Reading through Saint Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians

Like most big Greco-Roman towns of the first century, Corinth had a large Jewish community, living among almost any number of other religions and philosophy, for this small city was about as metropolitan as could be a the time. One of the most prosperous, because of its canal connecting the Adriatic with the Aegean (see Google Map above). So there was the usual mix of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the young church, living on different social levels. Saint Paul himself formed the church as its Apostle and touchingly calls Corinthian Christians his little children in his famous description of the Christian apostle (succeeded later by bishops and priests):

“As it is, it seems as if God had destined us, His apostles, to be in the lowest place of all, like men under sentence of death; such a spectacle do we present to the whole creation, men and angels alike. We are fools for Christ’s sake, you are so wise; we are so helpless, you so stout of heart; you are held in honour, while we are despised. Still, as I write, we go hungry and thirsty and naked; we are mishandled, we have no home to settle in, we are hard put to it, working with our own hands. Men revile us, and we answer with a blessing, persecute us, and we make the best of it, speak ill of us, and we fall to entreaty. We are still the world’s refuse; everybody thinks himself well rid of us. I am not writing this to shame you; you are my dearly loved children, and I would bring you to a better mind. Yes, you may have ten thousand schoolmasters in Christ, but not more than one father; it was I that begot you in Jesus Christ, when I preached the Gospel to you. Follow my example, then, I entreat you, as I follow Christ’s.”

I Corinthians, 4: 9-16

The painful reality of the Corinthian Church lay in its division within itself. In a situation reminiscent of today’s highly-politicised Church, the Corinthians had apparently selected their favourite apostles (Apollo was an Alexandrian Christian and Cephas was the Apostle Saint Peter himself) and had developed a party system. Paul is naturally annoyed at them and encourages Unity in a lengthy first part of the letter; this must have been the principle defect he wanted to remedy with his letter: 

“Only I entreat you, brethren, as you love the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, use, all of you, the same language. There must be no divisions among you; you must be restored to unity of mind and purpose. The account I have of you, my brethren, from Chloe’s household, is that there are dissensions among you; each of you, I mean, has a cry of his own, I am for Paul, I am for Apollo, I am for Cephas, I am for Christ. What, has Christ been divided up? Was it Paul that was crucified for you? Was it in Paul’s name that you were baptised? Thank God I did not baptise any of you except Crispus and Gaius; so that no one can say it was in my name you were baptised.”

I Corinthians, 1: 10-15

The solution to disunity is emphasising Christ and the unity of God, so that even Paul’s own teaching is presented in chapter two as having its grounding in revelation given by the Spirit of God. He still sees his dearly loved children as novices in the Faith, requiring baby food, and this is evident above all in their disunity:

“And when I preached to you, I had to approach you as men with natural, not with spiritual thoughts. You were little children in Christ’s nursery, and I gave you milk, not meat; you were not strong enough for it. You are not strong enough for it even now; nature still lives in youDo not these rivalries, these dissensions among you shew that nature is still alive, that you are guided by human standards? When one of you says, ‘I am for Paul,’ and another, ‘I am for Apollo,’ are not these human thoughts? Why, what is Apollo, what is Paul? Only the ministers of the God in whom your faith rests, who have brought that faith to each of you in the measure God granted. It was for me to plant the seed, for Apollo to water it, but it was God who gave the increase.”

I Corinthians, 3: 1-6

Who are the ministers of Christ, that they should be named and given schools of wisdom? They are merely planting and keeping in succession, with a common ministry. They themselves are to be trustworthy and must not exceed their personal missions. The question of unity has vexed Paul very much and he has sent his deputy, Timothy, on a visitation and for instruction:

“That is why I have sent Timothy to you, a faithful and dearly loved son of mine in the Lord; he will remind you of the path I tread in Christ Jesus, the lessons I give to all churches alike.”

I Corinthians 4: 17

Now comes a brief theology of the body in which Paul, in the best Hebrew tradition, condemns incest and then fornication, those committing these crimes being sentenced to excommunication from the body Catholic. This discussion of the integrity of the human body within human relationships develops gradually into a description of the body of the Church as the body of Christ. Following on from his delivery on the unity of the Church, Paul criticises the tendency of the Corinthians to litigate against one another using the secular courts. Why can’t they settle their cases within the Church?

“You would do better to appoint the most insignificant of your own number as judges, when you have these common quarrels to decide. That I say to humble you. What, have you really not a single man among you wise enough to decide a claim brought by his own brother? Must two brethren go to law over it, and before a profane court? And indeed, it is a defect in you at the best of times, that you should have quarrels among you at all. How is it that you do not prefer to put up with wrong, prefer to suffer loss?”

I Corinthians, 6: 4-7

The condemnation of debauchery that this sits in the midst of is an affront to the Holy Spirit, whose temples our bodies are. Here’s a general theme Paul uses in his letters: that Christ has purchased us with His self-sacrifice, so our bodies are not ours to commit acts of debauchery with. In what feels to me like an interval, Paul now dips into some practical matters with answers to questions they have made to him in the preceding letter. He recommends virginity in strong words, throughout chapter seven, because that enables Christians souls to dedicate, to consecrate themselves to God in prayer.

“I would have you free from concern. He who is unmarried is concerned with God’s claim, asking how he is to please God; whereas the married man is concerned with the world’s claim, asking how he is to please his wife; and thus he is at issue with himself. So a woman who is free of wedlock, or a virgin, is concerned with the Lord’s claim, intent on holiness, bodily and spiritual; whereas the married woman is concerned with the world’s claim, asking how she is to please her husband.”

I Corinthians, 7: 32-34

There is the usual treatment of food that has been offered to idols, which caused much trouble among Jewish and Jewish-Christian communities in such environments as Corinth, this food being forbidden by the Law of Moses. Paul is anxious that, although Christianity frees us from the Law, the Law may still be a matter of conscience to some Christians. His principle is then that we make way, whenever necessary, for those whose consciences bother them in this respect.

“…it is not what we eat that gives us our standing in God’s sight; we gain nothing by eating, lose nothing by abstaining; it is for you to see that the liberty you allow yourselves does not prove a snare to doubtful consciences. If any of them sees one who is better instructed sitting down to eat in the temple of a false god, will not his conscience, all uneasy as it is, be emboldened to approve of eating idolatrously? And thus, through thy enlightenment, the doubting soul will be lost; thy brother, for whose sake Christ died. When you thus sin against your brethren, by injuring their doubtful consciences, you sin against Christ. Why then, if a mouthful of food is an occasion of sin to my brother, I will abstain from flesh meat perpetually, rather than be the occasion of my brother’s sin.

I Corinthians, 8: 8-13

That said, we are still to avoid idolatry, for there cannot be more than one God, so that the pagan gods represent evil spirits. This is the topic of chapter ten, which also relates to keeping the body from debauchery, for observing pagan cults is incompatible with assisting at the Eucharistic sacrifice:

“I mean that when the heathen offer sacrifice they are really offering it to evil spirits and not to a God at all. I have no mind to see you associating yourselves with evil spirits. To drink the Lord’s cup, and yet to drink the cup of evil spirits, to share the Lord’s feast, and to share the feast of evil spirits, is impossible for you.”

I Corinthians, 10: 20-21

While covering several points of discipline in chapter (covering heads in the solemn assembly, equality among the social classes and parties in the solemn assembly), Paul now provides the first description ever of the eucharistic prayer of the Mass (the Gospels are all still years from being written), and strongly devises that the Sacrament be received in a suitable state of soul:

“The tradition which I received from the Lord, and handed on to you, is that the Lord Jesus, on the night when He was being betrayed, took bread, and gave thanks, and broke it, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My Body, given up for you. Do this for a commemoration of Me.’ And so with the cup, when supper was ended, ‘This cup,’ He said, ‘is the new testament, in My Blood. Do this, whenever you drink it, for a commemoration of me.’ So it is the Lord’s death that you are heralding, whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, until He comes. And therefore, if anyone eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord unworthily, he will be held to account for the Lord’s Body and Blood. A man must examine himself first, and then eat of that bread and drink of that cup; he is eating and drinking damnation to himself if he eats and drinks unworthily, not recognizing the Lord’s Body for what it is.”

I Corinthians, 11: 23-29

Then comes the descriptions of charismatic gifts in the early church, allowing various people to preach, teach, administer, heal, prophesy, interpret, speak in tongues, etc. Each to his own, Paul says, do not vie with each other for the gifts that God gives various to people. All of us, with our many gifts, are to work together like cogs in a great machine:

“The body, after all, consists not of one organ but of many; if the foot should say, I am not the hand, and therefore I do not belong to the body, does it belong to the body any the less for that? If the ear should say, I am not the eye, and therefore I do not belong to the body, does it belong to the body any the less for that? Where would the power of hearing be, if the body were all eye? Or the power of smell, if the body were all ear? As it is, God has given each one of them its own position in the body, as he would. If the whole were one single organ, what would become of the body? Instead of that, we have a multitude of organs, and one body.”

I Corinthians, 12: 14-20

If everybody wants to be healers, say, the body would be all ear, or all eye… Instead of aching for these extraordinary gifts, Paul counsels that we seek, above all, charity, which he says will outlast every other marvellous gift. 

“Charity is patient, is kind; charity feels no envy; charity is never perverse or proud, never insolent; does not claim its rights, cannot be provoked, does not brood over an injury; takes no pleasure in wrong-doing, but rejoices at the victory of truth, sustains, believes, hopes, endures, to the last. The time will come when we shall outgrow prophecy, when speaking with tongues will come to an end, when knowledge will be swept away; we shall never have finished with charity.”

I Corinthians, 13: 4-8

But while these spiritual gifts, or charisms, persisted in the early church, there was bound to be disorder, and Paul seeks in chapter 14 to develop a hierarchy of wonderful gifts. To summarise this long discourse, he prefers gifts that build up the faith of Christians, especially the gift of prophecy, and he prefers them to more personal gifts, like the ability to speak in tongues, for if this were to be a ministry in the church, it would need interpretation, which must have been hard to find. Grow up, Paul seems to say, this desire to demonstrate marvellous abilities is rather childish.

“Since you have set your hearts on spiritual gifts, ask for them in abundant measure, but only so as to strengthen the faith of the church; the man who can speak in a strange tongue should pray for the power to interpret it. If I use a strange tongue when I offer prayer, my spirit is praying, but my mind reaps no advantage from it. What, then, is my drift? Why, I mean to use mind as well as spirit when I offer prayer, use mind as well as spirit when I sing psalms. If thou dost pronounce a blessing in this spiritual fashion, how can one who takes his place among the uninstructed say Amen to thy thanksgiving? He cannot tell what thou art saying. Thou, true enough, art duly giving thanks, but the other’s faith is not strengthened. Thank God, I can speak any of the tongues you use; but in the church, I would rather speak five words which my mind utters, for your instruction, than ten thousand in a strange tongue. Brethren, do not be content to think childish thoughts; keep the innocence of children, with the thoughts of grown men.”

I Corinthians, 14: 12-20

This post is already far too long, so I’ll terminate this ‘summary’ of the letter with Paul’s act of faith and witness as an apostle, which precedes his long defence of the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body, the denial of which is the denial of Christ, Christianity and any chance of salvation. That you can find in the rest of chapter fifteen. But this is the beginning, and may we hold constantly to this apostolic core of the Faith:

“The chief message I handed on to you, as it was handed on to me, was that Christ, as the scriptures had foretold, died for our sins; that He was buried, and then, as the scriptures had foretold, rose again on the third day. That He was seen by Cephas, then by the eleven apostles, and afterwards by more than five hundred of the brethren at once, most of whom are alive at this day, though some have gone to their rest. Then He was seen by James, then by all the apostles; and last of all, I too saw Him, like the last child, that comes to birth unexpectedly.”

I Corinthians, 15: 3-8