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The Four Letters to the Corinthians

Upon arriving in Ephesus, having visited Jerusalem and Antioch, and in the midst of planting a new congregation, Paul began a lengthy correspondence with the Corinthian church, a correspondence both revealing and puzzling. The numbering of the canonical letters as First and Second Corinthians is roughly accurate, but not entirely helpful. An analysis of the apparently tidy First and Second Corinthians in our Bibles brings to light evidence of a not so tidy history of this correspondence.

Some four different letters or parts of letters are discernible:










Letter P, “the Previous Letter,” which probably has not survived; it is referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:9.

Letter L, “the Laundry List of Problems Letter,” our canonical First Corinthians.

Introduced here is a new system of enumeration, keyed to a descriptive word, and avoiding the confusion caused by numerous and conflicting uses of A, B, C, etc.
Letter H, “the Harsh Letter,” a letter fragment found in 2 Corinthians 10-13; it is a forceful defense of his apostleship in the face of accusations by the Corinthians and inroads by competing teachers; this letter appears to be the “tearful letter” referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:3-4 and 7:8.
The reasons for identifying chapters 10-13 with the “tearful letter” are given in Paul and Corinth (2) and The X-Letter (a) to (c).
Letter R, “the Letter of Reconciliation,” a letter fragment found in 2 Corinthians 1-9; it reflects reconciliation with the Corinthians after the bitter lovers’ quarrel between Paul and the people in Corinth.
2 Corinthians 9 may in fact be yet another letter fragment, separate from chapters 1–8. See discussion of the Follow-up Letter, in F-Letter.
With the sequence of the Corinthian letters in place, we will be in a position to find appropriate places for other letters of this Ephesian period, i.e. Galatians, Philippians and Philemon, and for other developments such as his imprisonment, the work on the collection, and his intermediate visit to Corinth.

Letter P:  “The Previous Letter” to the Corinthians 

As for Letter P, 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 makes it clear that our canonical First Corinthians was not the first letter which Paul addressed to them. In a previous letter, he had offered them advice on regulating the moral life of the still young community, warning them not to associate with sexually immoral people. This admonition had been misunderstood and misrepresented, and when Paul learned of this problem he set about clarifying his views, in Letter L (1 Corinthians).


1 Corinthians 5:9-11  9I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons10not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. 11But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother or sister who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one.

This initial communication, Letter P, through which Paul re-established contact with Corinth, may also have contained an announcement of the collection, which had been agreed to at the Jerusalem Conference, and perhaps also news of other actions of the apostles. The letter was probably delivered by Titus, who would likely also have provided verbal reinforcement of the request for a generous contribution for the relief of the poor in Jerusalem (2 Corinthians 8:6, 10). 

There is at least a slim possibility that a fragment of Letter P has survived in 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1, a passage which interrupts the flow of thought between 6:13 and 7:2, and which bears a rough resemblance to the point in Letter P, where Paul bids them not to associate with immoral people. However, the non-Pauline characteristics of 6:14–7:1 make such a view difficult to defend, even if we assume (a) that the Corinthians have misunderstood what Paul wrote, and (b) that Paul did not remember precisely what he had written.



Letter L =  1 Corinthians: The Laundry List of Problems Letter

To skim through 1 Corinthians:

bulletNote the messages which the Corinthians have sent Paul;
bulletNote the kinds of topics which Paul discusses; and
bulletYou might note points where Paul makes a positive contribution to your thinking, and points where Paul seems dated.


What had been happening since Paul wrote Letter P?  

   • As we have already noted, he was likely obliged to face a situation of mortal danger, in the episode of “fighting with beasts in Ephesus.”  

   • In the intervening period between Letters P and L, Paul or one of his associates had been instrumental in founding other churches in Asia, besides Ephesus (1 Corinthians16:19). 

   • We also know that Paul had sent Timothy to Corinth, and that he was at the time of Letter L en route to Corinth, perhaps by way of Macedonia, or even Athens (1 Corinthians 4:17; 16:10-11).



1 Corinthians 15:32; click on Fighting with Beasts. Compare 1 Corinthians 4:9, on becoming “a spectacle to the world. . . .”

From a close study of 1 Corinthians it is evident that  a two-way conversation was going on between Paul and his congregation in Corinth. Of special interest are the references to an epistle they had written to Paul, in which they request advice 
bullet about unmarried persons; 
bullet about food offered to idols; 
bullet about spiritual gifts; 
bullet about the organization of the collection; and 
bullet about the return of Apollos.
The Corinthian epistle to Paul is implied from 1 Corinthians 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12.


Apollos by this time had made his way to Ephesus from Corinth.

But given the relatively easy travel  between Corinth and Ephesus, Paul had also received information by personal visits from some of the Corinthian folk:  from Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Corinthians 16:17); from Chloe's people (1 Corinthians 1:11); and from Apollos, if he had recently arrived from Corinth (1 Corinthians 16:12).  What Paul learned from these conversations was in some respects more alarming than what he found in the letter:  
bulletdivisions in the congregation, 1:11; 
bulletthe incestuous man, 5:1; 
bulletthe misinterpretation of Letter P, 5:9-10; 
bulletlitigation between members of the church, 6:1; 
bulletdivisions and disorderly conduct at meals, 11:17-22; questions about dress, etc., 11:2-16; and 
bulletquestions about the resurrection of believers, chapter 15. 





Further information on the pre-history of Letter L is summarized in  scenario.


Thus Letter L is in considerable measure a “reactive” letter, responding to questions, crises, controversies, and challenges; it surely addresses a wider range of issues than any other he wrote. At first sight, the letter, apart from a lengthy discourse on the resurrection and on end-of-time events,  might give the impression of Paul as a theological light-weight. But what we find on closer analysis is Paul the pastor- theologian at work, developing his ideas in response to the barrage of questions which we have identified.

The problem for the reader today is to discern what is of abiding value in his pronouncements, and what is contingent, reflecting his time-bound situation. He is surely an apostle for his time, perhaps without peer; but which of his opinions entitle him to be reckoned an apostle for all times?







Relativizing Paul

There are several reasons why he appears to us as a time-bound apostle:  his end-of-time urgency, for one thing; and also his uncritical adoption of many of the moral and social views of his time. These views are partly inherited from the Judaism in which he was nurtured, partly a reflection of Greco-Roman society, and partly other factors, such as a possibly excessive admiration for the Roman state. On a number of issues we today would take exception to his views or contend that his views are at least debatable (as he himself allowed):   

   • Paul on slavery:  he was no abolitionist; 
1 Corinthians 7:21-24.
   • Paul on marriage:  his is at best a concessive view based on moral expediency; 
1 Corinthians 7:1-16, 25-40.
   • Paul on women:  his views, though not unusual for a person of his day, do not earn him a pass on the charge of sexism.
1 Corinthians 11:3, 7, 11; 14:33-36 [a later editorial insertion?].
   • Paul on homosexuality:  surely a hotly debated point today, but one where Paul’s views should not be conceded without careful scrutiny; and 
1 Corinthians 6:9; compare Romans 1:26-27.
   • Paul on hair- and headware-fashions:  fashions change.
1 Corinthians 11:4-14.
An additional justification for relativizing Paul is that he himself acknowledges that on certain issues he has no word of the Lord, but only gives his opinion. But when we have said all this, there are abundant reasons for . . .

1 Corinthians 7:12, 25.

Appreciating Paul

If he is an apostle for all times, it is because on themes such as the following he is able to respond to questions, some major, some minor and ephemeral, in ways that show a first class mind at work.


The Paradox of the Cross

1 Corinthians 1:17-25   17For Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power. 18For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God . . . . 21For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. 22For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, 23but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.



In addition to this passage we find significant references to the cross in 1 Corinthians 2:2, 8; 5:7; 6:20; 8:11; 10:16; 11:23-27; and 15:3.

The cross is surely a prevailing theme in the letter. But this passage is important, not only in substance, but for what it reveals about Paul’s original and lively mind. Several things deserve comment:
There is evident a kind of free association development of ideas in this first chapter of the letter; he opens the main body of the letter with a discussion of  divisions  in the church, which gets him talking about baptism, which in turn leads almost incidentally to his preaching of the cross. We may note that Paul does return to the theme of church divisions again (1 Corinthians 3:3-23; 11:18-22; and, from a different perspective, chapter 12).We may further note that  there is a possible connection between the factionalism of 1:10-12 and the issue of wisdom in 1:17-25, if one of the factions was laying claim to wisdom.

1 Corinthians 1:11-13.

1 Corinthians 1:13-17
This exercise in digression, a kind of pin ball machine style of ordering his topics, may raise some purist eyebrows, but it also illustrates the chatty character of Paul's letter writing.

Of special interest is the dialectical style of Paul’s discussion of the cross in 1:17-25. He shows the same fascination with paradox found in many of Jesus’ sayings, and in certain periods of the history of Christian thought (S. Kierkegaard and K. Barth come to mind). Paul’s reflections are rooted in his own undoubted experience of preaching the cross, when Jews would be offended by the weakness of Jesus in his suffering and death, and Greeks would find such an act of self-sacrifice incomprehensible and foolish.  Paradoxically, says Paul, this suffering Christ is both God’s wisdom and his power.


“For those who want to save their life will lose it  . .  . .”  (Mark 8:35)
“But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.” (Mark 10:31)                                 

Believers as Organism

Another kind of response to church factionalism, and uncharitable claims of charismatics who flaunt their spiritual gifts, is the organic view of the church, the body of Christ.  The community of believers is not a collection of individuals but a living, breathing organism; like the various organs of a human body, the members of Christ’s body are interrelated and interdependent, sharing in each other’s pains and their joys.

1 Corinthians 12:12-27   12For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. . . . 19If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20As it is, there are many members, yet one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” . . .  27Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”

Click Next button below to continue discussion of Letter L, in Ephesian Headquarters (3).


Revised February 2, 2003
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