1 Corinthians Series, Bible study lesson 3
By Reta Halteman Finger
In my last blog post, I provided a frame for Paul’s theology in 1 Corinthians. But before we examine the body of this juicy letter, we must hear the back story. What was the occasion of the letter? We know from 1:12 that the Jesus Movement in Corinth was already splitting into factions that preferred one evangelist or apostle over another. What complications lie behind “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or I am of Cephas [Peter],” or “I am of Christ”?
The Complicated Narrative behind the Letter
Luke’s second volume, the Acts of the Apostles, was probably written three decades after Paul. Although it differs in some details and point of view from Paul’s letters, it provides the narrative for his missionary journeys westward from Jerusalem. Acts 18:1-17 recounts Paul’s experiences in Corinth: his tentmaking business with Priscilla and Aquila, his synagogue debates, and his judgment before Gallio, governor of Achaia (a province in what is now southern Greece). Roman sources date Gallio’s one-year governorship from 50-51 of the Common Era (CE), so scholars hang Paul’s chronology around this secure date.
After one year and six months, Paul says goodbye to the believers and sails for Ephesus across the Aegean Sea with Priscilla and Aquila. He leaves them there and heads east to home bases in Antioch and Jerusalem (Acts 18:18-23). While he is gone, Apollos, a believer from the large Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, visits Ephesus. Apollos is an accomplished orator, no doubt drawing from the wisdom tradition popularized by the 1st century BCE Alexandrian philosopher Philo. While in Ephesus, Priscilla and Aquila patch up holes in Apollos’ theology. Then they send him off to Corinth with a letter of recommendation ( Acts 18:24-28). While Apollos is in Corinth, Paul returns to Ephesus and continues preaching and teaching there (Acts 19:1, 8-10).
During his two or three years in Corinth, Apollos has been a smash hit in the Corinthian Jesus-assemblies. We can guess that the “not many” who are “wise by human standards…powerful…and of noble birth” (1 Cor. 1:26) comprised those believers who were attracted to Apollos’ preaching more than were the laborers and slaves who made up the majority within the Corinthian assemblies.
Identifying the Factions
The Apollos group was one of the four factions that scholars characterize in different ways, often on theological grounds. For example, some see here the roots of the 2nd century Gnostic-Orthodox controversies. However, a colleague and friend, George McClain, and I are creating a re-enactment of these factions using an “empire-critical” approach, which here means that we see social status and cultural background within Roman hierarchical structures as major factors defining these groups.
Thus, fisherman Peter’s adherents were likely lower-class, law-observant Jewish believers. Those who supported Paul may have been his original converts, such as Chloe and her household (1:11) and those baptized by Paul—Crispus, Gaius, and the household of Stephanas (1:14-15).
But who are those who insist on following Christ alone? Various feminist scholars suggest these may be the women prophets of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16—women of low status because many are slaves or former slaves. They may have been converted under Paul and have embraced his message of the Messiah Jesus who, for their sakes, took “the form of a slave,” and “humbled himself to the point of death,” even death by Roman crucifixion (Philippians 2:7-8). For such women, to be “in Christ” is not to relinquish status and honor as Paul claims he does, for they have none. Rather, it means to shed a life of shame and to claim a sense of dignity and authority they had never known before. Because Jesus alone has saved them from degradation, they refuse to identify with any current leader, including Paul.
Letters Oral and Written
Chloe herself is so troubled by these factions that she sends people from her household to report to Paul in Ephesus (1 Cor. 1:11), whom we assume to be Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17). Paul’s response to this oral report is 1:18-6:20. But he also receives a written letter (from the literate class?), possibly brought by Stephanas (16:15). His response to this letter begins in 7:1— “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote…” Similar phrases occur in 7:25, 8:1, 12:1, and 16:12.
As we work our way through the body of this letter in future posts, remember that any Corinthian Jesus-believer is a recent convert. The higher their social status, the more their instincts are driven by Empire values, not by Jesus’ pattern of sharing privileges. (Greco-Roman religions have no ethical standards like Judaism.) The few “of noble birth” (1:26) can’t imagine giving up power and entitlements for the sake of the whole body of believers. It is to this “1 per cent” that Paul seems to address most of his admonitions.
Next time we will examine 1 Corinthians 1:18-3:4 in light of Roman structures of hierarchy and domination, especially through the pervasive system of patronage. Any comparisons to current political structures are entirely coincidental—or are they?
Question for reflection:
Some Christians think that digging into social and historical contexts of scripture is a waste of time and just for highly educated people. They prefer devotional scripture with immediate inspiration and comfort. What do you think?
What a joy to stumble across this blog! Even though I’ll confess to trying to hide from Paul by burrowing into the Gospels, for my comprehensive exams, I’m being tested on 1 Corinthians. So, it is a double delight both to see your name, Reta, and to see work on 1 Corinthians gracing the blogosphere.
I wonder if I might probe a bit into your claim about the new Corinthian converts: “The higher their social status, the more their instincts are driven by Empire values, not by Jesus’ pattern of sharing privileges.” I was recently reading Dale Martin’s monographs “Slavery as Salvation: The Metaphor of Slavery in Pauline Christianity” and “The Corinthian Body,” and in both books, he discusses to some degree the politico-rhetorical models of “benevolent patriarchalism” and the “enslaved leader” topos. The latter option Martin sees at work in Paul’s rhetoric in 1 Cor 9:19-23. Arguably, the “enslaved leader” paradigm in which the leader would figure himself (and I feel fairly safe from a historical perspective in using only the masculine pronoun here) as the servant of the demos would be closer to “Jesus’ pattern of sharing privileges” than the “benevolent patriarchalism” model in which the ruler could justify his subtle (or even not-so-subtle) exploitation and oppression of lower classes. However, even if Paul is painting himself as an “enslaved leader,” to an extent it seems that he is still making his appeal to a higher class of Corinthians who would be able to appreciate his allusions to the politico-rhetorical models (which may be lost on lower class Corinthians who lacked formal rhetorical training?) and could (though perhaps less likely than in the case of the lower classes) even appreciate the validity of his point. Thus, I wonder if by making a distinction between “Empire values” and “Jesus’ pattern of sharing privileges” the picture may be oversimplified. That is, insofar as Empire folks (the “Strong,” upper class Corinthians) could appreciate a form of “Jesus’ pattern of sharing privileges” as it was mediated through the politico-rhetorical model of the enslaved leader, the lines of demarcation seem at least a bit more fuzzy to me. Further, I wonder to what extent we might even imagine Paul as being caught up in this messy web as both an apostle of Jesus and a rhetorically sophisticated orator who draws upon the (arguably) “Empire” style of rhetoric. (Here, I am persuaded by Margaret Mitchell’s reading of the whole of 1 Cor as a piece of deliberative rhetoric.)
In any case, many thanks for your thought-provoking blog, and I look forward to reading more in the future!
I agree that Paul uses a form of rhetoric that shows he must have had an upper-class education. He uses that skill to “appeal to a higher class of Corinthians,” as you said. That’s why I think most of this letter critiques those elite believers who still use worldly wisdom (1 Cor 1:18-30). Yes, Paul is caught up in this “messy web” of using a tool of the Empire to show how radically opposed its ways are to the upside down “empire” of Jesus. As we work through this letter in later posts, we will find many specific examples of how Paul sees patrons of the church pulling rank over their clients and slaves. Will he be able to see his own blind spots? Is he still “in progress” on some issues?
Thank you, Reta, for your analysis in light of the Empire-critical approach. I’m finding insights very helpful.
Thanks Reta, I look forward to your next posts.
I wonder, though, whether you are making too much of the so-called “parties”. They do not feature much in the letter. Also, there is no evidence that Peter was more in favour of law-observance than Paul.
The departure of the Christian Jews (Paul, Prisca, Aquila, Sosthenes) from Corinth, would have left the church in the hands of a few high class Gentile believers. Wouldn’t this explain the rise of pagan ethics (including pagan licentious sexual ethics) in the Corinthian church? In any case, Paul had threatened to punish the sexually immoral church members (2 Cor 13:2) and he had told the believers not to associate with them (1 Cor 5:9), so it was in the interests of those people to try to discredit Paul so that he would be powerless to punish them. The attempt to denigrate Paul by these believers in pagan ethical values can explain why the issue of pagan ethics is so intertwined with discussion of attacks on Paul by the Corinthian believers (consider 1 Cor 4-5; 1 Cor 8-9:4; 2 Cor 6:1-7:5; 2 Cor 12:14-21). Now, can it not also explain the existence of the “parties”? If the licentious faction discredited Paul by whatever means they could, then the other church members (whether they were sympathetic to the licentious ideology or not), would likely reject Paul as their apostle and turn instead to any other apostles whom they had met or heard of. This might explain why we have the slogans but not really distinct parties as such.
Thank you for this thoughtful response. I would agree with you that pagan values and behaviors have definitely pervaded the Corinthian churches. I also know that we have no evidence that “those of Cephas” were more law-observant than “those of Paul.” However, one does wonder why they differentiated themselves, unless it was simply a personality issue.
It does seem clear, however, that the higher-class believers who had more influence in the churches were pulling rank over the others, so that socio-economic class figures large in this letter–which would tie in with pagan ethical values.
A friend and I are co-writing an imaginative role-play of these factions within one house church (Chloe’s). In order to create characters and conflict, we had to make some decisions that tried to be as accurate and believable as possible, even though we cannot prove them.
I agree entirely, except for the assumption that Chloe lived in Corinth. It would not have been tactful for Paul to name members of the Corinthian church who had exposed their divisions. Would he not protect his sources rather than get them into trouble? It seems more likely that Chloe’s people were from Ephesus. Paul would then have a reason to name them: he is shaming the Corinthians by telling them that their divisions are known even to outsiders (so Daniel Nighswander).
Thank you 😊
This is an interesting read. Thanks for writing it.
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