "love". Indeed, so far as we can tell, the word did not belong to ordinary speech at all, the commonest expressions being eros (which was predominantly sexual love) and philia (friendship). Agape occurred in the Greek version of the Old Testament; but it seems to have been only among Christians that the word became important, and if we wish to learn its meaning we have to go to the New Testament itself. It occurs most frequently in the gospel and letters of John, where it denotes the self-giving love of God towards man, as expressed in Jesus Christ, and the responding love of man towards God and towards his fellow-men. The word, in fact, is not psychological at all, but is a technical term of the Christian vocabulary. It derives its meaning from the act of God in Christ, and it shows its distinctively Christian character by the fact that it is entirely without self-interest or possessiveness, and is untouched by any of the mixed motives and emotions often associated with the words "love", "friendship" or "affection". Compared with this love (1), not only speaking in tongues of men or of angels (the phenomenon of 'ecstatic utterance' which is the immediate subject of these chapters), but the possession of knowledge, the effort of faith, even the ultimate act of self-sacrifice—any one of which, it might be thought, would be sufficient in itself to mark out the true Christian—are relatively insignificant.
The structure of the next paragraph (4-7) is slightly obscured in the NEB. It consists of a carefully composed series of short clauses, of each of which the subject is love. As a result, love seems almost personified—much as, in the later books of the Old Testament, the concept of "wisdom" is almost endowed with an independent existence of its own, and is made to say, for example, "I have counsel, I have sound wisdom, I have insight, I have strength" (Proverbs 8.14—a passage which may have been in Paul's mind here). We do not know—and perhaps there is little point in trying to guess— what led Paul to write in this way. Some have thought that the passage is a portrait of Jesus himself; others, that Paul was showing love to be the exact opposite of all those failings for which he had to criticize the Corinthians; others again, that he was using the form of an existing pagan hymn. Whatever the explanation, the passage remains a psychologically perceptive and (so far as we know) brilliantly original description of true Christian motivation.
Love will never come to an end (8). The statement meant something slightly different to Paul from what it means to us. Paul did not operate with our modern conception of eternity. His perspective was much shorter. The present world order, he believed, was coming rapidly to an end. His question was not so much, What will last for ever? as, What elements of Christian experience will continue into the new age, and what elements will pass away? He had a criterion to hand. The new age, being a revelation of God and of the sons of God (Romans 8.19), will be characterized by "wholeness": knowledge, prophecy and the like are partial (9), they bear the same imperfect relation to the reality which is to come as childish things (11) to adult life, or puzzling reflections (12) in the metal mirrors of antiquity to real objects; but in the new age, knowledge will be whole, we shall see face to face. It: follows that all partial phenomena, such as the more obvious and sensational
gifts which the Corinthians were so proud of, will come to an end. By contrast, there are three things that last for ever: (i) faith (13)—which is here used in a quite different sense from verse 2 above, where it denotes an act of the will (compare the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 17.20): here it is "faith" in a large sense, the total self-committal of the person to God, something which by its very nature cannot be partial, and so will continue into the future age; (ii) hope—which includes the object hoped for (like 'the hope stored up for you in heaven', Colossians 1.5) and so necessarily belongs to the coming age; and (iii) love. Possibly Paul did not invent this triad, for it seems to underlie other passages in his letters (1 Thessalonians 1.3; 5.8; Colossians 1.4-5), and may already have been a motto in the church. But all three pass the test of "wholeness", and together they form the basic constituents of that part of Christian life and experience which (unlike so much of what the Corinthians set store by) is of enduring value.
Having talked of 'varieties of gifts' in general, and of that love which is the greatest of them all, Paul now brings the discussion back to the point from which it started: the undue importance attached by the Corinthians to ecstatic utterance. What has been said in praise of love is not intended to be a depreciation of spiritual gifts altogether: there are othergifts of the Spirit (1) at which you should aim also. But even among these gifts, the language of ecstasy (2) cannot be given pre-eminence, for it does not meet the a essential requirement (as love supremely does) of building up the community. By this standard, a higher place is held by the less spectacular but ultimately more valuable gift of "prophesying"; for prophecy, though it was also an inspired form of utterance, was by definition (unlike the language of ecstasy) intelligible to its hearers. Ecstatic utterance cannot be of more than limited value so long as its unintelligibility prevents it from being a gift that will build up the community (5).
Nevertheless, Paul is careful not to disparage a gift which often so obviously does proceed from the Spirit. He does not recommend its discontinuance or suppression, but only that it should be so far as possible accompanied by the ability to interpret (13). In the absence of such interpretation, ecstatic utterance may be as meaningless as the untutored strumming of a musical instrument (7-9). Again, praying and praising God is not done entirely by human thought and effort, but by the Spirit (14) within us (14) (Romans 8.15; Galatians 4.6); and although this receives striking demonstration if the form taken by these prayers and praises is ecstatic utterance (18) (as Paul knows from his own experience), yet even in his own case he would rather speak five intelligible words (19). The gifted Corinthians must learn to pray and sing, not only under inspiration, but at the same time intelligently (15), so that one of their number who is a plain man may not feel himself excluded from their worship, but can say his 'Amen' at the right place. The ultimate significance of the phenomenon can be inferred from Scripture (or the Law (21), as Paul can loosely call even a quotation from one of the prophets). Paul quotes Isaiah 28.11-12 in a Greek version otherwise unknown to us. This version contained the word men of strange tongues, which Paul sees as a reference to 'ecstatic utterance'. In Isaiah, the context (at least in Paul's somewhat abbreviated quotation) shows that those for whose benefit the phenomenon
takes place are unbelievers (22)—that is, those who, despite everything, will never believe. Believers, and those who may still be brought to the faith, must be addressed, not in tongues, but in prophecies (21). It is the searching and convincing character of prophecy, not the spectacular but unintelligible flow of ecstatic tongues, which will force from the visitor the scriptural confession, 'God is certainly among you' (Zechariah 8.23).
To sum up, my friends (26). Paul is now ready to give specific instructions about the ordering of public worship. The overriding principle must be to build up the church; and this dictates a strict control of ecstatic utterances, a careful ordering of different individuals' contributions, and mutual agreement between those who receive inspiration on how to work peacefully together. One other instruction is added, of a purely conventional kind: women should not address the meeting (34). It is not clear how this is to be reconciled with 11.5 above, which seems to envisage women "prophesying". Either Paul is being inconsistent, or else there is a distinction between "prophesying" and "addressing the meeting" which we cannot now understand. In any case, the reason is plain: things must be done as in all congregations of God's people, and the Corinthians have no right to assume that they can set the standard. Moreover, Paul is in touch with all those congregations, and is himself an apostle: he writes with the Lord's authority (37). If it were to come to the test, anyone who disagreed on a matter such as this would place himself outside the church. If he does not acknowledge this, God does not acknowledge him (38).
How can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? (12) A statement to this effect must have stood in the Corinthians' letter to Paul, and he devotes a long chapter to his reply. Once again, we are at a disadvantage in that we do not possess the whole correspondence, and can only guess at the real nature of the Corinthians' difficulties.
The resurrection of the dead is not to be thought of as a general term for any kind of Life after death. It was the specifically Jewish doctrine that, at the Last Judgement, all those who had died would be resurrected bodily, in order to receive the appropriate sentence of punishment or reward. The righteous would then receive a new body which would enable them to enjoy the everlasting felicity prepared for them. This doctrine was taken over into Christianity with only slight modifications. Christians believed that their resurrection had already been anticipated, as it were, by the resurrection of Christ (through whom they were able to experience, here and now, something of their future resurrection life), and that in their own lifetime (as most seem to have believed at the time this letter was written) they would experience the general resurrection of all men, when they would share with Christ the office of judging the rest of the world. But in its essentials their belief about life after death was based on the Jewish doctrine of resurrection.
Not all Jews subscribed to this doctrine. We know, for instance, that the Sadducees roundly denied it, on the grounds that it was not written into the Old Testament. But it is not likely to have been such ultra-conservative Jews, now become Christians, who were denying it at Corinth. It is much more probable that the question was raised by members of the Corinthian congregation who came from a Greek background, and who found the Jewish way of looking at life after death both crude and improbable. They would have been accustomed to think of it in abstract and conceptual terms. Immortality of the soul, for instance, would have been a concept they were thoroughly familiar with. The Jewish belief in a literal raising up of the physical body would have made little sense to them; and some of them may well have thought that it was by no means an essential part of Christianity. Moreover, the imminence of the Day of the Lord may have made the question seem somewhat academic. They would still be alive, so they believed, at the end of the age (unless they forfeited this hope in some such way as Paul refers to above, 11.30), and some of them evidently imagined that they would pass unchanged into the new age (if indeed they had not already done so)—a naive belief which Paul explicitly refutes with the words, flesh and blood can never possess the kingdom of God (50).
Paul leads into his reply by recalling the Gospel as I preached it to you (2). The salient facts of this Gospel are here laid out with a clarity and precision which certainly help the argument, but which may also reflect the language of such summaries of the faith (or "creeds") as were already in use in the church.
(i) Christ died for our sins, in accordance with the scriptures (3). It was already a basic tenet of the Christian faith that the crucifixion had taken place according to the will of God, and could he found to have been foretold in the scriptures. To our minds, Isaiah 53 seems the one passage in the Old Testament which clearly foreshadows this event and offers a clue to its significance. But although this passage was often quoted in the early church (see especially 1 Peter 2.22-5), it is not necessarily the one referred to here. Many other passages seemed now to have gained their true meaning in the light of particular episodes in the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ.
(ii) He was buried (4).
(iii) He was raised to life on the third day, according to the scriptures. Again, there is no explicit prediction of Christ's resurrection in the Old Testament. But the first Christians were quick to find allusions to it in such passages as Psalm 16.10 (Acts 13.35).
(iv) He appeared to Cephas ... (5) One of the qualifications of an apostle was to have witnessed an appearance of Christ after the resurrection. Accounts of such appearances occur at the end of Luke's and John's gospels, and can be used to fill out Paul's summary. But Paul also mentions appearances which are not recorded in the gospels. The most significant of these is the appearance to James (7), the brother of Jesus, who had by now assumed the leadership of the Jerusalem church, but who was clearly not a disciple of Jesus before the resurrection. It was presumably this appearance which turned him from an unbeliever into a church leader (and probably also an ''apostle"—though the language both here and at Galatians 1.19 is ambiguous on this point). In much the same way, as the last and by far the most dramatic of the series (an abnormal birth (8)), Paul also was made an eye-witness and apostle—the full story is recounted by him in Galatians 1—and his apostleship had been confirmed by the evident success of his efforts; or rather (Paul hastens to add), by the grace of God working with me (10).
Thus the miracle by which Paul became an eye-witness and an apostle was a part of that single sequence of events which also included the resurrection of Christ, and which together made up the gospel. Of these basic facts there was only one possible version. This is what we all proclaim, and this is what you believed (11). It followed that to deny any part of it would be to make our gospel (literally, "our proclamation "—the sentence in the original picks up the language of verse 11) null and void, along with your faith (literally, "belief", again picking up verse 11). And this gives Paul his first point against those who say there is no resurrection of the dead (12). His arguments may be set out as follows.
(i) A reductio ad absurdum. If the dead are not raised, it follows that Christ was not raised (15). But this conclusion is incompatible both with the apostles' basic proclamation and the Corinthians' own belief. Not only that, but if it were true it would be a doctrine of despair. If Christ were still dead and buried, there would be no sense in which Christians could now be united with him, and so no release from their old state of sin (17); moreover, (Christians who had died could expect no better destiny than Christ himself, and so would be utterly lost. Verse 19 is somewhat obscure in the Greek, but its purpose is clearly to underline the misery of a hope which is bounded by the limits of human existence. Clearly, then, as applied to Christ, the proposition that the dead are not raised must be false (16).
But this is only half the answer. Christ may have been raised from the dead, but it does not follow that there is a resurrection for others. Christ's resurrection might have been altogether exceptional. Paul still has to prove that "resurrection" is a valid concept for men, and not merely for the Son of God. To do this he uses.
(ii) the argument from solidarity (20-2). This is essentially the same point as is elaborated in Romans 5, though there is a slight difference of emphasis. In both passages, the skeleton of the argument is the same: just as man's solidarity with Adam produced (and still produces) death, so our solidarity with Christ, who has been raised from death to life, procures for us a new resurrection-life. In Romans, where the subject in hand is Christian living, this is applied mainly to the present. Here, it is applied to the future: in Christ all (22) (by which Paul presumably means, all Christians) will be brought to life. Paul's concern in this paragraph is not with Christian living in the present age, but with the future hope which he expects very shortly to be realized. And this leads him into a digression.
The final culmination of history is not to be thought of as a single event, but as an ordered process, setting each in his own proper place (23). Christ himself is the firstfruits—his resurrection, that is to say, is a sure sign of the imminent resurrection of others, just as the first handful of ripe grain is a sign of the harvest that must very soon be gathered. The present time is that brief interval; afterwards, at his coming, the promised resurrection will take place of those (whether dead or still alive) who belong to Christ. Then (24)—and we expect further categories, such as those who are not Christians; and litis passage has sometimes been interpreted as if it offered a kind of phased programme for different classes of men. But in fact Paul moves into entirely mythological language. Instead of human beings, the subjects become God, Christ, and those angelic or demonic entities which peopled the universe of Jewish (and often of Greek) speculation: every kind of domination, authority and power (24), and, finally, the personified figure of death (26).
What Paul appears to be doing is working into his scheme (27-8) of the final resurrection a Christian interpretation of two passages from the psalms. The passages are these:
"The Lord said to my lord, sit at my right hand until I make your enemies (he footstool under your feet" (Psalm 110.1).
"Thou makest him master over all thy creatures; thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet" (Psalm 8.6).
The first of these passages was referred by the Jews to the coming Christ, and was present to the mind of Jesus himself (Matthew 22.44); the second was
also regarded by the early Christians as a prophecy about Christ (Ephesians 1.22; Hebrews 2.6-9). Both seemed to imply a period when the whole created universe would be gradually brought under the lordship of Christ; and Paul conceives of this part of the drama as being played out on a metaphysical stage, with an appropriately metaphysical climax: God will be all in all (28).
After this digression, Paul comes abruptly back to the point with his third argument proving that there is a resurrection of the dead.
(iii) An argument from Christian practice (29). We know nothing more about this custom of baptism on behalf of the dead, beyond the fact that various forms of it lingered on in certain parts of the church for some centuries. Presumably, the Corinthians believed that, by a kind of vicarious baptism, they could bring into the promised kingdom relatives and friends who had died before the coming of the gospel. Paul does not comment on this practice; he merely remarks that it presupposed the resurrection.
(iv) An argument from Paul's own sufferings (30-2). If there were no resurrection beyond this life, the old saying (which occurs in Isaiah 22.13, but was of course also a commonplace in both Greek and Latin literature) 'let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die' would be a valid philosophy of life, and all that Paul had gone through would be pointless.
Possibly in the series belongs
(v) a moral argument (33-4). The imminence of the day of judgement and resurrection was a powerful spring of Christian moral conduct, and was often invoked to inculcate sobriety, uprightness, decency and the like (see above on Romans 13.12). Those who denied the resurrection were thereby removing this moral pressure, and could have an effect on the good character (33) of their fellow-Christians. Paul here quotes a line from a comedy by the Greek playwright Menander, which had doubtless, like many other lines from his plays, become proverbial.
But, you may ask, how are the dead raised? (35) Even granted the force of Paul's arguments: if there is a resurrection, how is it to be conceived? In what kind of body? The Greek mind would still find the bodily aspect of the resurrection difficult to believe in, and we know that the Jews themselves were sometimes puzzled by the question. Accordingly, Paul suggests answers to the difficulty that are drawn from both Jewish and Greek culture.
(i) The analogy of the seed (36-8), which receives a new body when it grows into a plant. This analogy was used by Jewish scholars.
(ii) Ancient medicine recognized different kinds of flesh (39-44); popular philosophy recognized different kinds of bodies.
(iii) The creation story (44-9) (Genesis 2.7) suggests a distinction between animal body and spiritual body (44). This is hard to render in English. When God breathed breath into Adam he made him a "living soul"—meaning that Adam was now, like the animals, breathing, alive, an animate being (45). But the life given by Christ (the last Adam) is on the level of the spirit; and we, by our solidarity with this second Adam or heavenly man (48), will receive a "spiritual" body, as opposed to our old "animal" one.
All these distinctions provide possible ways to conceive of a bodily resurrection. They preclude, either a crudely realistic conception of the coming age, or the suggestion (apparently made by some Christians in Corinth) that those who survived to Christ's coming would pass unchanged into the kingdom of God. Paul declares his own convictions on the matter: I will unfold a mystery (51). It is true, some of us will be alive on the Day: we shall not all die. But, whether alive or dead, when the moment comes we shall all be changed (52). A new kind of body will be given to all; and drawing on the conventional Jewish imagery of the last day, as well as on the popular philosophical distinction between mortal and immortal, perishable and imperishable (53), Paul paints a vivid picture of how it will all happen.
Two prophecies (Isaiah 25.8 and Hosea 13.14) will then be fulfilled (54); and the words of the second, 'O Death, where is your sting?', serve to relate this whole vision of the future to the present victorious reality of Christian life. What did the prophet mean by death's sting? He meant (so Paul interprets his somewhat free quotation) that factor in human life to which death is specifically related (sin), and which is seen in its full enormity and power when its only opposite is the law (56). Over both these (in a manner expounded at length in Romans 5) God gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (57).
This brings Paul to the end of his argument. It was impossible to do without the concept of resurrection, for it was absolutely basic to the Christian faith. Nor was there any need to be put off by the crudity with which the concept was often presented in Jewish circles: many Jews themselves had worked out a perfectly credible analysis of it, and moreover Christianity had introduced important modifications. Indeed, resurrection was not merely a concept any sophisticated person could accept—it was an imminent eventuality. Therefore, my beloved brothers (58)—the usual Christian exhortation in view of imminent judgement and glory—stand firm and immovable. As the building metaphor in chapter 3 has made abundantly plain, if it is in the Lord your labour cannot be lost.
One more question in the Corinthians' letter remained to be answered. We know that Paul had committed himself to raise a collection (1) from the churches which he had founded for the Christian community in Jerusalem. The necessity for this may have begun with a real shortage of food there (Acts 11.27-30), and it subsequently became a standing obligation of the gentile churches towards the parent church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2.10; Romans 15.26). The question bulks larger in Paul's Second Letter (2 Corinthians 8-9), but it seems that the Corinthians already had queries, if not complaints, to put to Paul about it. They had been told about the collection, and had doubtless accepted it in principle; but they were perhaps proposing to do nothing about it for the time being, and they may possibly have had doubts (if we may read between the lines of the accusations brought against Paul later on) about the uses to which Paul was going to put the money. Paul has apparently already had to give more specific directions to another group of congregations, those in Galatia, and he now repeats them here: the Corinthians must start laying money aside privately, and (he assures them) their own representatives will have a part in delivering the money to its destination.
This leads on to Paul's immediate plans. He is at present at Ephesus (doubtless the stay described in Acts 19), and plans to stay until after the Jewish feast of Pentecost (Whitsuntide (8)). He will then travel, not by the direct route across the sea, but all the way round by land—by way of Macedonia (5)—which will mean that he can hardly be in Corinth before the autumn, by which time the season for sea travel will be nearly over, and he may stay perhaps even for the whole winter (6).
The commendations which follow are more than formalities. Timothy (10) (whose visit was promised above, 4.17) will have the serious and difficult task of restoring proper order in the church; and (perhaps particularly in view of his youth, compare 1 Timothy 4.12) Paul insists that no one must slight him. Apollos, an important figure in the Corinthian church and presumably particularly popular with the party which bore his name, is refusing to return at present, and Paul has to apologize for him. It is some indication of the disorder at Corinth that Stephanas (15), one of Paul's first converts, and two other men otherwise unknown to us (Fortunatus and Achaicus (17)) have not been receiving the respect which they deserve in virtue both of their seniority and of their devoted work. It is indeed their visit to Paul in Ephesus which has alerted him to the disquieting state of affairs at Corinth, and he finds it necessary to make a personal appeal for a warm reception for them when they return.
On Aquila and Prisca and on the kiss of peace (19), see above on Romans 16.3 and 16.16. As was usual (see below on Galatians 6.11), Paul adds a greeting in his own hand (21), along with three phrases which may be intended to mark the transition between the reading of the letter to the assembled church and the beginning of the celebration of the eucharist:
(1) a formula of exclusion from the congregation: let him be outcast (22) (literally, anathema). Compare Revelation 22.15.
—(2) Mar ana tha: a phrase in Aramaic, which doubtless occurred in the prayers of the first Christians. Paul leaves it in the original language—doubtless it was perfectly familiar to his readers; the NEB provides us with what is the most probable translation: Come, O Lord! The same prayer occurs at the end of Revelation (22.20), where it is also followed by
(3) the grace (23).