In the Epistle reading offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (1 Cor 1:1–9), we begin a sequence of Sundays when we will read the early chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The first four chapters are offered during the season of Epiphany (although, as it is a shorter season this year, the latter part is not heard in worship).
Paul, of course, is well-known as a writer of letters. In ancient times, as today, the general format of a letter was reasonably standard. Paul, as we shall see, follows this format and includes many conventions familiar from other letters. The way that he contextualises and makes specific each letter, therefore, is quite instructive.
Each ancient letter contained a number of standard sections and there were common conventions to be followed in constructing a letter. Opening and closing sections followed a formulaic pattern (“greetings” and “farewell”); a prayer or wish introduced the main topic(s) for discussion; and practical advice was often included.
Standard Elements in the Structure of Ancient Letters
1 Opening address: Publius to Demetrius, greetings
2 Preliminary prayer or wish: I give thanks to the god… or I wish that…
3 Body (the substance of the letter; news, and topics for discussion)
4 Exhortation (practical and ethical guidance)
5 Greetings to individuals: Greet A and B
6 Greetings from individuals: C and D greet you
7 Closing prayer: Farewell
The letters of Paul each follow a recognisably similar outline, mostly including all the main sections and often adhering to the major conventions of the day. There are variations, of course, in each letter, so that no one letter follows this pattern exactly. This is especially so in the largest section, the “body”, in the middle of the letter. The excerpt from 1 Corinthians we hear on Sunday demonstrates this in a very clear way.
Openings of letters
Ancient letters began by identifying the parties involved in a short opening address; in regular letters, something like “Publius to Demetrius, greetings”. Nine of Paul’s letters began with a greeting from the writer to members of the church at the designated location. In one letter (Philemon), three individuals were named as the recipients (Philemon, Apphia and Archippus) as well as the whole church community. The three “pastoral letters” (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus) were addressed to an individual person.
It is often overlooked that seven of the letters specified co-writers along with Paul: Timothy (2 Cor, Phil, 1 Thess and Phlm; Col and 2 Thess), Sosthenes (1 Cor) and Silvanus (1 Thess and 2 Thess). Paul was the sole designated writer in only two “authentic” letters (Rom and Gal) and in four “debated” letters (Eph, 1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus). So “Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians” was actually “a letter from Paul and Sosthenes to the Corinthians” (see 1 Cor 1:1).
However, later in this letter, Paul refers to his “previous letter” to Corinth (1 Cor 5:9); so it seems that 1 Corinthians was probably the second of his letters to Corinth, and what we know as 2 Corinthians might actually be 3 Corinthians! Yet 2 Corinthians then refers to a second visit which Paul made to Corinth—the “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1)—followed by another letter from Paul to the Corinthians—the “tearful letter” (2 Cor 2:4; 7:8). So what we know as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, just as what we know as 1 Corinthians was probably the second letter sent by Paul (with someone else—Sosthenes) to the Corinthians.
We are able to reconstruct many elements of the profile and character of the community of believers in Corinth by reading Paul’s letters carefully and considering what it was that he might have been responding to. In addition, we know much about the ancient city of Corinth from archaeology and ancient literature. It was one of the great cities of the ancient world. If we put the letters of Paul together with this information about ancient Corinth, we can create a kind of album of snapshots in the life of an early Christian community. We can also see many elements of the hellenistic society and culture at the time when Paul was active.
Paul in Corinth
We know about Paul’s time in Corinth, not only from his letters to the church in that city, but also from the account in Acts 18:1–18. They tell us that Paul concentrated his mission in Corinth on Gentiles, non-Jews, and it would seem that he had significant success there. Paul stayed in Corinth for some time, earning his own living and working with other people in the early Christian movement, such as Peter, Apollos, and the tentmakers, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, two of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in a general expulsion a few years earlier.
Paul was successful in establishing a new Christian community in Corinth. This undoubtedly caused tension with the local synagogue, as Paul was preaching that Jesus was the Messiah, whom Jews were expecting to come (Acts 18:4). This success may have led to his being dragged before Gallio, the Roman proconsul, by the local Jews, charged with heresy. Gallio dismissed the charge as a matter of concern to the Jews alone; it was not a matter for the Roman authorities to be involved with (Acts 18:12–17). Gallio was proconsul in Corinth in the years 50–51, so this provides the date for Paul’s visit there.
Soon afterwards, Paul left Corinth, accompanied by Aquila and Pricilla, bound for Antioch, but on the way they stopped over in Ephesus (Acts 18:18–21). After Paul left Corinth, he remained in contact with the community of believers there, as the two extant letters of Paul to the Corinthians attest. He indicates that he wrote the first one whilst in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8).
Matters addressed in 1 Corinthians
In this letter, Paul spends time addressing the serious divisions emerging within the Corinthian community. Paul declares that this matter “has been reported to me by Chloe’s people” (1:11); it is thought that this must have been a verbal report passed on to Paul when he met with a group from Corinth, perhaps slaves, sent by Chloe (about whom nothing else is revealed).
A second matter is introduced by a similar phrase, “it is actually reported…” (5:1), although the informant is not named. Some scholars think that the similarity of wording suggests that this news may also have been conveyed by “Chloe’s people”. A little later on, another matter is introduced by Paul with the phrase, “now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (7:1). Clearly, there had been written correspondence with Paul as well as the verbal report already indicated.
The reference to “the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaichus” (16:17) might suggest that they visited Paul; perhaps they bore a letter from the community (or a section of it), asking for Paul’s opinions about these matters? The fact that their names are Roman names reflecting an educated status, would lend support to this hypothesis.
Regardless of who actually brought this news, Paul is willing to deal with the matters raised, introducing them in turn by the shorthand formula, “now concerning”. Such matters include “food sacrificed to idols” (8:1), “spiritual matters” (12:1), “the collection for the saints” (16:1), and “our brother Apollos” (16:12). A rather stronger formula is used to introduce a major theological issue at 15:1: “now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you…”.
These formulae suggests that the agenda for 1 Corinthians has largely been set by the news which Paul had received of the happenings in Corinth. How he deals with these matters, however, is entirely up to him; and he brings his theological and ethical insights to bear in forceful ways.
In the mass of literature which early Christianity produced in the centuries after the first century, there is a short letter allegedly from Paul to the Corinthians— this is known as 3 Corinthians. However, there is widespread consensus that this was a later creation by Christians wanting to evoke the authority of Paul. There is also a letter to the Corinthians, attributed to Clement, third bishop of Rome, written about four decades after Paul’s first letter to Corinth. Together, these letters show the significance of the Corinthians for the early church.