Here is a review of the first half of Paul Barnett’s recent book The Corinthian Question. If you’re the type of person who just wants to cut to the chase, here’s the chase: It’s a very worthwhile read, and has helped me to gain a better understanding of the evolution of Paul’s relationship with the Christians in Corinth. Now, here’s part one of the review, which covers the period up to the writing of 1 Corinthians. I’ll post the other half of the review soon…
Paul W. Barnett, The Corinthian Question: Why did the Church Oppose Paul?
In this book, Barnett tries to discern what happened after Paul left Corinth that raised the issues of 1 & 2 Corinthians. The same question has been engaged by Bruce Winter, who focuses on socio-historical issues of Roman Corinth in seeking an answer. Barnett, rather, focuses on developing a timeline that tracks the evolving relationship between Paul and Corinthian Christians, involving visits, delegates, and letters.
Chapter 1 elucidates the key question: “Why is it that the church, having been successfully founded by Paul, later opposed him almost to the point of rejecting him?” (p15).
Chapter 2 begins developing a timeline by considering Paul’s initial visit to Corinth, noting the specific people and events involved at this stage.
Chapter 3 focuses on the content of the message that Paul first brought to Corinth. Barnett argues (rightly, I think) that Paul’s gospel was decisively shaped and illuminated by his Damascus Road experience.
Chapter 4 ponders why Paul wanted to come to Corinth, and concludes that he wanted to use Corinth as a firm base from which to go to Rome: “It was during the ‘Corinthian’ years (AD 50-57) that Paul yearned to go to Rome.” (p55) As it happened, this took much longer than expected – Claudius’ decree that Jews should leave Rome hampered things, as did the difficulties associated with the collection for Jerusalem, which Paul wanted to complete before the Roman venture.
Chapter 5 considers what happened “after Paul left Corinth.” Barnett does not disagree with the factors Winter elucidates (see his After Paul Left Corinth), but pays more attention to the visit of external leaders to Corinth in the years 52-54 – most notably, Apollos and Cephas.
Chapter 6 leads on from this to consider why this resulted in such crisis in Corinth by the time of 1 Corinthians. Barnett thinks that following from the visits of the high profile leaders, the increased numbers in the Corinthian church who had not personally benefited from Paul’s ministry (“it is possible that the church numbers had reached several hundred” p81) no longer recognised his authority. A series of social problems ensued, especially involving social elitism and condescension toward “have-nots” such as Paul.
Although there is much of use in this chapter, as a whole I find it the weakest in the book. It doesn’t seem to detect an ordered flow of topics in the letter, other than seeing them as moving from most important to less important: “The scepticism Paul addresses in chapter 15 is more likely to
have arisen from Greek soul-based eschatology than from a Christian super-spirituality that downplayed a future resurrection of the body…. Accordingly, I view chapter 15 as dealing with an important but isolated matter, which means that the early chapters assume great significance for the understanding of the whole letter.” (p85) I find this unpersuasive, both in terms of the issue underlying chapter 15, and in terms of the overall priority of material. But, as I say, this doesn’t mean that there are no useful insights in this chapter.
Chapter 7 pauses to examine the importance of eschatology in 1 Corinthians, suggesting that there was a variety of faulty eschatologies operative in the Corinthian church, and Paul wants to “maintain the balance between the twin realities that the coming age was not yet, while affirming that God has already intervened in the present age in Christ and by the Spirit.” (p103). I am in agreement with this, although I would say that Paul perceives a general orientation of premature triumphalism in Corinth, regardless of their ostensible “eschatologies.”
Chapter 8 then seeks to evaluate Paul’s approach to the crisis in Corinth in 1 Corinthians – how does he respond to their divisive condescension? Barnett’s answer is that Paul reasserts his apostleship, as an apostle of Christ crucified. Here is a great quote: “Is there a teaching in the letter that predominates? Indeed, there is and it is the apostle’s instruction about ‘Christ crucified.’ The ‘cross of Christ’ permeates the entire letter in two aspects. It was that message that ‘saved’ the members and is the ‘foundation’ on which the church ‘stands’ (1 Cor. 15:1). Equally, that sublime ‘others-centred’ gospel is to be the template for all social relationships within the church in which that church had repeatedly failed.” (p122).
After this, the book moves on to consider what happened in between 1 & 2 Corinthians, and then to consider 2 Corinthians & beyond. I’ll do the rest of the review later.