I wrote this as a chapter in the book ‘A Student’s Guide to New Testament’ published by SATS Press in 2019.
While 1 and 2 Corinthians are presented as two separate letters in the New Testament it is convenient to deal with them together in an overview of this nature; the two letters were written to the same local church within a fairly short period of time, and in addition to this it is possible that they are both compilations of several letters.
Almost all scholars agree that Paul is the author of these letters. Both the external and internal evidence is overwhelmingly strong (Morris, 2000). There is, however, some debate concerning when they were written, with estimations as early as AD 53 and as late as AD 57. The general opinion is that 1 Corinthians was written from Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8) in AD 54, and 2 Corinthians a year later, probably from Philippi (Belleville, 1996). Paul therefore appears to have pastored the Corinthian church for between 18 months and three and a half years.
Some commentators argue for a unifying theme holding 1 Corinthians together which several suggest is an extended appeal for unity. Others believe the theme to be the idea that Paul is countering the infiltration of secular values (Johnson, 2004). However, Thiselton contends that there is a lot more to these letters than correction of problems arising from factions, discord and worldliness (Thiselton, 2000).
These letters open a window into the life of a first century local church. The Corinthian church had its problems and challenges, as do churches in our day, but it was full of spiritual vitality. Paul had to counsel moderation in the application of spiritual manifestations whereas if he had been writing to many of today’s churches he might have had to admonish them for quenching the Spirit.
The letters also provide fascinating insights into Paul’s temperament and personal challenges. In some places his own feelings of hurt, anger and frustration come through so clearly (2 Cor 10-11) that they beg a productive debate on just how God chose to inspire the writing of the scriptures. More than this though, the letters speak right to the heart of current church life. The problems and possibilities are cloaked in the culture of that time, yet the underlying issues and principles remain pressingly important today.
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