Plants and buildings, folly and wisdom (1 Cor 3; Epiphany 6A)

In recent weeks, we have traced the argument in the opening chapters of what we know as Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The letter itself is positioned as a joint enterprise, written by Sosthenes, one of the leaders of the synagogue in Corinth (Acts 18:17), and Paul, a Pharisee who was well-trained in understanding Torah (Phil 3:5) and was known for being “advanced in Judaism” and “zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” (Gal 1:14).

So it should be no surprise that in this letter, they make regular use of scriptures drawn from their Jewish traditions and terms already familiar from their occurrence in the Hebrew Scriptures (at least, in the Greek translations that were available, such as the Septuagint). In fact, each section of the opening argument is shaped around Hebrew Scripture texts, as we have seen.

The opening message about “the word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18–31) begins with scripture (1:19, citing Isa 29:14) and ends with scripture (1:31, quoting Jer 9:22–23). The second section with the declaration about “know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:1–16) cites Isa 64:4 (at 2:9) and later concludes with a quotation from Isa 40:13 (at 2:16). In both instances, the concluding quotation is the lynchpin for the argument—delayed, in typical rabbinic style, to provide the “proof text” that draws the whole rhetorical sequence to a head.

A similar kind of structure appears in chapter 3 of the letter, although sadly the lectionary has severed the start from the end. This coming Sunday, Epiphany 6, we are offered 1 Cor 3:1–9, a discussion about the leaders of the groups that had developed within the community, fracturing the unity that was desired (see 1 Cor 1:10–17). In that early section, Paul had identified Cephas, Apollos, himself, and indeed Christ, as the leaders of four different factions. He returns to two of those names, Apollos and his own, in this section of the letter (see 3:4–6, 22).

In addressing that sorry situation at the start of the letter, Paul and Sosthenes affirm that their mission was “to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (1:17). The irony, of course, is that the letter uses precisely the finely-honed tools of rhetoric to convey that gospel truth; see my analysis at


Sadly, the second part of the argument in chapter 3, where the writers build on what has been stated in the earlier part, is allocated by the lectionary to Epiphany 7 (1 Cor 3:10–23); but in the current year, when Easter falls relatively early, there is no Epiphany 7. So a strict following of the lectionary means that we miss the concluding section, and the punchline, of this third extended argument.

The argument of this third chapter comes to a head with the quotation of two scripture texts: Job 5:12 (at 3:19) and then Psalm 94:11 (at 3:20). Both texts puncture any claim to importance or priority amongst “the wise”—the heart of the argument that has been advanced since the initial scripture quotation, of Isa 29:14, at 1 Cor 1:19. So the conclusion.

Whilst the beginning of the argument in chapter 3 has no explicit scripture quotation, nor even any defined allusion, to scriptural texts, there are elements that bear on Hebrew Scripture. The imagery of planting and watering, and fruit growing (3:6) would surely have been evocative to those familiar with the agricultural history of Israel. A common symbol for the people, the nation, was the vineyard (Exod 15:17; Psalm 80:8–15; Isa 5:1–7; 60:21; Jer 2:21; Ezek 17:5–10; 19:10; Amos 9:15). As was reiterated in these scriptural passages, God planted the nation, and God gave growth to the people as “the vine”—an affirmation that the letter to the Corinthians firmly maintains: “God gave the growth” (3:7).

The imagery of building (3:9–15) also has scriptural resonances. Hebrew Scripture contains a long history-like multi-book saga of Israel that the Deuteronomist constructed, drawing on various sources, to narrate the story of the creation and flourishing of the kingdom of Israel (including both Israel and Judah). There can be no doubt that a high point in this saga was reached with the construction of “a building” on Mount Zion. The house of the Lord was the pinnacle of the nation which had been promised (in Genesis), created (in the other books of Torah, and then in Joshua and Judges), and established (in the narratives of Samuel and Kings).

This building was the work of perhaps the greatest of all Kings of Israel, Solomon (see 1 Kings 3—8). It was the fulfilment of a promise made to David (2 Sam 7, especially verse 13). The house built was to the the Temple, where the Lord God dwelt in the Holy of Holies (Exod 24—27). The centrality of the Temple, the house of God, in the religious, political, and social life of the people of Israel was clear.

Paul and Sosthenes use these scriptural references to good effect in addressing the difficulties of the situation in Corinth. They affirm that they, together with others active in planting and nurturing communities of faith, as well as the people in Corinth who participate in such communities, are indeed “God’s field, God’s building” (3:9).

The imagery of plants in the field, watered and nurtured, growing together (3:6–8) both draws on the Israelite language of Israel as the vineyard, but also counters the situation of division and discord in Corinth. Rather than claiming “I belong to XX”, as was noted previously (1:12) and is repeated here (3:4), the Corinthians are challenged to look for a “common purpose” (3:8) and to be “God’s servants, working together” (3:9).

The language of a building (3:10–11) points to the central building structure in the kingdom of Israel, the Temple, and reminds the Corinthians that they have been carefully and deliberately placed on a form foundation, and “that foundation is Jesus Christ” (3:11). The language here recalls the central focus articulated earlier in the letter: “the message about the cross” (1:18), the singular focus on “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (2:2). The wisdom that God offers through this follow of crucifixion is what will build up the community (3:12–13).

So the conclusion is drawn with a typical rhetorical question: “do you not know that you are God’s temple?” (3:16), followed by a strengthening affirmation, “God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (3:17). The introduction of the age-old Israelite notion of holiness here thus sets up the argument for what follows in subsequent chapters, as instances of unholy behaviour are addressed.

The argument of this chapter draws to a familiar close, with two scripture citations that underline the power of divine weakness (if that is what the crucifixion of Jesus might have shown), the folly of divine wisdom (again made evident through the cross). The advice is clear: “if you think you are wise … you should become fools” (3:18); and then, “let no one boast about human leaders” (3:21).

To substantiate this, the word of Job is first cited (Job 3:15 at 1 Cor 3:19)—God “catches the wise in their craftiness”—followed by the words of the psalmist, “the Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile” (Ps 94:11 at 1 Cor 3:20). The argument proposed in principle at 1:18–25 comes to its culmination here through its application to the Corinthians. Wisdom is folly, power is weakness; yet in God’s weakness, power is manifested, and in God’s foolishness, wisdom is declared.