February 28, 2019
Who were the Corinthians and why are Paul's letters to them so important?
Corinth is a port town in European Greece, During the time of Pau it is part of the Roman Empire. There are two harbor, one facing the empire to the east and one to the empire to the north. Corinthians are a mixed bunch. The city has inhabitants from all over the Mediterranean. Archeological work confirms that during Paul's ministry there are both a synagogue and a temple to Isis, a cult imported from Egypt, in the town, and the contents of Paul's letters tell us about a church congregation from low to high status citizens, slaves, and free persons. Corinthians in Paul's community from all over, and they represent the diversity of the empire.
So, Corinth is important for providing us insight to life in a first century Christian community, into Paul's theology, and on how we live with diversity and unity. Some of the issues Paul deals with are the boundaries between being a Christian and a Pagan, especially in relationship to being a Jew, both similarities and differences with these followers of the Gospel. Paul develops a more liberal boundary of behavior for his followers, especially his gentile adherents, than were part of the Jesus people who came from Judaism. At the same time, he has standards that do not allow for the libertinism of the pagan community of Corinth. There is a more conservative attitude toward sex, sharing of meals, and the sensibilities of all who live in the Corinthian church.
1 Corinthians is not Paul's first letter to the church after his departure. In 1 Corinthians 5.19 Paul mentions another letter he sent, so he and the church have already corresponded. The issue at hand in the letter we have is the fractiousness of the community and their adherence to different leaders within the community—Apollos, Chloe, Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaichus are all mentioned. Paul wants a unity in Christ. He talks about baptism, how to come together in "agape meals" (early eucharists?), the source of their dinner meat, the relationships between sexes, the use of spiritual gifts, and more. These topics take 21st century form and are discussed, contemplated, and argued over today.
2 Corinthians is complicated composition and represents parts of at least two letters and possibly three. But whether whole, or in part, Paul sets down really profound ideas.
When Paul gets his theology right, it is profound and glorious. The first letter has the brilliant chapter on love (13). In 2 Corinthians we have a profound proclamation from Paul about our own purpose as followers of Jesus, even as seen from Paul's declaration of his purpose. It is: "For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus' sake. For it is the God who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ." We are proclaimers and reflectors of God's glory. That is why the Corinthians and Paul are important. They told us our purpose as little Christ's.