Yeah, I know, I haven't posted here for ages. I don't even know if people still blog anymore. Anyway, the last few posts I made were some of my old essays I did at Laidlaw, and I was going to put more up. So here's one I did for the 1 Corinthians paper. The task was a thematic essay, that was to go in a student magazine in a secular university (which explains why I talk about Christians as if I was not one.) I ended up do a creative writing piece from the perspective of a member of the first century Corinthian church, which was different to anything else I did at Laidlaw, so I thought it would be a good one to sure. Hope you enjoy! (You might even pick up a little joke I worked into it for the lecturer, if you are up with Biblical studies at all.)
The reflections of Quintus Caelius: An explanation into the Church in Corinth, to which Paul wrote 1 Corinthians
The first century church has attracted much attention from our twenty-first century vantage point, for both Christians and non-believers alike, along with multiple interpretations. Some believers view the early church as a “golden age,” as they dream of a return to more glorious days. Others see the early Christians as either ignorant or deliberate corrupters of a “pure” message of love and tolerance which Jesus of Nazareth taught. Neither of these extremes however, captures the essence or character of the early church. Very likely, most twenty-first century Christians would feel confused and disorientated if they were to attend an early Christian gathering, as they will equally feel confused and disorientated on the street of first century Rome, Corinth or Antioch. They would quickly see that the early church was not an idyllic textbook church, but were was rather a group of believers struggling with what it meant to belong to this new faith we now call Christianity. Rather than being perfect, it wrestled with many issues both familiar and alien to the twenty-first century Christian. This article offers a chance to step back in time and explore a first century church, though the hypothetical eyes of one of its members. Whatever your perceptive on the Christian faith, I invention you to join this explanation of a very early expressions of Christianity: The infant church of mid first century Corinth.
This article is written from the point view of Quintus Caelius, a fictional member of the church in Corinth. Quintus Caelius is a young convert to Christianity of Roman decent, who converted with his father, when Paul was in Corinth. He is attending a meeting in the house of Titius Justus (Acts 18:7), just before the letter known today as 1 Corinthians arrives from Paul, which is believed to be in the mid-fifties of the first century AD. He is beginning his career as a scribe, and thus he is practicing his skills by writing about his experience of a Christian gathering. Undertaking an exercise like this involves a lot of detective work on our part. It requires looking for the clues scattered throughout 1 Corinthians, as well as 2 Corinthians, Acts 18 (which narrates Pauls first visit to Corinth) and parts of Romans (believed to be written from Corinth, and thus it mentioned many Corinthians). This primary data is very limited. For example, Paul writes to deal with issues in the church and few positive things are said about the church, and therefore this article will reflect that. While Quintus has the intuition to see many of issue which Paul speaks of him his letter, he does not offer any solutions. It will also draw upon research from both historians and biblical scholars. Like any other area of academic research, there is always debate and disagreements on almost every point. This article will not explore alternative points of view and it’s important to remember that it cannot give a complete and fool-proof picture of the Corinthian Church. nevertheless, lets step back to mid first century Corinth, and see what a gathering of the Church there may have been like.
Quintus Caelius: on a Christian ecclesia in Corinth
An uneasy tension hangs in the air as the people file into the houses’ atrium. Yes, there is the customary exchange of holy kisses, as the sandals are removed, signifies intimacy among the brothers and sisters. But even this fails to mask the tension. There are other Christian gatherings going on around the city. But by meeting in the home of Titius Justus, where we have been meeting since our expulsion from the synagogue next door, is seen to give us more status. I used to look forward to this time, when we gathered together as a community. In the early days, there was a great unity among the people. But not anymore, not since Apollos was here. He’s a great speaker, who has helped many find Christ. But people got the wrong idea. They seem to think that it’s all about how one comes across now. Many now regard Paul, who began the work in Corinth, as nothing. Apollos is the real deal, they say. He can preach. Perhaps it’s not surprising. We do, after all, live in a culture which is all about eloquence and wise words. The same thing happened when Peter came. People were awestruck. This was the guy, after all, who had been Jesus' closet friend when he was on Earth. What was Paul, compared to that, people would say. But it seems so shallow. I don’t know what Paul would say, if he came back. Rumour has it that he’s going to be writing to us soon. Last time he wrote, it did not do much use (1 Cor 5:9-13 ). There was so much confusion over what he said.
This division is beginning to become unbearable. The other week, for example, the arguments started before the meeting had even begun. We didn’t end up having communion. It was practically embarrassing as we had those visitors from Chloe’s household there. They are quite close to Paul, so he’ll probably find out. It was a pointless argument too. Hippocrates stated it. He was not happy that Caecilius was about to speak, or how he was going to speak, to be more accurate. “You’re just like all the followers of Paul. You speak what you think, but without any wisdom, and without any style.” Judah joined is also. “Is Paul really an apostle? Did he ever follow Jesus when he was on Earth? Peter did, but not Paul. Paul is second rate.” Caecilius got angry at this point. “I’m getting really annoyed about this new perspective on Paul which is growing in this ekklesia. Who was the one who brought the gospel to Corinth? Paul. Who spent a year and a half teaching us God’s word? Paul. Who was the one who got dragged in font of Gallio? Paul! I Follow Paul. Always have. Always will.” At this point, one corner of the room broke out laughing. I found out later than someone, Marius I believe, quietly whispered, “he may follow Paul, but I follow Christ.”
So as the people take their places, I’m really hoping that nothing like that will happen again. But as I look around the atrium at the variety of people gathered here, I can’t help but wonder if conflict is inevitable. Certainly it’s only amongst Christians that such an assortment of people would gather like this. Most are slaves, or of the lower classes. Some of the slaves are even here against their masters will. Some are Jews. However, most of the Jews in Corinth do not accept Jesus is the Messiah, dispute Paul, Apollos and others demonstrating this from their own scriptures. That’s how we usually evangelise amongst the Jews. There are people from many professions here: bakers, potters, tent makers, soldiers, farmers, sailors, scribes, merchants, blacksmiths, we even got a few athletes here when the Isthmian Games were on. Men and women are involved, even treated as equals. That’s another thing which makes us distinct. Women play a role in our worship, much the same as the men’s role. They often speak to the gathered people. Some however, are doing some weird things with their freedom. Some of them even dress without a head covering, like a prostitute. Maybe they think that they are now like angels, and have no gender divisions. Whatever it is, I am worried that people will get the wrong idea about what we are about. We are meant to reflect Christ, not the world around us.
I get worried that we are doing more of the latter these days. I wonder what we look like to outsiders. We must look like one of the many other ekklesia which are not uncommon in Corinth. Ekklesia have been meeting to discuss issues for centuries. To many, it must look like we are just another one of these. Many of our relational strictures, which reflect the client-patron relationships of the city, betray this. The rich in the churches have much more power and influence than the rest. And it’s becoming about status and power. I don’t like that. I don’t think it fits with the gospel which we have been given, as I understand that we are all equal in Christ.
Titius Justus gets us started. We don’t have much of a leadership stricture here, compared to what we hear about some of the other churches. Usually the host leads the preceding, as if it were just another ekklesia. When we come together, we try to build up each other’s faith. So he asks if anyone has a message for the church. Someone begins to speak. Well, three someone’s begun to speak. That’s the way it works around here. If someone believes that they have a message from God, they speak it out. That’s what happened today. Only, more than one person got a message from God at the same time. Some people get messages in Greek, which is good, because we all understand Greek. But some get messages in languages which no one understands. We call it “speaking in tongues.” It’s something which happened on the day that God sent the spirit, on the day of Pentecost. I don’t do it. Many people look down on me because of this, even people who have not been around as long as I have.
Speaking in tongues is just one of ways which we edify each other. Often we sing a hymn. While many come from the Jewish tradition, we are beginning to sing things which come out of our community. Sometimes someone brings a song which they have come up with themselves. There are times when we sing spontaneously, as the Spirit leads. We sing as a group, in order to both praise God, and to edify one another. People are used to someone singing at dinner parties and ekklesia. And this sometimes happen: someone shares a song for the gathering on their own. Often someone brings a teaching which they have prepared. Other times a prophet delivers a message. In fact, the prophecies can make up a large part of what we do when we come together. But it often ends up in chaos. The idea is that if God is saying something to you, you must say it then and there. Problem is, he seem to say different things to lots of people at once. We really need to get some more order into the way we do it. It’s a bit of a mess most weeks.
Then we got to the communion. The more you bring, the more you can have. That’s the way we run it in Corinth. It’s a bit sad really. We give food to the poor during the rest of the week, but when we come together, the poor in our congregation don’t get anything. We are a city where money is status, but I don’t think that this is the way that it should be done amongst the believers. Paul taught us how to do communion, and what Jesus said and did on the night he was betrayed. Food has always an important part of ekklesia gatherings, but the communion is a time to reflect on what Christ has done for us. We reflect on his death and on the resurrection. Some however, say that there is no resurrection. And they think that they are wise! I really don’t know how they can believe that. It seems to me that our whole faith rests on the fact that Christ has been resurrected.
Afterwards, a dispute broke out. The tension which has been hanging in the air throughout the whole meet finally came out. I should have seen it coming. Some of the people, led by Gaius, wanted to kick Demetrius out because of the rumours about him and his step-mother. I suppose I should say what they are. Everyone in the church knows. Some even seem proud of it. “Living in the freedom of Christ” they call it. It seems that he has been sleeping with his stepmother. Yep, I know, no one, even in Corinth, would get away with it.
Unfortunately, it was not carried through. The old “everything is permissible in Christ” argument came up again. Personally, I am not too sure about the validity that argument. It seems to be used to justify a lot which does not seem right with me. But I don’t know how to argue against it. So we left on a sour note. So that’s what happens when we meet together. I wish I knew how to sort out some of our issues. Someone needs to. I pray that God shows us how. It’s hard, because it seems like we are working it out as we go along. And that’s what we will keep on doing. It’s all we can do.
Quintus’ story comes from a time and situation very different to our own, yet it is still relevant, not only to today’s Church, but to society as a whole. Firstly, we can see that the Church in Corinth was dealing with some big questions. They were trying to work out what it means to be a Christian. It was a new faith, and they had very little to work with. Christians today have the Old and New Testaments, as well as 2000 years of tradition to help them do this. Yet they too straggle in an ever evolving society, which has many of the same issues. Like the Corinthian church, today’s society is incredibly diverse. And while many of us pride ourselves on this, the reality is that as a society, there is much work to be done to fully embrace this.
The Corinthians’ experience reminds us that it is default to overcome prejudices. Churches today often only reflect one part of society. Yet the church in Corinth had moved away from many of the social conventions of the day and had begun the journey along the road to greater acceptance of diversity. This gives hope that both the church and society can do likewise.
Secondly, it also tells us about the nature of Christianity. It reminds us that the Christian faith very quickly found itself in places very different to the Jewish heartland in which it originated. Christianity is a faith which can easily jump across cultural groups and establish itself in new places. Yet, when it does so it finds itself with new challenges. It must negotiate new sets of cultural norms. This is what happened in Corinth. Many of the issues facing the church were, at least partly, derived from a cultural clash. Today, the church also finds itself in new cultural places in a changing cultural landscape. Thus today’s church must, like the Corinthian church, wrestle with what it looks like in new cultural environments. Its worship must also reflect this. Corinthian worship was about people coming together and mutually supporting each other’s faith, unlike many churches today, where worship can seem more like a show, with a few leading the many. Finally, it also tells us something about the nature of The Bible. The letters to the Corinthians show us that The Bible is not a document written in a cultural vacuum, but is addressed to people in specific cultural situations. It shows the importance of understanding the background to understand the text itself. Both believers and nonbelievers alike will do well to remember this.
The church in Corinth was very different to the church of today, at least in the west. It was not a group which meet in a building designated for that purpose, but in members houses (much like it does in places like China.) It was not led by a single priest or minister, nor does it seem that one person would give a single talk. Rather, many people would bring messages to the congregation. The church in Corinth was both a reflection of the society in which is existed, and a movement against it. It was a church which struggled with trying to work out who they were and what it meant to live as followers of Christ. It was a church whose worship was built around people coming together and helping each out, yet which often resulted in chaos. It is easy to look back on this church with ether nostalgia or with scoffing. Yet the Corinthians church was made up or ordinary people, who has taken a step away from their cultural norms, and formed a new community in response to Christ, much like Christians today.
Amans, Edward and Horrell, David, ed. Christianity at Corinth: The Quest for the Pauline Chruch. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
Banks, Robert. Going to Chruch in the First Century. Blacktown, Australia: Hexagon Press, 1991.
—. Paul's Idea of Community: Revised Edition. Peabody, Massachusetts: Henderickson Publishers, 1994.
Fee, Gordon. The first Epistle to The Corinthians: The New International Commentary. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Fror, Hans. You Wretched Corinthians!: The Correspondence Between the Chruch in Corinth and Paul. London: SCM Press, 1995.
Grant, Robert. Paul in the Roman World. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Hafemann, Scott. " Corinthians, Letters to the." In Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, by Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid. Leicester : IVP, 1993.
Keown, Mark. 1 Corinthians Lecture Notes. Auckland: Laidlaw College, 2008.
Marshall, Christopher. Paul and Corinthian Christianity. Auckland: Bible College of New Zealand, 1995.
Martin, Ralph P. "Patterns of worship in New Testament churches." Journal for the Study of the New Testament, no. 37 1989: 59-85. Accessed online 28/6/2011 at
HYPERLINK "http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0000821721&site=ehost-live" \t "_blank"
Morris, Leon. 1 Corinthians, Revised Edition: Tyndale New Testament Comentaries. Leicester: IVP, 1985.
Rothaus, Richard. Corinth: The First City of Greece, An Urban History of Late Antique Cult and Religion. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
Theissen, Gerd. The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.
Thiselton, Anthony. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company , 2000.
Witherington, Ben III. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995.