Masters Thesis: Chapter 1, Background

CHAPTER 1

Background and Occasion of I Corinthians

The Apostle Paul believed that the integration of man-centered wisdom with the Christian gospel results in the denuding of the power and wisdom found in the simple message of the cross. The reality of this statement is shown to be true when set in its proper context found in I Corinthians 1:18-25. Therefore, this section of the study presents the background, occasion, and alternative perspectives of the text. The alternative perspectives serves to show that there is disagreement on what constitutes the wisdom in this context, and while surveying these perspectives the position of this paper is revealed.

Context of I Corinthians 1:18-25

Background

The city of Corinth was a Greek city where Paul planted one of his many churches on his missionary journeys[1]. Corinth was a strategic place to plant a church because it functioned as a place of commerce and trade. Here, not only were goods and products traded, but likewise, there was the trade of ideas and belief systems. Craig S. Keener provides a very helpful overview of the location and the socio/cultural climate that was present within the city of Corinth:

Corinth was one of the major urban centers of the ancient Mediterranean and one of the most culturally diverse cities in the empire. A Greek city by location, the capital of Achaea (which made up most of ancient Greece), Corinth had been a Roman colony for about a century, resettled by Romans after its destruction, and Greek and Latin cultures coexisted and sometimes clashed here. Its location on the isthmus of Corinth, a short land route across Greece that spared seafarers the more treacherous voyage around the south of Greece, made it a prosperous mercantile community. Its mercantile character contributed to the presence of foreign religions and may have accerlated the level of sexual promiscuity . . . .[2]

Thus, as observed, Corinth was a very fertile place for new ideas to thrive because it was characterized by a socio/cultural climate that was very diverse.

Given such a mercantile environment, social status was determined by the economic industry a person was a part of. The upper class was the more educated and philosophically inclined, and the lower class was typically uneducated and was just trying to survive the rigors of existence; thus there was a hierarchy amongst the classes within Corinth. There were the rich, the middle class, and the poor. Note David G. Horrell’s perspective:

Within this established order was a social hierarchy in which rank and position were strongly defined and displayed. Wealth, legal standing, and family origin were all important. . . . From the perspective of those near the top of the pyramid, manual and wage-labour were degrading, and slaves were despised. The poor, it seems, were held in contempt basically because they were poor.[3]

This points out that the social climate as much as the theological/philosophical climate was very much a part of the overall ethos present at Corinth; and this served as the social context in which the church of Corinth was being shaped.

Likewise, as noted above, there was a pluralism of religions and philosophies floating around in the Roman Empire as well, indeed in Corinth as part of the empire[4]. Provided with the plethora of religious and philosophical options in Corinth, there have been many attempts by scholars to identify the most probable source that served as the informing philosophy/religion (i.e. “worldly wisdom”) at Corinth. The way they have gone about this is to identify particular belief systems with the different teachers provided in I Corinthians 1:12. John Coolidge Hurd provides insight on the various positions these scholars have posited about what they believe the wisdom was that the Corinthians had embraced:

In the face of the critical difficulties which surround the attempt to put flesh on the bare references in I Cor. 1.12 a number of scholars prefer to discuss the point of view of Paul’s opponents without fixing on any particular party by name. Thus K. Lake and Enslin characterize them simply as the “spirituals”, denying that they were Judaizers. And Bultmann, and Kasemann, and Dinkler deal with the situation in terms of a Hellenistic and mystic “pre-Christian Gnosis”. Jacques Dupont, on the other hand, understands the “wisdom” of the Corinthians to derive mainly from charismatic Jewish-Christians from Palestine. And Schoeps, too, emphasizes the Jewishness of Paul’s opposition at Corinth. . . .[5]

Observing the various positions that have been put forth related to wisdom at Corinth, it can be seen that there are many live options available. And the reason there are so many theories about the wisdom at Corinth, is because the Apostle Paul’s argumentation is intentionally general.

The point of discussing this is to show that the socio/cultural make up was not monolithic. There were many diverse social classes, religions, and or philosophies that represented the overall make up of the church at Corinth. Each one of these factors mentioned above may serve as the context from which the schisms at Corinth erupted. As David Horrell states, “We should therefore consider the possibility that the causes of the divisions may be social as much as theological [6].

Footnotes

[1] David G. Horrell, The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence: Interests And Ideology From I Corinthians to 1 Clement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 73.

[2] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1993) , 451.

[3] Horrell, The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence, 72; See also Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting Of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, ed. John H. Schutz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 69-102; Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983) , 13-14.

[4] Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism In The Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 1-42.

[5] John Coolidge Hurd, Jr., The Origin of I Corinthians (Gerogia: Mercer University Press, 1983), 107.

[6] Horrell, The Social Ethos of the Corinthians Correspondence, 113.

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Masters Thesis: Chapter 1, Background

CHAPTER 1

Background and Occasion of I Corinthians

The Apostle Paul believed that the integration of man-centered wisdom with the Christian gospel results in the denuding of the power and wisdom found in the simple message of the cross. The reality of this statement is shown to be true when set in its proper context found in I Corinthians 1:18-25. Therefore, this section of the study presents the background, occasion, and alternative perspectives of the text. The alternative perspectives serves to show that there is disagreement on what constitutes the wisdom in this context, and while surveying these perspectives the position of this paper is revealed.

Context of I Corinthians 1:18-25

Background

The city of Corinth was a Greek city where Paul planted one of his many churches on his missionary journeys[1]. Corinth was a strategic place to plant a church because it functioned as a place of commerce and trade. Here, not only were goods and products traded, but likewise, there was the trade of ideas and belief systems. Craig S. Keener provides a very helpful overview of the location and the socio/cultural climate that was present within the city of Corinth:

Corinth was one of the major urban centers of the ancient Mediterranean and one of the most culturally diverse cities in the empire. A Greek city by location, the capital of Achaea (which made up most of ancient Greece), Corinth had been a Roman colony for about a century, resettled by Romans after its destruction, and Greek and Latin cultures coexisted and sometimes clashed here. Its location on the isthmus of Corinth, a short land route across Greece that spared seafarers the more treacherous voyage around the south of Greece, made it a prosperous mercantile community. Its mercantile character contributed to the presence of foreign religions and may have accerlated the level of sexual promiscuity . . . .[2]

Thus, as observed, Corinth was a very fertile place for new ideas to thrive because it was characterized by a socio/cultural climate that was very diverse.

Given such a mercantile environment, social status was determined by the economic industry a person was a part of. The upper class was the more educated and philosophically inclined, and the lower class was typically uneducated and was just trying to survive the rigors of existence; thus there was a hierarchy amongst the classes within Corinth. There were the rich, the middle class, and the poor. Note David G. Horrell’s perspective:

Within this established order was a social hierarchy in which rank and position were strongly defined and displayed. Wealth, legal standing, and family origin were all important. . . . From the perspective of those near the top of the pyramid, manual and wage-labour were degrading, and slaves were despised. The poor, it seems, were held in contempt basically because they were poor.[3]

This points out that the social climate as much as the theological/philosophical climate was very much a part of the overall ethos present at Corinth; and this served as the social context in which the church of Corinth was being shaped.

Likewise, as noted above, there was a pluralism of religions and philosophies floating around in the Roman Empire as well, indeed in Corinth as part of the empire[4]. Provided with the plethora of religious and philosophical options in Corinth, there have been many attempts by scholars to identify the most probable source that served as the informing philosophy/religion (i.e. “worldly wisdom”) at Corinth. The way they have gone about this is to identify particular belief systems with the different teachers provided in I Corinthians 1:12. John Coolidge Hurd provides insight on the various positions these scholars have posited about what they believe the wisdom was that the Corinthians had embraced:

In the face of the critical difficulties which surround the attempt to put flesh on the bare references in I Cor. 1.12 a number of scholars prefer to discuss the point of view of Paul’s opponents without fixing on any particular party by name. Thus K. Lake and Enslin characterize them simply as the “spirituals”, denying that they were Judaizers. And Bultmann, and Kasemann, and Dinkler deal with the situation in terms of a Hellenistic and mystic “pre-Christian Gnosis”. Jacques Dupont, on the other hand, understands the “wisdom” of the Corinthians to derive mainly from charismatic Jewish-Christians from Palestine. And Schoeps, too, emphasizes the Jewishness of Paul’s opposition at Corinth. . . .[5]

Observing the various positions that have been put forth related to wisdom at Corinth, it can be seen that there are many live options available. And the reason there are so many theories about the wisdom at Corinth, is because the Apostle Paul’s argumentation is intentionally general.

The point of discussing this is to show that the socio/cultural make up was not monolithic. There were many diverse social classes, religions, and or philosophies that represented the overall make up of the church at Corinth. Each one of these factors mentioned above may serve as the context from which the schisms at Corinth erupted. As David Horrell states, “We should therefore consider the possibility that the causes of the divisions may be social as much as theological [6].

Footnotes

[1] David G. Horrell, The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence: Interests And Ideology From I Corinthians to 1 Clement (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996), 73.

[2] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary New Testament (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1993) , 451.

[3] Horrell, The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence, 72; See also Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting Of Pauline Christianity: Essays on Corinth, ed. John H. Schutz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 69-102; Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983) , 13-14.

[4] Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism In The Roman Empire (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981), 1-42.

[5] John Coolidge Hurd, Jr., The Origin of I Corinthians (Gerogia: Mercer University Press, 1983), 107.

[6] Horrell, The Social Ethos of the Corinthians Correspondence, 113.

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