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Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament

1 Corinthians Overview

 

 


INTRODUCTION TO THE FIRST EPISTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS.

CORINTH.—The geographical position and physical configuration of this ancient city might have enabled any one to predict for it a double distinction—that it would become the great emporium of commerce between East and West, rising to paramount importance among the cities of Greece; and that it might be made a place of great military strength. Built upon a narrow neck of land, and hence called the Isthmus or ‘neck’ of Corinth, its shores were washed by two seas—on the east by the Crissæan Gulf or Gulf of Corinth (now the Gulf of Lepanto), and by the Saronic Gulf on the west (now the Gulf of Ægina). Thus, what the Isthmus of Suez now is for transit between England and India—by which the storms of the Bay of Biscay are avoided, the ‘doubling of the Cape’ rendered unnecessary, and a great distance saved—such was the Isthmus of Corinth to ancient mariners, enabling them to transport their merchandise between the East and the West, not only with much more expedition, but without having to ‘double’ the two southern capes of Greece, whose seas were the terror of sailors in those days. In respect of military strength, Corinth had from nature almost unequalled advantages; and of these its builders wisely availed themselves. They placed it about a mile and a half to the south of the isthmus, on a rocky eminence two hundred feet above the sea-level. This eminence formed part of the Onœan range of mountains which stretched across the line of the Isthmus, and reached to the Saronic Gulf. Behind the city stood that magnificent rock known as the citadel of Corinth, and called the Acrocorinthus, nearly 1900 feet high, and whose sides are so precipitous that military men have pronounced it unequalled even by Gibraltar. To the west there ran from the city to the Corinthian Gulf a double wall, a mile and a half long, terminating at a port called the port of Lechæum; while to the east the city was connected with the seaport town of Cenchreæ (Romans 16:1), on the Saronic Gulf, by a road of eight or nine miles in length. Thus the Isthmus was, what Pindar calls it, “the bridge of the sea;”(1) and Xenophon rightly calls it ‘the bridge of the Peloponnesus,’ as it formed the dividing line between the northern division of Greece—or Hellas proper—and the southern almost insular division, hence called the Peloponnesus’(2) or ‘island of Pelops’ (now the Morea). Thus fitted as Corinth was to take a distinguished place among the cities of Greece, alike for military and political influence, its rulers early saw that by developing its commercial resources it might easily rise to be the wealthiest and most powerful of the Grecian cities—a distinction of which, indeed, it had given early promise, even from the time of its conquest by the Dorians, about a thousand years before Christ, and actually reached some centuries later under the sway of Periander. Its fortunes, however, fluctuated greatly in the succeeding centuries; and when the liberties of Greece were crushed by Philip of Macedon, B.C. 338, Corinth became subject to the Macedonian kings, who took care to keep it always strongly garrisoned. This galling yoke was broken, indeed, in the year B.C. 196, when Corinth was re-united to the celebrated Achæan League; but, though nominally free, it became really subject to its Roman liberators. And when the League were foolish enough to go to war with Rome, and even to maltreat the Roman ambassadors at Corinth, which was the League’s seat of government, the Achaean troops were easily defeated; and the Romans, under Lucius Mummius, their commander, in B.C. 146, revenged the insult with almost unparalleled barbarity—killing all the males, selling into slavery the women and children, stripping the city of its immense wealth, and carrying off its invaluable works of art. Having done this, the conquerors laid the city in ashes, ‘thus extinguishing’ (says Cicero) ‘the light of all Greece,’(4) or, as another writer calls it, the head of Achaia, the glory of Greece.’(3) For a whole century Corinth lay in this desolate state, with scarce anything to mark that architectural beauty for which it had been renowned, save seven Doric columns, the remains of an ancient temple. At length Julius Cæsar—with that sagacity which marked all his public actions, perceiving how much might be made of a spot so favoured by nature, and having such traditional renown—determined, in the year B.C. 46, to found on it a Roman colony, to be peopled, in the first instance, by his own veterans and freed-men. By them the city was rebuilt, and soon grew to be something enormous; Greek merchants pouring into it to make it their home, while Jews were attracted to it from its advantages for business and its proximity to their fatherland. In fact, though it was constituted into a Roman colony, became the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, and was governed by a Proconsul, residing at Corinth (Acts 18:12, where that official is called ‘the deputy’ in our Authorised Version)—the Romans themselves were outnumbered in Corinth by their Greek and Jewish fellow-citizens. The city now became wealthier than ever, its temples and civic buildings glittered as of old, and the same luxury and vice for which it had become so infamous of old, reappeared and flourished in all their ancient vigour. Accordingly, as of old, when one would describe a person abandoned to sensuality, he or she would be said to Corinthianize, to be a Corinthianizer, and in the case of a female, to be a Corinthian girl. Even the detestable practice was kept up of consecrating a thousand courtesans to the public worship of Aphrodite (Venus) in her temple. As for intellectual endowments, though Corinth seems never to have produced men of eminence, it was vain of the patronage it bestowed on philosophy and rhetoric, and doated on those distinguished for either whom it succeeded in attracting to it. Such was Corinth when, in the year 51, our apostle first entered it; and what a sight must it have presented to his eye!

ENTRANCE OF CHRISTIANITY INTO CORINTH.—Fresh from Athens, our apostle first set foot in Corinth. The proud metropolis of intellectual culture had heard from his lips a message of surpassing dignity—a message embodying truths as profound as they were novel—but with philosophic indifference had allowed him to leave their city without further inquiry. Would he fare any better in this money-making, pleasure-loving, commercial metropolis? That remained to be seen. But he who had already marched through violence and bloodshed from victory to victory in Asia Minor, and now in Europe at Philippi and Thessalonica and Berœa, was not to be daunted by Corinthian luxury any more than by Athenian indifference. So he will feel his way, beginning, as usual, with ‘the Jew first’ in the synagogue—reasoning from Sabbath to Sabbath, ‘persuading’ both the Jews and proselyte Greeks. On the arrival of his colleagues, Silas and Timothy, from Macedonia, he seems to have increased in boldness—‘pressed in spirit’ but, according to the true reading, ‘constrained by the word’ to testify to the Jews that Jesus was the Christ’ (Acts 18:5). This roused his opponents into such ‘resistance and blasphemy,’ that, seeing all hope of making way in the synagogue to be hopeless, ‘he shook off his raiment, saying, Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles.’ Accordingly, on leaving the synagogue, he entered into the house of a certain man named Titus Justus, ‘whose house joined hard to the synagogue,’ and so would be easily accessible to such of its frequenters as were still open to light; while Justus himself, being ‘one that worshipped God’—a Gentile proselyte—his house would be better suited for drawing a mixed audience than the synagogue itself. The surprising result of this move soon appeared in no less a person than ‘Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue,’ himself ‘believing with all his house.’ And not only so, but ‘many of the Corinthians hearing believed, and were baptized.’ Cheering as this must have been, there was vouchsafed to our apostle a richer encouragement still. His glorified Lord appeared to him in a night vision, saying, ‘Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace; for I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee; for I have much people in this city’ (Acts 18:9-10). And he ‘was not disobedient unto the heavenly vision,’ but ‘dwelt there a year and six months, teaching the Word of God among them.’ Thus consolidated and trained, the Church of Corinth became, of all the churches which owed their birth to our apostle, the most important as well as most numerous—embracing within itself not only the little daughter-church of Cenchreae (Romans 16:1), the adjoining seaport town, but knots of scattered Christians throughout ‘all Achaia’ (2 Corinthians 1:1; 1 Thessalonians 1:8), and extending probably to Athens itself. Though the members of this powerful church consisted chiefly of the humbler classes (1 Corinthians 1:26-29), it so roused the opposing Jews that they tried to get the Proconsul to put the man down who had done it all, as a disturber of the peace, ‘persuading men to worship God contrary to the law.’ In this, however, they signally failed; and after some further stay, taking his leave of the brethren, he set sail for Syria.’

OCCASION OF THE FIRST EPISTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS.—Not long after our apostle’s departure, Corinth was visited by a preacher of one mind with him, but of a very different type. And as it is important to know the source and character of that difference, the singularly interesting account given of him in the Acts should be carefully studied A certain Jew, named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent’ (or learned) ‘man, came to Ephesus, and he was mighty in the Scriptures. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord, and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught carefully the things of Jesus,(1) knowing only the baptism of John’ (Acts 18:24-25). Instructed in Christianity, probably, by some of John’s disciples, his knowledge would be imperfect; and ‘knowing only the baptism of John’ may mean that he regarded Christianity from the Baptist’s point of view, rather as the perfecting of Judaism than as a provision for the salvation of a sinful world of Gentiles as well as Jews. But, being ‘fervent in the spirit and mighty in the Scriptures,’ he poured forth in the synagogue, according to his light, the truth he had received. Among his audience at Ephesus was a distinguished couple,—Aquila and Priscilla,—who had just come with Paul from Corinth, where they and he had lived together during all the apostle’s stay there. Thus, trained as none of the Christians of Ephesus had been, they would be quick to perceive that, gifted as this new teacher was, there was a certain imperfection in his views of the truth he was setting forth, the removal of which would add greatly to his usefulness in the Christian cause, and give his preaching a new power. Accordingly, they ‘took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.’ It says much for the humility and teachableness of such a man, that he should have been content to sit at the feet of a Christian woman and her husband(2) while opening to him what he had hitherto had no opportunity of learning, while they, on their part, would doubtless lay the stress of what they ventured to press upon him on the superior teaching which they themselves had enjoyed at Corinth. His views being thus enlarged, and his interest in Corinth excited by the glowing picture doubtless given him by this couple of what the great apostle had done for it, he resolved to visit it So, ‘when he was minded to pass over into Achaia’—that is, to its capital, Corinth, almost due east from Ephesus by sea—‘the (Ephesian) brethren encouraged him, and wrote to the disciples to receive him.’ Perhaps the difference they had observed between the style of this gifted teacher and that of their father in the faith, in their proclamation of their common message, would seem fitted only to further the cause. And at first these expectations were probably more than realized. For ‘when he was come he helped them much who had believed through grace; for he powerfully confuted the Jews, and that publicly, shewing by the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ(Acts 18:27-28).

But soon it proved the reverse. All unwittingly, Apollos was the occasion of serious divisions. Speaking naturally in his own style, and putting forth all his eminent gifts with the one object of commending Christ, one party was carried away with the apparent resemblance of his style to that of the empty rhetoric to which they had been accustomed in the pagan schools; while those who valued more the truth, that had made them what they now were, than the manner in which it had been dealt out, were jealous for the reputation of their father in the faith. How long Apollos stayed at Corinth we have no means of knowing; for his name after this does not occur in the Acts, nor is he mentioned anywhere else, with the exception of the opening chapters of this First Epistle, on which we shall have occasion to comment pretty fully, and once in the Epistle to Titus, asking him to set forward on their journey Zenas the lawyer and Apollos. But we may safely say, that so long as he remained at Corinth, that party spirit which was gathering strength under his ministry would receive no countenance from one who would only regard it as a blight upon the work that lay nearest his heart.

After his departure, however, it seemed to have assumed alarming proportions, and to have come to a head, demanding apostolic interposition; and besides this, there were other alarming abuses calling for immediate attention and sharp correction. Old Corinthian vices were reappearing; questions of conscience touching the limits of Christian freedom were leading to dangerous compromises on the part of some, wounding the feelings and trying to the principles of others; the spiritual gifts in which that church abounded were degenerating into abuse; the most sacred institution of the Church of Christ was desecrated by the manner in which it was observed; unauthorized teachers were calling in question the apostolic authority of the very founder of their church; and to such an extent were pagan ideas creeping in that the resurrection itself was by some among them openly explained away. No wonder that our apostle at length proceeded to deal with evils so complicated and so alarming, in a church that once had stood out as one of the brightest trophies of the simple preaching of the Cross. This he would have the less scruple in doing, as they themselves had written him, expressly asking instruction on some of the questions which were perplexing them (1 Corinthians 7:1). Yet how repulsive the task, in some features of it, and how deep the pain it cost him, he tells them touchingly:—‘Out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears’ (2 Corinthians 2:4).

But what was drawn forth reluctantly by this church has been to the Christian Church in all time of priceless value. For in the two Epistles to the Corinthians—the earliest which the apostle wrote, with the exception of those to the Thessalonians—we have what is to be found in none of the other Epistles, nor in all of them put together. For here the curtain is drawn, and a state of things disclosed of a character perfectly unique and pregnant with instruction of the most valuable kind. In view of this Dean Stanley says with much truth: ‘The First Epistle to Corinth gives a clearer insight than any other portion of the New Testament into the institutions, feelings, and opinions of the Church of the earlier period of the apostolic age. It is in every sense the earliest chapter of the history of the Christian Church.’

THE GENUINENESS AND DATE OF THE FIRST EPISTLE TO THE CORINTHIANS.—The external evidence of its genuineness is quite decisive. Clement of Rome, in his Epistle to the Corinthians (A.D. c. 95),(1) expressly refers to it in chap. 47 as having brought down upon them a rebuke for their dissensions about Paul and Apollos and Cephas; and in chap. 49 he recurs to this, saying, ‘Love knows no schisms, is not factious.’ Clear allusions are made to it by Ignatius to the Ephesians (c. 115), by Polycarp to the Philippians (c. 150), and by Justin Martyr in his Dialogue with Trypho the Jew (c. 155). The references to it in Irenaeus (c. 180-185), in Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian (c. 210), are still more explicit. But it is the internal evidence which has carried conviction even to the most advanced of the negative school. Of all writers who have handled this point, none has written with such force and felicity as Paley, in his incomparable Horae Paulinae, of which we here give one specimen, as it is peculiarly to the purpose of this Commentary (abridging a few of the unimportant clauses): From chap. 1 Corinthians 7:1 it appears that this letter was written in answer to one from them, and that this and some following chapters are taken up in resolving certain doubts and regulating certain points of order about which they had consulted him. This alone is greatly in favour of the authenticity of the Epistle: for it must have been a farfetched contrivance in a forgery, first to have feigned the receipt of a letter from them, which letter does not appear, and then to have drawn up a fictitious answer to it, relating to a great variety of doubts and inquiries, purely economical and domestic; and which, though likely enough to have occurred to an infant society, in a situation and under an institution so novel as that of a Christian church then was, it must have very much exercised the author’s invention, and could have answered no imaginable purpose of forgery, to introduce the mention of at all. Particulars of the kind we refer to are such as the following: the rule of duty and prudence relative to entering into marriage, as applicable to virgins, to widows; the case of husbands married to unconverted wives, of wives having unconverted husbands; where the unconverted party chooses to separate, where he chooses to continue the union; the effect produced by their conversion on their prior state, of circumcision, of slavery; the eating of things offered to idols, as it was in itself, as others were affected by it; the joining in idolatrous sacrifices; the decorum to be observed in their religious assemblies, the order of speaking, the silence of women, the covering or uncovering of the head, as it became men, as it became women. These subjects, with their several subdivisions, are so particular, minute, and numerous, that, though exactly agreeable to the circumstances of the persons to whom the letter was written, nothing, I believe, but the existence and reality of those circumstances could have suggested to the writer’s thoughts. ‘To this we only add Meyer’s remark, that the Epistle ‘bears the most definite impress of the peculiar spirit and tact of Paul, and displays the full power, art, and subtlety of his eloquence.’ No wonder, then, that only the most outrageous criticism has ever ventured to impugn this Epistle.

As for the date, a comparison of the Epistle itself with corresponding passages in the Acts of the Apostles fixes it very definitely. It must have been written near the close of the third year of the apostle’s stay at Ephesus, some time before Pentecost (1 Corinthians 16:8), and not improbably in the spring of the year, on the eve of the Passover (1 Corinthians 5:6-8). [The subscription at the close of the Authorised Version rests upon a worthless tradition.]

 


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Bibliography Information
Schaff, Philip. "Commentary on 1 Corinthians:4 Overview". "Schaff's Popular Commentary on the New Testament". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/scn/1-corinthians-0.html. 1879-90.

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