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?