What a group—conceited, stubborn, over-sensitive, argumentative, infantile, pushy—all these adjectives have their place in a description of the Corinthian Christians for whom Paul was responsible. They were the most exasperating community that he had to deal with, for they displayed a positive genius for misunderstanding him. Virtually every statement he made took root in their minds in a slightly distorted form, and from this defective seed came some of the most weird and wonderful ideas ever to dismay a preacher.’ (Jerome Murphy O’Connor NTM 10 p ix).
If one could trace a unifying and contemporary thread to most issues in 1 Corinthians, it would have to be getting wrong one’s thinking on the body, whether that of the community, one’s physical embodiment or the resurrection body of Christ.
The Corinthian composition
Philippi was made up of retired military, but Corinth was the wealthy new city on the block comprising ex-slaves whose children would be born as free citizens. These were former educators, farmers and business people with entrepreneurial skills that made Corinth a wealthy and flourishing port, and attracted the envy of old, established Athens that gave the port its undeserved reputation for immorality. The truth is that Corinth was no better or worse than any other port city of its day. If Paul could establish Christianity there, with its mobile citizenry, then Christianity could spread anywhere and everywhere.
Chapter one verse six gives an indication, expounded in chapters one to six, of a divided body—four factions who gave allegiance to Paul, Apollos, Cephas and Christ. Some among them thought of themselves as possessing a ‘wisdom’ which made them ‘perfect’ and fully ‘mature’, raised to a spiritual sphere that rendered everything material as irrelevant. This conviction was strengthened by the presence of unusual spiritual gifts among which glossolalia, or speaking in tongues, was particularly present. The old Greek adage, ‘The body is the tomb of the soul’ played its part in fostering the attitude that whatever one does with one’s body is irrelevant—it is the spirit that is important. Hence living with one’s stepmother, a practice abhorrent to both Greek and Jewish thought, seems to be condoned in 5:1-8.
The spirit must be enfleshed if believers are to imitate Christ; physical actions do have moral consequences. Lawsuits among Christians divide the community (6:1-11) and casual fornication with prostitutes takes the embodied presence of Christ within the self and joins it to a prostitute (6:12-20). There is no such thing as a purely spiritual Christianity. The physical self was intended to produce in this world the same effect as Christ.
Responses to questions
‘Now concerning certain matters’—problems were brought to Paul’s attention by the community itself in chapters 7 to 14. Issues of social status (7:1-40), problems arising from the pagan environment (8:1-11:1) and problems within the liturgical assembly (11:2-14:40) lead to some very complex answers as Paul tries to keep all aspects in view.
It is important for us to realise that Paul shared with many of his contemporaries the expectation of the imminent return of Jesus. Hence his discussion on marriage and sexuality as well as slavery is conditioned by the wisdom of 7:24, ‘in whatever condition you were called, brothers and sisters, there remain with God’.
The group Paul calls ‘the Strong’, with their attitude to the body, saw no problem in eating meat offered to idols (ch.8). But this demolished the position of ‘the Weak’. The issue was a very real one, given that halls for dining in Corinth were part of the Temple to the healing God, Asclepius. One’s non-Christian employer could invite a Christian employee to join a feast at one’s work guild. One’s favourite brother or sister (non-Christian) could be celebrating their wedding at this venue. Meat would be the usual fare at such occasions.
Integrity is being true to oneself. When Paul says that he became ‘all things to all people’ (9:22b) he points to the reference truth outside himself, Christ and his gospel. Against the Corinthian conviction that the body did not matter, Paul puts his concern and conviction that the body is the instrument of conviction. It follows so easily that the beautiful chapters 13-14 on love are the body/person in action.
Eucharist and Resurrection
The question of appearance at liturgical assemblies concerns both men and women. Both exercise leadership in the assembly (11:4-5). The waspish, contradictory comment in 14:34-35 is not written by Paul and, if removed, the text has a clearer flow. I agree with Murphy-O’Connor that the issue is hair length for men and women, which when inappropriately long or short was seen as a sign of homosexuality. The veil Paul talks about is the hair of the head. Interesting how misunderstanding the text demanded of women the covering of the ‘veil’ by wearing hats into church!
The Lord’s Supper was subject to abuse by the rich and powerful who owned the houses for liturgical assemblies. The poor, ie, those who had to work for a living, arrived late for a feast that had gone on for a large part of the day. What was left for them to dine on was the ‘cold crow’ rather than the ‘rich pheasant’. It is not ‘the Lord’s supper’ when such distinctions are made (11:20). Personal involvement with all the community in love is necessary for the Eucharist to have its fully effective meaning.
If the body were regarded as punishment and prison for the soul (Plato), corrupt material, a tomb to be escaped from, the Resurrection of Jesus and the incarnational character of Christianity would be at stake. Christianity becomes real only when modelled on the human Christ and empowered by the risen Lord. The resurrection of all who die in Christ was at the heart of Paul’s preaching, Christ as first fruits of all who die in him (15:20).
‘My love be with you all’ (16:24). If only we could all give such a word of love to those who disagree or think differently from us, who take different positions from ours within the church! Paul could do it for this exasperating group of Corinth. Can we?