A “Three Worlds of the Text” Analysis of 1 Corinthians & A Challenge to Christian Identity

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Introduction

This paper has three key objectives. First, to show a sensitivity to the socio-cultural setting of Corinth, the 1st century city in which the Corinth church was founded. Second, to engage the 1 Corinthians 6:1-12 pericope in order to determine the concerns of the Apostle Paul. And thirdly, to examine how the pericope has challenged Christian identity most notably in respect to Paul’s declaring of same-sex sexual intercourse as wrongful behaviour. This paper attempts this analysis through the “Three Worlds of the Text” criteria.

Why the “Worlds” of the text?

The “Three Worlds” of the text template is a helpful criteria for engaging biblical hermeneutics (Martin, 2013: 205). It allows an exegete to engage several key and separate areas. For example, The World Behind the Text provides data on culture and history, the World of the Text examines genre, and the World in Front of the Text seeks to determine how a text has been interpreted and used by those within religious communities long after it was penned (BCE Religious Ed, 2016). So, on the one hand the template assists an exegete in being cognizant of his or her biases while also providing grounds to keep them from influencing the interpretative efforts. Often an exegete can run the risk in biblical interpretation of making an author say something that he or she is not. The template also attempts to construct an objective history through the historical critical method which assists in fleshing out the setting of the day. As this paper shows, this framework is relevant to understanding the historical reality within which the Apostle Paul engaged the issues of the church in Corinth.

Author & Authorship.

Author and authorship are important components to the The World Behind The Text criterion. There is little doubt that the Apostle Paul penned 1 Corinthians (Wall, 2002: 373), although some scholars view certain passages as later interpolations (1 Corinthians 11:2–16, for example, that speaks of head covering, prayer, and prophecy) (Muddiman & Barton, 2001: 125). However, although the letter is authentically Pauline, it is likely that an amanuensis by the name of Sosthenes penned the letter at Paul’s direction. The letter is also one of the earliest and most valuable testimonies to the early church being penned around 53 or 54 AD (Wall, 2002: 373).

The Apostle Paul was a learned man in matters of philosophy (Kee & Young, 1958: 208) and Jewish theology (Acts 22:3). Previously a Pharisee well learned in the Torah (Phil. 3:5), Paul became arguably the most important figure in the early Christian church judging by the number of New Testament epistles penned and attributed to him (Brown, 1997: 436). As a Roman and Jewish citizen, he travelled widely to reach people with the good news of the risen Christ and would also plant numerous churches in Europe and Asia-minor. Strikingly, prior to these efforts, Paul was a persecutor of the early Christian movement which first begun to flourish post Christ’s death by crucifixion (Gal. 1:13-14; Phil. 3:6; Acts 8:1-3). Paul viewed the early Christian proclamation as blasphemous because the Messiah, as many Jews believed, was to come and overthrow Roman rule and usher in Israel’s independence and least of all was he meant to die on a cross under the curse of God (Deu. 21:23). Paul’s persecution continued until testimony says that the resurrected Christ appeared to him on route to Damascus. Independent of what Paul encountered, his transition was nothing less than phenomenal: from an enemy intent on destroying the early church to becoming its biggest proponent (Price, 2015).

Socio-Cultural & Political Setting of Corinth.

To show the socio-cultural setting in which the Apostle Paul penned his letter to the church in Corinth one must engage the The World Behind The Text. This is a helpful framework that grounds Paul in a very real and tangible historical existence.

The 1st century Greek city of Corinth was one of a milieu of cultures, religious practices, and beliefs, as well as a frequented port for trade on behalf of voyagers traveling between Europe and Asia. As a result the city became wealthy (Stone, 2004: 76). Greek historian and philosopher Strabo (63 BC – 24 AD) says its wealth came about as a result “of its commerce, since it is situated on the Isthmus and is master of two harbors,” and that it was a popular destination for travellers given that its seas made for a safer voyage (Aune, 2010: 418). Centuries prior to the early Christian church the Corinthians had their established religious beliefs and practices. They worshiped the Greek goddess of love, beauty, and procreation, Aphrodite, and had also built a temple dedicated to her on Acrocorinth, a large 570m high rock that overlooked the city (Boardman, Griffin & Murray, 1991: 31). According to Strabo this temple was a source of wealth as “Aphrodite was so rich that it owned more than a thousand temple slaves, courtesans, whom both men and women had dedicated to the goddess” (Anderson et al. 2018; Geographika VIII, 6, 20). According to historical records promiscuous, sexual activities took place there, and the city was known for its prostitutes (Burckhardt, 1998: 202; Stone, 2004: 76). Corinth, moreover, hosted the Isthmus Games which first began in the 6th century BC. This was a festival of sports and music, and is likely the event the Apostle Paul makes reference to in 1 Corinthian 9:24-27.

In 146 BC, Corinth was destroyed and laid waste by the Romans which became a pivotal point in Greco-Roman history as it not only strengthened Rome’s advantage and hold in the area but too ushered in a time of Roman domination over the Greeks (Carr, 2017). Little over a century later Julius Caesar rebuilt the city which would then become wealthy once again. The temple of Aphrodite would also be re-established although it would never quite reach the heights that it once did. Nonetheless, sexual promiscuities were common in the city, and it is likely this that Paul was so concerned with when he highlighted the interactions between congregants and prostitutes (1 Cor. 6:12-20). During Paul’s time there were two major cults in the city. One of these, as we learn from the Greek historian Plutarch, was the cult of Isis. This cult, with its origins in Egypt, placed emphasis on “wisdom” (Hall, 1928: 21). Second, the cult of Mithras, newly formed in the 1st century, placed emphasis on “mysteries” (Claus, 1990:102; Suda reference 3: 394, M 1045). It was in this historical backdrop that Paul founded in the church in Corinth around 50 AD, and the response to his efforts were mixed. A number of Jews in the city opposed him (Acts 18:1-8) although he managed to spend some time teaching the gentiles (Acts 18:11). Some of the latter, especially the poor and vulnerable, came to accept Christ as their saviour (1 Cor. 1:26). Nonetheless, upon Paul’s leaving the city, ministerial efforts continued on behalf of some Christians living there (Acts 18:24-28).

The 1 Corinthians 6:1-12 Pericope [The World Within The Text]

This paper engages a closer reading of the 1 Corinthians 6:1-12 pericope through a brief analysis of the text itself, the narrative, structure, and the literary features employed by the author (imagery, repetition, metaphor, contrast, symbol, vocabulary). Paul’s concerns with the Corinthian church were numerous. The church was primarily made up of Greek and gentile congregants and given their cultural and social backgrounds they often brought their pagan influences and baggage with them (Cranford, 2012). These included eating meat that was offered to idols, temple sacrifices, sexual promiscuities, and ecstatic utterances (Cranford, 2012). Paul’s several fold concerns were the lack of wisdom in the congregation (6:5), factionalism and legal disputes between believers (6:1-11), wrongdoers in the church being influenced by pagan society (6:9), hypocrisy (13:1-2), and women attending the gatherings without head coverings (11:3-16). Paul’s hope was to bring the congregation back to unity as one body in Christ (3:10).

It is this church that Paul’s letter directly addresses, and he speaks to their circumstances by appealing to the ultimate authority, namely, “Jesus Christ,” “the Lord,” and “God” (6:11). Paul appears to claim the mantle of divine authority as if speaking on God’s behalf into this church community and its circumstances. Paul’s anger is discernible in the heavy employment of condemnable terminology: “I say this to shame you” (6:5), “you have been completely defeated already” (6:7), “you yourselves cheat and do wrong” (6:8). Closer analysis suggests the church body is the recipient of his reproach as he continually refers to them in the singular sense. The congregation is addressed as “you” 16 times and Paul intentionally drives home the need for unity in his final passage where he uses the term no less than four times (6:11). Paul subsequently contrasts the terms “believer” and “unbeliever” thus suggesting a chasm between what it is to be a Christ follower and a person who follows worldly things. In v. 5 Paul admonishes the church for its lack of wise judgment when dealing with disputes between believers (Paul uses the term “judge” no fewer than five times, and “judgement” once). He thus emphasizes this lack of wisdom in the Corinth congregation and the negative impression it gives to unbelievers viewing proceedings from the outside. Division and factionalism is counteracting the church as being an example to unbelievers in the world.

Clearly Paul’s continued referral to the church as a unified body is a deliberate strategy. The Corinthian church is wracked with divisions, and Paul instructs the congregation to reunify as one body in Christ (3:10). Paul seeks to elucidate this point through an appeal to the sinful and immoral pagan backgrounds of those within the church’s congregation prior to their conversions to Christ. Rather, it is through an acceptance of Christ that they have been “washed,” “sanctified,” and “justified” into one body (6: 11). Paul, moreover, shows his readers who will not gain access to the kingdom of God, namely, those committing sexual sins of having intercourse with members of the same sex, as well as those who are thieves, drunkards, slanderers, and swindlers (v. 9). These behaviours are suggestive of a lack of self-control, greed, contempt, and attempt for some to take advantage of the vulnerable.

The 1 Corinthian’s 6 Challenge to Christian Identity

What is a Christian identity? Christian identity is developed when a believer thoughtfully engages the teachings of Jesus Christ and the biblical writers and applies them to his or her life in such a way that it distinguishes him/herself from other individuals who possess alternative identities (Williams, 2006). As stipulated above there is clear evidence of this in our pericope through Paul’s contrasting of believers and unbelievers, and exhortation for the church to be separate from the world.

Most sensitive in our pericope is Paul’s listing of same-sex acts as wrongful behaviour (6:9-10). That this is considered controversial is attributable to western society that has developed a morality that is far more affirming and tolerant of homosexuality and the rights of homosexual individuals. Importantly, “the west” or “western society” refers to nations within Europe (on the European Union list) and the Americas (U.S.A and Canada) that share common political ideologies, views of human rights, and that all operate on the basis of liberal democracy (Kurth, 2002: 7). The other “wrongdoers” Paul mentions such as idolaters, adulterers, thieves, drunkards, the greedy, slanderers, and swindlers, as bad as they may be to many, hardly receive the same level of public attention in the west. Nonetheless, whenever Paul does mention same-sex sexual relations he refers to them as sinful. As a Jew it is likely that Paul’s view of same-sex intercourse was informed by the holiness code of Leviticus 18:22 which ascribes the death penalty for the “abomination” of two men found guilty of engaging in same-sex intercourse.

Importantly, 1 Corinthians 6:9, which is indisputably Pauline, is our strongest text for a Pauline view of homosexual relations. Other Pauline texts addressing the topic are either viewed as later interpolations (Romans 1:26–27) (Harrison, 1964: 80-85; Walker, 1999: 533-552) or are letters unlikely of Pauline origin (1 Timothy, see 1:8-11) (Aune, 2010: 9; Collins, 2004: 4; Ehrman, 2003: 393). In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes that “men who have sex with men… will [not] inherit the kingdom of God” and, prior, refers to the people engaging in these behaviours as “wrongdoers.” Wrongdoer here refers to both the believers within the Corinthian congregation as well as the pagans in Corinth partaking in these behaviours. This text does not appear to condemn homosexual orientation of individuals but rather same-sex relations between individuals (Craig, 2013).

Naturally, given Paul’s status, these texts have played a significant role in the development of the church. Like Paul, many Christians and denominations, both historical and present, hold the view that homosexual relations are sinful. In the early church, theologians and Church Fathers such as John Chrysostom, Tertullian, Cyprian, and Ambrosiaster held strongly negative views of homosexual acts (Oden, 2014). Similar views in the Middle Ages were held by the likes of Peter Damian (who also condemned masturbation) (Halsall, 1996; Payer, 1982: 29), and Hildegard of Bingen (who also condemned lesbianism) (Halsall, 1996). Views in the west have changed drastically since then which has resulted in significant challenges to Christian identity. Christianity no longer holds the privileged position that it once did in western societies, and many forceful, disagreeing voices have entered the public space (Burton, 2017). One of these voices is the rights of homosexuals and those within the LGBQT community. Increasingly Americans are saying that homosexuality should be accepted in society (up to 62% in 2017 from 50% in 2007) (Pew Research Forum, 2014). 83% of religious nones (the unaffiliated), 76% of those within non-Christian faiths, 73% of Catholics, and 62% of Orthodox Christians now accept homosexuality while American Christianity grows in acceptance of homosexuality (Pew Research Center, 2015). 54% of American Christians say that homosexuality should be accepted with this view being most prevalent in younger Christians (Pew Research Center, 2015).

One can understand the expansiveness of the Christian response. There is an increasing number of Christian individuals coming out into the open who admit that they are homosexual but also devout in their faith (Chellew-Hodge, 2009). This includes both lesbian and gay evangelicals (EFLG, 2002). There have also been some apologists defending the compatibility of being homosexual and Christian (Quenqua, 2012) with some publicized debates to show for it (Brown, 2014). The biblical condemnation of same-sex relations has caused concerns for many hence the publication of the Queen James Bible within which all scriptural references to homosexuality have been “edited to prevent homophobic misinterpretation of God’s Word” (Carter, 2012). On the other side, there is, moreover, an increasing number of Christian organizations seeking to deal with homosexuality within their ranks by actively encouraging homosexual congregants to avoid engaging in same-sex sexual acts while a significant number of evangelicals maintain that society should not accept homosexuality (Barrick, 2008). The debate is certainly raging and opinions and views

Clearly the challenge to Christian identity is significant. For instance, our pericope itself is a testament to the threats of factionalism and division within the church. Thus, crucial questions remain for those who wish to arrive at a biblically informed Christian identity. For example, does a pro-homosexual theology do justice to Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6:1-12 or are modern readers, so caught up in a western zeitgeist, guilty of gross eisegesis? Moreover, how will the church deal with this on the practical level in western societies that tend to exert both incredible socio-cultural pressures and influences on it? Will the church still maintain that God’s ideal for marriage is between one man and one woman, and that same-sex sexual relations are sinful? Or will the church buckle under pressure and resort to changing its beliefs, attitudes, stances, and scriptural interpretations? These, and so many more, are thoughtful yet crucial questions facing not only the church but also millions of Christians on the ground.

Conclusion

Through engaging the Three Worlds of the Text template this paper has attempted to make a number of points clear. First, authorship, author, and date of authorship of 1 Corinthians were all considered. Second, a careful analysis of the socio-historical context of the city of Corinth was fleshed out given its importance in establishing context for Paul’s letter. Third, the paper looked deeper into the 1 Corinthian 6:1-12 pericope after which it examined how Paul’s view of same-sex relations has challenged Christian identity especially within a modern western setting.

[Words: 2622]

References

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One response to “A “Three Worlds of the Text” Analysis of 1 Corinthians & A Challenge to Christian Identity

  1. Have enjoyed your blog so far, have one comment/question. The last sentence of the 15th paragraph says, “The debate is certainly raging and opinions and views”.
    The sentence is unfinished leaving the reader to wonder as to your conclusion.

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