Christian apologists love to condemn pagan Corinth as a city of rampant immorality. They will not be slow to tell you that the Greek verb korinthiazomai, a derivative of the city's name, means to fornicate. But the truth is that Corinth was a bustling port with a large, transitory population. In that sense, its notoriety was no worse than any other port city.
Corinth, however, was claimed as a bridgehead for Paul. The apostle's two seminal letters, supposedly sent to the fledgling congregation in the city, reveal a bewildering variety of opponents and present a veritable anthology of his pastoral guidance and theological diktats.
The historicity of the super-apostle, vexed by troubles on all sides, warily asserting (re-asserting?) authority over "his" church by stern letters, is not compelling. Was it Corinth that was especially in focus or "all that in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ"? (1 Corinthians 1.2). Was the author really a missionary called Paul or are the hands of later editors revealed in the odd discontinuities (six "Now concerning ..." re-starts in 1 Corinthians alone)? Are we really dealing here with authentic letters from a hard-working soldier of Christ or rather, an accretion of polemical exchanges and negotiated harmonizations (Paul baptized, did not baptize and could not remember if he baptized! (1 Corinthians 1.13–17).
An inconvenient truth for those who wish to believe the holy fantasy is that NOT the "teachings of a historical Jesus" but the so-called epistles of Paul developed the dogmas and precepts of the Church. Could one man be that smart?
How many letters make two?
"I fear that there may be quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, factions, slander, gossip, arrogance and disorder." – 2 Corinthians 12.20.
Many scholars have noted that the Corinthian letters have every appearance of being composite documents, several short missives gathered together and given a final editorial gloss (e.g. Holladay, Oxford Companion to the Bible). But that may be the least of it. Themes are reprised repeatedly, as if an original script has been segmented by later material. The admixture betrays protracted redaction as conflicting sentiments are brought into a final harmony.
The earliest collection of "Paul's correspondence" was a short recension, the Apostolikon, made available by Marcion, a 2nd century bishop of Pontus. Marcion was accused by his rivals with intruding dualistic-gnostic ideas into the texts. But the charges flow both ways: Catholic editors, when deeming it prudent to accept Paul into the community of the saints, could have sanitized the Pauline corpus of dangerous ideas, even as they neutered Paul into a regular team player in the fantasy called Acts of the Apostles.
One indication of a 2nd century date of origin for the letters is anachronistic reference to persecution (1 Corinthians 4.12; 2 Corinthians 4.9; 12.10), scarcely tenable in the 1st century. 1 Corinthians 16.1-11 may well have been a "fund-raising" letter in its own right, subsequently appended to didactic material at a later date. The second Corinthian letter, even more than the first, has abrupt changes of style, tone and content. In all probability, 2 Corinthians 6.14 - 7.1 is the letter calling for "separation from fornicators" referred to in 1 Corinthians 5.9. The last four chapters of 2 Corinthians are probably the "severe" letter referred to in 2 Corinthians 7.8. Without doubt, an editor has been at work, organizing the available material into approved guidance for the faithful.
Confirming the questionable authenticity of the two missives are the restrained salutations. 1 and 2 Corinthians close with little more ado than "All the brethren greet you. Greet you one another with a holy kiss." There are none of the usual "named" confederates and this is to a congregation with whom – supposedly – Paul has lived on intimate terms for eighteen months!
Factionalism in the ranks: Corinthians – or Cerinthians?
"But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us." – 2 Thessalonians 3.6.
Paul had nothing to say about the Pharisees (a faction to which he claimed once to have belonged), nor any of the other well-attested Jewish sectarians of the 1st century – Sadducees, Essenes, Nazirites and Zealots. If he were truly a polemicist of the mid-1st century the omission would be curious indeed.
On the other hand the shadowy presence of 2nd century factions is to be discerned within the Pauline corpus – Cerenthians, Docetists, Marcionites, Ebionites, Nazarenes, Elchasai. Was an original Pauline "Corinthian" letter actually directed towards a group of heretics, the followers of Cerinthus?
It is often said that Paul had within his sights "Judaizers", though he never uses the word himself – adversaries are referred to only obliquely ("Are they Hebrews? So am I.") and never as specific sectarians. The same passages could be directed at the so-called "re-Judaizers" of the 2nd century, those who took issue with the Marcionites and kindred Gnostics for their rejection of the entirety of Jewish scripture.
It appears that some, at least, of Paul's opponents denied the resurrection of the dead:
"Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?"
– 1 Corinthians 15.12.
These dissenters, or perhaps others, practiced a proxy baptism for the dead yet the ritual has no provenance earlier than the 2nd century among the Marcionites (Harnack, Marcion, 176).
"If the dead are not going to be raised to life, what will people do who are being baptized for them? Why are they being baptized for those dead people?"
– 1 Corinthians 15:29.
Little is known of Cerinthus, a religious innovator with his own band of followers, active in Roman Asia perhaps in the late 1st and early 2nd century. It appears that, like many early Christians, he was an adoptionist, teaching that the Spirit entered the man Jesus at baptism and left before the crucifixion.*
"After him brake out the heretic Cerinthus, teaching similarly. For he, too, says that the world was originated by those angels; and sets forth Christ as born of the seed of Joseph, contending that He was merely human, without divinity; affirming also that the Law was given by angels; representing the God of the Jews as not the Lord, but an angel."
– Tertullian, Against All Heresies, 9.3.
In the Catholicization of the faith the towering figure of Paul was granted a grand missionary itinerary (perhaps inspired by the journeys of Apollonius or even Marcion himself). The original Cerinthian discourse was transferred to an appropriate venue, "1st century Corinth", and the Corinthian epistles grew with each twist and turn in the struggle for orthodoxy.
A distaste for intellect: the priestly imperative
"For the kingdom of God is not in word but in power." – 1 Corinthians 4.20.
"Brethren ... learn in us not to think beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up." – 1 Corinthians 4.6.
The "authentic voice" within the core Pauline epistles is that of an authoritarian churchman not a sagacious philosopher. Paul's call to follow traditions and obey written rules is clearly anachronistic and moves the epistles into a later age than purported for the apostle himself.
The writer has nothing but contempt for Greek intellectualism. As the claimant to supreme spiritual authority Paul condemns rational thought as "puffed up" (1 Corinthians 4.6,18; 8.1), an anti-intellectualism still found in the cheap jibes mouthed by evangelicals about academic "arrogance".
With relish Paul inveighs against "Greek wisdom" and exalts the quixotic notion of a "spiritual awareness", which he insists excels the rationalism of "natural man". His theology is a shameless defence of priestly authoritarianism, masquerading as the outlandish notion that the Christian collective forms the "body of Christ."
"Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak with tongues? Do all interpret? But earnestly desire the higher gifts." – 1 Corinthians 12.27-31.
The metaphor of the body and its subordinate parts rather nicely conveys the anti-democratic totalitarianism implicit in an organized church. The self-elected – those with "gifts" – take up their assigned position within the hierarchy, directed by divine guidance or – just possibly! – the force of their own personality and ambition. Rival "gifts" – or egos – will ensure that the Church is forever marked by chronic factionalism and internecine strife.
Those with the greatest gift – apostles – form the leadership, with Paul foremost among them. He claims for the new "body of Christ" all the titles, privileges and promises that Jewish scripture had previously bestowed on Israel. The Lord is King but, having been "called to serve", the voice within the epistles speaks for God and that God has ambitions which betray more earthly purposes.
All is to be controlled by the hierarchs. The Saints, says Paul, are the "stewards of the mystery of God" (1 Corinthians 4.1). The present world is "passing away" yet even so, believers are the new elite. He warns the Corinthians that he "might put you to the test, whether you are obedient in all things" (2 Corinthians 2.9).
He even anticipates the notorious ecclesiastic courts set up by Emperor Justinian centuries later. "The saints will judge the world ... Do you not know that we shall judge angels? How much more, things that pertain to this life?" (1 Corinthians 6.2-3); they most certainly must not turn to pagan magistrates to arbitrate in disputes between brethren. Paul's indignation will seed centuries of corruption and abuse by a clergy set beyond secular law.
The cardinal Pauline doctrines of "justification by grace" and "salvation by faith, not works" are not anywhere to be found in the gospel stories. The simple, albeit nebulous, notion of "The Coming of the Kingdom of God" which permeates the tale of Jesus is overshadowed by the constructs of Pauline theology.
The Saviour is the focus but not the wellspring of the Pauline message. When higher endorsement is needed for Paul's novel ideas they are drawn, not from a perambulating godman of Galilee that Paul never knew, but from the prophets of Jewish scripture. Thus even when speaking of salvation Paul quotes not Jesus but the Old Testament prophet Isaiah:
"As God's fellow workers we urge you not to receive God's grace in vain. For He says, "In the time of my favor I heard you,
and in the day of salvation I helped you." [Isaiah 49.8] I tell you, now is the time of God's favor, now is the day of salvation." – 2 Corinthians 6.1-2.
Paul outlines the essential props of orthodoxy but he goes even further, he writes the earliest tractates opposing so-called heretics.
Could it really be the case that contemporaries of the "historical Jesus" – even the very witnesses to the godman's mighty deeds, required denouncing as in error?
The reality, of course, is that primitive Christianity was a milieu of fractious sectarianism, busily engaged in mutual vilification and proscription. In the corpus of Pauline epistles we have the "final communique" of the triumphant party and a much redacted compendium of approved theology and pastoral guidance.
Sex and the City
"Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is good for a man NOT to have sexual relations with a woman." – 1 Corinthians 7.1.
"Paul's apparently grudging attitude to marriage provided celibate fanatics in later Christian generations with plenty of ammunition to support their body-hating, women-hating philosophies, their monkish despairs, their flagellations, their hairshirts, their cells and their vows."
– A.N. Wilson, Paul - The Mind of the Apostle, p162.
Paul gives general rules on marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 ("marry rather than burn"), castigates immorality in 1 Corinthians 6.13-20 ("your body is a temple") and rages over an instance of incest in 1 Corinthians 5. He devotes a whole chapter of Corinthians to the condemnation of a member who "has had his father's wife"!
Paul uses the scandal as a foil to condemn all "fornication" and there is no Christian forgiveness here. The saints are to keep separate from fornicators and the wicked are to be "put away" (1 Corinthians 5.13). In Romans, Paul confesses the torments of his own "concupiscence"
and makes a rhetorical appeal for "delivery from the body of death."
"For I know that in me , that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing ... I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members." – Romans 7.18,24.
And the point of all this puritanical zeal? Nothing in the demeanor, dress or word of the saints can be allowed to jeopardize imminent judgement and the hoped for salvation. Paul presents himself as a role model for the new church. A celibate, such as himself, is not distracted from the Lord's work.
"He who is unmarried cares for the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord. But he who is married cares about the things of the world, how he may please his wife ... The unmarried woman cares about the things of the Lord ... but she who is married cares about the things of the world, how she may please her husband. This I say ... that you may serve the Lord without distraction." – 1 Corinthians 7.32,35.
The doctrine of abstinence was calculated to rein in free spirits and provide the church with a cadre of unwed Christ-devotees. This gave early Christianity a considerable organizational advantage over the pagan cults, whose part-time priests for the most part had families and took an active role in the business and pleasures of secular society. In time, although the doctrines of celibacy and denial would vex the brotherhood with psycho-sexual disorders, it would ensure that Church property would never be threatened by the claims of off-spring and dependents.
As befits a church bent on mass recruitment rather than fidelity to principle, if members of the brethren already had pagan spouses, husbands and wives were, it seems, "sanctified by their partner" (1 Corinthians 7.14) – a remarkable compromise to the harsh precepts of "justification". Paul had little knowledge of or empathy for Greek culture and dismissed Greek religion as mere idolatry. But the pragmatic evangelist clearly had his sights on the children of "mixed" marriages, anticipating the Jesuits by more than fourteen centuries – "give me a child until he is seven, and I will give you the man".
Christian conduct - the Pauline taboos
To distance themselves from "Jewish practices" Jewish-Christian males were directed to give up praying with a mantle over their head.
"Every man praying or prophesying, having his head covered, dishonours his head ... A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man."– 1 Corinthians 11.4,7.
Paradoxically, although men were instructed by Paul to uncover their heads, women were directed to cover theirs. But the paradox is only apparent because men and women – in this world – were never equals.
"But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God ... For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man." – 1 Corinthians 11.3-9.
Unlike Jewish males, Christianized Jewish women were not required to make a public display of rejecting Jewish ways. Within Judaism women were already subordinate to men. As the inferior sex, women were segregated in the synagogue and took no part in public worship.
Headcovering symbolized female submission to male authority and Paul was content with this part of the Jewish legacy. He even provided his own remarkable justification:
"For this cause ought the woman to have a sign of authority on her head, because of the angels."
– 1 Corinthians 11.10.
Loose hair was the sign of a loose woman (Numbers 5.18). For the Pauline churches, modesty and quiet humility were the required order, not the spontaneous exuberance of the traditional cults. Ironically, when it came to salvation, good behaviour actually mattered not a jot .
The threat of free spirits
Divine Grace was a "gift" from God. Paul recognized a variety of such "gifts" including healing, the working of miracles, the discernment of spirits, even sexual continence. But there is no freedom here – "gifts of the spirit", it seems, are for the edification of the church, not the individual. Most assuredly, the individual is NOT at liberty to follow his own fancy (as did the Quakers, for example, with their "inner light" in a later age). Spontaneity was to be restrained by obedience to Christ under the direction of the church and its hierarchs.
"For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous." – Romans 5.19.
"And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete."
– 2 Corinthians 10.6.
"Speaking in tongues" was a case in point.
Clearly, "tongues" must have been a popular pastime among the first Christians, delirious with the newly imbibed Spirit! But Paul warns the brethren about excesses of enthusiasm. Babbling in an incomprehensible language, says the apostle (in perhaps his wisest comment), would discourage potential recruits:
"He who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God, for no one understands him ... Those who are uninformed or unbelievers, will they not say that you are out of your mind?" – 1 Corinthians 14.2,23.
Untroubled by modesty, Paul reminds his readers that he speaks in tongues "better than them all" (1 Corinthians 14.18) and cautions, "If anyone speaks in a tongue ... but there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church!"
Paul's gift of choice for the brethren was prophecy, a gift that once had been a regular dispensation from the Almighty to the Jews but not vouchsafed for centuries. No matter – the ancient Jewish prophets could be repurposed for the Christian cause, their every utterance pre-figuring and anticipating the Lord Christ Jesus.
Prophecy, said Paul, was "a comfort to men" and of direct benefit to the church. It was by reinterpreting ancient prophecy – not the presentation of tangible evidence – that the Christians "proved" the existence of their "historical Jesus" – and still do!
"If all prophesy, an unbeliever ... falling down on his face, will worship God." – 1 Corinthians 14.23-25.
"Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophecies." – 1 Thessalonians 5.18-20.
As it happen, in the 2nd century proto-orthodoxy faced one of its greatest challenges from prophecy, in the guise of a rival faction to which prophecy was its raison d'être. In Galatia, in particular, Montanism threatened would-be orthodoxy on two fronts. An unrestrained "gift of prophecy" threw down the gauntlet to the doctrinal certainties of Catholicism. Compounding the mischief, the soothsayers were women who took leading positions in the movement. Doubtless these sibyls were following the ancient traditions of Phrygia, entering drug-induced frenzies in order to utter incoherent babble. Minders would then interpret the prophecies for a gullible audience.
Such spontaneous "outpourings of the Spirit" and new revelations from Heaven were not to be countenanced in a disciplined Pauline church. The battle with the soothsayers reached its climax in the second half of the 2nd century. Montanism even attracted into its ranks Tertullian, the "father of Latin theology" who defected from the Catholics because of their lax ways. In the 3rd century Montanism was marginalised as a heresy but it lingered on for centuries.
Keeping women in their place
The dispute over the role of women in the early church occurred precisely because in a number of Christian sects women had a role, often an important one, such as prophetess or apostle. The challenge went wider than Montanism. Female leaders were common in the Gnostic Christian sects which most vociferously challenged Catholicism. Foremost of them was the church of Marcion.
Infamously, in the orthodox Pauline church, women were to have no voice:
"Let your women keep silence in the churches: for it is not permitted for them to speak ... And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home." – 1 Corinthians 14.34,35.
However, the above passage is a notorious interpolation, based on an even more misogynistic passage to be found in the fake epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy 2.11-15). The "original Paul" speaks approvingly of females speaking in church (albeit with covered heads) even in the same Corinthian epistle (1 Corinthian 11.5)! In 2 Timothy "Paul" castigates women for their moral corruption of men whereas in Romans 16.7 "Paul" sends his salutations to a female apostle named Junia† and several other women.
How is it, then, that "Paul" can be on both sides of the "women's rights" issue?
Precisely because the corpus of Pauline "correspondence" was the battleground between orthodoxy and its enemies in a struggle for scriptural authority waged throughout the 2nd century. Each skirmish and engagement left its residue of redaction in the written record.
The Christian Gnostics, detached entirely from carnality, were able to accept an equality of the sexes quite radical for the ancient world. Catholicism, socially conservative and authoritarian, felt threatened by the sacred feminine. Ultimately, the Marcion church was subsumed into Catholicism, leaving only a trace of "difficult readings" in the Pauline epistles.
Seed Faith - Original Recipe
"Now concerning the collection for the saints. As I directed the churches of Galatia, so you also are to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income" – 1 Corinthians." 16.1,2.
"Don't you know that those who work in the temple get their food from the temple, and those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel."
– 1 Corinthians 9.13-14.
But Paul returns to the subject of fund-raising in 2 Corinthians. He wants money, in large amounts, and uses a variety of verbal stratagems to extract loot from his community.
Paul is arguably the first Christian fund-raiser and author of the seed faith scam so close to the heart of American evangelicals. Following the theological discourse on the resurrection of 1 Corinthians 15, what follows is a prosaic appeal for church funds (no reference to "the poor" here!).
Paul cites the example of Christ:
“For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”
– 2 Corinthians 8.7.
He appeals to self-interest: A bountiful return is promised:
"But this I say, He which sows sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he which sows bountifully shall reap also bountifully.
Every man according as he purpose in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity: for God loves a cheerful giver."
– 2 Corinthians 9.6,7.
He chides the Corinthians with an unfavourable comparison: Paul cites the generous example of the Macedonians, spontaneous and giving beyond their means. "See that you abound in this grace also", says our determined fundraiser
(2 Corinthians 8.7).
Paul uses flattery backed up by threats: He says that he has been boasting to the Macedonians that the Corinthians have been "ready since last year.” He doesn't want to be embarrassed by an empty boast so to make certain he has sent “the brethren” to communicate his sense of urgency and to "make up the bounty." – 2 Corinthians 9.2-5.
It is doubtful that Paul – or whoever wrote in his name – ever supported himself by manual labour. It is clear that many of the elements of chicanery which will enrich the Church in the coming centuries were already in place at the birth of Christianity.
War of the Words
The original layer of Pauline material may have been brief notes written by a Hellenistic adventurer in the late 1st or early 2nd century. Such a character was described by the Ebionites and is preserved in the works of Epiphanius. A religious charlatan of undistinguished background, this minimalistic "Paul" enjoyed limited success in the region of Syria, or perhaps Asia Minor. We need only speculate that during his lifetime he had a following sufficient for the cachet of Pauline authorship to impart some authority. All else in the Pauline corpus is an accretion by other hands and later editors.
On the other hand the moniker "Paul" may have been chosen for no other reason than for its meaning of small, hence humble, "the least of the Apostles" (1 Corinthians 15.9), chosen by God to impart the divine message even to the high and mighty.
Whether or not an historical Paul can be identified, the fabricated Paul of the New Testament served an "historic purpose" in castigating heresy and defining righteous doctrine, the dogmas of a universal and inclusive faith. Without doubt, "Pauline epistles" continued to be written and amended well into the 2nd century. They were weapons in, and a consequence of, the struggle for orthodoxy.
J. N. Lightfoot, The Epistles of St Paul (Macmillan, 1900)
Alister McGrath, Christian Theology (Blackwell, 2001)
G. Caird, L. Hurst, New Testament Theology (Clarendon1995)
D. Baillie, The Theology of the Sacraments (Faber & Faber, 1957)
Bart Ehrman, Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene (OUP, 2006)
P. Themelis, Ancient Corinth (Hannibal, 2004)
E. Spatharis, K Petropoulou, Ancient Corinth (Olympic, 2006)
J. Murphy-O'Connor, Paul, a Critical Life (Clarendon, 1996)
J. Finegan, Light from the Ancient Past (Kessinger, 2007)
A. N. Wilson, Paul - The Mind of the Apostle (Sinclair-Stevenson, 1997)
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