Wednesday, April 20, 2016

A Big-Picture Look at Paul's Letters to the Corinthians

INTRODUCTION TO SECOND CORINTHIANS STUDY:  “Reconciling Paul” by Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty

I was asked to speak to the Presbyterian Women of the Presbytery of Detroit, to do the annual introduction of the Presbyterian Women Horizons Bible Study for the upcoming year.   What we didn’t know when we scheduled this:  the book wouldn’t be published by the time I would be giving the presentation.  So I found out what I could about the author and her perspectives and focus and did some general research on Second Corinthians.  What follows is my notes for the presentation in 2014.

            When I was asked if I’d do an introduction to the new PW study on Second Corinthians, we didn’t know that the study wouldn’t be available until afterward the meeting date.  So—full disclosure—I haven’t seen the book.  I’ll just do some background for you on Second Corinthians and how we might go about interpreting it.  It’ll be a big-picture approach, and I’ll highlight a few things.
            As I started looking at what kind of resources I had on Second Corinthians, I was reminded of some conversations I’ve had recently with one of our newer members, who’s been excited to hear a different approach to biblical interpretation than what he’s been used to.
            If you check out commentaries and other biblical resources, you’ll see some very significant differences in some of what's been written during the past thirty years or so and much of what was   written before then.  For one thing, almost all the biblical and theological scholars we read earlier were European or European-American white males. 
            That was changing when I went to Princeton seminary back in the late 1980’s.  In my Introduction to Theology Class, we were required to read Latin-American, African-American, and Asian liberation theologians, as well as feminist and womanist theologians, and we were challenged to read the Bible through the eyes of third-world and marginalized peoples, and not only through the eyes of those who are more privileged. 
            In studying the Bible, it's important to understand the literary genre of the particular biblical text and the historical and cultural context.
            So that’s how I approached what I would do today, since I couldn’t read the new Bible study.  I found out what I could about the author, Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, who is chair of the Department of Theology at Bellarmine University, associate professor of theology, and co-director of the university’s program in peace studies. The advance information tells us that “her passions in life and her research interests include social gospel theology, Christianity and social justice, wealth inequalities, poverty issues, and theologies from the margins.”  So that gives us some idea of her hermeneutical approach to Second Corinthians. 
            An important part of faithful Bible study is learning to ask good questions of the text.  So…let’s begin:     


The City of Corinth was an important and relatively wealthy city in the first century.
            Corinth had a strategic location on the shoulder of an isthmus that stands between the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf.   To avoid shipping all around the coast of southern Greece, which was a long and dangerous trip, goods were carried overland from one gulf to the other, across the Isthmus of Corinth.  All overland trade had to pass through the city and the surrounding land it controlled. 
In 146 BCE, Corinth had been sacked and destroyed after a battle with the Romans. 
Julius Caesar re-founded the city as a Roman colony in 44 BCE.  It seems that veterans of the Roman army and an overflow of Roman freedmen settled there.  The city’s success in commerce and arts, such as bronzes and pottery, attracted other immigrants. 
In the first century, Corinth enjoyed great status, as the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.  At the time of the founding of the church in Corinth, it was a bustling, important city with people from many lands and ethnic groups, and a long Greek history, now with an overlay of a Roman upper-class.

            Early in the year 50 CE, some 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion and perhaps seventeen years after his own call to become an apostle, Paul arrived in Corinth and preached the gospel, and a community of believers developed.  Paul stayed in Corinth for about a year and a half, nurturing the church.[1]   In the late summer of 51, Paul crossed the Aegean to Ephesus, where his mission prospered.  (1 Cor 16:9)  
            The congregation at Corinth was a cross-section of the socio-economic and religious makeup of the city—and probably much of the Greco-Roman world.  A few wealthy people were on top of the social pyramid   and enjoyed some financial and social stability.  Most were poor.  There was no middle class as we know it. 
The Christian community in Corinth contained slaves and freed-persons as well as free people, and perhaps some Roman citizens. 
Most of the Corinthian believers were Gentiles.  Paul describes the Gentile Corinthians as having been devoted to idols (12:2).  They wrote to Paul about food offered to idols (8:1) because they had earlier been free to take part in the religious festivities that were part of Corinth’s more than two dozen temples, altars, and shrines. 
There were probably some Jews as well.
We learn from First Corinthians that some of the Corinthians would act boastful and haughty over what they considered to be their superior wisdom or spirituality.  They could sometimes be condescending, or inconsiderate and thoughtless.


I really appreciate Dale Martin’s description of the differences in social status as context to what was going on in the ancient church.[2]   For instance, ancient dinner parties were generally conducted in ways that emphasized differences in social status.  Those of higher status could expect to be given better seats, closer to the head of the table.  Different kinds of food and a different quality of wine would be served to different groups of people:  the “friends” of the host, those more his “equals,” might be served better dishes and wine… the “clients” of the host might be served something else, and those further down the social pyramid would get food ad drink of still worse quality.  None of this would have been considered strange to most people of a Greek or Roman city.  It was just how things were done.[3]
            From what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 11, the Lord’s Supper was not the sharing of a sip of wine and a tiny morsel of bread the way we celebrate communion, but rather it was a full meal.  In the midst of the meal, at some point, the  “words of institution”[4] from Jesus would be quoted and some prayers would be offered, followed by the distribution and sharing of bread and wine.  But that ritual was surrounded with a full meal that may have been something of a potluck, or may have been largely provided by the wealthier Christians.   
            So Paul had complained in First Corinthians that different groups were eating and drinking their own private dinners:  “Each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk.”  (1 Cor 11:21)   

            Most laborers in an ancient city, whether they were slaves or other manual and skilled laborers, would have owed their full days to their employers.  Most of the time, they couldn’t have attended a church meeting until the sun went down unless it happened to fall on a holiday.  So Paul is describing a situation in which the wealthier Christians, who enjoyed more leisure and freedom, were arriving early at the church meeting, probably bringing food and drink for themselves and their households and friends.  The poorer people, unless they were members of the household of a richer church member, were arriving late at the meetings, after others had begun to eat.  So one of Paul’s solutions to this was to tell those who were able to arrive early to “wait for” the rest.  (1 Cor 11:33)
            Paul’s main objection to the way Corinthians are observing the Lord’s Supper is that they were doing so divided by class and privilege.  The “haves” are ignoring or despising the “have-nots.”  So, according to Martin, when Paul says that they must “discern the body” before they eat and drink, he isn’t referring primarily to the host of the body of Jesus in the bread.  Rather, he is referring to the entire church as the “body of Christ,” as he names it elsewhere in First Corinthians (6:15-20, 12:12-31).  Paul says that those who have been slighting and humiliating the poor by showing no concern for their desire to eat and drink have thereby been despising the body of Christ himself. 
            Now, we can be pretty sure that the “haves” wouldn’t have seen things this way at all.  They were just maintaining the cultural traditions.  Those of higher status enjoyed the privileges that came with that, as it had always been.  The poor shouldn’t expect to be treated equally.  So Paul is turning the status expectations of the Greek city upside-down.  He insists that poor people need to be treated with special honor and regard, precisely because God “chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing the things that are.”  (1 Cor. 1:28) 
            Paul follows a similar strategy in dealing with the problem of eating food sacrificed to idols.  Meat was a precious commodity in an ancient city, and most people couldn’t afford to buy it in the market.  The main time they would eat meat would be at a sacrificial festival provided either by the city or more often by a wealthy individual who paid for the festival and its expenses out of his own pocket, in return for the honor he and his family would gain.  The sacrifices would be made, some of the materials would be burned for the god—that’s “god” with a small “g”.  Some would be given to the priests or other cult officials, and then the rest would be distributed to the people for their own feasting with their families and friends.   But participation in these sacrificial festivals was what Jews and early Christians considered idolatry. 
            What’s at stake here is that the poor Christians of Corinth would have had to attend a sacrificial festival in order to eat meat, and it would have been meat that had been sacrificed to a deity. 
            Even meat sold in a marketplace could have come from some kind of sacrificial practice.  The officials or cultic priests who were given portions of the sacrificed animals had the choice of making a bit of money by selling their portions to a butcher, who would re-sell it to people.  So—if you weren’t rich enough to buy an animal and have it butchered—you could scarcely avoid eating meat that had been part of a sacrificial ritual.  If you were poor and you wanted to avoid eating meat that had been part of ritual sacrifice, you wouldn’t be able to eat meat at all. 
            So that’s some of the context from First Corinthians that can help us to understand Second Corinthians. 

Ethnic and cultural diversity.  Economic inequality.  Difficult personalities. Conflict.  Does this sound familiar?

            In what we know as First and Second Corinthians, we find the most detailed record we have of the apostle Paul’s enduring relationship with a particular church.  They give us a window into the life of one of the early church and Paul’s continuing affectionate and sometimes troubled relationship with its members. They show us that the early decades of the Christian church weren’t an ideal time of perfection and harmony, but a time of conflict among followers of Jesus, as they struggled to discern what it meant to follow Jesus and his way.[5]
            By the time Paul wrote First Corinthians from Ephesus, he had known the believers there for more than three years.    He had written them an earlier letter, presumably now lost, about how to maintain holiness, and they had written him, asking about several issues.   At that point, the Corinthians still value his opinion, and he is still their father in the faith. 
            After that, some new teachers had come to Corinth, and these outside agitators  had threatened Paul’s leadership and teaching.
            Second Corinthians offers a real-life window on a strained relationship between a church leader and the people whom he loves.   Paul's relationship with the Corinthian congregation has deteriorated.  As Carolyn Osiek wrote in her introduction to 2 Corinthians in The New Interpreter’s Bible:  “the honeymoon is definitely over, and all the problems of a long-term relationship are evident.  The Corinthians have even said of Paul—and it has gotten back to him—that his letters are strong, but his appearance is unimpressive, and his speech is definitely a loser.”  (10:10)
            In various part of 2nd Corinthians, Paul is writing in order to mend a broken relationship with the church and to urge them, even though they are currently hosting teachers who disparage Paul, to remain loyal to Christ, to Paul, to the gospel Paul preached, and to the promise they have made to provide for the church in Jerusalem.         
            After Paul had left Corinth and was living and working in Ephesus (see 1 Corinthians 16:8), he exchanged a series of letters with the church at Corinth.   Most scholars agree that Second Corinthians is not one single letter, but a combination of several letters and letter fragments.  The community in Corinth preserved these letters, and later edited and combined them into the one text we know as 2nd Corinthians.
 There isn’t a consensus among scholars about the original parts, but the most common divisions are:
Chapters 1-7, 8-9, and 10-13—but not in that sequence.   [See hand-out]
            One of the most jarring transitions is from 6:13 to 6:14, while 7:2 picks up exactly where 6:13 leaves off.  And 7:5 seems to follow immediately from 2:13.
            Chapters 8 and 9 look like one or two “fund-raising” letters to encourage the Corinthian Christians to be generous in supporting collection for the Jerusalem Christians. 

            The tone of chapters 10-13 is very different from what went just before.  It sounds very defensive.   
            In 1 Corinthians 5:9-13, Paul is advising the Corinthians to avoid immoral persons in the church—those who are sexually immoral or greedy, or idolaters, revilers, drunkards or robbers, and not to eat with them.   The only section of Second Corinthians that some scholars question was really written by Paul seems to be related to that section of First Corinthians chapter 5, and it’s the passage that’s advising the Corinthians “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers” in the section that seems to be pasted in awkwardly.  
            If you have your Bibles opened up to 2 Corinthians, let’s take a look at chapter 6.  Paul is exhorting the community to open their hearts to be converted.  In verses 12-13, Paul writes, “There is no restriction in our affections, but only in yours.  In return—I speak as to children—open wide your hearts also.”
            If you read on, verses 14 and following, you bump up against what looks like a seam, where it looks like there’s been a cut-and-paste, as we hear:  “Do not be mismatched with unbelievers…”  
            But if you jump over to 7:2, it seems to follow from 6:13:  “Make room in your hearts for us; we have wronged no one…”    [Do you see it?]
            Chapters 10-13 must have been written immediately after the painful visit.
            Most of chapters 1-7 may belong together, in spite of various theories that divide them, and are probably later at least than chapters 10-13. 
            When the letters and fragments are arranged in chronological sequence, they portray Paul’s relations to the Corinthians and show the range of good times to not so good. 

            There’s a lot we don’t know.  We don’t know if chapters 1-7 in 2nd Corinthians were a single letter, but we do know that their tone and content are very different from chapters 10-13.  There’s none of the combativeness, no anger.  Rather, as Marcus Borg points out, “we find some of the most radiant and luminous language in all of Paul’s letters.”[6]
            They are about the collection that Paul is taking up for the Christ-community in Jerusalem.  As in chapters 1-7, the tone is completely different from that in 10-13. 

            There is no scholarly consensus about the sequence of the letters that were combined in 2nd Corinthians, but many scholars think that chapters 10-13 are earlier than the rest.   In these chapters, Paul defends himself against teachers who have come to Corinth and tried to undermine him and his message.  Some of the Corinthian Christians had been persuaded by them and became critics of Paul.
            Chapters 8-9 seem to be yet another letter or possibly two letters.  They could have been written anytime in the sequence of letters combined in 2 Corinthians.  Their subject matter is the “collection for the saints” that Paul referred to at the end of 1 Corinthians, Paul was raising money from his largely Gentile communities for the impoverished Christian Jewish community in Jerusalem, both as a sign of solidarity and to meet their need for help. 

            The first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians may have been written last.  Though they do reflect a situation of conflict, it seems to be in the past and more or less resolved. 

            The introductory flyer for “Reconciling Paul” observes that we’re living in a world that is experiencing a great deal of change.   Encounters with peoples representing a variety of perspectives and cultures—all are aspects of our daily lives.  To quote Dr. Hinson-Hasty: “We can’t avoid seeing the divisions forged between nature and neighbor and also between neighbor and neighbor along lines of race, class, gender, and nation.  These divisions impact representation in decision-making bodies, support exploitation of the earth, exacerbate the unequal distribution of wealth, and limit access for many to the natural resources we all need to survive and flourish.”
            So… this Bible study on Second Corinthians--  Reconciling Paul-- is meant to guide us to learn about the young church at Corinth and their struggles, about Second Corinthians and that church’s struggles, as well as Paul’s theology and ideas and his struggles to live and minister faithfully and authentically.   The hope is that we will gain insights that relate to our context, in our time.
            An essential task for us in the church today is to figure out how to be the church in our time and place, in this time of great change.  Like Paul, we need to wrestle with and question our faith as we try to live as authentically as possible.  
            The concepts of shared partnership, power in weakness, healing, reconciliation, love, and a new apostolate all figure prominently in the author’s reading of Paul.  Dr. Hinson-Hasty says she hopes that participants engaged in the study will find their own voices among the larger community of interpreters, discerning together the meaning of these ancient passages for the world in which we live today.
            I’m looking forward to reading the 2014-15 Horizons Bible Study.  It is sure to challenge us all to read Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians afresh in light of the current issues and events.
Marcus J. Borg, Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.  Harper-One Publishers, 2012

John Fitzgerald, Introduction to Second Corinthians, in The Harper-Collins Study Bible.  Harper Collins, 2006.

Elizabeth Hinson-Hasty, Reconciling Paul: A Contemporary Study of 2 Corinthians.  Horizons Bible Study, 2014-2015. 

Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature.   Yale University Press, 2012.

Carolyn Osiek,  Introduction to Second Corinthians, in The New Interpreter’s Study Bible.  Abingdon Press, 2003.

Mary Hinkle Shore, Second Corinthians.  Enter the Bible website from Luther Seminary.

[1] Acts 18:11
[2] Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature (Yale University Press, 2012), p. 224.
[3] Dale B. Martin, New Testament History and Literature (Yale University Press, 2012), p. 224.
[4] 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
[5] Marcus J. Borg,  Evolution of the Word: The New Testament in the Order the Books Were Written.  Harper-One Publishers, 2012,   p. 102.

[6] Borg, p. 101.

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