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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

1 Corinthians

- 1 Corinthians

by Charles John Ellicott


The First Epistle to the Corinthians.



Canon of Worcester and Chaplain-in Ordinary to the King.




To describe briefly the relation in which St. Paul stood to the Corinthian Church, and the circumstances under which he wrote this Epistle, will, I think, be the best and most efficient help to the ordinary reader.

After a stay at Athens of some few months, St. Paul, towards the end (probably) of the year A.D. 51, left that city for Corinth. At Athens, the centre of philosophic thought and culture, St. Paul had preached Christianity. The wide question of the relation of God’s providence to the heathen world in times past—Christ crucified and raised from the dead—all these topics had been dwelt on by the Apostle in a speech which still remains a model of the subtlest rhetorical skill and of the most earnest eloquence. Judged, however, by immediate results, the speech on Mars Hill, and the other addresses at Athens, of which we have no record, but which were probably on the same lines, were not successful. Only a few converts were won for Christ.

The Apostle left Athens downcast and thoughtful. The subtle skill, the earnest eloquence, had been employed apparently in vain. The inestimable value which that great exposition of God’s dealings with man, as well in the world at large as in the more sacred enclosure of the Christian faith, might have—as we know now it has had—in Christendom, did not present itself to the Apostle’s mind as any consolation for the want of practical results at the moment. Athens was a sad memory to St. Paul. He never mentions her name in an Epistle. He sends no words of greeting to any of her children.

[32b] Acts 18:2.

[32c] “Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome on account of their continual tumults instigated by Chrestus.” The name Christus, in pronunciation nearly identical with Chrestus, was mixed up in the riots somehow. That was quite sufficient for the authorities to assume that some person of the that name was the author of them.

[36b] In Acts 18:17, the words “the Greeks” do not occur in the best MSS., and some commentators conclude that it was the Jewish faction who took Sosthenes and beat him, suspecting him of some leanings toward the faith which he afterwards embraced. I think it more natural to assume that it was the Greek mob who acted thus towards the leader of the defeated faction of the Jews. If it were the Jews writhing under their defeat, surely they would have taken vengeance on some avowed Christian like Paul or Aquila.

[36c] Acts 18:18. The words here may, as a mere matter of grammar, refer to either Paul or Aquila; but the whole sense of the passage refers to the former. The fact that Paul goes on to Jerusalem, and Aquila remains at Ephesus, is almost in itself sufficient to indicate Paul as the one having some solemn obligation to fulfil. I have already indicated that in the solemn vow made by the Apostle, and which was carried out apparently according to the law of the Nazarite vow (see Numbers 6) was included a resolve as to his teaching at Corinth. What, if any, other motives for the vow the Apostle could have had, must, of course, be matter of the merest conjecture.

(37) Acts 6:9.

[39b] 1 Corinthians 3:1; 1 Corinthians 3:6; 1 Corinthians 3:10

[39c] Acts 19:1

[39d] I place the unrecorded visit of St. Paul thus early during his residence at Ephesus because it seems to have occurred before the matter treated of in the First Epistle to the Corinthians assumed a serious aspect; otherwise we can scarcely imagine that there should be no allusion in this Epistle to some definite rebuke or instruction for which that visit would have afforded an opportunity,

The Apostle still adheres to his intention of visiting Corinth and Macedonia, and sends Timothy and Erastus to prepare the various churches in Macedonia and Achaia for his coming, and, above all, to set things right at Corinth by, as St. Paul says, “bringing you into remembrance of my ways which be in Christ, as I teach everywhere in every church.” [42b]

[42b] See 1 Corinthians 4:17.

[42c] See 1 Corinthians 1:11.

[42d] See 1 Corinthians 8:1.

(43) My reason for thinking that the letter from the Corinthians was in part a reply to St. Paul’s lost Epistle is that the Apostle says (1 Corinthians 5:9) emphatically, “I wrote to you in the Epistle,”—i.e., the Epistle to which you refer. They had probably taken exception to his strict injunction, and said in reply. “If we are not to keep company at all with fornicators, then we must go out of the world altogether.” His words seem to me to be an answer to some such captious criticism, and not a voluntary modification or explanation of what he had no reason to suppose should be misunderstood. It has been suggested by some commentators that the lost Epistle had been sent by Timothy. But St. Paul seems to assume as certain that the letter has reached them (1 Corinthians 5:9), and to be doubtful whether Timothy was there or not (1 Corinthians 16:10).

[46b] 1 Corinthians 1:10 to 1 Corinthians 4:21


The second question was: IS IT LAWFUL FOR A CHRISTIAN TO EAT THE FLESH WHICH HAS BEEN ALREADY USED FOR SACRIFICIAL PURPOSES BY THE HEATHEN? To this the answer[49b] is, in general terms, that there is no harm in eating such meat, but that in practice this wide principle of Christian liberty must be limited by regard to the general welfare of others and their tenderness of conscience.

[49b] 1 Corinthians 8:1 to 1 Corinthians 1:1

The third inquiry was: WHAT IS THE BECOMING DRESS OF WOMEN IN PUBLIC WORSHIP? This question was rendered necessary by some women pushing the freedom of the faith so far as to appear in public unveiled—a practice which might easily be mistaken by the heathen as the indication of a loose morality. To this the Apostle replies[49c] practically that our Christianity is not to make us transgress the social order and customs of the community in which we live.


The authenticity of this Epistle has never been seriously disputed; indeed, to deny it would almost involve a disbelief in the historical existence of the Corinthian Church and in the personality of St. Paul. The earliest fathers refer to it as the recognised letter of the Apostle. Clement of Rome. Polycarp, and Irenæus quote passages from it as St. Paul’s writing. All throughout this Epistle we have the heart as well as the intellect of the Apostle displayed to us; the Holy Spirit of God not setting aside, but controlling and guiding those good gifts of which, though we call them “natural,” He is the Author and the Giver.

Many of the subjects treated of here were local and personal. The combination of circumstances which give rise to them cannot possibly occur again in Christendom; but the principles on which the Apostle decided these matters are imperishable and of universal obligation. They can guide the Church amid the complex civilisation of the nineteenth century as truly and as clearly as they indicated to her the path of safety in the infancy of the Christian faith.

The following, among other works, have been consulted in writing the commentary upon this Epistle:—

The Greek Testament, with a Critically-revised Text, &c., by Dean Alford. Vol. II. Rivingtons, 1871.

The Greek Testament, with Notes, by Bishop Words worth.

Kritisch-exegetischer Kommentar über das Neue Testament. Göttingen (English Translation, T. & T. Clark, 1877).

The Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians, with Critical Notes and Dissertations, by A. P. Stanley, Dean of Westminster. Fourth Edition. John Murray, 1876.

The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, by W. J. Conybeare and the Very Rev. J. S. Howson, Dean of Chester. New Edition. Longmans, 1870.

The Hulsean Lectures for 1862, by the Very Rev. J. S. Howson. Third Edition. Strahan & Co., 1873.

The Metaphors of St. Paul, by the Very Rev. J. S. Howson. Strahan & Co., 1870.

The Companions of St. Paul, by the Very Rev. J. S. Howson. Isbister, 1874.

Expository Lectures on St. Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians, by the late F. W. Robertson. Smith and Elder, 1870.

The Life and Epistles of St. Paul, by Thomas Lewin, M.A. 2 Vols. Third Edition. George Bell & Sons, 1875.

The Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople, on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians. Vols. IV. and V. of the Library of Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church. Parker, 1839.

The Greek Testament from Cardinal Mai’s Edition of the Vatican Bible, with Notes by Professor Ornsby. J. Duffery, 1865.

G. B. Winer’s, Grammatik des neutestamentlichen Sprachidioms (English Translation, by Dr. W. F. Moulton. Eighth Edition. T. & T. Clark, 1877).