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The Corinthian Letters

Paul wrote multiple letters to the community at Corinth, but only two have survived. They offer a glimpse into the daily lives and concerns of early Jesus followers.

Folio from Papyrus 46
Folio page from Papyrus 46

The Corinthian letters offer a wealth of information about the daily lives of early Christ-followers and afford a glimpse at an ongoing dialogue between Paul and the Corinthian believers. After Paul left Corinth, he wrote multiple letters to them, answering questions, arguing for certain positions, and attempting to influence their practices. Two of these letters survive as 1 and 2 Corinthians. A central question in both letters is how Gentiles, once transformed by the spirit received at baptism, can live their lives with a new understanding of themselves and the world.

First Corinthians is rich in detail about the everyday life of the Corinthians. Paul addresses specific questions about sex, marriage, food, and socializing with neighbors. He also advises them on how to act during their own gatherings: how to pray, prophesy, and eat together. Scholars surmise from his objections to certain practices (such as women removing veils during worship), and from his general plea for unity throughout the letter, that the Corinthians did not always agree with him or with each other on how to live their lives in Christ. 1 Corinthians gives us a sense of the challenges they faced as they shifted their loyalties away from their traditional gods to the God of Israel.

By the time Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, his relationship with his addressees seems to have deteriorated, perhaps because of other teachers who influenced some Corinthians. In this letter, Paul defends his authority in a variety of ways. In chapters 1-9, he claims to be sincere, explaining that he has always used “frank speech” with them. This defense might signal that others had called him inconsistent. In chapters 10-13, Paul’s tone changes. No longer encouraging or plainspoken, Paul deploys sarcasm and irony, accusing the Corinthians of inconsistency themselves because they yielded to the influence of these other teachers.

This abrupt change in tone leads many scholars to think 2 Corinthians is a composite of two or more letters that have been patched together to form the current text. Most hypothesize that the current letter is the product of two texts (chapters 1-9 and 10-13); some suggest as many as five letter fragments. Other scholars argue that these changes in tone are better explained as a rhetorical technique that deliberately alternates between gentle and harsh approaches. In this view, Paul employs teaching strategies of his time, coaxing the Corinthians to adjust their behavior and perspectives.

Indeed, Paul presents himself as one who holds special knowledge about God’s plans for the future in which Israel will triumph. Thus the themes of wisdom and perception thread through both letters as Paul attempts to convince the Corinthians to follow his teaching. We can also see in both texts, however, evidence of dissent and resistance. Although Paul’s voice eventually dominates, 1 and 2 Corinthians show the variety of opinions and practices of these early followers of Christ.

  • Caroline Johnson Hodge

    Caroline Johnson Hodge is associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross. She is the author of a book entitled “If Sons, Then Heirs”: A Study of Kinship and Ethnicity in Paul’s Letters (Oxford University Press, 2007). Her current project on mixed marriage in the ancient household documents evidence for women’s roles in domestic religious practices and examines the particular situation of women in polytheistic households who convert to Christianity.