July 21, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: He learns of trouble in Corinth

While Paul was living in Ephesus in the year 54, a businesswoman there named Chloe sent representatives to Corinth. They brought back news that alarmed Paul.

Apparently, the Corinthian Christians were split into three factions: those who followed Paul; those who followed Apollos, who had greater oratorical skills; and a group that Paul later identified with Cephas. Since Peter never went to Corinth, it’s believed that this group was composed of Jewish converts who felt strange in a Gentile community.

Besides the factions, Chloe’s people reported some strange ideas about sex. One man had an incestuous relationship with his stepmother, some men were frequenting prostitutes, and a homosexual man with an elaborate hair-do was the leader of a community.

Not sure how to handle all this, Paul first decided to send Timothy to Corinth to get more information. But shortly after Timothy left Ephesus, a delegation arrived there from Corinth with a letter asking Paul’s opinions about a variety of issues: the role of sex in marriage, the eating of meat that had been sacrificed to pagan gods, spiritual gifts and the resurrection of the dead. Paul no longer needed facts that he had sent Timothy for.

He wrote what we know as the First Letter to the Corinthians, although it actually was not the first; an earlier letter telling how to treat sinners in the community has been lost. The letter begins by urging unity in the Church, an end to the factions, and it concludes with Paul’s teachings about the resurrection of the body. In between, it deals with the various issues that had been brought to Paul’s attention.

In part of the letter, though, Paul made a tactical mistake. After identifying a group whose members thought themselves possessed of a wisdom that made them perfect and, therefore, above regular moral laws, he decided to mock them. He agrees that they have wisdom, but says that it is “the wisdom of the world.”

Perhaps it was Apollos, who was with Paul when he wrote the letter, who suggested this approach, but the tone of the letter served to alienate the members of this group.

The delegation that had come to Ephesus took the letter back to Corinth with them and read it to the community. Timothy was still in Corinth and he was shocked by the way Paul treated that one group. As for the members of that group, they became Paul’s enemies. When the Judaizers from Antioch—who insisted that the Christians had to follow the Judaic laws—arrived shortly after that, they welcomed them.

The Judaizers had troubled Paul’s Church in Galatia, and had gone from there to the Churches in Philippi and Thessalonica before arriving in Corinth.

When they arrived, Timothy hurried back to Ephesus as quickly as it was possible in those days of slow travel to let Paul know.

Paul then had to make a decision: Should he go to Philippi and Thessalonica or to Corinth? He decided to confront the Judaizers directly in Corinth. †



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