HOW MANY LETTERS DID PAUL WRITE TO THE CHURCH AT CORINTH? by Monte Shanks PHD

HOW MANY LETTERS DID PAUL WRITE TO THE CHURCH AT CORINTH? 

by Monte Shanks, Ph.D.

#PaulAndTheCorinthiansOrTheChurch

I am sharing this post by Dr. Shanks because it clarifies many misconceptions about Paul’s letters named 1 & 2 Corinthians.

As students read Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, and then read the discussions of some scholars on the subject, they are often confused with respect to how many letters did Paul write to the church at Corinth, as well as the chronology of when he wrote them.  Moreover, as they begin to investigate the history of the epistles found in the New Testament sometimes they get frustrated by the discover that the early church did not preserve everything that the apostles wrote, and this is especially true with Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth.  Some scholars postulate that Paul wrote at least 4 different letters to the Corinthians, and some even assert that 2 Corinthians is really a redaction that merges 2 different letters so that they appear as a single letter.  I will suggest in this blog that this is simply not the case, and I will argue that it is most probable that although Paul did write many personal letters to people at different churches, he only wrote 2 “general epistles” to the church at Corinth, and both of them are contained in the New Testament. By the term “general epistles” I mean letters that Paul wrote for the purpose of instruction to entire congregations, instead of brief letters that he wrote to individuals or church leaders that simply provided his future travel plans, or to commend a fellow evangelist/missionary to a local congregation.[1] It is highly probably that Paul wrote many letters; however, most were not intended to provide universal Christian instruction and doctrine for local congregations.  So with that in mind, let’s focus on Paul’s letters that he spoke of in 1st and 2nd Corinthians.  In 1st Corinthians 5.9 and 11 Paul referred to a letter he wrote in the past tense, thus we learn about one of Paul’s unpreserved letters.  We will simply call this letter “Pre-Corinthians,” my primary reason for this designation is that I don’t want to confuse anyone by using common scholarly nomenclature on this topic, consequently I am purposely avoiding it.

Some may argue that Pre-Corinthians is really 1st Corinthians. They would assert that Paul should be understood as saying “In the letter that I am now writing I am telling you not to associate with immoral people” (1 Cor 5.9). Very few scholars accept this interpretation simply because it does not respect the most natural grammatical construction of the verse. The natural reading of 1 Corinthians 5.9 and 11 is that Paul was referring to a previous letter that he probably wrote to the leadership of the church at Corinth. So what happened to Pre-Corinthians? Simply put, the church at Corinth did not preserve it. Some will ask “Why did they not also preserve it since they preserved both 1stand 2nd Corinthians?” This question cannot be definitively answered by anyone, but I would simply conjecture that it was most likely devoted to business matters, future travel plans, commendations of fellow missionaries, and instructions that were not doctrinal in nature. However, within Pre-Corinthians Paul did give a few exhortations, one of which was to not closely associate with false believers or hypocritical Christians. He did so, however, without providing any in-depth theological or ethical discussion. Paul may have even specifically identified some of these people by name. Consequently, Pre-Corinthians was probably brief, was not intended for instruction to the entire church at Corinth, and was primarily directed to the leadership with explicit instructions on mundane business matters. Simply put, it was more of a personal letter; it was not intended for a larger audience. Next, we come to 1st Corinthians, which you should know by now is a rather long and complex letter dealing with a great diversity of issues that plagued the church at Corinth. Since 1st and 2nd Corinthians are both complex epistles some suggest that both are “composite” letters, but an explanation of this term will have to be handled by a different blog.

Almost a year later Paul wrote 2nd Corinthians, which continued addressing some of the same issues contained in 1st Corinthians, as well as other new issues. In 2nd Corinthians Paul referenced a previously written “severe letter” (2 Cor 2.4 and 7.8). Some scholars assert that this is another lost letter from Paul, but I think not.  I assert that Paul’s “severe” letter this is none other than 1st Corinthians. This assertion is supported by the fact that, other than Paul’s letter to Galatians, 1st Corinthians contains more rebukes and exercises more apostolic authority then any other Pauline epistle. Paul actually “shames” the entire church at Corinth on 2 separate occasions in 1st Corinthians (see 1 Cor 6.5 and 15.34). Below is a list the rebukes and admonitions contained in Paul’s first general epistle to the church at Corinth:

  • 1 Cor 1.11: a rebuke concerning inter-fellowship quarrels.
  • 1 Cor 3.1-3: a rebuke concerning carnal immaturity.
  • 1 Cor 4.6-7: a rebuke concerning boasting.
  • 1 Cor 4.14: Paul explains that his intent is not shame but admonishment.
  • 1 Cor 4.18-21: Paul rebukes the arrogance of some and explains that he is coming to discipline them.
  • 1 Cor 5.1-8: Paul rebukes the church for tolerance of well-publicized gross sexual immorality.
  • 1 Cor 6.1-8: Paul rebukes the church over lawsuits.
  • 1 Cor 7.5: Paul admonishes some for depriving their marriage partners by not fulfilling their sexual responsibilities to their spouses.
  • 1 Cor 11:17-18: Paul rebukes the church for “divisions” with respect to not sharing during fellowship meals with those in need.
  • 1 Cor 12-14: Paul gently rebukes the church over their immaturity with respect to the proper exercise of spiritual gifts and conduct during corporate worship. On a side note, those who point to the church at Corinth with respect to the use of spiritual gifts have completely missed Paul’s point in this epistle concerning the proper exercise and purposes of spiritual gifts. In Paul’s mind, the church at Corinth was the worst example of how spiritual gifts should be exercised.
  • 1 Cor 15.12: Paul engages those who claim that there is no resurrection from the dead (“some among you”). Clearly, in this passage Paul is confronting heretics within the churches at Corinth.
  • 1 Cor 15.33-34: Paul rebukes those who enjoy the company of those who live for their own carnal desires.

It actually pains me to point out these glaring observations that some scholars ignore concerning the very real possibility that Paul’s “severe letter” referred to in 2 Corinthians is in all probability 1st Corinthians. This is but another example of Occam’s razor, which states that when confronted with competing hypothesis, the one that demands the least amount of assumptions, conjectures, and speculations should be preferred.

So what are some of the lessons from this blog? They are: (1) very early in the church’s history, when churches began receiving epistles from the apostles that were to be read to entire congregation for the purposes of instruction with respect to correct doctrines and appropriate Christian conduct, churches were of the habit of preserving those specific authoritative educational letters (this would be an example of what is meant by the criteria of “Rule of Faith,” which simply means literature that was composed for the purpose of educating the church on the true orthodox “Faith” was viewed as authoritative). Other letters, however, that were more personal, private, and predominantly focused upon simple logistical matters were usually not preserved (although there are some exceptions; e.g., Philemon, 2 Timothy). (2) Concerning Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth, the leadership of the church at Corinth did not preserved “Pre-Corinthians” since it was not intended for the greater church at large. They did, however, preserve Paul’s severe letter, which I argue is 1 Corinthians, as well as Paul’s follow up letter after his painful visit, which I also argue is 2nd Corinthians. Just food for thought.

Doc.

[1]At this point I wish to state that Paul’s letters to the “church” at Corinth were probably letters that were intended to be read, copied, and disseminated to multiple congregations located throughout the city of Corinth and the surrounding area instead of letters intended for a single “mega-church” at Corinth.

 

Copyright, © by Monte Shanks, 2016

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