1902 Encyclopedia > Epistles to the Corinthians

Epistles to the Corinthians

EPISTLES TO THE CORINTHIANS. These two letters of St Paul occupy a unique position among the Pauline epistles. They are remarkable as being in their primary aspect historical rather than doctrinal, while, at the same time, all the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, as connected with the miraculous facts on which they rest, are suggestively implied. These epistles, too, together with those to the Galatians and to the Bomans, have been admitted as genuine writings of St Paul, even by the most audacious critical assailants of the New Testament canon. The external testimony to them is early and complete, and the internal evidence of authorship and age makes it impossible to doubt the genuineness and authenticity of these remarkable documents. There are, perhaps, no other epistles in the New Testament in which there is so much of " local colouring," or so many temporal and local allusions. These letters throw great light both upon the early circumstances of the Christian church and upon the character of the great missionary to the Gentiles : and whilst they are very full of what was due to the special occasions on which they were written, the universal applicability of the Christian principles laid down in them must be patent to every thoughtful student. Stier speaks of the Epistles to the Corinthians as being " a pathology and materia medica for all that are designed to be physicians of the church in a larger or lesser circle ;" and Bleek remarks on the first epistle, that it " serves as a type and pattern in dealing with the multifarious tendencies, relations, and disorders of the Christian church, almost all of which have their counterpart in the Corinthian Church, and are continually repeated with various modifications at various times."
The history of the two epistles seems to be this. Paul's first visit to Corinth and his long and eventful sojourn there are mentioned in Acts xviii. 1-18. After his departure from the rich and luxurious capital of Achaia, evils which, we can perceive, were very likely to spring up in such a place began to appear in the Christian community. The Hellenic tendency to philosophical speculation and to fac-tious partisanship, and the sensuality and licentiousness which had made the word corintliianize a synonym for self-indulgence and wantonness, became roots of bitterness, strife, and immorality. The presence of Apollos (Acts xviii. 27, 28) was doubtless advantageous, and St Paul evidently alludes to a successful prosecution of evangelistic work by the learned Alexandrian, when he says " I planted, Apollos watered " (1 Cor. iii. 6). Yet it would seem that invidious comparisons had been made between the simpler preaching of the Apostle Paul and the probably more philo-sophical and refined style of Apollos, so that some of the Corinthian Christians began to regard Apollos as their leader, rather than Paul, who had first preached the gospel unto them. The reluctance of Apollos to return to Corinth,

at the time when Paul wrote what we know as the first epistle (1 Cor. xvi. 12), can best be accounted for by a consciousness on his part of the rivalry which had arisen between the two factions; and the manner in which Paul urged, and Apollos declined, the mission of the latter to Corinth may be viewed as equally creditable to the mag-nanimity of the older teacher and to the modesty and prudence of the younger. But a far more dangerous division of the church existed than that between those who favoured Paul and those who preferred Apollos. In the Epistles to the Corinthians we have indications of the antagonism and envy of a Judaizing section, who may have been encouraged by emissaries from Palestine, like those complained of in Galat. ii. 4 (comp. Acts xv. 1, 24). These Judaizers would make much of the fact that Paul was not one of the original twelve apostles ; and they seem to have endeavoured to undermine his authority, by depre-ciating his position as a teacher, and by deriding his personal qualifications. Nor were dissensions and tenden-cies to split up into parties the only evils that infested the Corinthian Churches. Paul, when at Ephesus on his third missionary journey, heard of these " contentions " from the members of a Christian household, who were either resident at Corinth or connected with the place (1 Cor. i. 11); but he heard of something worse still, and more glaringly inconsistent with the Christian profession. Licentiousness was common among them, and a griev-ous case of incest had taken place (1 Cor. v. 1, &c), which called for the severest censure and punishment. That the apostle had been awake to the peculiar dangers of the Corinthian Christians in respect of the licentiousness and luxury for which Corinth was noted, appears from the fact that he had previously written a letter which has not come down to us (1 Cor. v. 9), exhorting the Christians to avoid intercourse with fornicators. Alford conjectures that this letter may have also contained some instructions as to the collection (1 Cor. xvi. 1), and an announcement of an intended plan of visiting them, which he afterwards abandoned, perhaps on purpose to see what effect would be produced by the letter known to us as the first epistle, which was in reality a second one.
A good opportunity was presented for communicating with the Corinthians by the arrival of Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor. xvi. 17), who probably brought a letter from Corinth (1 Cor. vii. 1, &c), requesting instruc-tions on divers points to which St Paul replies in the first of our two epistles. This letter from Corinth (as Paley points out) seems to have made little or no mention of the disorders and divisions which the apostle rebukes. These came to the apostle's ears by private report and not in an official communication. We have here a satisfactory explanation of the varied contents of our first epistle. After an introduction which is graceful, conciliatory, and affectionate (1 Cor. i. 1-9), the writer alludes to the indications of party spirit and dissension which had been reported to him, and, while he very earnestly vindicates the claim of the gospel to be a revelation of divine wisdom, deprecates the tendency to overrate human eloquence and intellect (i. 10-iv, 16.) He tells them that he is sending Timotheus to remind them of his teaching, and that he intends himself to come soon (iv. 17-21). He then rebukes their licentiousness and their litigiousness (v., vi.), and afterwards proceeds to answer the several inquiries which had been put before him by the Corinthian letter, viz., questions concerning marriage, questions concerning meat offered to idols, and questions concerning spiritual gifts (vii.-xiv.). With his replies to particular points he blends a spirited defence of his own authority and conduct (ix.), and serious exhortations as to the behaviour of women in the Christian assemblies, and the manner in which
Christians should partake of the Lord's Supper (x., xi.) One doctrinal subject is treated of directly in the epistle. Some among the Corinthians had denied the resurrection of the dead. The apostle shows that the fact of the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is the basis of Christian teaching and the spring of Christian hope (xv.) He then makes reference to the collection which he was making for the brethren at Jerusalem, speaks of his own plans, sends greetings from the churches of Asia, and con-cludes with solemnity and tenderness (xvi.)
The subscribed note to this epistle, which asserts that it was written from Philippi, is a palpable error, possibly grounded upon a misapprehension of xvi. 5. The letter was evidently written from Ephesus, some time before Pentecost, and after winter (xvi. 6, 8), and, not improbably, near the season of the Jewish feast of the Passover (v. 7, 8), in the year 57 A.D. AVhether Timothy was the bearer of the letter or not seems doubtful (xvi. 10); and it is more probable that the three messengers from Corinth, already mentioned as having brought a letter for St Paul, returned with his reply. But Timothy and Erastus were sent together into Macedonia, and Erastus (comp. Rom. xvi. 23 and 2 Tim. iv. 20) may have been returning to his home in Corinth. Then occurred the notable disturbance at Ephesus recorded in Acts xix. 23, &c. Paul left Asia for Macedonia (Acts xx. 1), and our second epistle to the Corinthians may have been written either at Philippi or at Thessalonica, at a time when Timothy had rejoined him' (2 Cor. i. 1).
It has been a frequent remark of commentators that there is no letter among those written by St Paul so full of personal feeling as the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. The "tumultuous conflict of feeling," "the labyrinth of conflicting emotions," by which the writer was agitated, is reflected in the rapid transitions and confused eagerness, as we may term it, of his style. We can trace a twofold current of emotion,—one, of relief and gratitude because he had heard from Titus (2 Cor. vii. 7) better tidings than he had expected of the effect produced by bis former letter, and the other, of righteous indignation against those persons at Corinth, who were trying to undermine his influence and misrepresent his work. We may also perceive indications of mental dejection, and references to bodily suffering which add much to the personal interest of the letter. It has been conjectured that, besides " the trouble in Asia " (i. 8) and his daily anxieties about " all the churches " for which he felt himself responsible (xi. 28), the apostle was suffering about this time from an attack of that painful and chronic malady which he calls " a stake in the flesh " (xii. 7). Titus had been sent to Corinth as a special messenger some time after the despatch of the letter from Ephesus, and was expected by Paul at Troas, but did not rejoin him until he had come into Macedonia. The news that the greater part of the Corinthian Church was loyal to their old teacher, and had attended to his injunctions in the matter of the offender mentioned in 1 Cor. v., and had " sorrowed unto repentance " (2 Cor. vii. 10,11), was very consolatory to him; but it is plain that Titus must have also informed Paul of very distinct and virulent opposition to him on the part of certain teachers and a faction of the Corinthians attached to them. Hence the indignant strain which especially appears in the latter part of the epistle, where irony and remonstrance and pathos are so wonder-fully blended, and where the desire to vindicate his authority, to substantiate his personal claims to the respect and affection of the church, and to expose the mischief which was being done by the false teachers, causes him to review his own toils and infirmities in the touching picture of his work which we have in xi. 21-xii. 21. The epistle (so far as it admits of analysis) may be roughly divided into three portions, viz. :—(1) a very earnest description of his own interest in and relation to the Corinthian churches, and of the impression produced on his mind by what Titus reported (i.-vii.), (2) some exhortations to liberality in respect of the collection which was going on in Macedonia and Achaia for the brethren at Jerusalem (viii., ix.); (3) a vindication of his apostolic authority against the calumnies and misrepresentations of those who were endeavouring to subvert it (x.-xiii.) The epistle was taken to Corinth by Titus, who was quite ready to undertake a second journey (viii. 17), and with him went two other brethren (ib. 18, 22), who were selected " messengers of the churches," in charge of the contributions to the collection already men-tioned. It has been noticed that this letter was " addressed not to Corinth only but to all the churches in the whole province of Achaia, including Athens and Cenchreae, and perhaps also Sicyon, Argos, Megara, Patrae, and other neighbouring towns, all of which probably shared more or less in the agitation which affected the Christian community at Corinth" (Howson),
We may here mention the conjecture of Bleek that between our 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians another letter intervened, which Titus took with him on his first mission, and that this is the letter which is referred to in 2 Cor. ii. 3, vii. 8 as one of unusual severity If this conjecture, which is a plausible one, be admitted, there must have been four letters from the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, two of which have not been preserved. At any rate our 2d epistle is one in which all the affection and eagerness of the apostle culminate, and it gives to us, more than any other of his letters which have come down to us, an idea of the intensity of the zeal and sympathy with which he laboured in the cause of the gospel. "What an admirable epistle," wrote George Herbert, " is the second to the Corinthians ! how full of affections ; he joys, he sorrows, he grieves, and he glories ; never was there such care of a flock expressed save in the great Shepherd of the fold, who first shed tears over Jerusalem, and then blood."
There are three special points in connection with the Epistles to the Corinthians on which a few further remarks must be made. One is the question whether a visit to Corinth, which is not mentioned in the Acts, yet seems alluded to in several passages of the epistles (2 Cor. xii. 14, xiii. 1, 2, and comp. ii. 1, xii. 21), took place. The opponents of this view rely principally on the argumenlum a silentio (which in this case, however, is a very weak one, when we consider the evidently compendious nature of St Luke's narrative in the Acts), and on the expression " a second benefit," in 2 Cor. i. 15, 16. But this expression seems to refer to St Paul's intention to pay a double visit to Corinth, one in going to, and a second in returning from, Macedonia. The advocates of the unrecorded visit urge, first, that the language about the " third " visit cannot reasonably be explained by saying that it was the third time St Paul intended to come ; and, secondly, that it is very natural to suppose that the apostle would have found some opportunity for at least a short visit during his three years' residence at Ephesus. This visit appears to have been a very painful one, during which St Paul must have had sad forebodings of the evils which he rebukes in our first epistle ; but it must have been a brief one, and the language of 1 Cor. xvi. 7 might possibly allude to the hurried nature of a former visit.
Another disputed point, and one which it is perhaps im-possible to determine, is, What was the nature of the " Christine " party at Corinth 1 Were they a separate faction at all 1 if so, were they a Judaizing faction or a philosophizing one? Some hold that 1 Cor. i. 12 does not oblige us to believe in the existence of distinct parties or factions in the church, but only of certain tendencies. The indications throughout the epistles are, at any rate, sufficient to show that a strong antagonism existed between a Judaizing faction and a more liberal, less formal, and less scrupulous body of professed Christians, some of whom adhered to Paul as their recognized leader, while others preferred Apollos. We can quite understand how the Judaizing party would seize on the name and position of Peter, or Cephas (and it is noticeable that the Hebrew designation is preferred), as a rallying point, where they could oppose the claims of Paul and Apollos. But who were those who boasted that they were peculiarly Christ's 1 Some (as Howson, Alford, Stanley) think it probable they were an extreme section of the Judaizers. Others (as Neander and Olshausen) consider that they may have been " philosophical" Greeks who, " with arrogant self-will," professed to belong to no party, and renounced all " apostolic " intervention, perhaps modelling for themselves a peculiar form of Christian doctrine by means of some collection of memorable sayings and actions of Christ,
A third point which calls for brief notice is the " gift of tongues," of which so much is said in the first of our two epistles. It is quite what we should expect that a gift which ministered rather to individual notoriety than to general edification should have been abused and overrated in a Greek community like that at Corinth. It does not seem probable, nor is there evidence forthcoming to show, that the " gift of tongues " was used for purposes of in-struction. It was a mystical condition rather than a linguistic faculty,—an ecstatic utterance connected with a peculiar state of religious emotion. Stanley compares Montanist utterances, the prophets of Cevennes, Wesleyan paroxysms, and Irvingite manifestations as phenomena which, " however inferior to the manifestations of Apostolic times, have their origin in the same mysterious phase of human life and human nature."
The evidential value of the epistles to the Corinthians is very great. For we have in them indisputable historical and biographical data which in various ways imply and establish all the fundamental facts which concern the origin of the Christian church, and indicate the process, of which we have a more direct narrative in the Acts w7hereby Christianity was extended beyond the range of Jewish influences and prejudices, and its principles brought into con-tact with " the culture and vices of the ancient classical world."
There are not many special writers on these epistles. Among
the Germans may be mentioned Osiander, Heydenreich, Billroth.
But the book in which English readers will find the most complete
and specific treatment of the subject is that by Dean Stanley. He
divides the epistles into sections, and appends paraphrases of their
contents There are important notes on the allusions to the
Eucharist in 1 Cor , on the miracles and organization of the
apostolic age, and on the gifts of tongues and of prophecy. He
adds a short dissertation on the relation of the epistles to the gospel
history. In Conybeare and Howson's Life and Empties of St Paul
there is a very instructive review of the condition of the primitive
church, with special reference to spiritual gifts, ordinances, divisions,
&c. (eh. xiii ), and the whole history of the period during which the
Epistles to the Corinthians were written is admirably treated. The
Armenian epistles from the Corinthians to St Paul, and from St
Paul to the Corinthians, are apocryphal. They may be seen m
Stanley's book. Paley's llora Paulina and Birks's Horce Apostólica
contain interesting examples of undesigned coincidences between the
epistles and the narrative, in the Acts. Birks thinks that the
Sosthenes mentioned in 1 Cor. i. 1, whose name never occurs in the
other epistles, may be identified with the ruler of the synagogue
mentioned in Acts xviiL 17. A full discussion on " the thorn in
the flesh " will be found in an interesting note of Professor Light-
foot on Gal. iv. 13. (W S. S.)

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