First Corinthians from a Reader’s Point of View: Few Questions, Devices and Reflections

Posted: November 24, 2011 in General

I Corinthians 1: (1) Need more information about the identities of Sosthenes, Chloe’s People, Crispus and Gaius, and Stephanas. Was Sosthenes co-author or amanuensis of the letter? Was Sosthenes a later name of Crispus? Can we consider Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17) as Chloe’s People? (2) It is confirmed that there were at least four parties in Corinthian church. The expressions of Paul, like “you should be in agreement”, “there should be no divisions”, “you should be united”, and “there are quarrels among you”, are criticisms posed against the church. (3) Corinthians were “enriched in him (in Jesus), in speech and knowledge of every kind”, “not lacking in any spiritual gift”, and “called into the fellowship of the Son”, but still they were divided. (4) The importance of Gospel proclamation: (a) Baptism was secondary to ‘proclamation’ in Pauline mission; (b) Centrality of the Cross was affirmed; and (c) Only through Gospel proclamation “the Cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power”.

I Corinthians 2: (1) Dualistic elements are central in this little chapter. Paul distinguishes between ‘human and divine’, ‘spiritual and non-spiritual’, ‘human spirit’ and ‘divine spirit’, and ‘human wisdom and divine wisdom’. (2) Expressions pointing to ‘human’: “lofty words or wisdom”, “plausible words of wisdom”, “human wisdom”, “wisdom of this age”, “human, but only human spirit understands”, “spirit of this world”, “taught by human wisdom”, and “unspiritual”. (3) Expressions pointing to ‘divine’: “demonstration of the spirit and of power”, “power of God”, “God’s wisdom, secret and hidden”, “revealed to us through the spirit”, “spirit of God”, “spirit that is from God”, “taught by the spirit”. (4) Paul is able to understand the context and the people. Corinthian believers are not reckoned as wise, powerful and noble by human standards (cf. 1:26). Hence, he is not using ‘sophisticated’ and ‘intellectual’ jargonism, as he employed at Athens (Acts 17). Paul’s ‘accommodation method’ is a noticeable feature here.

I Corinthians 3: (1) “Boasting about human leaders” and the resultant quarrel/division among them make Corinthian Church a “community/people of flesh” (not “spiritual people”) and people who are still at the “infancy stage”. (2) Why did Apollos supporters challenge Pauline leadership? What was the basis of the division, doctrinal or regional or something else? (3) Metaphorical expressions used in relation to the church: “God’s field”, “skilled master builder”, “laid a foundation”, “building on it”, “fire will test”, “God’s temple” and the like. (4) Ironies: “you should become fools so that you may become wise” and “the wisdom of this world is foolishness”. (5) A chain of linkage: “all belong to you (Corinthians)”, “you belong to Christ” and “Christ belongs to God”. (6) As Paul points out, a divided church has to be considered as an “immature church”. Such kind of churches is to be instructed/taught not sophisticated theology but foundational doctrines. Only churches with maturity can understand sophisticated theology. A church may be two hundred years old, but, if divided, still that one is at the infancy stage.

I Corinthians 4: Paul’s language looks persuasive/rhetoric as he attempts his best to interlock his readers with himself and his writing. Do you think that Paul changes his tone? In chapter 3, Paul presents both himself and Apollos in equal terms as ‘servants of God’ through them Corinthians came to believe. But in chapter 4, when he concludes the section on the issue of ‘disunity’, he presents himself as their ‘father’ while Apollos as one of the ‘guardians’. Then he plainly says to them that “be imitators of me”. Was Paul affirming his apostolicity over against the influential charisma of Apollos? Do you think that there was a real issue between Paul and the Corinthians (cf. vv. 1-5)?

I Corinthians 5: (1) Paul addresses a kind of sexual immorality that is not found even among pagans in harsh language, as follows: “he who has done this would have been removed from among you”, “I have already pronounced judgment… on the man who has done such a thing”, “hand this man over to Satan”, “a little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough”, “not to associate with anyone… who is sexually immoral… do not even eat with such a one” and “drive out the wicked person from among you”. (2) Paul distinguishes between “insiders” and “outsiders”. (3) Was the “Previous Letter” (Letter of Paul to Corinthians written and dispatched before First Corinthians; cf. v. 9) exclusively dealing the subject-matter of “sexual immorality”? Do you think that the “Previous Letter” is inserted in Second Corinthians (see 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1)? Or the Letter as a whole is lost?

I Corinthians 6: (1) “Insider” and “outsider” bifurcation is more conspicuous in ch. 6. Paul says that issues between believers must be solved within the four walls of the church; do not take them to the Gentile courts. Can we think that the issue of lawsuits with one another developed on the basis of Paul-Apollos conflict within the church? (2) Paul’s attempt to highlight the centrality of the cross and the crucified/resurrected Christ is magnificent. The connecting thread within First Corinthians is “Theology of the Cross”. Christ, one who suffered, crucified, and resurrected according to the scriptures, should be placed at the centre of Christian Theology. The current trend of placing an “Affluent Christ” at the centre of interpretation/preaching/pedagogy can be considered as a clear mark of deviation from the Gospel.

I Corinthians 7: (1) Paul clearly distinguishes between Jesus’ commandments and his own opinions: “…I say by way of concession…” (v. 6), “…I say that it is well…” (v. 8), “…I give this command-not I but the Lord…” (v. 10), “…I say-I and not the Lord…” (v. 12), “…this is my rule…” (v. 17b), “…I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion…” (v. 25) and “…I say this for your own benefit…” (v. 35a). (2) Paul is advocating ‘unmarried life’ strongly than ‘married life’: “…he who marries does well…; and he who refrains from marriage will do better”. (3) Paul suggests the following aspects for a better marital life: ‘husband and wife should give conjugal rights to each other’; ‘wife has authority over her husband’s body… husband has authority over his wife’s body’; ‘do not deprive each other…’; ‘wife should not separate from her husband… husband should not divorce his wife’; ‘believing husband must not divorce his unbelieving wife… believing wife must not divorce her unbelieving husband’; ‘wife must save her husband… husband must save his wife’; and ‘a wife is bound as long as her husband lives’. (4) Do you think that Paul was in support of slavery (cf. vv. 21-24)?

I Corinthians 8: (1) A good analysis/study of the following clauses is required as they are put in single inverted commas in NRSV (cf. UBS4/Nestle-Aland): ‘…all of us posses knowledge…’ (v. 1b); ‘…no idol in the world really exists…’ (v. 4); ‘…there is no God but one…’ (v. 4); and ‘…food will not bring us close to God…’ (v. 8). (2) Paul’s call for ‘monotheistic faith’ in a context in which ‘polytheistic beliefs’ is noticeable (cf. vv. 5-6). (3) Father-Son functional similarity is reflected in v. 6: ‘God the Father’/’Jesus Christ’ = ‘from whom are all things’/’through whom are all things’ = ‘for whom we exist’/’through whom we exist’. (4) Conscience of two parties: of those who are eating (v. 7b)/of those who see eating (vv. 10 and 12). Did Paul really blame the practice of eating food sacrificed to idols? In a multi-religious and pluralistic context, how we will amicably solve issues of this sort?

I Corinthians 9: (1) Paul continually asks ‘rhetorical questions’ all through the chapter. (2) He is attempting to defend (apologia; cf. v. 3) his apostleship, rights, and others. (3) He proves his ‘apostleship’… may be over against his opponents’ increasing criticisms… he says: “you (Corinthians) are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord”… sometimes, readers get an impression that Paul is getting over-emotional. (4) Paul’s zeal for the “proclamation of the Gospel” is reflected extensively…. (5) Paul’s ‘accommodation method’ for the sake of the gospel: he is willing to become ‘a Jew’… ‘one under the law’… ‘one out of the law’… ‘weak’… ‘all things’. I think: “accommodation is the starting point of contextualization”. (6) Finally, in order to tell about the activity of Gospel proclamation he uses metaphorical language: “race… runners… prize… run… win… athletes… garland… disqualified…”

I Corinthians 10: (1) All the inter-textual references from the OT look sometimes like ‘similitude(s)’, sometimes ‘allegories’, and sometimes ‘figurative language/expressions’. Paul employs textual interweaving as one of the primary techniques in order to interlock the OT scriptures with his writings. (2) Paul urges that believers must live a life of ‘separation’ from the world while living in closer association with the non-believers. (3) Paul’s attitude in a multi-religious/multi-cultural context is revealed as he says: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please everyone in everything I do” (v. 33). His attempt to “please everyone” cannot be seen negatively, but as a reconciliatory and conflict-resolving initiative. I heard people say/preach that “we cannot please people”. But Paul’s “Theology of Pleasing Everyone” looks like an good one.

I Corinthians 11: Problems of Head Covering in worship (vv. 1-16) and Abuses of the Lord’s Supper (vv. 17-34). (1) Paul attempts to interlock spiritual traditions, natural laws and social norms in Christian beliefs and practices. After considering the social norms he told: “…it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved…” (v. 6b) and “…nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him…” (v. 14). (2) A chain of sequence: God-Christ-husband-wife. Paul says: “Man is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man”. Do you think that Paul considered women inferior to men? I do not think. Paul did things differently and contextually in order to maintain ‘order’ within the ecclesiastical context. How you see all? Based on v. 19 (“…indeed, there have to be factions among you…”), do you think that Paul encouraged factions among Corinthians? While saying “…only so will it become clear who among you are genuine…”, was Paul intending to say that his supporters were genuine…?!

I Corinthians 12: (1) A trinitarian formula (vv. 4-6): varieties of gifts (charismaton), but ‘one’ Spirit; varieties of services (diakonion), but ‘one’ Lord; and varieties of activities/operations (energematon), but ‘one’ God. The One-One-One becomes the “Three-in-Oneness” of God. The oneness of Father-Son-Holy Spirit is the basis for Christian unity. (2) The metaphor of ‘Body’ emphasizes oneness …with the following expressions: “Greeks and Jews”, “slaves and free”, “many but one”, “weaker are indispensable”, “less honourable must be clothed with greater respect”, “greater honour to the inferior member”, “there may be no dissension within the body”, “same care for one another”, “if one suffers, all suffer”, “if one honoured, all rejoice”, “body of Christ and individually member”, and “consist of many”. I think, in Chapter12, the highlight is not on the spiritual gifts, but building the body of Christ in unity. What do you think?

I Corinthians 13: The Greatest Love Hymn. (1) Without love, “I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”, “I am nothing”, and “I gain nothing”. (2) All the spiritual gifts, especially gift of prophesy, gift of tongue, and gift of knowledge, are partial in essence. But, love (agape) is greatest, eternal, and complete. (3) More than attempting to acquire one or all the spiritual gifts, believers need to strive for the ‘gift of love’. Love is simple and at the same time costly/sacrificial. Love is at the centre of Christianity; that compels Paul to preach about ‘cross’ (the symbol of love) and ‘crucified Christ’ (the symbol of Father’s love). Do you think that chapter 13 was composed in the form of an Aphrodite deity song? Do you think that the ‘gift of charity’ is greater than any/all of the gifts described in chapter 12?

I Corinthians 14: (1) Paul says: “God is a God not of disorder but of peace”, and “All things should be done decently and in order”. (2) Spiritual gifts must be used in order to “building up and encouragement and consolation”, “building up the church”, and “learn and be encouraged”. (3) About “speaking in tongues”: “when speak/pray in tongues use both the spirit and the mind” and “tongue should be intelligible to others”. (4) Concerning the use of “speaking in tongue” and “prophesy” Paul says: “Tongues, then, are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophesy is not for unbelievers but for believers” (v. 22) and “be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues” (v. 39). On the basis of the above Pauline statements, can we think that mission within the church is greater than mission outside the church? (5) About women’s silence within the church in vv. 34-35. There are two textual variants: (a) Majority of the manuscripts, including Papyrus (46), Uncial (Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, and others), Minuscules (6, 33, 81, 104, 256, 263, and a bundle of others), Lectionaries, Early Versions (Vulgate, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Georgian, and Slavonic), and Church Fathers (Origen, Chrysostom, and Theodoret), support the placement of vv. 34-35 between v. 33 and v. 36; and (b) A few manuscripts, including Papyri (Cambridge), some of the Latin versions, and Church Fathers like Ambrosiaster, place vv. 34-35 after v. 40. A careful examination of vv. 34-35 makes us aware that the text disturbs the flow of thought altogether. What we need to think? Was it a later interpolation?

I Corinthians 15: (1) Scriptures are foundational: “Christ died for our sins” and “he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day” in accordance with the scriptures. (2) Do you think that Paul’s expression “By the grace of God ‘I am what I am'” (eimi ho eimi; v. 10a) has anything to do with God’s name ‘I am who that I am’ (Ex. 3:14) and the “I am Sayings” of Jesus in John? (3) Paul says: “…Jesus appeared to Cephas… to the twelve… to more than five hundred people… to James… to all the apostles… to someone untimely born…”. According to the Gospels, Jesus firstly appeared to women (especially to Mary Magdalene). Why Pauline variation? (4) Christ’s resurrection is the basis for believers’ faith and resurrection: “Christ the first fruits; then at his coming those who belong to Christ”. (5) Why is Paul referring about the ‘gladiatorial fight at Ephesus’ while discussing about the subject-matter of resurrection? Does he mean that his victory over the wild animals is a metaphor for resurrection?

I Corinthians 16: (1) Paul’s way of fund-raising is awesome! For him, fund-raising is not the starting point, but the concluding point. A great model for the contemporary fund-raisers. (2) Can we read v. 12 in the light of Paul-Apollos conflict within the Corinthian context? Do you think that Paul’s expressions about Apollos (i.e., “I strongly urged him” and “he was not at all willing”) are negative hints about him to the Corinthians? (3) Again, the question I asked at the beginning: “Do you think that Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus are Chloe’s people?” (4) Finally, Paul approves what his secretary wrote “with his own hand” (vv. 21-24).

By Johnson Thomaskutty, Union Biblical Seminary, Pune, India

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