Today we are going to begin a new series looking at the book of 1 Corinthians. And rather than jumping straight into the text, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a little bit of time to talk about some of the background considerations.
Oftentimes, we talk about context. And when we talk about context, we’re referring (usually) to one of two things. One type of context is the literary context, by which I mean, a couple of things. Firstly, we’re concerned with what kind of text is it? For example, 1 Corinthians is an epistle, which functions very differently than history, poetry, or law. We need to understand what kind of text we’re dealing with in order to know how to properly approach it. By literary context (though there’s probably a better term), we also mean, what is going on in the text? For example, later in 1 Corinthians, we encounter one of the better known biblical passages, chapter 13 (“the love chapter”). And oftentimes, this chapter is used in weddings as descriptive or even definitive about love. But the literary context of chapter 13 places it in the context of spiritual gifts. And without getting into it, Paul is saying that love is more important than any spiritual gifts. Take pride, or our goal should be, not in demonstrating certain “gifts,” but in how well we love one another.
The other type of context has to do with questions like, “who is Paul writing to?” “What are their lives like in the place where we live?” Or “What is the situation (or situations) that Paul is addressing?” These are the kinds of questions that we are going to take a look at today.
Now we might ask the question, “why do I even care about these things?” Can’t I just read the bible for what it means to me? What God is saying to me? Well, as I’m sure you already know and appreciate, understanding what Paul (for example) was saying to his original audience is crucial for understanding how it applies to us today. New Testament scholar Gordon Fee used to say that the bible cannot mean what it never meant. By which he means, simply, that if what we derive from scripture is not what was intended for the original audience, we cannot apply that to ourselves today. Of course that doesn’t mean we can’t extrapolate – but it is simply to say that we have to attempt to understand the original intent.
So without going further down that road, let’s talk a little bit about the first epistle to the Corinthians. So we are going to look at several different considerations: The Socio-cultural context, the immediate audience (i.e. the community to whom Paul is writing), and the apparent issue (or the occasion – this is what we are referring to when we say that the NT epistles are “occasional” – what occasioned the writing/correspondence). Now of course there are other things which we should consider, but we will only have time to look at these (relatively) major items.
So firstly, let’s consider the social-cultural context. For this, we think about the city of Corinth in the first century. Some of these considerations are highlighted by the text, but in truth, here we rely largely on commentaries (the background or introductory section), bible (NT) surveys, bible dictionaries, and external sources.
The city of Corinth was originally a Greek city-state. It was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. and lay dormant for 100 years. It was re-founded by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. So the Corinth that Paul is addressing is still a relatively young city at this point. The reason Julius Caesar and the Romans re-established Corinth was likely because of its location as a strategic port. Because of this strategic location, Corinth quickly became a very wealthy city (at least for the already wealthy and powerful). And not only was Corinth a wealthy city, or because of it, it was a very important city in the Roman empire.
Now because of the importance and notoriety of the city, and the perceived opportunities that it offered, Corinth attracted people from all over. We should note that a good portion of the population were freedmen from Rome – that is, former slaves who had won or bought their freedom. It is possible that they were sent to Corinth in order to alleviate some of the overcrowding of Rome. But other people came to Corinth, because of the opportunity it provided, from East and West, from a variety of socio-economic classes, philosophies, and religions.
All of this means (probably) a couple of things. Firstly, Corinth was something of a hodge-podge. The culture of the city, though it undoubtedly held onto its Roman and Greek origins to a large extent, was made up of disparate and competing sources. As a relatively new city, and notwithstanding its origins, it didn’t have an established history. Rather, people brought into the city various traditions and customs. Naturally, this also included religious customs. The diverse origins of the residents of Corinth meant that it was also home to a plethora of religious and spiritual traditions. All of these peoples and backgrounds had to figure out how to live together in the one city.
Secondly, as a city that was somewhat ad hoc, without a shared history or an established social hierarchy (i.e. traditional wealth, landowners, economic pillars), there was likely a fair amount of competing for social and economic position.
Of course, not everybody could be successful. Therefore, Corinth saw a significant disparity between the wealthy and the poor. As we can likely appreciate, this disparity would have likely caused a fair amount of friction within the city as people wrestled for power and position. Add to that the cultural diversity that we spoke about, and we can likely understand something of the social situation in the city.
The second thing we want to consider is the church or community to whom Paul is writing. There is little doubt that the church in Corinth was established by Paul. Therefore, he has a particular interest in its well-being and growth. The demographic of the congregation likely reflected that of the city – that is, it was likely diverse with people coming from many different backgrounds. There were likely some Jews, with a background in the Old Testament story with its attendant laws. But it was probably made up mostly of Gentiles without such a background.
Therefore, a significant part of the congregation would have come from a pagan background, in which (among other things) a faith in a single God would have been a foreign concept.
So it might be important to consider the uniqueness of the gospel message in this context. We can probably assume that the ethical expectations of the gospel placed into a Hellenistic, pluralistic society would have been strange, even revolutionary. But by “ethics,” I don’t want us to limit our thinking to terms such as, “what can I not do,” and “what do I have to do” (though that certainly was part of it). Rather, the biblical ethic, as we’ve discussed much in the past, has to do with, “of what does life consist?” For the former pagans in the congregation, there would have been a very different set of assumptions and expectations.
For example, for a pagan audience, perhaps there would have been an assumption that the role of the gods is to make one prosperous (assuming the appropriate religious rites had been followed). Perhaps they might have thought of the gods as angry, vengeful, and capricious. Or they might have thought that the gods were largely absent, and it was up to them to make the most of life – to get ahead the best they knew how.
So the story of a God who became human, in order to die for the sins of humankind, would have been exceedingly strange (as it indeed was for many Jews). The idea of a loving God, full of grace and mercy, might have been odd. And the concept of holiness – of being set apart from the ways of the world, for the sake of a holy God – might have appeared absurd.
Of course, along with the cultural diversity, the congregation of Corinth also demonstrated the wealth disparity that was characteristic of the city. There were likely a few wealthy families, and a large number of poorer, or poor, congregants. And as we can often see even today, this would have created some tension in the congregation. Not because of jealousy or resentment, though this could have been present. But because of the human tendency to assume that those who are successful or powerful by human estimation are also great in God’s eyes. This desire for social status is common in every human assembly, and it was no different in the Corinthian church.
So you can probably guess what some of the reasons for Paul’s writing to the Corinthians might be. And indeed, the first epistle to the Corinthians covers quite a lot of topics. I won’t go into detail about the issues in Corinth that Paul is addressing – we’ll have a chance to think about that in more depth as we walk through the text. But as a brief (and not comprehensive) list, some of the things that Paul is dealing with include:
- Division in the church
- Paul’s authority as an apostle
- Immoral behaviour (likely resulting from syncretism with their previous Hellenistic, and other, beliefs)
- Spiritual Elitism (specifically, regarding the gifts of the Spirit)
- Theological misunderstandings. Now here, I should point out that Paul deals with some specific theological issues, including food sacrificed to idols, marriage, and resurrection. However, there is also a sense in which everything that Paul is addressing has to do with correcting theology. But he is not doing theology for theology’s sake. Rather, Paul is concerned with how the Corinthians are living, and how they are living as the community of God.
Now again, we will go into all of this in more detail as we work through the epistle. And my primary goal is to introduce some of these ideas before we dig into the epistle. Because, as we said, understanding the context is very important for understanding the letter. This is always true when we read scripture, but it becomes readily apparent when we read epistles. Because epistles, or letters, are communication between two parties – from Paul to the church in Corinth. And so understanding the parties involved, and what is going on, helps us understand the message. And as we said, this helps us understand what it means – and does not mean – for us today. So we’re going to try to keep these things in mind – and indeed, we will likely bring up elements of all this as we go along.
However, one thing that I would try to challenge us to do is to think about our own contexts. Part of biblical interpretation is understanding the original context – we’ve said that repeatedly. However, another part of biblical interpretation is surely understanding our own context. We have to understand where we are coming from – what are our assumptions, what is our baggage – if we are to hear well what God is speaking to us through Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. We have to be willing to ask ourselves, what is God’s call to holiness – to the fullness of life – for us?
And here, I want to emphasize something that we’ve said before. That each of us needs to examine ourselves before the word of God. One of the worst things that Christians do, one of the most harmful things that Christians sometimes do, is to use scripture as a weapon.
And as we read through the book of 1 Corinthians, there will likely be the temptation to read parts of the letter and have the urge to think or say, “I told you so.” (Yes, I am very much subject to this temptation). Or to read scripture and be tempted to point to various verses and say to someone, “This is why you need to change.”
When we read 1 Corinthians (or whatever), our temptation is to think that we are Paul, speaking the word of God to others. But rather, we are the church in Corinth. Each of us – with respect to the cultural and historical distance, and our own peculiarities – are the pagan, the prideful, the syncretist, and the sinner that needs to hear the word of God for myself. So that each of us, listening to the word of God, might join together as one body with one spirit as the people of God.
And that, as it always is, is our goal – to hear the word of God and attend to His Spirit working in us through it.
So with all that said, I invite you to join me in working through the book of 1 Corinthians together over the next many months. And let us be attentive to the Spirit of God working through His word in us.