Summary 1 Corinthians Chapter 1

When I completed the last post on the chapter, and started to consider what had happened, my first thought was that this was a fairly nondescript bit of writing, Yes, there was the ‘not sent to baptise’ and the ‘redemption’ of V-30, but there wasn’t much else.

Wrong. Very, very wrong.

As I said in the intro to 1 Corinthians, this is one of Paul’s masterpieces, an example of “considered”, or “systematic” thinking. Reading this, we get the sense that it went through a couple of drafts before Paul sent it off to Corinth. I did not necessarily get that feeling from 1 Thessalonians, and only marginally from Galatians. This, however, feels like a finished work, something that has been thought about and revised. As such, it’s really the first piece of… theology (for want of a better word) ever produced by what became the Christian tradition. That alone makes it significant, but it’s even more significant due to the subject matter, the several ideas it contains.

Seemingly the least important, theologically, is the idea of the cross seeming like foolishness, or a stumbling block to those who don’t follow Jesus. But this theme, and the way Paul handles it, have what I would consider to be enormous historical implications. Paul takes on ‘the problem of the cross’ directly, facing it head-on, and he makes a very serious attempt to disarm it, to turn it against the critics. This implies that Jesus was indeed crucified. Both pagans and Jews used the cross against the followers of Jesus, each for their own reasons. Given this, I think we are fully justified in accepting Jesus’ crucifixion as historically verified. More, Paul doesn’t deny it; rather, he turns it into a source of pride. He comes very close to bragging about it. He goes on the offensive with this. So Paul’s reaction, IMO, is further corroboration that Jesus was crucified. Now, this doesn’t mean that Jesus was a zealot; it means that he annoyed the Romans and they decided to punish him.

In the Old West of American legend, there were judges who were known as ‘hanging judges’. This honorific (immortalized in a Bob Dylan song) implied that these judges sentenced criminals–or those charged as criminals, which may be a very different thing–to be hanged for any infraction, real or imagined. From what I gather, Pilate was a ‘crucifying governor’; he crucified a lot of people in his tenure. The number of crucifixions eventually got him recalled to Rome. (Per Aslan, anyway. But I have heard it about Pilate elsewhere, although I can’t remember the source.) To me, this means that Pilate was crucifying more than just insurrectionists. It’s simply a matter of supply. Yes, Judea was restive in the first century, but Josephus doesn’t mention anything large during Pilate’s tenure. As such, I’d say that Pilate applied this punishment to a sizeable variety of accused criminals.

Secondly, we were told that there were quarrels, or divisions in the ranks of the Corinthians. These stemmed, apparently, from who had baptised whom. Leading baptisers appear to have been Cephas and Apollos, and the very strong implication is that these two leaders had messages that differed from the other. This also has huge historical implications. It demonstrates, pretty conclusively, that the followers of Jesus had different interpretations of who Jesus was, or what his significance was, right from the start. Paul wrote this less than a generation after Jesus’ death, and yet different cliques already had different messages. This confirms what Paul told us in Galatians, when it was Paul vs. the James Gang from Jerusalem. Now, Cephas is one of the leaders; was his message that of James and those who believed the Jewish law (read: circumcision) should be enforced on all new members? That’s the easy way out, to take Peter as simply James’ tool. However, given that Peter was not one to dietary laws when James was not around, I’m not inclined to believe that he was, at this later date, now a strict adherent of the approach taken by James. As for Apollos, well, who can tell? But I for one would love to know how his message—or that of Peter—differed from that of Paul.

One possible difference in their messages is Paul’s rather scornful attitude towards baptism. He was not sent to baptise, but to preach the good news. That is huge, and it’s a very different message from the one that came to be the orthodox as set out in John. What Paul’s attitude implies, IMO, is that baptism was something one of the other groups preached; he, OTOH, didn’t really see the value of this. Now, baptism was, most likely, inherited, or taken from the practice of John the Baptist. As such, it was pretty much part of the Jewish tradition since the Baptist came squarely from, and remained well within that tradition. The story that Josephus told of the outrage his execution caused, I think, demonstrates John’s mainstream appeal. He was probably one of those cranks that not many people paid attention to while alive, but who crossed into “beloved” status once he was dead. So, the way that this part of the Jesus tradition is significant, I think, when taken in conjunction with the next point.

We also saw the introduction of the concept of humility as a valued behaviour. We did bump into this in Mark, in a somewhat attenuated form, perhaps, but it was present. And, significantly, it was in the second half of the gospel, which I am (rather clumsily) calling the Christ-tradition. This is distinct from the Wonder-worker tradition of the first half. Baptism, OTOH, was prominent in this first half. So, Paul is obviously of the Christ-tradition; he holds out humility as exemplary behaviour, which is found in the Christ-tradition half of Mark, and disparages baptism, which belongs to the Wonder-worker tradition. Since we know which tradition Paul preferred, can we use this to infer that James was more a proponent of the Wonder-worker tradition?

Finally, the last theme introduced was the idea of ‘redemption.’ We talked about this a lot during the discussion of 1 Cor 1:30, so I just want to sum it up here. This is the first use of the word in proto-Christian writing. Of the evangelists, Luke is the only one who uses it. Paul uses it sparingly, here in 1 Corinthians and a few times in Romans. It’s used a few more times by the Deutero-Pauline writers (Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews). And yet, it is perhaps the central concept of Christianity: Jesus died for the sins of all, to redeem—to ransom—all humans from…what? Certainly from death, by granting eternal life. I suppose. And to whom is the ransom paid? The Devil? Why should God have to “pay” to satisfy a subordinate power? I don’t bring these points up to cast aspersions on Christian beliefs; these topics have been discussed since Constantine, at least*.  I bring them up to demonstrate just how much of Christian belief was created in the first few centuries after Jesus’ death. Again, so much of what “everybody knows” about Christianity is built from inferences. This doesn’t make it wrong, or untrue, or bad; it simply illustrates how…incomplete the theology of the NT really is.

* I alluded to this work before, but Norman Cantor’s Medieval History has a terrific intro-like discussion of these topics. But make sure you get the First Edition. I cannot praise the book highly enough, especially for someone looking for a serious introduction–and a bit more–to the Middle Ages.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on November 20, 2013, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, gospel commentary, Historical Jesus, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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