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Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians

by Mary Ann Getty

Though the cities of Paul's time were a far cry from our own, we can relate to the people of Corinth, a sophisticated, important port city in the first century. There was diversity among the converts to Christ there. Some were wealthy and well educated, while others were neither. There were women and men and children, slave and free, married and unmarried, a majority of Gentiles, but some Jews. The Gentiles especially, who distinguished between body and spirit, were prone to prize knowledge and other gifts they thought made them spiritually superior. They had a kind of individualism mixed with religious enthusiasm.

These Christians appear to have been eager and generous in accepting the gospel Paul preached. They believed in the resurrection from the dead. They wanted to measure progress and spiritual worth, and they did so in the way they knew best—by worldly standards. They tended to rank gifts and persons by systems of honor familiar in their own Greco-Roman world.

Paul was made aware of problems that existed in the Corinthian community by travelers who reported to him (see 1 Cor 1:11) and by the questions addressed to him by some Corinthians.

Divisions Among the Corinthians

Diversity contributed to the many factions among the Corinthians. Some formed groups depending on which leader they followed: Peter or Paul or Apollos (1 Cor 1—4). It appears that some believed that they did not need any other leader than Christ himself.

The Corinthians emphasized those spiritual gifts that titillated and thrilled them. For example, their knowledge appeared to place them above others not so enlightened. Some were captivated by those who exhibited the gift of tongues, assuming that they were filled with the Spirit of God. Some Corinthians who had wealth and prestige acted superior to others.

Some practiced celibacy and abandoned their marriages or abstained from marriage altogether on the assumption that this practice put them above married folks, and was more in keeping with belief in the resurrection. Some held the view that they were already living the resurrected life, and that there was no future resurrection.

In response, Paul urges them to reflect on the true meaning of the cross, which changes everything. "Become imitators of me," Paul says (see 11:1). Paul himself underwent a change of mind and heart so that he no longer persecuted believers for their belief that through Jesus' death he was shown by God to be the Messiah. Rather, Paul came to interpret Jesus' death as "for us." Jesus' complete self-emptying death saves humankind and also sets an example for us in our relationships with one another. It is an example Paul follows by making himself a "slave to all in order to win over as many as possible" (9:19). It is also the means by which Paul and every other believer are granted access to God and to grace. Thus Paul urges the Corinthians to let the cross reshape their spirituality, to become a new basis for acting and for judging and for relating to one another.

The Body of Christ

A principal image that Paul uses in First Corinthians is "Body of Christ." This one image can unlock the whole message of the letter. The Corinthians seem to have been impressed with Paul's preaching about the resurrection, but their conclusions about its implications for them caused them to err in a number of different ways. They appear to have considered themselves so spiritually mature that even blatant sexual immorality would not affect them.

Some considered themselves more spiritually "strong" than others, an opinion which allowed them certain ethical privileges and ways of acting. At the same time, some Christians in Corinth were suing other Christians, because of some real or imagined fraud they suffered (6:1-11). To counteract the envy and rivalry, the moral apathy and the personal sense of righteous indignation they were exhibiting in myriad ways, Paul stresses their common identity as belonging to Christ. Through Baptism they are linked to Christ in an inviolable and unbreakable association. This new identity calls for worthy behavior as an adequate expression of their mutual commitment. They must show that their bodies belong to Christ rather than defile this "temple" with behavior not in keeping with that association.

The Eucharist: (10:16; 11:17-34). Another way Paul applies the image of the Body of Christ is in response to abuses among the Corinthians apparent in their celebration of the Eucharist. Their divisions are magnified there since they contradict the very meaning of their memorial service. They are to "proclaim the death of the Lord" until he comes again (10:16). Jesus' saving death appeared to be a tragedy, but it is interpreted by believers as the basis for their hope and their common faith.

Paul reminds the Corinthian Christians that the purpose of their gatherings is to commemorate Christ's actions "the night he was handed over" (11:23). One abuse is their disagreement about eating food offered to idols in public ceremonies, a practice that scandalized those whose consciences were "weak" and who were offended when the "strong" participated in such services (see 8:1-13; 10:23-33). Paul urges the Corinthian Christians to be mindful of their unity: "We, though many, are one body, for we all partake of one loaf" (10:17). Their unity through Baptism is expressed and reinforced in the Eucharist and ought not to be violated because of the indifference of the strong to the scruples of the weak. Paul warns that "You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and also demons" (10:21). Our actions cannot belie our identity as a Christian community, one Body in Christ.

Another abuse noted by Paul in the Corinthians' celebration of the Eucharist has to do with divisions between the rich and the poor (see 11:17-22, 27-34). It appears as if the rich were hosting gatherings of the Christians to the detriment of real community. The rich invited their own friends to a banquet-style celebration while the poor were relegated to a lesser status, unable to fit into the dining area. Some went hungry while others drank and ate too much. Paul warns the Corinthians that they are doing more harm than good, that it is not the Lord's Supper that they are observing, that they are risking bringing condemnation rather than blessings upon themselves.

The Community (1 Cor 12:12-20; see 14). A third way in which Paul employs the image of the Body is in his description of the Christian community itself as the Body of Christ (12:12-27). Paul may have been drawing on the concept of the "commonwealth" made popular in the Greco-Roman world by the Stoic philosophers who portrayed such an association as a partnership in which members shared spiritual as well as material resources. Paul likens this association to a physical entity, a "body" whose members reciprocally need and support one another. In order to correct an exaggerated emphasis on some of the gifts they thought were more spiritual and therefore more valuable, such as the gift of tongues, Paul admonishes the Corinthians: "As a body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts of the body, though many, are one body, so also Christ" (12:12). One part cannot say to another, "I do not need you" (12:21). His concluding lesson is a paradox; if one possesses a gift thought to be superior, it is for the greater service to all, especially those "weaker" and most in need.

The rivalry concerning gifts considered to be greater has to be healed with the greatest gift of all, the gift of love. Paul inserts into his discussion of these gifts in chapters 12 and 14 the famous hymn of charity (chapter 13) which he apparently borrowed and adopted from the Stoics, who celebrated love not as an emotion or a feeling, but as the energy that infused the commonwealth and held a society together.

The Resurrection (1 Cor 15). All of the abuses, divisions and misunderstanding experienced by the Corinthians would find their remedy and their healing in a true embrace of the resurrection of Jesus. Paul turns to this reality in chapter 15 to help this community accept more deeply and fully what he passed on to them as of "first importance" (15:3). Paul insists that he received this teaching as an apostle, as one who, like Peter and James and others, had "seen the Lord."

The resurrection gives new meaning to the death of Jesus, a death "for our sins" (15:3). This is so important because Christ is the "first-fruits" of the resurrection from the dead, the promise of the resurrection of those who believe in him (15:23). The resurrection empowers Paul and us to face danger for the sake of our faith, with courage and hope. By Christ's resurrection our "lowly" bodies are transformed. Because of the resurrection, death no longer holds its sting or its power over us (15:54-56).

The Language of Family

Paul has fashioned much of the vocabulary we use with regard to Christian life. For example, Paul first used and gave meaning to terms such as apostle and gospel. But Paul also gave birth to Christian use of more commonplace terms, for example, the idea that our common faith makes us brothers and sisters.

Paul insists on this language, especially in First Corinthians. Paul counteracts the Corinthians' exaggerated sense of individualism, superiority and competitiveness by addressing and describing them in terms of family relationships. Especially in the Mediterranean world this conveyed a sense of mutual responsibility of the support and promotion of the family unit.

Paul applies to the community of faith the language of family, a much-cherished and appreciated unit considered to be sacred in both the Greco-Roman and the Jewish world. Sibling solidarity was fostered and developed as one of the highest values necessary for the life of the society.

Paul raises this solidarity to a theological level by stressing that those who are called to live in Christ form a new family, with new ties to one another. This new family in Christ enables its members to disregard social status and all other forms of competition in favor of a new unity characterized by selfless love. Paul's understanding of the story of Jesus is shaped by Jesus' self-giving death. This is the basis for God's action in the resurrection.

As members of Christ's family, Christians have a new regard for one another. They judge themselves in the light of Christ's death and resurrection, and they consider of first importance their responsibilities to one another. That is why Christians cannot take "brothers and sisters" to civil court (6:1-11). That is why Paul warns that we must not sin against the "brother for whom Christ has died" (see 8:11-12). That is why Christians approach the "Lord's Supper" as different than an ordinary festive meal (11:17-34).

When he addresses the problems that plague the Corinthians, Paul does not merely determine who is right and who wrong, and pronounce on the side of the former. Rather, Paul consistently underscores the new social basis for Christian morality, which is to preserve and promote the solidarity and holiness of the family of faith. If we are strong, the greater is our responsibility to and for the weak. If we have knowledge or wealth or spiritual gifts, those must be used not for the exclusion of the ignorant, the poor and the disenfranchised, but for strengthening and healing the whole community.

The Paradox of the Cross

Paul's letter to the Corinthians draws on sources Paul's world recognized as wise and authoritative: Greek philosophy, Roman customs, Jewish Scriptures. Yet Paul aims to communicate to the Corinthians a wisdom and a knowledge that defies the world's logic. Paul admits that he came among them not teaching in lofty words and concepts, but preaching a gospel that is scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (see 2:1—3:4). It is the wisdom of the Cross.

Paul says that "the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength" (1:25). This is the paradox which reverses worldly standards and sets up a new way of judging and of acting. The Corinthians claim to be knowledgeable and honorable, to possess spiritual gifts of knowledge and of tongues that distinguish them. Paul allows from the beginning of his letter that this community enjoys every spiritual blessing (1:4-7). But then Paul shows them how human and immature and contrary to the gospel their standards for judging themselves and each other really are. They need to grasp the paradox at work in the gospel, which has as its center the cross interpreted as the greatest of all spiritual gifts since it embodies God's love for us. "Tongues will cease..., knowledge will be brought to nothing" (13:8). Even faith and hope will pass away. But love remains. This is a reality the Corinthians must experience to truly understand.

Mary Ann Getty is the author of Women in the New Testament, the commentary on First and Second Corinthians in the Collegeville Bible Commentary, and the commentary on Paul's Letters in the Catholic Study Bible. She is also an associate editor of the Catholic Study Bible and The Bible Today. Mary Ann has a doctorate in theology (S.T.D.) from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium. She presently teaches Scripture at St. Vincent College and Seminary in Latrobe, Pennsylvania.

Next: What Jesus Said (by Virginia Smith)

 

Talking About Scriptures  

  • How do the divisions among the Corinthians resonate with our own social structures?
  • How can the paradox of the cross illuminate the struggles of our own life?

 

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