Letters from the Ancient World

The Corinthian letters open a tinted window. In them we glimpse an early community of believers in the city of Corinth 20 to 25 years after the death of Jesus. They reveal an intense and complex relationship between Paul and the church he founded and continued to lead, even at a distance.

In contrast to the idealized vision of the New Testament church often presented as we look back over two millennia, this church had significant failings and internal divisions. Paul, also an idealized figure, and the church become very human as we enter into the conversation they shared.

One of the difficulties in understanding these letters is the nature of this conversation. We hear only one voice—that of Paul. Questions asked by the church and criticisms they made of Paul we know only through Paul's perspective. Contextualizing the letters within the world of Corinth in the first century, however, sheds light on their meaning.

How do we read these letters as God's word to us today? Not primarily, I would argue, as God's universal commands, but as an example of how we, too, are called to live as faithful followers of Jesus within our changing world.

The Roman Empire, spanning the lands around the Mediterranean Sea and further in all directions, increased geographic and social mobility. For hundreds of years, Greek language and culture had dominated the area, bringing a common language as well as significant foundational cultural schemas. Hierarchy was one such foundational schema in the ancient world. It framed and structured both society and the universe. From Zeus to the emperor, the city magistrate to the head of the household, clear lines of status and power were drawn. Within this system, one's status was measured by public recognition. It was an environment of honor and shame, and of male/female, public/private hierarchical categories.

CULTURE, HOWEVER, is never static or monolithic. It is best understood as an arena of multiple voices, competing positions, and unequal distribution of power. Several factors brought new levels of diversity and complexity around the empire, particularly to urban societies. Socio-economic class, ethnicity, gender, religion, and regional distinctions created differing positions and modes of living. Each of these contributed to the contingent and conflictive character of this period. Interaction between different cultures, languages, and religions and the political struggle for power created a climate of instability and social change.

Two-thirds of the Jewish population lived outside of Palestine in the first century, resulting in visible minority communities scattered throughout the Mediterranean world. Through maintaining marriage within their group, as well as unique dietary and other religious practices, Jews preserved their ethnic and religious identity. Christians were a sect or renewal movement within Judaism—at least until the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E.—even as Gentiles entered their communities. In the Corinthian letters Paul's recounting of Jewish history assumes a shared identification with their ancestors (1 Corinthians 10:1-13). Mosaic law and other Hebrew scriptures function as sources of authority (3:19-20; 5:6-7; 9:9-12; 14:21; 2 Corinthians 6:16-18; 8:15). Paul's loyalty to Jerusalem also supports the embeddedness of the Christian community within the broader Jewish Diaspora identity (Acts 21; 2 Corinthians 8,9).

Corinth in the first century was a major metropolitan center of trade, tourism, and religious pilgrimage. Acts 18 narrates Luke's account of how Paul came to Corinth as a missionary, met fellow tentmakers Aquila and Prisca, and stayed with them. He taught in the synagogue, but faced considerable resistance there. After leaving the synagogue, he proceeded to teach the Gentiles. Paul stayed in Corinth for a year and a half. When he continued his journey, he left behind an established community of Jewish and Gentile believers. The Corinthian letters arise from Paul's relationship with this young church after his first visit and between following stays with them.

Issues of honor and shame permeate these letters. In that culture, status and identity were collective, more embedded in one's community than is true in most of the West today. This may help us understand why Paul's identity and honor seem so deeply connected to this community and their situation.

Paul's honor, achieved through his work as a missionary and founder of their church, is being challenged (2 Corinthians 11:5-15). He wonders whether he will be shamed by them or whether they will honor him in their recognition of his authority as well as their faithfulness to the gospel (7:2-7; 9:1-5). Paul criticizes his opponents for their boasting, but then turns to boast about himself (11:12-12:10). The culture of competition for honor and power sheds light on Paul's boasting and claims to honor among the Corinthians.

PAUL CONNECTS THEOLOGY and ethics. God's in-breaking in the person of Jesus has transformed the nature of human relations with God and with each other. This connection is integral to Paul's whole endeavor of proclaiming the new covenant brought about through Christ and establishing groups of followers who are to live their lives, individually and communally, in the light of this in-breaking of God. The Corinthian letters reveal Paul's struggle to articulate the significance of this new covenant in the context of this group of believers.

The Corinthian believers were a diverse group. There were Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freed persons, and people from the upper classes, reflecting most levels of the hierarchical stratification of Greco-Roman society. Varied social classes, gender, religious and ethnic identities, places of origin, levels of knowledge, and spiritual giftedness all contributed to their diversity and to their resulting problems.

At the very beginning of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul declares that there are serious divisions among them. These fractures seem to run along multiple lines. The first division is competing groups within the church, each claiming loyalty to a different leader (1:10-16; 3:5-4:1). Paul, Apollos, and Cephas (Peter) have all apparently influenced this church, and the different factions understand their leadership as antagonist and mutually exclusive. Another division is based on social class. The powerful are discriminating against the poor at the gatherings to share the Lord's supper (11:17-34), a behavior Paul attacks. Differing positions on how they should relate to the larger culture also created division.

Paul addresses their brokenness and factionalism from multiple angles. He employs four primary metaphors that reveal how he envisions the church and why divisions are inappropriate within it.

Kinship was the central community where people formed identity and belonging in the ancient world. It was also an organizing symbol for early Christian communities. The universal God as "father" of the new family created by Christ opens the boundaries for membership beyond those of traditional kinship to include a variety of people. This is particularly radical for Jewish conceptions of family and community. Paul's kin(g)dom vision conceptualizes the possibility of Jews and Gentiles living together in a new family. Loyalty to and the sense of identity within family are transferred from "natural kin" to the church.

The literature of early Christian communities is saturated with "kin" terms. On a practical level, households were the space and underlying unit of organization for many early urban churches. There are a number of households who come to belief in Jesus and are baptized as single entities (Acts 16:14-15, 32-34; 18:8; 1 Corinthians 1:16). Households and kin groups were constructed hierarchically in the ancient world. Among the early Christians, traditional hierarchical structures are sometimes reinforced (cf. Ephesians 5:21-6:9; Titus 2:1-10; 1 Peter 2:13-3:7). At other times, they are subverted or transformed into new power relations (Mark 9:34-37; 10:28-31, 41-45; Galatians 3:28). Paul appears to do both. He uses multiple terms that address the church as a constructed kin group and household. Most often, he addresses them collectively as brothers (and sisters).

With God as master, Paul and other leaders are co-servants of Christ. The Corinthian believers are now also slaves of Christ. Paul also calls them infants and children and claims his authority over them as their one father as opposed to many guardians. They are his beloved children.

Paul's claims to honor and authority are founded in the servant nature of his life and ministry. He describes his credentials in active and relational terms rather than institutional and static positions. What appears as Paul's ambivalence in his relationship with the Corinth church reveals his struggle to work out the significance of God's new family in this cultural and political context.

The human body is Paul's second metaphor for the Christian community and also a site of contention in these letters. Paul connects individual Christian's bodies and their organic relatedness as Christ's body in a complex network of relations (1 Corinthians 6:12-20; 7). The human body is socially and culturally constructed and symbolically maps social boundaries and power relations. These relations in turn are inscribed on individual bodies. Paul speaks to heads, hair, mouths, stomachs, voices, sexual relations, and food, arguing that control of one's body is central to the health of the collective body. He boasts in the suffering he experiences in his own body for the sake of the gospel. He has survived hunger, thirst, beatings, sleeplessness, cold, and wet.

As Christian people, their bodies are members of Christ's body. In marriage relations, Paul promotes an organic connection between husband and wife which also flows into their children (1 Corinthians 7). Both husband and wife do not "own their bodies," but share them with each other. Paul directs both wife and husband with exactly the same responsibilities concerning sex. Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 11 about the woman having authority over her head follows a chiastic structure that results in mutual interdependence and sharing of life.

When Paul speaks of the body of Christ in which all members form the whole together, he uses it to speak both of diversity in unity and unity in diversity (10:16-17; 12:1-31). All organs are not the same, but contribute their gifts and essence to the larger whole. At the same time, although each is different, the body must function as a whole and respect each of its members. In the theological and social context of the believers in Corinth, this carries multiple meanings. One is different spiritual gifts in collective gathering and worship. Another refers to the discrimination of rich against poor when they practice the Lord's supper. The body metaphor finds its culmination in Paul's focus on the resurrection. Our earthly bodies will be changed into spiritual bodies. The human body is the seed of that which will become a perfect, transformed body.

Connected to this metaphor of the body is that of the church as God's building or temple. This metaphor flows throughout both letters. Paul introduces this idea at the beginning of the first letter when he addresses the factions within the community that follow different leaders (3:10-17). Paul is the skilled master builder who laid their foundation in Christ Jesus, but many others are building on this foundation. The multiple builders are Christian leaders, teachers, and traveling apostles, and their work will be tested by fire. The believers are God's building. Each of the leaders has contributed to the construction, but ultimately these contributions all work toward completion of the final edifice.

Within this metaphor, Paul repeatedly talks of his own ministry among them and their ministry with each other as "building them up." As the body refers both to the individual Christian and the body of Christ, the more specific building metaphor of God's temple speaks to individual Christian's bodies and the whole community (3:16-17; 6:19-20). A dominant aspect of this metaphor is that all leaders work towards the same end. They are not divided against each other. The other aspect emphasizes Paul's importance as their founder—it is he who laid the foundation stone.

Agriculture. The Corinthians are God's field (3:5-9). In similar fashion to the building, Paul planted, Apollos watered, and God gave growth. They are working toward a common purpose, and God will judge their labor. They also are sowers of God's seed when they gather their resources to provide for the church in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 9:8-15). They are admonished to sow generously in order to reap in plenty.

ALL OF THESE METAPHORS—family, the human body, God's building, and the field—contribute to Paul's organic vision of connectedness and mutual dependence within the Christian community. Paul frames his relationship with them, their inter-relationships, their spiritual condition, and their connectedness to the church around the world within these metaphors. In the context of their diversity and division, Paul urges the Corinthians to the highest calling—love as described in 1 Corinthians 13. They are to respond to his love and to love each other in the midst of their differences. This love reveals itself in praxis—overcoming factions and divisions within the community; respecting all members; ending discrimination on the basis of social class; participating in the global body of Christ; seeking together to build each other up and to live prophetically in such ways that outsiders will see Christ's life among them.

How do we apply what we find in these letters to our lives as followers of Jesus today? The Corinthian letters reveal a community that was torn apart by the difficulties of living as a diverse group within a stratified, competitive, changing society characterized by unequal distribution of power and access to resources. Paul argues that the new covenant through Christ must transform the power dynamics among them through love. They are not independent, but live interdependently with him as well as the global body of Christ.

What metaphors of self-identity do Christians use today? How do these metaphors promote or destroy unity in the midst of diversity? We all struggle to understand how to live together in community, how to live in our cities and nations as faithful disciples, and how to relate as Christians to global realities. Paul's vision of the church as family—an organism that survives, grows, or dies together—provides a window into understanding the life of the church today.

Katrina Poetker taught biblical and religious studies and anthropology at Fresno Pacific University in Fresno, California, when this article appeared.

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