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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible

Corinthians, First Epistle to the

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1. Occasion of the Epistle . Some four or five years had elapsed since St. Paul’s first evangelization of Corinth when he addressed the present Epistle to the Christians in that great centre of commerce. No doubt there had been frequent communications, especially during the Apostle’s stay in Asia, for the journey between Corinth and Ephesus was a very easy one; but the communications were probably by letter only. A former epistle is mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9 , in which St. Paul had bidden his disciples ‘to have no company with fornicators’ advice which was no doubt considered hard to obey in the most vicious and pleasure-loving city of the world, and which to some extent is modified in the present Epistle ( 1 Corinthians 5:10 f.); and a letter from the Corinthians to St. Paul is the immediate object of the Apostle’s writing on the present occasion ( 1 Corinthians 7:1 ). But before answering it, he reproves the Corinthians for certain abuses which he had heard of from ‘the [household] of Chloe’ ( 1 Corinthians 1:11 ), namely, schism and party spirit, a bad case of incest, and litigiousness; for ‘they of Chloe’ seem to have been St. Paul’s informants on all these matters. Chloe was perhaps a woman of importance who carried on a trade in Corinth, as Lydia of Thyatira did at Philippi ( Acts 16:14 ). She therefore not improbably belonged to Asia Minor the reference to her seems to imply that she was not a Corinthian, and ‘they of Chloe’ would be her agents who passed to and fro between Ephesus and Corinth. Having reproved the Corinthians for these abuses, the Apostle answers the questions put in their letter to him, as to marriage and other social questions; perhaps also as to Christian worship, the doctrine of the Resurrection, and the collection for the poor of Judæa. We may consider these topics in order.

2. The state of the Corinthian Church . It will be remembered that the majority of the Christians at Corinth were Gentiles, though there were some Jews among them ( Romans 16:21 , 1 Corinthians 7:18; 1 Corinthians 9:20; 1 Corinthians 12:13 ), including such influential men as Crispus ( Acts 18:8 ) and (probably) Sosthenes ( Acts 18:17 , 1 Corinthians 1:1 ). It was the heathen antecedents of the Corinthians that led to most of the evils for which St. Paul rebukes them ( 1 Corinthians 6:11 , 1 Corinthians 12:2 ). The Apostle, though he had not intended to stay long in Corinth when he first went there, desiring to return to Macedonia ( 1 Thessalonians 2:18 ), yet, when his wish was found to be impracticable, threw himself with all his heart into the task of making heathen Corinth, the famous trade centre which lay on one of the greatest routes of communication in the Empire, into a religious centre for the spread of the gospel (cf. Acts 18:5 ). But the difficulties were not those with which he had met in Athens, where the philosophic inhabitants derided him. At Corinth the vices of the city had lowered the tone of public opinion; and when St. Paul preached Christ crucified with all plainness of speech ( 1 Corinthians 1:17 ff.), many heard him gladly, but retained with their nominal Christianity their old heathen ideas on morals. He preached no longer ‘wisdom’ to the Jewish lawyer or the Greek sophist ( 1 Corinthians 1:20 ), but salvation to the plain man; the Gentiles had no sense of sin, and the preaching of a personal Saviour was to them ‘folly’ ( 1 Corinthians 1:23 ). We need not indeed suppose, as Sir W. Ramsay ( Expositor VI. [i.] 98) points out, that the passage 1 Corinthians 1:26 ff. describes Corinthian Christians as distinguished from those in other places; the disciples at Corinth were not merely the ‘dregs of society,’ separated from the rest of the population, as the negro from the white man in some countries to-day. Ramsay thinks that the special work of the Church was to raise the thoughtful and educated middle classes. It certainly included men of means ( 1 Corinthians 11:20 ff.). Still, the upper classes and the learned were everywhere less attracted by Christianity than were the poor, with certain conspicuous exceptions, such as St. Paul himself.

It has been debated how far the Church was organized at Corinth at this time. The ministry is seldom referred to in these two Epistles; the ‘bishops and deacons’ of Philippians 1:1 are not mentioned; but we read of apostles, prophets, and teachers ( 1 Corinthians 12:28 ). It would, however, be unsafe to conclude that there was not a settled local ministry at Corinth. St. Paul had certainly established presbyters in every Church on his First Journey ( Acts 14:23 ), and so apparently in Asia on his Second ( Acts 20:17 ). In this Epistle the regular ministers are perhaps not explicitly mentioned, because they were the very persons who were most responsible for the disorders (Goudge, Westminster Com . p. xxxvi), while in ch. 12 the possession of ‘spiritual gifts’ is the subject of discussion, and the mention of the regular ministry would not be germane to it. A settled order of clergy is implied in 1 Corinthians 9:7; 1 Corinthians 9:12; 1 Corinthians 9:14 .

3. Party Spirit at Corinth . It is more correct to say that there were parties in the Church than that the Corinthians had made schisms. We read, not of rival organizations, but of factions in the one organization. It is noteworthy that Clement of Rome ( Cor . 1, 47), writing less than 50 years later, refers to the factions prevalent at Corinth in his time. The Greeks were famous for factions; their cities could never combine together for long. In St. Paul’s time there was a Paul-party, and also an Apollos-party, a Cephas-party, and a Christ-party ( 1 Corinthians 1:12 ), though the words ‘but I [am] of Christ’ are interpreted by Estius ( Com . ed. Sausen, ii. 110) and many Greek and Latin commentators, and also perhaps by Clement of Rome (see below, § 10 ), as being St. Paul’s own observation: ‘You make parties, taking Paul, Apollos, Cephas as leaders, but I, Paul, am no party man, I am Christ’s’ (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:23 ). If, however, we take the more usual interpretation that there were four parties, we may ask what lines of thought they severally represented. The Apollos-party would probably consist of those who disparaged St. Paul as not being sufficiently eloquent and philosophical (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:1; 1 Corinthians 2:13 , Act 18:24 , 2 Corinthians 10:10; 2 Corinthians 11:6 ). The Cephas-party would be the party of the circumcision, as in Galatia. At Corinth the great dispute about the Law was as yet in its infancy; it seems to have grown when 2 Corinthians was written (see § 7 ( c ) below). The Christ-party, it has been conjectured, was the ultra-latitudinarian party, which caricatured St. Paul’s teaching about liberty (cf. Romans 6:1 ); or (Alford) consisted of those who made a merit of not being attached to any human teacher, and who therefore slighted the Apostleship of St. Paul. Another view is that the Christ-party consisted of the Judaizers mentioned in 2 Co. and Gal. as denying St. Paul’s Apostleship (Goudge, p. xxi.: cf. 2 Corinthians 10:7 where St. Paul’s opponents claim to be peculiarly Christ’s); but it is not easy in that case to distinguish them from the Cephas-party. There is no sufficient reason for deducing from 1 Corinthians 1:12; 1 Corinthians 9:5 that St. Peter had visited Corinth, and that this party consisted of his personal disciples. St. Paul, then, reproves all these parties, and most emphatically those who called themselves by his name. They were united by baptism with Christ, not with him ( 1 Corinthians 1:13 ).

4. Moral Scandals (ch. 5). A Christian had married his (probably heathen) step-mother. Perhaps his father had been separated from her on his becoming a Christian, but (if 2 Corinthians 7:12 refers to this incident) was still alive; and the son thereupon married her. The Corinthian Church, in the low state of public opinion, did not condemn this, and did not even mention it in their letter to St. Paul. St. Paul reproves them for tolerating ‘such fornication as is not even among the Gentiles’ [the word ‘named’ of the AV [Note: Authorized Version.] text has no sufficient authority]. There is a difficulty here, for the heathen tolerated even more incestuous connexions, as between a man and his half-sister. Ramsay ( Exp . VI. [i.] 110) supposes the Apostle to mean that the Roman law forbade such marriage. The Roman law of affinity was undoubtedly very strict, and Corinth, as a colony, would be familiar with Roman law; though the law was not usually put in force. The Jews strongly denounced such connexions ( Amos 2:7 ). The Apostle says nothing of the punishment of the heathen step-mother (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:12 ), but the man is to be ‘delivered unto Satan’ ( 1 Corinthians 5:5 , cf. 1 Timothy 1:20 ).

This phrase probably means simple excommunication, including the renouncing of all intercourse with the offender (cf. 5:13), though many take it to denote the infliction of some miraculous punishment, disease, or death, and deny that the offender of 2 Corinthians 2:1-17; 2 Corinthians 7:1-16 is the incestuous Corinthian of 1 Corinthians 5:1-13 . Ramsay conjectures that the phrase is a Christian adaptation of a pagan idea, that a person wronged by another but unable to retaliate should consign the offender to the gods and leave punishment to he inflicted by Divine power; Satan would be looked on as God’s instrument in punishing the offender; and the latter, being cast out of the Christian community, would be left as a prey to the devil.

5. Legal Scandals . St. Paul rebukes the Corinthians for litigiousness, 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 . This passage is usually interpreted as superseding heathen imperial tribunals by voluntary Christian courts for all cases, such as the Jews often had. Ramsay ( Exp . VI. [i.] 274) suggests that the Apostle, who usually treats Roman institutions with respect, is not here considering serious questions of crime and fraud at all, nor yet law courts whether heathen or Christian, but those smaller matters which Greeks were accustomed to submit to arbitration. In Roman times, as this procedure developed, the arbiters became really judges of an inferior court, recognized by the law, and the magistrates appointed them. In this view St. Paul reproves the Corinthians for taking their umpires from among the heathen instead of from among their Christian brethren.

6. Questions of Moral Sin and of Marriage ( 1 Corinthians 6:12 to 1 Corinthians 7:40 ). Probably the passage 1 Corinthians 6:12-20 is part of the answer to the Corinthian letter. The correspondent had said, ‘All things are lawful for me.’ But all things (the Apostle replies) are not expedient. ‘Meats are for the belly, and the belly for meats’ ( i.e. just as food is natural to the body, so is impurity). But both are transitory, and the body as a whole is for the Lord; in virtue of the Resurrection fornication is a serious sin, for it destroys the spiritual character of the body. True marriage is the most perfect symbol of the relation between Christ and the Church ( 1 Corinthians 6:15 ff.; cf. Ephesians 5:23 ff.). In ch. 7 the Apostle answers the Corinthians’ questions about marriage. It is usually thought that they wished to extol asceticism, basing their view on our Lord’s words in Matthew 19:11 f., that they suggested that celibacy was to be strongly encouraged in all, and that the Apostle, though agreeing as an abstract principle, yet, because of imminent persecution and Jesus’ immediate return ( Matthew 7:26; Matthew 7:29 ), replied that in many cases celibacy was undesirable. But Ramsay points out that such a question is unnatural to both Jews and Gentiles of that time. The better heathen tried to enforce marriage as a cure for immorality; while the Jews looked on it as an universal duty. Ramsay supposes, therefore, that the Corinthians wished to make marriage compulsory, and that St. Paul pleads for a voluntary celibacy. Against this it is urged that the Essenes (a Jewish sect) upheld non-marriage. But it is difficult to think, in view of Matthew 11:11 and Ephesians 5:23 ff., that St. Paul held the celibate life to be essentially the higher one, and the married life only a matter of permission, a concession to weakness. After positive commands as to divorce ( 1 Corinthians 7:10 ff.) the Apostle answers in 1 Corinthians 7:25 ff. another question: which would be either (see above) a suggestion that fathers should he discouraged from finding husbands for their daughters, or that they should be compelled to do so. On the latter supposition, St. Paul says that there is no obligation, and that the daughter may well remain unmarried. The subject is concluded with advice as to widows’ re-marriage.

7. Social Questions ( 1 Corinthians 8:1 to 1 Corinthians 11:1 )

( a ) Food . Another question was whether Christians may eat meats which had previously been offered to Idols, as most of the meat sold in Corinth would have been. St. Paul’s answer is a running commentary on the Corinthians’ words (so Lock, Exp . V. [vi.] 65; Ramsay agrees): ‘We know that we all have knowledge; we are not bound by absurd ceremonial restrictions.’ Yes, but knowledge puffeth up; without love and humility it is nothing; besides not all have knowledge. ‘The false gods are really non-existent; we have but one God; as there is no such thing really as an idol we are free to eat meats offered in idol temples.’ But there are weaker brethren who would be scandalized. ‘Meat will not commend us to God: it is indifferent.’ But do not let your liberty cause others to fall (note the change of pronoun in v. 8f.).

Why is the decree of Acts 15:29 not quoted? Lock suggests that it is because at Corinth there was no question between Jew and Gentile, but only between Gentile and Gentile, and Jewish opinion might be neglected. Ramsay ( Exp . VI. [ii.] 375) thinks that the decree is not mentioned because it was the very subject of discussion. The Corinthians had said (he supposes): ‘Why should we be tied down by the Council’s decree here at Corinth, so long after? We know better than to suppose that a non-existent idol can taint food.’ St. Paul replies, maintaining the spirit of the decree, that offence must not be given to the weaker brethren (so Hort).

( b ) Idol Feasts ( 1 Corinthians 8:10-13 , 1 Corinthians 10:14 to 1 Corinthians 11:1 ). St. Paul absolutely forbids eating at idol feasts. Probably many of the Corinthians had retained their connexion with pagan clubs. The pagan feast meant a brotherhood or special bond of union; but the two kinds of brotherhood were incompatible. A Christian who, out of complaisance, attends an idol feast, is really entering a hostile brotherhood.

( c ) Digression on Forbearance ( 1 Corinthians 9:1 to 1 Corinthians 10:13 ). St. Paul says that he habitually considers the rights of others and does not press his own rights as an Apostle to the full; he implies that the Corinthians should not press their liberty so as to scandalize others. This passage shows how little as yet the Judaizers had been at work in Corinth. St. Paul announces his position as an Apostle, and the right of the Christian minister to live of the gospel, but he will not use his rights to the full ( 1 Corinthians 9:18 RV [Note: Revised Version.] ). He teaches self-denial and earnestness from the example of the Isthmian games ( 1 Corinthians 9:24 ff.), and shows that the Israelites, in spite of all their privileges, fell from lack of this self-discipline. It is noteworthy that he speaks of ‘ our fathers’ ( 1 Corinthians 10:1 ). Perhaps, having addressed the Gentiles in particular in ch. 9, he now turns to the Jewish section of the Corinthian Church; he refers to a Rabbinical legend in 1 Corinthians 10:4 . Or he may he considering the whole Church as being the spiritual descendants of Israel.

8. Christian Worship ( 1 Corinthians 11:2 to 1 Corinthians 14:40 )

( a ) Veiling of Women . In reply (as it seems) to another question, St. Paul says that it is the Christian custom for men ‘praying or prophesying’ to have their heads uncovered, but for women to have theirs covered. This apparently trivial matter is an instance of the application of Christian principles to Christian ceremonial. The Jews of both sexes prayed with head covered and with a veil before the face (cf. 2 Corinthians 3:14 ff.); therefore St. Paul’s injunction does not follow Jewish custom. It is based on the subordination of the woman to the man, and is illustrated by the existence of regulated ranks among the angels; for this seems to be the meaning of 1 Corinthians 11:10 .

( b ) The Eucharist . The Corinthians joined together in a social meal somewhat later called an Agape or Love-feast and the Eucharist, probably in imitation both of the Last Supper and of the Jewish and heathen meals taken in common. To this combination the name ‘Lord’s Supper’ (here only in NT) is given. But the party-spirit, already spoken of, showed itself in this custom; the Corinthians did not eat the Lord ’s supper, but their own, because of their factions. St. Paul therefore gives the narrative of our Lord’s Institution as he himself had received it, strongly condemns those who make an unworthy communion as ‘guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord,’ and inculcates preparation by self-probation.

It is chiefly this passage that has led some to think that the writer of the Epistle is quoting the Synoptic Gospels (see below, § 10); the Lukan account, as we have it in our Bibles, is very like the Pauline. But the deduction is very improbable. Even if our Lukan text is right, the result is only what we should have expected, that the companion of St. Paul has taken his master’s form of the narrative, which he would doubtless have frequently heard him use liturgically, and has incorporated it in his Gospel. As a matter of fact, however, it is not improbable that the Lukan form was really much shorter than the Pauline, and that some early scribe has lengthened it to make it fit in with 1 Corinthians 11:23 ff. (Westcott-Hort, NT in Greek , ii. Append. p. 64).

( c ) Spiritual Gifts ( 1Co 12:1-31; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; 1 Corinthians 14:1-40 ). The public manifestation of the presence of the Spirit known as ‘speaking with tongues’ (see art. Tongues [Gift of]), seems to have been very common at Corinth. After the magnificent digression of ch. 13, which shows that of all spiritual gifts love is the greatest, that it alone is eternal, that without it all other gifts are useless, St. Paul applies the principle that spiritual gifts are means to an end, not an end in themselves; and he therefore upholds ‘prophecy’ ( i.e. , in this connexion, the interpretation of Scripture and of Christian doctrine) as superior to speaking with tongues, because it edifies all present. He says, further, that women are to keep silence ( i.e. not to prophesy?) in the public assemblies ( 1 Corinthians 14:34 f., cf. 1 Timothy 2:12 ). In 1 Corinthians 11:5 (Cf. Acts 21:9 ) some women are said to have had the gift of prophecy; so that we must understand that they were allowed to exercise it only among women, or in their own households. But possibly the Apostle has chiefly in his mind questions asked by women in the public assemblies (cf. 1 Corinthians 14:35 ).

9. The Resurrection of the Body ( 1 Corinthians 15:1-58 ). This, the only doctrinal chapter of the Epistle, contains also the earliest evidence for our Lord’s resurrection. Apparently the Gentile converts at Corinth felt a great difficulty in accepting the doctrine of the resurrection of the body; it appeared to them too material a doctrine to he true ( 1 Corinthians 15:12 , cf. 2 Timothy 2:18 ). St. Paul replies that Christ has risen, as many still alive can testify, and that therefore the dead will rise. For his treatment of the subject see art. Paul the Apostle, iii. 10, The Corinthian scepticism does not seem to have died out at the end of the century, for Clement of Rome, writing to Corinth, strongly emphasizes the doctrine ( Cor . 24f.).

St. Paul concludes the Epistle with directions about the regular collecting of alms for the poor Christians of Judæa, and with personal notices and salutations.

10. Date and genuineness of the Epistle . It is referred to as St. Paul’s by Clement of Rome, c [Note: circa, about.] . a.d. 95 ( Cor . 47), who speaks of the parties of Paul, Cephas, and Apollos, but omits the Christ-party (see above § 3 ); we cannot infer from his phrase ‘the Epistle of the blessed Paul’ that he knew only one Epistle to the Corinthians, as early usage shows (Lightfoot, Clement , ii. 143). There are other clear allusions in Clement. Ignatius ( Eph . 18f.) refers to 1 Corinthians 1:20; 1 Corinthians 1:23 f., 1 Corinthians 4:13 and probably 1 Corinthians 2:6; Polycarp (§ 11) quotes 1 Corinthians 6:2 as Paul’s; references are found in the Martyrdom of Polycarp , in Justin Martyr, and in the Epistle to Diognetus; while Irenæus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian at the end of the 2nd cent. quote the Epistle fully. Of the 2nd cent. heretics the Ophites and Basilides certainly knew it. Internal evidence fully hears out the external; no Epistle shows more clearly the mark of originality; and the undesigned coincidences between it and Acts, which Paley draws out, point in the same direction. It is in fact one of the four ‘generally accepted’ Epistles of St. Paul. See art. Paul the Apostle, i. 2 , for the general arguments adduced against their genuineness. Against that of our Epistle in particular it has been alleged that it is dependent on Romans thus, 1 Corinthians 4:6 (‘the things which are written’) is said to be a quotation of Romans 12:3 , surely a most fanciful idea and on the Synoptic Gospels, especially in two particulars, the account of the Last Supper (see § 8 ( b ) above), and that of the Resurrection appearances of our Lord ( 1 Corinthians 15:4 ff.). The real problem of the latter passage, however (as Goudge remarks, p. xxvii.), is not to account for the extent to which it runs parallel with the Gospels, but to explain why it does not run more nearly parallel with them. Few will he convinced by a criticism which practically assumes that a Christian writer of the 1st cent. could only know the facts of our Lord’s earthly life from our Gospels. We may then take the genuineness of the Epistle as being unassailable.

If so, what is its date? Relatively to the rest of the Pauline chronology, it may he approximately fixed. In the year of his arrest at Jerusalem, St. Paul left Corinth in the early spring, after spending three months there (Acts 20:3; Acts 20:6 ). He must therefore have arrived there in late autumn or early winter. This seems to have been the visit to Corinth promised in 2 Corinthians 13:1 , which was the third visit. Two visits in all must have therefore preceded 2 Cor. (some think also 1 Cor.), and in any case an interval of some months between the two Epistles must be allowed for. In 1 Corinthians 16:6 the Apostle had announced his intention of wintering in Corinth, and it is possible that the visit of Acts 20:3 is the fulfilment of this intention, though St. Paul certainly did not carry out all his plans at this time ( 2 Corinthians 1:15 f., 2 Corinthians 1:23 ). If so, 1 Cor. would have been written from Ephesus in the spring of the year before St. Paul’s arrest at Jerusalem.

This date is favoured by the allusion of 5:7f., which suggests to many commentators that the Easter festival was being, or about to he, celebrated when St. Paul wrote. It is a little doubtful, however, whether the Gentile churches kept the annual as well as the weekly feast of the Resurrection at this early date; see art. ‘Calendar, The Christian,’ in Hastings’ DCG [Note: CG Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels.] i. 256.

Ramsay ( St. Paul the Trav . p. 275) thinks that we must date our Epistle some six months earlier, in the second autumn before St. Paul’s arrest. The events alluded to in 2 Cor. require a long interval between the Epistles. Moreover, the Corinthians had begun the collection for the poor Jews ‘a year ago’ when St. Paul wrote 2 Cor. ( 2 Corinthians 8:10; 2 Corinthians 9:2 ), and it seems, therefore, that at least a year must have elapsed since the injunction of 1 Corinthians 16:1 . It is suggested, however, that we should rather translate the phrase ‘last year,’ and that to one who used the Macedonian calendar, and who wrote in the autumn, ‘last spring’ would also be ‘last year,’ for the new year began in September. On the whole, however, the argument about the Easter festival seems to be precarious, and the conditions are probably better satisfied if a longer interval be allowed, and the First Epistle put about 18 months before St. Paul’s arrest. The absolute , as opposed to the relative, date will depend on our view of the rival schemes given in art. Chronology of the NT, § iii.

A. J. Maclean.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Corinthians, First Epistle to the'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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