Introduction to 1 Corinthians

(Part I)

Theodor Zahn

Note: Theodor Zahn, Introduction to the New Testament, trans. from 3rd German ed., 3 vols. (Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Publishers, 1977; 1909 English edition).

The Correspondence of Paul with the Corinthian Church
(Volume I, Chapter IV)

The Early History of the Church

The city of Corinth, which was destroyed and depopulated by Mummius in the year 146 B.C., and rebuilt by Caesar and made a Roman colony ("Laus Julia Corinthus"), was the capital of the province of Achaia, which since the year 27 B.C. had been separate from Macedonia, and which in size corresponded practically to the modern kingdom of Greece. Here resided regularly the proprætor, who had the rank of proconsul. After its restoration Corinth developed rapidly into a nourishing city, and at this time was the principal city in the province in point of population, industry, and commerce. The celebration there of the Isthmian games made it a centre of Greek life in spite of the mixed character of its population, though after its restoration, as before, Corinth was a "city of Aphrodite."

Paul came to Corinth from Athens in November 52 (Acts xviii. 1). As the result of eighteen months of labour there, the Corinthian Church was organised. Of this Church Paul declares himself to have been the sole founder with an exclusiveness and an emphasis which would have been out of place in the case of the Thessalonians, and there is nothing in Acts nor in Paul's own writings which calls for any dispute of his right to this position. If, as seems to be the case, there were already in existence at this time a number of small Churches in the vicinity of Corinth, there is no necessity for assuming that Paul himself had taken an active part in their organisation. More probably the same plan was adopted that was followed later in Ephesus. While the apostle remained in the capital and bent all his energies to kindle a central flame of Christian life, sparks from this fire were scattered in every direction through the province. In Corinth, as in Ephesus, Paul's helpers did valiant service in spreading the gospel in localities which the apostle did not visit in person.

The circumstances under which Paul came to Corinth were peculiar. For whatever cause, whether on account of the experience which he had had in Athens, or on account of continued anxiety about the Thessalonian Church, he was in an unusually discouraged state of mind when he began his Corinthian work. As he himself intimates, it was for this reason that in Corinth he confined himself so strictly to the simple preaching of the cross, refusing more than at other times and in other places to make the foolishness of the gospel attractive to his hearers by the use of rhetorical art and of learning (1 Cor. ii. 1-5; cf. Acts xviii. 9). The manner in which he lived in Corinth was also such as to foster this feeling. While in Athens, he made no attempt to earn his living by working with his own hands, a course of action which was natural in those surroundings, and quite possible on account of contributions sent by the Macedonian Churches (Phil. iv. 15; 2 Cor. xi. 8 f.). As a result, he not only preached on the Sabbath in the synagogue of the Jews and proselytes, but also sought opportunities on week days to converse in the public places with those who resorted thither. In Corinth, on the other hand, after he obtained quarters in the house of Aquila and Priscilla, the Jewish couple who from this time on were associated with him closely and constantly, he worked for wages during the week in their tent shop, so that his religious activity was confined to the Sabbath and the synagogue. The relief which came with the good news brought by Timothy from Thessalonica (1 Thess. iii. 6), and the encouragement which naturally resulted from reunion with his two trusted helpers, stimulated him to preach with greater energy, in consequence of which the opposition of the Jews became more pronounced, and Christian preaching was forbidden in the synagogue (Acts xviii. 5-7). It was a triumph for Paul when Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, and his entire family were baptized by him, an example which was followed at once by a considerable number of the Corinthians. In this manner originated the Church, which continued to assemble in the house of an uncircumcised proselyte adjoining the synagogue. During the succeeding months its membership was materially increased by the addition of Gentiles from all classes.

Having now succeeded in establishing a Church separate from the synagogue, Paul might have considered his work in Corinth at an end. And he seems actually to have had it in mind to leave Corinth at this time, lest the continuation of the preaching should lead to further outbreaks of fanaticism on the part of the Jews. But, encouraged by a vision, he remained at this post longer than at any of the mission stations where he had worked heretofore. This period was not altogether without opposition (2 Thess. iii. 2); but an attempt on the part of the Jews to charge the apostle, before the proconsul Gallio, with teaching a religion contrary to the laws of the State, was frustrated by this statesman's ability to see at once that it was a question of differences about Jewish doctrine, and by his determination to have nothing to do with such matters. The Jews gave vent at once to the indignation which they felt at this miscarriage of their plans upon Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, before the tribunal from which the accusers were driven by Gallio, i.e. as the accusing party were leaving the judgment-hall, doubtless because, as their spokesman, he had not shown positiveness nor tact enough in presenting their case. If this is the same Sosthenes who is mentioned in 1 Cor. i. 1, this painful experience probably helped him to decide fully in favour of a cause which previously he had not had the requisite hostility and decision to prosecute. As will be presently shown, the development of the relation between the synagogue and the Church was not yet at an end when Paul left Corinth, at Pentecost 54, and went to Ephesus.

With this departure begins a period of three years, devoted mainly to the spread of Christianity in Ephesus and the province of Asia (Acts xx. 31). It was toward the end of this period that the first of the Corinthian letters preserved to us was written. Plans had been under consideration for some time for making a journey in the near future to Corinth. This purpose was now on the point of being carried out, since the route, by way of Macedonia, and the time of departure, Pentecost, had been already determined upon (1 Cor. iv. 18-21, xi. 34, xvi. 2-9). Timothy and, according to Acts xix. 22, a certain Erastus, who apparently was the treasurer of the city of Corinth (Rom. xvi. 23, cf. 2 Tim. iv. 20), had been sent on by the same indirect route which Paul intended to take (1 Cor. iv. 17, xvi. 10). It is assumed that on account of the indirectness of the route through Macedonia and the commissions to the Churches there which they had to fulfil, Timothy will arrive in Corinth somewhat later than the letter, which has been sent directly by the sea route. He therefore gives the Church certain instructions as to how Timothy is to be received when he arrives (1 Cor. xvi. 10). At the same time he makes request that Timothy be sent back at once from Corinth to Ephesus, where he plans to await his arrival. When the cause which was keeping Paul in Ephesus until Pentecost (xvi. 9) is also taken into account, we must assume that the letter was written from four to eight weeks before this date. This makes it very probable that the figurative language used in 1 Cor. v. 7 f. was suggested by the Jewish passover, which was being celebrated about the time when the letter was written).

Of the things affecting the relation of the Church to Paul which happened between his departure from Corinth at Pentecost 54 and the composition of 1 Cor. at Easter 57, there are some which without difficulty may be determined. The immediate presupposition of 1 Cor. is a letter from the Church to Paul (1 Cor. vii. 1). From the apostle's expression of joy in xvi. 17 at the arrival of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, who in large measure made up to him for the deficiencies of the Church toward him, and from the request that the Church recognise these men and follow their advice (xvi. 15-18), we ascertain what did not need to be told the readers, that these three Corinthians had come recently to Ephesus and were now returning to Corinth. It is therefore very probable that they had brought the communication of the Church to Ephesus, and were about to take Paul's answer back with them to Corinth. Assuming that vii. 1 refers expressly to written opinions and questions of the Church, it may be inferred from the formulae by which the several topics are introduced in vii. 25 (περὶ δὲ τῶν παρθἐνων), viii. 1 (περὶ δὲ τῶν εἰδωλοθύτων), xii. 1 (περὶ δὲ τῶν πνευματικῶν), xvi. 1 (περὶ δὲ τῶν λογίας), xvi. 12 (περὶ δὲ ̓Απολλῶ), which are similar to the formula of vii. 1, only abbreviated, that all the discussions introduced in this way, namely, chaps, vii., viii.-x., xii.-xiv., xvi. 1-12, are in reply to this communication of the Church. This conclusion is confirmed by the observation that in these connections Paul repeatedly states principles and then proceeds at once to limit their application (vii. 1 f., viii. 1, x. 23).

This is true even in the case of the commendation in xi. 2, to which the following context is only a contrast. Paul quotes these statements from the letter of the Church, and appears for the time being to give his assent to them, but only in order at once to qualify them, xi. 16 f. The expression used in xi. 34 is natural only if the Church had asked some questions or expressed some opinions about the celebration of the Lord's Supper. Thus also chap. xi. is in answer to questions asked by the Church in their letter, which does not exclude the possibility of Paul's having taken account here (xi. 18), as in other passages after vii. 1, of separate oral reports. But there are traces of the letter of the Church even before vii. 1. The principle stated in x. 23, of which Paul admits only the general truth, pointing out its limitation as applied to the practical question in hand, is to be found also at the beginning of vi. 12-20. So in v. 9-13 he corrects a misinterpretation of instructions which he had given the Church in an earlier letter, without mentioning the source of his information or without any suggestion of doubt as to the fact of the misinterpretation. Consequently this misinterpretation of his earlier advice must have been found in the letter of the Church. We have therefore to assume that, with the exception of certain chapters and passages, the whole of 1 Cor. is a reply to a letter of the Church which itself in turn had been written with reference to an earlier letter of Paul to the Corinthians, in fact was a direct answer to such a letter. The chapters excepted are i.-iv., the occasion and material for which were supplied by particular information, probably oral, coming to him from the members of the household of a certain Chloe (i. 11); the passages are v. 1-8, possibly also vi. 1-11, and probably chap, xv., in which Paul seems to speak of his own initiative about things that had happened in the Church, with regard to which he had been definitely informed, though not by the Church itself.

While this lost correspondence is to he dated only a few weeks or at most months before the writing of 1 Cor., the coming of Apollos to Ephesus is to be placed a few weeks or a few months after Paul's first departure from Corinth. According to Acts xviii. 24 ff., Apollos was an Alexandrian Jew distinguished for his Greek culture and rhetorical training (λόγιος), as well as for his Jewish learning. Though when he came to Ephesus he had not been baptized and so received into the membership of the Christian Church, he not only possessed a fairly accurate knowledge of the facts about Jesus, but also entered into the synagogue in Ephesus and taught with enthusiasm a form of Christianity which was not current in the Church. This brought him into contact with Aquila and Priscilla, who had come to Ephesus with Paul, and who remained there during the several months while Paul was absent on his journey to Palestine and Antioch, attending the synagogue services as Paul did when he first came to Ephesus (xviii. 19), and for the first months after his return (xix. 8). After Apollos had been instructed by this couple in the form of Christianity taught in the Church, he was all the more anxious to continue his preaching journey. So, when he came to Corinth bearing letters of recommendation from Aquila to the Christians there, it was not primarily in the role of a teacher in the Christian Church, but as a missionary preacher among the Jews in Corinth. And it was chiefly through his success among this class that he contributed materially to the growth of the Church. This does not, of course, preclude the possibility of Apollos' having been a very acceptable teacher in the Christian gatherings ; indeed, it is most natural to assume that it made him more so. How long he remained in Corinth we do not know. When 1 Cor. was written, he had been for some time with Paul in Ephesus. But he had not been forgotten in Corinth. From 1 Cor. xvi. 12 we learn that in their letter the Church had expressed to Paul the desire that Apollos might return to Corinth. Although he was strongly urged by Paul to comply with this request and to go back with the messengers from the Corinthian Church, for the time being Apollos steadfastly refused to do so.

Some time after Apollos' appearance in Corinth, but apparently a considerable time before the correspondence with the Church which took place just before 1 Cor. was written, the apostle himself had made a visit to Corinth. No mention of this visit is made in Acts, which gives very few details of the period of three years when Paul was engaged chiefly in organising the Ephesian Church, and which here as elsewhere omits all reference to the intercourse which took place between Paul and the Churches that had been already organised. Nor is anything said about it in 1 Cor. On the other hand, there are several passages in 2 Cor. where it seems to be presupposed that Paul had been in Corinth twice before the visit that he was now on the eve of making. If, now, as will be shown, it is impossible to assume that the second visit took place in the interval between 1 and 2 Cor., we must suppose that prior to the correspondence of which we get information, partly from the remains of it which we have and partly from the testimony of 1 Cor., Paul had interrupted his work in Ephesus by a visit to Corinth, which presumably was short. The impressions which he had received on his visit were thoroughly depressing. He had been humiliated to find that not a few of the members of the Church which he had spent so much effort in organising were living as unchastely as their heathen neighbours (2 Cor. xii. 21, ii. 1). He had exhorted them very earnestly, but had refrained from employing disciplinary measures of a severer kind (2 Cor. xiii. 2). He had given them instructions with reference to this matter in the letter of his mentioned in 1 Cor. v. 9. The communication from the Church, in which, among other things they had replied to this letter of the apostle's, together with the numerous oral reports that had recently come to him concerning the condition of the Church and events that had taken place, had pressed the recollection of this short visit into the background, and had created a condition of affairs which called for the writing of 1 Corinthians.

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