1 and 2 Corinthians are epistles, which is just a fancy name for a letters. That means that what you're reading are two letters that Paul wrote a group of Christians in Corinth, right?
Well, not exactly.
Most scholars think that these two books don't just make up two letters, but that there are actually multiple pieces of correspondence that have been shoved together here. Our best guess is that 1 Corinthians is one complete letter from Paul, while 2 Corinthians is actually made up of two separate letters. Chapters 1-9 are the first letter and 10-13 are the second. Some scholars argue that 2 Corinthians contains as many as five or six different letters. Now that's some ambitious editing.
Confused yet? We thought so. So, let's add some more info onto the pile. These two texts don't even represent all the letters Paul wrote to Corinth. Some of his stuff has been lost forever. Along with the Corinthians letters back to Paul. It's sad. But, parchment just doesn't age well.
So how many letters did Paul write to the Corinthians? Well, no one knows for sure, but we can sure take a guess. (Oh, we love guessing games!) Here's a basic breakdown:
So even though these two books make up a lot of awesome tidbits of Paul's wisdom, there are even more goodies out there that we'll never be able to read. Did Paul reverse his position on slavery? On women talking in church? On speaking in tongues? The world may never know.
The authors of New Testament books were pretty skimpy with their titles. So skimpy, in fact, that they didn't give us any. But later generations of Christians, who liked fancy names, figure they should have something to help them tell which book was which. With 1 and 2 Corinthians, they took the simple route.
The most commonly used titles for these two—The First Epistle to the Corinthians and The Second Epistle to the Corinthians—pretty much say it all. It just means that these books of the Bible are:
Sometimes you'll see alternate titles for these two like "The First Letter of St. Paul to the Corinthians" or even just "Second Corinthians." These all mean the same thing. Paul wrote 'em. The Corinthians read 'em. Then they ended up in the Bible. Ta-da!
Corinth. Cicero called it "the light of all of Greece," but the Greek poet Crinagoras described its citizens as "scoundrels" (source, p. 512). So which is it? Was Corinth a city of beauty and inspiration or a den of hooligans? Only our apostle knows for sure.
Corinth became part of the Roman Empire in 44 BCE. By the middle of the first century, it had become a manufacturing and commercial center and was actually quite cosmopolitan (by 1st-century standards, that is). Corinth was between two seaports, and its citizens exported lots of bronze and terra cotta items. Because this stuff was all the rage in ancient Rome, this made a lot of people very, very rich (source).
But the city attracted middle and lower income people, too. Artisans (like tentmakers, Aquila and Prisca) would have made a good living here. Even ex-slaves came to Corinth seeking a better life. And there was also a thriving Jewish community in town. It was quite the melting pot (source).
The come-and-go atmosphere of a town on a seaport actually made Corinth the perfect place for evangelizing. A disciple could set up shop in town without being seen as an outsider and slowly spread the word through the city. And with people constantly leaving and entering Corinth, it meant the gospel message could be spread far and wide. Really, without Twitter, it was the only option they had.
Paul first makes his way to Corinth sometime between 50-51 CE. There, he meets Aquila and Prisca, fellow tentmakers, and sets up shop with them. They begin making tents… and winning converts to Christ (Acts 18:1-3).
His first stop is in the synagogue where he argues that Jesus is actually the Jewish messiah come to earth. He manages to convince some people, but, oddly enough, the majority of Jews are not persuaded to throw out their thousands-year-old religious practices just because Paul says it's a good idea (Acts 18:4-6). Go figure.
The naysayers get so mad that they actually drag him in front of a Roman tribunal. This whole scheme backfires, though, when the governor in Corinth, Galileo, gives one big ol' shoulder shrug about the trouble Paul has caused and then turns a blind eye as one of the synagogue officials is beaten (Acts 18:12-17). Whoa. Corinth was a tough town.
Like he always did, Paul won over some Gentiles, too. These folks would have previously worshiped either Greek, Egyptians, or Roman gods. When Paul comes along, they give that all up for a chance at a sweet, sweet life with Paul's one true God—Jesus Christ (source, p. 513).
All in all, Paul stays in Corinth for eighteen months before leaving for Ephesus with Prisca and Aquila (source, p. 514). Sometime between 51 CE and 54 CE, he writes a letter to the Corinthians (known in scholarly circles as "Letter A"). He advises the group "not to associate with sexually immoral persons" (1 Corinthians 5:9), but the folks in Corinth don't quite get what he means by this. Try including more lurid details next time, Paul.
Sometime between 54 CE and 55 CE, Paul gets a report that things are not going well back in good old Corinth. Apparently different missionaries—Apollos and Cephas—have come into town, and the people are divided about whom to follow. Both Timothy and Chloe bring Paul reports of very bad behavior among the Christians there. You naughty things! The Corinthians also write to Paul with loads and loads of questions. Can't an apostle get a break?
So, Paul puts 1 Corinthians (also known as "Letter B") down on paper sometime around 55 CE or 56 CE. He sends this little masterpiece along urging the church to get along and answering all kinds of super specific questions for Christian living (source, p. 515).
Problems solved? No, not quite.
Paul makes a second visit to Corinth around 56 CE. Things do not go well. Paul calls this "the painful visit" and, boy, he is not kidding (source, pp. 1093-94). The Corinthians argue with him and doubt his credentials as an apostle. They even refuse to discipline the Offending Brother. Paul is not pleased.
When he leaves, Paul does what he does best—he writes a letter (better known as "Letter C"). He says, "I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears" (2 Corinthians 2:4). Are you happy now, Corinthians? Can someone please get Paul some tissues?
Titus carries this letter to Corinth while Paul hangs out in Troas. But Paul is too anxious to stay there evangelizing too long. He rushes to meet Titus in Macedonia the first chance he gets because he needs to hear how the Corinthians received his letter (source, p. 543). Are they still mad at him? Do they love another apostle more? Wow, someone is needy.
Huzzah! Titus has good news! The Corinthians have repented of their evil(ish) ways. They're super sorry for not listening to Paul (silly, Corinthians!) and they're ready to patch things up and punish the Offending Brother. Paul does a happy dance (note: we have no historical proof of that, but we're guessing it's probably true).
Paul is so psyched that, around 57 CE, he writes the first part of 2 Corinthians (also called "Letter D"). He congratulates the church on their repentance and their continued allegiance to their favorite apostle (Paul).
Since everything is all good now, Paul encourages the Corinthians to start a fund for Christians in Jerusalem. He's been running around the Roman Empire asking everyone to spare a little change, and he's looking forward to coming to Corinth to collect the dough himself soon. Paul knows they'll give generously (hint, hint).
A few months pass. Things have gotten bad. Real bad. Paul writes the second half of 2 Corinthians (let's call this "Letter E") and he is not happy one bit. In fact, he's down right mad. How dare the Corinthians be entertaining other apostles? How dare they question him? He made them who they are! He coulda been a contender (source, pp. 1093-94)!
Paul visits the church for a third time after this letter. We're guessing things must have gone pretty well, because while he was there, he had time to churn out a little theological masterpiece known as The Epistle to the Romans. Not something you do if your life's work is crumbling around you.
So everything is just swell in Corinth, right? Paul and the Corinthians probably wrote back and forth to each other many times, though only the words of 1 and 2 Corinthians survive today. We know that the Corinthians took up a ton of Paul's time, both in parchment spent and visits allowed. But why all the drama in Corinth?
The church in Corinth was made up of all kinds of different people. Paul would probably have recruited lots of middle and lower class Christians, but also a few really rich folks. The fact that he expected them to all worship and eat together was causing problems. In 1 Corinthians, the wealthier members of the community are a bit reluctant to share. The poor folks, who haven't got any bread, have to sit by and watch while their social better gorge themselves. Needless to say, Paul doesn't think this is very Christian of them.
The mix of religious background, too, would have caused divisions. Some of these new Christians would have been raised Jewish and understood Jesus in light of Jewish scripture and tradition. Some spent their whole life paying homage Greek or Roman gods and it might have been a little tough to get them to throw off their idol-worshiping ways.
Being Greek, the folks in Corinth were also influenced by Greek thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle. Their idea that the body and soul were two very separate things was definitely part of the Corinthians' culture. That might be why the Corinthians doubt the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15) or fail to see what's wrong with having sex with random people. Bodies are just junk—the soul is the most important thing (source, pp. 1074-75).
Of course, for Paul, all this is absurd. He hates seeing any division among Christians and sums this all up with the statement: "In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free" (1 Corinthians 12.13). In other words, it doesn't matter where you come from, it just matter where you are now. Awww.
Dads are important guys. They're leaders. Heroes. They look out for their kids. Guide them. Advise them. Show them the way. (Well, at least good dads.) Maybe that's why Paul refers to God as a "father" over and over again. Of course, Paul also see himself this way, too.
That's right. Besides using "Father" to describe God, Paul breaks it out for himself occasionally. He uses all kinds of dad-like images to refer to his relationship with the Corinthians:
So does this mean they have to get him a card for Father's Day?
It's clear that Paul is using this image to convey his love for the Corinthians. They're like his little brood of babies. He adores them and brags about them all the time—"I often boast about you; I have great pride in you" (2 Corinthians 7.4). He's one super proud papa.
But he also uses this to justify his concern for them. Why else does he have the right to comment on every single aspect of their lives? You're not hanging out with those false apostles! Don't even think about touching that idolatrous meat! Young lady, march back inside and put on a head covering right now! Practically everything Paul says is something that might come out of your dad's mouth (um, if your dad lived in 1st-century Greece).
By the same token, Paul refers to the Corinthians as his sweet little babies:
Geez, when are they going to grow up already?
By casting the Corinthians as the kids of the relationship, Paul sets himself up as not only their protector, but also their superior. He's the king of the castle. He'll decide what goes on in this church. Paul is the one here with true authority, while the Corinthians are like tiny babies who can't even hold their own (spiritual) bottles.
Is this analogy fair? We're guessing that many of the Corinthians would have regarded themselves as just as knowledgeable as Paul. Some of them definitely questioned him (which any pediatrician will tell you is totally normal). And, just like any dad, Paul didn't like this much, but at least he didn't try to send the Corinthians to their rooms.
Honorary fathers and kids are everywhere you look. It isn't just family ties that bind us:
Anyone who's ever had a broken foot knows it's pretty tough to get around without the help of that appendage. We take our bodies for granted when they're working well, but when something goes wrong, we see how much every single bit of ourselves helps us function. The same is true for the Christian community. At least according to Paul.
Paul uses the metaphor of a person's physical body to describe the way that Christians all belong together:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ […] Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, "Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, "Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body," that would not make it any less a part of the body […] But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:13-16, 18, 24-27)
Basically, Paul is saying that Christians are all like different parts that make up one body. They each have to play their part in order to keep this thing going. Even body parts no one cares about (pinky toe—we're looking at you), can turn out to be vitally important. (Ever try walking with a broken pinky toe? Ouch!)
So Paul thinks we're all part of one big body, right? Then it's no surprise that he thinks that what we do with our bodies matters:
The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, "The two shall be one flesh." But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:13-20)
No fornicating, you hear? Paul is countering a Greek thought here—the idea that the soul is the best, most lovely part of you, and that the body is nothing special at all. If the body's just gonna die, then who cares if you hop into bed with a bunch of people you're not married to?
God does, apparently.
Not only do the actions of your body affect who you are as a person—when you "unite" with someone you become them, gross—it affects the whole body of Christ. This is just a fancy way of saying that things we do matter not just to ourselves, but to others. No body is an island. Literally.
Okay, that all makes sense. But there's one idea in there that's caused some debate over the years: Paul calls individual Christians members of the body of Christ. What does he means by that?
Well, it's hard to say. Some people think that it means people become a part of Jesus through their belief in him. Others think it only refers to the church and that you have to be a member of a specific Christian church in order to be part of Christ's official body. There are lots of different interpretations. It just depends which member of the clergy you ask.
What's clear is that Paul wants to say that we're all related to each other and all in this together. Peace, love, and fully-functioning body parts for all.
Okay, so everything is the body is equal, right? So says Paul. But the eyes are sort of a stand out. After all, how can you see where you're going without a healthy set of peepers? And if something is blocking your view—forget it. You're bound to stumble and fall sooner or later.
Paul regularly uses both sight and blindness as metaphors for understanding God:
According to Paul, a true believer is one who "sees" what God is saying to him or her. If you can't see these things, you're blind or your face has a veil over it or some other lack-of-vision metaphor. Christians are getting a peek something that the rest of the world doesn't see, and that's what makes them super special. It's like a religious superpower or something.
Paul even goes so far as to say that God has purposely kept some people from seeing him. That it's sort of his style—he's drawn the veil over their faces and only he can take it away. So, like physical sight, spiritual sight doesn't seem to be a choice people can make either.
But, seeing also isn't everything. Paul also tells us:
So, which is it, Paul? Do Christians see things or not see things?
Here, Paul is referring to the things of the world. These are things everyone can see. But Christians don't literally "see" where to walk; they need faith to figure that out (hey, that's why it's a metaphor, right?). On the same token, whatever anyone can look at right now is going to fall by the wayside one day. No one has seen what God has planned for the world. Hmm… we think the author of Revelation might disagree.
The world is full of people who, like these Christians, see things that other people can't:
Every rose has its thorn, right? But, that doesn't mean we like pricking our fingers on them. A thorn stuck in your skin is a terrible thing. It's painful. It's like a punishment. Hmmm, maybe we can get God to do something about all this suffering?
Paul coins the term in this passage:
Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
Did Paul literally have a giant thorn sticking in his skin? Eh. It's probably a metaphor.
Historically, scholars think that the "thorn" Paul may have been referring to was some kind of disease or illness. It could have been something that affected his ability to preach and travel spreading the gospel. The thorn could also be another person, temptation, or just plain ol' sin.
Basically, since Paul doesn't explain what he's talking about, we have no clue. It's clear, though, that the thorn represents some kind of hardship or difficulty in his life. That's why the phrase often gets used by Christians to mean any kind of trouble that comes into our lives.
Paul prays three times for God to remove the thorn, but God rejects his requests. Basically, God tells him that a little suffering is good for him. Prayer denied.
Paul seems satisfied by this, and the message of the verse seems to be that, even in hardships, God is there. Those difficult situations are sometimes the things that shape us and help us grow. Hey, at if you can't beat a thorn, you might as well try to live in peace with it.
For believers and non-believers alike, the idea that God brings hardships into our lives to make us better people can be a tough pill to swallow. But it's also a recurring theme throughout the Bible (Job, anyone?) and pretty much everything that came after it.
First and Second Corinthians are pretty tame for the Bible. For starters, they're light on violence. Even though Paul gets pretty sassy with those false prophets, no fists fly. And drugs don't show up at all. Paul does have quite a lot to say about sex, but it's almost always about not doing it. Since Paul actually wishes everyone would be a single, celibate guy like him, you can bet he's not gonna start talking about anything too kinky. What can we say? He's pretty vanilla.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison names one of her characters after Paul's letter—literally. First Corinthians Dead is named when her father picks a name from the Bible at random. Thanks, Paul!
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling
Our favorite boy wizard even quotes Paul. The inscription on James and Lily Potter's grave is from 1 Corinthians 15:26: "The last enemy to be destroyed is death." Whoa. We never knew Paul was a Death Eater.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare
When the Shylock's Jewish daughter decides to marry her Christian lover she proclaims, "I shall end this strife, become a Christian and thy loving wife." The idea, naturally, comes from Paul when he says, "The unbelieving wife is made holy through her husband" (1 Corinthians 7:14).
Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
When Hotspur's wife, Kate, openly wonders why her husband is holding out on her in bed, she's thinking of Paul, too. In 1 Corinthians 7:3, he wrote: "The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband." Whoa. Is it getting hot in here, or is it just us?
A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare must really love Corinthians! Nick Bottom misquotes 1 Corinthians 2:9-10 with his comical speech: "The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was."
Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand
As Cyrano woos Roxanne in another's place, he quotes 1 Corinthians 13:5: "Love seeketh not his own!" Want to win over a lady? Then Paul's your man.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
When Offred sees a single cushion with the word "Faith" on it, she naturally assumes that there must have been two others—"Hope" and "Charity." She's clearly got Paul on the brain. He wrote: "Now faith, hope, and [charity] abide, these three; and the greatest of these is [charity]" (1 Corinthians 13:13).
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Mrs. Who encourages Meg with some borrowed words of advice from Paul himself: "Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men. For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty" (1 Corinthians 1:25-27).
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
The Wife refers to Paul's statement in 1 Corinthians 7:9: "It is better to marry than to burn." Not exactly a ringing endorsement of matrimony.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Why does Mr. Rivers tell Jane, "She could not eradicate nature: nor will it be eradicated 'till this mortal shall put on immortality?'" Because he's quoting 1 Corinthians 15:53, of course.
Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Chapter 38 of this classic anti-slavery story starts with Paul's words from 1 Corinthians 15:57: "Thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory." This chapter also concludes with Tom not killing the villain of the story, which is exactly the kind of victory Paul would like.
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
The title of this 1977 science fiction novel is a reference to 1 Corinthians 13:12: "For now we see through a glass, darkly…"
The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer
This 1940 novel set in Regency England featured a main character trying to avoid marriage at all costs. Guess he agreed with Paul about a life of celibacy.
Owen Wilson wins the bet and $40 bucks with this reading from 1 Corinthians 13. You don't bet against Paul.
A Walk to Remember
It's true. Everyone loves Paul. Especially a slowly-dying Mandy Moore.
Want to hear Robert Di Nero read 1 Corinthians 13? That's a silly question—of course you do!
Speaking in Tongues by Justin Bieber
He's a Belieber! The title of this freestyle rap refers to the gift of speaking in tongues, which Paul discusses in detail in 1 Corinthians 12, 13, and 14.
In this 2005 movie, the Bible in Hell has five extra chapters from 1 Corinthians. It's the letter so good, even Satan didn't want it to end.
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman
One of the villains in this comic book series is named the Corinthian. He's a ruthless serial killer who eats the eyes of his victims. How lovely. The origins of his name are a bit of a mystery…