The First Letter to the Corinthians
Review of the book, The First Letter to the Corinthians by Denver Seminary Professor Craig Blomberg
Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians. Pillar New Testament Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Nottingham: Apollos, 2010. $65.00. 922 pp. ISBN 978-0-8028-3732-5
First Corinthians has been particularly blessed by excellent, recent, English-language commentaries. In the last decade alone, Anthony Thiselton has written an enormous NIGTC volume and a mid-range abridgment, David Garland has produced a very thorough yet very accessible work for the BECNT, and now Ciampa, from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and Rosner, from Moore College in Sydney, have collaborated on this important epistle to continue the outstanding quality of the Pillar series.
The typical background information concerning 1 Corinthians is little disputed, but Ciampa and Rosner assemble a lengthy introduction nevertheless. Distinctive are their brief surveys of Paul’s life and thought, of the recurring pattern of descriptions of pagan sin, Gentile conversion and hope in the resurrection accounting for the sequence of thought in chapters 8-15, recent sociological and rhetorical approaches, and their outline that takes 4:18-7:40 and 8:1-14:40 as main subsections of the letter body rather than seeing the main break between chapters 6 and 7. In the commentary proper, the most distinctive feature is their thorough coverage of potential Old Testament and Jewish background to Paul’s thought, not to replace but to complement the more well-known Greco-Roman background. An excellent example appears at 5:11, where it is shown that the particular vices identified closely parallel those in Deuteronomy which were to lead to the expulsion from the community of their practitioners, just as Paul has commanded the expulsion of the incestuous offender earlier in this chapter. Overall, Ciampa and Rosner are up-to-date and comprehensive in their coverage of the most relevant secondary literature, both in the commentary proper and in the footnotes.
In the vast majority of instances, Ciampa and Rosner agree with interpretations shared by Thiselton and Garland, along with the assumption that the institution of patronage and the rich-poor divide lie behind many of the problems precipitating this epistle (as esp. for Winter, Clarke and Chow). Against Thiselton, however, they do not see overly realized eschatology as the key to the false teaching at Corinth and therefore are not inclined to see incipient Gnosticism behind the Corinthian proponents of asceticism, if in fact there were any. This has particular ramifications for their interpretation of chapter 7. Rather than countering an explicitly pro-celibacy faction in Corinth (already persuasively sketched out in Fee’s 1987 NICNT offering on this letter), they think people have just taken Paul’s personal predilection for singleness and run too far with it. Here is one place where our two authors cut against the grain of most all recent commentators.
Another such distinctive appears in their analysis of 2:6-16. Instead of seeing the “spiritual” (pneumatikoi ) in this chapter as all believers over against unbelievers (psychikoi), they read the meaning of chapter 3 back into chapter 2 to see them as a particular group of mature Christians, even though nowhere else in this chapter does Paul even mention any Christians who could be thought of as immature but always contrasts the pneumatikoi with the psychikoi. Ciampa and Rosner have more precedent for arguing that the judgment described in 3:10-15 is only for Christian leaders, though I remain unconvinced because they don’t really interact with the view that sees these as all believers or the arguments in its support. I am delighted, however, that they recognize that no doctrine of degrees of reward in heaven can be extracted from this passage and that whatever the precise nature of the reward described here, “the essence is ‘praise from God’ (4:5),” similar to the praise of the master for the faithful servants in Jesus’ parables of the talents and the pounds.
Ciampa has already published a journal article defending the position that the “touching” of a woman in 7:1 is not a reference to all sexual intercourse but to a more limited range of sex acts. Unfortunately, it is not clear exactly what that limitation is, because our authors suggest three different definitions—sex with the wrong kinds of people, sex for mere pleasure with no hope for procreation, and sex that is “a unilateral act on the part of a man” (pp. 275-76). In many of the extra-biblical parallels cited for one or more of these views, however, it would appear that referents have been confused with sense.
In dealing with food sacrificed to idols (chaps. 8-10), our authors rightly defend a context of three different scenarios of potential eating—in private homes with meat bought from the marketplace (fine unless someone specifically has a problem with it), in pagan worship services (always forbidden), and, what is not always noted, in the temple precincts for civic meals with a veneer of religiosity. In this last instance, the legitimacy of the practice varies from context to context depending on the presence or absence of a “weaker” brother or sister. Chapter 9:19-23 explains Paul’s motivation throughout—to win as many outsiders to the faith as possible and ensure the perseverance of those already inside the faith. But strikingly, it is noted, Paul never becomes “strong” to win the “strong,” perhaps because they are already securely inside.
Ciampa and Rosner find what I would term a soft hierarchicalism in 11:2-16. The concern over what husbands and wives do or do not have on their heads—more likely an external covering than just short or long hair, they think—is because of the signals of sexual or moral propriety or impropriety they send. Here I am in full agreement. Where I demur is in the gratuitous addition of “sign of” before “authority” in verse 10, when the other uses of exousia + echein + epi in the New Testament normally mean to exercise control over.
The treatment of Paul’s discussion of spiritual gifts in chapters 12-14 is outstanding, delicately walking the tightrope between cessationism and Pentecostalism. The catalogue of definitions of the various gifts on page 574, unpacked and defended in the subsequent discussion, may be unparalleled in quality. Particularly with respect to prophecy, our authors observe that it can range from longer, prepared discourses with pastoral insight into audiences’ needs to shorter, spontaneous announcements of what it is believed the Lord is saying to a group or individual on a specific topic. What Ciampa and Rosner do not highlight is the resulting importance of encouraging gifted women to preach, even if with delegated authority from male leadership. With respect to 14:33-38, our authors observe that women inquiring of other husbands than their own in church would have been too dishonoring to their own husbands in Greco-Roman culture. Whether or not our authors can separate this very limited context of speaking from that of the more general evaluation of prophecy possibly reserved for the highest levels of (all-male) leadership, as they appear to want to do, they do raise the too-little noted point that the very segment that some would relegate to a post-Pauline interpolation (because of manuscripts that place it at the end of the chapter) is not verses 33b-35 but 34-35. Thus, if the interpolation theory fails due to no actual manuscripts which lack these two verses (contra many egalitarians), it at least suggests that verse 33b belongs with what precedes and not with what follows (contra most complementarians).
The final significantly distinctive perspective appears in Ciampa’s and Rosner’s treatment of 15:29. Thinking that no evidence for proxy baptism from earlier than the second century means it couldn’t have been around in the first century, they propose a paraphrase that reads, “Now if there is no resurrection, what will be accomplished by those who get baptized because of what they have heard about how our dead will be raised?” (pp. 784-85). But “baptism for the resurrection” would more naturally communicate this than “baptism for the dead”!
I have barely scratched the surface of this magnificent commentary, focusing disproportionately on distinctives and disagreements. Overall, this commentary belongs with Fee and with Thiselton’s shorter commentary as the cream of the crop which comment on the English text in detail (as opposed to formal commentaries on the Greek text per se, or much shorter works altogether on either the English or the Greek). Much like Fee, Ciampa and Rosner insert insightful and incisive paragraphs of contemporary application at the end of each section. Because of the sheer thoroughness and length of the work, few will probably read it cover-to-cover, using it more as a reference work and resource for preaching and teaching. But those who do persevere from start to finish will have taken a valuable seminary-level course, even without a live instructor, on this key Pauline letter.
Craig Blomberg, Ph.D.
Distinguished Professor of New Testament