I wrote extensively about 1 Corinthians in 2013 when I read through John Hurd’s now-out-of-print The Origins of 1 Corinthians. See here.
Now I have come to the portion of Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s Paul: a Critical Life where he dealt with the letters to the Corinthians. There are so many facets to this that I am sure I will only be able to cover the gist of it.
There were two letters to the Corinthians that we do not have. One was the Previous Letter (1 Corinthians 5:9) and the other was the Painful Letter (2 Corinthians 2:4). Obviously the Previous Letter came before 1 Corinthians and the Painful Letter before the part of 2 Corinthians that mentions it.
The complicating factor is that most scholars find that 2 Corinthians is a composite of more than one letter. But Murphy-O’Connor dealt with all this in a simple manner. Chapters 10-13 constitute a separate letter within 2 Corinthians. He saw no reason to further divide the letter.
So that means that we have access to three letters from Paul to the Corinthians.
The background of 1 Corinthians was that Paul had founded the church and worked there for about 18 months before leaving for Ephesus, Antioch, and Jerusalem (for the conference). Then he went back to Antioch where he had the dust-up with Peter. He divorced the Antioch church and returned through Galatia to Ephesus, where he had a long ministry.
Meanwhile Apollos had a long ministry with the church Paul had founded at Corinth.
Murphy-O’Connor picked up on Apollos being from Alexandria to speculate that what he taught caused some of the Corinthians to make a Platonic separation between the body and the spirit. These were the people who saw themselves as spirit-people and spoke in tongues. But the separation of body and spirit could have resulted in thinking that what you did with the body in sexual matters was small potatoes.
This unintended interpretation of Apollos may have caused him to come to Paul in Ephesus to take counsel, at which point Paul sent off the Previous Letter calling for the shunning of the sexually immoral.
Paul then received further word from Chloe’s people about factionalism in Corinth as well as an incident of incest and drinking parties at the Lord’s Table. Also a delegation from Corinth came with a letter asking Paul a number of questions.
So Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to respond to this multifaceted mess.
Here is an alternative scenario partly based on Hurd’s work:
At the Jerusalem conference Paul made a comity agreement with the Jerusalem Church and Peter, dividing their mission. Also, he obtained agreement that Gentile converts did not need to be circumcised.
Then, at Antioch, Peter’s behavior came into conflict with Paul’s ideal of the eucharistic unity of the Church as one body. Paul departed on his journey to Ephesus. But Peter (and Barnabas?) returned to Jerusalem for further guidance about food issues. They forged the apostolic decree of Acts 15:28. Although Acts 15 is a literary construct, the decree is historical. It just doesn’t fit with the Jerusalem conference, where the issue was circumcision, not sex or food.
Sometime after he wrote Galatians, Paul became aware of the apostolic decree calling for Greek converts to pay attention to “righteous Gentile” requirements in regard to sex and food. Paul could not enforce the decree by appeal to the authority of Jerusalem, but he tried to implement it in practice. Thus he wrote the Previous Letter. (Hurd had elaborate, but questionable, reconstructions of Paul’s original preaching at Corinth, the Previous Letter, and the Corinthian’s letter to Paul.)
However, Hurd dealt with some things in a way that I appreciate.
One disagreement with Murphy-O’Connor was about how innovative the teaching of Apollos was. Hurd pointed out that Apollos was with Paul (16:12) when he wrote 1 Corinthians, and that Paul’s metaphors about Apollos watering what Paul planted and building on Paul’s foundation point to continuity.
Another was about Peter. Murphy-O’Connor identified Judaizers with the Peter party at Corinth. However, Paul has not broken with Peter’s authority. When he says he “received” the tradition about the Lord’s Supper (11:23) and the resurrection (15:1), he is indirectly appealing to Peter as his source.
But, most of all, Murphy-O’Connor ignored the apostolic decree. Apparently he threw it out because of the other historical problems with Acts 15. But is this justified?
The great thing about Murphy-O’Connor’s work, though, was his detailed knowledge about ancient Corinth. He mixed a little imagination with this to make Paul’s ministry at Corinth come alive. It is frustrating that I can’t give you a better impression of that in a short summary.
P.S. Although I am retired, I get called on once in a while in an emergency to back up someone else’s ministry. This is one of those weeks. So I will probably not be able to post again until next week.