Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church

03.01.05 | Denver Journal, New Testament, Craig L. Blomberg | by Edward Adams | by David G. Horrell

    Dr. Craig Blomberg's review of, "Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church," by Edward Adams and David Horrell.

    Adams, Edward and David G. Horrell, eds. Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church. Louisville and London: Westminster John Knox, 2004. $39.95. Pap. xx + 332 pp. ISBN 0-664-22478-4

    Compiling anthologies of classic articles on discrete topics in New Testament studies that are likely to have a broad-based appeal can be a daunting task, which is probably why it is not attempted too often and successfully accomplished even less frequently. This collection, however, stands as good a chance as any recent effort to beat the odds. Adams and Horrell, New Testament lecturers in the Universities of London and Exeter, respectively, have assembled a thorough, representative selection of perspectives on the makeup of the Christian community in Corinth and the sources of the many problems and divisions represented in Paul's first epistle to them.

    Two features make this anthology somewhat different and potentially superior to many. First, most of the entries are not entire essays but key excerpts from articles or books that give an adequate sense of the authors' perspectives. This allows no less than eighteen different authors, whose studies have proved influential, to be excerpted and included. Each of these studies is introduced by brief editorial explanations of its contribution and significance, and the collection is arranged in chronological order according to when each was first published. Second, in addition to a detailed introductory essay by the editors explaining the issues in the context of the history of modern scholarship, four additional chapters by leading Pauline scholars have been composed just for this volume reflecting on methodological questions.

    A brief portion of F. C. Baur's mid-nineteenth-century advocacy of a theological conflict between Peter and Paul similar to that described in Galatians 2:11-15 as behind the Corinthian factionalism begins the survey. Then we jump to 1952 and Johannes Munck's polar opposite position—no theological divisions were involved, only "bickering" in the church. From the next thirty years we learn about Walter Schmithals perennial advocacy of Gnosticism as the key background influence, C. K. Barrett's perspective that there were four distinct theological views competing with each other (those of Paul, Peter, Apollos and Christ), and Nils Dahl's conviction (later defended in Gordon Fee's well-known commentary) that the major division involved most of the church against Paul.

    From chapter six onward, we turn to publications from the last thirty years, beginning with Gerd Theissen's ground-breaking work on social-stratification and the tensions between rich and poor in the Corinthian congregation. Then we proceed to Anthony Thiselton's highly influential "Realized Eschatology at Corinth," now the basis for his massive, recent, critical commentary on 1 Corinthians; a counterpoint to Schmithals is Richard Horsley's proposal that Hellenistic wisdom, broadly speaking, not Gnosticism in particular, explains the philosophical underpinnings of the conflicts; and Jerome Murphy O'Connor's suggestion that the architecture of the villas large enough to hold small house churches facilitated the divisions—preferred guests would be invited into the triclinia with second-class church members remaining outside in the atria. Turning to a different arena, Laurence Welborn sees ancient political parties as the closest parallels to the Corinthian factions.

    The first of several studies, some of them explicitly feminist, on the women of the Corinthian church comes next, from Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. She uses a specifically rhetorical kind of "mirror reading," combined with historical criticism, to suggest that the wealthy women in leadership positions lay behind several of the problems Paul has to address, most notably the question of head coverings in worship in 11:2-16. Margaret MacDonald suspects that ascetic women in particular account not only for Paul's instructions here but also for those of chapter 7. Antoinette Wire will later expand on these studies to propose that out-of-control women prophets fostered most of the problems and divisions in Corinth. But that comment disrupts the chronological sequence of chapter summaries.

    Michael Goulder's attempt to link sophia ("wisdom") in 1 Corinthians with Hebrew Torah probably would not have merited inclusion except for his recent book-length expansion of this article, defending a modified version of Baur's thesis that pits Peter versus Paul. John Barclay's comparison of the sociology of Corinth and Thessalonica contrasts the strong theological and ethical boundaries around the latter with the much weaker ones around the former. The lack of distancing between the Corinthians and their society freed them from the persecution Thessalonica experienced but also drew the apostle's ire rather than his praise due to their assimilation of sinful behavior. And Thessalonica had experienced Paul's ministry far less than had Corinth! John Chow builds on Theissen to incorporate more explicitly the patron-client relationships endemic in Greco-Roman society, a particularly key contribution further articulated in important recent books by Andrew Clarke and Bruce Winter. Terence Paige believes he can detect a pattern of response to Stoic influences in the church, while Justin Meggitt takes on the prevailing notion that the minority of rich were responsible for the majority of the problems, imagining the church in Corinth to be almost exclusively poor. The final excerpt, from as recently as 1997, again comes from Horsley, this time focusing on the anti-imperial rhetoric and the separatistic tendencies that lead him to label the congregation an "alternative community."

    The four final essays composed just for this volume include Meggitt's appeal for us to study popular culture more; Bengt Holmberg's emphasis on privileging historical information over sociological theory; MacDonald's comments on the rise of explicitly ideological perspectives, especially with respect to women's issues; and James Dunn's recap of the whole range of perspectives surveyed, which suggests that legitimate interpretations can come from many angles even if the possibilities are not quite endless.

    One weakness of this book is the disproportionate number of studies that come from the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course, one expects more recent works to get greater attention but here the emphasis is perhaps too skewed. Is there nothing from the century between Baur and Munck worthy of inclusion? What about Lietzmann's use of history-of-religions parallels, particularly with respect to the Lord's Supper; or Prümm's more wide-ranging study of the addressees of the epistle; or Lütgert's study of Paul's message of freedom vs. the party spirit of the Corinthians? One could easily have deleted one of Horsley's articles along with Meggitt's (since he gets to comment in the concluding section anyway) to make room for a couple of these. MacDonald's excerpt remains more worthwhile, so someone else should have replaced her in the commentary section to avoid conflict of interest. And it is not at all obvious that Paige's Stoics are nearly as probable as Winter's Sophists as the local philosophers most directly at odds with Paul—not to mention that Winter has simply written a whole lot more of substance than Paige on the Corinthians to begin with.

    But these are minor complaints. College and seminary classes on 1 Corinthians should seriously consider assigning this anthology as a supplementary textbook. Students and pastors who have never had that kind of specialized course could hardly find a better one-volume overview of scholarship on the church in Corinth. And even seasoned scholars who have never done specialized study in this epistle may glean numerous new insights here.

    Craig L. Blomberg, Ph.D.
    Distinguished Professor of New Testament
    Denver Seminary
    March 2005

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