Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday Paul: 5b: Disunity at Corinth 2

Previous drafts in this series include:

1a. Born at a Time and Place 1; 1b. Born at a Time and Place 2
2a. A Change in Life Direction; 2b A Change in Life Direction 2; 2c A Change in Life Direction 3
3a. The Unknown Years 1; 3b. The Unknown Years 2; 3c. The Unknown Years 3
4a. Life Beyond Death; 4b. Life Beyond Death; 4c. Life Beyond Death; 4d Life Beyond Death
5a. Disunity at Corinth.

Today is part 2 of chapter 5, "Disunity at Corinth."
It was not long after Paul left Corinth that the church there began to have issues of concern to him. Who knows? Perhaps those issues had been in play even before Paul left the city. [1] The first that we hear about is a problem with certain in the Corinthian church who were "sexually immoral." Although we call 1 Corinthians, "First" Corinthians, it was not actually the first letter Paul sent this church from Ephesus. [2] In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul mentions a letter he had previously sent them even before 1 Corinthians in which he had told them not to associate with sexually immoral people.

Perhaps he had been somewhat general or vague in that letter, hoping they would get the hint. [3] Alas, they had not got the point. Now he has to spell it out--he had in mind people who were actually part of their fellowship who were sexually immoral. Indeed he goes on in 5:11 to mention a host of people who should not be part of the church's fellowship: people whose life might be aptly described as full of greed, slander, drunkenness, or cheating others; those who participate in pagan worship or whose pattern of life is full of sexual immorality. In keeping with what it meant to eat together with others at that time, Paul tells the Corinthian believers not to eat with such individuals as part of their fellowship.

However, the key issue that led Paul to write 1 Corinthians--the second letter Paul wrote this church--was disunity. Indeed, we might aptly consider 1 Corinthians 1:10 the key verse of the entire letter: "Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose" (NRSV). In most of the varied issues Paul discusses in the rest of 1 Corinthians, we can hear the not so subtle subtext of division in the congregation.

Because of the group orientation of most people at the time, we would expect that most of these divisions at Corinth involved the same people versus the same people, despite the fact that the issues vary. Independent thinking was not valued at all in the ancient world but coherence to your people and your group. We would therefore be surprised if most of these divisions on issues did not largely involve the same basic people over and against the same basic people.

We also would be surprised if these divisions did not have a great deal to do with the social status--or at least the social aspirations--of the people involved. This dynamic comes out particularly with the issue of food sacrificed at pagan temples. The poor did not generally have access to meat except on the occasion of city festivals. And it was common practice to segregate dining fellowship by social class--sometimes even involving a different menu depending on who you were. [4] Further, the poor probably could resist the temptation to eat at a pagan temple more easily than individuals like Erastus, who apparently was trying to climb the city's social ladder. We can imagine he experienced pressure to "see and be seen" at important civic events relating to the city's temples.

But whatever the underlying dynamics of these divisions were, they presented themselves on the surface as varying allegiances to Christian leaders. Paul writes, "It has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you, my brothers and sisters. What I mean is that each of you says, 'I belong to Paul,' or 'I belong to Apollos,' or 'I belong to Cephas,' or 'I belong to Christ.' As is so often the case with human nature, the presenting issue probably only scratched the surface of the interpersonal conflicts going on here.

Those who were loyal to Paul were probably mostly the foundational stratum of the church, those who believed on Jesus while Paul ministered there. But Apollos had soon followed Paul and, as we see so often today, the second "pastor" may not have looked at every issue quite the same way as the first. For example, Apollos was from Alexandria in Egypt and seems to have been a little more educated than Paul--at least in terms of Greco-Roman education. It is at least possible that some of the divisions at Corinth represented differences between his and Paul's perspectives on various things. After all, according to Acts the two never even met each other until after Apollos had ministered in Corinth.

Perhaps, just perhaps, Apollos may have drawn some from the city's upper crust that Paul had not drawn. Perhaps we can hear Apollos' voice in the notion that "no idol in the world really exists" (1 Cor. 8:4) If such were the case, it might explain the tension between Paul's affirmation of this idea in 1 Corinthians 8 alongside his claim that demons inhabit pagan temples (1 Cor. 10:20). The first is Apollos' voice; the second Paul's. Paul does not want to contradict Apollos' teaching but qualify it so that the Corinthians take the appropriate course of action.

It is at least plausible that it is this "Apollos group" that think they know more than the "Paul group." Perhaps it is the Apollos party that is saying, "all of us possess knowledge" (8:1). Is it the upper crust, the social ladder climbers of the Corinthian church, who can get away with certain forms of sexual practice that were even rejected by Greek society? Is it elite wives in 1 Corinthians 7 and 11 who are using Christianity as an opportunity to free themselves of their husbands? Is it these who are getting drunk during the Lord's supper while others go away hungry? And, although it contradicts our modern biases, are these individuals who think of themselves as "spiritual" (e.g., 3:1) those who are speaking in tongues and looking down on others in the church who do not (14:1)?

The primary tension in the congregation would thus seem to be between those who are loyal to Paul and those who are using Apollos as an excuse to behave in a different way than Paul has instructed. Even though Peter and Christ are mentioned in the opening line of 1 Corinthians 1:12, it is primarily Paul himself and Apollos who pop up mostly in the subsequent discussion of chapters 1-4 (e.g., 3:4, 5-6; 4:6). A division between those loyal to Paul and those who champion Apollos would thus seem to be a sub-text of the divisions over issues at Corinth that we will explore in more detail in chapter 7 of this book.

It seems less likely that there was a distinctive "Peter group" or a "Christ group," following the divisions Paul mentions in 1:12. However, it is very possible that some Jewish believers at Corinth did not rank Paul as highly as Peter (cf. 9:5), and Paul does bring Peter back up as a possible source of division in 3:22. [5] We remember from Galatians 2 that Paul and Peter did not see eye to eye on every issue. In particular, if the letter of Acts 15:23-29 already existed by the time Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, it is very conspicuous that Paul never mentions its contents to the Corinthians--even though 1 Corinthians addesses the same issues! Paul apparently does not agree with the position James and Peter took on the issue of meat sacrificed to idols.

In fact, the statement "I am of Christ" most likely is a slam at the Jerusalem apostles themselves. Paul is in effect saying that individuals like Peter, who actually knew Jesus while he was on earth, are no more authoritative than he is. Certainly this is the position he takes in Galatians 2, where he refers to Peter, James, and John as people "so called pillars" (2:6, my translation) and claims it does not really matter to him what they are, because God does not show favoritism...

[1] Acts certainly gives us the impression that the conflict with the Roman proconsul Gallio did not lead to the departure of Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila from Corinth (cf. Acts 18:18). However, some would argue that Acts has a tendency to soften conflicts between Christians and the powers that be. But any speculation that Gallio forced Paul, Priscilla, and Aquila to leave town prematurely is exactly that--speculation.

[2] We do not actually know for sure where Paul was when he sent the letter, but since Paul sent 1 Corinthians while at Ephesus, it is our best guess.

[3] Some have suggested 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 might be a displaced excerpt of the letter since it seems out of place where it is currently in 2 Corinthians.

[4] The classic text here is Pliny the Younger, writing in the early second century AD. He complains to his host for having a different menu for each person around the table based on their social status.

[5] We should not think it impossible, however, that there were Gentile believers who might have considered Peter more authoritative than Paul.


npmccallum said...

"Because of the group orientation of most people at the time, we would expect that most of these divisions at Corinth involved the same people versus the same people, despite the fact that the issues vary. Independent thinking was not valued at all in the ancient world but coherence to your people and your group. We would therefore be surprised if most of these divisions on issues did not largely involve the same basic people over and against the same basic people."

That seems a bit overstated, don't you think? You've essentially described everything from "tribal knowledge" to Orwell's group-think. Furthermore, there are quite a few counter-examples of this in antiquity. Finally, one could make a strong argument that what we think of as "independent thought" in the modern world is anything but (perhaps the strongest argument in this regard is the mass commercialization of 'indie' communities).

Rather, I think this paragraph really adds nothing to your overall sketch and could perhaps be summarized as an inclusio such as "divided loyalty."

Also, don't you think it more reasonable, rather than a "slam" against Jerusalem, that "I am in Christ" is a reference to Paul's understanding of salvation by faith in Christ through baptism (Gal 3:26-28), specifically to the baptismal canon (ego te baptizo...)? 1 Cor 13 mentions this indirectly: ἢ εἰς τὸ ὄνομα Παύλου ἐβαπτίσθητε (the emphasis is that "Christ" was used in the baptismal canon, not Paul). In fact, it is this baptism into Christ that forms the central argument of both 1 Corinthians and Galatians (which share so many common themes they are indubitably related). For instance, in 1 Cor 1:24 we see that "Jews and Greeks" is to Gal 3:28 as "God has called" is to Gal 3:26-27 (faith in Christ through baptism in Christ).

Ken Schenck said...

I accept that there were some contexts in the ancient world that, at least among the upper crust, could be more individualistic. But I believe not only in the ancient world but as a species, we are primarily group embedded in our identities, as you point out about much modern thinking (at the same time, I lament the seeming loss of the goal of objectivity in the current context).

I do wonder, however, if some of the current push back on Malina's work is the usual intellectual coping mechanism of a certain kind of conservative scholarship (in this case, fearing the diminishment of the individualistic idea of justification by individual faith) that, in the end, doesn't really change the fundamental finding.

If I understand your interpretation of "I belong to Christ," I don't think it works because it seems to me that Paul treats that option as one that is not appropriate.

npmccallum said...

I agree with your lament over the loss of objectivity, though, I'm not sure that "individuality" and "objectivity" are actually synonyms. I think I allow enough room for a corporate objectivity. Anything else just descends into the banality of "hierarchy as despotism" diatribe typical of of late-modern deconstruction.

My main concerns was really with the imprecision of your wording and that, teleologism aside, it doesn't help your sketch of the Corinthian schism.

While you may be correct as to much of the push-back on Malina's work (and also I suspect much of the opposition to New Paul), this is not my motivation (and cannot be as I don't profess such doctrines).

Regarding "in Christ," how do you understand my interpretation and how does Paul render such an interpretation inauthentic? I'm hopefully just articulating Irenaeus' reading, which is a pretty early and authoritative source.

Ken Schenck said...

I was tying attempted objectivity more with the phrase "independent thinking" than with individualism.

Paul seems to mock "I belong to Christ" with the next line, "Is Christ divided?" So I don't think we can consider "I belong to Christ" a positive statement such as it would be in the context of baptism.

npmccallum said...

I think perhaps you are referring to Ἐγὼ δὲ Χριστοῦ in 1:12 while I am referring primarily to ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ in 1:30. This perhaps resolves my first critique.

It is clear that those who say "I am of Christ" in 1:12 need to be educated as to what this phrase means (this education of course happens throughout this text and the rest of the Pauline corpus). Certainly Paul is disdainful of those who speak as in 1:12. Yet I'm still not sure how you get an insult at the Jerusalem Church out of this verse. There are no grammatical clues that his interlocutor has changed (clearly the first three statements are said by Corinthians--I suspect literally, since Paul clearly takes the time to assert his own authority and to establish norms for worship. This is a Church which isn't sure which leader to follow and Paul explicitly says "me" and attempts to repair the differing practices resulting from attempting to follow multiple leaders. If there aren't multiple factions, why does Paul take the time to set down normal praxis?).

My point is that Paul, for the rest of this epistle, attempts to educate the Corinthians on the proper meaning of "in Christ" (which is faith in Christ through baptism). The contrast is thus found between 1:12 and 1:30, reminding them that there is one Christ in one Baptism. It is this reason that Paul expresses in his greeting that his letter is "to those sanctified [through baptism] in Christ Jesus."

This same line of argumentation is deployed against the judaizers in Galatians 3. "Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard [and thus were baptized; cf v26-28]?"

To summarize, Paul's argument is:
1. That there is one gospel: faith in Christ through baptism.
2. Since we have been sanctified by Christ in baptism, immorality is absurd.
3. Since there is one baptism into the one death of Christ, division is absurd.
4. Since Paul is their "father" and "apostle" (having brought the gospel and having baptized at least Crispus, Gaius and Stephanas, who are presumably elders) they are to follow his admonitions, and not those of others (such as Apollos who is "under" Paul and Peter who has no jurisdiction [he is to the circumcised]) who are not in authority over them.
5. Since there are theological questions resulting from this disunity, Paul returns back to the basic baptismal creed to point out correct doctrine (1 Cor 15:3b-8 has been long proposed by source critics as originating from the early baptismal creed).

So, as you can tell, I see 1 Cor as largely a sacramental argument. Sorry for being so verbose, and forgive me for error or obfuscation.

Ken Schenck said...

I'll have to heal myself before I criticize you or anyone else for error or verbosity :-)