I CORINTHIANS 10-16 contains some surprising twists for readers, both in the First Century as well as the Twenty-first. Regarding the head covering controversy in chapter 11, a minority of interpretors say that the real problem was men praying with heads covered, so as to look and act like pagan high priests or the emperor at prayer. That would fit with the whole problem of pride, social preening in a church that was taking its cues from the most worldly wise of Graeco-Roman society.

A minority of scholars also suggest that the problem around speaking in unknown tongues in Corinth was not so much about ecstatic utterances in miraculously-given languages, as in Acts 2, but the problems of interpreting (or not) the various languages spoken among believers in the cosmopolitan, polyglot city of Corinth. That would make sense of how tongues could be a sign for unbelievers (14:27) and yet, if everyone is speaking in [their native?] tongues in an assembly, unbelievers will consider them crazy (14:28). Try reading these passages with openness to either the traditional understanding (ecstatic glossolalia) or the minority one (the courtesy of interpretation). Either interpretation leaves some questions unanswered.

The image of the body with many parts (12:12-30) would have been a familiar one to the ancient Corinthians. It was commonly used to explain why slaves were slaves, soldiers were soldiers, nobles were nobles , the royals were royal and why some parts (slaves and soldiers) were expendable on behalf of the other parts. But Paul gives it a stunningly surprising twist when he says that this new body, the body of Christ, the church, works together to give the most honor to the humblest parts, the most protection to the weakest parts, such that no parts are dispensable, and any part’s suffering is every part’s suffering.

That some first-generation Christians would challenge the resurrection of Jesus (chapter 15) betrays the common notion today that people first believed it because they were all gullible, pre-scientific, magical-thinking primitives, unlike us scientifically-minded moderns. The idea of resurrection was just as stunning then as now. It was what brought Paul’s address on Mars Hill in Athens (Acts 17) to a premature end. But the ancient Greeks did not only object to a bodily resurrection on grounds of evidence or science; they just didn’t want a resurrection, not of the body, at least. For they tended to be captive to a kind of dualism that saw matter as inferior, even evil, when compared to spirit. Their philosophies and religions were full of stories and beliefs about the journeys and challenges of the disembodied soul after death, which was seen as a liberation of the spirit (good) from the body (bad or indifferent). That is in direct contradiction to the biblical and Hebraic understanding of the essential goodness of the material world, and of how spirituality is expressed in bodily ways. This is most likely the reason why an anti-resurrection teaching was rampant among the Corinthian Christians.

II CORINTHIANS 1-2 lays out the groundwork for Paul’s varied and difficult, perhaps conflicting, tasks in this letter. Internal evidence shows that it is actually at least his third letter to the Corinthians, the second, written with “many tears” (2:4) could not have been I Corinthians. The tears may have had to do with the blatant immorality in at least one house church and their pride and tolerance of it, as well as competence and interference from some self-styled “super apostles” who carried alleged letters of reference, unlike the letter of reference that was the Corinthians themselves (ch. 3). These self-styled “super-apostles” may have been more palatable to the triumphalistic and social-climbing Corinthians in that they didn’t have to suffer, scrimp and work the way Paul and his team did. Where Paul will see his sufferings and his endurance of them as his marks of recommendation for apostleship, the “super-apostles” and many Corinthians will point to them as disqualifiers. Why should anyone who is doing the will of God, they wonder, have to put up with shipwrecks, persecution, beatings, prison, etc.? Thus, while Paul is still laboring to straighten out the Corinthians morally and spiritually, he has to straighten out their attitudes and assumptions which are rupturing their relationship with him. On top of that, Paul is also needing to arrange their participation in the offering for the Jewish Christians in famine-wracked Judea.


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