Rev. Fr. Joseph Koterski, SJ

Reading the First Letter to the Corinthians

part 1

The length of the First Letter to the Corinthians (sixteen chapters) and the variety of topics that it covers make it desirable to know best how to approach it. Just as in Paul’s other letters, here too there is an emphasis on one specific aspect of the mystery of Christ – in this case, that he alone is the incarnate wisdom of God. Keeping this in mind will allow us to grasp what unifies the many and diverse admonitions that Paul is giving to the Corinthian church as well as to take his words to heart for ourselves.
Overcoming dissension within the Church
This letter is thought to be among the earliest writings of the entire New Testament. It shows the Christians at Corinth suffering from dissension (e.g., 1:10-17, 3:1-23, 6:1-11, 8:1-13, 11:17-23). It seems likely that the confusions and quarrels arose from not knowing whom to believe. Paul hints at this when he writes: “What I mean is that each one of you says ‘I belong to Paul’ or “I belong to Apollos’ or ‘I belong to Cephas’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’ Is Christ divided?  Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:12-13).
There were, to be sure, real differences of opinion about matters of discipline within the Church that proved difficult to work out. For example, there was a profound disagreement between Peter and Paul over whether one first needed to be circumcized and thereby become a Jew in order to become a Christian (see Acts 15: 1-29 as well as 1 Corinthians 7: 17-24). In this case, the Apollos whom Paul mentions was a native of Alexandria who is said to have taught many things about Jesus quite accurately even though he knew only about the baptism of John until Priscilla and Aquila took him aside and explained more about the ways of God to him (Acts 18:24-28).

Perhaps the dissension that Paul is addressing in this letter arose from a lack of clarity about the message of Christ as a whole. It is not uncommon for individuals to latch on to one or another part of a story without knowing the whole, and even to get passionate about their own positions.

In this letter the particular aspect of the mystery of Christ that Paul has chosen to emphasize becomes all the more important: Christ crucified shows us the incarnate Wisdom of God. For Paul, it is essential for believers to find their unity in Christ. It is not that Paul wants unity at all costs, for instance, by means of some least common denominator that might generate a tolerant pluralism that would allow competing wisdoms to flourish. Rather, he is insistent on a difficult but crucial point, even if it seems foolishness to the Greeks and a stumbling-block to the Jews: that Christ crucified shows forth the power of God and the wisdom of God. What human minds might see as folly or as weakness proves wiser than any human wisdom and stronger than any human strength (1:22-25).

Had Paul been addressing only Christians of Jewish heritage, he might well have focused on Jesus as the one who fulfills the Prophets or the Law, but for a congregation of mixed ancestry in the city of Corinth, Paul selects a broader category – wisdom.  This was a quality honored in the Jewish tradition, especially by the reverence given to sapiential books like Proverbs, Job, Qoheleth, Sirach, and the like), but also one well known to Greek culture through its array of philosophical movements.