The contents of this Epistle may be divided into five parts:
I. Condemnation of the Factions in the Church, 1:1 -- 4: 21. After a brief introduction in 1: 1-9 Paul states that he had heard of the divisions among the Corinthians, 1: 11-12. In arguing against these he points out that his conduct was free from party spirit, since this is opposed by the gospel and forbidden by the character of Christ, 1:13-31. Moreover he reminds the Corinthians that his preaching had been free from all partisanship which glories in the wisdom of man, because the gospel is the message of divine wisdom, is revealed by the Spirit and is understood only through the Spirit; white party spirit misapprehends the nature of the ministry, 2: 1 -- 3 : 23. He concludes this argument by pointing to his own example, 4:1-21.
II. The Necessity of Church Discipline urged, 5:1 -- 6: 20. The Corinthians are exhorted to cast out the incestuous person, 5:1-13; to desist from lawsuits before the unrighteous, 6:1-11; and to flee from fornication, 6:12-20.
III. Answer to Inquiries sent from the Church, 7:1 -- 14: 39. Here we find a discussion of the lawfulness of marriage and its duties; directions about mixed marriages and an apostolic advice to the unmarried, 7:1-40. Then follows a discussion of Christian liberty in the participation of food offered to the idols, in which love must rule, and one must beware of any participation in idolatrous practices. The apostle illustrates this principle at length by pointing to his own example, 8:1 -- 11: 1. Next the place of woman in the assemblies of the church, and the proper observance of the Lord's supper is considered, 11:2-34. And finally the spiritual gifts manifest in the congregation come in for consideration. Their source and diversity, their functions, the superiority of love over the extraordinary gifts, and of prophecy over the speaking of tongues, and the right service of God, -- all receive due treatment, 12:1 -- 14: 40.
IV. A Discussion of the Resurrection, 15:1-58. The apostle shows that the resurrection of Christ is an essential article of the apostolic testimony, and is the pledge of our resurrection; and answers various objections, describing the nature of the resurrection body and the final victory over death.
V. Conclusion, 16:1-24. In this chapter the apostle commends to the Corinthians the collection for the saints at Jerusalem, bespeaks a good reception for Timothy, and ends his epistle with friendly admonitions and salutations.
1. This Epistle is the most comprehensive of all the writings of Paul. It is just about as long as the letter to the Romans, and contains the same number of chapters; but, while the Epistle to the Romans systematically treats a single theme, this letter discusses a great variety of subjects, such as party spirit, church discipline, marriage and celibacy, Christian liberty, the place of woman in the church, the significance and use of the charismata, and the resurrection of the dead. And the apostle treats of these matters in a very orderly way, first taking up the accusations contained in the report of those from the household of Chloe, and then answering the questions that were put to him in the letter sent by the Corinthians.
2. Closely connected with the first is a second characteristic, viz, that this Epistle is the most practical of all the Pauline letters. It reveals to us, as no other New Testament writing does, the snares and pitfalls, the difficulties and temptations to which a church just emerging from heathendom and situated in a wicked city, is exposed. Many of the problems that arose in the Corinthian church constantly recur in city congregations. As important as the Epistle to the Romans is for instruction in Christian doctrine, the first Epistle to the Corinthians is for the study of social relations.
3. Little need be said regarding the language of Paul in this Epistle; it is the Greek of a Hellenistic Jew. We cannot call it Hebraistic; neither is it literary Greek. It is rather the Greek of Paul's own period, containing, aside from a few Hebrew loanwords, such as pascha, very few words that are found exclusively in the Septuagint. Findlay says: |Paul has become in this epistle more than elsewhere tois 'Ellesin hos 'Ellen.| Exp. Gk. Test. II p.748. The argumentative form too in which the apostles thought is cast here, as elsewhere, is far more Greek than Hebrew, more Western than Oriental.
This epistle also claims to have been written by Paul, 1:1, 2, and bears upon the face of it the earmarks of the great apostle. The language, the style, the doctrine, and the spirit which it breathes, -- are all his; and the historical allusions in chapters 9 and 16 fit in exactly with what we know of his life and acquaintances from other sources. Besides this there is an imposing body of external evidence from Clement of Rome down to the authenticity of the letter. Hence it, like that written to the Romans, has been remarkably free from hostile attacks. Robertson and Plummer truly say in the Introduction to their Commentary on this Epistle p. XVI: |Both the external and the internal evidence for the Pauline authorship are so strong that those who attempt to show that the apostle was not the writer succeed chiefly in proving their own incompetence as critics.|
The free-lance Bruno Bauer was the first, and for a long time the only one, to attack the genuineness of I Corinthians. But in the last two decennia of the preceding century the Dutch critics Loman, Pierson, Naber and Van Manen, and the Swiss professor Steck chimed in with a most irresponsible kind of criticism, founded on supposed inconsistencies and evidences of composite authorship found in the Epistle, and on imaginary conflicts between it and the Acts of the Apostles. No critic of name takes their argument serious; according to the general estimate they are scarcely worth the paper on which they are written.
THE CHURCH AT CORINTH
1. Its Origin. After Paul left Athens on his second missionary journey, he came to the capital of Achaia, -- to Corinth, a city situated on the isthmus of the Peloponnese between the Ionian and the Aegean sea. It was not the old Corinth, since this had been destroyed by Mummius in 146 B. C., but Corinth redivivus, Corinth rebuilt by Ceasar just a hundred years later, that had rapidly risen in fame, and now had a population of between six and seven hundred thousand, consisting of Romans, Greeks, Jews and people of such other nationalities as were attracted by the commercial advantages of Corinth. The East and the West met there, and it soon became the mart of the world, where unparalleled riches were found alongside of the deepest poverty. And with the increase of riches and luxury came a life of ease and licentiousness. Worldly wisdom and great moral degradation went hand in hand. On the Acropolis shotie the temple of Venus, where a thousand maidens devoted themselves to the sensual service of the goddess. Corinthian immorality became a byword; and the expression to live like a Corinthian (korinthiazein) was indicative of the greatest licentiousness. Farrar says: |Corinth was the Vanity Fair of the Roman Empire, at once the London and the Paris of the first century after Christ.| St. Paul I p.556.
To that worldly-wise profligate Corinth Paul wended his way with a sad heart in A. D.52. Depressed in spirit because of past experiences, he began his labors in the synagogue, preaching to the Jews; but when they opposed him, he turned to the Gentiles and taught them in the house of a certain Justus. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, became one of his first converts, and many others believed and were baptized, Acts 18:1-8. Encouraged by a vision, he now began a ministry of a year and a half in that city. The Jews, filled with hatred, brought him before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, but did not succeed in making out a case against him. Even after this incident he labored a long time in Corinth and the adjacent country and undoubtedly established the Corinthian church on this occasion, Acts 18:18; ICor.1:1.
2. Its Composition and Character. We may be sure that the church consisted primarily of Christians from the Gentiles. This impression is conveyed by the account of Pauls work in Corinth, preserved for us in Acts 18, and is strengthened by a careful study of the epistle. The apostle says of the congregation, describing it according to its main constituent element: |Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led,| 12:1. Yet the church also comprised many Jews, as we may infer from Acts 18:8; I Cor.1:12; 7:18; 12:13. The majority of the converts were of the poorer classes, 1: 26; but there were also Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, Acts 18: 8; I Cor.1: 14, Erastus, the chamberlain of the city and Gajus, Paul's host, Rom.16: 23, and several others that were in more favorable circumstances, as we may infer from I Cor.11:21, 22.
As far as the complexion of the church is concerned we find that it bore the impress of its surroundings. There was a shallow intellectualism, coupled with a factiousness that was |the inveterate curse of Greece.| Lax morals and unseemly conduct disgraced its life. Christian liberty was abused and idolatrous practices were tolerated. Even the gifts of the Holy Spirit gave rise to vainglory; and a false spiritualism led, on the one hand, to a disregard of bodily sin, and, on the other, to a denial of the bodily resurrection. But these faults should not blind us to the fact that there was a great deal in the church of Corinth that was praiseworthy. The social relations among the Corinthians had already undergone to a certain degree the elevating and sanctifying influence of the Holy Spirit; the church was rich in spiritual gifts, and was willing to impart of its substance to the poor saints at Jerusalem.
The divisions at Corinth deserve more than a passing notice, since they are made so prominent in the Epistle. The question is, whether we can determine the character of the existing parties. In attempting this we desire to point out first of all that they were no parties in the strict sense of the word, each with an organization of its own, but merely dissensions in the church, representing a difference of opinion. They had not led to an absolute split in the ranks of believers, for Paul distinctly recognizes a certain feeling of unity in the church of Corinth, since he mentions meetings of the whole church repeatedly, 11:18; 14: 23. Yet there were four divisions of which each one had his own slogan.
a. Some said: |I am of Paul !| This party is mentioned first, not necessarily because it comes first in chronological order. Since the church had been founded by Paul, it would seem that a separate party, using the apostles name as their shibboleth, could only arise in opposition to another. It consisted most likely of those serious-minded believers who had regard to the contents of the gospel preaching rather than to its form; and who heartily accepted the simple doctrine of the cross, as Paul preached it, who had come to them without wisdom of words that the cross of Christ might not be made of non-effect.
b. Others said: |I am of Apollos !| We do not believe that the preaching of Apollos differed essentially from that of Paul, nor that he was to blame for the dissension that arose as a result of his work. Paul himself bears witness to his perfect unity of spirit with Apollos, where he says that Apollos watered what he had planted, and that he that planteth and he that watereth are one, 3: 6-8; and that he had greatly desired to send Apollos with Timothy and the other brethren to Corinth, 15:12. And is it not likely that Apollos refused to go, just because he feared that it might foster the party spirit? The Apollos Christians were in all probability those cultured Greeks who, while they were in accord with the doctrine of free grace, greatly preferred a speculative and oratorical presentation of it to the simple preaching of Paul.
c. Still others said: |I am of Cephas !| While the two former parties undoubtedly constituted the bulk of the congregation, there were also some who had scruples regarding the doctrine of free grace. They were conservative Jewish believers that adhered to the decisions of the council of Jerusalem and persisted in certain legal observances. Naturally they in spirit rallied around Peter, the apostle of circumcision. It may be that the tradition preserved by Dionysius of Corinth is true that Peter has at one time visited Corinth. If it is, this helps to explain their watchword.
d. Finally there were also those who said: |I am of Christ !| This party has always been the most difficult to characterize, and, as a result, a great number of theories have been broached. After F. C. Baur many interpreted this |of Christ| in the light of II Cor.10: 7, where the opponents of whom Paul speaks are ultra-Judaeists. On that theory the Christ-party would be even more strictly Jewish than the party of Peter. Others, such as Hilgenfeld and Hausrath maintain that it consisted of those that had been in personal relation with the Lord, and probably belonged to the five hundred of I Cor.15: 5. Godet suggests that they were such as were embued with the spirit of Cerinthus, and believed in Christ in distinction from the human Jesus. He identifies them with those who would call Jesus accursed, I Cor.12 :3. We prefer to think with Meyer, Ellicott, Alford, Findley (Exp. Gk. Test.) and Biesterveld that it consisted of the ultra-pious ones who, despising all human leadership, arrogated the common watchword as their own private property, and by so doing made it a party slogan. They regarded themselves as the ideal party, were filled with spiritual pride, and thus became a great stumblingblock for the apostle. The key to this interpretation is found in 3: 22, 23, where the apostle offers a corrective for the party spirit, when he says: |Whether Paul, or Apollos, or Cephas, or the world, or life, or death, or things present, or things to come; all are yours; and ye are Christ's and Christ is God's.| Findlay correctly remarks that |the catholic humeis Christou swallows up the self-assertive and sectarian Ego de Christou.
3. Pauls Communications with it. There are two questions that call for consideration under this heading: a. How often did Paul visit Corinth? and b. Did he write more letters to the Corinthian church than we now possess?
a. We know that Paul visited Corinth in A. D.52, Acts 18:1, and again in 57, Acts 20: 2. Are there traces of any other visits? The allusions in II Cor.2: 1; 12:14; 13: 1 seem to imply that he had been in Corinth twice before he wrote II Corinthians, and hence prior to the visit of A. D.57. In all probability we must assume a visit not recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. The question is, however, whether we must place it before the writing of I Corinthians, or between this and the composition of II Corinthians. This cannot be decided absolutely with the data at hand, but we consider it preferable to place it before the first Epistle: (1) because the time intervening between the two letters is so short that a trip to Corinth in that time is exceedingly improbable; (2) Since, Timothy and Titus having been in Corinth a part of that time, we cannot understand, what could make it imperative for Paul to make such a hasty visit; and (3) II Corinthians constantly refers to things written in the first Epistle in a way that would not have been necessary if Paul had already been in Corinth himself. In favor of placing it after the writing of the first Epistle, it is urged that I Corinthians does not refer to a visit that shortly preceded it.
b. It seems to us that Paul unquestionably wrote more epistles to the Corinthians than those which we now possess. In I Cor.5 : 9 the author clearly refers to an earlier letter, forbidding intercourse with immoral persons. That letter had been misunderstood, and therefore the impression it made is now corrected by the apostle. Very likely it also spoke of the collection for the saints at Jerusalem, 16:1, and conveyed the apostles intention to visit Corinth both before and after his visit to Macedonia, to which II Cor.1: 15, 16 refers, and which he changed before writing I Corinthians (cf.16: 5), thereby unwittingly exposing himself to the calumny of his enemies, II Cor.1:15-18. From II Cor.7: 6-8 some infer that another letter, far more censorious than I Corinthians intervened between the two canonical letters, and caused the apostles uneasiness; but the evidence is not strong enough to warrant the conclusion.
1. Occasion and Purpose. This letter was occasioned by reports which Paul received from Corinth and by a series of questions that were put to him by the Corinthians. Those who were of the house of Chloe told him of the divisions in their home church, 1: 11, and common report had it that fornication and even incest was permitted in the congregation, 5:1. Moreover the church sent a letter, probably by the hand of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus, 16:17, asking the apostles opinion in several matters, as marriage, 7:1; the eating of meat offered to the idols, 8: 1; the proper conduct in the church, 11: 2; the right use of the spiritual gifts, 12: 1; and in all probability also respecting the doctrine of the resurrection, 15.
In harmony with this occasion the purpose of the Epistle is especially twofold: In the first place the apostle desires to quench the party spirit that was rife among the Corinthians that he might lead them all to the unity of faith that is in Jesus Christ; and to correct the other evils that were found in the church, such as the case of incest and the irregularities that disgraced their Agapae, which culminated in the Lords Supper. And in the second place it was his aim to give the young church, struggling with temptations and baffled by many difficult questions, further instruction along the lines indicated by them in their letter. With great diligence and care and solicitude for the welfare of the congregation the apostle applies himself to this task. In answer to the question, whether he also intended to defend his apostleship over against his enemies we would say that, though this was not altogether absent from his mind (cf. chs.4 and 9), he does not aim at this directly like he does in writing II Corinthians, when the hostility of the false teachers has become far more pronounced.
2. Time and Place. The place, where this Epistle was written, is clearly indicated in 16: 8, and therefore does not call for further discussion. This also aids us in determining the time of writing. The only stay of Paul at Ephesus of any duration is described in Acts 19. If our chronological calculations are correct, he came there in A. D.54 and, after a stay of three years, left there again in 57. According to I Cor.16: 8 he wrote the epistle toward the end of his Ephesian ministry, before Pentecost of A. D.57, and therefore probably in the early part of that year. We cannot conclude from I Cor.5: 7 that it was when the feast of unleavened bread was celebrated, although it is very well possible that the nearness of that feast gave rise to the line of thought developed in that chapter.
The canonicity of the Epistle is abundantly attested by early Christian literature. It is the first one of the New Testament writings that is cited by name by one of the apostolic fathers. Clement of Rome says in his first Epistle to the Corinthians: |Take the Epistle of the blessed Paul the apostle into your hands etc.| The writings of the other apostolic fathers, viz. Barnabas, Hermas, Ignatius and Polycarp show clear traces of the use of this Epistle. From Irenaeus on it is quoted as Holy Scripture. The Gnostics regarded it with special favor. It was found in Marcion's canon, in the Muratorian Fragment etc. The testimony to it is very full and clear.
In the Epistle to the Romans we have a statement of the way of salvation with special reference to the legalistic Romans; in this Epistle we find an exposition of it particularly with a view to the philosophically inclined Greeks. It clearly reveals that the way of wordly wisdom is not the way of life, a valuable lesson for the Church of all ages. But there is still another phase that gives the Epistle permanent value; it contains the doctrine of the cross in its social application. In it we see the church of God in the world with all its glitter and show, its temptations and dangers, its errors and crimes, and are taught to apply the principles of the Christian religion to the diversified relations of life, as we meet them in the bustle of a great and wicked city.