Thursday, December 18, 2014

1 Corinthians: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include artwork by famous artists.

Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, Greece is a mixture of theology and practical/moral instruction.  As with his letter to the Romans, his main concern seems to be quelling disagreement and factionalism within the church community.  After a formal introduction, Paul chastises the church community for internal divisions, based on believers associating themselves with particular early church leaders.  Some claimed to be followers of Paul, others of Peter, others of Christ, others of Apollos.  Paul says that they should not divide themselves in this way, but be united in Christ.

I am of Paul!  I am of Peter!

Paul explains how the gospel message of Jesus should not create hierarchical structures, but rather it should be a basically egalitarian community.  The church is not made up of Roman or Greek elite, but rather ordinary people: “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in this world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”  The message of Jesus should not be a cause for social or intellectual pride.  It is, rather, a message for regular, humble folks.  Paul describes the church as a community of servants working together, making up a holy building, or temple.

Paul chastises the church in Corinth for sexual immorality, and other offenses.  He says that those who are sexually immoral should be driven out.  He says that the church should resolve grievances between members internally, rather than bringing suit to secular authorities.  He gives a “vice list” of kinds of people who “will not inherit the kingdom of God”: fornicators, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers.”  The word he uses for “sodomite” is arsenokoitai, which is a word of uncertain meaning combining “male” and “bed.”  The original word has nothing to do with the ancient city of Sodom.  It is a bad translation.  It’s implied that, prior to following Christ, the members of the church in Corinth did these practices, and some of them continue to do them, and they should stop.

Ancient Greek erotica.

It is important to understand that Paul, like pretty much all the early Christians, expected that Jesus’ second coming was imminent, and this belief informs the urgency of his message.

Paul gives instructions for married and unmarried believers, saying that monogamous (as opposed to polygamous) marriage is the only acceptable form.  Paul sees marriage as basically a way for people to avoid sexual immorality.  However, Paul was single and celibate, and he sees this as the ideal state for people.  Given the impending apocalypse, he encourages single people not to marry, so they can devote themselves fully to the Lord.  He writes: “I think that, in view of the impending crisis (i.e. the apocalypse) it is well for you to remain as you are (i.e. single and celibate).”

Next Paul addresses dietary questions.  Corinth was a city filled with Greco-Roman culture and religion.  There were temples to gods like Aphrodite.  Often times, citizens ate meals comprised of food that had been sacrificed to “pagan” gods.  Even meat sold in the marketplace had sometimes been sacrificed to Greek or Roman gods.  Was it okay for Christians to each such food?  Paul says it’s okay because “pagan” gods don’t really exist, so food is food.  The believers, however, must be careful not to eat such food when it might cause other Christians to become upset or judgmental.  As always, Paul’s emphasis is unity.  Throughout the letter, however, Paul repeatedly tells the church in Corinth to avoid idolatry, which was widespread in that city at that time.

Ruins of ancient temple in Corinth (to Aphrodite)

Then Paul addresses the issue of whether or not apostles such as himself should be supported (materially and financially) by the churches.  Paul says that apostles have this right, but he personally chooses not to exercise it, so as not to offend anyone, or bring hardship to churches.  When it comes to the gospel, Paul works for free.  He makes his living as a tentmaker, as the book of Acts attests.

Then Paul gives instruction on gender roles, and his views are problematic for contemporary people like me who believe in total gender equality.  Paul writes: “For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil.  For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man.  Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man.  Neither was man created for the sake of woman, but woman for the sake of man.”  

"For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man." --St. Paul

Paul then gives instruction on the practice that came to be called “communion” or “eucharist”—an important Christian practice throughout the ages.  This is where Christians drink wine and eat bread that are somehow, symbolically, the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  This practice is tied to the Jewish festival of Passover, a meal in which Jews eat food that reminds them of their escape from slavery in Egypt.  For Christians, communion symbolizes their escape from slavery to sin and death.

Eucharist by Juan de Juanes (16th century)

Paul discusses various spiritual gifts, which individual members of the church are given by the Holy Spirit.  These gifts include things like healing, miracles, speaking in tongues, etc.  These gifts are not given based on merit, intelligence, or social standing.  Paul describes the church as a “body” in which each member is equally important.  This view inverted the typical Greco-Roman system of social classes.  The church community is meant to be egalitarian.  Central to Paul’s vision of the church, or “body of Christ” is love.

In chapter 13, Paul gives his famous “love poem,” which is often read at weddings.  This is kind of ironic, because Paul was single, celibate, and skeptical about the value of marriage.  The kind of love he is talking about is not romantic love, but agape, a kind of divine, transcendent love that is supposed to characterize the church community.  The poem is very beautiful, so I will quote the whole thing:

“If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels,
but do not have love, 
I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
And if I have prophetic powers, 
and understand all mysteries and knowledge,
and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,
but do not have love, I have nothing.
If I give away all my possessions,
and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,
but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind;
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way;
it is not irritable or resentful;
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing,
but rejoices in the truth.
It bears all things,
believes all things,
hopes all things, 
endures all things.

Love never ends.
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end;
as for tongues, they will cease;
as for knowledge, it will come to an end.
For we know only in part,
and we prophecy only in part;
but when the complete comes,
the partial will come to an end.

When I was a child,
I spoke like a child,
I thought like a child,
I reasoned like a child;
when I became an adult,
I put an end to childish ways.
For now we see in a mirror, dimly,
but then we will see face to face.
Now I know only in part;
then I will know fully,
even as I have been fully known.

And now faith, hope, and love abide,
these three;
and the greatest of these is love.”

In chapter 15, Paul gives perhaps the earliest Christian “creed” about the significance of Jesus Christ: “For I handed on you as if of first importance what I in turn had received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve.  Then he appeared to more than five hundred sisters and brothers at time tome, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.  Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.  Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”

For Paul, as for the other apostles, the resurrection of Jesus is at the core of Christian hope.  Jesus’ resurrection is seen as a type which prefigures the believers’ own resurrection, during the impending apocalypse.  Believers will be raised again with spiritual bodies.  Christ’s death and resurrection signify for believers that death has been defeated.

In this Russian icon, Christ's resurrection is shown as also bringing about the resurrection of believers.

Paul ends his letter with greetings and instructions for individual members of the church.  He says, “let all that you do be done in love.”  He says, “Greet one another with a holy kiss.”  And, to emphasize his belief that Christ’s return and the apocalypse are imminent, he says, “Our Lord, come!”  

I don’t get the sense that Paul imagined that over 2,000 years later, Christians would still be waiting for Christ’s return.  For someone who claimed to have such insight into the mystery of Christ, Paul really miscalculated the “imminence” of Jesus’ return in glory.  But Paul was not alone in this mistaken belief.  The gospel writers also believed this, and put these words into Jesus’ mouth. In Matthew 16:26, Jesus says to his disciples, “Truly I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the son of man coming in his kingdom.”  And in 24:34, he says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”  If Paul and Jesus were wrong about this, what else might they have been wrong about?

"The Last Judgment" by Michelangelo (this is what Paul and the early Christians were expecting to happen at any moment)


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