Continuity — Paul's Audiences — The Corinthians

The Corinthians

Who were they?

Ancient Corinth was a Roman colony, a place where soldiers and proud Roman citizens, drunk with the glory days of Rome, went to retire. It became quite a little bustling city. Latin culture seems to have had an elevated status there, as Latin is somewhat more prominent in the inscriptions of Corinth than Greek is.

Philo mentions Corinth as one of the colonies in which Jews had established a presence[1 ], but, except for a single fragmentary Hebrew inscription, a partial reference to a “synagogue of the Hebrews” [2], there is no other archeological evidence of any significant Jewish presence at Corinth. Correspondingly, we have little evidence of a Jewish presence in the community being addressed in 1st Corinthians. [3] As in Thessalonika, so in Corinth; the Christian population is gentile (at least the Christians that are involved in the issues that are troubling Paul in the "letter" are; if there are Jews among them, we have no way of knowing from this epistle). 

1st Corinthians purports to be Paul's response to a letter he received from Corinthian Christians that he refers to as πνευματικοι (pneumatikoi — spiritual ones). By examining the nature of their explicit complaints to the traveling apostle, we get a glimpse into some of the forms that their worship took. Chapters 7–15 of 1st Corinthians are basically Paul running down their concerns, and then responding to them. For the purpose of this essay, I will bracket Paul’s responses.  I am more interested in glimpsing what these spiritually superior Christians ‘believed’ than I am in Paul (for now).

The highlights:

  1. They seem to eschew sexual activity. They practice abstinence as a means of becoming more spiritual. They resent the licentiousness that they ascribe to some of their Corinthian brethren. This again (c.f. Thess) calls to mind a Qumran-like or Gnostic-like asceticism.

  2. They think that they “possess knowledge.” Does this refer to their educated status or is there a Gnostic influence in Corinth? Or both? Some of the Corinthian Christians feel free to indulge in food that has previously been sacrificed to idols without thinking twice, believing it to be no harm. They’re deemed as cavalier, elitist. There is an air of superiority at play there.

  3. Paul has a problem with the way these Corinthians have been worshipping the Judean God. He exhorts them to come up with a better system. He describes disorder in the meetings. He then lists some ostentatious activities that frequently take place during Christian worship in Corinth. He calls them ‘spiritual gifts.’    The Corinthian pneumatikoi are into a charismatic, showy variety of worship, one in which spirits are actively involved in making things happen during their services. No soporific cadences for them! No sir. They speak in tongues. They whoop and holler. They are on fire with the spirit. There’s nothing that Paul could do to stop it, even if he wanted to, I think. Paul can be shown tolerating heathen practice in exchange for fidelity to his specific kerygma. We each have our own talents, Paul says, meaning to devalue these mannerisms, but he must be cautious in his critique because he knows how important such outward displays of ecstatic reveries are to their practitioners. He doesn’t forbid them to indulge in them. He instead tries to make the converts see how trivial such concerns actually are in the big picture. 

    Here we get to watch syncretism in the process of happening. Speaking in tongues can be traced back to the worship of the ancient Asia Minor fertility deity Kybele. Pharisaism, resistant to all forms of syncretism, was especially repelled by these corybantic and orgiastic Kybelene displays of ecstasy. The Corinthian gentile Christian group that Paul is writing to, however, is likely composed of many of these former charismatic fertility cultists. Indeed, we find quite a few allusions to their licentiousness in this epistle (chapter 5, Ch 6:9–11, 7:1–6, 10:7–9). They have apparently transferred some of their enthusiastic Kybelene practices onto their new Yahveh context. (This is particularly ironic in light of their new-found celibacy.)

  4. Finally, in Chapter 15 Paul seems to be saying that these pneumatikoi think that there’s no such thing as a bodily resurrection. Acts says that, as a Pharisee, Paul believes in bodily resurrection. Doesn't he? — If he does, why don‘t they? Wasn't he their founder?


All of these points of contention show us that these Corinthian Christians curiously don’t seem to be too familiar with anything we can generally recognize as Paul’s teaching. Yet these are the very people who took the time to actually write to Paul, specifically, to see what he could do to help fix their troubles.  And Paul writes back to these guys!  There is a tremendous dissonance here. What's going on? Why are they espousing things that are contrary to what we are accustomed to think is Paul’s preaching? Are they familiar with Paul’s actual preaching or merely with his reputation as an apostle? These people are fanatical any way you look at it. They look sort of Gnostic to my eyes, maybe even a tad docetic. The body seems disagreeable to them; they seem to want to reject it in favor of some theomaniacal Platonic ideal. They are too radically ascetic even for the likes of Paul, but he writes to them anyway.  Ironically, though, he paints himself as a ‘ringer’ apostle who will straighten them out, but then in this epistle he walks on eggshells around their ‘pentecostalistic’ tendencies. It’s rather weird.

It’s no wonder the Tubingen scholars found so many problems with the genuineness of the Pauline material. It is full of inconsistencies.

Where does Judaism factor in?

The Epistle to the Corinthians reveals a mixed bag of problems of varying urgency, most of which fall neatly into one general motif: division. The author(s) of this epistle has a problem with people who think themselves socially superior to others. According to this epistle, the wealthier Christians who host congregations in their households have apparently been lately exploiting the shame/honor system that was part of the Mediterranean social landscape, to the detriment of group morale. They flaunt their wealth, engendering a sense of rivalry within congregations (and between them). This kind of thing was apparently common. One is supposed to shame one's peers in order to increase one's own prestige and standing in society.[4] In Paul’s view, this is not just to passively look down on someone, this is to actively mistreat them.  Chapter 6 reveals that some of the Christians have even been going to court against other followers of Jesus. These were no casual spats. There is some serious antagonism going on. 

Paul indicates that there are also those who think themselves religiously (spiritually) superior to others, but Jewish perspectives are not being espoused or in question here. Rather, the Corinthians seem to have more of a Gnostic tinge to them. There's nothing particularly "Jewish" in view.

If anything, 1st Corinthians gives us insight into Paul’s familiarity with advanced Greek civil rhetoric and oratory. This epistle is replete with a kind of deliberative rhetoric that was common in civic speeches of the day. Paul seems to be trained in a popular Greco-Roman style of rhetoric. This letter, an argument against discord and for concord and unity, uses a popular style of discourse from Greco-Roman literature. Dio Chrysostom in his Discourse To the Nicomedians on Concord with the Nicaeans, for example, uses similar themes and techniques to deal with this same kind of honor/shame rivalry going on between one city and the next. Against discord, for unity. The similarities are self evident. Paul is definitely showing us some of his Greek schooling in this epistle.

As an example of Paul’s familiarity with the discursive methods popular in his day, compare Paul’s use of the body metaphor to plead for unity to the language used in Livy’s rhetoric:
“They certainly considered there was no hope left, save in the concord of the citizens: that this must be restored to the state at any price. Under these circumstances it was resolved that Agrippa Menenius, an eloquent man, and a favourite with the people, because he was sprung from them, should be sent to negotiate with them. Being admitted into the camp, he is said to have simply related to them the following story in an old-fashioned and unpolished style: ‘At the time when the parts of the human body did not, as now, all agree together, but the several members had each their own counsel, and their own language, the other parts were indignant that, while everything was provided for the gratification of the belly by their labour and service, the belly, resting calmly in their midst, did nothing but enjoy the pleasures afforded it. They accordingly entered into a conspiracy, that neither should the hands convey food to the mouth, nor the mouth receive it when presented, nor the teeth have anything to chew: while desiring, under the influence of this indignation, to starve out the belly, the individual members themselves and the entire body were reduced to the last degree of emaciation. Thence it became apparent that the office of the belly as well was no idle one, that it did not receive more nourishment than it supplied, sending, as it did, to all parts of the body that blood from which we derive life and vigour, distributed equally through the veins when perfected by the digestion of the food.’ By drawing a comparison from this, how like was the internal sedition of the body to the resentment of the people against the senators, he succeeded in persuading the minds of the multitude.[5 ]

The body as a unity is a metaphor common to both authors.[6 ] Paul’s rhetoric was right in tune with the Greco-Roman sensibilities of the gentile proselytes under his tutelage, particularly those of more refined tastes and means.

There's a point to be highlighted here: There might be a few Torah citations interspersed throughout this Hellenistic epistle, no doubt, but they seem like affectations, forced accretions. The matrix itself is Hellenistic.  There is little particularly Jewish teaching going on there, certainly no Pharisaism as we understand it.  The more I think about it, the more I realize that Hyam Maccoby may have been right about Paul. 

Relation to James? . . . .

We can infer almost nothing regarding the James faction from Corinthians. James is listed, to be sure, among the recipients of a postmortem apparition from Jesus, but there’s nothing there that can tell us anything pertinent to our focus. The apparition of Jesus to James in Chapter 15 is often credited as describing the moment of conversion for James by Christian apologists. This verse is often used to reconcile Mark’s (Ch. 3) depiction of Jesus’ familial circumstances (i.e. hostile) on the one hand, with the importance placed on James as a key figure in the nascent movement after Jesus’ crucifixion on the other. How else can we explain the discontinuity between these two portraits?  James must have been converted by this postmortem appearance of Jesus that the author of 1st Corinthians describes (or so the usual apologist arguments go). This event is what finally made James a ‘believer’ according to this view. However, harmonizing Galatians with Corinthians with Acts in this way is pretty naïve, and unwarranted, I think, not just because the two epistles actually contradict each other and Acts at several key points, but also because all of those books are basically partisan orthodox didactic works from the same publisher (so to speak), meant to reinforce each other’s kerygma, and are rendered therefore almost useless historiographically because of this inherent circularity.[7]

So, once again, I ask: What do we know about the Corinthians viz Judaism?

We know that there were class divisions within the communities that were engendering animosity among Corinthian Christians.

We know that the leadership of these communities is minimal and ad hoc.

We know there were openly charismatic pneumatikoi there who were tongue-speaking, fire-breathing, spirit-filled and celibate (at least tryin‘ like heck to be).

We think we know that the notorious fifteenth chapter of 1st Corinthians preserves a primitive proto-creed of presumably apostolic origin. But a good case can be made that, if anything, what this list of apparitions reveals is actually a sectarian contest for ecclesiastic supremacy between those who claimed Peter (& disciples) and those who claimed James (& apostles) as their pedigree.[8] I think the gospels and the Acts will further corroborate this. But first we will look at Romans . . . .

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

1 - Legatio ad Gaium 281-2

2 - A crudely inscribed lintel found near the Peirene fountain (probably 4th century in origin). "At the marble steps of the Propylaeum the excavators found a heavy stone lintel on which they were able to decipher the words "Hebrew Synagogue", clearly cut out in Greek letters. The house in which Paul proclaimed the new doctrine must have stood beyond the colonnade in the region of Lechaeum street."– W. Keller, The Bible as History, p368. It was being used as a stepping stone before the inscription was discovered.

3 - Acts 18 reports that Crispus was the leader of the synagogue. Paul mentions interacting with a Corinthian by this name.

4 - Andrew D. Clarke elaborates on this system of status and honor and the influence on early Christianity at Corinth in Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth

5 - Ab Urbe condita II. 16, 32, 33

6 - The metaphor was also previously used by Xenophon in Memorabilia (2.iii.18) and by Cicero in De Officiis (III.v.22)

7— The only other early attestation of this supposed event comes from the apocryphal Gospel of the Hebrews, a late second century work known to Origen and partially quoted by Jerome. It not only singles James out as the very first person that Jesus appeared to after his resurrection, it also explicitly states that James had been a believer and follower of Jesus prior to his death. He had even been there at the last supper according to this work (“had drank from the Lord’s cup”—which directly contradicts the gospel stories).

8 - Robert Price wrote a good piece enumerating all the redactional issues with this chapter. Apocryphal Apparitions: 1 Corinthians 15:3-11 as a Post-Pauline Interpolation


Post a Comment

anonymous comments may or may not be published ...