1 and 2 Corinthians

Robert Carroll and Stephen Prickett

in The Bible: Authorized King James Version

Published in print February 1998 | ISBN: 9780192835253
Published online April 2009 |

Series: Oxford World's Classics

1 and 2 Corinthians

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The Corinthian correspondence is a fascinating collection of letters in which Paul responds to practical difficulties which had emerged in some of the churches founded by him. The riotous state of the Corinthian church is an excellent example of the problems caused by charismatic experiences. ‘It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father's wife.’ (1 Cor. 5: 1); so much for the rant against Gentile morality in Rom. 1. The Corinthian letters are usually assigned to the mid-fifties of the first century and a certain progression can be seen in comparing 1 Corinthians with the second letter. 2 Corinthians may be an amalgamation of a number of Pauline letters (1–7, 8, 9, 10–13). They counteract both the notion that early Christian communities were wonderful places, and also that such communities were morally superior to non-Christian or Jewish ones. Paul's struggle to persuade his Corinthian converts of the importance of ethics mocks his attack on works in Romans: while the Corinthian letters were probably written before Romans, in the New Testament order Romans comes before Corinthians, so this intertextual reading of the two sets of letters is justified. 1 Corinthians is most famous for its hymn to love (Greek agape; Latin caritas) in 13: 1–13: ‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing’ (13: 1–3). This is Paul at his hyperbolic best. Against the Corinthian obsession with the charismatic gifts of the spirit (spiritual gifts and glossolalia, ‘speaking in tongues’), Paul insists on rational discourse and a hierarchy of values: ‘Yet in the church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue’ (14: 19); ‘And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity’ (13: 13). In his reflections on love Paul contrasts childhood experience with adulthood (13: 11) and parallels that experience with future hope: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face’ (13: 12). That phrase ‘through a glass darkly’ has echoed through literature, film, and conversation ever since as one of Paul's finest contributions to the intertextuality of life. The discourse on the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15: 1–58 is also one of Paul's most influential pieces of writing, used both in the readings for Easter Sunday services, and in funerals, where the ‘sure and certain expectation of the resurrection to a better life’ offers comfort to the mourners.

Chapter.  975 words. 

Subjects: Religious Studies ; Biblical Studies

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