This blog, by Richard Fellows, discusses historical questions concerning Paul's letters, his co-workers, Acts, and chronology.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The cause of the divisions in the Corinthian church

I will argue here that the libertarian believers in Corinth were partly successful in turning the congregation against Paul and that this led to the divisions in the church that we see in 1 Corinthians.

Let us start by reading 2 Cor 12:16-13:3.
12:16 Let it be assumed that I did not burden you. Nevertheless (you say) since I was crafty, I took you in by deceit. Did I take advantage of you through any of those whom I sent to you? 18 I urged Titus to go, and sent the brother with him. Titus did not take advantage of you, did he? Did we not conduct ourselves with the same spirit? Did we not take the same steps? 12:19 Have you been thinking all along that we have been defending ourselves before you? We are speaking in Christ before God. Everything we do, beloved, is for the sake of building you up. 12:20 For I fear that when I come, I may find you not as I wish, and that you may find me not as you wish; I fear that there may perhaps be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder. 12:21 I fear that when I come again, my God may humble me before you, and that I may have to mourn over many who previously sinned and have not repented of the impurity, sexual immorality, and licentiousness that they have practiced. 13:1 This is the third time I am coming to you. "Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses." 13:2 I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit, that if I come again, I will not be lenient - 13:3 since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me.
Here Paul defends himself against criticism (12:16-18) and explains that he does so to prevent the church from falling into "quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit, and disorder" (12:19-20). The logic of 2 Cor 12:16-20 requires that Paul is worried that criticism of himself could lead to quarreling etc.. It is not hard to imagine that if some Corinthians believers succeeded in denigrating Paul to the rest of the congregation, this could lead to symptoms of disunity such as quarreling etc.. 

Now, it seems to me that Paul is speaking from experience here, for 12:19, 12:21, and 13:2 all refer back to an earlier time. He must counter the slanders about himself because he knows from experience that they can lead to quarreling etc. in the Corinthian church.

Now, as commentators have pointed out, the quarreling etc. of 2 Cor 12:20 are the problems that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians. Furthermore the sexual immorality of 2 Cor 12:21-13:3 also looms large in 1 Corinthians. Also, 1 Corinthians shows that Paul had been criticized by some Corinthian believers (See 1 Cor 4:1-5; 1 Cor 9:3 and probably 1 Cor 5:9-13 and 1 Cor 16:1-4). Some Corinthians, on hearing criticisms of Paul might well have decided to look around for another apostle and this could explain 1 Cor 1:12. It seems to me, therefore, that attempts by some to denigrate Paul had led to the problems that Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians, and that Paul says in 2 Cor 12:16-20 that he must defend himself so that the same thing does not happen again.

But who was behind these attempts to discredit Paul? I think it was those in the Corinthian church that had a sexually immoral, licentious philosophy. Here is why. Firstly, we have hints at 1 Cor 5:9-13 and 2 Cor 13:3 that they criticized Paul. Secondly, they stood to gain if Paul lost authority in Corinth. Paul disciplined a sexually immoral individual in 1 Cor 5:1-8 and threatened others in 2 Cor 12:21-13:2 and 1 Cor 4:21, but without the support of the church, he would be powerless to enforce his sexual ethics on the licentious believers. The licentious believers would be able to practice their sexual immorality with impunity if they could discredit Paul. 2 Cor 12:16-13:3 confirms that criticism of Paul increased sexual immorality in Corinth (otherwise what is the connection between 2 Cor 12:16-20 and 2 Cor 12:21-13:3? Paul is surely saying that he must defend his reputation lest the licentious continue their sexual immorality in the confidence that he will not be able to punish them.

We need not assume that the licentious attacked Paul only in relation to the issue of sexual ethics. Like a politician in an election campaign, they would seize any opportunity to smear their opponent. Thus they may, for example, have been behind the accusation that Paul intended to defraud the Corinthians (see 2 Cor 12:16-18 and probably 1 Cor 16:1-4), or the criticism that he was not an eloquent speaker, as well as  the bringing of Paul to judgement (1 Cor 4:1-5).

In summary, Paul clashed with the sexually immoral in Corinth so they chose to try to undermine his authority in the church by discrediting him in the eyes of the other members of the congregation. This led to disunity.

The chief culprit seems to have been the offender of 2 Cor 2 & 7. See my earlier post here.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Acts and the origin of the Corinthians' problems

Here I will argue that the problems in the Corinthian church arose because the influential Christian Jews had been driven from town.

Acts 18:15-17 gives the ruling of Gallio after the Jews had brought Paul before the tribunal:
15 since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I do not wish to be a judge in these matters." 16  And he dismissed them from the tribunal. 17 Then all of them seized Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal.
Gallio refused to get involved in the dispute and, with the words "see to it yourselves", he gave the Jews of Corinth jurisdiction in this matter. I doubt that this ruling gave the Jews authority to impose their will on God-fearers and pagans, but it is clear that Gallio expected the non-Christian Jews and Christian Jews to sort out the dispute between themselves. The Christian Jews, being in the minority, lost the resulting power struggle. We read in verse 17 that the non-Christian Jews beat Sosthenes, who was a Christian Jew (see 1 Cor 1:1 and the strong evidence that he was in fact Crispus renamed). Sosthenes (1 Cor 1:1), Prisca, and Aquila all went to Ephesus (Acts 18:18 and 1 Cor 16:19), presumably having been forced out of Corinth by the Jews. Ephesus was the logical destination for those influential Christian Jews fleeing persecution. It was outside of Gallio's territory and, unlike Thessalonica, there was no immediate threat of persecution there. Ephesus was the closest large city where Sosthenes, Prisca and Aquila could escape persecution. The suitability of Ephesus in this regard explains why Paul made it his base for more then two years.

Now, the departure from Corinth of all the influential Christian Jews is also evinced by the characteristically pagan problems that arose in the Corinthian church.

Jews were stricter than Gentiles on sexual ethics (1 Cor 5:1; 1 Thess 4:3-5; Rom 1:22-24). The departure from Corinth of the leading Christian Jews explains why Jewish sexual norms were not enforced in the Corinthian church (1 Cor 5; 6:9; 6:12-20; 7:2).

Similarly, the absence of Jewish overseers can explain why the Corinthian believers had no regard for the sensibilities of Jews towards food sacrificed to idols (1 Cor 8:1-1; 9:19-10:33).

The power vacuum left by the departure of the Christian Jews also goes a long way toward explaining the divisions that occurred in the Corinthian church. I will discuss this further in my next post.

If Crispus was not Sosthenes, his leadership would probably have prevented all these problems from arising in the Corinthian church. It seems to me, therefore, that the Corinthian problems that we find in 1 Corinthians support the Crispus-Sosthenes hypothesis and the historical accuracy of Acts.

Incidentally, the proposed expulsion of Christian Jews from Corinth fits nicely with the following hypotheses:
1. The Jews Lucius, Jason, and Sosipater (Rom 16:21) were the non-Corinthians Luke, Jason of Thessalonica, and Sopater of Beroea (Acts 20:4) respectively.
2. Gaius (Rom 16:22) and Stephanas were the non-Jew Gaius Titius Justus Stephanas.