I am continuing to read and interact with John Hurd’s old book, The Origin of 1 Corinthians.
The usual interpretation of 1 Corinthians sees Paul as dealing with factions in the church. Paul starts out by expressing his disappointment that there are those who say they are of Paul and those who say they are of Apollos and so forth. Many of us who are pastors have had to deal with churches where there are factions, sometimes about loyalty to former ministers, and we have used 1 Corinthians. I have told the story of 1 Corinthians in terms of the Paul and Apollos parties in such a way that it resonated in churches that have these kinds of problems.
But Hurd was rightly skeptical. There were surely some bad relationships between folks at Corinth. There were church members who were suing each other. Poorer people in the church were being short-changed at fellowship meals. Perhaps Chloe’s people brought a minority perspective. But the church had gotten together and sent to Paul one letter asking questions on behalf of the church. He did not get one letter from the Paul party, another letter from the Apollos party, and still another from the Peter or Christ party. He got a letter from the church. And much of the division he deals with is not between parties at Corinth, but between Paul and the church at Corinth.
Hurd agreed pretty much with Johannes Munck, a Danish scholar, who said that those in Corinth who said they were of Apollos or Peter, were not so much members of coherent factions as people who were declaring their independence of Paul.
The situation in regard to spiritual gifts seems to point up the unity of the Corinthian church.
“The length, the complexity, and the singleness of purpose of Paul’s argument in I Cor. 12-14 indicate that he was attempting to persuade those who held a view contrary to his own, and that he was not answering a polite request for his opinion on the matter” (p. 193).
They spoke in tongues because Paul wanted them to (14:5). Paul himself spoke in tongues more than all of them (14:18; also see Romans 8:26 for what this meant to Paul). So Paul may have taught them to speak in tongues in the first place. This fact is now inconvenient for Paul because he wants to downplay this particular gift.
Hurd thinks the question the Corinthians asked Paul has to do with how you tell who is spiritual. The Corinthians have been using speaking in tongues as a test of the Spirit’s presence.
Paul tries to get them to expand their test to more useful gifts. But from the Corinthian point of view, it probably looked like Paul had changed his mind again. Their question to Paul may have taken on more the form of an objection than a question. It is easy to tell, they may have said, if someone is speaking in tongues, but if we have to take other less overt gifts into consideration, the spirituality of someone becomes a complicated question, more difficult to judge.
Paul’s approach is not to disagree with the basic statements that underlie the Corinthian views. After all, they probably got those statements from Paul. This is true all through the letter. Paul holds up a wisdom approach rather than a legal approach. As he says in 1 Corinthians 13, he is trying to show them a more excellent way.
This is particularly interesting if Hurd is on to something in thinking that the Jerusalem Conference lies in the background of the letter. Paul does not say that gentiles ought to keep the covenant of Noah because there is a rabbinic tradition of the righteous gentile. Jerusalem wanted Paul’s churches to exercise self control in regard to sex, food, and enthusiasm in worship. But Paul, perhaps because he had himself laid the groundwork for the disorder that had come to exist at Corinth, argues that such discipline is a step forward from what he originally taught. So he does not say they should go back to restrictions that existed before the gospel. Rather, Paul argues that what the Jerusalem pillars want makes sense as a kind of wisdom and maturity building upon the freedom Paul had preached to them.