23. Corinthians: Introduction

Course: New Testament Survey - Acts to Revelation

Lecture: Corinthians: Introduction


We want to look today at the Corinthian correspondence, and I use that term because there are more than two letters that we have to talk about. During the second missionary journey, the apostle Paul according to Acts 18 came to the city of Corinth, and there he stayed according to Acts 18:11 [eighteen] months, “And, he [Paul] stayed a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.” And then when we go to 18:18, after this, Paul stayed many days longer, so that we have a 2½-year, 3-year stay at the church at Corinth, much like the later stay at the church at Ephesus during the third missionary journey.

Now with regard to the correspondence Paul wrote to Corinth, in 1 Corinthians 5:9, he refers to a letter, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men – not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.” Now that could be what we call in epistolary aorist [tense], in which he uses the past tense to refer to the letter he is presently writing, but when they read it, it will have been written. However, that’s not the content of 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians doesn’t seem to deal with that subject. So it looks like he’s referring to a letter previous to what we would call 1 Corinthians. If we want to call that [previous letter] 1 Corinthians, and call our 1 Corinthians ‘2 Corinthians’, or our 2 Corinthians ‘4 Corinthians’, that could cause all sorts of confusion. So instead, we’ll refer to this first letter that he refers to in 1 Corinthians 5:9 as ½ Corinthians. That allows us to keep 1 Corinthians, 1 Corinthians. Needless to say, there’s no “half” of the letter that he wrote, but we will refer to this earlier letter mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9, as ½ Corinthians, so that we can leave our present letter which is called 1 Corinthians as 1 Corinthians.

In the second letter he wrote, he refers to things there, in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4, for instance, he says, “And I wrote [past tense again] as I did so that when I come I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I feel sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love I have for you.” In verse 9 he says, “This is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything.” And then in 7:8, he refers again to a letter, “For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it—though I did regret it, for I see that the letter grieved you, though only for a while.” Now, this is a harsh painful letter that he’s written, and that doesn’t seem to be 1 Corinthians, either. So it looks like after writing 1 Corinthians, he wrote some other harsh letter in which he rebuked the church, and we will call that 1½ Corinthians. And then we have 2 Corinthians. So we have our 1 and 2 Corinthians, and then before each of those there seems to have been another letter that Paul had written.

The authorship of 1 and 2 Corinthians is really not disputed. Only some crazies out there might argue that Paul didn’t write one of these letters, or something like that. But anybody, even radical critics that are still living on our present planet, will acknowledge that these two letters, Paul certainly wrote, along with Romans and Galatians. No one would ever dispute those (although of course, we have people who have in the past).

The question of the authorship of these letters is not disputed. But the question of the integrity of 2 Corinthians is. We’re not talking about moral integrity; we’re saying, “Is 2 Corinthians as we have it now a letter that Paul wrote just as is, or is it an amalgam of several letters that Paul may have written to the Corinthians?” In other words, is 2 Corinthians made up of not only what he wrote in 2 Corinthians, but also parts of ½ Corinthians and 1½ Corinthians? For instance, some people will argue that 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 was that letter where Paul said not to deal with immoral people. And that 2 Corinthians 10:1-13:10 is that harsh letter, 1½ Corinthians. And that what we call 2 Corinthians is made up of 1:1-6:13, 7:2-9:15, 13:11-14 (that’s the original 2 Corinthians). So that according to this, everything that we have in 2 Corinthians is Pauline – Paul wrote it. But he didn’t write it as a single letter; it’s an amalgam of three letters.

That would not be much of a problem for inspiration, since it’s all Pauline. But the real problem is: what happened to the rest of these fragmented letters? Why were these fragments saved, and not other parts? It’s very hard to explain why, if Paul had written ½ Corinthians and 1½ Corinthians, only parts of it were saved and put into 2 Corinthians. There are times when 2 Corinthians looks like there is a real break. For instance in 2 Corinthians 6:13, we have a rather sharp break between that and with verse 14. And if you go then to chapter 9, 9:15 seems to end, “ …thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift.” And then you have a rather difficult, harsh kind of letter coming in 10:1 – 13:10. And you wonder, “Why these changes?”

When Paul wrote these letters, did he do it at one sitting? In other words, was all of 2 Corinthians dictated at the same time? That would not be an easy thing to do, because you have to wait for your scribe to write this down. Or, are these larger letters maybe a project that took a period of time that he wrote through? Things came up, and that pen was laid down. The amanuensis or scribe that wrote it had to leave, or Paul had to do something, and there might be a time gap. And if there’s a time gap, maybe some additional news comes up, and something that bothers Paul and he needs to deal with a rebuke all of the sudden, even though the previous issue was not rebuke material. I think we have to allow for these letters to be written over a period of time with interruptions in them. And maybe the breaks that we see that seem to be clear as you read them consecutively at one sitting would not be as apparent if you were dictating them to a secretary at various installments. So, again, the main issue is not of authorship; it’s a matter of the integrity of the letter.

For the occasion of the letter (1 Corinthians), Paul is in Ephesus. He says that explicitly in the letter. In 16:5, he starts talking about plans, “…after passing through Macedonia, for I intend to pass through Macedonia, and perhaps I will stay with you.” So he’s in Asia, western Turkey. He’s talking about a time to go over across the sea to what we call northern Greece, or Macedonia, and visit them. And in verse 8, he says, “But I will stay in Ephesus until Pentecost.” He’s going to stay here in Ephesus. So he’s writing the letter from Ephesus, and it will probably go via messenger, who may go directly by ship across the Aegean Sea to the Isthmus of Corinth, or they may have a longer journey by visiting the churches in Macedonia and working their way down. But Paul is in Ephesus as he writes the letter.

He writes the letter for a number of reasons. For one, the church has written him, and asks for information about certain issues. This is most clear in 7:1, “Concerning which things you wrote ….” They wrote a letter for advice. And so Paul is now answering that, and he says, “Concerning the things which you wrote ….” He’s going to keep on using that “concerning”, but not filling out “concerning which things you wrote”. For instance, he goes on with that issue in 7:1 (a marriage issue), and then in 7:25, “Now, concerning the unmarried …,” to deal with people who are not married. Then he goes on in 8:1, “Now concerning food offered to idols …,” they had raised a question as to whether it’s alright to eat food that’s been dedicated to idols, and Paul wrestles with that issue in the church. In 12:1, another issue has come up that they ask him about, and he has another introduction. It tells us he’s now dealing with the matters that they have written to him about, “Now, concerning spiritual gifts, brethren …” and he deals with that issue. Then finally in 16:1, another question they have raised involved the offering that is being collected for the poor in Jerusalem, “Now concerning the contribution for the saints ….” So now instead of “Now, concerning which things you wrote me”, he then repeats “now concerning [this]”, “now concerning [that]”, “now concerning [this]”, “now concerning [that]”, and he deals with specific issues that the church in Corinth has asked him to comment on.

He also writes, however, because he has learned things. In 1 Corinthians 1:11, he’s heard a report from people from Corinth, “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brethren.” So, he’s heard about this--some of the messengers that have come to bring him that letter have added comments. Paul may ask how things are going, and they say that Chloe and others are having some real problems in the church – divisions in the church, etc. And so he writes that way. And he refers again to messengers who have brought information to him in 16:17-18, “I rejoice at the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus, because they have made up for your absence, for they refreshed my spirit as well as yours. Give recognition to such men.” So Paul asks them what’s going on, and how things are going in Corinth. They have brought him additional information. And he has heard about divisions in the church (1:12 and following, we’ll deal with that). He’s heard about immorality in the church, and he has to deal with that issue. And he’s heard about disorder at communion. They haven’t written about that, but the people who have come--Chloe’s people and these others that have brought news have informed him. So he writes of the things he’s heard there.

And he’s also heard from them that there are some people who have come to a unique stage in the Christian life. They have reached a higher level, and this has caused division as well. Some of them say they possess a unique knowledge, and in the early chapters he talks about knowledge a great deal. And so the question is, are these “knowledge” people gnostics? Gnosticism seems to have come in later, however, than when Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Are they people who have a special spiritual gift? They feel uniquely blessed with charismatic gifts and abilities, and this is causing trouble. Some people have reinterpreted the resurrection from the dead, and think that this has already taken place (1 Corinthians 15:12), “Now if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” There’s no resurrection – it’s already happened. And they have reinterpreted that in some sort of a spiritual sense. So Paul, having been given a letter from the Corinthians asking to comment about certain issues, and having information from those who came from Corinth about the situation there, writes this letter.