Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Church

Edward Adams, David G. Horrell, editors Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville August 5, 2004
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This book seeks to identify and evaluate the history of scholarship dealing with the character and disputes of the first Corinthian Christians. Part one, “Extracts from the History of Scholarship on Christianity at Corinth,” begins with the view of F. C. Baur (1792–1860) that the “groups at Corinth . . . were essentially divided along a single fault line, . . . between Peter and Paul, with the Apollos group on Paul’s side and the Christ group on Peter’s” (p. 51). A century later Johannes Munck contested Baur’s views and denied the Peter-versus-Paul factions, stating that the problem was simply one of “bickerings in the congregation” (p. 61). Walter Schmithals presents his view that Gnosticism was a “pre-Christian phenomenon” and is the key to understanding the Corinthian conflict. C. K. Barrett’s perspective is that there were four “distinct theological emphases and ideas competing with each other (those of Paul, Peter, Apollos and Christ)” (p. 79). Nils Dahl disagreed with Munck that Paul was confronting internal bickering. He felt that 1 Corinthians 1–4 functioned “as an apology for Paul’s apostolic ministry” (p. 85, italics his).

The remainder of part one deals with the last thirty years of Corinthian scholarship, beginning with Gerd Theissen’s argument “that the Corinthian church was marked by internal social stratification: a few (prominent) members from the upper stratum, the majority from the lower strata” (p. 97). Anthony Thiselton’s essay on “Realized Eschatology at Corinth” suggests that the “Corinthians held to an overrealised [sic] eschatology, stressing the ‘already’ of salvation to the detriment of the ‘not yet’” (p. 107). Richard Horsley writes that the Corinthian religious emphasis on sophia (“wisdom”) and gnasis (“knowledge”) is best explained in relation to the Jewish concept of wisdom and that this Hellenistic Judaism was the basis of the conflict in Corinth (p. 119). Jerome Murphy O’Connor suggests that the architecture of “sumptuous villas” in Corinth were the meeting places of small house churches that caused the divisions. Based on social strata, some believers, he argues, were allowed inside while others had to remain outside. Laurence Welborn posits that political competition over power and influence within the community best describes the Corinthian factions.

Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that the wealthy women in leadership positions were the source of some of the problems Paul had to address (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2–16). Margaret MacDonald concludes that “women were also the main proponents of the radical sexual asceticism about which Paul here feels uneasy” (p. 161). Michael Goulder attempts to link sophia (“wisdom”) in 1 Corinthians with the Hebrew Torah, in defending a modified version of Baur’s Peter-versus-Paul conflict. John Barclay contrasts the two Pauline communities in Corinth and Thessalonica.

John Chow claims that “certain wealthy and powerful figures (such as Chloe, 1:11) acted as patrons or benefactors of the church” (p. 197). Terence Paige believes he can detect Stoic influences in the church that caused various problems, while Justin Meggitt holds that the rich in the church were responsible for the majority of the problems, seeing the church in Corinth as “almost exclusively poor” (p. 219). Horsley’s second contribution seeks to “show how Paul attempts a political task, to establish an ‘alternative society’ within the setting of the Roman Empire” (p. 227, italics his).

The four final chapters begin with Meggitt’s appeal for believers to study popular culture more. Bengt Holmberg stresses historical information over sociological theory. MacDonald’s comments deal with the importance of women’s issues in understanding the Corinthian correspondence. James Dunn summarizes the various views and states that “the various reconstructions of Corinthian Christianity do not help us to get to the meaning of the letter [but] they do . . . help us to overhear more clearly the dialogue [and] enter into the dialogue for ourselves” (p. 309, italics his).

Adams and Horrell have produced a remarkably thorough, scholarly overview and critique of the different approaches to reconstructing the situation at Corinth. It would be difficult to find a better one-volume overview of scholarship on the church in Corinth. College and seminary classes dealing with the Corinthian letters should seriously consider assigning this collection as supplementary reading. Pastors, teachers, and scholars will all find it unusually helpful. 

—Larry J. Waters

April 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Apr-Jun 2006 vol. 163 no. 2 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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